Meddling With Nature

Yesterday, I had the great pleasure to attend an artful workshop at The Art Academy of Cincinnati by taxidermy artisan Jeremy Johnson and his team at Meddling With Nature. This workshop was geared toward professional medical illustrators but as a member of the broader illustration community here in town, I was able to take part just for fun, to photograph, sketch a bit and learn about a different form of sculpture.  When I attended art school, sculpture was where my heart was at the time.  Add to that a deep love of nature and the out-of-doors and this class was something I looked forward to for weeks!

We started the morning by watching the above video, to get a sense of the scope of the work these folks do.  This is not just taxidermy for the local hunter looking to mount the head of a recently obtained backwoods buck.  We talked about how Jeremy and his team come to obtain their specimens and life and death in general. One thing I love about people who operate at the crossroads of art and nature is that there is little ‘front porch talk’.  They go straight for the real.  Meddling With Nature presents around town to schools and community groups and often must contend with overcoming the ‘ew’ factor of the average audience.  But this group, being scientists and artists, was full of wonder and appreciation for the specimens shared and the activities presented to us.

First up was entomological preparation. We were given a lovely pamphlet to peruse…

goat reading

But in the end, it’s just best to dive into the activity hands-on.  And so we did.

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We were tasked with taking these insect specimens, rehydrated a bit in their shriveled state, and reigniting a sense of life in them by posing them for eventual display.

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The pins act as a sort of scaffolding to the structure of the insects without pinning them through like you might see in other displays.  It was tedious and tiny hand work which I soon lost myself in.  My first specimen was a goliathus beetle from Africa.

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I had to carefully manipulate the joints of legs and wings to open him up and show off his gorgeous wings which reminded me a bit of a bat wing.

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There were many bugs available to mount.  And even a few to eat.  Yes.  Eat.  I tried a cheddar flavored meal worm.  Just one.  And that was enough.

I moved on to opening up my second insect specimen…. A Thorny Devil.  At first glance these guys look like little green tacos.

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But eventually, the wings can be opened up, revealing under-wings the likes of which the fairy folk might encounter in their world.  I could just imagine a wee saddle placed just so to avoid the thorns.  (Thorns being a handy defense for airborne battles…)

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While we manipulated our insects and pinned them into place, the lecture moved on to bigger beasts.  Jeremy shared with us a bit of what he might do with a bit of road kill in order to preserve and prepare it for taxidermy or to harvest the bones for an articulated skeletal specimen.

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This was all very fascinating.  The medical illustrators were asking very detailed and smart sounding questions with words I do not know.  I observed, worked on my bugs, and did some sketching.

sketch 3We learned about how to properly prepare bones for keeping and displaying so that they might last a good long while.  It’s an exacting list of steps requiring great patience and a bit of a strong stomach for some of the larger things one might want to keep.  But the patience is worth it.bones 1Many of these processes are what the museums and zoos use to preserve things for the public to handle and gawk at.  I have always liked the Victorian’s notion of keeping a bit of a museum of curiosities in one’s own home.  And now I have a bit more knowledge and a few skills to continue my own collection.collectionJeremy et al have the opportunity to work with a variety of local and more obscure specimens.  Below is a cast of the palate of a tiger who passed away from diabetic complications.tiger palateI have always been in awe of the patterns to be found in the natural world.  And there are some things which are objects of artful beauty without much ‘preparation’.black swan heartThis was a truly informative and thought provoking workshop.  A most inspiring portion of the presentation was a series of photos about dissection.  You can see them here.  As much as I love the natural sciences nowadays, I was never much of a student back in school and so there is much I do not know.  For example, that the color of a healthy gall bladder is a most elegant and gorgeous green color.  The photos on the Meddling With Nature dissection page call to me to make large scale juicy paintings.  I hope to get to this one day…

But for now, my sketch book calls.  I am weeks away from leaving for New Mexico to teach again and so must continue to work in my own little books to practice.  There is much in the garden to sketch.  (and, frankly, many weeds to pull and plants to divide.)  I will do what I can amidst the day to day.  It was wonderful to sit back and be a student for half a day.  Many thanks to Jeremy Johnson and the other artists from Meddling With Nature. What a treat!!

 

 

The Tiny Book of Truths

Some while back, I received a gift in the form of a little book on a necklace from a dear friend who knows I love the allure of a blank book. Knowing this book would be near to my heart for years to come, I opted to fill it with some of my favorite quotes and a few doodles as well. The result is this tiny book of truths. I find it to be even more fetching now, filled with words and images I have chosen.
This is the case with all blank books – journals, sketchbooks and the like. They really come alive when we put ourselves into them. I suggest we fill all of those old blank books we might have lying around with quotes and drawings, musings and the day to day magic that makes us individuals. When you do so, do check back and share what you’ve made. Every person’s journal, no matter how big or small is a one of a kind. Just like you!

a day at the races

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We didn’t exactly choose a day most suited for it, but yesterday our little family opted for a little journey south to horse country.  Southwestern Ohio is a liminal place, butting up against Indiana and Kentucky both, with deep seeded relationships to both. I have a soft spot for Kentucky as it is where most of the known history of my kin comes from and I spent a lot of time there as a kid, romping amidst the hills and hollers.

And so, on a very wet day we set forth to Keeneland to enjoy a day at the races.  As we traveled, the landscape became greener and greener, as Lexington is just that much ahead of us in the race toward spring time blooming. The wild redbud and dogwood trees rushed past us.  The mists hung low over the hills too.  As the rain pelted our windshield, we wondered what we had gotten ourselves into!

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Fairly soon we had arrived at this amazing horse racing facility and the weather softened to drizzle.  I was still glad I had worn my wellies.

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We settled in and had a look around.  The place was all abuzz with horses, along with their owners, trainers and handlers readying for the next race.

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So much at stake for those involved.  But the horses didn’t seem to care about stakes.  They just wanted to run.  I asked our friends there, who know horses and the racing of them, whether the horses seem to understand the idea of racing.  And the answer was, if you watch these animals in the fields, outside of all the pageantry of the racing world, they spend their days in the fields together running and chasing each other.  They are highly intelligent and competitive.  Adding people to the mix is just our human layer of understanding on their very real sense of day to day animal play.

Before each race, the horses are walked around so betters can get a look at them and the horses can warm up a bit.  Then they head into another area where they are paired with their jockeys.

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There are many escorts to keep everything in order and happening on time.  On this day, there were 8 races total! One flowed quickly into the next.

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Of course there is much speculation as to which horse, piloted by which jockey, will be able to win each race.  And each race is different.  Some are run on grass for over a mile.  Other races are on the dirt track and may be a bit shorter.  Each horse and each jockey may shine in different situations.  One farrier we met who hails from Ireland, said on this green, wet day, his bets would have to be on the Irish jockeys who felt right at home in these conditions.

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But  everyone has their system.  We had a lot to learn about it all.

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Eventually though, you just have to pony up and set your money down on something.  And so we did.

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a day at the races

 

The races all seemed to flow together in my mind.  I wasn’t betting or looking at the numbers.  It was simply all so much just to take in! But as the day went on, and the races continued, everyone in our group had a winning bet or two to show for their efforts.

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One does not go to the races and simply sit down in a seat to watch.  It is a very active thing.  There is a lot of back and forth between the viewing of the horses coming up and those currently racing and of course the betting.  There is occasionally a cocktail too.  Although the races are quickly over, there is still some time amongst the rush of things to explore a bit.  I was curious about the tunnel which the jockeys take their horses through to enter the official race track and asked if I could take a picture of it between races.

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The answer was not only yes to the tunnel picture (photo credit to my Hub, Tony), but a kind invitation to walk down through the tunnel to have a peek at the track as the horses and jockeys see it on race day.  This sweet Kentucky gentleman escorted me down to meet his ‘hard-working cohorts’ hanging out in the winner’s circle.

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These guys clearly have a great time at their job at Keeneland and I was thrilled to meet them and get a sense of the scope of the place.

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Just like that, this day of racing was over.  We are fortunate that our horse loving friends, Dan and Bev of Liam’s Fancyare also musicians so we joined them at their place for a cookout and some tunes.

tunes with Bev

What a day! We were eventually chased inside by thunderstorms rolling in sideways for a few more tunes before we had to make the journey home.  Our cup filled with the imagery, passion and pageantry of high-end horse racing.  It all felt a world away, which I think is the case when we allow ourselves to go deep enough into something with a rich history.  This was only my second time to Keeneland, but I want to go back again and learn more, perhaps on a dry weekday when I can sketch it all in my sketchbook.  Many thanks to Dan and Bev who not only helped us navigate the statistics catalog at the races, but who opened their home for tunes and hot dogs of all kinds afterward.

(This is Dash, who fetches like it’s his job.)

Dash

 

 

 

‘Full-Blooded Magic’

spring canopy CNC

Finally, after some flirtatious hints in previous weeks, the goddess of Spring has bestowed upon us warm breezes in which to bask, a carpet of greening with which to readjust our vision of the out-of-doors, and the fleeting gift of spring-blooming flowers, strung up like so many lines of fairy lights amongst the trees and tucked into the base of the forest itself.

I sit here today at this writing machine, feeling an urge to catch you all up on things ’round here with a juicy blog post. So if you have a little while to spare, brew a cup of tea, tuck yourself into the coziest chair and I shall fill you in.

In spite of the coming of Spring in our river valley, we extended our journey into Winterland for a number of days as we headed northward to the great city of Montreal…

winter still up north

Our friends in the North were waging their own battle with the tail end of winter and we were graced with brisk but beautiful days to tour the city, as well as a rather dramatic snowfall one morning.

Montreal snow

Why Montreal, you may wonder? Well, our youngest, Madeleine, was part of a team competing in the World Championships of Irish Dance being held in this fair city.  This was to be our last trek to a ‘major’ and so we opted to make a real trip of it and spend a few days in what I believe to be one of the most charming cities in North America.

Around every corner, there were little bits of Other World.  It truly has a feeling of a city much older than the rest of civilization available on this side of the pond.

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As a woodsy girl, I am not one to bask in cities in general. But the Spirits of Montreal are present if one simply seeks to view them.

Architecutral spirit

I managed to find the local Irish music session there on our first night and was welcomed by a charming, talented bunch of musicians who not only play Irish tunes, but also tunes from their area in the Quebecois and Cape Breton styles. It was a highlight of the trip for me personally and set the tone for the rest of our time there.

While M and her friends practiced, shopped and explored the city in their own way, we met up with far flung northern friends we seldom see.  We walked and ate and visited, not really caring what we did to occupy ourselves beyond the simple bliss of merely being together.

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Though to be honest, I just wanted to stare at Baby Alice’s sweet toes.  And so I did a bit.  Amazing to think that our little dancer, about to graduate into the Big Real World, once had toes as tiny and juicy as these.

Sweet Alices toes

Soon, touring and visiting were over. The competition was at hand and the McGing Pirates danced a perfect rendition of their well-practiced routine.  In fact, all 9 teams competing danced a perfect rendition of their clearly well-practiced routines. When the dust settled, our girls had placed a respectable 4th in the world, good enough to medal. They were thrilled! It was a beautiful note upon which to end Maddie’s dance career.  She will likely never truly stop dancing when she hears a proper tune, but this season of competitions and stage-worthy costuming is over.  We couldn’t be more proud of her.

And I, for one, was ready to leave the built environment of the city, as nice as our trip had been…

“…most of us get used to living a hectic life that even the present moment, with its vast spiritual resonance, is unavailable to us.  This is less true of the solitary, quiet workers whose company I have treasured; they seem to be living in a different psychic space from other people on the evening news.  I do not mean farmers alone, but my grandfather in his carpentry shop, or Robin, when he comes home from a day of tuning pianos (which is how he makes his living). Such people may not know that their daily experience – contemplatively charged as it is – is different from other people’s. When something, like a trip to the mall, brings the disjunction to their awareness, they may fault themselves for being ‘out of it’. A day in the city looking for a couple of shirts can fry the brain of a normal country person.” ~from The Barn at the End of the World, by Mary Rose O’Reilley 

….ready to come back to my blissfully quiet and mostly contemplative life at home.  We catapulted across miles and seasons, once again coming upon the greening of more southerly climes.

This spring time is filled with many special occasions for us as a family, as we hold space for and make witness of the many endings-to-beginnings sort of happenings for Madeleine.  One of these events was the Senior Prom.  The kids looked stunning in their fineries, perched on the cusp of adulthood.  It is such a blessing to behold all of this promise.  Knowing my own young-adult children as well as their friends, I have a great hope for Times to Come as they venture into the world to make their own way of things.

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With ‘World’s’ and ‘Prom’ successfully behind us, we took advantage of the beautiful weather to head outside. One lovely place to spend the day outdoors locally here is the Cincinnati Nature Center where not only is Spring on grand display all along the woodland trails, but there was music to listen to one day over the weekend.  We sketched and enjoyed the breezes in the outdoor pavilion space as we listened….

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The songs were mostly in French, providing an outside-of-time-and-space feel to things, which is precisely where I like to be, generally speaking.  After the show, we hiked for awhile, pleased to see so many signs of life here, there and everywhere.

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We came across tadpoles, newts and turtles in the reservoir ponds on the property of the nature center and of course stopped to observe them and enjoy.

“Is it possible to grow a worthy cosmology by attending closely to our encounters with other creatures, and with the elemental textures and contours of our locale? We are by now so accustomed to the cult of expertise that the very notion of honoring and paying heed to our directly felt experience of things – of insects and wooden floors, of broken-down cars and bird-pecked apples and the scents rising from the soil – seems odd and somewhat misguided as a way to find out what’s worth knowing.” ~from Becoming Animal by David Abram

CNC tadpoles

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The Cincinnati Nature Center is a treasure in this metropolis.  Where else can even a trip in to the loo turn up so much to look at??

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Back here at home, we have had to have a number of dead trees removed from our property.  This changes the look and feel of things quite a bit.  Despite the promise of perhaps enough sun for a small vegetable patch at long last, I mourn the downing of these beings who have brought such shade and shelter to this place for so many years.  The majority of these trees are Ash trees and victims of the emerald ash borer, a non-native and clearly invasive beetle wreaking havoc on the trees here.

Yesterday evening my hub and I donned our wellies and walked the creek out front to collect downed limbs in order to keep them from building up and causing water to back up and flood when the storms come.  As we did so, I was hit with a supremely nostalgic smell from my childhood.  David Abram says it best…

“…there’s a new texture to the air, a moistness: water suspended in the medium, unseen, though you can feel its presence as the air washes against your face in waves. And riding those waves, vaguely enticing at first, then too pleasureful to resist: smells! Dark, stygian smells gliding over the rippled glass of the lake to mingle with the aromatic dank of the soil underfoot and the high-pitched scent of the green needles… the darkly laughing scent of cool water lapping up against the shore (infused with the chemistry of tadpoles and trout and the tannin of drowned leaves), and a host of other whiffs sometimes merged and sometimes distinct, all sparkling like wine in some part of your brain that had earlier been rocked to sleep by the soporific dazzle of sunbeams, but has now been startled into attentive life by this more full-blooded magic, as though your mammalian intelligence has abruptly dropped anchor and suddenly found itself really here, bodily afoot in these damp woods.” ~from Becoming Animal by David Abram

As a kid I spent countless hours barefoot, walking the local creeks, turning over stones to look for ‘crawdads’.  The smell of being down in our own little creek for a bit last night brought back those timeless hours spent exploring.  I decided to see if there was anything to spy just yet under the stones in our little waterway.

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creek fossils

“This land is in my bones. Land under Wave.” ~from Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett

 

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Success! I found one and I am sure there were others.  I shall visit them when the sun returns, as today we are graced with the cooler side of Spring.  Such a temperamental lady, our spring.  Yet I am glad she seems here to stay for now.

Spring being firmly footed must mean that summer is on her heals.  I am beginning to feel the pull toward a summer spent mostly on the road….

My annual trek to teach in Taos is less than two months away, with workshop participants arriving exactly two months from today.  Like some sort of nesting bird, I am busily collecting supplies and ideas to bring to the workshop.  Just the other day I hand printed some little canvas bags into which will go some basic necessities.  I didn’t need to print anything on the swag-bags, but I really wanted to.  So I did.

swag bag prints taos

That rather sums up my state-of-mind of late.  I’m following my nose as much as possible.  Sure there’s loads that needs to be accomplished.  And I manage to get to most of it.  But sometimes it’s fun to climb aboard that ‘cross-town bus’ and see just where it takes me.  It is there that ideas spring up out of the newly tilled soil of the soul.  I hope to share with you soon where some of these ideas are taking me.  They are shaping my approach to my kid-books projects. And that is a good thing.  These projects will shift their shape over time, I am certain.  I have already received my first official ‘rejection’ letter from a company to which I submitted some of my work.  Along with the small smidge of sadness that my ego wanted to strap to its back came a much brighter sense of really doing this.  I am in the game.  Doing what needs to be done, a bit each week, moving forward.  Someday, with some persistence and enough caring and constructive critique to keep the work improving, it will be ‘good enough’ to be birthed into the world as books with stories in them that began in my mind’s eye and in the heart of my creative soul.  This all feels really, really good.  As does spring.

And so, we come to the end of this rather lengthy tome of a post.  I don’t post often, but when I do….

What’s happening in your world? I’d love to know.  Blessings on your new season, wherever it may find you.