Week 22: In the Vegetable Garden

Assembling the collage materials

This week I created a collage about our newly planted vegetable garden. I didn’t want it to just be a pretty view of the garden, but rather depict the more intimate experience of being in the garden- digging in the dirt, closely observing the plants, or hiding under a squash leaf (if you are a bug or a bunny.)  I began the process with lots of little drawings of all the plants in the garden: tomatoes, peppers, herbs, peas and beans, zucchini squash, marigolds, and sprouting seeds. I scanned the drawings and printed them on Gampi paper, making several copies to yield more plants. Then I tore each drawing out by hand and laid them all out. The panel was prepared with a nice rusty clay dirt color.

Drawings torn from Gampi paper

I painted a few rows of stones that divide the terraces into curving beds, in the spirit of my actual vegetable garden. Then I began laying in the plants. I was interested in playing with scale, so that the foreground plants loom large, and sprouting seeds are sometimes ridiculously gigantic, while other plants settle into the piece with more realistic relationships. I did this to express the garden from different points of view, whether human or critter. The really fun part was to then draw the critters and tuck them in amongst the rows. All the creatures were drawn with ink on thicker paper than the plants, so as to create little pops of visual surprise. Here is the final collage with favorite details:

In the Vegetable Garden, acrylic collage, 12 x 12

Detail: Bunny, sprouts and marigold

Detail: Olivia the Cat

Detail: The Mocking Bird

Detail: Turtle and pea shoots

Vegetable Garden

We planted the vegetable garden! On the south side of the house, we have a gentle slope with curved retaining walls that create a series of three raised beds.  After several years of gardening trial and error, and lots of compost, we are hoping for a bountiful garden this summer! Four varieties of my favorite tomatoes went in: the cherry-sized bright orange ‘Sungold’, the reliable ‘Celebrity’, the compact and delicate ‘Silver Fir Tree’, and the best-tasting ‘Brandywine.’ I also put in three new ones to try: the promising ‘Golden Jubilee’, a squat little ‘Husky Cherry Red’ (the name says it all) and a gangly specimen of ‘Cherokee Purple.’ The tomatoes are joined by three different sweet peppers: ‘Red Beauty’, ‘Golden Summer’, and ‘Carmen’.  The front half of the lower bed is the home of Zucchini ‘Cocozelle’ and a bush cucumber. They look pretty puny all by themselves in that big bed, but these guys require a lot of room to grow and can spill over the bottom wall by mid-summer.  One of my favorite things to grow is beans- I can eat them raw right out of the garden, unless the deer get to them first. We have two trellises of ‘Kentucky Wonder’ pole beans, and a little patch of ‘Sugar Ann’ Snap Peas. The whimsical names of these garden plants makes them seem like a motley crew of endearing family members that I can’t help but want to nurture.

My father generously contributed a carload of additional plants to tuck in among our vegetables after spending a fruitful day at the Herb Festival: Sweet Basil, African Blue Basil, Red Rubin Basil, Lemon Basil, Pineapple Sage, Italian Parsley, Lemon Balm, and Lemon Verbena.  We already have a flourishing patch of perennial herbs including rosemary, tarragon, various thymes, purple and green sage, Greek oregano, Orange Mint, Chocolate Mint, and Pineapple Mint. It’s a menagerie of flavors! We finished it off with an edging of French Marigolds, a splash of Orange Cosmos, Sunflowers against the wall between the trellises, and a row of lavender (also from Dad) along the stairs: French lavender ‘Provence’, Spanish ‘Otto Quast,’ and the English varieties, ‘Munstead’ and ‘Ellagance Sky.’ (That is the actual name, not a misspelling of elegance!)

This is always an exciting time of year, with so much anticipation and high hopes for a successful growing season. I have to remind myself to just enjoy the process, without being too attached to the outcome. The deer will munch, the squash bugs will nibble, and the tomatoes will topple their cages by August. (Every year I tell myself to invest in taller, sturdier ones!)  Maybe this year I will finally thwart the squash vine borer. Maybe this year I will convince my boy to start eating and enjoying some new vegetables. Neither is likely, but it will be fun trying.

Week 18: The Path of Roses

Roses drawings, scanned and re-scaled on the Mac

Inspired by the blooming roses along my front walkway, my creative process for this piece began with simple ink drawings done from life. Drawing is not just a means to an end, but an activity that opens up opportunities for new understanding through careful observation. I noticed that the blooms on some shrubs have three rows of petals while others have five. I saw exactly how the petals are shaped, and how they whorl together in a spiral. The fuller flowers are more lush and visually exciting, but have almost no fragrance, while the simpler flowers have a gorgeous scent. This was an interesting discovery, considering how often I have walked down the path to my own front door, and just now really noticed these differences. Maybe I did notice all these things when I first planted them, but had since forgotten… Drawing gladly brought it all back to me. The fragrance seems to hang in the air along the passage way between the tall shrubs, so that stopping to sniff an individual flower has become almost unnecessary, especially when one is hurrying along to the next task. One of the goals of this project was to allow my art-making to lead to a more intimate knowledge and appreciation of the simple things around me in my daily life. I have been reminded to stop and smell the roses.

Beginning the collage with ink drawings

After completing a small group of ink drawings, I scanned and vectorized the images in Illustrator using the Live Trace function. I could then re-size each element, scaling them up and down to create a variety of forms for the collage. The re-sized drawings were then printed on Gampi, my favorite natural fiber collage paper.  Here is a photo that shows an original drawing (colored with india ink after scanning), collage pieces printed on Gampi paper and torn into individual shapes, and the collage in process with paper elements and acrylic paint.

Palette for Roses

I mixed up a palette of rich magentas, reds, and purples, complimented by deep earthy greens. I wanted to both capture the intense color of the roses, while also allowing the ink drawings to express the exquisite detail of the flowers in black and white. The color adds the weight of atmosphere and light, while the black ink line tells the story of intimate observation or unfettered imagination. The imagery evolved beyond a literal depiction of my front walk, and became an expanded glimpse of my personal experience in this place. Something magical happens along this path. Everyday reality converges with imaginative leaps: I walk my dog calmly across the street while a riotous rose bush bursts forth, like a scene from Jack and the Beanstalk. A cat crouches in the shadows. I follow a garden path that ends at a front door. But to where does that door lead?  (For insight into the meaning of the secret doorway, please check out my post, The Woods with Secret Doorways.) Here is the finished work with details of my favorite passages:

The Path of Roses, acrylic collage, 12 x 12

Detail of collage in process: Ink drawings with acrylic paint.

Detail with crouching cat.

Detail with Secret Doorway

Detail with the Dog Walker (that’s me and Holly!)

Roses

Shrub Roses in May bloom

My roses are in bloom!  I planted these hearty shrub roses along our front walk about four years ago. They require almost no special care, and provide months of enjoyment, blooming throughout the Spring and Summer and even into the Fall.  At the height of the summer heat, the blooms take a break, then come back again in a fiery flush when the weather cools a bit. In milder years we have had flowers up until Thanksgiving. They require no pruning to flourish, although they grow so vigorously I need to cut them back several times throughout the season to prevent them from closing off the path to the front door! It has been warm and a bit humid the last couple days, which tends to amplify their lovely fragrance. When I come home from a walk, I like to just pause on the path before entering the house, inhale the perfumed air, and look closely at the intricate magenta petals. In these moments, there are no deadlines, no pressing tasks. There are no past regrets, or doubts about the future. Just the blaze of the roses and me. This is the elusive place I sometimes reach when I am drawing or painting, centered in the spacious awareness of the present moment. Sometimes the distractions and anxieties of life seem to barricade me from this place, but then I remember to just open my eyes. Wherever I may be, it is as close as my own front door.

Week 17: Backyard

Collage in process

My usual approach to landscape painting is to create unpopulated scenes, where the viewer may be coaxed to insert him or herself into the experience of the landscape. But last week I had so much fun drawing the Lacrosse Kids that I decided to continue experimenting with combining figures and landscape imagery. While I took plenty of figure drawing classes back in my art school days, I have not included figures in my own work for many years, so this is some new territory. Watching my husband patiently teaching our young son how to garden in the backyard, I was inspired to include them in this week’s collage.  I wanted to capture both my relationship to the place, as well as my relationship to the figures, imbuing each small drawing with a sense of careful attention, whether plant or person. There is an interesting balancing act of tenderness and objectivity when dealing with such dearly loved subjects!

We have created a special place in our backyard, and it is even more special now that my son is contributing to its on-going development. There was a steep slope in the back when we moved here, and over the last several years we have improved the backyard with retaining walls and multi-level garden terraces. Once the last phase of hardscape was completed last summer, we were able to really enjoy the fun part of shaping the space with beautiful trees, shrubs, and flowers. We have put a lot of creativity and love into this place, so of course I have been wanting to paint it.

Here is the finished collage, followed by some close-up images of my favorite details. I allowed most of the ink drawings to visually float on the surface of the collage, rather than embedding them in layers of paint. I wanted to retain the simple and spontaneous character of the ink line, which I think best expresses the subject matter. My approach to the figures is influenced by E.H. Shepard’s illustrations of Christopher Robin in Winnie the Pooh, a favorite of mine since childhood.

Father and Son in the Garden, acrylic collage, 12 x 12

Detail of Patio, Father and Son in the Garden

Detail of the Black Gum, Father and Son in the Garden

Detail of Max, Father and Son in the Garden

Father and Son in the Garden

Father and Son

This Spring my husband has been teaching my son how to garden. My husband and I have been actively landscaping together for many years and now it is great fun to get our son involved. For us, landscaping is like painting in 3D: it is an opportunity to create a new and imagined world, making creative decisions about the colors, textures, forms and the flow of space in our own way. We put a lot of love into our little patch of suburbia. This of course is one of the big draws of suburban life: the ability to have space around you that you can mold as you wish and call your own.

Junior Gardener

I love to watch father and son working together as my husband patiently teaches our boy how to add compost to the hole, loosen the root ball of the plant, make sure it is centered and upright, and carefully tamp the soil around it. Our son gets paid $5 an hour for gardening, which certainly helped spark his interest in this activity. (There are requests for shopping outings to the toy section of Target almost immediately after job completion.) But even so, he gardens with enthusiasm, great care, and no complaining. I am glad we are teaching him to respect, nurture and care for living things and the environment around him. And as he grows, his garden will grow with him, evolving and expanding over time. Gardening is a lot about patience and delayed gratification, a concept that is sometimes challenging for children, but a skill that will serve him well in suburbia and beyond.

Working down the line of a new border bed.

I remember my early exposure to garden work as a child, while visiting my Great-Aunt Ruby in Georgia. She and my uncle had an ambitious plot of summer vegetables, fig trees, pecans and peaches. I was fascinated by the long rows of corn that had grown above my head, the prickly looking okra plants, and the pungent smell of wet earth and tomato plants in the hot summer sun. I felt as if I had been let in on a wonderful secret that only grown-ups knew: that potatoes actually grow under the ground and corn is encased in silky husks; that food is not born in freezer bags and it does not spontaneously spring up in supermarkets.  I look forward to putting in our vegetable garden this year with our son’s help, and sharing more of these revelations. Today he was pulling weeds to prepare the vegetable plot and was surprised to pull up some carrots and beets that must have self-seeded from last year’s crop!  Fresh baby carrots for Max tonight! Maybe he will even try the beets…

Max in the Garden, ink on paper and collage

Week 15: My Neighbor’s Garden

This week’s collage was inspired by my neighbor’s garden, a special place that I pass by regularly on my daily walks with my dog, Holly. After several years of admiring this yard from the sidewalk in front of the house, I was lucky enough to get a close-up tour from its generous creator.  I wanted to capture the distinct sense of place this garden has achieved, mediating between the wooded natural landscape around it and the careful orchestration of plants by human hands. There is an emphasis on structure over flowers and frills: evergreens, handsome shrubs and small trees of many colors and textures define the garden. At the same time, there are exquisite blooms thoughtfully placed at specific moments: the clematis “Josephine” entwined on the lattice by the mailbox, and the unusual grafted lilac that displays its fragrant purple flowers in the form of a small ornamental tree, centered in the front yard.

I began this piece by first painting a varied ground onto my panel, allowing the free flow of colors to guide the composition. I then gathered my drawings done earlier in the week, copied them onto translucent Gampi paper with an inkjet printer, and began placing them in the collage. I also brought back some drawings of small dogwood trees from Week 14, since my neighbor uses dogwoods to great effect on the edge of the woods.  One advantage of scanning and copying my drawings is the ability to use them again in new ways, either in hand-made collages or in digital illustrations or patterns.  In addition to using ink drawings as collage elements, I also drew directly on the panel with archival ink pens. More paint was worked in around the drawings to develop the atmosphere and bring out details like the deep pink blooming cherry trees on our street.

I combined aerial map-like views, traditional landscape vistas, and close-ups of interesting details to create an experiential montage of the garden. My layered experience of this place is a combination of all these perspectives. The garden has different meanings for me in different contexts. It has a place in the physical neighborhood as well as in my own memory and imagination. My love for this garden merges with my love for all the gardens of my past, present and future.  Each tree merges with all the trees that grew up through my history: the towering tulip poplars from my childhood home, my grandmother’s elegant red maples, the golden fringed Japanese maple we got as a wedding gift, the weeping cherry we planted when we bought our first house, the patio peach tree from the summer when I was pregnant, and the young Black Gum with its promising horizontal branches that will one day hold a swing for our backyard.  This collage is as much about all these moments as it is about my neighbor’s garden. I am grateful for them all.

Here is the finished work:

My Neighbor's Garden, acrylic collage, 12 x 12

Week 11: A Time for Everything

I collected some bits of inspiration while we were cleaning up the yard this week. While raking out the beds, I picked out some interesting shapes of Fall leaves, then saved a few of the long dry curling reeds from trimming the ornamental grasses. I noticed some cute little pods when pruning the crape myrtles. While snipping away at the wild branches of butterfly bush, I saw the silvery new growth mingling with last year’s dried flowers, browned and crumbling, but still with a hint of purple.  As I hauled away the bags of the crinkling crunchy dead leaves and trimmings, new growth was bursting out all around: blooming Cherries, Camelia, Bradford Pear, and Daffodils. I puts bits of all these things, the old and the new, on the same plate, and took it down to the studio to draw and observe.  The beautiful fresh Camelia blossom nestles with the dry old oak leaf.  Each has its place in its own time.

This week I challenged myself to clear out some old ideas along with the old leaves. One of my most limiting old beliefs is “There is not enough time for all my creative projects.” It’s true that I am attempting a lot. Along with writing this blog and making my weekly collage, I am also designing patterns and illustrations on my Mac in a serious effort to launch a second career in surface design. Sometimes it all seems a little crazy, as I struggle to balance my creative ambitions with work, family time and the everyday necessities of life. There are days when it all seems impossible. But I am trying out a new belief: “There is always enough time and a time for everything.” I decide what I am going to work on, and stop worrying about all the other stuff while I am focusing on the current task. Then I take a break and work on something else, allowing myself to be fully present for the next activity. I managed to have a pretty great weekend using this approach. I enjoyed working outside in the yard.  I devoted a lot of time to my design project since I had some new ideas I was excited about. I spent a long time drawing and less time painting this week. I made pancakes for my family Sunday morning and lingered around the table instead of rushing down to the studio first thing in the morning. It is 9:30 pm Sunday night, but I finished my collage.  I’m not entirely happy with the colors, but I’ll put it aside for now and look at it again tomorrow. I’m starting to see there is a way to live a full life while not feeling frantic all the time. Let go of the drama and let it unfold.

There is Always Enough Time and a Time for Everything

Making Room for New Growth

Last year's cone flowers

Today my husband and I spent the day clearing out the garden beds, cutting back shrubs, and tidying up the yard. If we wait any longer the new shoots will start tangling up with the dry old stems from last year and the job will become much harder.  As I yanked and clipped away at the old growth, I had some time to think about making room for the new: new ideas, new possibilities. Sometimes clearing out the old beliefs is a necessary step before the new ones can take root.  If you asked me just six months ago what I thought was possible for me and my creative work, I would have a very different and more limited answer. I wonder what I might tell you six months from now?  The most limiting old belief I needed to rip out was, “There is not enough time for all my creative projects.”

Fennel- Old and New

I’m starting to understand that this belief is really an illusion. I have lots of time and need only to make choices about how to spend it. Yes, there are givens like my 30 hours of day job, preparing meals, walking the dog, sleeping, etc. Spending time with my family is important to me, so I choose to do that. But there are still an amazing number of small moments leftover that keep adding up, moments that I didn’t even realize I had, until I believed that I had them.  Sometimes you just need to ask for more time.  When I told my wonderful husband how important my studio work had become to me, he started helping out more around the house, shopping for groceries and making dinner.  When I committed to doing this project, my whole orientation with time shifted. Activities that I used to view as stealing away my art time (like yard work) now become opportunities for inspiration.  I am more appreciative of all the things I need to spend time on. When my time for art arrives, I am ready.

Patio Pots: Before

Patio Pots: After

Once the shrubs are cut back and the pots are emptied, everything looks so bare. The pruned butterfly bushes look so bony and awkward in this stage, just waiting to once again shoot out their arcs of silvery leaves and purple flowers.  The beds are a blank page, just waiting to be filled with color.  After accomplishing so much clean-up, suddenly there is so much more to do!  Filling the pots with annuals, adding more perennials, working in compost, mulching, planting the vegetable garden. (Do I even have time to garden this year, with all the art projects I have going on??) But this is how it always goes. No matter how much you do, there is always more to do.  In fact, the more productive I am, the more I want to do, the wider my possibilities become. As these ideas grow, they threaten to overwhelm me. I have learned that the best thing to do after defining my larger goals is to just focus on the next step in front of me. Change does not happen in the past or the future, but in the continually unfolding present moment.

There is always enough time and a time for everything. I am learning to ease into this new belief. I work hard and I stay committed, but when life pulls me away from my artwork, I am allowing myself to realize that maybe this other thing, whatever it may be, is an important experience. Can I give up control and have the spacious awareness to let life unfold?

There is Always Enough Time and a Time for Everything

Here are some more things I discovered unfolding in my yard today, each in their own time:

The Pear Tree in the front yard, ready to bloom

Camelia under my studio window

The Oregon Grape Holly blooms for the first time!