Ending on a High Note at Falls of the Ohio

 

Last weekend my 2017 Arts in the Parks grant program came to its conclusion high upon bluffs overlooking a unique landscape of barren prehistoric fossil beds in sharp contrast to the sleek skyline of Louisville on the other side of the Ohio River. In the shade of the impressive 16,000 square-foot Interpretive Center showcased by Indiana’s twentieth state park, I enjoyed painting expansive views while meeting all kinds of creative folks visiting that day.

For my morning painting demonstration, I found a protected spot on the Interpretive Center’s observation deck where hikers gathered for one of the park’s weekend tours to the fossil beds and beyond. This time of year, the dam that runs parallel to the bank lowers water levels enough for visitors to walk over to outer rock beds that are part of an island often submerged by spring floods. I learned that it’s critical for the beds to be consistently flooded to keep from drying out and deteriorating, which seems counterintuitive considering they are made of hard limestone.

For a couple of hours, I painted part of the dam built in the 1920s as well as the upper and lower fossil beds created 387 million years ago when corals, sponges, brachiopods and other aquatic life flourished under a shallow tropical sea, and were buried in layers of limey sediment that caused them to fossilize. During the glacial retreat of the last Ice Age, meltwater scoured the limestone deposits, exposing the Devonian fossil beds and providing a marvelous look at prehistoric life forms preserved in stone for the modern-day visitor.

Unlike many of my demonstrations in the parks, this particular morning I had little use for green paint since the fossil beds resemble more of a moonscape than the usual Indiana scene, even during the autumn droughts which are typical for this area. As predicted, the wind began to really pick up before noon, and I started to lose the shade provided by the building. I always bring a special plein air umbrella that can be clipped to my easel for shade, but couldn’t use it that day unless I wanted my painting setup to sail off the cliffs and over the river like Mary Poppins.

Around noon we found a windbreak for my hands-on painting activity behind some boulders near a welcoming picnic area, still in sight of the river and fossil beds, where I engaged with many visitors who were heading toward the interpretive center or coming back from a hike down to the upper fossil beds on an easy path. Overall, I engaged with 60 park guests with 14 kids and adults trying out the water brushes and painting supplies.

I also met two Louisville artists who express their creativity in very different ways.  Erik Bendl, otherwise known as World Guy, stopped to talk after collecting driftwood deposited along the river shoreline by high water. He has walked over six thousand miles pushing a large world globe for diabetes awareness and you can read more about his adventures at World Guy.  Albertus Gorman, an artist and art advocate who has an exhibit inside the interpretive center as well as an installation of figurative sculptures near the railroad bridge made from found materials deposited by the river, encourages the public to interact or add to his evolving artwork. Please check out his installations and exhibits at Artist at Exit O Riverblog.

This wraps up another successful grant year at Paints in the Parks. As I prepare my final report, I’m very grateful to the Indiana Arts Commission, the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, and my immediate family for their support and encouragement over these last six months of unpredictable weather and challenging terrain. I especially appreciate all of the park guests I’ve met throughout this program, who are open to painting in all kinds of conditions, and courageous in their creativity. I will always treasure your willingness to engage with nature through art. It’s what keeps me going as I continue my journey to paint in all of Indiana’s state parks. Thank you for joining me.

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Return to Spring Mill

As the dust settles from my third application for another Arts in the Parks grant in 2018, I’ve returned to the studio to avoid an odd post-Labor Day heat wave, and prepare for another September visit to Spring Mill. Hard to believe exactly a year has passed since my first painting trip down to Mitchell, Indiana, the birthplace of astronaut Gus Grissom and home to one of Indiana’s best known state parks.

I’ll be bringing with me completed artwork from last year’s visit, including an 8″ x 10″ oil painting of the wooded bank near the entrance to Twin Caves. I found a great spot to set up and visit with a crowd of park guests waiting for their boat ride into the caves the morning of my program last year. And I was able to get a good start on this view of fallen logs left to decay, creating a natural environment for all sorts of plant and animal life. Back at home, I’ve enjoyed playing with the differences between what is above and below the waterline, helped by the surface refraction of light and shadow.

The afternoon rain showers that day forced me to seek shelter in a breezeway between log cabins while working with a pastel of the three-story limestone grist mill that is the centerpiece of Spring Mill’s pioneer village. Since pastels and precipitation don’t mix (unless you want an accidental watercolor) I had to make some creative choices about omitting details such as the unfortunately placed little tree in the foreground. No matter, I was able to take some better photos when the rain ended that helped me fill in details later and finish this 5″ x 7″ pastel on sanded paper in the studio.

A year later, I’m preparing to paint the grist mill again, this time with oils. I confess that I’m not particularly confident about my skills in rendering buildings, especially using brushes since I have much more experience with drawing. And I find that trees and organic natural forms are much more forgiving than linear edges and the dreaded two-point perspective. I prefer to eyeball and claim near-sighted impressionism as my inspiration.

Last year, I promised to return to Spring Mill in honor of the bicentennial of the grist mill, begun in 1817, with several revisions throughout the years. I particularly admire the stone pillars of the flume that transports water to power the mill wheel from cave springs up the hill. Perhaps I’ll find a shady spot underneath those pillars since, unlike last year, the day promises to be nothing but sun in the upper 80s. But I’m grateful to be able to take these challenges in stride because I’m aware that life, as in painting, is made more interesting in its contrasts.

Harvey and the Hay Press at O’Bannon Woods

 

Seems like each year that I offer my state park program, there’s always one event where I need to make the difficult decision of whether to go ahead on the scheduled date (usually a Saturday) or wait until the next day (usually a Sunday). Last year, Indiana Dunes presented this dilemma, although I’d already booked a hotel just in case. This year, the remnants of Hurricane Harvey threw a very soggy wrench into my plans, forcing me to decide whether to risk a five-hour roundtrip drive that might have been in vain.

Based on the weather forecasters’ best guesses and my previous experience with every hurricane’s notorious unpredictability, I decided to postpone my Labor Day Saturday event at O’Bannon Woods State Park until Sunday. And even when Harvey’s rain did end on Saturday morning in southern Indiana after a 24-hour drenching, the day actually became colder with a damp north wind. Sunday, on the other hand, couldn’t have been more beautiful, as often happens after a hurricane passes through, and I was assured by staff and visitors that I’d made the right choice.

Located west of Louisville in extreme south central Indiana along the Ohio River, the 2,294-acre park was originally established in 1980 as a recreational area called Wyandotte Woods, and renamed in honor of Indiana’s late Governor Frank O’Bannon and his family in 2004. This secluded and beautiful park is nestled within one of Indiana’s largest state forests, the 24,000-acre Harrison-Crawford, which is a timber source that also offers canoeing, hiking, hunting, fishing, birding and swimming.

I spent my day at the charming Hickory Hollow Nature Center, which houses one of the best nature and wildlife collections and exhibits of any park I’ve visited so far. Directly behind the nature center, visitors will find an outdoor wetlands pond, living-history demonstrations in a pioneer farmstead, and a restored, historically accurate 1850s hay press and barn with its own museum. On special weekends throughout the year, demonstrations of the hay press using one of two oxen housed at the farmstead are offered, as well as numerous interactive demonstrations that include tomahawk throwing, archery, rope making, blacksmithing, yarn spinning, log sawing and even panning for gold.

In the morning, I painted the hay press barn where the beautifully crafted stonework on the ramp leading up to the main barn doors caught my eye. Situated along the main path to the pioneer farmstead and all the activities, I had plenty of chances to engage with not only park visitors but also the friendly volunteers who spend many hours sharing their talents and expertise for the love of the park and what they do. In fact, my husband and I were welcomed with hot coffee and blueberry pancakes fresh off a cast iron griddle over an open fire as soon as we arrived. You can’t beat that!

Around noon, I set up for my painting activity in the sunny courtyard between the nature center and the barn where the hay press demonstration takes place. Almost immediately, visitors were lining up to try out my water brushes and paint supplies. Ann, one of the volunteers from the pioneer farmstead, joined me to offer frames for completed artwork as part of their children’s craft. The paper frames glued to regular copy paper could be decorated with crayons and stickers, and some participants even used watercolor paint! The frames really added to the artistic experience, and I was very grateful for Ann’s idea that could be a great creative option in the future.

Even during the hay press demonstration, with 400 visitors in attendance, there were still plenty of artists outside painting on the convenient picnic tables while the sun shone, the birds called and butterflies landed on flowers in the wetlands pond. In total, O’Bannon Woods broke all the Paints in the Parks records so far, with over 200 interactions and 85 painting participants! It was so gratifying to watch entire families painting at picnic tables, with multi-generations peacefully sharing paints and water brushes, chatting and laughing. Several parents remarked on how easy and natural this activity is, but how seldom it seems to happen at home.

Since I ran out of almost all my supplies after such a tremendous turnout, I was able to wrap up with enough time to tour the farmstead myself, interact with the artisans who were demonstrating their own skills, and admire the many forms of creativity and art offered. In fact, the hay press itself is a marvelous piece of art in my opinion, with its hand-carved wood and practical beauty. Of course, I need to return one of these days so I can see this art put into action!

River and Ruins at Charlestown

 

The beautiful August day I spent at Charlestown State Park on the Ohio River near Louisville was one for the record books. While enjoying a flawless blue sky and crisp breeze, I painted barges on the river, discovered ruins on a mysterious island, and talked to many visitors who couldn’t believe that this was August with such fall-like weather.

Established in 1996 as one of the newest state parks, Charlestown’s 5,000-acre parcel is bordered by the Ohio which is fed by Fourteenmile Creek that runs through the park, one of the oldest unglaciated stream valleys in Indiana. Mostly open farmland or pasture at the turn of the century, much of the park’s reforestation occurred under the resource management of the US Army, which operated an ammunition plant on the property from 1940 to 1995.

For my morning demonstration, I set up my easel for oils at one of two overlooks along the Ohio near the park’s boat landing where I attempted to paint my first barge as they slowly came into view around a distant bend in the river. While engaging in some great conversations about art and life with visitors who stopped by to experience the river, we saw fish nibbling at the rocky edges and plenty of herons soaring high in an empty blue sky. No chance to practice painting clouds that day.

After lunch, I headed down a very steeply graded road across Fourteenmile Creek to Rose Island, the site of a 1920s amusement park that was heavily damaged in the infamous 1937 flood that also affected Louisville downstream. Luckily, the DNR van was able to drive me and all my supplies to my painting site across an old 1913 truss-style bridge relocated to provide access to the island. Only a few concrete and stone structures remain of the amusement park that welcomed 135,000 guests a year, offering rental cottages along the river as well as a hotel, swimming pool, dance hall, rollercoaster and zoo.

I positioned my easel at the entrance to the Walkway of Roses where climbing vines once covered the three arches that can still be seen near the foundation of the dance hall. The arches were also lit back in the 1920s providing a romantic path on those happy summer evenings before the Depression and World War II. Now, only the stone and metal arches remain, with young trees growing in between the posts and nature doing her best to hide the island’s secrets of the past. The purposes to some of the remnants remain unknown, and archaeological digs on the island have yielded artifacts from both the amusement park and indigenous people who lived in the area.

My demonstration along the trail provided a stopping point for the Rose Island Guided History tour led by interpretive naturalist Jeremy Beavins, where I talked to over twenty participants about my program and the supplies I’d brought that day. That evening, some visitors from the tour group met me at one of the spacious picnic shelters for my hands-on watercolor activity. Painting in the golden rays of the setting sun while listening to song birds was the perfect ending to a wonderful day at Charlestown, where I interacted with over 50 visitors overall.

Many thanks to the DNR staff who promoted my program and made it easy to experience the best of Charlestown. I hope to return soon so I can go on the complete Rose Island guided tour and hear the rest story.

 

Painting at Prophetstown

My visit to Indiana’s newest state park this month challenged me to try out alternative equipment in new locations that differed from my typical schedule. Prophetstown’s unique blend of prairie, wetland and woods honors the memory of important Native American history while providing the perfect setting for painting and interaction. As if that wasn’t enough, this new state park also features several picnic areas, bike trails, an aquatic center, extensive campground and a 1920s small-scale working farm.

Established in 2004, the park sits at the edge of what was originally a tallgrass prairie, with areas of open oak woodlands. Glaciers passed across the park at least three times, creating the landscape that I was lucky to paint during my visit. My morning painting demonstration was located at an observation deck overlooking the wetlands and floodplain where the Tippecanoe River meets the Wabash. Harrison Creek flows  close to the platform from a pond and fen created by those same glaciers, and was running high that morning from all the recent rains.

For the first time since I began painting in the parks I arrived without the tripod that attaches to my paintbox, reenforcing the need for a packing list (that I have already written upon return). Luckily,  I was able to use my 4-foot folding table set to its highest height, and could spread out the paintbrushes, paint palette and my water container on a stable surface. When I had to pack up and retreat to the car for a brief rain shower, I was able to leave the table set up since it was waterproof. I returned to continue work on the oil painting I’d started while talking to nine visitors and observed many shorebirds and waterfowl, including great blue herons and kingfishers.

After lunch, I set up another painting demonstration under the shade shelter at the Native American Village located in the restored prairie near the visitors center. The collection of structures that includes a medicine lodge, council house and chief’s cabin replicates a settlement established by Tecumseh, who was Shawnee, and his brother Tenskwatawa (The Prophet) in 1808 to stop the European westward settlement.

Forced from his homelands in Ohio, Tecumseh formed an alliance with the Ojibwe, Delaware, Kickapoo, Miami, Ottawa, Potawatomi, Shawnee, Wea, Wyandot, Winnebago, Fox, Sac, Creek and Menominee, hoping to repel the advance of European settlement. They congregated at Prophetstown, and heard The Prophet speak. While Tecumseh was away recruiting more support, The Prophet decided to strike first in the early morning hours of Nov. 7, 1811, where he engaged William Henry Harrison, governor of the Indiana Territory,  and his 1,200 troops in the Battle of Tippecanoe that lasted two hours. Defeated, the villagers retreated to Wildcat Creek while Harrison’s men burned Prophetstown to the ground.

Pine branches layering the roof of the shelter provided marvelous shade while I began a pastel of the granary and talked to 13 visitors that hot afternoon. Two children and two adults tried out my watercolor brushes, paints, pencils and crayons along with two members of the DNR staff. The naturalists also provided pokeweed berry juice that was used as a dye by the indigenous people, and became an excellent paint for my painting activity. I was amazed by its color and consistency, and thoroughly appreciated how the poke berries blended in perfectly with the watercolor paints.

After an early dinner at a local restaurant in the town of Battle Ground and a tour of the battlefield along Burnett’s Creek where The Prophet’s warriors met Harrison’s troops, I returned to Prophetstown for an evening painting program at the campground next to the shower house. The head interpretive naturalist, Angie Manuel, not only introduced me as part of Indiana’s Arts in the Parks and Historic Sites with a brief background of the grant program, but she brought lots of natural objects and artifacts found on the park grounds for participants to paint.

We had a great turnout with 30 campers showing up for the presentation, and 26 kids and adults participating in the painting activity. All told, I engaged with nearly 50 people throughout the day at Prophetstown, and learned so much myself about the history of the park and the culture of the Native Americans who maintained the prairie landscape for hunting and gathering. And if you visit this beautiful park, be sure to stop by the stone circle located in the northeast corner of the park near the observation deck and basketball court, which includes a number of stones bearing plaques representing the known Native American tribes that lived at Prophetstown.

Making Waves at Indiana Dunes

As temps finally flirt with the upper 90s outside, I have returned to the air-conditioned studio to finish my series of paintings begun during last year’s Arts in the Parks grant. I’m taking up where I left off after my midpoint post back in April (!) of this year highlighting paintings from last July’s Turkey Run State Park. By August, I was hiking the sandy trails and beaches of Indiana’s own sand dunes after a powerful storm on Saturday made me wait until the following day to ply my brush and pastel sticks.

My first stop on that Sunday morning was a quiet set up under the bird observation tower at the end of the beach, which gave some excellent shade and shelter from the winds. I enjoyed using water-mixable oils to capture the changing cloud cover that rolled through the area. Breaks of sunlight and shifting winds made the textures on Lake Michigan’s surface and the direction of the waves a challenge to catch in time. Since visitor traffic to the tower was intermittent, I had plenty of opportunities to try different techniques while I noted all the colors of the lake, from stormy blues to iridescent greens to delicate pinks and lavenders.

 

In the afternoon, I tried out a new surface for my pastel painting by using an Ampersand pastelbord, which is a clay and gesso coated hardboard panel with a granular marble dust finish comparable to a sanded pastel paper. This particular 9″ X 12″ sample was tinted dark grey which alleviated the dreaded “white canvas” syndrome and brought out bright pastel tones. My subject was found in the wetlands running behind the park’s grassy dunes with a very wide and accessible boardwalk overlooking a particularly enticing bend in the ribbon of contrasting reddish-brown water that wound through the green button-bush marsh.

The rough texture of the board held my soft pastels well, with very little dust waste. Plus, the panel was easy to clip onto my easel, and unlike my Wallis paper which requires taping to a sturdy piece of foam board, it was ready to go when I needed it. My biggest challenge was making a slit to take off the plastic wrap. (A visitor who stopped by to watch suggested using one of my house keys, and it worked!) My only complaint about the 9 x 12 size is that getting a good start can be difficult when you’re busy talking to a steady stream of folks strolling along the boardwalk between the campgrounds and beach. I had to finish at home, and as you can see, it took many months to bring this rather impressionistic painting to a point where I was satisfied that I’d captured the strong afternoon light.

 

In addition, I’m including a pre-event acrylic painting from an earlier reconnaissance visit to the park’s Devil’s Slide, an extremely vertical part of the hiking trail with some interesting sand patterns that I thought would be fun to paint. Since I wasn’t located on the beach during my Arts in the Parks demonstrations, this was a good way to practice a “beach-y” scene for one of my landscape experiences.

 

As to whether I’ll keep any of these paintings or reuse the panels, I’ll add that Ampersand’s pastelbord requires special framing with glass and spacers under the mat, or fixative that can change the colors considerably. Another option would be to wash the pastels off the panel for a fresh start, instead of having to paint over with white paint or gesso like you do with oils and acrylics.  And, Ampersand says I can try oils or acrylic on their boards for interesting effects, as well. Stay tuned!

A Perfect Day at Potato Creek

Despite the ominous weather forecast, I couldn’t have ordered up a more perfect day at Potato Creek State Park, located just south of South Bend near North Liberty, Indiana. Named after the potato-like roots that were once collected by Native Americans along the creek banks, Potato Creek feeds into Worster Lake, a man-made reservoir begun in the 1930s by local conservationist Darcey Worster that covers 327 acres of the park’s six square miles. Dedicated in 1977, the park’s management programs are dedicated to restoring and maintaining Potato Creek’s unique natural areas and wetlands.

I began my visit to Potato Creek on Trail 3 overlooking a marshy inlet of Worster Lake directly across from the swimming beach. While setting up my easel to the bass tones of bullfrogs, I noted the lushness in the vegetation and trees that contrasted so well with the sculptural starkness of the decaying trunks and logs. I decided to try out an 8 x 10-inch clay panel using my water-mixable oils for the morning demonstration and engaged with six visitors, including one who arrived with art supplies prepared to join me in capturing the scene.  It was a pleasure to have some artistic company and discover the same scenery through another’s interpretation.

Around noon, it was time to pack up and head toward the nature center on the other side of Worster Lake which took us through some meadows and prairie decked out in summer’s full glory. I was impressed with the size of this state park and the variety of recreational activities that its topography allows. I was informed that this particular park is a frequent location for triathlons and other outdoor challenges. As well as an extensive campground, the park offers facilities and areas for hiking, picnicking, swimming, boating, horseback riding and bike riding.

As the good weather held on, I was able to set up the hands-on watercolor activity outside in front of the nature center, where over 100 park visitors stopped by my art table, and a record 66 kids and adults tried out my waterbrushes, crayons, colored pencils and micron pens. Luckily, I didn’t run out of supplies while people spread out in all directions, including some who took advantage of the amazing exhibits inside the nature center to use as painting subjects and came back with their own renditions of turtles, owls, reptiles and even an osprey!

Several of the artists who visited me in the morning stopped by to try out my painting materials, and a homeschool family that shared my interests in art followed me to my next stop for the afternoon at the swimming beach. We settled down in a shady spot in the lawn under the trees overlooking the beach and had a marvelous discussion about various forms of art and techniques. Amazingly, the predicted violent thunderstorms stayed away as I visited with 27 park guests who were out enjoying the swimming, volleyball, hiking and bike trails. I used a regular canvas panel with oils to capture a beautiful scene on the lake, complete with a sailboat, kayaks and the bright spots of color from swimsuits and beach balls.

As we headed south in the light of a gorgeous sunset at the end of the day, I was very grateful that the weather forecasters were wrong for once, and I know that the nearly 150 park visitors I met that day were, too. As always, many thanks to the DNR staff who advertised and made me feel welcome, and the Indiana Arts Commission for helping to make painting in the parks possible.