I love it when I find gifts (like this juvenile eagle feather) lying on the side of the road at 7:30 am. They feel like I am being offered a moment of hope (I call them gold coins), especially when I am struggling to work or going through a period where lemons stay lemons and I can't seem to find the way to transform them into lemonade. Flat lining creatively is not uncommon; it often happens for me after a period of productivity, but more often than not it happens when I am struggling in my personal life. That struggle may become the source of my next bout of creative juiciness but more often my head is just a very messy place and all those colourful dreams that teach me in the night how to address the painting problems of the day slip away upon waking and I am left in a funk.
I have a few tricks I have learned to use and one of them is to reach for an old canvas that hasn't quite worked and if I can find a way through that old puzzle it's like a reset button that helps me revision what I originally planned. I like working on large pieces and this example is 3' by 5' and is still very much in process. It has sat for a long while now and though it is far from done I am approaching it with fresh interest again. Some of my canvases have several paintings on them because the other answer to an old stale puzzle is another coat of gesso. The pentimento leaches through and interesting textures are created as a result of layers and layers of under painting.
This painting started off as a grove of trees and later turned into a landscape. After years of looking at it and asking myself why it annoyed me one day I turned it on its side, covered it with black paint and this version fell out. Hours later I looked up, realized my bladder was screaming, my back was aching and I had lost time. When that happens I empty my bladder and do a happy dance. I rarely need to do more than touch up the painting after my initial session and when these canvases happen they usually walk out the door shortly after. This canvas currently lives in Nelson. So what happens when the canvas transformation magic doesn't happen? Option B is to do process oriented, methodical (and sometimes mind numbing) repetitive work like hand made paper making or layers and layers of built up painted papers glued together to create components for my mixed media work. Pounding metal or shaping clay objects helps too and then when I am back on track they can become something cohesive.
I also comb through the internet looking at what others are doing. A great source is our local library to find books about techniques. But sometimes the only answer is to sit on my back porch or the beach and wait. For me that is when the gifts appear. Today it was the eagle feather but often it is found by listening to the life around me, which at this time of the year is full of noise. I hear the chickens letting the entire neighbourhood know that they have successfully laid an egg, I hear the sapsuckers teaching their young to find bugs in our birch tree or I hear the baby ravens talking to themselves making sweet burbling noises that they will lose when they reach adulthood. Usually the babies are just screeching with very loud and very harsh voices but just before they are ousted from the family each one of them (three this year) does a soliloquy. It's a raven version of whispering and happens just before the parents send them away. I love those sounds. It is a gift for me and the raven parents, who know through years of experience, that soon their life will become much quieter: until next year. It always makes me smile. What it also does is remind me that I have more work to do.
Our cool spring has continued to limp along but finally we started having some warmish weather in late May. By now, even here on our cool island, we are dusting off the sandals and shorts but it is taking longer than usual to leap into summer mode. That is not true, however for the wildlife. The first batch of new robins with their fuzzy feather ears are hopping around in my garden and yesterday I heard the baby ravens screeching and watched them doing some very awkward flying. They are not close enough for me to determine how many young ones are in the air but it does mean success for the parents having a new batch of children this year. The pair in the photograph above are not the parents in my neighbourhood. They are Bert and Bernice, who have been photographed by Wendy Davis. She has recorded the pair and their offspring for many years capturing the ravens in intimate moments. Some of her photos also record the antics that come with the curiosity of this highly intelligent bird. As I have stated before my neighbourhood pair will not allow me to photograph them so when I attempt a painting I often reference Wendy's photos. She captures many amazing moments of interactions and her close ups reveal the beautiful iridescent colours in the ravens feathers. Without her work I would rely solely on my eyes and memory. I have, however, seen the fine hairs under Big Boy's beak but it is Wendy's photos that remind me of the purple in his feathers. Both sets of parents are working very hard right now to protect and also push their young to adulthood. Summer is short and the brutal realities of winter are looming. By fall the young are on their own and from egg to fledgling to launching young ravens it is a perilous time of training for survival. The parents are merciless in their endeavours as there are many dangers they need to teach their youngsters to avoid. Food is abundant now but they must learn to forage and utilize the natural cunning that they were born with. I wish them all luck and if this summer is like last year I'll get introduced to the latest batch very soon. I'll get to see some clumsy young ones chewing on the stolen recycle plastic, pooping in the garden and pulling out any plants that aren't covered. As for sleep... Luckily it only lasts about six weeks.
It is officially spring here. The snow finally melted and the winter quiet is over. Outside it is filled with the sounds of birds bustling about hurrying to catch up on the breeding and rearing time lost in our unusual West Coast cold spell. The ravens are no exception and Big Boy who I have watched for several years now shows up twice a day to collect my food offerings. He had disappeared for about two weeks while he and his mate were busy building a nest and laying some eggs. For the next month or so until they hatch she will guard the nest with her life and it is the job of the male to feed her. He knows I will help and when I hear his polite cronk I try to give him any protein I have on hand. Sometimes it is only cat kibble but if I have meat scraps I share them with him. I can tell he is stressed because whenever he shows up the feathers on his head are shaped like ear tufts and that usually is only visible when he is in a state of excitement or nervousness. His other feathers are disheveled as well and since I believe he is an older raven the pressure to feed another adult must be enormous. That pressure increases even more so when the babies arrive and last year the adults successfully brought four to adolescence before they sent them packing and out of their territory. Young ravens band together for survival during their first winter and like all young thugs the raven parents want nothing to do with them. Having the babies around is an event and last summer was the first year that the adults trust level was high enough that they brought the babies here. Other years they have trained them elsewhere returning here only after they have launched their young. Having two ravens in the neighbourhood can be noisy but having four additional raucous young birds is both comical and awful. For about six weeks they stalk their harried parents demanding food and when they start to be ignored in the weaning phase the bored youngsters find other toys to play with. They are like destructive puppies and are hard on the garden, our carefully organized recycle items like plastic and cans and, of course, our sleep. When the sun rises so does the noise level.
A Shift of Thought:
I don't just watch the local ravens: I have also been an avid follower of the Wellesley College Raven Cam in the US and today when I checked in I found the cam down due to the loss of Henry, the male raven. He hit a window and died. After 2 years of watching him and Pauline diligently raise their young I am very distressed by this loss of this lovely bird and appreciate the respect the operators of the cam are showing to the remaining raven who will now have to struggle to feed herself while protecting her eggs and rearing her young without the help of her mate. They have shut the cam down to give Pauline time to grieve, and she will, because it is not only about survival when ravens mate. It is about sharing a life together and being wild birds it is one fraught with all kinds of danger. On that note, I hope that Big Boy and his partner are able to overcome the delayed start of spring and bring their young ones to adulthood. It will be noisy here again but if we don't get the chance to sleep in beyond sunrise this summer it means that they are successful. I can live with that.
I am having a conversation with ravens. And chickens. Admittedly, I am primarily a source of food, but ravens are by nature wary, human shy creatures and the level of trust that they show me still leaves me feeling very privileged. How it came about is by pure happenstance. Several years ago my neighbour lost the bulk of her chicken flock to mink. For an entire winter the three surviving birds cowered in my fir tree refusing to return to their coop. When they finally ventured off their perch I started to feed them. The poor creatures were thin and exhausted so my neighbour sent food over to help keep them alive and my relationship with the chickens began. A new coop was built, and a new flock purchased but the birds were so used to being fed here that the relationship has continued to this day. Fast forward to the following summer: I've thrown some food off the porch and I begin to hear some very un-chicken like noises, almost like conversation, along with the usual sounds of birds scrabbling for food. When I opened the door I saw the rooster along with two big gorgeous ravens. They immediately flew off but it appeared that I had interrupted some kind of fowl party. And that is how it started. Over the years the wild birds have grown somewhat relaxed with my antics and inform me politely, (the male) and not so politely. (the female) when it is time to feed them. I am, under no circumstances, allowed to photograph them, but I am allowed to feed them.. So what does this have to do with my art? A lot! As you can see by the content of my work I paint what I see and because of these relationships with both the wild and domestic birds I get to see not only their physical beauty but observe and appreciate the complex relationships they share with each other. A flock shares intricate levels of power interactions (the pecking order) but ravens who are monogamous, are similar to a couple, with all the dances and squabbles of any long term relationship. They kiss, they fight and they are fascinating. So welcome to my back yard. Through my words and my art I will try to share with you what I see on a daily basis. It is definitely rural, a mixture of the wild and not so wild and it is a world I love.