I lived the first 15 years in this house without a screened in porch, and mosquitoes in Memphis are pretty fierce. A decade ago I finally tacked one on to the back of the house, just off the kitchen. The space was pretty small, so it contains a table and two chairs plus a one person hammock chair, and that's really all it can manage. But it has a blue ceiling, a ceiling fan, and lots of birdsong.
With the stay at home spring and my new-found fascination with birds, I've been eating more and more meals out there through the temperate part of the year. Sometimes it feels like a lot of trouble to carry things out, but I never regret it. Now I've got this new illustration project going, and, unlike my printing, it's beautifully portable. I've carried stacks of sketchbooks, my ipad, and my paints outside, and I've been spending all day making art on my porch. It's a delight. Yesterday, after my brain had shut off for serious work, I decided I wanted to put this period in my Quarantine Journal. The sketch isn't my best, but it does show you the chaotic, colorful process of illustration. The stack of sketchbooks are to look back at on-site sketches from the forest, done over years, to refresh my memory and keep the book vivid. I'm having a ball working on this project.
I've really been enjoying carrying a sketchbook and my Sailor fude fountain pen on my morning walks in the park. I'm mostly sketching the forest, but the above right is the newly closed, much lamented Memphis College of Art, where I took a couple of classes on printmaking that changed the trajectory of my career.
Today I saw a bunny skipping across the path in front of me. He didn't stay around for me to sketch, but I got my book out immediately, drew him from that image in my mind, and drew the path in front of me as well. Later in the walk I followed the owl around the forest, though again in fleeting ways. I wrote down the experience so I'd have it in the place where I'm recording these forest impressions this spring.
A couple of years ago I "plotted out" a tree alphabet book. I love trees and nature and draw all the time in the Old Forest in Memphis's historic Overton Park. I even started a print (I was thinking linocut), but it felt a little forced, and I abandoned it. This year's Quarantine Journal, dog walk sketches, and new interest in birding all have me thinking back to that project. So over the last couple of days I have laid out an ABC of the Old Forest. Broader in species, but more specific in place. That feels like a good combination to me. I'll have to get a bit deeper into it to see how I really feel about it, but I'm having a good time so far.
I'm continuing to carry my small book plus a black Sailor fude pen on my morning power/dog walk in the forest. Not my whole big kit, but I did pull out an ugly but functional (and not as hot as a day pack) butt pack I won years ago in a kayak race (LOTS of people won them -- I wasn't particularly high in the standings). It's handy for this, though I may have to use it for water for Mr. Darcy instead as the summer goes along. The water fountains are shut off because of Covid, and I wouldn't feel good about even him using one right now anyway. For now, though, I've got my book out with me daily. It was great today because Mr. Darcy spotted another turtle for me. They're pretty laid back, and this one let me draw him as well.
As I've been working towards my WAMA show as well, I've realized that Overton Park is my Horn Island. Much easier to reach than Anderson's main landscape muse, which works for me as a city girl, but it functions the same for inspiration. I'm there daily when I'm not traveling, and I have painted and sketched there for many years now, as well as basing a ton of prints and larger paintings off the work I do actually in the forest or around the park. I'm so grateful to have this consistent source of inspiration so close to me. It's always meant so much, and this year it means even more.
It was a glorious morning in the forest. I had been stopping by the tree where I saw the owl to check for her every time I passed (reminding myself of my beloved, deeply optimistic first dog who checked under a car every day for six months after seeing a cat under it once). It turns out optimism is sometimes warranted. She was there again today, and once again stayed to watch and chat with me. I've been taking my sketchbook religiously on the off chance, so I got to draw her from life. The black and white one was done on site, and then I found the rare gift of a very late wood poppy. Mostly they stopped blooming a month ago, so it was delightful to sit and sketch it as well, spending time with the unexpected beauty. Over lunch I pulled them together and sketched the rabbit I also saw from memory, since he didn't stay around long enough for me to sketch from life.
I also picked the first of my blueberries from my new bushes today. I was more delighted before something came along after and knocked off almost all the rest of the green berries. I put up some netting and wished I'd gotten to it the day before. We'll see if it helps. But I had five lovely little berries at the end of my lunch after drawing them. I wasn't expecting any the first year, so I shouldn't mind the loss really.
I wrote yesterday about how much I'm watching the birds these days, and what a beautiful new awareness that is in my life. I've always admired them, but never sat still and long and really looked more than occasionally. The learning about birds been a huge gift of this quarantine season. And then this morning, an enormous owl flapped across my path in the forest and sat on a limb for ages, looking at me and chatting a little. I'd gotten over there very early (about 6:15), sadly without my smaller sketchbook today, since s/he sat so long. I wish I'd had it. It was still pretty dark to take photos, but I got a couple and locked in a little in my memory as well. Over breakfast I sketched out this page to help me remember in coming times. I loved the side to side head motion. I must have stood there 5 or 6 minutes. I think perhaps there was a nest nearby, or probably s/he would have just moved on. I finally decided I'd been an annoying presence long enough and took up my walk again, with such gratitude for the beauty of the forest and all its creatures.
I had a reptile kind of walk this morning. I got out early to beat both the heat and the holiday weekend crowds in the park, and I had the forest beautifully to myself. I had done a short walk with Mr. Darcy (who struggles with an arthritic hip these days) and then gone back out with my smaller sketchbook. I'm so glad I did. I found a turtle in the middle of the path, and he very obligingly hung around and let me sketch him. He didn't even pull into his shell.
Not five minutes later, I came across a pair of copperheads writhing together on the path. This time I took a photo but didn't stay in the vicinity long enough to sketch. I did the journal page looking at both my turtle sketch as well as reference photos for both.
These are the first snakes I've seen in ages, which is a little unusual for me. For several years now I've been a bit of a magnet for them, enough that the forester has joked about having the copperhead researcher (a professor at a local college) follow me around so she can find them more easily. I was beginning to feel like I might speak parseltongue without knowing it, though truthfully, a port key or apparition would be much my preferred form of Harry Potter magic. Today made up for the gap, however, since I saw two at once for the first time.
I've been having fun sketching Mr. Darcy, always my best muse, with my new Sailor fude fountain pen. It's also a quick, easy way to sketch in the forest on our daily walk, so I've been getting used to this pen as I walk and also sit on the couch in the evenings. I'm really enjoying the feel of it and the varied width of lines I can get.
The last two days I've had a pair of Cardinals building a nest JUST outside my kitchen window. I am delighted and hoping for babies. It would be a perfect spring to have a little extra company and something gorgeous to watch.
Yesterday I took Mr. Darcy for his walk through the forest and then went back. He's got a little older dog hip trouble, so he can't do my full walk with me these days, but I went back with my sketchbook and painted the fading wildflowers. It was a joy just to sit and paint and listen to the birds, who seem louder this year than I've ever heard them. But perhaps I'm just noticing more.
I intentionally got back to more color today, and it felt really nice. Mr. Darcy and I walked over to the park and sketched Brooks after my bike ride this afternoon.
Martha Kelly is an artist and illustrator who lives and works in Memphis, Tennessee.
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