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.

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Water Works at Spring Mill

Our battles with weather continued at my fifth painting event in Spring Mill State Park last weekend. Despite a severe thunderstorm watch in the iffy forecast, I decided to take a chance and make the two-hour drive to this beautiful 1,350-acre haven to virgin timber, cave springs, and a restored pioneer village–and I’m so glad I did!

Keeping an eye on the sky, I set up at Twin Caves for my morning painting session, chatting with the fearless visitors waiting for boat rides into the one of two cave openings, hence the location’s name. Even though the day was rapidly becoming warm and muggy, the air dropped twenty degrees by the time you descended many stone steps to the boat dock. The change in temperature was so drastic that my glasses steamed up every time I ascended to the parking lot.

While painting, I also talked with the park staff who take folks into the dark waters of the cave to see rock formations, an endangered species of blind fish, lizards and other creepy crawlies. (Can’t think of anything better for the nature nerd, but nothing worse for those who are claustrophobic, and terrified of watery darkness.) Although I didn’t have time to go myself,  I was assured that it was very safe, and indeed, all who entered came out the day I was there.

For my oil painting that morning, I chose the point where two fallen trees converged in the water, providing a little island of greenery. I made a good start capturing reflections in the water, as well as the perspective of those two logs resting diagonally on the very steep bank, upright but not standing as living trees. Speaking of trees, even though I didn’t paint in Donaldson Woods this trip, on recent visits I have walked in awe through the grove of 300-year-old native trees, protected thanks to the efforts of a Scotsman named George Donaldson who purchased the forest in 1865.

My next stop at noon was outside the Lakeview Activity Center adjacent to recently restored Spring Mill Lake, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps as part their good work in the 1930s along with shelters, roads, trails and the lovely stone inn at Spring Mill. Under fast-moving skies that fluctuated between cloudy and clear, 15 visitors stopped by to try out my waterbrushes and watercolor kits. For those who weren’t inclined to be artistic that day, there was the option of a competitive round of cornhole right next to the art table. Unfortunately, a sudden deluge cut short our art efforts, but I’m very grateful for the canopy provided by the DNR staff that protected my art supplies and saved my paintings from ruin.

The drizzly afternoon was spent quietly at Spring Mill’s pioneer village, a restored collection of buildings that exemplifies early 1800’s industrial technology, showcased by the beautiful 3-story grist mill built in 1817 to take advantage of a constant source of water from several cave springs that never freeze. I was able to work on my pastel painting of the mill by taking cover in the convenient breezeway (called a “dogtrot”) of the Granny White Cabin where I was still able to engage with twenty or more kids and adults while they strolled the village under umbrellas. While I was busy drawing, there was a sawing demonstration and turning of the mill’s enormous wheel, all moved by the force of rushing spring water from Hamer’s Cave down the stone-pillared flume.

In spite of the weather’s shenanigans, I was able to connect with over 80 park guests on Saturday, which I considered successful enough to treat myself and family to an excellent buffet dinner at the Spring Mill Inn before heading home. And you, too, will find plenty to do at Spring Mill to earn that good night’s rest at the Inn. Besides the attractions I’ve just mentioned, other park features include a pioneer cemetery, an extensive collection of artifacts housed in the mill, numerous caves and wooded trails, and a monument erected by Donaldson to honor the ornithologist Alexander Wilson. Just within the park’s gates, there’s also a monument to Gus Grissom, celebrated astronaut from nearby Mitchell who died along with two other astronauts during a pre-launch test for the Apollo 1 mission at Cape Canaveral. The adjacent museum houses his Gemini III capsule and spacesuit among other items.

Even though I bid farewell for now to the park, I’ll be back next year to continue painting the historic grist mill as part of its 200th birthday celebration. Through changing seasons (and weather), no matter how many times I visit, there’s always something new to discover at Spring Mill State Park.