Sunday, August 30, 2015

Painting the Yellowstone and Seeing in Color

Last weekend, I took a short course on plein air oil painting in Yellowstone with Daniel Hidalgo of the Idaho Art Lab.  It was my first time using oils since Painting I at Denison University, fourteen years ago.


 I must have had an urge to impersonate Thomas Moran, since I bought an oils set and brushes specifically for the course. I must conclude that—with its toxic chemicals and long drying times—oil  is impractical for a man who lives out of a car and has no studio, save perhaps a corner of his small and temporary bedroom. (Watercolor, gouache, even acrylic omit the hazardous fumes and are quicker to dry.) But I appreciate the vibrancy of the colors, which is said to be a strength of the traditional paint. And the challenges can be overcome, for those artists for whom oil holds unique power.

We painted at Lamar Buffalo Ranch and Mammoth Hot Springs, and at the Devil's Hoof near Tower Falls. By the third painting, I became wildly expressionistic, holding my long wide brushes near their tail end, as I tend to do when presented with a canvas and colors to mix. I must wonder if my painting looks more like a forest fire than the spire formations of welded volcanic ash which we set out to depict. It was good not be painting alone, for a change.


On the last day, in the morning near sunrise, I sat on the back porch overlooking Lamar Valley and its buffalo herd, and saw all the highlights and shadows, crimsons and indigos in the rolling plains. I told Daniel, who stood before the overlook sipping coffee, that after only three days of painting, I saw the land differently, in its many colors, as though just noticing an autumn in Vermont. With every activity, every conversation, and every television commercial, our brains form new connections. After working in a nursery in Pennsylvania for a few months, I had a new awareness of the landscaped suburban backyards, their types and arrangements of plants. After drawing forest scenes in black and white for my latest comics story, I became more cognizant of the forests around me, the pillar-like or serpentine pine trunks, the light and shade. And with paint in hand, I see more of the world's color.


The right side of the brain is associated with pictures, feelings, compassion, and empathy, while the left is associated with words, numbers, and logic. The world's great minds—artists and scientists alike—have developed both right- and left-brained skills. If only the public schools would learn about the importance of this balance, they might stop cutting the arts with every budget shortfall. And it is wise to remember that the great places in nature are not just science labs, but art labs as well.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Old Faithful from a weary ol' Wood

It appears that July will not be a big blog month for me, since I am preoccupied to the Nth degree with other projects. First it was my evening program about the artists of Yellowstone, which I titled The Artistic Frontier, and finished, and presented on the big screen by the campfire at Canyon Village campground (to a surprisingly small crowd), then triumphantly returned a big stack of books to the library at the Yellowstone Heritage and Research Center in Gardiner, Montana. Now it's a comics story in collaboration with the legendary Stephen Bissette, featuring a fisher--that wily big weasel who leaps silently through the trees and hunts small animals up to and including porcupines. The fisher is like nature's ninja, or like a Sasquatch whose existence has been confirmed. I am drawing the five-page story based on a script by Bissette; and submitting the finished tale to the Awesome Possum collection of animal comics, edited by Angela Boyle. The editor loved Bissette's script, so I am doing all I can to ensure that my art measures up. I have penciled most of it, and the whole thing is due, inks and all, at the end of the month…. !

In the meantime, I'll share a watercolor drawing I made from life of Old Faithful. I felt the collective energy of the crowd gathered around this ancient geyser, the suspense as they waited for the blow. As they waited, I painted the surrounding landscape, and left space for the gush of hot steam. When it fired, I had to draw fast….!

I hope that all are well and a little less busy than me.


Monday, June 8, 2015

Lady Bighorns on the Edge



I thought that they were mountain goats, two adults and two babies. I wondered if they might be a family, not knowing the family structure of these ungulates. From my vantage point, on a higher cliff on the trail up Mt. Washburn (Yellowstone National Park), the animals won my heart. The babies shared their parents' boldness for walking on the edges of cliffs; however, they always made sure to keep within a leg's-length of mom. I saw a baby nurse. I zoomed in with my cameras, and clicked away. I lamented that mountain goats are not native to Yellowstone. I should not glorify or romanticize an exotic invader, no matter how majestic said animal might be, I had thought.

I put away my cameras and hiked the rest of the trail, to the fire lookout tower at the top. All of the tower except for the very top was open to the public. Inside the glass-windowed panoramic viewing room, there was a sign duct-taped to the wall. It showed a photo of a mountain goat and one of a female bighorn sheep. My subjects clearly belonged to the latter category. Female bighorn sheep can look suspiciously like mountain goats; I should have known better, having met a lady bighorn previously on a trek through the Grand Canyon.


Relieved that my animal friends had been vindicated, I ambled back downhill, and found the spot from which I had seen the wily ungulates. On the cliffs below, those bighorn sheep were still around! Evidently, these rock outcrops were lush with plants—comparatively speaking in the harsh tundra world of 10,000 feet! There were lichens of many colors, oranges and blacks, growing all over the rocks around me. And, where the sheep grazed, patches of grasses, almost fluorescent green in color, and maybe a quarter of an inch tall. Nonetheless, the bighorns munched on this sparse vegetation, a feast for them. The lambs took some nibbles from the plants, then returned, each to nurse from their respective mother. Back and forth the babies scurried, with the spastic energy of youth. It was charming to see these two mother sheep out together with their youngsters. Were the ewes sisters? Friends? Of the same herd in any case, and they liked to keep together, the fearless four. One of the moms rested, belly to the ground, evidently taking a break both from foraging and her lamb's frequent attention to the teat. Through the binoculars, I had a good view of those spooky eyes that sheep and goats have, the horizontal pupils, suggesting an alien intelligence within that elongate head. And since people are naturally acrophobic, the lifestyle of the bighorn sheep seems foreign and hard to imagine. Perhaps more amazing is how the sheep find sustenance on these barren mountains. Somehow, a tiny green stalk at a time, they find the energy to not only survive, but thrive. Lactation takes a great deal of energy—making milk for a baby requires the mother to give so much of her body and her self. And these sheep were able to do it, in the fiercest of lands. Ian Malcom (Jeff Goldblum) of Jurassic Park was right: “Life will find a way.”

Monday, June 1, 2015

Peace in the Valley



Hayden Valley is frequented by bison, elk, bears, and wolves. And it has (for me) the virtue of being close to my Canyon home base. I am often in the valley in uniform on roves, where I meet devoted older tourists with spotting scopes, who share volumes of knowledge on Wolf 755 (and adult male who roams the valley), and generally know more about the wildlife than I or most rangers ever will. On some early mornings or evenings, I come to the valley in civilian attire, with my pencils and brushes and pastels. The Yellowstone River, with its serpentine undulations, unifies Mother Nature's grand composition of landscape. I may not be able to capture it fully on paper, but it's a learning process. And, in the quietude, after the mobile homes have roared to their next stop, elk emerge from their hiding spots and trek downhill. Ravens soar to and from their nest in the trees, unconcerned with whether people are watching. And I hack away at building layers of pastel on the page. I become a shrub by the road, with that curious musky person-smell, which the beasts of the field have come to know.  

Monday, May 25, 2015

Bear in the Valley



In Hayden Valley, a young adult grizzly bear was out and about, on the far side of the river. Likely to be a female who is known to roam the valley. Many people pointed their cameras and binoculars from the field by the road, and luckily kept their distance. The bear chomped away on some carcass in the field, then trotted towards us. I was a ranger on duty, and so I told folks to step back and keep the 100 yards distance. The bear hopped into the river. She waded out to grab hold of a bison carcass (mostly a skeleton with a bit of flesh still clinging.) She spun the carcass about and reared up on top of it, sunk her jaws deep into the abdomen. She attacked the carcass from every angle, and tried to extract every last morsel of meat, all the while braving the chill water. Then she went back to the far side of the river, and ran downstream. The people followed, most in their cars, to the next pull-out. A pair of law enforcement rangers arrived there, and I left the crowd control to them. In this event, had to refrain from photography, so as not to look like a tourist. I did get some fine views of the distant bear through the binoculars. The bruin, in classic fashion, exploited the remains of animals who did not survive the winter--a brutal time for the large ungulates. Yellowstone astounds!

Monday, May 18, 2015

Be wary of animals large....

I asked my supervisor at Yellowstone Park her opinion about solo hiking. She said that she did it regularly, and called it a “calculated risk.” The next day, I was out alone, hiking stick in hand, wide-brimmed hat on head, in a lodgepole pine thicket, after a meadow. I had my canister of bear-spray clipped to my hip. I had sent my friend Lesley a last minute text message about where I was going, which I consider as passing with a “D” when it comes to notifying an outside party of one's travel plans. I had hiked solo in black bear country countless times, but Yellowstone is also home for the larger and less predictable grizzly.



As I went, I spoke “Yo whazup bears, I be passin' through.” (They normally walk away at the sound of a human voice.) It felt odd, talking to myself, and the one-sided conversation was hard to maintain. I passed a wetland where the chorus frogs sang  their continuous “Creek-eek.” There were many patches of snow among the fallen timber.

In the forest, it was scarier. I glanced about, wondering what lurked in the shadows under the trunks. My senses heightened halfway to the level of a deer, the ever-vigilant prey. My imagination turned a small branch breaking in the wind into the footfall of a massive animal; a crunch of rocks under boot became a bruin's grunt; a boulder into a hairy beast. Then I came to an indisputable sign of the grizzly bear—tracks in the mud, with long claws prominent.



I splashed through some muddy trail to Cascade Lake, my destination. I turned around and headed back.

I strode faster on the way back, my confidence increased. Still I periodically checked for my canister of spray, and made my voice quietly heard to the trail ahead.

The next morning, in the shower, I felt a little bump somewhere on my buttocks. After out-ruling potential scabs or zits, I knew what I had to do. I grasped the tick with my fingernails at the front of the head, and ripped it out forcefully, some skin along with it. With abdomen full of blood, the critter slipped out of my hand and down the drain of the sink. With its little legs waving, I failed to identify the type of tick, but regarded it as certainly larger than a deer tick. Now, a week later and with no symptoms, I am in the clear.



However, the irony was not lost on me. While I was distracted by the thought of large and fearful mammals, a silent but deadly beast, the miniature septic tank, easily crawled up my pants leg. A tick check the same day as my woods walk would have saved me some blood and concern.

Precautions for bears and sharks are important. However, the deadliest animal in the world is the mosquito, for its spread of disease. Ticks rank second as disease spreaders. Bees are another force to be reckoned with, as 53 people per year in the US die from allergic reaction to their stings. We can share the wilds with all these creatures, with the right precautions. Enjoy the woods, my friends, but be wary of animals large and small!

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Ravens in the Steam


 
Another vignette from my visit to Yellowstone last year:

“The ravens were everywhere. They watched from trees, soared above on ebony outstretched wings, owners of the domain of yellow rocks. Along the “back basin” of Norris Geyser basin, a group of three ravens cackled and cawed and croaked, in a three way dialog of some kind. Perhaps gossip about the goofy bipeds who pass in the thousands by day, and point their gaping cameras at the steam.”

This year, I have moved in to Yellowstone for the next five months. My inaugural field sketch, below, I made at Norris Geyser Basin. New stories await!