Saturday, May 6, 2017

Blue Marsh Violet

Blue Marsh Violet (Viola cucullata) watercolor with color pencil, 8" x 13."

This is one of two pieces I have at the current show of Spring 2017 Art at the Mill. 

I found this lush specimen growing amidst the rocks at Whiteoak Falls in Shenandoah National Park on a hike a friend and I took over ten years ago. Sometimes it takes a while for me to get around to doing a painting, though usually not this long!

This is my fourth year participating in Art at the Mill at the historic Burwell-Morgan mill in Millwood, and every year the shows, in the spring and fall, seem to get better. The space is beautiful, and the Clarke County Historic Society volunteers who hang it are very adept at fitting in all the varied styles of art and media to suit it, with lovely touches like fresh flowers and natural seasonal decorations. If you happen to be in this area of Virginia, please stop by and check it out--the show is open on weekends from April 29 through May 14, Fridays and Sundays from 12 to 5 and Saturdays from 10 to 6.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Last Days at Sperry

Shadow of Gunsight Mountain at sunrise.


I had an unusual dream on my next-to last night at Sperry Chalet. In the dream, as I was hiking over my favorite section of the Sperry Glacier trail between the two waterfalls, I encountered an old man dressed like an Indian chief. He asked me what I was searching for... and I responded that I was looking for beautiful flowers to paint. He climbed up without effort to a rock ledge jutting above the trail and brought me a Columbine plant with flowers of three different colors: most were pale yellow, like the Columbines I'd seen all over the park, two or three were pink, and there was one single white flower. I was delighted, thanked him, and told him I would paint this most unusual plant. He vanished while I wasn't looking.

I woke up feeling the dream had been a communication from beyond... perhaps just my subconscious, but very telling, none the less. I had taken the old man's question literally in the dream, but the question was really a metaphysical one--what was my spiritual quest in this remote place? And the symbolic answer, the three colors of the flowers: yellow for remembrance, pink for platonic love, white for purity... charged with meaning!

The sun was just rising above the ridge of Gunsight Mountain and I could see clearly the shadow of its twin peaks cast on the valley way down below. I'd been told this shadow was the reason for the mountain's name, which one could easily discern.

I went down to breakfast early, determined to paint some Columbines on my last day here. I told Kali about my dream, and she was intrigued. She told me of the Blackfoot Indian legend about Akaiyan, which I had not known about, and that the second waterfall on this trail bears his name--which I had not known before. We both marveled at the coincidence, though I don't really believe it's coincidence as much as divine providence. I suspect these instances may be more a case of our subconscious contacting something beyond our normal senses that is actually present. I sometimes experience these revelations in dreams.

Trail crew member at work.
Trail crew at work.

On my way up the trail I saw two young men who were working repairing the trail near the first waterfall. They were members of one of the park's many trail crews. I had remarked how well-maintained the trails were and they told me trail maintenance is done all throughout the short season. The crews move from camp to camp as they work on different trails. Working in pairs, the work is grueling--they dig runoff trenches, move and stabilize rocks, cut down fallen trees blocking the trails, whatever the vagaries of nature call for, all with only basic hand tools--mallets and chisels, shovels and a crosscut saw.

A bit farther up the trail I saw some nice Columbines, and set my gear down to sketch them, giving as much space as possible for others to pass by. It was still nice and cool in the mid-morning, and a number of guests walked around me to continue up the trail to Sperry Glacier. I worked diligently as the sun rose overhead, and the day warmed. Whew--I shouldn't have worn a black T-shirt, the color absorbs too much of the sun's thermal spectrum.

Painting Columbines

A couple stopped and offered to take the photo above, which I accepted gladly. After finishing the Columbine I started to add other plants to the background. I ate my lunch, and by two o'clock, it was so hot I was ready to call it a day. I have yet to finish the sketch I started there, even though I've worked some on it since getting home.


Columbine (Aquilegia flavescens) with Maidenhair fern (Adiantum pedatum), color pencil, 10" x 8"

The composition needs to be resolved--the pale yellow flowers of the Columbine need a darker background to stand out, to give the impression that they are growing on a rock ledge, like the ones in my photo below. But this is a decent field sketch to use as the basis for another painting.

Columbines and blue harebells on a rocky ledge.

I spent the rest of the afternoon hanging around Sperry Chalet, taking photos of the staff and storing up memories of my wonderful two weeks here. I have a sense that these are the memories that will sustain me through those rocky patches every life must traverse, particularly as we age.

Kali, Karen, Ranger John (AKA "The Plumber") and Josh relax in the kitchen of Sperry Chalet.

Kali washing dishes.

Katie and Renee by the vintage cash register.
The vintage cash register has been in operation since Sperry Chalet opened as a park concession in 1954.

Renee and staff under the Sperry Nation banner, made by a young guest who loved the place.

Hikers stow their gear against the exterior wall of the dining room.
The dining room at Sperry Chalet.


Sunday, March 12, 2017

Yellow Fringed Orchid and Pollinator

Blinded by Pollinia - Yellow Fringed Orchid (Platanthera ciliaris) and Pipevine Swallowtail (Battus philenor), watercolor, 17.5" x 13.5".


Today I'm interrupting my Sperry Chalet artist-in-residence postings to show you one of my latest art works. This painting was created as my entry to an exhibition that the Botanic Artist Society of the National Capital Region (BASNCR), of which I'm a member and officer, is putting on, "Natural Attraction: Virginia Plants and Their Pollinators." The show will be at the Athenaeum in Alexandria, VA from April 6 through May 14, 2017.

I'm really pleased that my painting was selected for the show (it is a juried show). I couldn't have done this painting without the inspiration of Jim Fowler's fabulous photos in his blog, capturing this unique instant as the Pipevine Swallowtail (Battus philenor) is visiting the orchid flowers.

I had hoped to see the pollinator of the purple fringed orchids when I was studying the small population found on Skyline Drive (Shenandoah National Park) a few years ago, but I didn't see any during the times when I was doing my field sketches. So hats off to Jim, for his extraordinary combination of luck and patience in capturing this elusive occurrence.

The butterfly is attracted by the nectar found in the long thin spur behind each flower. As the insect puts its head near the opening of the spur to insert its proboscis, it comes in contact with the pollen sacs (pollinia) near the openings. The pollinia then attach to the insect's eyes by means of a sticky thread called the viscidium.

As the butterfly visits the flowers, a number of pollinia are collected and later deposited on other flowers where they can fertilize the style, which is also near the opening of the spur. The butterfly can become disoriented when it has a lot of pollinia stuck to its eyes, therefore my title, a takeoff on the song "Blinded by the Light."

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Sketching Featherwoman Lake

Featherwoman Lake, watercolor pencil, 8" x 10."

My time at Sperry Chalet was drawing to a close, and I wanted to hike up towards Comeau Pass one more time, to sketch one of the lovely alpine lakes in that vicinity. I picked up my bag lunch after breakfast and got my gear ready for the hike. The morning was fine and cool, and I took time to observe and photograph the progression of wildflowers along the trail.

Glacier Lily seed pod.

The Glacier lilies near the chalet path were gone, only their seed pods remained. The yellow Groundsels and purple asters were starting to show more flowers as the Pentstemons and Spireas began to fade. I photographed other interesting plants such as Elk thistle, Yellow buckwheat and Cow Parsnip that I had observed earlier but hadn't had a chance to record.

Arrow -leaved Groundsel (Senecio triangularis)

Elk Thistle (Cirsium foliosum)
Cow parsnip (Heracleum sphondylium)

As I climbed upward into the alpine zone, the progression of bloom continued to change. Patches of Pink Mountain Heather that had been blooming the week before were now setting seed, and new plants emerging from the melting snow patches were blooming. Yellow Monkey flowers, which I had not seen before, bloomed under rock overhangs with pink shooting stars.

Going up the trail to Comeau Pass.

Pink Mountain Heather setting seed (Phyllodoce empetriformis)
Tiling's Monkey Flower (Erythranthe tilingii) and Dark-throated Shooting Stars (Primula pauciflora) bloom under a ledge.
Red-stemmed Saxifrage (Mycranthes lyallii)

Lyall's Rockcress (Boechera lyallii)

The steep switchbacks seemed a little easier to negotiate this second time, and with the patches of snow along the trail gone, I managed to reach the first lake before noon. The rocks crossing the lake's drainage had been nearly covered in snow the week before, but now they were exposed and the water flowed freely.

The trail crosses the first lake.

I walked onto some rock slabs around the lake towards the upper meadow, looking for a good vantage point to frame a painting. Clumps of wildflowers dotted the meadows--pink and yellow Mountain Heather and other alpine plants. There was still some snow on the surface of the lakes.

Wildflowers dot the meadow around the lake.

I set up my camping stool on a ledge and unpacked my lunch. The minute I started to dig into my sandwich a hoary marmot came out from behind a rock and tried to make off with one of my hiking poles a few feet away. I shooed him off and went back to my sandwich. A minute later, the marmot was back, now from behind a different rock, trying the same maneuver again. I stood up, scolded him and sent him off again. A few moments later, he was back--this time approaching from a different direction. I had to give him points for determination, or was it desperation? These creatures really craved salt...

Me waving. (photo by Linda Hsu)
Trying to scare the marmot away. (photo by Linda Hsu

The wily beastie.

 Unknown to me, one of the guests at the lodge, a young lady named Linda Hsu, had witnessed the marmot's antics and my attempts to stave him off, and photographed the exchange from a distance. The pictures which she sent me after I got home are too distant to be very clear, but give some sense of what was going on.  After a number of frustrations the marmot finally left for more promising pastures, and I was able to finish my lunch undisturbed. Afterwards I took in the view, and decided that a bit higher might give me a better painting, so I gathered my pack and stool to hike a bit farther up to the next lake.

Featherwoman Lake



This lake, which I later learned was called Featherwoman Lake, held all the grandeur of these heights: a veil of waterfall dropping into the melting snow, and Gunsight peak in the background. I walked out on the rock ledges for a closer view--perfect! I spent the rest of the afternoon there working on my watercolor pencil sketch, then hiked back to Sperry Chalet.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

The View from Sperry Chalet

Painting the View From Sperry Chalet (photo by Marnie Fender)

The following day I opted to stay close to Sperry Chalet. In the morning I worked on my large watercolor painting of the view from Sperry Chalet. This photo was taken by Marnie Fender, a charming lady and fellow painter who was staying overnight with the Glacier Guides group. Thank you, Marnie! I love this photo, it's my favorite of all the ones taken at Sperry. For me, this photo tells the story of the unexpected fulfillment of a childhood fantasy I constructed when I was about eight or nine: my alter ego Maria Elena lived in the Swiss Alps and tended a herd of goats when she wasn't in school...

At that age I set out to make one drawing for every day of the year representing the daily life of my alter ego--producing 365 color pencil drawings was my goal. For the next few years I worked on this self-imposed project in my free time. I credit this with the development of my artistic abilities. By the time I left Cuba at age thirteen, I had piled up nearly one hundred and twenty drawings which show the natural development of a child learning to draw the world around her, learning the use of perspective, proportions and color to give an impression of the three-dimensional world. I also learned a great deal about Switzerland, geography, culture, and how to research subjects using our family encyclopedia.

My mother valued this record of my artistic development so much that she gave up some of the limited space in her suitcase to pack my drawings to bring when she left Cuba. I still have them today.

For most of us, our childhood fantasies hardly ever become reality--nor are most fantasies ever intended to become real. I had never thought that my childhood fantasy could ever come true, so for me to finally be able to actualize a semblance of it some sixty years later is still hard to believe, and an unexpected joy! Thank you, Kevin, for the marvelous opportunity to make my dream come true.

The View from Sperry Chalet, watercolor, 15" x 22".

I hadn't finished this painting at the end of my stay--a few of the trees in the foreground weren't quite done--but it was far along enough that I could finish it later, after I got home. I think the painting gives a good impression of the dizzying heights and crags, the expanse of forest, lake and mountains, of all the beauty that can be seen from Sperry Chalet on a clear summer morning.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Sketching the Alpine Meadow




Pink Mountain Heather (Phyllodoce empetriformis)


The weather was splendid the next day--that morning I decided to hike over Lincoln Pass to sketch the patches of Bog Laurel I'd seen on my first visit to Ellen Wilson Lake. I started out hiking directly from the back of Sperry Chalet. The patches of Pink Mountain Heather under the subalpine firs were in full bloom, and I stopped to photograph them.

On the way up to Lincoln Pass I ran into a couple from the east with whom I'd chatted the previous evening at dinner. They were about my age, but I soon passed them while they were taking breaks from the uphill traverse. I was rather amazed when I realized this--in only one week of hiking up and down these trails I was noticeably stronger and in better condition than I had been when I arrived. If I could only have stayed at Sperry for the rest of the season, I would have been able to tackle the long Gunsight Pass Trail easily.

I went over the pass and continued down, trying to remember exactly where the boggy meadow with the lush stand of Bog Laurel was. It would be on my left as I approached.

Bog Laurel (Kalmia polifolia)

It was a bit farther down the trail than I had remembered, but the meadow was easy to find. The ground was considerably drier now than the week before and the pools of standing water from the snow melt almost all absorbed. I walked around to find a nice spot to set up my camping stool, looking for some shade. There was very little shade and I positioned myself with my back to the sun so as to shade my sketchbook.

Close-up of Bog Laurel flowers

At one point I looked up from my sketch towards the rocky mass of Gunsight Pass Mountain in the background, and thought my eyes were playing tricks on me--I could see a spot of what looked like blue sky through the rocks! Nah, it was probably a trick of the light, a reflection. I kept looking, and saw the blue change to white as a cloud sailed past, then back to blue. Well then, this had to be the famous "hole in the wall" that had been described by Beth Dunnegan in her Sperry Chalet book. Kevin had told me that the hole in the wall was only visible from Sperry Chalet on one day in August (he couldn't remember the exact date) when the morning sun shone through the small opening. But here I was looking at it from the other side of the mountain--what are the chances?

After an hour or so, with the sun directly overhead it got so hot I couldn't stand it, and I moved my setup over to the edge of the meadow, into the scant shadows cast by a couple of subalpine firs near some rocks. Here I ate my lunch amid the bees and insects buzzing around the flowers. Ranger Dan came up on the trail, and I greeted him asking where he was heading. He told me that a dead baby goat had been reported at the Ellen Wilson Lake campground, and he was going to dispose of the carcass before it attracted a hungry bear. I had noted before that the park rangers are assiduous in their task to keep bears away from places where humans are, and vice-versa. I wished him good luck and he went on his way.

Bog Laurel (Kalmia polifolia) and Yellow Mountain Heather (Phyllodoce glanduliflora)

After lunch I added some Yellow Mountain Heather to my sketch, and a rock with some other plants I was not able to identify (they are probably some form of aster or groundsel), but I'm afraid my attempt to describe the environs--that mass of flowers in the rocky subalpine meadow--was not very successful--just passable, I'd say.

Yellow Mountain Heather (Phyllodoce glanduliflora)


Ranger Dan went by the trail again on his way back, and I asked him about his mission. He replied that he had not been able to find the goat carcass--either something had got to it before him, or perhaps another one of the campers had buried or moved it away from the campground. In any case, he had enjoyed the hike in this beautiful weather.

I packed my gear shortly after, and thought of going further down towards Ellen Wilson Lake, but the  the sun and the heat had tired me out, and I decided to head back towards Sperry. It was still fairly early in the afternoon when I reached Lincoln Pass, so I lingered there to do another sketch.


Mt. Edwards from Lincoln Pass, watercolor pencils, 8" x 6"


For this view of Mt. Edwards I used only watercolor pencils. Later, when I got back to Sperry Chalet I went over the lines with water to blend some of the tones. I was surprised at how well it turned out--better than my earlier sketch. The mountain's geologic formations can really be appreciated from this vantage point.


Photo of Mt. Edwards from Lincoln Pass

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Blue Larkspur

Glacier Plants II, color pencil 10" x 8"

After a day of rest my knees returned to almost normal. In the morning I showered early and did some laundry by hand before breakfast. After breakfast I worked on my watercolor of the view from Sperry Chalet for a couple of hours as the day gradually warmed.

After that I got my pack lunch and headed out towards the ledges at Akaiyan Falls to sketch the beautiful blue larkspur flowers I'd noticed on the way back from my hike to Sperry Glacier. Kali, a young lady on the staff who was the dishwasher and liked to sketch, had the afternoon off, and decided she would meet up with me later on location.

Profusion of Pink Spirea and wildflowers on the ledges

St. John's Wort (Hypericum formosum var. scouleri)

The wildflowers along the trail were amazing--each day seemed to bring on a new progression of bloom as previous flowers faded and set seed. Places where the sun warmed certain ledges earlier brought out a flush of bloom in some places while others ledges in shadow wouldn't bloom until later--making the flowering period dependent on the exposure.

The growing season being so short here, after a week many of the wildflowers in the cirque were now approaching late spring to summer, whereas the week before it had been early to mid spring.

Billygoat on the trail

When I got to the waterfall, a billy goat was lying right on the trail, but he graciously moved farther up a ledge, leaving his spot to me. I set up my camping stool and started to work right away. After I'd finished sketching the larkspur, I took my lunch break. Later Karen, the baker from the Chalet, passed me on her way up towards Comeau Pass and stopped to take this photo--notice the two goats on the ledges behind me.

Sketching the larkspur with goats behind.

 Impossible to paint the iridescence of the intense blue and purple of the low larkspur flowers with color pencil! I'd need something like the interference colors made by Daniel Smith, or a mineral watercolor pigment. Once I completed the larkspur, I looked for a few other flowers to add to my sketch, to give a sense of how these plants grew and bloomed together. I figured the yellow of the St. John's Wort flowers with a tinge of deep red on the buds and at the petal tips, and a sprig of scarlet red Indian Paintbrush would complement the larkspur's blue for a set of primary colors. Some gray-green leaves of yarrow and a couple of rocks would tie it all together.


Low Larkspur (Delphinium bicolor)
Indian Paintbrush (Castilleja rhexiflora)

Kali joined me and we chatted while we both worked. An interesting young lady, she has a degree in architecture, but had become disillusioned with it as a profession, and wanted to write instead. Her grandfather was from Czechoslovakia and had taken refuge in Bolivia toward the end of WWII to avoid an assassination plot. Her father had been born in Bolivia and immigrated to the US as a young man. She did very amusing pen and ink drawings--I hope she will continue to draw as she finds her way towards an artistic life.

Later on I had a chance to admire her caricatures of people when she drew a wonderful get-well card for Karen's husband who had fallen while hiking a few days earlier. Dan twisted his knee and had torn the ligaments; he had to be sent down the mountain trail on mule back. They operated on his knee as soon as it could be scheduled, but he would be unable to resume his duties on the staff for a couple of weeks at least. Kevin had to send a substitute to replace Dan, and Jason came up to take up his position on the staff.

It got very warm as the sun moved to the west, even positively hot, but by this time I was almost finished with my sketch. Kali decided she wanted to hike a bit farther up the trail, and I walked back to Sperry Chalet. Another hoary marmot appeared on the trail as I was walking back.

Hoary marmot on the trail.
Maidenhair ferns and club mosses grow among the ledges.

BTW, high quality digital reproductions of this painting  of Glacier Plants II and Glacier Plants (with the Pentestemons) will be available for purchase soon, coming in early 2017.