Catsoul

March 29, 2012

Posted by request…there is more, but this is enough for now.

Maia (1988-2/15/03)

Maia (1988-2/15/03)

Catsoul is vast and mysterious, containing domestic cats as well as the little fierce wild ones, the great lions and panthers, and the ancient sabertooths and their ancestors.  It is the tabby kitten curled up on a pillow, the starving stray waiting on the porch, and wary eyeshine in the urban night.  It watches.  It is the pampered show cat with long glittering fur and a jeweled collar, and the breeder’s castoff with a deformed spine and useless hind legs.  It survives.  It can see in the dark, and it can leap and hunt and play and dance.  It is blind and crippled, deaf and incontinent, feeble of mind and wracked with seizures.  It loves.  It is the beloved skeleton buried in the garden, wrapped in a fraying blanket under a fragrant flowering bush that gives life to butterflies and hummingbirds.  It defines a holy place.  It is the ocelot crawling on a jungle vine, the tiger swimming in a muddy river, and the huge ancient fang shining like blue porcelain in the glacial dust.  It transforms, yet endures.

A cat is a sacred companion whose presence embodies rest and concentration, affection and obligation, self-sufficiency and mutual dependence.  Where cats have skillful, loving care, there is no need for a separate “spiritual practice” because the daily rhythm honors the Catsoul, and even scrubbing litterboxes or washing the floor is “serving in the temple.”  An ever-changing maze of interwoven pawprints and handprints records this dance.

No domestic cat, however feral, is truly “wild” or beyond hope of ever forging a connection with a human.  Even the shyest is descended from ancestors who purred at the touch of a hand.  If they could, these betrayed ones would advise us:  “In all of our souls, a place was made for You in the Long Ago, when we left our stripes in the long grass and came to live beside your First Fire.  Somewhere between fleeing and clutching, there is a place for all of us to meet.”

A cat keeps and nurtures the soul of a home, and you can follow this subtle watching, resting, and loving presence from one room to another, as the sunlight makes its daily journey across the floor.  A house that shelters many cats becomes a sanctuary for humans as well as felines, and here you feel the presence of Catsoul in all its complexity and power.  The long-time residents anchor it.  Those who will not be touched still give it raw vitality.  The kittens renew it and the old and fragile show its precious tenacity.  At its heart are the new arrivals, the ill, and those walking their final days on earth.  These are held in austere limbo between lives, perhaps even in isolation, and form the stillpoint at the center of the turning wheel.  This is a necessary transition that carries the weight of myth.  It is an ancient method of initiation, drastic adjustment, and deep healing.

Each cat makes a unique contribution to its home and caretaker.  Upon the cat’s death, this special role is lost to the household but enters the enduring secret shrine of Memory.  Here, the precious one continues to offer insight and comfort, long past the raw, empty time of grief.  Even after decades, you will still recall the way that one looked at you, the precise texture of the fur, the length of the tail, the gait that distinguished those paws from all others, the first meeting that transformed a kitty into My Cat.

Mountain Lion and Domestic Cat Skulls

Mountain Lion and Domestic Cat Skulls

Yin Yang Cats

Yin Yang Cats

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Tree Book #3: Island Oak

February 28, 2012

Island Oak - Two Views

Island Oak - Two Views

Two views of the same ancient Live Oak (Quercus virginiana) from Nags Head Woods on North Carolina’s Outer Banks.  A third view would have completed the circle and showed the jagged blades of wood in the hollow trunk, but it was impossible to get a photo from that direction, since the tree is growing next to a swamp thicket.

This is one of the illustrations for the Lichen Oracle.  I don’t intend to illustrate every glyph (that would defeat the purpose of the oracle, and limit it too much) but the story that goes with them will need a few pictures.  This important tree also inspired one of the glyphs.

An ancient live oak anchors the heart of the island.  Its hollow trunk is filled with snakes and snails, and booms like a drum.  The surface of the wood is storm-polished where the bark has worn away.  It feels cool and hard, like a river boulder.  The heavy branches arch overhead, some broken and rotting, others still sparkling with leaves and acorns.  Water-filled branch scars hold reflections of jellyfish.  A sea turtle skull, round and white as the full moon, lies deep below the oldest roots.  Rain and starlight fall through the empty trunk and wash like waves over the dreaming bone.

Lichen Glyph of Acient Oak Tree

Lichen Glyph of Acient Oak Tree

Tree Book

Tree Book

Two more Tree Book pencil drawings:  On the left is Petrophytum caespitosum, Rockmat or Dwarf Spiraea.  It’s essentially a miniature tree, only about six inches tall.  It is primarily a Rocky Mountain plant, rare in southern Arizona, where it is restricted to ridgetop outcrops of pure limestone and marble in the Huachuca, Whetstone, and Empire Mountains.  The drawing shows most of a weathered dead plant, drawn life size.  The living plant has rosettes of tiny leaves at the branch tips, and clusters of tiny white flowers that resemble those of its close relative, Ceanothus.

Photos of this species can be seen here:

http://www.mineralarts.com/cactus/graptopetalum.html

The drawing on the right is an American beech, Fagus americana, with exposed roots clinging to a clay creekbank.  I drew this from a color snapshot that I took in about 1985.  It’s in a small wooded creek valley in the northern Virginia neighborhood where I grew up.  I played in the creek as a child.  In high school I went there nearly every afternoon, and the woods became my refuge and a place to learn and explore.  This tree’s roots shaded a pool where a tiny ravine drained into the winding creek.  There were many such trees in that place.  Their nets of smooth bluish-gray roots, interlaced like fingers or rope, hung cavelike over a trickle of brown water and gravel bars of white quartz pebbles.

A Book of Trees in a Dream

January 17, 2012

I have always wanted to write an illustrated natural history book.  It began long ago, when I began to see scientific illustration as more than just an old-fashioned art form, and started to work on it as a spiritual practice.

Morel - watercolor, 1984

Morel - watercolor, 1984

Science. Nature. Art. Spirit.  For me there is no division between these things, although Science typically argues otherwise, and continues to shatter Itself into smaller and more isolated fragments.

“Things just get further and further apart, The head from the hands, and the hands from the heart.”
– Lhasa de Sela (from the album “The Living Road”, 2004).

 It recently occurred to me that I have been looking for this book all of my life, subconciously searching for it in libraries, nature centers, bookstores, and even online.  But I’ll never find it there, and my unusual combination of interests probably means that it must be purely a personal project.  In years past, I’ve made several attempts to plan it, and succeeded only in writing a few disjointed paragraphs to go with a handful of random images.  But it began to crystallize about a year ago, as I refined the Lichen Oracle and decided to let it evolve into a larger project.  A diverse collection of notes, lists, and drawings – some of them years or decades old – slowly came together, like iron filings drawn by a magnet.  I drew a huge diagram that evolved into a tangled net of tiny interconnected sketches and single words.  It sat rolled up in my studio for months as I conjured inspiration to fill in the gaps.  New sketches accumulated on the shelf above it.  One day I unrolled the chart, intending to make a second draft, more organized and detailed.  I realized that half of it was sketches for four drawings that I had since finished.  I rejected some of it as no longer useful.  Only a small piece was left.  I added it to the pile of recent sketches, put them all in an empty, newly-prepared drawer of my flatfile cabinet, and went back to work on a pencil drawing.

Slowly and quietly, all the bits and pieces began to speak to each other.  Irrelevant or duplicated ideas vanished.  Hidden connections surfaced.  A simplified structure emerged.  I began to see it, like a path through a thicket.

A book of drawings, paintings, illuminations, and writing.

The Graphis Lichen Oracle and the Oracle of Sticks, Stones, and Bones.

A record of sacred natural treasures:  trees and precious pebbles, seedpods, shells, fungi, pieces of wood.

How to look at a deer antler, or a desert fern, or a quartz crystal, or a turtle shell.

A Creekwalker’s account of the Gates into the Otherworld:
The Lichen Cloak, the Thorn House, the Wheel of Hawks.

And other pages, still unspoken here…

Of course some of it is already finished.  A lot more resides in the drawer of rough drafts, waiting.  A new red ochre drawing lays on my desk.  One night I saw a version of the book in a dream, a sure sign that the project is well on its way and ready for more energy and a tighter focus.  In the dream, the pages held only pencil drawings of sacred native trees and their wood:  oak, hackberry, saguaro, swamp tupelo, beech, and others.  Its purpose was to “banish the fear of death” in the viewer.  (I expect that would take a very special and unusual viewer, given the incomprehension, unease, fear, or hostility with which most people view this type of art).  But it was good enough for me.  The work continues, more seriously now, as the path rises into the desert oak forest.

Tree Book - Wood Drawings

Tree Book - Wood Drawings

O’bon L’Artiste pencils in a Moleskine large sketchbook.
LEFT:  weathered live oak wood (Quercus virginiana), Nags Head, NC.
RIGHT:  part of a walking stick made from Arizona black oak root (Quercus emoryi), Santa Rita Mountains, AZ.
TOP:  saguaro “boot” (scarwood), baldcypress driftwood, and rockmat (Petrophytum caespitosum), a miniature shrub.

Pencil Drawings

August 19, 2011

I’ve been returning to pencil drawing as a way to reconnect with my artistic roots and to accumulate drawings for a special project.  I always liked the detail and soft, warm gray of graphite drawings, but didn’t really get interested in this medium (other than sketching for ink or watercolor drawings) until I was in college and good fine-point mechanical pencils became widely available.  The mechanical pencils that I had in high school all seemed to have thick, hard leads that weren’t good for much besides math homework.  I tried various traditional artist’s drawing pencils in several hardnesses, but found them all scratchy, brittle, and hard to sharpen into the fine point that I wanted for detail work.

One day in about 1985 I found something new:  A “Quicker Clicker” mechanical pencil with a bright blue see-through plastic barrel.  It came with several extra erasers and a package of nice thin .05mm HB leads.  Finally I had a graphite drawing tool that suited my drawing style, and that’s all I used for pencil drawing for many years.  It worked especially well for drawing bones, like this skull of an old male opossum that I found in Kentucky:

Opossum Skull - pencil, 1999

Opossum Skull - pencil, 1999

Here’s a recent mechanical pencil drawing from a few weeks ago.  This is Pseudevernia intensa, the Western Antler Lichen, which is common on conifers (especially Pseudotsuga) above about 7000 feet in the southeastern Arizona mountains.  It is very conspicuous and often grows with several species of Usnea.  Occasionally, tufts of it blow off the trees and end up on the ground.  The specimens in the drawing were picked up on a hiking trail.  This lichen is bluish-gray with dark brown apothecia, and is black and white underneath.  It is fun to draw because it is so variable in shape, with many fascinating and beautiful details.

Pseudevernia intensa - graphit drawing

Pseudevernia intensa - graphit drawing

I decided to try some ordinary art pencils again, and discovered O’bon “Artiste” pencils.  These come in a set of ten in a wide range of hardnesses.  They are made from rolled-up recycled newspaper instead of wood, so they are round in cross-section and a bit larger in diameter than most wood pencils.  Compared to wood pencils they are more durable and easier to sharpen.  The leads are made from a graphite-polymer blend like mechanical pencils, instead of the traditional graphite-clay blend, so they are very smooth and not scratchy.  I usually prefer to buy American-made tools, but I made an exception for these.  They are made by an Asian company and are marketed rather oddly as “green” toys rather than as art supplies.  Graphite pencils are already very “green” compared to most other media, and in this case, any potential environmental benefit is cancelled out by the overdone, non-reusable packaging.  But they are nice, inexpensive art pencils, and very enjoyable to use.  Here’s a drawing that I finished yesterday using the O’bon pencils (a few very dark spots were added last, with a Faber-Castell 9B woodless graphite pencil).  It’s on a 9×12 sheet of paper so the whole drawing didn’t fit the scanner.  It is an old, dry, fragile piece of a branch that fell from a huge desert cottonwood.  The bark is gone, the surface is cracked and weathered, and carpenter ants have hollowed out galleries in the interior, but the sense of movement, organic growth, and the seasonal variations of rain, drought, and wind all remain in the wood.

Cottonwood Dancer

Cottonwood Dancer