I recently talked to a Rhodes college class studying urban parks, and Overton Park in particular. It was a writing class, and the teacher asked me if the park influenced my writing. My answer was no, not very much. However, the park greatly influences my artwork.
Here's the first proof of my first big block (12x19") that I carved for my new Line-o-scribe press. It's about as big as the press can handle, but it's much larger than I've been doing, and I feel like whole new worlds are opening up before me. I'm working on a series of art deco inspired travel prints of places I love, including both parks in St. Louis that I painted last week.
However, I had to start much closer to home. This tree is my favorite one in Overton Park, and it's my closest sanctuary place. I continue to be drawn to it both physically and artistically. I've painted it a lot this spring. It's lovely to have such a wonderful muse just a few blocks from my house.
I fell in love with Tower Grove Park last summer when I visited St. Louis, and I've been wanting to get back to paint ever since. It was founded by Henry Shaw, who gave the land, built a huge variety of charming Victorian buildings and pavilions, and left money to help with its care. I love that one man could do so much for so many people in the future.
I'm fortunate to have two different households of friends and/or cousins who live just a block off the park and were willing to take me in for my painting trip. It was wonderful to be able to get up, walk out the door, and start painting with a minimum of fuss. It's a gorgeous old neighborhood, too, and if for some reason I could no longer live in Memphis, that would be my number one choice of where to go.
It was drizzly my first day there, which beautifully was a Sunday (the only day the cafe at the Palm House is open), so I bought a cup of hot chocolate and settled in to paint indoors in comfort and with wait service. Every urban sketcher's dream. The Palm House is converted from an original Victorian greenhouse, which has been happily reclaimed from its time as a bus barn.
My next project was the Old Playground Pavilion. I spotted it on my walk that first drizzly morning and am pondering a print of it for my new series.
I might, however, prefer the bandstand instead. Shaw built it with the busts of his favorite composers on pedestals around it, and every concert played had to have a piece by at least one of them. It's a gorgeous building with intricate details and a wooden floor that (I'm lucky enough to know from personal experience) is just perfect for waltzing. It's also surrounded by beautifully eccentric trees. This may be my winning scene. Either way, it was a thrill to paint at Tower Grove again, and I hope not to let so long go again before I get back there.
I spent four days this week painting (and dancing) in St. Louis. Elmore and I had visited last summer, and I was gobsmacked by both the botanical gardens and by Tower Grove Park, both created by Henry Shaw in the 1860's and 70's. It was stunning to me how one visionary man could give so much to so many and change the face of a city so beautifully.
I'd been wanting to go back and paint ever since, especially since gardens (ever since that trip) have been figuring prominently in my work for this year's show. This past weekend offered both a contra dance and a waltz party, so it seemed ideal. I got to paint with the daylight and dance with good friends in the evenings.
I started first in the Missouri Botanical Garden because I knew that once I hit Tower Grove I wouldn't want to leave. (I'm in love with that park.) The top painting is of a delightfully colorful formal garden, full of small geometric shapes. Just above is an indoor Mediterranean garden (a temperate greenhouse) that reminds me powerfully of Turkey with all the colored tile. I was glad there was a bit of an indoor option for painting, since the Saturday weather was drizzly instead of the sunshine the weather forecast had promised.
Finally, below is the mausoleum of Henry Shaw, tucked in a forested glade full of bluebells at the heart of the Botanical Garden. He deserves such a beautiful place for all the beauty he has bequeathed future generations.
I'm working on my first bigger-sized print block for my new press. The block is 12x19" (I've topped out at 10x12" until now), and the finished print will have one color plus a black key block on top (the one in the picture) that will givelinear pattern and definition to the scene. It's taking a while to carve, but I'm excited about this new series.
One of my cousins is kindly letting me invite myself up to visit this weekend in St. Louis so I can paint their stunning botanic gardens. Julie and her family live near the gardens and right off Tower Grove Park, which I fell in love with last summer. I can't wait to do some more painting both places. I'll have almost three days to do a little work, see friends, and get in a little dancing in the evenings.
Conveniently, the house Julie grew up in is right around the corner from me, so I could go paint it this afternoon while listening to the Cards game on the radio. I wanted to do something nice for her, since she's letting me come crash on my schedule with not a lot of warning. (I'm hoping she doesn't read this blog...) It's neat to be able to do something a little personal for the people in my life.
Here's my first multi-color block for the new press. (MUCH easier with a press, since I don't have to print each color by hand with a wooden spoon). Somehow I can work myself up for one color prints that way but not multiple printings. This new press is going to open up whole new worlds for me. Tonight I'm listening to the Cardinals game and starting on my first bigger block, which will be a two color one. I can't wait to get it going.
Once again, I'm having a crazy busy week. I called the contra dance weekend in Little Rock this past weekend, so I didn't get any painting done. I did, however, take a break in the afternoon and listen to part of the Cardinals game on the radio while I did a few pencil sketches from the steps of the church we were dancing at. All three of these sketches were done from that same spot on the steps. There's always something to draw, and usually several somethings, wherever you are. Elizabeth Alley and the Memphis Urban Sketchers have taught me to be more alive to sketching possibilities everywhere.
I woke up yesterday morning with a new series of prints in my head. That space just between sleep and wakefulness is often fertile ground for me creatively. And I love the excuse to lie in bed another half hour chasing down the details from my brain and calling it work. One of the best parts of my job.
Having the new press is opening up possibilities for color prints and larger sizes. I've been using a calendar this year of old British Railway posters (many of them look like screen and block prints, though they don't give the artistic process, frustratingly). My new idea is to do a series of Art Deco inspired prints of places I love, complete with the names underneath. My own travel posters for Memphis. I've got this one plus Dixon Gardens in my head so far, and then this morning I woke up with a vision of the Mississippi River, looking up at the bridge from the center of the water. I'll need to take my camera out next time I paddle to fully plan that one.
I started with an idea in the abstract, but then I took Merlin over to the park to draw this study yesterday. Once I was on the spot, I added the folly in the background and changed the proportions. I always come back to drawing from life, and my work is invariably stronger when I do. The middle of the river one, though, will have to make do with a photo instead of sketching on site. It's impossible to sit still out there in a tiny boat.
This block will be 12x19", which is larger than I've done, so I went ahead and ordered my linoleum yesterday. (I can only get 12x12" in town.)
Highlands School in Birmingham, whose Head of School Kathryn Barr is a friend of mine, asked me to do a sketch map of their campus for their admissions brochure. They're an elementary and middle school, so they wanted something welcoming and artistic instead of just a grid map.
I'd never done something quite like that before, and I chose a place in their quad where I could see all of their buildings and approached it like a street scape. I had to move around a bit to get enough of a view of each building's front (a touch of magical realism, I called it to myself), but I was pretty true to my viewpoint, and I was very pleased with the outcome. I added letters to the drawing to be used as a key for the names and functions of the buildings.
Their campus is nestled in a wooded hill, so the final overview drawing felt lush and green to me, and a little whimsical -- just right for an elementary school. It was a fun trip, and they also asked me to do a couple of close-up watercolors for note cards, so the total project made the trip worthwhile. I also got in a great visit with an old friend who lives down there.
I'll post the results after their brochure comes out. They wanted to debut it themselves, so watch this space in May or June for the final project.
I was recently asked to illustrate a short story for April's issue of Memphis Parent (free on news stands right now!). It was my first illustration job since doing ten block prints based on the book of Revelation for the Presbyterian Church, USA, and needless to say, it was a much different process.
I love working from a text, though, and trying to suit my work to the author's intent, and I thoroughly enjoyed doing this job. I'm hoping to be able to break into some more illustration work. The watercolor sketches I'm doing seem like a good medium for both children's books and place sketches for magazines or newspapers. The Seattle Times actually has an urban sketcher on staff. How cool is that?
The above image of the story shows the double page spread all put together, but it isn't very legible. If you want to really read the story, try this PDF instead.
Martha Kelly is an artist and illustrator who lives and works in Memphis, Tennessee.
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