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.

 

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.

Hunting for Harmonie

Located in the very southern “toe” of Indiana near the historic utopian community at New Harmony, Harmonie State Park was my first stop in this year’s quest to visit six of the most recent additions to Indiana’s park system. Established in 1966, Harmonie’s 3,465 acres border Illinois and the Wabash River on its way to a rendezvous with the Ohio. With its river views, olympic-size pool, multiple picnic areas and 200-site campground, Harmonie provides plenty of outdoor entertainment.

Due to heavy rains and flooding, my original date for visiting had to be pushed back a week until the flood waters receded. The park had only been open for two days when I arrived on Saturday morning, May 20th during a very active thunderstorm. Luckily, the storm moved through quickly and I was able to venture down to the dock of the Little Harmonie Pond, taking only my watercolor kit, a sketchbook and my camp chair just in case there was more rain on the way.

I quickly started working on a view of the pond, including one of the beautiful blue benches that reflected so well in the still water. Before long, a group of boy scouts and their leaders from nearby Evansville appeared with fishing gear and poles to try their luck at the pond. I enjoyed watching the young fishermen cast their lines and listened to their friendly banter while waiting for a bite. I was able to get a good start on the painting by the time I was scheduled to head over to the Nature Center.

The sun was just beginning to peek out while I set up for the watercolor painting activity under some shade trees next to the building. Facing the campgrounds, I was able to entice young and old alike to grab a paint set, waterbrush and an assortment of Inktense pencils, Micron pens and (new this year) watercolor crayons. Visitors were able to sit at several brand-new picnic tables nearby and spend a leisurely hour or so painting and chatting with friends and family while listening to the sounds of nature surrounding them. Around fifteen children and grownups stopped by to paint and let me take their photos while proudly displaying their artwork.

For the afternoon demonstration, I set up along the Wabash River, which was still very high and had overflowed its banks just a few days earlier. In fact, the spot I’d chosen to place my easel had clearly been underwater at some point. But, with a good coating of bug spray, I was blocking out color in no time under some lovely shade trees overlooking a scenic stretch of the river.

Just in time too, because I was placed at the river for a reason. For the first time ever, I was actually part of photo scavenger hunt. Participants had to find the artist and take a picture with me and my painting as part of a long list of clues. Not only was this an excellent way to see the park and learn about all the features you might otherwise miss, but I had the opportunity to interact with visitors and show them some plein air painting in action. Scavenger hunters had a chance to compare what I was painting and note my use of colors you wouldn’t expect. For instance, instead of brown or blue water, the surface of the river had a pink glow in the afternoon light that day, and everyone could really see that.

All totaled, I visited with about 55 guests for my first park, many of them braving the damp conditions to camp that weekend. Considering that half the state had canceled all kinds of plans for the weekend because of the wet weather, I call that a success!

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.

Falling For Clifty Falls

This past Memorial Day weekend found me painting up a storm at Clifty Falls State Park near the mighty Ohio river and Madison, Indiana. Created by Ice Age glaciers millions of years ago, the waterfall that has cut away the soft shale from hard limestone bedrock can be found some two miles away from where it first began on the Ohio river banks, leaving a deep canyon in its wake.  Sixty feet high and supplied by this year’s ample spring rains, I could hear the roar of Big Clifty  while I set up my easel for the morning demonstration.

My painting spot was one of several prime viewing areas protected by stone walls built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps where Brad Hessans, the park’s very knowledgeable interpretive naturalist, stopped to point out fossils embedded in the stones. Creek beds and rock formations throughout the park hold many examples of fossils from an ancient marine ecosystem full of corals and brachiopods.

The campgrounds and inn were also full at Clifty for the holiday weekend, and I was able to engage over one hundred visitors throughout the day on Saturday at several locations in the park. I worked on a small oil painting of the Falls in the morning, and a pastel of a long-range view of Clifty Falls from a lookout point on the trail in the afternoon. The trails range from rugged to easy, and there’s plenty to do in the park, as well as the nearby cities of Madison and Louisville.

Established in 1920 at the suggestion of Richard Lieber, father of the Indiana state park system, Clifty Falls is the first of six state parks I’ll visit this summer and fall. If you get the chance, I encourage you to come visit Clifty’s stunning waterfalls and scenic overlooks. My next stop in June is Mounds State Park near Anderson, Indiana. Until then, grab some supplies and go make some art outside!