On Saturday after I returned to the mainland from Mallard Island, I pointed my car south and drove 6 hours to the Minnesota farm where I grew up. My youngest and oldest brothers each own and live on half of the farm, and on Saturday my youngest brother was hosting a reunion for the extended family on my father’s side. The reunion was winding down by the time I finally arrived. I missed seeing my three surviving aunts and many cousins and their kids. Thankfully my siblings hung around to see me. Seven of the nine of us kids made it to the reunion. After all the cousins left, my siblings and some spouses talked around a fire pit as we roasted hot dogs.
My brother has made many changes and improvements since my Dad died. He replaced the old farmhouse, garage, and machine shed with new structures. Only the old red barn remains from my parents’ and grandparents’ time on the farm. My brother has worked hard to bring the farm into the modern age, and I love all the improvements. He keeps everything trim and neat and orderly. The land still holds the memories of our childhood there, and it still feels like I am returning home whenever I travel there.
Part of what is bringing the farm back to life are the animals. In the last decade of my father’s life, he no longer kept domesticated animals. Now my brother is raising hogs and a few beef cattle and lots of chickens. There are at least four or five barn cats and two dogs that have the run of the place.
I was able to spend just one night and morning with my brother and his family before continuing my drive. Here are two of my favorite pictures from this year’s trip to my childhood farm home: another lovely red sunrise . . .
In my two decades growing up and going to school in Minnesota, I rarely travelled in the northern part of the state. On this trip, I crossed the border into Minnesota at Fargo and then continued north to Bemidji, where I spent a few days relaxing with my sister and her husband at their cabin on Big Turtle Lake. It was a lovely interlude between my road trip from Seattle and the start of my art residency on Mallard Island. We took a long bike ride one day along the Paul Bunyan Trail.
When you are in northern Minnesota you can see why the state’s slogan is “Land of Ten Thousand Lakes.” The land is mixed woods and marshes and farmland, and lakes and ponds dot the landscape in between.
I left Bemidji early on Sunday morning to head even farther north to International Falls, where I would meet the nine other artists at Bald Rock dock for the start of our week on Mallard Island on Rainy Lake. Three times I saw deer alongside the road. There was little traffic.
I had time to visit the Rainy Lake Visitor Center in Voyageurs National Park before our meet up time. I walked the Oberholtzer Trail there.
It was still too early in the season for Minnesota’s spectacular displays of colored fall foliage. But driving along Hwy 53 south to my family farm, I saw little pockets of color. A teasing taste of the flaming landscape to come.
It was still green farther south. As I drove the final few miles to my brother’s farm, I enjoyed the Midwest sky full of high, white clouds. (We rarely see skies like this in Seattle.)
Last week I spent 6 days as one of ten artists in residence on Mallard Island in northern Minnesota. I applied for and was awarded this residency by the Ernest Oberholtzer Foundation, whose mission is to maintain the legacy of Ernest Oberholtzer — wilderness preservationist, explorer, book collector, and one of the founders of the Wilderness Society — and his North Woods home on Mallard Island as a “source of inspiration, renewal and connection to Indigenous Peoples, kindred spirits, and the natural world.”
I was the only painter among this year’s group of artists; others included writers, photographers, a sculptor, musicians, a composer, and researchers. The week-long residency offered us time to work on our own individual projects in a supportive and convivial environment. Mallard Island is a tiny island on Rainy Lake, which borders Canada and northern Minnesota. It was remote — I was without internet access or cell phone — and rustic — no hot water nor flush toilets.
I first heard about Mallard Island years ago when I read Louise Erdrich’s Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country. This was also my introduction to Ernest Oberholtzer, who was instrumental in saving the Quetico-Superior Wilderness from a lumber baron’s plans to dam and alter the Rainy Lake watershed. Here is Erdrich’s brief synopsis of Oberholtzer’s life: “He was born in 1884, grew up in an upper middle-class home in Davenport, Iowa, suffered a bout of rheumatic fever that weakened his heart. He went to Harvard, where he made friends with bookish people like Conrad Aiken and Samuel Eliot Morison. His heart kept bothering him. Told by a doctor he had just one year to live, he decided to spend it in a canoe. He traveled three thousand miles in a summer. Paddling a canoe around Rainy Lake watershed and through the Quetico-Superior wilderness was just the thing for his heart, so he kept on paddling. He lived to be ninety-three years old.”
Oberholtzer established his home on Mallard Island — accessible by boat in summer and across frozen ice in winter. Writer Bill Holm, who was also one of Mallard’s artists years ago, described Mallard as one of three “skinny sardines of rock and scrub timber” (Eccentric Islands). Holm continues, “Mallard is only twelve hundred feet from stem to stern, in places as narrow as fifty feet from port to starboard. A leisurely stroll of five minutes will get you from one end to the other. It was not a vast kingdom physically, so Ober set about making it large in other ways.”
Mallard has nine eclectic buildings, three compost toilets, an outdoor sun shower, two pianos, numerous canoes, a wind-up gramophone, and over 11,000 books. It was this personal collection of books in its unique wilderness setting which attracted me to the idea of Mallard Island and led me to investigate the Oberholtzer Foundation’s programs.
I will write in more detail about my week on Mallard Island in some blog posts to follow. For today, I will showcase the watercolor journal pages I completed during my stay, as well as a few other small paintings. Enjoy!
“The land was treeless and seventeen different shades of tan. It slowly grew more rugged, but the badlands still came up unexpectedly: a crenellation along the horizon that opened up on both sides of the highway into phantasmagorical landscape. It wasn’t so much the buttes rising above the earth, but more as if the skin of the earth had been ripped away, revealing the ragged, broken flesh beneath. You stared down into the badlands, and the maze of twisted gorges, trapped meadows, wind-eaten towers and bluffs were a geological underworld, as unearthly as beautiful.”
— Reed Karaim, The Winter in Anna
This was my first visit to the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park in western North Dakota. I think few tourists venture here. It is 90 miles north of the more easily accessible South Unit, which lies off I-94. I was entering North Dakota from the north, on Highway 2, so I spent a late afternoon and evening here exploring a new landscape.
First I claimed a camping spot at the Juniper Campground — very uncrowded, and I got a site close to the camp hosts. I loved the setting of this campground on the edge of a huge grove of towering cottonwood trees. Lovely.
Then I drove the 14-mile scenic drive to Oxbow Overlook. There were plenty of viewpoints along the way, some overlooking the Missouri River below. I enjoyed stopping at the viewpoints in this national park because the landscape was so different, varied, and unexpected. I didn’t hike here, but I enjoyed photographing at the stops.
I especially loved the vast grasslands: “The grassland stretches out in the sunlight like a sea, every wind bending the blades into a ripple, and flecking the prairie with shifting patches of a different green from that around, exactly as the touch of a light squall or wind-gust will fleck the smooth surface of the ocean.”
— Theodore Roosevelt, Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail
It was wonderful to see wildlife along the road. I saw mule deer and rabbits. I saw some bison in the distance, and then as I was leaving early the next morning, there were some bison in the road! The North Unit is a rewarding destination, and one that I’d recommend to anyone traveling in the Midwest.
I arrived at Glacier National Park without reservations. I had packed my Subaru in such a way that I could have part of the back seat folded forward, allowing me to sleep in the vehicle. With sleeping bag, quilt, and three plump pillows, it was actually comfy. I had slept the night before in my car, parked in front of a church in tiny Steptoe, WA. As far as I know, it is not illegal to sleep in one’s car, but I would look for paid lodging every few days — for the showers if nothing else!
On the off chance there was a late cancellation, I asked at the Lake McDonald Lodge in Glacier Park if there were rooms available. Nothing for my first evening in the park, but one room was available the following night. I booked it. Now I had an anchoring place from which to plan my activities in the park. I relaxed in the lobby of the lodge, ate dinner at the restaurant there, and then slept in my car for the second time.
I was up early on Friday morning an hour before sunrise. I had woken during the night smelling smoke. It was worse in the early morning. I asked at the lodge what was going on, and the receptionist sais that there was one fire in the park, just over a mountain ridge from the lodge, that had been started 12 days earlier from a lightning strike. The smoke seemed to descend in the heavy night air, then dissipate during the day in the breezes from the lake. Some of the staff were wearing masks over their noses and mouths, it was that bad.
I was glad I was heading up in elevation. I wanted to be at Logan Pass for the sunrise. My timing was perfect. (Later in the morning the parking lot was jam-packed.) I packed a picnic breakfast, my watercolor supplies, some water, and I headed out for Hidden Lake. It was a beautiful hike, with crisp clean air and colors brightening as the sun rose higher and higher in the sky. There were wildflowers, and I saw some ground squirrels, a couple of hoary marmots, and one mountain goat sitting on a distant rock.
It felt so good to be out hiking after two days sitting in my car. The trail down to the lake was 6 miles roundtrip, a good workout. I ate breakfast at the halfway point, an overlook with a view of Bearhat Mountain and Hidden Lake below.
On my way back down the Going-to-the-Sun Road, I stopped at Avalanche Creek to walk the Trail of Cedars. The dominant tree along this nature trail is the Western Red Cedar — tall, magnificent.
When I arrived back at Lake McDonald Lodge around 2:00 p.m. my room was ready. After a shower, I spent the rest of the day relaxing, checking email, editing and uploading photos, and reading. I took out my ink pen and made a drawing of the foliage of the false hellebore — my second bit of art making for the day. (I had stopped along the Hidden Lake trail to do a painting of Clements Mountain.)
My plan for the following day was to hike to Avalanche Lake (4 miles roundtrip) and then drive across the Going-to-the-Sun Road to the eastern gateway of Glacier National Park at St. Mary’s. Although I got off to a more leisurely start (and one last shower), by the time I reached Avalanche Lake, the sun was just rising over the towering mountains that surround the lake. A beautiful spot for my picnic breakfast.
As I was driving the high road to St. Mary’s, I realized that I was not really interested in pulling off at the many scenic views to gaze at lovely mountain vistas, perhaps because they were not that dissimilar from my familiar Pacific NW landscape. What I did love about Glacier National Park was getting out on a few trails, hiking, breathing in the fresh air and scents, and moving into the landscape.
I arrived at East Glacier and spent the afternoon enjoying the shaded porch of the Glacier Park Lodge. This is not one of the national park lodges. Rather, it is one of the grand, historic railroad lodges built by the Great Northern Railroad. As I sat in one of the rocking chairs there, I painted a scene from Avalanche Lake, using one of my photos for reference. These are the paintings and drawings from my Glacier National Park sojourn:
Today I began a road trip to Minnesota for a week-long art residency on Mallard Island sponsored by the Ernest Oberholtzer Foundation. The residency begins September 3rd, so I have allowed myself plenty of time to cover the 1700-mile journey. This is a solo trip for me, and I want to be sure to build in enough down time to rest, relax, take photographs, and paint watercolors along the way.
I am doing this trip the old-fashioned way — no cell phone or GPS. I will try to find WiFi along the way to check my email and upload photos. Right now I am using a computer at the Whitman County Library in Colfax, WA. It is a beautiful library, an air-c0nditioned oasis, and welcoming. Of course, I feel perfectly at home in libraries! (As an added bonus, the Colfax Library has on exhibit art of the Palouse by local artists — truly outstanding.)
My biggest worry for this trip is that I won’t slow down enough to find time to stop and paint. I made a promising start, though. This morning I stopped for 1-1/2 hours at the Wild Horses monument near Vantage, WA (exit 139 on I-90) — I hiked up the bluff to the horse sculptures, I sketched a few horses while I was up there, and then I hiked back down and set up my painting stuff in the shade of my car. I am so happy that I took the time to do this.
I love these horse sculptures by artist David Govedare. I’ve written about them in a 2010 blog post, which you can link to here. It’s a short, but steep climb up to the sculptures. The panoramic view of the mighty Columbia River from the bluff is outstanding.
I am not sure how frequently I will be sending blog posts from the road. Once I am on Mallard Island, I will be without internet for a week. I will try to document my impressions of western America through photos and paintings, so I am sure I will have a lot to share. Stay tuned!
It has been over one month since taking Shari Blaukopf’s watercolor workshop, and since then I’ve been practicing some of her tips for painting trees. I’m lucky in that I live close to Green Lake Park in Seattle, which has over 160 different kinds of trees according to local tree expert, Arthur Lee Jacobson. I walk past the lake on my way to work, and I also try to walk around the lake almost daily during the summer, so I’ve been paying some attention to the various tree silhouettes I see.
I’ve written about the trees of Green Lake in other blog posts. You can view some of them here and here. I don’t think I am done with this Green Lake tree theme yet. But here is what I’ve painted so far:
This past week I spent four days as a student at Shari Blaukopf’s watercolor workshop in Anacortes and the Skagit Valley. Shari is a professional painter and design teacher from Montreal, and I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to study under her, if even for a few days.
The workshop was wonderful on so many levels. My good friend Bonnie, whom I met several years ago through this blog, invited me stay at her home overlooking Samish Bay, and she was a gracious and welcoming host (besides feeding me the most nutritious and delicious meals!) The other workshop participants were a mix of kindred spirits, old friends and new. The organizers of the workshop selected stunning locations for painting our landscapes, so I discovered even more beautiful nooks and crannies in the Skagit Valley, already one of my most favorite places on earth.
It was evident that Shari had scouted the locations before we met each day, and that was important because we “wasted” no time settling in to paint. Here are the locations where we painted:
As it was, the time flew by. There were morning and afternoon sessions, each three hours long, during which Shari taught, demonstrated her techniques and skills, and then critiqued the paintings we made trying to apply her lessons on the spot. It was a revelation to watch a master painter at work — planning and anticipating the order in which she would be applying pigments, paying attention to the range of light and dark values, actually painting with sure, confident strokes. It was a miracle to see, daily, beautiful images emerge gradually from a blank sheet of paper. Sometimes what looked like a mess early on became a finished masterpiece. (Lesson: don’t give up on your work too early.)
Shari said that when she paints, her objective is to “capture the essence” of what she sees, the “fastest impression” of her experience of a place. Successful paintings, to her, have “something genuine” in the work.
I take with me some precepts and lessons that I hope to use in the days, months, and years ahead to improve my work. Here are some of Shari’s key tips that I will be carrying with me:
The two most common mistakes watercolor painters make are: 1) not enough water and 2) not enough pigment on the brush. Shari said, “My watercolors got better when I started using more water.”
Aim for loose line work and fresh painting (it helps to hold your drawing and painting implements higher on the stem for more expressive lines and strokes).
Before painting, and while deciding upon your composition, analyze values without thinking about the actual colors: darkest and lightest parts, decide what to leave white.
When you get the values right, color doesn’t matter.
Start with what you love (when you have a complex scene or composition with several parts).
Paint foliage in masses, large shapes.
Think about shapes: make interesting shapes within big shapes, pay attention to overlapping shapes, mass together some shapes, simplify shapes.
Pick up paint from the sides of the brush rather than digging in with the point (keeping your pigments moist helps).
Don’t go more than one inch without changing color. Use a variety of colors in dark and shadow areas.
A good amount of neutral makes the color sing.
Burnt sienna and ultramarine blue make a nice neutral gray.
Not all white is white white. (Sometimes a white in shadow is a darker value than the sky.)
Most of the time when you don’t like your work it’s because your darks are diffident. Take the time to add dark accents and final touches. Don’t quit too soon.
I did a lot of reading in June, but it wasn’t until June 23rd that I finally read something that I felt worthy of a recommendation. Chemistry: A Novel by Weike Wong is about a young woman finding her path in life after a breakdown.
The narrator is a PhD candidate who works in a chemistry lab with her boyfriend, Eric. He seems to live a charmed life — loving and doting parents, and straight trajectory through college in which he completed his PhD, graduated, and was offered a job in Oberlin, which necessitated a move. Eric asks the narrator to marry him and move with I’m, but she wavers and cannot commit.
Her life is not so charmed. She was raised by first-generation Chinese immigrant parents who were stern, demanding, unemotional, and who set high expectations. Her father’s story was a classic immigrant success story — he became an engineer, and the narrator feels the stress of trying to match his achievements: “But such progress he’s made in one generation that to progress beyond him, I feel as if I must leave America and colonize the moon.”
And her work in the lab is not getting results. “The goal of a science PhD is to have an original idea,” she says. And while she has always been a top student, “. . . what every scientist knows — you can’t just be proficient; you have to have insight.” She cannot help but feel like a failure: “Ninety percent of all experiments fail. This is a fact. Every scientist has proven it. But you eventually start to wonder if this high rate of failure is also you. It can’t be the chemicals’ fault, you think.”
She suffers a breakdown of sorts and leaves school and the lab on medical leave. As she struggles with what to do next, she works through the legacy of her parents lives, her harsh upbringing, and her views on marriage. She has to work through disappointing her parents and finding her own purpose. Her parents’ marriage was fraught and tense — not a great example. And now her best friend is dealing with a cheating husband and an imperfect reconciliation. The narrator looks at the marriages of some women chemists from history — Clara Haber had to give up her chemistry career when she married fellow chemist Fritz Haber. When he developed chlorine gas as a weapon of war, she shoots herself. Marie Curie worked in partnership with her husband Pierre, and they shared their discoveries and the acclaim of Nobel prizes.
The narrator speaks in a rather flat, unemotional voice. “[I]t is the Chinese way . . . to keep your deepest feelings inside and then build a wall that can be seen from the moon.” But I was drawn to the character and her flawed family. Who cannot love someone who makes a statement like: “What my mother lacks in vision, she makes up for in hindsight.”
One of my favorite reads from May celebrates the art of storytelling. The Adventures of John Carson in Several Quarters of the World by Brian Doyle is a novel told through the voice of Robert Louis Stevenson while he was a struggling writer in San Francisco in 1879-80. During that time Stevenson was waiting for his betrothed’s divorce to come through so that she would be free to marry him. Stevenson lived in Mrs. Carson’s boardinghouse at 608 Bush Street. These real-life facts are the starting points for Doyle’s novel.
Doyle heard about a novel that Stevenson contemplated but apparently never wrote, which was to be entitled Adventures of John Carson in Several Quarters of the World: “. . . ever since I read about this unwritten book of Stevenson’s, many years ago, I have dreamed about writing it for him.”
In Doyle’s novel, Stevenson takes breaks from long days of writing by relaxing in the companionship of Mrs. Carson’s husband, John. Stevenson says, “I with great pleasure and mounting amazement pry an endless series of stories from Mrs Carson’s husband John, who has been all over the world in various ships, and has had adventures of every conceivable sort, in dense jungles and remote islands and terrible battlefields, and, he says, in blazing deserts and dripping forests and under the sea . . .”
And Mr. Carson is a gifted storyteller who transports his listeners with his words alone — something quite inspiring to an aspiring writer like Stevenson. “So it was that I began to marvel not just at Mr Carson’s tumultuous adventures, but at the man himself, and at the subtle currents of his heart; and I began to wonder if he was not very consciously and deliberately choosing particular chapters of his life to tell, in order to tell me other things, perhaps — about the nature and power of stories, about how decisions not only reflect but create character, about how stories actually shape our lives; could it be that the words we choose to have resident in our mouths act as a sort of mysterious food, and soak down into our blood and bones, and form that which we wish to be?”
This is an adventure story (Mr Carson’s tales) and an ode to the joys and power of telling stories. “. . . I reveled . . . that a man could tell a tale so riveting that time and space fell away altogether, so that when the story paused or ended, the listener — or the reader! — would be snapped awake as if from the most delicious dream, and would have to shake himself or herself for a few minutes, as you shake away the bright fading threads of dreams.”
“There is a story in everything, and every being, and every moment, were we alert to catch it, were we ready with our tender nets; indeed there are a hundred, a thousand stories, uncountable stories, could they only be lured out and appreciated; and more and more now I realize that what I thought was a skill only for authors and pastors and doctors and dream-diviners is the greatest of all human skills, the one that allows us into the heart and soul and deepest layers of our companions on the brief sunlit road between great dark wildernesses. We are here to witness, to apprehend, to see and hear, to plumb, with patience and humility, the shy stories of others; and in some cases, like mine, then shape and share them; so that they might sometimes, like inky arrows, sink into the depths of other men and women and children, and cause pleasure, or empathy, or a short of delicious pain, as you realize that someone somewhere else, even perhaps a long time ago, felt just as you did.” The vice of Stevenson goes on to say, “Stories, among their many virtues, are messages from friends you did not know you had; and while you may well never meet the friend, you feel the better, with one more companion by your side, than you thought you knew.”
This book made me want to re-read Stevenson’s classics: Treasure Island, Kidnapped, Jekyll and Hyde, and A Child’s Garden of Verses.