Ecotone: Collaborations With the Anonymous

Ecotone: Collaborations With the Anonymous.  Mixed-media paintings,  2014-2018

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An "ecotone" is a region of transition between two biological communities or habitats. We tend to think of towns and cities as the habitat of the human species and the fields and woods of the rural areas as the habitat of wildlife. In reality, however, the boundary between these habitats is not as clearly defined as we percieve it to be. Wildlife of all forms exists along the edges of towns and cities as well as within them. The so-called wasteland of the empty city lot you drive past every day provides a habitat for hundreds of plant species, birds and smaller animals like foxes, rabbits, weasels, toads, snakes, voles, and mice. The train tracks you drive over in towns often have strips of land running down either side which provide relatively undisturbed pathways for wild animals such as coyotes and black bears who traverse large territories. Abandoned factories and other unused buildings, just eye-sores to many, provide habitats for bats, owls, wasps, opposum, skunks and a myriad other small creatures. Rivers lined with old factory buildings, disused power stations and train tracks are home to otters, beavers, mink, dozens of varieties of water birds, as well as fish and other aquatic life. 

These abandoned buildings, wastelands and train tracks are also home to a particular type of artist: the anonymous graffiti painter. Train yards with train cars from all over the country, brick walls of factories, concrete structures lining canals and supporting bridges all provide the canvas for these artists' dynamic, colorfully vibrant and sometimes disturbing works of art. Graffiti artists, while they may sometimes know each other, remain largely anonymous to the general population, just as do the plants, animals and birds that share urban spaces with humans. And like most urbanized animals--bats, mice, snakes, skunks--and like the plant-life we call "weeds," graffiti artists are often seen as pests. But I love the beauty and vitality of the unseen life, in all its many manifestations. In these paintings, I have tried to celebrate the juxtaposed beauty of the invisible and anonymous denizens who live and create in this often-spurned ecotone. I  let the shapes, colors and movement of the photos I've taken of train and wall graffiti suggest which animals I paint.

Woodcut Illustrations for Surviving the Island of Grace

Woodcut Illustrations for Surviving the Island of Grace, by Leslie Leyland Fields (St Martin's Press, 2002) Harvester Island, Uyak Bay, Alaska

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I met Leslie Fields while we were both doing graduate work at Goddard College in the low-residency Master of Fine Arts in Writing program. Leslie came to the residencies at Goddard from Alaska--and not just Alaska (as in Anchorage, where most Alaskans live), but from tiny Harvester Island in Uyak Bay off the coast of Kodiak Island. We became friends over the two years of week-long residencies, and she asked me to make a series of woodcut prints to illustrate her first book, which she wrote for her MFA thesis, a memoir of her and her family's life fishing commercially for salmon during the summers. I flew out to visit her in the month of August, when the nights were still almost never dark and when the water off their dock was just bearable for swimming. I flew to Anchorage, then flew in a smaller plane to Kodiak, then in an even-smaller sea-plane to Larson's Bay where Leslie met me in a fishing skiff and took me several miles up the bay to her home on Harvester Island. I took photos of the family skiffs leaving to tend the set-nets in the morning, and of the tenders that waited off-shore, ready to recieve the catch and take it to the fish cannery in Larson's Bay. Everywhere I looked, the wildlife was breath-taking--whales, puffins, sea lions, tiny spotted Sitka deer, bald eagles, sea otters, big brown bears--a heaven for me as an artist who loves to portray animals in the wild. I packed as many animals as I could into my woodcut prints (trying not to forget to add in the usually much-smaller human subjects) that illustrated Leslie's memoir, Surviving the Island of Grace, published by St. Martin's Press in 2002.

Woodcut Prints

Woodcut Prints

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My mother, who was an art teacher and artist, made our family Christmas cards every year by carving a design into a block of wood, inking it with a rubber brayer, placing a piece of paper over it and rubbing the paper with the back of a wooden kitchen spoon. It always seemed magical to me when, the paper being carefully peeled off the inked wood,  the image was revealed in dramatic black and white. By the age of 12, I wanted to do this myself. My mother bought me a set of five Grumbacher wood carving tools (which I still use to this day) and I commenced carving on chunks of wood I found in the woodpile. The basic process of making a woodcut print--the oldest method of reproducing multiple images in history--is simple. The wood is carved and the ink is rolled on, adhering only to the part of the surface that hasn't been carved, and then the wood is covered with a piece of paper and rubbed or pressed so the ink sticks to the paper.  Anything smooth and firm can be used to rub the paper (like my mother's wooden spoon), but most often the whole block with its covering of paper is rolled through a press. I have been making woodcut prints ever since my own first Christmas card at the age of 13.


Animals A - Z Exhibit Signs

Animals A-Z Exhibit Signs.  Auckland War Memorial Museum, Auckland, New Zealand,1983.

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I moved to New Zealand when I was 25 years old and just married to a New Zealander. After living for several months on a small island off the coast of New Zealand's North Island, we moved to the city of Auckland where I was fortunate enough to get a job in the Art Department of one of the country's largest museums, the Auckland War Memorial Institute and Museum. The museum's imposing light-stone building had been built on the rim of an extinct volcano where it overlooked and dominated the Auckland Domain, Auckland's central park, itself defined by the sunken crater of the volcano. By chance and luck, we lived in an apartment on the far side of the Domain, so every day I walked to work across the park with its ponds, woods, trails, playing fields and 19th century glass Wintergardens.

Painting these alphabet signs was my first work for the museum. The museum developed the Animals A-Z Exhibit to show-case some of the vast number of taxidermied animals which had never been used for dioramas or displays but had been stored, many of them for decades, in the museum's nonpublic collection rooms. Most of these birds and animals had been collected in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by scientists, naturalists and explorers. The exhibit was designed alphabetically. Animals with names matching a letter of the alphabet were grouped together throughout the exhibit hall, where my signs identified each grouping.


Connecticut River Alphabet Poster

Connecticut River Alphabet Poster. Hitchcock Center for the Environment, Amherst, Massachusetts

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This alphabet poster was first designed as part of an elementary school project, with children identifying and drawing the plant and animal life around their school near the Sawmill River close to where it empties into the Connecticut River. The project was sponsored and run by the Hitchcock Center for the Environment, which later used my drawings to design this poster.



Bird Identification Signs and Trail Signs

Bird Identification Signs and Trail Signs. Montour Preserve Visitor's Center, Danville, Pennsylvania.

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I made these pen and ink drawings to illustrate and identify the bird-life that flocked to large feeders set outside picture windows in the Visitor's Center at the Montour Preserve. The preserve had a family-friendly trail system as well, and I drew these educational signs that were set up at various points along the trails.

Scotland and England--Paintings, Woodcuts, Sketches

Scotland and England: Paintings, Woodcuts, Sketches

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I went to Scotland and England first when I was 17 and rode my bicycle from northern Scotland to London, and returned several more times over the next fifteen years. Many of these watercolors were painted outdoors in Somerset, Devon and Yorkshire in England, and on the Hebridean islands of Tiree, Arran, Mull, Lewis and Skye in northwestern Scotland. Later, back home, using my memory and the sketches I'd brought back, I created a series of woodcut prints featuring the standing stones that had affected me so much.

New Zealand-Paintings, Woodcuts, Sketches

New Zealand--Paintings, Woodcuts, Field Sketches

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I lived in New Zealand for three years and returned for extended visits several times after that. During those years I lived on Great Barrier Island and in the city of Auckland. Great Barrier Island lies about fifty miles off the coast of the North Island, protecting the broad Hauraki Gulf from the Pacific Ocean. It is an extremely rugged island, with steep and rocky bush-covered mountains that run down the middle of its twenty-five mile length. On the gulf side, the island has a jagged coastline of tiny bush-dark coves and islands, while on the Pacific side the coastline is scalloped by a series of broad, graceful white-sand beaches bound on either side by steep headlands. At the time I lived on the island, the only way to get there was by a twin-engined sea-plane or private boats. The people who lived on the Barrier were largely self-sustaining on small farms cleared out of the bush. There was no electricity, very few roads (unpaved), and party-line telephones that you used by holding an ear-piece to your ear and speaking into a little horn attached to a box on the wall. I milked the cow and goats, looked after the chickens, drove or rode the work horse, and washed clothing in a tub using a mangle. Cooking was done on an elaborate wood stove. Many of the sketches in this section were done on Great Barrier Island. Others were done when we moved to Auckland, New Zealand's largest city.