Today dawned grey and bleak with light snowfall predicted. My usual walk seemed as monotonous as the unrelenting white and black landscape so I suggested to Steve that we go to Mud Pond, a place we have found beauty in spring and winter in the past.
The first time I went there we were kayaking in early spring. The water was high and the air was filled with birdsong. Geese honked in protection of nests at both ends of the pond. Redwings were nesting in the cattails and calling from their perches on waving rushes. We even saw a live snake in a shrub in one of the many drier areas of the pond where shrubs and grasses are thick. We returned a few years later in mid winter to explore places unreachable by kayak or foot but made accessible by the ice. We found many bird nests in rotten tree stumps, a redwing blackbird nest of woven cattails and piles of shiny fish scales among the bogs indicating other life forms - maybe Fisher cats?
Today the ice was the color of skim milk and networked with thick cracks. We 'shoe skated' across the open ice to the far shore where we had explored the last time. Soon we were lost in examination of curled grasses, various seed pods, lichen, purplish leaves and rose hips.
This shrubby area had thick snow that sometimes supported our weight and sometimes did not. It was crisscrossed with tracks of deer and bear. Undoubtedly smaller animals had been here too but the snow was too hard or deep to show their tracks. Today there was not a bird or animal to be seen. The only sound was a chainsaw in the distance.
Wandering toward shore we encountered an area of shallow open water with a sandy bottom that suggested spring. Eventually we found ourselves in a wetland of bogs, cattails and softer snow so decided to head back toward the middle of the pond.
Then we came upon a small stream that would have to be crossed. Ever valiant, Steve insisted on crossing first although neither of us was concerned. As he appeared to be safely across the snow under one leg suddenly broke away and the leg sank deep into ..........water. Very muddy icewater! Then his other leg slowly sank under and Steve was on his back on soft snow trying to lift his sodden boots and legs from the water and get purchase on dry land. I watched horrified but he seemed calm as he regained footing. Our search for beauty was over and we were hurrying across open ice to the truck which seemed the size of an acorn on the far shore. With some dry clothes from the back of the truck and the heater blasting we were soon on our way home.
Steve is fine and we enjoyed most of our adventure but I will be happier when finding beauty in nature is a simple as going outside and walking around the yard.
As I mentioned in my first post, from time to time I would like to profile some of the talented artists who come to The Naturalist’s Studio on Friday mornings. This first profile is a memorial to a sensitive and talented artist who added much to our classes with his knowledge, experience and interest in everything going on around him. His name was Ted Dove and, although he died almost two years ago, his name comes up often on Friday mornings in our conversations and his absence is mitigated by fond memories
Ted began painting seriously while studying with Edward DeVoe, a classical oil painter, at Washington Art Association in Washington, CT. He began with classes en plein air then continued studying with DeVoe in the studio. Ted also studied watercolor and portrait painting. He had creditable success in all these mediums due to his keen eye for color and composition. However, according to his wife Diane, “When Ted discovered egg tempera he found his medium of choice". This was a class I taught and the beginning of my relationship with Ted as he became a regular attendee of The naturalist’s Studio from that point on.
Egg tempera requires a carefully conceived composition and slow building of multiple layers of paint for success. In his working life Ted was an electronic and mechanical designer. With this kind of meticulous and detail oriented background it is no surprise he responded to the process and precision of egg tempera painting.
One day in class we had a discussion about why we paint. It is a subject with as many answers as artists. When the question was posed to Ted he answered without hesitation “When I see something that touches me I want to try to capture it to share with family and friends in a more personal way than a photograph.
Obviously paramount in Ted’s life was his love for his wife, Diane and his daughter Meghan. Meghan is also an artist, a RISD graduate, having been encouraged from early childhood by supportive parents. Diane, a public school English teacher, admits to artistic attempts largely to please Ted who wanted to share his love of painting with her.
His painting of the Clydesdales was a commission that he first refused. Principally a landscape painter Ted modestly felt figures and horses were outside his skill range. On his own he worked on the painting without any commitment because it was for a very special occasion. When he found himself satisfied with it he ultimately agreed to present it, much to the joy of the family of the man who owned the horses and originally commissioned the painting.
This is how Diane describes the origins of the painting above. “The painting of the river going through the village was originally a cover for the publication English Journal. I loved the picture and posted it near my computer at school. After it began to fade I brought it home to ask Ted if he could ‘revive’ it somehow using his skills in Photoshop and he made a new photo for me. What he did not tell me was that he painted the scene for me in watercolor as a gift. It was truly a surprise. I still have the scene as the screen art on my computer.”
At the time of Ted’s death The Naturalist’s Studio had a group show at the Gunn Memorial Library Stairwell Gallery in Washington, CT. Ted lived to know, and enjoy knowing, his work was widely featured in local media promoting the show. He continues to be missed by all who knew him.
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In the summer of 2012 I was very excited when a pair of bluebirds began nesting in the box in our backyard for the second year. I put the telephoto lens on my camera and crept as close as I dared at different times of the day and got some very pleasing pictures. But I really wanted more.
Part of what I loved about wild bird rehab was the period when the fledglings were first released but returned to me for food throughout the day. Until they began finding food themselves I continued to represent a food source and they would land on my head and shoulders when they saw me in the yard. I wanted something more like this with the bluebirds – something more like a relationship and an incentive to make them want to return year after year.
Mealworms! This is the way to a bluebird’s heart. There were four eggs in the box and the female was brooding throughout the day. I know the number of eggs because the side of the box lifts and when the female was out of the box I would check to see how many eggs there were. This may sound really interfering but monitoring the box can make a difference if, for instance, an egg breaks or one of the baby birds dies and attracts parasites which can affect the entire brood. Timely intervention can save the rest of the clutch.
From time to time the female flew out in search of food while the male stood guard on top on the box or went in with the eggs. My plan was simple and astonishingly successful. I placed a clay saucer with a few live mealworms directly on top of the bluebird box. I put a ‘flag’ of blue tape on the dish as ‘color recognition’ in hopes I could move the dish closer to the house and the blue would alert them to the new position
The first day the only result was baked dead mealworms. The second day I watched the female emerge from the box and go directly to the dish and begin to feed! Then both birds were on the edge of the saucer eating the mealworms. I originally thought if the bluebirds ate from the saucer I would begin to move it incrementally closer until I could put it on the balcony railing of my studio but I was too excited for increments and the third day I moved the saucer straight to the railing. I added mealworms and called ‘Blue, Blue’. Within an hour the bluebirds were eating four feet away from where I stood at the studio window!
From then on each time I added mealworms to the saucer I called ‘Blue Blue’. Within a week I could call and see both bluebirds come from different directions straight to the tree above the balcony before dropping down to eat. In the courtship phase before the eggs hatched the male would frequently feed the female but later, as the nestlings grew, it was a feeding frenzy with both birds filling their beaks with mealworms and heading back to the box.
Later in the summer, between the first and second broods there were a few weeks when the young from the first brood came to the mealworm saucer but when the second brood fledged the whole family disappeared into the woods.
On a January day in 2013 with a blizzard in the weather forecast I looked out and saw a bluebird in the backyard. I didn’t have any live mealworms but had some freeze dried in a package I bought the previous summer when it became difficult to get live mealworms shipped due to the heat. I got the saucer and filled it with mealworms then went to the studio door and called ‘Blue, Blue’. Within seconds he was at the saucer, his dislike of freeze dried mealworms overcome! For the rest of the winter a small flock of bluebirds were regular daily visitors.
As I write today with bitter cold temperatures outdoors all six of this winter’s flock have been back and forth to the mealworm dish throughout the day. There are four males and two females. Their bright blue backs and soft red bellies warm my heart and help make this colorless season easier to bear.
How it Works
The Naturalist's Studio class meets from 9:30 - 12:30 on Friday mornings throughout the year at my studio in Warren, CT and the cost is $25.00. The first class is free for every newcomer so this artist has an opportunity to observe and decide if the class fits his or her needs. There is no commitment in terms of attending and paying for a certain number of classes. The season, jobs, family and other commitments shape attendance from one week to the next. Some people can only come in the summer - some only in winter so each class has a slightly different personality. From a base of about 20, an average class is six people.
Students are rewarded for their trip to the Warren woods with fresh coffee and pastries from Nine Main in New Preston, CT. There are warm greetings all around and a sharing of newspaper clippings, photos, (grandchildren as often as art) nature stories and general catching up before gravitating to favorite seats, setting up art supplies and getting to work.
In a given class mediums used may be colored pencil, acrylic, silverpoint, watercolor, gouache and India ink. While my mediums are egg tempera and silverpoint there are basics of composition, color, value etc. that cross mediums. I am available for observation and suggestion and to facilitate each artist’s goals any way I can.
Casual conversation related to art and nature is an undercurrent punctuating the working silence. We often recommend books, museum and gallery shows, videos and websites to one another Access to the internet often provides reference material, images and other useful information. Recently we were discussing hot springs and natural formations in Iceland when one student said she has always wanted to go there. I know someone who arranges trips to Iceland regularly and put them in touch. Now this student is signed up for a trip to Iceland in a month! We will all benefit from tales of her trip and photos when she returns.
Multiple feeders – seeds, suet, mealworms and berries on the studio balcony bring a large variety of birds very close for easy observation and picture taking. A group of bluebirds are regulars at the mealworm feeder throughout the year. (I plan a post titled Winter Blues in February describing how I trained the bluebirds to come when I call.)
Over the last few years during class we have seen fox, bobcats and a bear lumbering down the driveway. Summer treats include observations of metamorphosis from caterpillars to chrysalises and cocoons, moths, and butterflies.
Above all, everyone is welcomed, respected and supported in this special group of artists who choose to be part of The Naturalist's Studio. If you or someone you know might be interested in joining us please contact me at www.banjiesart.com. Or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Naturalist's Studio is the name of a class begun as Botanical Drawing in 2004 which then morphed to Botanical Painting and Drawing in early 2005. I was an active wild bird rehabilitator at that time so with spring came baby birds in my care followed by my passion for caterpillars, butterflies and moths. The students began bringing plants, shells, bones etc....... and The Naturalist's Studio was born. It is a group united by mutual love of art and nature and is characterized by humor, support and kindness. In this blog I hope to introduce some of the artist's in class through brief bios. and images of their work as well as my own. I will also post personal and shared experiences related to nature and art in our part of northwest Connecticut. I will probably post a lot of bluebird pictures because they feed on mealworms on the deck railing of my studio and help make winter bearable for me. Please comment or question at any time. The work above is a collaboration - my egg tempera painting of a young blue jay and Mary Hawvermale's magic addition of natural objects around the border.