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!

Countdown to the Parks

The grass is greening, tree buds are bursting, geese have returned (well, they never actually left), and warm spring breezes are calling to make art outdoors. I have another Arts in the Parks Grant for 2017, this time in six of the newest state parks throughout Indiana. In preparation, I’m finishing and featuring the paintings from visits last year, one set of park paintings per week until the official kick-off for my Paints in the Parks event the first weekend of May.

This week’s completed works are from my very first 2016 Paints in the Parks event on Memorial Day Weekend last May. I nervously set up my easel and supplies by the edge of Big Clifty at the most popular spot in Clifty Falls State Park near Madison, Indiana. I’d just been informed that a well-known Indiana photographer for Outdoor Indiana magazine was coming to take photos of me painting by the falls.

Working against the clock, I quickly located a good angle, framed the composition in my mind, and chose an appropriately sized panel. By the time photographer Frank Oliver arrived, I had roughly blocked in all areas and was working on details, trying to capture the movement of that rushing water over rocks, all while chatting with park visitors and trail hikers.

When it was time for me to move on to my next spot in the park, I was close to completing the painting, needing only a few touchups when I returned home. This particular one of Big Clifty, of all my 2016 park paintings, is truly a work of plein air, capturing the movement and lighting in that fleeting moment. All because of the threat of being documented with an ugly canvas. Guess I work better under pressure.

In late afternoon, I was set up across the canyon from Big Clifty on a trail that provided a dramatic lookout over the sea of green canopy. Through a distant slit in the leaves you could catch a glimpse of Big Clifty’s distinctive rocky cliffs and falls. By now I was becoming more comfortable engaging with the steady stream of hikers who paused to take a breath after a steep climb out of the canyon. The muggy weather threatened rain all day, but now the heat and humidity were building up for an afternoon thunderstorm, so I was watching the skies closely.

Despite all the moisture, I chose to try my hand at some pastel work while chatting with curious visitors who peered around my easel to see what I was doing. Before the visit, I had prepared a piece of sanded pastel paper, cut to a small standard size and taped to some foam board for stability. That way I could secure the painting surface by clipping it to my pochade paint box like any other canvas. The danger with pastels is always the possibility of knocking costly pastel sticks to the ground and breaking them, but I managed to keep them steady for a quick impression of the falls before the skies finally opened up. I then took the work in progress home to finish in drier conditions.

I find that I enjoy producing several versions of the same subject using different mediums. The chance to introduce to the public a variety of ways to paint and make art is worth hauling so many supplies into the state parks and up rugged trails. The countdown continues next week, so stay tuned for another set of finished paintings from last June. Until then, happy creating!

Praise for Pokagon

I couldn’t have asked for a better finale to cap off my 2016 Arts in the Parks grant than my final program at Pokagon State Park near Angola, Indiana. Located in Indiana’s lake country at the very northeast corner of the state, Pokagon borders two natural lakes and was named for the last notable leaders of the Potawatomi native people, who sold one million acres to the federal government (including the area that became Chicago) for the price of three cents an acre.

The park offers two beaches, 12 miles of trails, wooded hills, wetlands, open meadows and even a toboggan run built by the CCC in the 1930s. The lakes as well as the marshes, fens, swamps, pine groves and other unique ecotypes typical of more northern regions were created by one of the last glaciers to cover Indiana ten thousand years ago. Land that was farmed decades ago has been allowed to return to its natural state, and the nearby Trine recreational area added in 2007 complements Pokagon as part of local and statewide efforts in land and water preservation.

I spent a chilly but pleasant morning painting on the pier at Lake Lonidaw, a kettle-hole lake formed when sunken blocks of ice broke away as the glacier melted. The  mat of reedy vegetation along the edges fools you into thinking this is a stagnate pond, when in reality this constantly moving body of water drops off to a depth of 30 feet. Armed with a cup of hot coffee and plenty of duct tape to keep my supplies from flying into the lake, I made good progress capturing fall foliage in oil, saw a great blue heron glide by, heard plenty of red-winged blackbirds, and engaged with a morning tour group led by a Pokagon interpretive naturalist.

At noon in a wonderful gathering area full of comfortable tables and benches outside the nature center, I received a tremendous response to my watercolor painting activity with over 40 kids and adults trying out my watercolor kits, waterbrushes, Inktense watercolor pencils, and Micron drawing pens with ink that doesn’t run when you paint over it. By far the largest turnout of all the park events, I’m pleased to say that every piece of watercolor paper I brought was used and some wonderful connections were made, including a family who just happened to stop by on their way to Ohio to see their son in college, a little girl who spent two hours on a beautiful tree inspired by something in my sketchbook, and a student from an Indianapolis art institute who is adding her watercolor painting to a school art project focusing on geography.

I finished the day at the Potawatomi Inn beach on Lake James, with the sun casting interesting shadows on the little boat house I was painting, and the brisk fall breeze spurring on the little white-capped waves that raced to shore. I had some great, leisurely conversations with curious visitors and interested painters about my painting subjects, equipment and set up. All told, I engaged with over 100 park visitors during my final painting event, with the added treat of spending a long weekend at beautiful Potawatomi Inn, built in 1927.  Many thanks to DNR naturalist Marie Laudeman and the rest of the park and inn staff for such a successful and pleasant visit; and to the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, the Indiana Arts Commission and the Indiana Bicentennial Commission for their support throughout my 2016 Arts in the Parks grant.

My painting programs may be completed for the year, but I’ll still be painting outside whenever there’s a good day this fall (and maybe even winter) while I continue to finish the paintings I began at all the wonderful state parks I had the privilege to visit this year. As a way to brighten up bleak winter days, I’ll also be working on new paintings inspired by the wildflowers I photographed on my walks along the trails. So, stay tuned for regular updates to Paints in the Parks and thanks for following along.

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.

Drama at the Dunes

My good luck with weather finally came to an end at the fourth park on my Paints in the Parks schedule this year. Saturday began with ominous forecasts and strong winds in advance of a cold front bringing severe storms to the  Chicago area first, and then to Indiana Dunes State Park, located about 50 miles east and surrounded by the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. Fortunately, I usually book Sundays as possible rain dates and in this case I was so glad I did!

My first stop Sunday morning under dramatic skies was the bird observation platform with views of the Dunes Prairie Nature Preserve and some of the three miles of beach along Lake Michigan’s southern shore. I enjoyed capturing shifting cloud formations that determined what colors appeared on the lake’s surface. A stiff northern breeze even worked up some whitecaps for me to practice painting, although the rough water and high tide that day ruled out swimming, much to the Sunday beachgoers’ disappointment.

Midday was spent at the Nature Center where nature hikes, beach yoga, shipwreck stories and a bird watercolor workshop were among the many activities featured at this busy state park that encompasses over 1500 acres of beach, sand dunes, black oak forest, marsh and wooded wetlands. A steady stream of adults and children stopped by my table to try out the waterbrushes and special Inktense  watercolor pencils I brought along for an outdoor watercolor activity. Over 20 brave individuals took up my challenge to paint in the park, and some even let me take their picture showing off their wonderful works of art.

I finished off the afternoon working with pastels on pastel board along the boardwalk overlooking a button-bush marsh connecting the beach access to a very busy campground. Overall, I interacted with 70 visitors to the park, many from the Chicago area. I particularly enjoyed meeting quite a few college students relaxing at the Dunes before heading back to school.

While I made good progress on the two works I began that day, I need to come back and paint the other unique habitats and diverse landscapes preserved in this state park established in 1925. In fact, the father of ecology, Henry Cowles, conducted landmark research on the flora and fauna here, putting Indiana Dunes on the map as “the birthplace of ecology.” I hope to return soon, prepared to make the steep climb up some of those “moving” dunes for that dramatic view that’s well worth the effort.

Magic at Mounds

My visit to Mounds State Park last Saturday was full of sunshine, painting, and chats about art with new park friends. One of the smallest parks in the Indiana state park system, Mounds isn’t as well known as some of its larger and more scenic counterparts, but the mysterious earthworks resting amid wooded trails and the White River, as well as the historic Bronnenberg House, make a visit to the Mounds worthwhile.

This 290-acre park features 10 unique earthworks built by prehistoric Indians known as the Adena-Hopewell people. The largest earthwork, the Great Mound, is believed to have been constructed around 160 B.C. Archaeological surveys indicate the mounds were used as gathering places for religious ceremonies, from where astronomical alignments like the summer and winter solstices can be viewed.

The Federal-style Bronnenberg House is a lasting reminder of early settlers who recognized the uniqueness of this area and protected the earthworks from looters and farming practices. Despite the construction of an amusement park and railroad in the early 1900s, the Bronnenberg family actively fought to preserve the mounds. Along with the house, the prehistoric earthworks became part of the state park in 1930. The fully-restored brick structure seen today was originally built around 1850 and is open for tours.

Throughout the day over 85 visitors stopped or strolled by, and I had the pleasure of creating art at the Great Mound in the morning with two new friends who brought their own art supplies ready to draw! In the afternoon, 20 kids and adults took me up on my challenge to try out the waterbrushes and watercolor field kits. After attending a birthday party celebrating the Centennial of the Indiana state parks, we stuck around for drumming and dance by the Miami Nation of Indiana that took place inside the Great Mound this year.

Like the Bronnenberg’s, I recognize the uniqueness of this particular park and its earthworks. Painting in this ancient place fills me with peace and a sacred sense of wonder. Often overlooked despite its close proximity to Indianapolis and I-69, I chose this particular park to bring attention to its beauty and special charm, grateful to those who protected and preserved the Mounds’ special magic over the years.