Art and Bison Over at Ouabache

In September, Paints in the Parks traveled to Ouabache (pronounced O-ba-chee) State Park near Fort Wayne, Indiana, to help the park celebrate National Public Lands Day and the re-opening of their fire tower. Once home to the Miami tribe who lived along the banks of the Wabash River, the park was also once known as the “Greatest Wildlife Laboratory in the United States” with a game preserve program that raised pheasants, quail, raccoons and rabbits. Nowadays, one of the park’s main attractions is the bison exhibit with a healthy herd that is accessible to the public.

The area that includes the park was rapidly settled in the mid-1800s and cleared of its mature timber for farming to the point that the land became severely eroded. After being acquired and operated as the Wells County State Forest and Game Preserve in the early 1930s, the area was eventually restored with the help of the Civilian Conservation Corps and Works Progress Administration, programs that constructed buildings and shelters, planted a nursery and developed the game preserve. When the game-raising program was phased out, the park was renamed Ouabache and designated as a state recreation area in 1962, officially becoming a state park in 1983. As well as 25-acre Kunkel Lake, the fire tower and the bison exhibit,  Ouabache offers a modern campground, tennis and basketball courts, picnic areas, playing fields and an asphalt bike trail that follows the Wabash River along the southern edge of the park.

After some very hot weather during the week, temperatures suddenly plunged on the day of our visit and I found myself having to acclimate quickly while bundled up in many layers as I painted on a beach by the lake in a stiff morning breeze. While no one was boating or fishing that morning, a few painters came down to watch me capture the little island close to the beach house. I had some great conversations about my set up, the kind of subject I choose and how I build the painting (after a rough outline with pencil or paint, I usually start with the sky).

After a couple hours of conversation and painting, I moved on to a prime spot next to the bison exhibit, where I spent the rest of the day offering my hands-on painting activity across the road from the remodeled fire tower that had just reopened that morning. All day long, visitors could scale the tower and take in the amazing 360-degree view. There was even a quiz game that the park staff sponsored in the afternoon that involved climbing the fire tower steps.

While I was hoping that at least a few of the bison would wander close enough for me to crank out a quick pastel sketch, the buffalo had other ideas. A few young males did camp out for most of the day in a corner of the enclosure farther down the path, close enough to pose for visitors’ photos while they snoozed. I managed to run down and take enough photos for a sketch at home. Needless to say, there were lots of bison that showed up in the watercolors that day, with the living subjects within view in the distance.

Despite the unseasonable cold, we interacted with 90 visitors and had 50 artists participate in the painting activity! Another very successful Paints in the Parks event with the continued support of the park staff, the Indiana DNR and the Indiana Arts Commission through the Arts in the Parks and Historic Sites grant program. I couldn’t keep spreading the create art outside message without their support and the willingness of countless park visitors to paint in the parks with me.

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Wonderful Watercolors at Whitewater Memorial

In August I spent a lovely day along the banks of Whitewater Memorial State Park’s beautiful lake located south of Richmond, Indiana, close to the Ohio state border. Established in 1949 to honor those who served in World War II, Whitewater has the distinction of being the only state park purchased with funding raised by the citizens in four Indiana counties, making it truly a park for the people. The 200-acre manmade lake is surrounded by wooded rolling hills, steep ravines and an impressive dam that provides access to neighboring Brookville Reservoir.

I began the day on a bluff overlooking Whitewater Lake near one of the many shelters available for picnics and gatherings. The Saturday I visited,  members of a big family reunion walked over to engage with me about my painting demonstration set up in view of the water through an opening in the trees. I was grateful for shade on this hot summer day not only for comfort but also to help with the sun’s glare that can distort my paint colors. I was also situated along one of the trails and roads that follow the shoreline, so I was easily accessed by park guests driving cars, riding bikes and hiking.

At noon, I moved to the bathhouse near the park’s swimming beach which again provided plenty of shade on a covered patio overlooking the beach. The upper level was under construction and will become the future site for Whitewater’s nature center. Besides swimming, there are plenty of opportunities to fish, camp and ride horses along miles of bridle trails. While we were painting, all kinds of boats and watercraft floated by and many bird species flew over or landed in the water.

Another large family reunion stopped by my painting activity after swimming and showers to try out the water brushes and paint supplies. I was thrilled to see so many crowding the picnic tables to paint while one young lady softly played her ukulele.  In all, fifteen young people had fun with watercolors with as many adults cheering them on and assisting the littlest artists. We gathered for a great group photo thanks to one of the moms who miraculously organized everyone to stand still, smile and even display their artwork all at the same time!

The final stop was once again located in a shady spot next to the boat rental shop, with a rack of kayaks on display and an enticing dock that I couldn’t resist painting in pastels on one of my ampersand pastel panels. I was particularly attracted to the bright reflected flush of gold foliage on the opposite shore, a reminder even on a hot day in August that autumn is just around the corner. The steady stream of boaters leaving or returning with their rentals gave me plenty of opportunities to show my work for the day and discuss the merits of creating art outside.

It was a perfect way to wrap up a relaxing day of creating art and connecting with over 60 visitors. Paints in the Parks was also honored to be the first Arts in the Parks event held at Whitewater Memorial State Park, making this visit a special one to remember.

A Terrific Time at Tippecanoe

What do triathletes, a famous furry celebrity and a plein air painter have in common? We were all present for a fun Saturday in July at Tippecanoe State Park, located north of Logansport, Indiana. The day began with a triathlon race with a finish line on the banks of the Tippecanoe River that runs seven miles along the eastern border of the park, and ended with a 75th birthday celebration of the park’s establishment in 1943, including cake and an appearance by Smokey the Bear!

I began my day by painting a bucolic scene at the river overlook near the park’s expanding nature center and close to the finish line for the triathlon. While we waited for the first race participants to float into view, I captured the waterway that was a major highway for the Potawatomi who called this area home and the French fur traders who came from Canada seeking beaver pelts in exchange for blankets, utensils and other goods. By the 1800s settlers cleared the land for farming and grazing. In the 1930s the U.S. Department of the Interior acquired over 7,000 acres which were not well-suited for agriculture along the Tippecanoe and eventually designated most of it as a Fish and Wildlife area. The remaining 2,761 acres that lie east of US 35 are still part of the state park.

By the time I made good progress on my oil painting and was ready to move on to my painting activity, I’d visited with plenty of park guests who were rooting for race participants and watching them paddle down the river, including the first finishers who stopped by while eating post-race snacks and catching their breath. The weather was perfect for paddling and painting that day, and I couldn’t have asked for better.

The remainder of my visit took place under shady trees in the front lawn of the nature center, where Paints in the Parks had stiff competition from a blacksmith demonstration, a letter-writing activity in honor of veterans serving in WWII during the time when this park was founded, and even a bounce house! Nevertheless, we had a steady stream of visitors all afternoon, who took advantage of a beautiful Saturday afternoon to relax at picnic tables and paint. Smokey the Bear even stopped by, but I couldn’t convince him to ply his artistic talents because he was too busy getting the word out about fire safety for our national forests.

All in all, I engaged with over 80 park guests who were camping, biking, hiking or racing in the park that day, while enjoying the river views and interacting with knowledgeable staff and exhibitors. Tippecanoe River State Park may be off the beaten track and interstates, but it is truly a hidden gem that is worth the drive through country roads and quaint Indiana towns. I know I’ll be returning for my own relaxing visit someday soon.