Category Archives: Uncategorized

Skull scholars

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I just finished up two weeks at Floyd Dryden Middle School in Juneau, working almost exclusively with 7th grade science classes. The students were studying human body systems, and had just finished with the skeletal system, so the subject of the residency was comparative anatomy, focusing on the skull. For me, this was a dream residency: working directly in science classes, to showcase how art and science can compliment and enhance each other.

Science teacher Jess Cobley had prepped the students beforehand with a skull observation lesson from Cornell University, so they started with a great a foundation in animal skull characteristics. Then for the first week of the residency I taught sketching techniques and students practiced sketching to closely examine and compare the skulls of various Alaskan mammals. Then in the second week I taught pen illustration skills and light-on-dark techniques, and each student created two finished products: one “technical” pen illustration with caption, and one more interpretive white pencil illustration that revealed something about the animal’s life through the “window” of the eye socket or nasal opening.

I’m so proud of the students, and I think many of them were surprised and thrilled at how well their illustrations turned out. Here are some of the results, displayed at the Juneau Airport. As you can see, many of the students created work that isn’t just high-quality for 7th graders, it’s actually professional-quality illustration.

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The Artists In Schools Program is made possible through partnership between the Alaska State Council on the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts, with additional support from the Juneau Arts & Humanities Council, the Rasmuson Foundation, Floyd Dryden School, and the Floyd Dryden Parent Group.

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Harbor morning

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Weeks of clear skies and no rain have left us all a bit disoriented. It just doesn’t feel right to have so much sunshine here. And the river is so low that the returning coho are crowded into just a few pools by the dozen, jostling each other and (I assume) eagerly awaiting the taste of fresh rainwater so they can push further upriver.

But it does make for good drawing weather. My friend Carole and I went sketching at the harbor yesterday morning, and it was idyllic.

A parliament of owls

 

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I love skulls. Skulls tell stories and evoke emotions. They’re beautiful as whole objects, but they’re also full of micro-landscapes and eerie abstractions that resonate in nameless ways with our own visual and tactile experiences. So I draw them often. But I’ve rarely painted skulls.

I got the urge a few days ago, so I pulled out a few bird skulls and looked them over. I intended to paint a raven skull, but my eye kept getting drawn to the owls.

I started with the one in the center. It was really meant just as an exercise in brush strokes and values. But after I got it roughed in, it looked lonely. I set out a couple of the other owl skulls and added them into the scene…and they instantly gave the whole painting a story. I like the way a single static, lonely skull on a dark field turned into a conversation.

Learning new skills

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A friend who is a book artist and professional bookbinder has been kindly teaching me some of her arts. It’s much more precise work than I’m used to… I’m a rather sloppy worker, despite all the details of my sketches. But it’s fascinating stuff, and I’ve emerged from it with a couple of my own handmade sketchbooks and a much greater appreciation for the work involved in making and repairing books. It’s sacred work, at least to those of us who still prefer boards and paper to luminous screens…

Otter skull

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I went on the Audubon Christmas Bird Count a couple of weeks ago, and while we didn’t have any stand-out birds to report, it was a banner day for bones and skulls. The day’s discoveries included a murre skull, an eagle skull, a partial sea lion skull, a moose jaw, and numerous bird and mammal bones.

Plus this sea otter skull. Sea otters are increasing dramatically in Southeast Alaska. Fifteen years ago it would have been a shock to find a sea otter skull; I’ve seen at least three on or near the local beaches just this year.

Sea otter skulls are similar to river otter skulls, but there are some key differences. The average sea otter skull is visibly bigger than the average river otter skull, with a bigger nasal opening (I wonder why?) But even without these differences, the teeth distinguish them easily. Eaters of hard-shelled prey such as clams and crabs, sea otters have flattened, smooth-cusped molars where river otters have tendon-shearing carnassials.

This otter was probably several years old, judging from the skull size and the worn condition of its molars. I think the canine tooth was broken post-mortem; the break was sharp-edged and splintery, not worn at all.

Sea otters spend a huge amount of time grooming their fur, which is their primary insulation (they don’t have blubber). Looking at those precisely-shaped, comb-like incisors makes me wonder if their shapes have any special adaptive functions for fur maintenance…

The one that didn’t migrate

A few days ago, a friend called and said she had found a hummingbird in her garage. It had come inside sometime this fall and had either not been able to find its way out, or had just been too weak or cold to survive. It had freeze-dried, hanging by its feet from a wire, with its tail splayed out against the wall. The unusual position, in which it can “sit” balanced on its tail, with beak straight up, made for an intriguing view to sketch.

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Swallows take flight

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Outside and above the front door of our cabin is a roof beam, protected from rain and wind by translucent porch roofing–a perfect spot to set up housekeeping… especially if you’re a barn swallow. In mid-May of this year, two adult swallows showed up and began the process of renovating and settling into the mud nest.

Yesterday morning at about 6:30 I heard a bit of a commotion out there, and looked out the window. After weeks of crowded nest life, one of the chicks had made the leap, and was clinging precariously to a beam below. Its mother was swooping and fluttering nearby. She eventually convinced the chick to flutter over to the stair rail.

I sneaked out the door and set a chair nearby to sketch the fledgie. To my delight, the three remaining nestlings came out within a half an hour–each one encouraged by the parents, then “herded” to perch on the rail or on a rope hanging over the porch. I felt rather honored to be tolerated so close, sketching busily in the midst of this momentous occasion…