The Wrack

The Wrack is the Wells Reserve blog, our collective logbook on the web.

Becoming an "Artist"?

Posted by | November 18, 2019 | Filed under: Observations


When I got my first job as a naturalist I had a sticker on my classic Nalgene water bottle that said “plant seeds and sing songs.” Around the words on the sticker were colorful birds, flowers, and music notes. Cheesy? Maybe. Was I a hippie? Maybe, to some. To me, embedded in this phrase was a message about the connections between the natural world, learning, and joy.

I spend much of my time teaching, or training others to teach, science outside. I strive to be a director of discovery and not just a teller of information. Art would be a great way to accomplish this but I’ve been afraid of “art” since I was a child. Art, like small songbird identification, has unfortunately never been a strong part of my naturalist repertoire. Sherrie York, an instructor from my Educator’s Week Workshop on Audubon’s Hog Island, flipped this idea on its head and opened up a new world.

Field Sketching on Hog Island

Hesitantly I signed up for Sherrie's field sketching class. First she had us draw part of our hand while looking only at it, not the paper or the pencil. This is called blind contour drawing and what a way to level the playing field this was for us all. It wasn’t about the outcome, it was about paying attention to the details, to the lines and cracks of experience.

Next it was on to gesture drawing, where you look at the entire subject at once and draw quickly. With Sherrie as the subject in a classic “Stayin’ Alive” disco pose, we recorded some quick line drawings. Her next instruction was for us to “make sausages.” Miraculously, by drawing ovals over the stick figure hands, upper and lower arms, trunk, thighs, calves, and feet, a person was born.

Then it was time for the landscape around us. We were all asked to find a sit spot and to draw the view at our feet and then at eye level. It was a chance for us to become mindful of the things we may often be moving too fast to notice.

Before turning us loose she shared one last tidbit of magic. The sun was at an angle in the sky as we all walked to the gardens. Sherrie held out a piece of white paper just below the petals of a pink Echinacea for us to observe the shadow. It was both exactly the same and completely separate from the real specimen in front of us. We found ourselves embracing the idea of negative space.

Negative Space, Positive Results

Block printing is all about negative space, which is something that feels very foreign to me. The mantra in my head while carving around my chickadee was “don’t cut the black line, don’t cut the black line, don’t cut the black line.” Typically in block printing you draw your lines and then cut everything away except for them. Again, we were being given a new way to see and note the world around us, to appreciate the details and rejoice in the image they came together to produce. Throughout the process there were a lot of murmurings about “not being an artist” and “it’s not going to turn out well” but the masterpieces and smiles that unfolded told a different story.

Samples of block print art created during the Hog Island Educator's Week.
An artist resides within each one of us.

Join me for a Block Printing Workshop on December 7th to make your own masterpiece of art and nature!

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