Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Art in the Hill Country, Part Five: Panola Mountain Landscapes

Finally, I arrive at a series of photographs I took once the novelty of hand lens photography diminished somewhat. After looking closely at individual plants and even parts of plants, I began to wander around the hilltop, noticing patterns made by the alternating colors and textures of various plants, against the background of the Panola Granite. Everywhere I turned, a new and glorious tapestry beckoned; carpets of moss and diamorpha, or an "island" of diamorpha and sand bounded by the edge of a large, shallow depression in the rock surface.

Despite the hour-long drive to Panola Mountain State Park, I am confident that we will return there someday in a future Sense of Place Workshop series, perhaps in 2010. Although the site is not strictly in the Chattahoochee Hill Country (it lies within the Ocmulgee River watershed), I would gladly to extend my bioregional horizons to include the entire Georgia Piedmont, just so that I could consider Panola Mountain as part of my home place.

Art in the Hill Country, Part Four: Panola Mountain through a Hand Lens

As I wrote in an earlier installment in this series, once we stopped to sketch I worked for a while on a crossvine drawing, then wandered away from the group, drawn by thousands of possible subjects to photograph. After I had taken a few quick close-ups at the "flower" setting on my Kodak EasyShare, Brian (our park guide) suddenly asked if I had considered trying to take photographs through a magnifying lens. He remarked that he had never done such a thing, but didn't see any reason why it wouldn't work.

I am astonished to say that the results were beyond expectation. Armed only with a Belomo Triplet 10X and a basic Kodak camera, I was able to get some impressive detail and clarity in photographs of flowers, lichens, and even male pinecones. I held the hand lens as flat as I could against the digital camera lens, set the lens for the close-up ("flower") setting, and tried to focus the image. If it focused, I depressed the button fully and took the photo; if not, I moved the camera-and-lens closer to or farther from the subject, and tried again. I felt like a young child with a new, exciting game to play, as I frolicked about the face of Panola Mountain, looking for new subjects. Before long, Brian borrowed a second lens from me, and joined in the game. (He appears in the picture above, hunched over a specimen with his camera and magnifier, on the right side of the photograph.)

My favorite "captures" are shown below. The first three flowers are, in order from top to bottom: sandwort (Arabis laevigata); sunnybell (Schoenolirion croccum); and diamorpha (Diamorpha smallii). Below that is an unidentified lichen in the genus Cladonia, and male cones, likely belonging to a loblolly pine (Pinus taeda).

Art in the Hill Country, Part Three: Artistic Visions atop Panola Mountain

Several fine sketches (along with many photographs, as well) emerged from our time atop Panola Mountain. Below are a few of them: a pine branch in pencil by one of the participants, and a flowering crossvine, atamasco lily, and diamorpha by Valerie Hayes.

Below are a several of the plants I saw blooming during our visit, as captured by a basic point and shoot Kodak EasyShare digital camera. The first two are crossvine (Bignonia capreolata); the next two are atamasco lily (Zephyranthes atamasco); the deep yellow flower is yellow jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens); below that is the Ohio spiderwort ("officially" known in the vernacular as bluejacket, or more officially as Tradescantia ohiensis); and the bottom photograph shows the fringe tree in flower (Chionanthus virginicus).

Art in the Hill Country, Part Two: Sketching at Panola Mountain

Our Saturday outing in April was a trip to Panola Mountain State Park, and a rare opportunity to engage in field sketching and photography atop the monolith. The granite hill is off limits to visitors, except when accompanied by a park guide on the once-monthly hike or by special arrangement. I was thrilled to be there at this time in the spring, when so many flowers -- including the diamorpha, endemic to such outcrop environments -- were in bloom. I was also grateful to have my wife, Valerie Hayes, along as field sketching instructor.

After we parked the cars along rarely-used dirt access road (beside a lovely stone-edged lake), Valerie shared with the group a number of helpful books on keeping a field journal and doing natural history illustration. Then Brian, a naturalist who has worked at the park for a couple of years, led the six of us along a half-mile trail from an access road uphill to the "peak" (perhaps 200 feet of vertical ascent?). The morning rain had vanished as predicted, and it was a pleasant, mostly sunny day. We established two "base camps" for artwork. We spent perhaps an hour and a half at the first, and about forty-five minutes at the second. Below are photographs from the two locations:
At the first site, I completed a sketch of a cross-vine in flower, then wandered off, drawn by the rich textures and patterns of the landscape and all the flowers in bloom. I took a number of fairly conventional photographs, then Brian remarked to me that I might consider trying to take photographs through a hand lens. He commented that the idea had come to him just then as he saw me using the lens, and simultaneously recalled a photo he had taken through binoculars. The results turned out to be amazing for such a low-tech, slapdash approach. Soon Brian, too, had borrowed a second hand lens for me, and was photographing flowers and lichens. These photographs merit a separate part in this blog, to be continued.

Meanwhile, here are three photographs from the top of Panola. Everything is entrancing -- the juxtapositioning of colors and forms (there will be a separate blog part just on patterns, too), the Japanese-rock-garden-quality of close-up views, and the more distant prospects, whether of granite and pine, or the distant face of Stone Mountain.

Even as we were packing up to leave, I discovered an enormous bush full of white, feathery blooms, and had to dash off to photograph it. There is so much there to encounter -- it is quite simply one of the most spectacular places I have visited in Georgia. At last, though, we all reluctantly gathered our gear, and strode off down the mountain for home.

Art in the Hill Country, Part One: StudioSwan

It was a lovely evening for a walk, and I hurried on my way from Hill Country Montessori, down Atlanta Newnan Road to Selburne Lane and into Serenbe. I traversed the mile quickly, eager to be to the gallery before any participants arrived.

April was an exciting month for the Sense of Place Workshop Series. After three fairly successful months housed in Rico Center, Thursday evening gatherings moved to Serenbe, beginning with an evening visiting StudioSwan Gallery, owned by Tom Swanston and Gail Foster. In the future, we will meet in The Studio, an inviting new wood-floored, white-walled room off of the courtyard in Selburne Hamlet.

I was excited at the opportunity to tour the gallery and studio spaces with Tom. I cannot recall any other times I have had the opportunity to tour the working studio of a renowned artist. I was thrilled that Tom had readily consented to share his work with our workshop group.

Ultimately there were nearly a dozen of us, gathered in something approaching an oval in StudioSwan gallery. Around us, the walls were covered with images on plywood of human beings with animal faces, engaging in everyday activities such as riding bicycles. The works were all part of an exhibition called "Astral Images", by emerging Atlanta artist, Meta Gary. Tom quietly welcomed us, explaining that Mina (who manages the gallery) couldn't join us, and that both he and his wife had been stricken with bad colds while they were in New Orleans the previous weekend, at an opening of Gail's work. I could empathize, as I broke into a few rounds of sneezes and felt my throat begin to get scratchy. I only wished I could have an exciting story such as a New Orleans trip as background for my emerging cold.
Tom talked to us for nearly an hour, there in the gallery. He told us about his background, from meeting his wife in art school and eventually opening a gallery of others' work in Atlanta, to his move out of the city and many years spent living in rural isolation along the Chattahoochee River at the western edge of the Hill Country. He told of being drawn into Steve Nygren's vision for Serenbe, until he was finally owning and operating the first (of what he hopes will be many) gallery there. His picture of gallery efforts included an honest assessment of financial realities -- including the enormous costs involved in opening (especially publicizing) a gallery exhibit, even in such a small space as the one room of StudioSwan. I appreciated how much an artist must also be (or have access to individuals who are) financially savvy, able to market their own work vigorously and relentlessly. As he described it, the key was to get an interested buyer to accept artwork "on loan", so that they could check out how it went with their living spaces. It sounded as if, at times, it could be more a matter of color and pattern agreement than simply liking a picture and wanting it to hang in the livingroom. Meanwhile, Tom patiently answered questions about art marketing, plans for the gallery, and former installations there. At last, he invited us to come upstairs and into his studio space.

Climbing the steps, even through my head congestion I could make out the marvelous warm scent of beeswax, one of the three components of encaustic art (more to follow). Tom lead us first to his "ideas table", a simple surface covered with all manner of works in progress. He explained that he is fond of rugs, and had been involved in a number of projects designing them of late. Enthusiastically sharing with us dozens of sketches and drawings of carpet patterns, he radiated a sense of joy -- of fun -- in his art. I felt the surging delight of creativity for the delight it can offer -- the kind of creative ventures in which one explores new designs and new possibilities in a dialogue with various materials and themes. Along the way, there is no room for regret over mistakes. Tom explained to us that there aren't accidents to him, but that anything that might be considered an accident (such as a few unintended drops of paint) were simply incorporated into his work. I felt a growing sense of envy. How marvelous it must be to while away the hours on a weekday afternoon in such a sunny space (windows were everywhere), dreaming up new possibilities and "playing" with acryllic paints and encaustics. Maybe I would like to be an artist, when I grow up.

Then he led us into the other part of his studio, where he actually completes his projects. He introduced us to encaustic work, which is done on either thick plywood or else a special metal that also comprised some component of the space shuttle (docking bays?). The medium requires three ingredients: a pigment, beeswax, and resin. He showed us pieces of the resin, whcih closely (and not surprisingly) resembled amber. Or was it rock candy? One of the participants asked, and he responded right away that it tasted horrible. We didn't ask for details. The resulting encaustic pigments were kept in muffin tins until ready to melt on a stove for use in his artwork, such as the piece he has been working with, below.

The surface felt cool and satiny-smooth, inviting a touch or even a caress. The colors were rich, bold, vibrant. The amazing thing about encaustic is that it can grow and grow, by adding new colors and patterns over the old ones, until the first explorations are long buried under resin and beeswax. He showed us another board that he had used for practicing for quite a while. A variety of colors (particularly reds and blues) were simmering in old saucepans, with old brushes sitting atop them. Tom invited us to get started -- to pick a color and explore with it. One of the fascinating qualities of encaustic is that there is also an element of letting go, of letting a work become what it will become. The means of blending a new layer into the rest of the work requires either a blow torch or a hairdryer; as the blending takes place, some patterns become more blurry while others become more refined.
The evening wound down, as some participants had to leave and as I felt the sore throat settling in. Before we concluded, Tom also led us upstairs to the third floor, to view his wife's much tidier gallery space. Many of the walls were empty -- the result of the show in New Orleans. But one painting intended for the show still hung on the studio wall. It includes a single four-letter word, one that had actually been spoken by woman whose life the painting celebrated. Several of us expressed gratitude at the rejection, as we could enjoy it ourselves as a result. Indeed, I felt so thankful for the entire evening, for the opportunity to spend it with so creative, thoughtful, and kind a person as Tom. The future of art in the Hill County is in excellent hands.

Monday, April 21, 2008

An Aside: Sound Mapping at The Cabin Path

On the last day of March and the first day of the fourth quarter at Hill Country Montessori School, the Elementary students all went to The Cabin Path. The Cabin Path is a lovely 50-acre island of forested paths that embraces, at its center, a tranquil lake. The site is named for an historic log cabin that had been carefully dismantled from its original site and rebuilt there, near the shore. The property includes a medicine wheel site, a labyrinth, and even a few longleaf pines. More about this entrancing spot in the future (indeed, I am planning one or two outings there as part of the 2009 workshop series). For now, I am writing about one particular experience there.

The older elementary students had finished an art project and were unfocused, maybe even a bit crazy. To help them slow down, I asked them to go off into the woods by themselves, find a comfortable place to sit for about half an hour, and listen. With plain white paper and a number two pencil, they were to make a "Sound Map" -- a map of all the sounds that they heard from that one spot, with the relative locations of each. I was amazed at how they were actually able to slow down and notice things, and I was equally stunned by all the sounds they experienced all around them. What a marvelous meditation -- a grounding in one's home place! I plan to assign this exercise in one of the Sense of Place workshops someday. Meanwhile, here are three of the maps that they drew:

Did this project make the students more calm and focused? Results there were far more equivocal, I'm afraid. Here is a picture of one of the boys in the group, shortly after he completed this exercise:

An Aside: North to Cherokee Country, Part Two (New Echota)

Above is a picture of a printing press similar to the one once used by the Cherokee Phoenix, the newspaper edited by Elias Boudinot and published at New Echota. Like the Cherokees themselves, the newspaper straddled worlds; half the page was in Sequoyah's Cherokee Syllabary, the other half an English translation. The press now sits in a reconstruction of the original printing shop, on the grounds of New Echota State Historic Site.

Our New Echota visit began with a tour of the home and outbuildings belonging to a Cherokee farm (worked by a "moderately wealthy" family) -- original buildings that had been brought to New Echota to evoke the buildings that had once been there. The students wandered among the various outbuildings, including a smokehouse, corn crib, and barns, which offered windows into how the Cherokees would have lived and farmed about 180 years ago....

Then the tour guide, an experienced storyteller with a rich lore to share and a revisionist slant to his outlook, led us into the Cherokee homestead attached to the farm. For maybe half an hour, he shared stories about everyday life on a Cherokee farmstead, and demonstrated a host of unusual tools, from a device for cutting shingles to a 19th century butter churn. When not taking photographs, I sat and listened and daydreamed of living back then, in the days before the Trail....

He opened the cabin door at last and let in the welcome sunshine of an early Spring day. Then we followed him on a tour of the grounds of New Echota. Most all of the buildings are reconstructions, and only the most significant structures were rebuilt, so the effect is one of walking onto an enormous chess board rather late in the game. Most of the "town" is comprised of open field interspersed with stately trees and interrupted here an there by a 19th century Cherokee building that emerges mushroom-like from the rural landscape. I cannot imagine the community as bustling; it is difficult, indeed, not to imagine the Cherokees living in a sort of bucolic utopia, in a city with almost no buildings except the most important ones. We wandered into each of them in turn, beginning with the Cherokee Supreme Court. The building was clearly IMPORTANT, as indicated by the interpretive signs setting it apart from the surrounding landscape of oak and close-trimmed turf. Once inside, our storyteller regaled us with more tales of Cherokee culture, particularly the way the justice system worked. Then we continued on, visiting the Cherokee Council Hall (a building with an exterior quite reminiscent of the Supreme Court building, but with different-colored shutters), then passing another cabin and outbuilding collection (also brought in from other places), and then down a trail through the woods. Our guide proudly showed off the stretch of open woodland that used to be choked with privet, all cleared out recently by convict labor. At last, we arrived at the former home of Moravian missionary Samuel Worcester. We paused at the door to listen to more stories, about how Worcester was dragged off to prison for refusing to obey an unjust law requiring all whites working with the Cherokee to get a license. I took a photo as evidence of the students listening well (or, at least, leaning against one).
We explored the various rooms (and looms) of the house.
I paused on a stairway to take the photograph below. It struck me as a powerful visual statement of what "voluntary simplicity" is all about. I could have stood there and gazed for hours, or better yet, sat at the table with the light streaming in, rapt in thought....We walked back down the trail to another relocated building, this time the Vann tavern. It was built by James Vann in 1805, and is a marvelously rambling structure. It once stood near Gainesville, along the Federal Road that ran across Cherokee land. Students were particularly entranced by the "drive-thru" window in the back, which enabled those who were not allowed to set foot in the tavern (such as slaves) to buy alcohol and other items. From the inn, we continued to the reconstructed printing office for the Cherokee Phoenix, then wandered over to one of the few structures not rebuilt: the foundation stones outlining the home of Elias Boudinot, where the Treaty of New Echota was signed by Boudinot, Major Ridge, and John Ridge (among others) on December 29, 1835. Soon after the Trail of Tears, all three were murdered in one day of violence and retribution, as had befallen William McIntosh. But the Treaty Party that signed the document did not receive the perks that McIntosh did, and it is far more difficult to see their deaths as justifiable. They saw the only alternative to the treaty being violent (and ultimately futile) conflict, and came to terms with it. The three strike me as tragic figures, acting out a destiny largely beyond their control. As Major Ridge declared afterwards, "I have signed my death warrant."

Our guide gathered us together once more, out on the green grass of the once-village, to regale us with a few more bits of information and answer our questions. Then it was time to take the journey back south, across the Chattahoochee River, into the former homeland of the Muscogee Creeks.