Archive for March, 2010

Here’s a story that came out of the recent high water we just experienced.  The Ohio River can be an unpredictable element in our landscape.  One moment it seems blue and peaceful and in a matter of hours can rise, be muddy, and turbulent.  I was walking along the edge of the water and I came across this unexpected sight.

Washing in and out with the river waves was this bright yellow raft!  As I was watching, an especially large wave drove the raft high upon the sand and I approached to check it out.  I remember wondering who lost this and how far had it traveled from its home?  Could it’s owner be nearby?  I kept walking along the shoreline and finding other bits of flotsam and jetsam to put into my collecting bag for later use.  That’s when I came across what I believe to have been the raft’s occupant.  It was a sad discovery.

It was a little mud baby and the rough water must have pitched him out of the raft.  With the treacherous currents and logs bashing about in the waves, he probably was swiftly overwhelmed.  He only had this scrap of cloth left on his body.  I pulled back and took this last image of where I found him.

I can recall as a kid, a description about dinosaurs that always stuck with me.  Despite the immense size some of them reached, their gray matter was rather miniscule.  In fact, the comparison that was given was that their brains were the size of walnuts.  I find walnuts all the time by the river.  So, I have started using them regularly as an indicator of scale with some of the objects I find.  Here’s an example of this using the yellow raft.

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The little red bird perched easily between my forefinger and thumb.  I was walking along the river bank and spotted it among the recently deposited debris…another small gift.  If I had to guess, I would say that the red bird was intended to be child’s clay tool.  It’s like a cookie cutter stencil only smaller.  I was on the look out for birds and my subconscious was on alert.  I think this is partially why the plastic bird appeared to me when it did.  The axiom about chance favoring the prepared mind touches upon this phenomenon.

While the river level was still high, I came across this pair of American Coots near the shore.  Logs and chunks of wood were bobbing in the water.  Their dark feathers took on the look of wet wood.  The odd appearance of these coots had to do with them standing on a log that is mostly submerged.  Among the other birds I found near the water were Canada Geese, Mallard Ducks, and high overhead…kingfishers.

Like little twittering machines, a male and two female Belted Kingfishers were chasing each other across the sky.  I watched them for over half an hour and hoped that one of them would perch in a tree near me.  Alas, this was the best image from that moment.  With its low profile, out-sized bill, and crested head, the Belted Kingfisher’s silhouette is distinctive.  Someday, I hope to stumble upon their nest built into the side of the riverbank.  I’ll prepare my mind for that moment and let’s see if chance intervenes!  I did spot an Eastern Phoebe which is an early migrant.  As the warmth and light speeds up the production of tree leaves, we can expect the arrival of the birds we share with Central and South America.  Their timing is exquisite and seems to coincide with the many small cut-worm caterpillars that will chew their way through the foliage of the canopy.

During migration, the Falls becomes home for several different thrush species.  Some of them can be notoriously hard to identify, but not the bird above.  It’s the White Thrush and it utilizes all the available habitats here to put on a little weight before moving northward.  I have seen them patrolling the water line and investigating the densest vegetation in search of food which can include insects, seeds, and berries.

This bird was investigating decaying logs in search of a meal.  Every once in a while, the thrush would “scratch” the rotten wood with a backwards jump that would reveal small grubs and insects just below the wood’s surface.  These morsels were quickly seized by this agile bird.

Here’s a third thrush perched upon a vine near the Woodland Trail.  I observed this bird picking off very small midge-like flies and returning to this position.  On my way back home, I stopped at the Interpretive Center to pick up another bird list for the park.  My list is getting a bit tattered from use and I still have about half of the 268 bird species recorded here left to go!  I did spot one bird last year in the park that I’m surprised is omitted from the checklist and it’s the American Turkey.  It would fit easily in the Game and Marsh Birds category.  There are also birds “flying” inside the Interpretive Center and above the mammoth’s head and I’ll end this post with that image.

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With the river being high, I explored a few wooded trails in the park.  There is still just the barest hint of green coming back to life.  It’s a good time to walk here because the vines haven’t started to kick in yet and turn this place into an obstacle course.  I was following the park’s resident Pilliated Woodpeckers and trying to photograph them when I came across this groundhog.  He was the Buddha of the Groundhogs basking in a shaft of spring light.  His eyes were partially closed, almost blissful appearing.  Then I bumbled into view and we eyed each other for a minute or so and I took these pictures and he took off running for his nearest burrow.

I have accidently stepped into their holes before.  Luckily, I haven’t twisted an ankle or worse because it can be a quick and rude drop down.  It’s become one of the hazards, like nails sticking up from a driftwood board that you avoid stepping on.  It appears to me that the park’s groundhogs are on the increase and so there are that many potential holes to look out for!  Watch out!  There’s another hole!!

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Spring has officially succeeded Winter at the Falls of the Ohio State Park.  The river is high. Its waters increased by the thawing in the northern Ohio River Valley.  The river crested yesterday just below flood stage.  All my familiar spots are under a few feet of water now.  My record here is being rearranged.  It is amazing, however, how quickly the water recedes.  Spring is renewing this place in an especially physical way.

Lots of logs missing limbs roll and churn in the shallows by the river’s edge.  Once in a while you can hear a loud crack as something wooden is shattered in the water.  The trees roll over one another grinding their bark off which forms large floating mats that collect debris.  The corky squeak of wood grating against wood can sound like the grinding of teeth.

In places you could easily see the ever shifting currents by the objects floating on the surface of the water.  I walked along the park’s western shoreline.  The sound of three dueling kingfishers played out in an aerial display above my heads.  Although it still early…I’m always keeping my eyes out for migratory birds.  I was able to add a new species to my park bird list…the Bufflehead duck.  I came across a male with four females resting with their bills tucked into their back feathers.  They seemed to be just floating along with the available current at the limits of my camera’s telephoto lens.  I came back the next day to see if they were still around but they were gone.  I would have liked some better photos.

As I walked along I noted the mats of rafting wood.  You could see where a mat would drift against a tree and create an island.  I could spot the bright white of Styrofoam chunks like polystyrene passengers.  If I run into them again…I’ll turn them into sculptures.

When these mats are pushed onto the shore, this image shows a good example of the material aggregate that composes them.  It’s mostly wood chips, but you can see a lot of plastic and Styrofoam pieces too.  I have more than a hand full of those plastic cowboys and soldiers that I have found out here over the years.

I walked by one of my favorite trees.  I love its exposed, developed root system and wanted to see it covered by water.  Usually, I can rest in the open, small room the roots create under the trunk of the tree…but not today.  It have used this place to get out of the hot sun or driving rain many times before.

I kept walking until I reached private property.  I small creek with dirty river backwash demarcated a border.  Unfortunately, whatever is in the river is also now in the creek.  On the opposite side from me is a pasture with three horses and a goat.  This is a new background for me and I decided to improvise a figure from found materials and record a few images.

I quickly find enough junk to construct a figure.  Walking along this soupy creek I pick up fishing bobbers, foam, plastic, and wood. Here’s the piece in progress.  I never did use that plastic dauber looking thing.  This is an especially sad photo for me because I lost my knife within minutes of this image.  I don’t know what happened.  I either dropped it or left it sticking in a log somewhere, but when I returned to look for it the following day, it was not to be found.  Jim Gottuso gave me this knife years a go.  It only has two blades, but the small, sharp saw was perfect for driftwood.

These pictures hardly seem like a fair trade, but at this point I will take what comes next.  Sometimes the river requires a sacrifice.  I’m also thinking that I may see it again.  I might see it in a day-dream and its exact location will be revealed to me.  Since Kentucky is hosting the World Equestrian Games this year…this will be a good way for me to work a horse picture into the blog.  I’ve heard that we are expecting more than a half a million horse lovers to come to the Bluegrass.

I moved this piece around the edges of the property and finally left it standing next to a tree on this side of the riverbank. Here are a couple more shots of this piece.  The red object being held came from a large fireworks rocket.  When the sun is shining, the small bicycle pedal reflector makes a nice belt buckle.

I made another piece and have lots of other images from this weekend at the river that I will share over the next few days.  It was a long, grey winter and I’m glad that it has passed.  Here’s another image of the flower beds by the Interpretive Center, but taken on my way home at the end of the day.

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The river is up and when it crests this weekend…it will be right under flood stage.  I’m fairly sure that this piece I call “Brass Eagle” (after the plastic sign on his head) is gone.  He was guarding my stash of Styrofoam in the Willow Habitat in the eastern section of the park.  This area of the Falls is usually the hardest hit by the rising waters, but when the river recedes…there will be riches in detritus, maybe.  The Ohio River has fooled me before.

In the angle formed by two large logs, I had stashed away materials for future art use.  I’m not averse to recycling my past projects.  As you can see, Brass Eagle is a bit of a head hunter.  Searching through the winter driftwood, I located a few noggins that formerly belonged to previous sculptures.  On rare occasions, I have even come across parts of works that I had made years a go.  Now, these foam chunks are either down river or scattered in different sections of the park where I might find them again.

At the moment, there are a number of friends and co-workers who have either recently had or are about to have babies and I drew this picture in the sand for them.  I like how this pregnant figure seems protected by the wood and the light on the water seems hopeful to me.  I did find an anonymous sand drawing that I thought was fun.  This squid reminds me of the sea monsters drawn on the old maps as a symbol of the unknown!

I recently came across the remains of a camp fire that caught my eye and camera.  Doing a little detective work, I’m guessing that this fire was started using some flammable substance as an accelerant.  If you look at the unburned edges of the wood, they are just so crisp and clean.  This fire amazingly stayed in place and didn’t burn all the wood available to it.

This weekend I will be visiting the Falls and seeing what’s new.  The park is always in a state of perpetual change which attracts me to it.  If the river is too high to work my familiar locations, then there is always birding!  For me, this signals the arrival of spring in the way that crocuses and daffodils do for gardeners.  I even have an individual bird that I look for!  For the last three years, what I believe is the same male, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker has defended a particular Sweet Gum tree at the edge of the Interpretive Center’s parking lot.  I will be looking for him again.  For the moment, I have been enjoying the birds that stayed over the winter…like this Song Sparrow.

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I thought I would post some better views of the sculpture I made and  featured in my last Falls of the Ohio story.  I’m calling this guy “Apple Heart” based on the sand toy I embedded in his chest!  When I make these things I frequently refer to them as being absurd…but what does that mean?  Looking through an old American Heritage Dictionary, meaning #1, “Ridiculously incongruous or unreasonable.”, probably comes nearest to what I mean by using this term.

 There is a comic or humorous element, but mostly it has to do with discovering these works in this particular context and made from materials that clearly don’t belong in this environment.  Other definitions touch upon existing in an irrational or meaningless universe, but I don’t think of the absurd in this way.  I think the universe may be indifferent, but not meaningless.  In fact, it is the act of taking these found materials and putting them together in the way I do and in this context that helps generate meaning for me. 

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My son Adam surprised me the other day by wanting to accompany me to the Falls.  It turned out to be gorgeous and sunny and we shared this moment together.  In his mind, we each had a distinct role to play.  I was to be the “artist” and he would be the “explorer”.  In reality, those roles frequently overlapped and I think it’s fun and interesting when those distinctions blur anyway. 

We walked down to the water’s edge to see if anything cool had washed ashore.  Adam got sidetracked when he came up with the idea of writing his name in the sand.  He found a stick that felt good in his hands and set about the business of making his mark on the world.  Judging from how large the final result was, I’m guessing Adam has big ambitions for his life.  Or, as his father, it might just be me projecting my own hopes into gestural lines drawn in the sand.

We found an old motorcycle helmet which Adam immediately claimed.  He did, however, remove the Styrofoam lining and he gave that to me.  I once made a nice turtle using a similar foam lining from a discarded bicycle helmet and he remembered that.  Wearing old jeans (aptly named high waters), Adam allowed the river to wash over his feet and he was surprised by the still frigid water and the stickiness of the mud.

Here’s a picture of Adam the “Log Rider”!  The yellow handlebars are from some riding toy we found in the sand.  This is Adam’s favorite picture from this day and he wanted me to be sure to include this one.

Once we found a good place to rest and eat our chocolate chip cookies, I dumped the contents of this collecting bag onto the sand.  From a previous foray, I had pre-stashed some foam chunks near this spot.  While Adam played, I worked on a large figure to help us mark this day.  I had relocated an especially large piece of Styrofoam that I had previously used to make two other figures.  This would be the first time I have re-re-recycled something.  I asked Adam to take my picture while I worked, and here I am in action.  The wooden stairs I’m sitting on washed up here last year.

Who knew that this artist has such a big head!  The mouth on this one is a reflector from a bicycle wheel.  The nose is the horn from another bicycle I had found months earlier.  The eyes are large fishing floats.  The ears are made from found wood and that yellowish object on top is the plastic part of a lawn dart.  When Adam and I finished assembling the entire figure, I took his picture next to it so it can help you judge scale.  All in all, it was a wonderful day for father and son and we need to do this again soon.  Maybe next time, we can convince older brother to come along too?   Peace!

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Since the river washed away my old studio site, I have started two fresh ones.  The studio situated by the roots of a fantastic cottonwood tree is in the park’s western section and is pictured above.  I will show you the second site in a future post.  My studios are very informal affairs and have more to do with stockpiling materials for future use.  Try as I might, I can’t carry this junk everywhere I go and so I need places to park it.  Of course, anybody is free to use whatever I place there and sometimes people take me up on it.  This western studio is where I made the figure with the gavel in my last post.

To reach the western studio is a longer walk from the Interpretive Center’s parking lot and receives fewer people.  That, however, doesn’t make it immune from the visits from the “Smashers”.  Years ago, that was the name my son Michael came up with for the kids that feel compelled to break every glass bottle they find in the park.  On more than one occasion, they also destroy my sculptures.  Such was the fate of the subject in my last post…the “Smashers” got’em.  That figure was so utterly destroyed that all I found were a few scraps of polystyrene and the toy hammer it was carrying.  I try not to dwell on it too much.  There’s always the next piece to make and the sun is shining today and spring is near and life is good.

The birds are feeling it and soon the migrants will be winging it this way from points deep south.  Today I was serenaded by Carolina Wrens and Northern Cardinals.  I saw my first Red-winged Blackbird of the new year and a Belted Kingfisher flew by my studio.  The trees are beginning to show the buds that will lead to blossoms and leaves.  A stray fly lands on my hand.  It has been a long winter and spring will be more than welcomed.

I quickly gathered enough sticks and Styrofoam to make three small figures.  I imagined that like the birds I had heard, these guys are also singing.  I moved them around a bit, but in the end, decided that I liked this one image the best.  I left them in the roots of another cottonwood tree and went home.  On the way back to my car, I came across a tangle of driftwood and found a child’s broken plastic chair mixed into the lot.  The brilliant red color caught my attention and I offer it as a parting gift to you.

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I always keep a few images and ideas in the background in case I need something to post.  Since the upcoming weekend is looking like a spectacular one, I know I’ll be visiting the river.  Frequently, when I’m on site, I make more than one sculpture and this post is a case in point.  I made this figure the same day I did the “Lifeguard” piece.  The first image is of one of my collecting bags.  Believe or not, I found this flag-festooned bag out here on the river and it has come in handy.  Check out that beaver-chewed log and assorted chunks of river-polished polystyrene!

Although the figure is somewhat minimal, I like the overall image.  Those cottonwood trees really make a big difference.  I found the orange plastic toy gavel or hammer and this notion of an itinerant judge came to mind.  Perhaps he is coming to town to dish out his own brand of environmental justice?  Really, there was just so much junk along the riverbank on this day.

Here’s a detail of the figure.  This piece is composed of Styrofoam, plastic, wood, and rock.  When I was finished with him, I left him standing just where you see him in the photograph.  I’m always finding toys and I like the way they photograph in this riverine context.  Here’s part of a toy truck.

Frequently, when I see these images on my home computer…it’s easy for me to imagine that they are bigger than they really are.  I guess I never considered computers to be a form of magnifying glass, but they do seem to function in this way.  Here’s another shot I found compelling.  I like the way this object is being swallowed up by the sand.

Final image, I love the way the cottonwood trees and their arching trunks and roots present themselves along this stretch of the park.  The view through the hole is of Louisville’s skyline.  Can’t wait to see what I find next!

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A couple of weekends a go, I was doing my thing by the river and noticing that there were more plastic bottles and containers that had washed up than I was used to seeing.  And so, I started taking pictures of them.

For this post, I thought I would show you just the blue bottles I came across.  They are arranged from simplest to complex and form an evolution of sorts.  With its hour-glass, pinched waist form, the bottle above has a decidedly feminine presence.  I wonder if the product it originally contained was meant to appeal to women in some way?

The next step in the evolution of this form is the appearance of a handle.  Without their original labels, which came off in the river, I’m guessing that many of these plastic bottles originally held dishwashing or laundry soaps?

Here you can see that the handle has become a bit more “sophisticated” and goes just past the point of being strictly utilitarian.  And now for the next phase of our blue-bottle evolution.

Here’s one with a bit more of a design element.  By strategically placing a hole in the center of this bottle…it now has two handles!  What will they think of next?

To further appeal to consumers, creating figurative bottles that have nothing to do with how the product is dispensed is an effective strategy.  This seahorse bottle is fairly large and I’m going to guess it once held bubble bath solution?  I suppose it is also meant to be collectible?  On the same day I unfortunately found all these bottles, I also recorded others of various sizes, shapes, and colors.  Look for those images in my pages section soon!  I know you can’t wait for that one!!

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