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!

Falling Water

Painting at a safe distance with pastels on an 8 x 10" Ampersand pastelboard.

Painting at a safe distance with pastels on an 8 x 10″ Ampersand pastelboard.

During my painting events in state parks this year, visitors kept recommending that I visit Cataract Falls State Recreational Area, an easy drive from Indianapolis on I-70 near Cloverdale, Indiana. Whenever I mentioned my love of painting water in its many forms, the answer was often, “Oh then, you need to paint Cataract Falls. They’re the best in Indiana!” After my visit earlier this month on a gorgeous Saturday afternoon, I can tell you that those claims aren’t exaggerated.

A robust Mill Creek feeds the upper and lower sets of waterfalls which run over two ridges of pre-glacial bedrock, boasting the greatest volume of water (and sound) of any waterfall in the state. Both upper and lower falls provide plenty of good views for painting, but I settled on a spot at the edge of the ravine below the upper falls, apart from the viewing platforms and steady stream of foot traffic. There is also a historic red covered bridge that crosses the creek nearby, featuring a unique lattice-pattern truss system. I hope to paint it and the lower falls when I return.

The irony is that my family and I used to live just up the road years ago, and never knew about this hidden treasure. Now that we have been captured by its charms, we will definitely come back to Cataract Falls in the future.

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.

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.

Leap Day

On this extra day of 2016, I have taken the leap, plunging into a brave new world of creative expression. I’ve pulled out my painting equipment from winter’s closet, and brushed off the brushes. Palettes have been scraped clean of old doubts and crusty fears, big ideas packed for the move and my muses notified of my new location.

My calling cards come in the form of a new blog, a fresh Instagram account and a different email address. Like the proud new owner of a second home, I will split my time between the original writer’s cottage of Suburban Satsangs and a recently acquired rustic artist’s cabin called Paints in the Parks.

As with any major move, I’m sure that adjustments will be made in this transition. The mental furniture may need to be rearranged and ego expectations repainted. But I find that there’s nothing that a summer’s worth of fresh forest and field of flowers won’t fix. I look forward to flinging my door wide in welcome to babbling brooks, gushing waterfalls, stoic cliffs and mysterious caves.

And of course, my door is always open to you, dear reader. I hope you’ll make the leap with me and that I’ll see you here at my new digs this year.

Writing for Art

Tamara_4

My tradition the last few years has been to choose a “word” for the year, starting in January. My word for 2015 was “Write,” and while I confess that I did write a fair bit, my greatest efforts weren’t in the form I’d imagined last year. Instead of the usual creative outlets like journal entries, poetry or even that book I keep promising to self-publish, I spent a huge chunk of my time in the throes of the hardest writing of my life — along with the blinking cursor of an online grant application that I filled out last fall.

As a grizzled veteran of numerous English research papers and an agonizingly procrastinated Master’s thesis, this is no small claim. The precise language and focused nuances required in proposing my project and asking for funding threw me into a strange new world, since I struggled to accurately portray a vision that would benefit the public as well as my own personal pursuits. You see, this particular grant focuses on creating art outside in state parks, and in my case, that art will be visual rather than verbal.

That’s right, my battles with the written page have been transferred to the terrors of a blank canvas, all in the name of celebrating art in nature. And I will gladly take on that challenge if I can convert even one person to the joys of spending artistic time outdoors, whether it’s to write a poem, compose a song, dance a jig, or set up an easel to paint.

Plus, I’ll be able to travel to some of the most beautiful natural settings that Indiana has to offer with a trusty assistant (my husband), and invite the great outdoors to be my personal work space. In the weeks to come, you’ll see a new WordPress blog called “Paints in the Parks” detailing my journey as I paint scenic landscapes in six state parks while I research my painting subjects and interact with the park visitors who stop by my easel.

I believe that in our modern society, we spend too much time cooped up in homes or offices that can become self-made prison cells, preoccupied with the flickering screens of fake connections and false avatars, while a sentient world lies just outside our doors, at the bus stop, on the bike trails, in the parks, and under the shade trees in our backyards; all waiting to be celebrated through ART — my word for 2016.