Week 52: Endings and Beginnings

I have reached the end of this journey, and my 52nd collage is complete. For this final work in the series, I decided to pull together some of my favorite imagery from throughout the year, and create an essential distillation of My Suburban Life. This is my place and the things that I treasure. There is the map of the neighborhood, and images of the surrounding landscape where we live. I included the dogwoods, the rose bushes, and the pear tree in the front yard where the mockingbirds sing. The wild geese fly overhead, while seedlings sprout in the garden. There are themes of growth and flight, both appropriate metaphors for the work of the past year. My husband and son walk close by while I lean over my drawing board, secure in my place in the world, my love of creating, and my commitment to my work. This is a very different feeling from when I began the project, with that strange ambivalence and unease of living in the ‘burbs. Now things are different. I have not only made peace with my suburbia, I have made it my own. My identity as an artist is not defined by where I live, but how I live a creative life.

The Lego Spaceship was featured in the very first collage, and makes a final appearance here as well. This was from a small drawing that I made back in January 2012, when I first began the project, and had saved to use in a future work. Ever since my son Max flew his Lego Spaceship into my studio last January, it became a symbol of Art meeting Life. The spaceship hovers above the earth in the realm of the imagination, while simultaneously being a tangible domestic object, embedded in the material world. This magical child-like ability to bridge the gap between imagination and reality became my inspiration. My previous body of work had conspicuously avoided the realities of everyday life, preferring the escapism of imaginary lands. One year ago I asked new questions: Can I come down from my Ivory Tower and welcome the Lego Spaceship into my creative domain? Can I take the stuff of everyday life and transform it into art? Can I move freely between those two realms, with an openness and receptivity to both my own imagination and the intricate details of My Suburban Life? These questions led me to a place of greater awareness and compassion towards myself and my world, while continuing to challenge me to strive towards my best, most authentic work.

Endings and Beginnings, acrylic collage, 12 x 12 inches

Endings and Beginnings, acrylic collage, 12 x 12 inches

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Detail, Endings and Beginnings

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Detail, Endings and Beginnings

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Detail, Endings and Beginnings

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Detail, Endings and Beginnings

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Detail, Endings and Beginnings

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Detail, Endings and Beginnings

Week 49: Balloon Ride

I surprised my husband with a hot air balloon ride for his 40th Birthday. The wind was perfect that day. While we rose out of a field in the middle of town amongst strip malls and subdivisions, we floated across the highway to the Northwest, and soon found ourselves hovering above woods, farmland, and the Rivanna River, with the Blue Ridge Mountains anchoring the Western horizon. The colorful autumn leaves had fallen, but the winter landscape had a magic all its own. The bare deciduous branches appeared white and lacy from above, transparent screens that revealed layers of fields and forest floor. The dense stands of evergreens framed the open spaces of pasture, and the river carved its way through the landscape, reflecting a clear blue sky.

The balloon ride felt like a big adventure when we first took off, but once air-born, the adrenalin subsided and there was simply peace, quiet, beauty, and the love between two people. The whoosh of the gas flame was the only sound. The world appeared as a miniature train garden, every piece arranged just so. I loved the winter palette of ochres, blue-grays, and deep greens, displayed in so many different textures. When I began working on the collage, I was enthralled with the task of drawing the tiny details I observed in the landscape, while at the same time trying to capture the whole experience of floating above the panorama. I combined small drawings of trees and farms with broader painted areas of river and landscape. Drawing and painting, line and color, detail and whole, all come together here with wonder and joy.

Balloon Ride, acrylic collage, 12 x 12 in.

Balloon Ride, acrylic collage, 12 x 12 in.

Detail, Balloon Ride

Detail, Balloon Ride

Detail, Balloon Ride

Detail, Balloon Ride

Detail, Balloon Ride

Detail, Balloon Ride

Detail, Balloon Ride

Detail, Balloon Ride

Detail, Balloon Ride

Detail, Balloon Ride

Week 44: The Black Gum

Black Gum

I have a favorite tree in our back yard. It was not planted to commemorate a special occasion, or in honor of a family member. It is not an exotic cultivar, or even an especially ornamental flowering species. It is a simple Black Gum with a simple story. Our landscape designer chose the Black Gum for two reasons. It is one of the first trees to change color in the fall– a brilliant red. This seemed reason enough, but there was something else. The Black Gum is characterized by a straight upright trunk, with sturdy branches that grow horizontally outward at right angles. Why might this structural feature be important?  “For a swing,” said the landscape designer.  As soon as this idea was released, it planted itself in my imagination. I had a tree swing when I was a girl. Now I could have another one! How long would it take before the tree was big enough to hold a swing? Ten years, twenty years? Would I watch my little boy grow into a teenager who would swing on that swing, or is it for me… and the grandchildren? Would I still even live here in twenty years? As soon as the tree was planted, it marked a moment in time from which I would measure the passing years. The tree became a slow stop watch. What can I create and accomplish between now and the time when the Black Gum is ready for its swing? The tree is planted at the top of a steep slope, so that when you swing out over the edge of the retaining wall, where the land falls away, you will feel like you are flying. Who will I have become when I sail through the air on that swing?

We planted the Black Gum three years ago. It was very spindly at first, with a sparse dotting of leaves. I fussed over it, diligently watering its roots each week. Tiny green aphids gathered on its fresh new growth in sticky clumps, which I crushed with my fingers every time I walked past, or occasionally sprayed with soap. The second summer the tree began to fill out with a fuller canopy, and the aphids moved on to weaker hosts. It went through curious growth spurts like a gangly child, where the top would shoot straight up a good twelve inches with no side branches, only to burst forth with a big bundle of leaves at its tip, as if it were balancing an outlandish hat on the end of a broomstick. The third summer it grew more handsome and sturdy, with a thick flush of deep green foliage, the glossy leaves turning a spotty red and gold in September. This Fall, Grandma and Max planted daffodil bulbs in the mulch circle around its base. Yellow and white blooms will appear in early Spring. Now I have something to look forward to that is not as far away as the swing. You know you are growing older when a mere five month wait feels like instant gratification.

This collage is about the passing of time, growth, patience, and how a landscape can tell our stories across the past, present, and future.

Black Gum, acrylic collage, 12 x 12

Detail, Black Gum

Detail, Black Gum

Detail, Black Gum

Detail, Black Gum

Detail, Black Gum

Week 42: Out-of-Town Visitors

We recently had some out-of-town visitors in the neighborhood. They mostly kept to themselves, but the over-turned garbage cans and toppled bird feeders betrayed their presence. I personally have not been a witness to their pre-dawn activities, although the dense woods behind my house may have been playing host. The Neighborhood Association emailed us all some common sense instructions: “Remove food sources and the bears will leave the area.” Some residents worriedly inquired, “Do bears attack people?” and “Should they be trapped and removed?” One morning, my dog picked up a half-eaten piece of pizza that had tumbled from an over-turned garbage can, a food source apparently rejected by our discerning guests. They must have been disappointed by all the Dominoes boxes and convenience foods. Maybe bears don’t really like the suburbs. We think they have moved on.

Out-of-town Visitors, acrylic collage, 12 x 12

Detail, Out-of-Town Visitors

Detail, Out-of-Town Visitors

Detail, Out-of-Town Visitors

Detail, Out-of-Town Visitors

Week 32: California Trip Part III

Climbing the Drum Bridge

I could not resist doing a collage about the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco. It is a magical place with the potential to explore all the themes that I am continually drawn to in my artwork: imaginary landscapes, rich layers and textures, story-telling and narrative, journey and discovery, and the intersection of human artifice with the natural world. As you wander the garden, a series of carefully composed vignettes open before you. Sometimes a view through the trees offers a glimpse of what lies ahead. Other times you reach an elevation and are invited to look back over where you have come. A myriad of visual surprises draws you along the stone paths: sculpted evergreens contrast with feathery maples left to their natural habit, and colorful koi dart through the shimmering ponds while lily pads float serenely on the surface. Fanciful bridges and brightly painted buildings punctuate the natural landscape, while birds and butterflies accompany visitors on their journey.

Our favorite element in the garden is the Drum Bridge. When seen from a distance, its dramatic arch is pleasingly picturesque. As you approach, the scale of it comes into focus, and you see that this is not a bridge for strolling over. It must be climbed– more like a ladder than a bridge! We all had fun scrambling up the steep incline to the top of the arch, where we were rewarded with a fantastic view, looking back over the gardens. Maybe I can try to approach other obstacles in life just like the Drum Bridge: welcoming challenges with an attitude of play, humor, and curiosity.

Japanese Tea Garden, 12 x 12, acrylic collage

Detail, Tea Garden with stone path

Detail, Tea Garden with koi pond

Detail, Tea Garden with pond

Detail, Tea Garden with Buddha

Detail, Tea Garden with Drum Bridge

Detail, Tea Garden with bird

Week 27: Balloon Landing

Panel with under-painting of the balloon.

In this week’s collage I tried to capture the odd occurrence of a hot air balloon landing in our neighborhood. This was an actual real life event, although the collage depicts an imaginative version of it. The balloon landing has become a part of my own personal mythology, serving as some sort of proof that strange, wonderful, and even magical happenings can enter our reality.  The balloon holds all of my dreams, and I know that it is real, even when it is drifting high above and out of reach.

Paper elements ready for collaging.

I decorated the balloon with collaged paper torn from patterns that I designed in Illustrator, as well as leftover motifs from previous collages. Many of the digital patterns are based on scanned drawings that were originally created for my collage projects, so there is a closed loop of recycled and adapted imagery that propels both my fine art and design work. Using elements from my patterns seemed appropriate, as so many of my dreams right now are wound up in launching my fabric designs. As the balloon makes its descent, the little houses look on with varying expressions of shock and delight. The balloon is landing!

Hot Air Balloon, acrylic collage, 12 x 12

Hot Air Balloon Detail

Hot Air Balloon Detail

Hot Air Balloon Detail

Hot Air Balloon Detail

Week 23: The Anniversary Collage

This collage is in celebration of our 11th Wedding Anniversary. I enjoyed the opportunity to pull imagery from many of the previous collages to create a montage of our journey together in life. I used motifs from our garden, home and neighborhood, but also added references from our travels and other important life passages. It is a difficult task to create a visual summary of eleven years of marriage! So rather than being too concerned with hitting every highlight, I allowed a free-association of favorite memories. The sprouts and garden imagery suggest the idea of personal growth and the beautiful rewards of a carefully tended relationship.  I wanted to explore the idea of ‘home’ as being not just one defined place, but an evolving experience that may find its physical reality in our own backyard, or in faraway lands. Home is not a place, but how we feel when we are together, and connected to our most authentic selves. Here is the finished collage, followed by favorite details.

The Anniversary Collage, 12 x 12, acrylic collage

Detail of The Boat, The Anniversary Collage

Detail of the Garden at Home, The Anniversary Collage

Detail of an adventure in Hawaii, The Anniversary Collage

Detail of Max’s Lego Spaceship, The Anniversary Collage

Detail of an adventure in Spain, The Anniversary Collage

Detail of the Big City, The Anniversary Collage

Nesting

The daily activities of creatures in the neighborhood continue to fascinate me. While minivans come and go, children ride their bikes, and lawn mowers buzz around our lots, layers and layers of diverse societies carry out their own rituals.  Recently my husband and I witnessed a tiny ant dragging an old dried up worm up a steep stretch of sidewalk. It was amazing that he could haul this heavy load so many times his own weight. We saw him get stuck in the joint of the sidewalk, cleverly adjust his grip to leverage himself out with his prize, then continue on his way.  A study in strength, ingenuity, and perseverance.

Empty Robin’s Nest

Empty Robin’s Nest

I have been particularly interested in the nesting of the robins.  There are nests in many of the cherry trees that line our streets. Just last week I peeked inside the ones I could discreetly reach with a stretch of my arm and a camera, and discovered that many had single blue eggs. Today I checked two of the nests again and the eggs were gone. This was a bit upsetting since foul play may have been a factor.

Baby robins will stay in the nest for about  two weeks after hatching, so their sudden absence is not a good sign. In another nearby tree, I witnessed two robins frantically driving off a mischievous squirrel with high-pitched chirps and threatening swoops. Do squirrels eat eggs? The nest was too high up for me to see, but I hope their eggs are still safe.

With Mother’s Day just here, and the activities of the robins all around me, I have been moved to contemplate my own nesting behavior.  While I love to travel, I have always strongly identified with the idea of home. I am not the free-spirited type who travels the world with a backpack. I need to build a nest.  I see this nest-building as an extension of my creativity and imagination– an opportunity to create a special place for my family that both shelters and inspires us. My husband feels the same way, and our home has evolved into a reflection of us both over the last four+ years that we have lived here. We intend to stay here for at least the next ten years, and probably longer. This long term commitment to our nest allows us to invest in fully customizing it. Here is a picture of an outdoor space that has become our own backyard “nest.”

Backyard Nest for Humans

Sketchbook page with nests

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.

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