This past week was shaping up to be another in which I did absolutely zero art. I keep waiting for a week where my schedule is more flexible but in vain. I used to stay up late working on art but I have been too exhausted for that malarkey these past few months. I need to figure something out. Solutions on a postcard, please. Happily, however, on Sunday I met up with some local art friends and had a couple of hours in a coffee shop to work on my art journals. I had an idea of what I wanted to work on. However, I left the house in such a whirlwind that I left most of my travel art supplies sitting at home on my art table. I, therefore, had to come up with an idea of something I could work on with very limited supplies.
Last week’s Art Journal Adventure prompt was something along the lines of the number 3. Not too long ago, I had a blog comment exchange with Claudia McGill about the Scottish children’s song “Three Craws Sat Upon A Wa'” and I assume that having that so recently in my brain meant that I came up with the idea of writing out the lyrics of the song and illustrating it with three crows. Despite being complimented all the time about my handwriting, my typography remains reliably awful. I decided to write in a childlike print for this page, given it was the lyrics of a childhood song, which should have theoretically made it easier to set out the placement of the words on the page. Regardless of the theory, in practice my writing went on all over the place with drifting away from the margin and that final word becoming isolated on the bottom line because of my inability to compose the text on the page. I guess writing in art journals remains a challenge for me. I am happier with the crow illustrations. Sure, they look a bit derpy and goofy but I like them. Having drawn the crows with waterproof micron pens, I used an aquapen brush marker to outline the shapes and then grabbed a water brush to spread the pigment out. I have seen people obtain beautiful results with water activated brush markers but clearly I am not there yet with my level of experience with them. I think the scrappy quality works well for depicting scruffy crows, however. Let’s go with that.
I am a big Alfred Hitchcock fan, have been since childhood. I think I started with the ‘…Presents’ TV show and then got into the movies but it may have been the other way around. I was so wee that I can’t actually remember. ‘Vertigo’ is my favourite movie after ‘Jaws’. I also love ‘Shadow of a Doubt’ and ‘Rear Window’. When I first visited Northern California, back in 2000, I made sure I visited several filming locations of Hitchcock movies. These included Bodega Bay where I ran around like a nitwit pretending I was being attacked by birds, as I am sure when visitors do. ‘The Birds’ is one of those movies I enjoy precisely because it defies resolution in the same way that I enjoy ‘The Shining‘. I won’t discuss it more so as to not risk spoiling it for any reader who has not seen it but I like that it is ambiguous and mysterious. I think it contributes to its unsettling atmosphere. My mother, on the other hand, absolutely hates ‘The Birds’ for the same reason. All of which preamble is to explain why I chose to draw an iconic scene from ‘The Birds’ – based on the movie poster indeed – as the next illustration in my Inktober sketchbook. You will note that I still pretty much suck at drawing birds. These are definitely cousins to my Raven.
This week’s Life Book lesson was taken by Tamara Laporte and was a whole heap of fun. It really appealed to me because it was much more illustrative than painterly. The idea was to create quirky birds that represented people or things we wanted to celebrate. I was going to just draw my four boys in feathered form but ultimately I decided on a Pict family portrait. It means the composition is a bit crammed and there is no room for a proper background but I am glad I incorporated all six of us.
My husband and I are obviously the two large owls at the bottom of the page. Our glasses led me to owls so we all became a little flock of owls. My 12 year old is slightly blocky in shape because he loves Minecraft and he is wearing headphones because he likes to Skype with his friends and make YouTube videos. My 10 year old is in superhero garb because he is a huge comic book fan. My 8 year old has a kiss curl because he is an Elvis fan and the red guitar is inspired by his red guitar. My 6 year old has a rainbow on his belly because he was my “rainbow baby” and he loves rainbows.
The next artist we studied in our project on the History of Art was John James Audubon. I used it as an opportunity to talk to the boys about artists making studies from nature, a visual record of the natural world, and of the idea of making a collection by working in a themed series. We watched the many species of birds that visit our bird feeders for a while so that we could reflect on observation skills. We then looked at Audubon’s prints of the same birds we had seen in the garden plus a few more exemplars. The boys then had free rein to create art inspired by a bird – real or imagined – of their choice and in any medium they wished.
No surprises that my 12 year old decided to draw his study of birds through the lens of Minecraft. It’s a Minecraft chicken I believe.
My 6 year old has a real bug for painting now so he painted a portrait of one of the birds we saw in the garden.
My 8 year old used chalk pastels to create a funky bird from his vivid imagination. He even thought to smudge the chalk pastels to create a tail.
My 9 year old is a fan of the Hunger Games triology so he drew a blue jay and a mockingbird getting married so that they could create a mockingjay baby. It’s bird algebra.
I meanwhile decided to create an ink drawing of a hummingbird filled with doodles.
If you have followed my explorations into art journaling and mixed media for long enough. you will know that one of the things I keep meaning to do – yet never seem to get around to – is to develop my typography skills, research and try new styles, make the writing in my art work more creative. I have adopted a different style once or twice in this past year but generally I keep on defaulting to my own handwriting. I was, therefore, very happy to learn that the lesson for week 3 of Life Book was all about typography as that meant an opportunity to practice a skill I had been keen to hone.
The lesson was taken by Joanne Sharpe, who is famed for her whimsical lettering. I am obviously not going to summarise the lesson in this post because, of course, Life Book is a fee paying course and the lesson is Sharpe’s intellectual copyright. However, the thrust of the lesson was that one should just use one’s own handwriting as the scaffolding for typography in mixed media art work. So instead of feeling lazy for constantly defaulting to my own handwriting I should be embracing that. It was like being given permission to stop berating myself over never getting to that To Do item on my lengthy list of art projects.
I followed the lesson closely for the most part. I do not own any of the pens that were being recommended in the tutorial but my trusty old Faber-Castell Pitt Pens did the job. I did not use the suggested doodles but instead did my own thing with a bunny and birds, some leaves and acorns. I think I was pondering my Into The Woods art project which has gone dormant from lack of free time. I have been using muted versions of jewel colours in my art work a lot lately – the same palette I used in my Advent twinchies – and I used them again in this piece. I must push myself to use a completely different palette next time, however. Maybe even use some colours I rarely use.
I am quite pleased with how this exercise turned out. Certainly it was liberating to actually be directed to use my own handwriting rather than thinking I was copping out. Maybe my doodles could have been more sophisticated but then maybe the painting would have been less me. Daft plump bunnies and geeky birds are me.
The two prompts for the second week of the Documented Life Project were to use gesso and a quotation from Mary Shelley: “The beginning is always today.” I decided to combine the two prompts into one page just to save time. What was immense fun this week was that my 7 year old and I worked on our pages side by side using the same techniques.
We decided to use the gesso to create a background layer. Instead of just using it as a primer, we mixed the gesso with two or three colours of acrylic paint which created a really textural background. Once that layer was dry, we used acrylic paint in contrasting colours dabbed through stencils to create another layer. I then added some circles and dots to my page by stamping objects into white acrylic. My son opted not to do so and I think his was the right choice as my background ended up a bit too busy. We then collaged using origami paper: I constructed birds and my son made bats, which turned out really cute. Although ‘Frankenstein’ is one of my favourite novels, I decided against using the quotation from Mary Shelley. Instead I used one by George Bernard Shaw that I liked because it seemed apt given that I am at the beginning of a year of trying new creative things: “Imagination is the beginning of creation.” I stamped the words on. My 7 year old decided to stamp too but instead of a quotation about beginnings he chose to stamp what he thought about his bats.
Didn’t my 7 year old do a fantastic job? I far prefer his page to my own and so do his brothers. His chosen colour scheme turned out to be far more harmonious and pleasing than mine and his bats are just adorable.
This week’s Documented Life Project prompt was to incorporate a map of “your state or the world” and document something on that map. Luckily, a few months ago, when doing my usual poking around in thrift stores, I had purchased a world atlas for 50 cents. I, therefore, actually had the materials I needed. Furthermore, I immediately had an idea of what I wanted to create, a little flash of an image skimming across my mind’s eye, which was a welcome contrast to the previous few weeks when I have been scratching my head for a bit. I decided to use the map to document the fact I am “between belonging” right now as an immigrant, ensconced as I am as a resident of America but very much still feeling my Scottishness and connection to my homeland pulling on my heart strings.
I used a template to cut out two birds from two different maps: one of Pennsylvania, with the Philadelphia area being prominent around the bird’s head; and the other of Scotland, though actually it was of most of the British isles since that land mass was small enough in the atlas to fit. I suppose that is appropriate since I have lived in three different locations in Scotland and have also lived in England for a while. I chose the bird shape not just because I have become a tad obsessed with birds this past year but also because they represented migration. I created the background using gelatos. I have a love-hate relationship with gelatos: I love their creaminess and the rich vibrancy of the pigment but I cannot seem to get them to go onto the paper as smoothly as I have seen on tutorial videos. Instead they still have a bit of a rough scribbly quality at places in the mark-making and I have to then deploy a faithful baby wipe in order to spread the colour across the page. I used two shades of blue and a mid-green to represent the ocean between my places and the colours on the globe. The green was used on a practical level to outline and thus highlight the shapes I was collaging onto the page. I then added some strips of glittery green washi tape just because it supported the green outlining and because it was glittery. I cut a love heart out of a map scrap which happened to contain the words “Atlantic Ocean” and then several smaller hearts out of US and UK postage stamps, again suggesting that idea of migration, travel, journey. I also used two air mail stickers just because they chimed with the theme of the page and also it’s colour scheme.
Visually my page was communicating my sense of “not belonging”, of being between two locales. I have yet to find my place here in America so I still feel rather discombobulated by how alien things are, by my difference and otherness, by all the little things I do not know, by how unfamiliar things are that I used to take for granted back home in Britain. However, bizarrely and conversely, I do feel at home here. I feel settled enough on a domestic, family level now – especially having bought a place to call home – that I do now feel at home here in Pennsylvania. Ultimately that is because the cliche is a truism: home is where the heart is. Ultimately I belong wherever my husband and kids are. That, therefore, became the sentiment that I stamped across my page.
So my DLP art journal page this week is really about the push and pull of where I am at as an immigrant, as a wife and mother, as a Scot living as part of the diaspora in America; my page is about that tension between not belonging yet feeling at home. Hopefully I have managed to convey that in the visual elements and the words on the page.
We have a season ticket for Elmwood Park Zoo so we decided to take a trip there today with the grandparents in tow. Temperatures got up to 90 degrees today so a lot of the animals were just flaked out: all we saw of the cougar and wolves were their rumps as they lay prone in the shade. There were also masses of day camp kids for us to wade through but thankfully the park seemed to absorb all the hordes of people not too badly.
Since they have all been to that animal park before, the kids enjoyed revisiting favourite animals. They were pleased to see that Penny the alligator was outside for a change, sunbathing, as were the porcupines. There were also some new features to the zoo for this trip, I presume because it is now peak season. The boys liked the fact that there were misters switched on throughout the park. They loved standing in the water droplets for eons and getting utterly drenched while the droplets created ankle-height rainbows. They had also introduced a bat cave. Back in Britain, the boys had loved – at both Chester Zoo and Fife Animal Park – walking among a room full of bats. Here, however, the bats were segregated from the human visitors by a large glass window. It was still cool to watch them dangling upside down and crawling hand over hand along branches.
A less welcome new feature was the fact that to even access the giraffe viewing platform we were required to be feeding the giraffes and the feed came with a per person cost. I appreciate that animals are expensive to care for and overheads are high but it seemed a bit cheeky to be charging to even view the giraffes. I was, for instance, charged the fee to ascend to the viewing platform even though I was simply accompanying my children rather than feeding the giraffe. The boys really wanted to feed the giraffes so, just this once, I sucked up the extra cost and they were handed a bunch of lettuce. The kids absolutely loved the experience of feeding the giraffe and feeling his blue tongue lapping against their hands.
The boys had never been in the aviary before as the timings had never worked out but this time we managed to enter and three of them decided to feed them. This time I did not mind paying the extra fee since it was per stick of feed rather than per person entering the aviary. The boys who did the feeding absolutely loved having the birds fly onto their hands and being able to see, close up, their beaks nibbling away at the fruit. They all loved their sweet little faces and brightly coloured plumage.
After an ice cream break and a run around the large playground, it was time to head home – and pack for our vacation.
We moved to Pennsylvania from a relatively remote area on the West coast of Scotland. We were surrounded by nature. We could stroll the banks of a loch, wander a forest trail, scale a hill or potter along the seashore. A walk of a few minutes from home could have the kids playing in woodland and a short drive could have us lost in the landscape. It was one of the things I loved best about living where we used to: all that access to nature, the fresh air, the space.
We are lucky that where we have ended up is pretty green. We have swapped the red squirrels of “home” for grey squirrels who play in our garden – much to the delight of my 4 year old – and instead of rounding a corner of a single track road to find a large deer leering at me we now have a herd of deer who seem to hang out opposite Toys R Us. We have also seen some lovely birds visited our garden, including a red-bellied woodpecker. Nevertheless, we were missing our nature walks so we used the Thanksgiving weekend as an opportunity to explore a nearby state park.
No sooner had we arrived than we saw some a couple of turkey vultures circling above us, using the thermals to drift higher and higher. Some bird watchers thought one of them might be a bald eagle but I’m not going to claim I saw a bald eagle here until identification is certain. We did, however, see a whole load of blue jays hopping from branch to branch as we walked along one pathway. It was a mild and bright day so the sunlight was flashing off their sky blue feathers.
We found a playground in the middle of the walk so the boys could play.
The little Picts like nature when it is red in tooth and clue. It’s not just a “circle of life” thing with them; they are actually quite fond of the macabre. I will hold my hands up and admit this is my responsibility as a parent. I got them hooked on watching animal autopsy documentaries and have encouraged them to study any dead animals we have encountered on our treks. They still speak fondly of the time when we stumbled across an entire red deer skeleton, picked clean and bleached by the sun. It’s science. So the boys were all very excited when we came upon the rib cage, vertebrae and one leg of a deer. It still had hide on one leg while the rib cage was entirely exposed. My 6 year old wanted to take it home with us. Eh… No. I may have encouraged this fascination in my kids but I do draw the line somewhere.
We only wandered in a small proportion of the park land so we will definitely return there to explore some more and indeed we will visit more state parks as we venture out on weekends and holidays.
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