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!

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!

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.