The last night of our Sea Wolf adventure was spent on the fringe of the world, a tiny island outboard of Elfin Cove that stands sentinel at the edge of the open Pacific. Its forest is all charm: small spruce and hemlock, an understory of windswept, deer-nipped grass, patches of deer-shredded blueberry bushes, and deer-bitten skunk cabbages. A gravel trail meanders from a beach of granite pebbles to a headland capped by a WWII cannon, still pointing oceanward but drooping down as if tired of watching. I could have spent days there, and am already trying to figure out ways to get back. This painting was started at sunset, the light fading fast, and finished the next morning.
I just got back from a two-week art residency in Sitka, working with Keet Gooshi Heen Elementary students. It was lovely! For the first week, I worked exclusively with the 4th graders, teaching basic observation and drawing skills; my goal was to get the students excited about keeping a “science sketchbook” and confident in drawing from observation. They drew feathers, skulls, shells, seed pods, and more, and took notes about their observations, their ideas, and their questions.
During the second week the school hosted its annual Project Fair, a chance for students to share their studies in a science fair-like setting. As part of the fair, we set up a table showcasing the drawings from the 4th grade classes. It was really satisfying to see all of that careful observation and learning arrayed together. This photo shows a section of the sketch show; my big example sketches are up on the wall, and the student books are below on the table. Each student chose his or her favorite sketch to show.
Thanks to Keet Gooshi Heen teachers and staff–especially science teacher Rebecca Himschoot, and thanks to the Sitka Fine Arts Camp–especially Program Director Kenley Jackson.
I went to a friend’s house yesterday to do some sketching; had a lingering headache from earlier in the morning so I was a little restless. An old cottonwood–a massive black dendrite in the yard–caught my eye, so I pulled out a brush pen and tried to work out the hierarchy of branching directions.
What is it that makes a cottonwood? A certain powerful upward angle of primary branches (trending to bowed lower on the trunk); graceful swoops of secondary branches. And the short, stout bud-branchlets, bristling out almost perpendicular to the more sinuous smallest branches.
By the time I reached the bottom of the tree my brush pen was almost dry, but it felt OK for the drawing to stutter out.
Looking at the drawing today I’m struck by how it feels like a visualization of my headache–the tendrils of pain branching around my neck and head. I like the thought–it’s comforting somehow.
Just finished another bird for my bird-card series…
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…
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.
One of the fun things about traveling in Southeast Alaska is noticing the often-subtle differences in vegetation from place to place. Wrangell is just far enough south so that cedars are a major component of the forest, lending it a a different texture. Here in Juneau, we have to hike quite a ways in to find the little pockets of cedar that exist here.
The fauna's a little different too. Northern flickers are fairly common around Wrangell, but not so commonly seen here. I love watching their wings and tails flash fiery orange as they fly.
It's amazing how quickly a year passes. I've traveled and taught and sketched a lot in the past year, but haven't returned to my lonely blog til now.
Just got back from a teaching trip to Wrangell, Alaska, for the Stikine River Birding Festival. Bird highlights for me included sandhill cranes chortling overhead, flocks of white-fronted geese descending on the school football/soccer field, snow geese whirling over the Stikine Delta, and a fascinating talk about the wildlife of Wrangel Island, Russia by biologist Vassily Baranyuk. Also, this sad highlight, a female rufous hummingbird that hit a window. I tried to capture her iridescence by starting with white Prismacolor for the feather texture, then layering metallic green watercolor and several shades of Neocolor pastels and water.
Today, two hummingbirds–a male and a female–are tussling over the feeder outside my window, swirling around each other and surrounded by swirling snowflakes. It has been a long, cold spring.Nice to see these little spots of warmth.
Some Gustavus friends were out in search of a Christmas tree and found instead this beautiful shed antler…
I just got back from a great two weeks in Gustavus, where I was working with students and teachers at the school.The school is wonderful; there are just over 50 students, grades K-12. And Gustavus is a fascinating place: a broad, flat landscape, formed by outwash from the Glacier Bay glaciers over many centuries. The combination of flat land, lush meadows and wetlands, wandering rivers, and pine/spruce/cottonwood forest are an unusual mix in Southeast Alaska.I saw swans and herons, listened to a wolf moan under the stars, and got thrilled (even a little over-thrilled) by moose.
I'll post a series of Gustavus sketches next, starting with an iconic plant: willow.