Archive for December, 2009

A drawing can be as simple as a single mark made upon a surface or be as rich and complex as you care to make it.  Engraving a line in the sand with something as familiar as a stick must be among the most ancient of art forms.  At the Falls of the Ohio, one is never far away from a wooden stylus of any length.  The extensive sandy shoreline provides an ample surface to decorate, however, the beach doesn’t lend itself to fancy displays of draughtsmanship.  Keeping things simple seems to look best to me.  I also enjoy other people’s sand drawings which seems to have a connection to graffiti, but without all the potential for vandalism.  If you don’t like what you drew, rub it away, or wait for nature to erase it.  Around here, wind and water make short work of these ephemeral images.  Little harm is done.  Following are a few of my recent scratchings:

Here’s hoping we all have a peaceful and prosperous 2010.  Happy New Year from the Falls of the Ohio!

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The Ohio River rose and just as quickly receded.  Logs were left to dangle on top of the dam’s walls stranded there by the retreating waters.  Along the shoreline, new deposits of driftwood are laid out in parallel rows and tell a story of where this wooden wave crashed before relenting.

I’m always amazed at how quickly the water backs down.  Higher on shore, you will find where most of the bigger logs and limbs were trapped.  And, as the river draws back into its deeper channels, the lighter flotsam that was able to ride the waves is deposited about mid-bank in a debris field that features a lot of plastic.

As high water events go…this one was very mild.  I had no real idea how high the water would go when I blogged about the rising river.  A few more feet up the bank and the water would have reached my spot.  Here’s a shot showing the extant of the flooding.  Look at the color of the wood for the clue.  All the newest material is blondish-brown in color, while the older wood has had a chance to oxidize a greyish color from the summer sun.

This time I was lucky and my collection of Styrofoam and sculptures remained in place.  I checked out Pot Belly and Lorraine and they were pretty much as I left them with the exception of one detail.  Someone gave Lorraine a penis!  I guess they didn’t know she’s a lady…I guess you would have had to read my mind on that one since I didn’t provide any other clues as to their gender.  Most of the time that doesn’t strike me as being important in these pieces.  Here again is the happy couple high and dry.

I did make a quick, newer figure from the latest Ohio River junk.  My inspiration for this guy came from the green hand that says “Clap for the Lord”.  He isn’t a particularly handsome guy, but I am thankful that my site didn’t get washed away this time.  I don’t think I was ready to let it go especially when I still had so much material to use.

Just a few days a go, much of the northern and eastern sections of the U.S. were buried under heavy snow.  When that eventually melts, it will swell the streams, and creeks that are a part of the Ohio River’s watershed.  When that happens the river will rise here again.  How far it will get this time is uncertain.  It’s now officially winter and periodic flooding has been known to happen.  I know in my heart of hearts that the river will swallow up my studio site and I will have to establish a new base.  At least, I will have the consolation of discovering what the river has left behind.

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For the last four years I have been making images and objects for the holiday season from Falls of the Ohio materials.  How would you like to wake up on Christmas morning and find salvaged Styrofoam under or on the tree?  I would wager it wouldn’t be on the top of many people’s lists…but I have been surprised before.  The cards, however, seem to find a wider audience and I like the whole writing a note and actually putting a stamp on an envelope and trusting that it will arrive to whom it is intended kind of thing.  Placing pen to paper is also a more intimate and personal experience and something working online can’t duplicate in the same way.

The first several series of holiday images were figural.  About two years ago, I started making “abstract” ornaments from found materials and “posing” or “decorating” parts of this Falls of the Ohio landscape and photographing the result. The trees in this landscape are just as worthy of aesthetic consideration as the one you may select for your parlor.   The picture above is an image of ornaments I made that are decorating a sycamore branch.  A buffalo trace once existed in historic times not too far away from this view.

Two views of two separate ornaments.  I call these forms  “Ice Blossoms” and they are made with found Styrofoam and river-polished glass.  Many of these round foam forms were originally Christmas ornaments to begin with and I have rehabilitated them to their original purpose.  The glass,  I find along the riverbank.  It’s mostly bottle glass.  The interaction between river and sand polishes away the sharp edges and creates the “frosty” appearance. Also,  some of the foam balls I use were originally fishing bobbers…they are smaller and usually have some flourescent color on them.  I add an eyehook (if necessary) and found wire to finish them.

The ornaments work on a number of levels.  Some seem to emulate seed pods while others have an animal aggressiveness to them.  Photographing them against the fossil beds that were once a primordial marine environment, brings out their urchin-like aspects.  Can you imagine some of them creeping across the floor of an ancient ocean?  I can also “see” these being the  crystals of some strange silica-based mineral.  What do you see?

Locating these baubles  in different contexts is a way of interpreting the “sense of place” I feel is important about the Falls of the Ohio.  I never tire of seeing this spot as being one of the unique intersections of time and space in the history of life.  What I’m doing here continues that tradition in an albeit more modest way.  While the past is a big part of what this place was…it is, however, still very much alive in the present and moving on.

Currently, there isn’t much that’s still green around here.  I did, however, find this prickly briar vine and thought it was a good way to show off two bobber-type ornaments.  After I make the images, send-off the cards, I still have the ornaments themselves to give away as gifts.  Doing this puts me into the “spirit of the season” more than just about anything else.  That and staring at Christmas lights!  Here’s hoping everyone out there has a safe, peaceful, and meaningful holiday!

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With ten days to go until the big event, I thought I would share some of the images I’m using on my holiday cards.  Since I began my Falls of the Ohio project, I’ve tried to create a seasonal image out of the junk I’ve found here.  This year I have two series going.  The first features this tiny Santa figure I made and the second involves ornaments I made and photographed in this context.  I’ll show you the ornaments later, but for now….here’s Styro-Santa.

The first two images were shot on a nice day along the park’s Woodland Trail.  The path moves away from the interpretive center before looping back to the parking lot.  I started this piece by finding the bleached out Santa Claus head.  More than likely, this is off of some Christmas candy novelty.  I found the felt wreath, red plastic berry buttons, twigs, and Styrofoam and connected all the parts together.

I moved this small piece around to different contexts.  Here the figure is standing in brown and curling willow leaves.  This Santa is holding a diminutive plastic car.  I photographed this piece not far away from my studio site about two weeks ago.  The last time I visited the Falls,  the river was getting very high and I’m wondering if my spot was claimed by the waters? You can read my previous post for more details about that.

I suppose this picture was influenced somewhat by the whole Keebler Elves thing!  Many of the willow trees have these cave-like cavities at their bases that are perfect for pictures like this one.

This last Styro-Santa features a small, plastic baseball figure I found in the sand.  It too is posed among the driftwood and willow leaves.  Unless you know what the elements in these shots are…it can be difficult to judge their scale.  In this way, they can live large in your imaginations.  The decision to use polystyrene foam to construct a Santa figure seems appropriate on many levels.  For one, during the gift giving frenzy, a lot of this stuff will literally be thrown away.  Some of it may wind up in the river.  In my mind, Styrofoam has also come to embody much of what this holiday now represents…more mass and less substance.  In a way I wouldn’t have originally considered before starting this project, Styrofoam is a fitting symbol that captures the times we live in all too well.

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“The river is rising…the river is rising!!”  “All within the sound of my voice, hear me!”  “We may not have long to prepare before the water claims us.”

I visited the Falls last Saturday and indeed was surprised to see how high the river had risen.  The Army Corps of Engineers had let some of the water through the dams and this action, I figured, was a result of the rains that fell upriver hundreds of miles away?  The river had crept its closest to my studio spot since I established it back in the spring.  The Styrofoam that I had cached there became panicky and started organizing itself before the inevitable inundation.  The call about the river rising came from an especially large Styrofoam figure that I hadn’t seen before. 

“This could be it…this could be the big one.”  “All inhabitants of Styro-land make preparations.”  “Gather all things that are precious and can float away and seek higher ground.”  “Is there anybody out there that can hear me?”   

 In the background, the sound of logs crashing and rolling over each other in the waves made a particularly un-nerving grinding and squeaking sound.  Every once in a while a large pop would register as something wooden broke apart. 

“Is there anyone out there to harken to my call and needs help?” These words came from the figure I dubbed “Pot Belly” and I soon realized that he wasn’t alone.  At the edge of my vision, a figure moved.

“Dude, I’m here and what’s all the noise about?”  “Sounds like you need to take a chill-pill and relax.”  “The river rising is no big deal.”  “It’s happened a million times over thousands of years.”  “So, what could be that different this time around?”  This reply came from an equally large Styrofoam figure that was relaxing on a log and watching the waters inch closer by the moment.  I decided to give this figure the name of “Cross-legged Lorraine”…for obvious reasons.

Pot Belly then proceeded to tell Cross-legged Lorraine that unlike previous floods, this one was going to effect them directly.  This wasn’t a hypothetical scenario or some dim recollection from a by-gone day.  This is real.  Soon their bodies would get caught up in nature’s momentum and be carried away and altered in the process.  Whatever happens and wherever they may next wash ashore…they would be different.  For some, reaching the ocean would be one step closer as the river flows westward before reaching the Mississippi and it’s journey south to the Gulf of Mexico.

The realization of Pot Belly’s words could be read on Lorraine’s face.  I think the photograph I took of her conveys a little of the panic in the situation.

I watched as the two Styro-figures slowly walked to an area that was slightly higher in elevation.  Pot Belly lifted Lorraine onto an especially large log and that was where I left them.  I may or may not see them again and I suddenly felt sad.  I was the only human being around this day to witness this event.

Through the leafless trees, I could see the little area that I had made my temporary home for my flights of imagination this year.  I’m going to miss sitting on a familiar log with all this “potential” gathered around me. To all things there is a season and I know that the river will soon rearrange this spot as though I was never here.  All the materials I gathered will move along and perhaps I will recover some of it a little further down river.  Over time, the waters will deposit other materials and I will gather those too and make what I can make in this dynamic location.  I gave my studio site another good look and selected a few nice driftwood branches and walked away.  I can’t wait to see what happens next.

My thanks to my eight-year old son, Adam for his editorial advice.  He suggested that Lorraine should say “Yo, dude…” in her reply to Pot Belly, but I thought that sounded too skateboardish.

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I remember how one drawing instructor I had at the university used to say that “…line does not exist in nature”.  I think about that statement every time I come across one of these tangles of fishing line.  They always catch my eye and on occasion I have photographed them.  It is true that line is a convention in drawing (one of the basic elements of art) used to symbolically translate a three-dimensional reality onto a two-dimensional surface.  Out here on the riverbank, the contour edges on fishing line are so close together that they become less abstract,  symbolic device as they merge and become line as object.

Fishing line comes in just about every color now.  I recently came upon this green line sort of informally gathered around these willow sprigs. In this picture,  I like the way the green compliments the reddish-brown of the trees and conveys an airy and lyrical feeling.  That’s also what I enjoy about “line” as a drawing element…it has the power to suggest emotion.

And now for a wad of red fishing line just thrown down upon the limestone bedrock.  Yes, if you are a fisherman, you are familiar with how “line” can convey emotion in the three-dimensional world.  Few things are as frustrating as having the line on your pole foul up or get snagged in a tree or an unseen obstruction underwater!  Still, it’s no excuse to discard your waste line so casually as though all of nature were your personal landfill.  Roll up what can’t be used and take it out of the park with you.

This has to be one of the champion examples of fisherman frustration at the Falls!  The discarded pack of cigarettes helps give it a needed sense of scale.  There is a lot going on in this tangle and includes a bit of frayed barge cable in addition to several types of monofilament.  This was photographed when the water was low and the roots of this tree were not hidden by the river.  Currents do play a part in helping to ensnare fishing line.  In this case, several lines have come together and coalesced into a mass.  You can say that this form has metastasized and will keep getting larger and become an even bigger fishing line trap.  If you could tease this thing apart and lay it down straight…I wonder how long it would be?

The other day I was working on images to use for my holiday cards.  One of the ideas I have been exploring involves these ornaments I have made with found, Falls of the Ohio junk.  I came across this tree hanging over the water that already had a few “decorations” on it and placed my ornament into this ready-made composition.  If you look closely, you can see there is just enough fishing line tangled up here to add a subtle sense of movement.

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It’s the first real taste of winter and the few people out at the Falls today are hardy fishermen and me.  The only birds I encountered were a quartet of Carolina Chickadees moving through the tops of the now “nude” willows.  All this year’s leaves are lying brown and curled up around the bases of these trees.  Nearer the river, each footstep is greeted by the sound of the thinnest ice crunching underfoot.  Later as the sun arcs up, this ice will disappear and become mud that sticks stubbornly to my shoes.  I walk the shoreline picking up and photographing the things I find interesting or worth keeping.  Because it’s cold, I don’t plan to stick around for hours.  I remind myself of the other times I’ve visited the Falls when it was really windy and freezing.  Because survival knows no fashion, during those times I would wear my “Elmer Fudd” cap…the one with the ear flaps!  Not even my best friends have ever seen me sporting that one!

After checking out the latest river offerings, I circled around my studio spot.  With the vegetation down, it’s become much more visible from the informal trail that meanders nearby.  Immediately, I can see that things were not as I left them.  Someone else has stopped by and made use of the materials I have gathered and banked at this location.  Here’s a closer look at what he or she has created.  I studied it for a while before forming an opinion.  I was a bit surprised by my own feelings.

This is the Styro-tableau as I found it.  It consists of three polystyrene sculptures and one hand-lettered sign.  Whoever this artist is has recycled the head of one of my older pieces (the Watchful Willie figure) and attached it to a “body” of their making.  There is also a stylized, abstract “fish” and a smaller, abstract “figure” that’s really crude and falling apart.  It must have been made sometime during the week.  Also nearby, are a few older works I’ve left behind, but those pieces are undisturbed.

I appreciate that this artist has tried to create some sense of movement out of these static materials.  It’s not an easy thing to accomplish.  The arm and hand shading the eyes is a nice touch.  What I’m less enthused about is the use of the blue marker and the hand-lettered sign.  The admonishing tone of the “message” is not my cup of coffee.  I’m also not wild about the idea of breaking the Styrofoam up to make the work.   I do, however, acknowledge that when you invite others to play…you can’t always control the game.  At least whoever made these works attempted something creative which is a message I much prefer sending out into the world.  Here’s a better look at the fish sculpture.  The spines are beaver-chewed willow sticks.

I think this would still read as a “fish” without the marker.  In my own Falls  work, I try to keep things “pure” by using only what I find here.  Although it’s possible that the marker was also found on location…the sign to me would suggest otherwise.  I wonder if the person or persons who made these sculptures also made the works in my previous post?  After encountering this latest  grouping the desire to make something of my own left me.  I instead decided to gather river-worn glass for a series of ornaments I’m making at home.  I’ll show you those later.  I am amazed that an earlier sculpture I assembled a few weeks a go is still standing upright!  Usually these take a stick or rock to the chest not long after they are set up.  This is in a particularly muddy area and so visitors might be reluctant to come near it.  For now, I’ll end with that image.

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The river is low and clear and fisherman have been testing their luck at the Falls of the Ohio.  It’s one of those situations where even if the fish aren’t biting, it’s still wonderful to be out in nature.  Sightseers have been moving along the riverbank and on this occasion I have come across other sculptures that while they aren’t mine…may have been inspired by what I do out here? 

Visitors have “recycled” one of my old pieces and made this work that I call “Jack Daniels” based on the empty whiskey bottle stuck in the sand by its feet!  It’s a decidedly tipsy work and seems to sport what I think may be an improvised ice pack on its head.  The turned-wood cane steadies the piece and provides much-needed support.  Perhaps the same person or persons did this other sculpture near “Jack”?  It may be either a robot constructed from stacked rocks or maybe an image of a small television with antennae balanced on stacked rocks?  It doesn’t really matter.  I responded to the sight and added it to my collection of images of “Other People’s Art Made at the Falls”.  Over the years, I have also collected pictures of what other folks have made and left with materials indigenous to this area.  Actually, I’m surprised that I don’t come across more of the stacked rock works since that seems like such a universal human thing to do.

Appearing with more regularity are the Ring-billed Gulls that move into our area once the weather begins to cool.  I observed a large flock with their distinctive white dot on black wing tips flying above me in a slowly circling ball.  Maybe they were getting their bearings on their way to other areas? Anyway, a few stray birds peeled away from the drifting flock and remained in the immediate area.  I photographed this juvenile Ring-billed Gull standing in shallow water near a small Styro-fisherman I had constructed.

When I come out here, I try to make something from the debris I come across.  I usually always feel better about life in general when I’m engaged in creating an artwork.  Here’s the fisherman figure I made on this day.  He is standing on beaver-chewed willow legs as is the pole he holds.

Although I have made many fishing figures over the years, this one was inspired by that day’s finds.  Walking the riverbank, I assembled a small collection of soft-bodied jigs lost by real fisherman.  The river works them loose from wherever they are snagged and beaches them lead-head and all.  The curving tails are intended to flutter through the water once they are reeled in.  It’s an effective movement that fish find hard to resist.

I selected the one that looks like a blue minnow and because it also had a nice length of monofilament attached to it… added it to my work.  I carried the piece along the shoreline and photographed it by the water.  I drew a few quizzical looks and even a laugh or two from real fishermen!

Here’s another image that shows the figure in the context of the larger landscape.  The old railroad bridge in the background has become such a presence in so many of my photographs.  Until next time…

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