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

Advertisements

I received my Spoonflower fabric order yesterday, which was mostly black and white cat drawings for a wall hanging.  But I also had two designs printed in color.  All the designs were printed on Kona quilter’s cotton.  The swatches are 8×8 inches.

The first swatch is a collage made from four digital photos of copper ore boulders from the mines at Helvetia, Arizona.  Minerals shown in the photos include malachite, chrysocolla, turquoise, iron oxides, etc.  I was quite happy with this and may try a few other colorful rock textures for jewelry bags, spreadcloths, etc.  This one will probably end up on an embroidered cloth for protecting and displaying copper jewelry.

Copper Ore Photos on Cotton Fabric
Copper Ore Photos on Cotton Fabric

The second swatch is a design based on the flowers and pods of Lacepod (Thysanocarpus curvipes), one of our early spring desert wildflowers.  The white flowers are nearly invisible, and the tiny seedpods are only a quarter inch long.  The pods on the fabric design are one inch wide.  The photo shows the fabric on the left and the actual plant (with nearly-ripe pods) on the right.  This swatch will probably end up on an embroidered jewelry bag.

Lacepod with Fabric

Lacepod with Fabric

Spoonflower’s printing process allows for crisp, accurate reproduction of extremely detailed designs.  Unfortunately, it isn’t durable enough to stand up to repeated washing, which makes it unsuitable for everyday clothing, at least for me.  It’s fine for costumes, vests, decorator quilts, and other items that won’t (often) be washed.

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.

Crested Saguaro Pilgrimage

December 26, 2011

Dan found this wonderful crested saguaro cactus a few days ago, so we visited it today for more photos.  Crested cacti are rare but some areas tend to have more than others.  We have found crested cacti of several species, including saguaros, Arizona barrels, chainfruit chollas, and several of the small cacti.  There are a few well-known crested saguaros along public hiking trails, roadsides, and in botanical gardens or private yards, but of course there are many more that grow in remote parts of the desert and are rarely seen or photographed.  This is one of them, accessible only by 4WD and a hike (or a really long hike from the main road).

A Crested Saguaro

A Crested Saguaro

It has small arms growing from the crested portion of the main trunk.  This is unusual but not unheard of.  The three large arms are also partly crested at the tips (most obvious on the arm on the left).  The tiny knob poking up where the left arm joins the trunk is a tiny prickly pear plant.  This is not a parasite.  The seeds often sprout in water-gathering hollows on old saguaros, but they never grow very big since there is no soil for their developing roots.

Crested Saguaro Top

Crested Saguaro Top

Here’s a closer view of the crest in the late afternoon winter light.  The center of the crest looks brown and dead; this may be damage from last winter’s big freeze.  As is typical for old saguaros, this one is full of holes made by gila woodpeckers.  Other species of opportunistic birds and insects make use of these holes; in the area where this plant is growing, the most common tenants (though only in summer) are colonies of purple martins.  At the far left in the photo you can see that one hole has attracted other inhabitants:  it’s a beehive, and the transparent yellowish thing that fills the hole is a honeycomb:

Honeycomb in a Saguaro

Honeycomb in a Saguaro

We didn’t see any bees, but it might have been too cold for them to fly much.  The comb looks like it was made this year and doesn’t show any signs of weathering or decay, so I assume it’s an active hive.  Anyway, it was an extra treat to see this on such a special plant.

Winter Solstice

December 21, 2011

The Winter Solstice is the quietest time of year in the desert.  A deep hush rests on the cool earth, and the pale gold sun warms the air for only a short time at noon.  In lucky years such as this one, this also the time of winter rain.  Of snow on the highest mountains, of water flowing in desert washes and ice rimming secret stone pockets in wooded canyons.  Not everything is dormant at this time, and the rain makes many plants more wakeful.  Young agaves grow larger and tougher, though they will not show new leaves for several months.  Yuccas, desert hackberries, and the evergreen oaks are strengthening their deepest roots.  Cacti swell and store water for April’s flush of new spines.  As befits the time of year, the most mysterious, magical, and spectacular event is completely hidden.  Wrapped in earth’s protective darkness, the seeds of annual wildflowers are  soaking up the water, the tough seedcoats disintegrating and new embryos swelling….and waiting for the new sun.

We stay quiet, too.  We have our own small maze-and-candle rituals, but we are mostly hermits at this time.  Anything else is inappropriate and inauspicious.  When the sun returns and the earth begins to stir a little more, it will be different.  But now we rest, and grateful cats gather around us.

For this week’s Third Quarter Moon, I made this drawing.  It is one of eight pictures in a Stick Oracle that I started a few years ago.  I finished it and decided that two of the pictures didn’t work and needed to be replaced, so I put it aside for awhile.  This drawing of my new oak walking stick is one of the replacements.   Finishing it, and looking at the entire set again, has provided enough inspiration for the other replacement image that I’ve started work on that, too.

Here, two sticks – a saguaro rib topped with a bundle of thorns, and an oak root topped with tangled woody grapevine tendrils – stand in a rocky canyon and mark the place where two tiny streams converge as they sink into the sand.

Stick Oracle - Third Quarter Moon

Stick Oracle - Third Quarter Moon

This antler drawing that I finished several months ago is also appropriate for the Third Quarter Moon before the Winter Solstice.  The left side shows the Carbon Antler Fungus, Xylaria hypoxylon, growing on knotty wood.  The right side shows stylized whitetail deer antlers and the top of the deer’s skull, including sutures.  Uniting the two images are the intricately interlocked branches of Pseudevernia consocians, an antler-like lichen that grows on tree branches.  The circle at the top shows the fungus and antler in reverse colors, drawn extremely stylized to resemble hands.  The rim on the left shows the fungus mycelium (network of threads that fills the rotting wood on which it grows) and the rim on the right shows the porous bony pattern of an antler in cross-section.  (Both drawings are on 6″ scratchboard.)

Antler Fungus

Antler Fungus

Walking Sticks

December 12, 2011

I’ve been carrying a Trekpod (camera tripod/hiking stick)  for about a year now when hiking off-trail or on rough trails and washes.  I recently decided that my everyday walks – partly on pavement and partly on dirt roads – would sometimes be easier if I had a stick.  In my neighborhood, many people carry one anyway, mostly for protection against unfriendly dogs.  A neighbor gave me a dried agave stalk that had tangled in a tree as it grew, so it had some interesting curves.  Like their cousins Sotol (Dasylirion wheeleri) and Yucca, agave stalks are light in weight, strong, and (usually) very long and straight.  They have sharp leaf scales and thin, papery bark that must be filed off, but the soft, long-fibered “wood” underneath can be sanded very smooth and takes a soft polish.  My stick is topped with a small deer antler that I picked up in the Empire Mountains and a hammered copper ferrule made from a piece of tubing.  The antler and stick were also drilled and fitted with a piece of steel rod to hold them together, so the handle is stronger than it looks.  I added an iron bell and antique African glass beads to decorate the forged iron loop on the antler.  Most of these things are “recycled” from other projects.  Below the ferrule was a hole that I drilled to hold a bell (this is the stick that I carried in the All Souls Procession, but it didn’t have a handle at that time).  I lined the hole with a piece of copper tubing to protect the wood, and now it can be used to hold all kinds of temporary decorations.

Agave Walking Stick

Agave Walking Stick

Here’s the agave stick with two other sticks that are a bit big for daily walks and are better suited for ritual use.

Oak, Agave, and Saguaro Sticks

Oak, Agave, and Saguaro Sticks

The straight one on the right is a saguaro rib that I’ve had since 1994.  It was a gift from a fellow Tucson artist.  The plant must have been a 200-year-old giant because this “cactus bone” is one of the biggest I’ve ever seen.  It was cut from the lowest part of the trunk, just above the roots (it’s upside-down in the photo).  Although heavier and more substantial than an agave stalk, it’s still quite light in weight and easy to carry even though it’s more than six feet long.  It has a substantial presence and I have never  been sure of how to use it or had the nerve to add anything to it.  That’s about to change, since I finally found a worthy stick to balance it:

The curved stick on the left is a root of Arizona black oak (Quercus emoryi) that I recently picked up on a hike in a rocky canyon in the Santa Rita Mountains.  The root had grown along the edge of the wash and had been repeatedly exposed by scouring floods and re-buried under gravel until all the bark was polished off.  The tree itself (about 50 years old) was still alive when it fell during a summer storm and shattered among boulders in the wash.  The root was torn out of the bank and lay bare and clean on the rocks.  It’s very heavy and twisted, with alternating cupped, flattened, and ridged sections that have weathered to show the coarse “braided” fibrous texture that seems to be unique to this species of desert oak.  This stick definitely calls for some kind of ornament at the top to hide the raw cut where I sawed off the broken end.

Now I have the two sides of a Gate to walk through, or simply two signposts that help define the way:  Earth and Water opposite Air and Fire; twisted oak root from a shaded mountain canyon opposite a straight cactus rib from a sunny desert ridge.

Halloween 2011

November 2, 2011

We spent Halloween in the backyard, lighting candles in memory of our two cats that died this year (and entertaining the ones who are still with us, since they were watching through the screen porch).

A couple of weeks ago we salvaged 11 sets of iron security bars from the windows of an old house in Tucson.  Since they were still on the house and we had to remove them ourselves, they were very cheap.  We bolted them on both sides of the wall around the backyard to use as trellises for various types of potted vines.  We had already done this with some of the bars from our own windows and liked the look.  So now the garden walls are pretty much covered in various styles of decorative bars.  Most of the new ones are painted white, and the ones from our windows are black.

The citrus/hummingbird garden is becoming a “cat garden” as well.  It’s walled on three sides and parallels the cat porch, with a concrete patio separating the garden from the porch.  The cats can watch the hummingbirds, butterflies, and lizards, and we can look at the colorful plants.  For Halloween, we set tealight candles on the bars to illuminate the whole garden.   The candle on the bottom right in the photo below is sitting at the center of a small labyrinth that I drew on the concrete with chalk.

Halloween Garden, west wall

Halloween Garden, west wall

Photo below shows one of the new sets of bars, temporarily hung with cat masks.  Two candles sit on decorative boulders for Midnight Louie and Lin who are buried there.  My medicinal yerba mansa patch is in the corner, below a large steel plant pot that I converted to a bell and suspended from the wall.  Obviously it’s all much more colorful in daylight, although the flowers are mostly gone and the garden has a wintry look.

Halloween Garden, east and south wall

Halloween Garden, east and south wall

 

Iron Bars with Candle

Iron Bars with Candle

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

Stampbord Drawings

July 29, 2011

I recently bought a package of Ampersand Stampbord tiles.  It contains about 50 assorted tiles in four sizes:  1 x 1 inch, 2 x 2 inches, 1 x 2 inches, and 1.25 x 2.5 inches.  (Stampbord is also available in a business card size, which I may try next time).  As the name suggests, stampbord is sold primarily as a surface for decorative rubber stamp projects, including mixed media collage.  The smaller sizes can even be drilled and made into jewelry.  Although not marketed as a drawing surface, stampbord is nearly identical to Ampersand’s Claybord Smooth, a multimedia artboard that I use for most of my ink drawings.  The only difference is that the stampbord surface is less consistent than claybord.  The stampbord has slight variations from piece to piece in the thickness and hardness of the white clay layer, and many pieces have tiny chips, dings, or discolorations.  None of this would matter for crafts like rubber stamping, or even for pencil drawing or painting.  It is probably only an issue for scratchboard, and even then it’s minor and easy to work around.

These tiles are perfect for tiny drawings and for experimenting with new techniques, media or subjects.  Obviously they are well adapted to any project that calls for multiple drawings.  (Creating a Tarot deck causes a permanent rewiring of the brain, causing some artists to become permanently addicted to working in a series – it’s hard for them to make just one of anything.)

Here are Midnight Louie (left) and Lin (right) as ancient Chinese tomb guardians.  The cats were drawn from photos, and you can see how different they were – ML had a big head, heavy body, and unusually short legs, while Lin was small, wiry, and muscular.  The Chinese tomb guardians, sometimes called “earth spirits”, were clay figures that were supposed to protect the soul of the deceased.  They come in pairs, and often have elaborate wings, horns, hooves, etc.  One is usually stout and seated, with a man’s face with large pointed ears and a single twisted horn, and the other is thinner and more active looking with a feline or canine face with a pair of horns.  A few months ago, I took a photo of Lin with half-closed eyes that reminded me of one of these figures, so it seemed like a natural memorial for him.  These are 2.5 x 1.25 inch tiles.

Tomb Guardians

Tomb Guardians

Here are the smaller 1 x 2 inch boards with feathers from a male Arizona quail (also called Montezuma quail), drawn life size.

Arizona Quail Feathers

Arizona Quail Feathers

Here’s the larger rectangle again, with three similar species of Usnea lichen.  All three are shrubby grayish-green species that grow on twigs and have abundant cuplike apothecia (spore-bearing structures).  These are drawn about twice life size.

LEFT:  Usnea strigosa, Outer Banks, North Carolina.  Apothecia are pinkish on top and have scattered fibrils on the underside.

CENTER:  Usnea intermedia (U. arizonica), southern Arizona.  Apothecia are green on top and have rare elongate fibrils on the underside.

RIGHT:  Usnea cirrosa, southern Arizona.  Apothecia are green on top and have abundant bristly fibrils on the underside.

Usnea Lichen Apothecia

Usnea Lichen Apothecia

I’m still working with the 1 and 2 inch sqares tiles, and plan to try some mixed drawing/painting/metal projects with those.