Background Switcher (Hidden)

Everything but the Bird

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Because my day was mundane beneath describing, we have another installment of Building a Bayou. In the last progress picture, the water had gone in, and I'd painted a neutral wash over it to gray it down and make it recede a bit. A lot of what's going on in the current series is furthering the illusion of water. Light passing across dust and scum on the water's surface will help define its plane. Ever since my painter friend Mike DiGiorgio turned me on to it, Chinese white is my best friend. With it, I can create semi-transparent white washes that are really useful in painting things like bayou scum or the top of a bird's feathery back, washed in light.
You can see a magical disappearing snag on the lower left corner of the painting. I put it in, and my friend, painter Jim Coe, objected, and I agreed with him. (I'm sending jpegs around to my artist friends, soliciting comments. It's a new experience for me, but lots of fun). So I flooded the area with clear water from a loaded brush, let it sit a moment, and then lifted the water and the offending, finger-like snag right off the paper. See, watercolor isn't quite as unforgiving as people would have you believe when they tell you it's so "hard!"

Oh, yes...the Bird! I don't normally "allow" myself to paint the bird until I have wrestled its habitat to the ground. As you've seen, there was a whole lot of wrasslin' going on in this painting, a tall order, lots of trees and leaves and shadows and water and scum. It was all to set the stage for the star, to make her white wing patches shine against the gloom. She's really small, not even two inches long in the original, and getting the expression on her face just right is a challenge at that scale. It would have been easy, by comparison, to do what my friend painter Bob Clem calls a "Big Fat Bird Painting," where the star is front and center and big and fat with minimal context or habitat. Putting the bird believably in a habitat that the viewer can breathe in is much more demanding.
Mike suggests that I run some yellow leaves behind her primaries--and boom! she pops out of the picture, as she should.
Why a female? Well, almost all the paintings out there are of males (nobody seems to be able to resist that dash of red), and I wanted to strike a blow for the girls. They've got a little more reproductive significance in a dwindling population, too. And the habitat's so colorful, a red crest would be almost lost in it. Last, seeing a female ivory-billed woodpecker is just that much more diagnostic, since female pileateds have plenty of red in their crests. So in she goes, and her reflection too, and I mess around making the reflection duller and duller, so you have to look for it.

What I'm after is painting the experience of seeing an ivory-billed woodpecker, not just painting an image of the bird. I don't want it to look like anything--painting or photograph--that's out there. I want it to be completely unique.

There are some fun little devices that you can use when establishing the plane of water. Sparkles are scratched out of the paper with a razor blade. You're scratching the paint off, down to the white paper, and they can bring water to life. But you don't want to go overboard. My sister Micky suggested a floating red leaf. Good idea! Did that.
It's almost done. Debby Kaspari suggests that I differentiate the green bush on the left from the mossy bank--oh, good thought. So I darken the bank and lighten the bush, and there's now definition where there was none. The roots in the foreground are judged a little problematic by Will Reimann, so I vary their treatment and insertion into the water, paying attention to how each one goes into the water. Agggh, there's so much to pay attention to, but I slog on in my chest waders, wanting to turn this bird loose.
Whether she's done or not, I'm finished with the painting, and I box it up and send it off to Arkansas, to decorate The Auk, and herald Jerry Jackson's important and thoughtful roundup of ivory-billed woodpecker events to date. Thank you, Jerry, for asking, and thanks to the editors and staff of The Auk for doing it proud in their reproduction.

Liam's Trains

Monday, February 27, 2006

Liam draws for much of every day. He works quietly at his own table, talking to himself as he selects colors and composes pictures. Every picture he draws has trains in it. But he imbues his trains with such personality that they're never dull. This kid can use a page!
He just figured out how to draw a face in profile, and he's been riffing on that for several days. I love watching my kids figure things out, and I rarely tell them how to draw anything. I will gladly draw something for them to copy, but they don't often ask. I suppose every mom thinks her kids' drawings are special, so there's no news here. But I think these little train scenes are the berries.
This one is supposed to say, "Boys Are Liam." Instead, it says "Boys UOR Liam." I think he misheard me when I spelled "are" for him. It's a rare double-page spread. Note that he's also drawn a girl train, in pink, and given her a fetchingly curved smokestack.

This is a night train, throwing light from its headlight into the darkness. Looks fast.
Phoebe drew this scene of a little mouse in a dress, tending her carrots. At 9, Phoebe is trying to get back to using the whole page, something Liam at 6 does with abandon. I have found that compositional skills come naturally to very young kids--they fill the page and go on diagonals and do the most wonderful big, bold things. And then self-consciousness creeps in and the figures get smaller and smaller, and the detail gets finer and finer, and everything is at the very bottom of the page and very small. But Phoebe's coming back out of that phase, and starting to do more with the blank page. Her drawings are so precise and sweet.
"I don't know why I drew this," she said. "It was stuck in my head and I had to get it out."

Gremlin's Gold

Sunday, February 26, 2006


Phoebe and Chet Baker have invented the ultimate bedtime stalling game. It's called Gremlin's Gold. Every night, just as we're tucking Phoebe in, the Gremlin slinks dangerously into her room, drops to his belly, and laboriously crawls under her bed or dresser. The last thing we see is his froglike hinders, disappearing into darkness. The Games have begun. Once in his lair, the Gremlin glares out at us, waiting for someone to bring him his Gold.

Which is usually a tennis ball or reasonable substitute.

The Gremlin hoards his Gold in the safety of his lair, and only the bravest may dare to take it from him. He has a wild and fearsome aspect, daunting to the boldest knight or princess (but rarely frightening the Queen, who is after all Alpha Female). But enough about me.

Some tremendous tugs-o-war ensue. There is much twisting and grunting, but the Queen bars growling.

Stealing the Gremlin's Gold will anger him, and he will leap prodigiously to recover it.

If the Queen fires steadily and makes many exposures, one is sure to inspire great hilarity on the land.

All this before bedtime.

Country Goes to City

Saturday, February 25, 2006


On the eve of our departure for Guatemala, Bill and I spent the day in Columbus--he at a meeting of the Ohio Ornithological Society, and I goggling at the big-city sights. First stop: Aquarium Adventure, where I stared at genetically-engineered zebra danios who have glowing jellyfish genes. The attendant told me that they breed true, passing the electric-orange coloration on to their offspring. For those of us who stay away from genetically modified soy products, having a fish that passes jellyfish genes on to its offspring in our living room is a bit of a stretch.

It occurred to me that everything I stopped to look at in Columbus had a common theme: Human engineering of other life forms. I had not gotten over the day-glo danios when I turned around and was greeted by these:
They seemed to be asking: Why? And I couldn't answer why someone would want to do that to goldfish eyes. I'm one to talk; I have a dog with a smashed face and goo-goo eyes. So it's all a matter of degrees, and we all have different aesthetic boundaries between cute and deformed.
I've had three people tell me they have always thought Boston terriers are ugly. All men, which might be a coincidence, and might not. I think women may have a different concept of what's appealing in general.

Remember Gomer Pyle? When he'd see something really amazing, he'd say Gaawwww-leee!
I was channeling Gomer Pyle at the Whole Foods Market. I have never seen eggs like they had there. They had organic and conventional Araucana eggs. This breed, originally from Peru, lays seafoam and teal and sky-blue eggs. They had emu eggs for sale. Now, I cannot imagine eating
an egg that has the potential to turn into an emu. I lifted one, and it was as heavy as if it were filled with molten gold.My final stop was the freeze-dried mushroom section. I got a whole new perspective on morels, which grow free in our woods, when I hefted this feather-light coffin full of dried morels.
Check out that per/pound price. Gaaawww-leee.
Sorry if this post is somewhat lacking in the poetic prose you have come to expect. I'm sitting on the floor of the Atlanta airport with a laptop, struggling to master an unfamiliar mouse and overcome the combined effects of our friend Peter's hot tub and Cabernet souvignon last night. More anon. Wish us luck getting to Guatemala!

American Idiots

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Jammie photos by Phoebe Linnea Thompson. Fashions by Sears. Hair by Tina, just today. She zhuzzed it with gel.

Hooked, irretrievably hooked on it, shamelessly, popcorn-eatingly, hoot and holleringly hooked on this ridiculous show. I bathe the kids early, get everyone in their jammies, fire up the ancestral Zickefoose heirloom popcorn pan, fetch the dog and the macaw, sandwich myself between kids and hubby, and waller in American Idol.
The guys are smokin' this year, blowing the women out of the water, in my opinion. Taylor Hicks is my favorite. He's got music coming out of every pore in his body. Adorable. But I'm coo-coo about Chris Daughtry and Elliott Yamin, too. Killer vocalists. I don't want to like Ace Young,
because he'll have it made no matter what, but ooooh, lawd, the boy can't help it. He was born to please. Mmm, mmm, mmm.
I'll have two of those Ace units, please.

Liam likes sweet lil' Kevin Covais, a proto-nerd with the voice of an angel, the best. "Mommy, can I have the phone? I want to vote for that boy with the glasses." Phoebe's a Chris Daughtry fan. Bill's behind Taylor Hicks, too.

The subplot going on during our nightly Idolwatching is Pet Games. There has to be a subplot, because the commercial breaks are interminable. Charlie and Liam play Toss Harold (there are also Toss Thomas and Toss Percy variants, too).
Hey, Harold. You lookin' at me? You lookin' at ME?

Liam approaches Charles with a toy; Charles rushes at it; grabs it, and flings it off the back of the couch with a loud "OWWW!" Liam dissolves in giggles.
Take that, you saucy helicopter! OWWW!

Chet brings one toy after another to chew on our laps. For beauty so rare/ No dog can compare /To the Boston Terriere/ Is that his derriere?

Tonight Chet got both the speaker and the stuffing out of Patrick Starfish, so our never-pristine living room is once more a sea of Hollofil. That took some doing, and I give Patrick high ratings for durability, and Chet three stars for persistence.
I wonder if there is Hollofil in that big parrot. Here, parrot, parrot.

So if you were wondering what kind of losers would push the Olympic telecast into second place, and American Idol's audience share to a whopping 37%, you're looking at 'em.
'Em R Us.
Ace Young aside, there's really only one idol in my heart. He's got a lot of what they call The Most. He sings, and plays a mean guitar besides.
Sweet William von Heineken III and IV

I Wish These Were Mine

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

This bird is ALOFT!!

May I have your attention? Please look, just look at these paintings. My dear friend Mike DiGiorgio is painting some of the most beautiful bird portraits since Louis Fuertes. I absolutely cannot get over his handling of shadow on this swallow-tailed kite's white underwing and belly. If Mike can be said to have a mentor, it was the great Don Eckelberry. He made many pilgrimages to Babylon (Long Island) to hear what Don had to say about art, bird painting, and the wide world around us. I went with him once, too, and I'll never forget that night, Don's raspy voice and great booming laugh, Ginny's gentle counterpoint; the amazing original art on every wall and cranny in their beautiful carriage house/residence. How I wish Don Eckelberry could comment on these two works.

Can you tell how much Mike loves kestrels? This is a celebration of North America's most ornate bird. He's rolling around in its beauty. Mike's a soul man, a delightful and loyal friend, and such a wondrous painter. He is perfectly at home with watercolors. I'm going to try his favorite paper: Fabriano Artistico Extra White 300 lb. soft press. Wonder if it will make me paint like him? Worth a try, anyway.
Thank you, Mikey, for decorating my blog. It's not every day an artist is commissioned to paint North America's most beautiful birds--but I can't think of anyone better for a dream job like that.

The Giving Plants

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

The spring orchid show has begun. Burana Beauty, whose flowers opened a few days ago, is now in full color and scent, filling the room with a wildly sweet perfume. These flowers are so lovely they wouldn't have to be fragrant too, but they are. This plant is tough and willing and I love it. It's an honor to share a bedroom with Burana Beauty.

This is my favorite phalaenopsis, a keikei (offshoot) of one of Shila's plants. It was tiny when I got it in 2002, but it's my best phal. by far. See the kink in its stem? I was preparing for the Big Sit crowd of birders and naturalists to descend on us last October, and this plant was to be my table centerpiece, and its flowers were just opening as they are right now, and I decided to stake the blossom spike just in case it got knocked around, and I bent it just a wee bit too far and it snapped off in my hand. All that beauty, those months of beautiful flowers, snapped off, and there wasn't a darn thing I could do to fix it. I cried for two hours, I am not kidding. But the orchid's heart went on, and it sent out a replacement spike, and now, four months later, it is in glorious bloom again, and I am staying away from it with my big dumb fingers.

Last summer, Shila and I went on the Marietta Garden Tour, which we try to do every year. Snooping around in other people's gardens is more fun than watching Cops (when you get to snoop around in their yucky houses). No, I'd say that the garden tour is the antithesis of Cops. Anyway, one of the featured gardens was our artist friend Anna's, and hers was full of whimsy and weirdness and fabulous plants. One of them was an absolutely enormous potted clivia (Kafir lily) in full orange bloom. I've always kind of wondered about clivias--they're terribly expensive, usually starting at $50., but people who love them really love them. They bloom when you need it most, in late winter, and they need to go dry and cold before they'll set buds. So I've admired them from afar, but I've never taken the clivia plunge. Shila and I were excitedly admiring this amazing plant and Anna smiled and walked over to another, smaller clivia, also in full bloom, and carried it over and put it in my arms. "I've just found a home for Baby Clivia," she said. We were blown away.

That was July 2005, and it's seven months later, and Baby Clivia is almost as big as her mom, and I got this feeling that she was up to something after a long, cool, dry winter; I'd just stepped up her water and light, and I looked between her long straplike leaves and there were a row of baby toes peeking out at me. So that's how the flowers emerge?? Amazing. I guess I always figured it would be a big old tongue-shaped bud like an amaryllis.

And she has made Clivia III, for whom I will find the perfect home.

The Bad Bad Dog

Monday, February 20, 2006

Sunny but cold, and Shila and I decided to do a noon hike to see what the icicles were up to. Right from the start, the energy was weird; I was preoccupied with Liam, who's been coughing, and Chet, who was misbehaving, and worry clouded my outlook. There was beauty everywhere I looked, but I felt a threat, too. I decided I was worried about an upcoming trip; as nice as it can be to get away, I hate the process of leaving my kids, this home; all the living things that depend on my care. Don't worry; I've been preparing blog entries in advance, and training a very bright little sub-blogger; you'll never know I'm gone...
The first thing that drew my eye was this lovely ice pattern, which morphed into a monster face.

So I took more pictures, and saw a crazed mandrill chewing a rock in the ice.

This elfin forest of moss sporangia was momentarily soothing.
Nothing scary there.
The ice castles were terrific today, thanks to zero-degree nights and continuing runoff from the steep hills. They were more gracile, less ponderous than the last batch, and decidedly dangerous-looking. I cheated death long enough to take this picture.
Shila and I quickly became absorbed in firing at the ice, and we crawled from one formation to another along the cliffside, sliding and slipping and thoroughly muddying ourselves.
Like a child who gets bored when his mom lingers too long in conversation, Chet was looking for trouble. There was something in his eyes today. I shot this picture, and then he vanished.
You guys are all wrapped up in icicles; I'm gonna go raise some hayull. Catcha later.
No amount of calling and whistling with my super-duper acorn-cap dog whistle would bring him back. He had never been gone for so long. Shila and I had a bad feeling that he had gone way down the stream and slipped under the fence to round up some cattle. Darn him!!
So we made our way slowly through the boulder field and slippery slopes, calling and whistling all the way (so much for that bobcat sighting!) to try to recover the prodigal pup. No response, no jingling tags, nothing. I hate yelling in the woods; it's antithetical to everything I stand for, but sometimes I have to yell in the woods. Durn dog!!!
Oh, great. So that's what that feeling of foreboding was all about. I always wonder if I've just taken the last picture of Adventurer Chet, alive... After an eternity of walking, calling, and waiting, Chet finally appeared at the top of the cliff, panting, a little dirty, and wild-eyed. If only he could talk.
Shila and I went on with our expotition in a desultory kind of way, heading for the ice cave with a chastened Chet sticking close by, for once.
We sat down beneath a spectacular icefall, and while we were admiring the leaves,
seemingly coated with that nasty white icing you see on Danish pastries (oh, sorry, Divine Stars of Mohammed),
a chunk of icefall, probably weighing several hundred pounds, suddenly separated from its mooring and thundered down right in front of us. Not a nanosecond of warning; one moment it was hanging, and the next it was shattered all around us. Had either of us been underneath it shooting pictures of moon eggs, well, we'd have been smashed flat.
The gap in the ice teeth was a turret of icicles perhaps two feet across and eight feet long. KRRRAAAASH!
Listen to your premonitions, Zick. The next time you have this feeling of foreboding, just turn around and head home.
So we laughed with relief for awhile and pondered the imponderable and started home. Chet disappeared briefly and came back with a red balloon.
Leave it to Chet to find a red balloon in the woods. He played with it until it popped and as I was coming over to get it away from him he swallowed a two-inch piece of it. I'm telling you, that dog was BAD today. I told myself that it would pass, just like a piece of gristle, or the rubber dinosaur he ate the first afternoon he spent in our house.
We trudged home, talking about this exceedingly weird chain of events. A truck pulled up in the driveway as Shila was preparing to leave. It was our neighbor from down in the holler, the one who owns the cows Chet likes to chase. He'd seen his cattle racing around the pasture, and had been amazed to see this little tiny dog in a blue shirt, as he put it, trying to round up his cattle. When he shouted, Chet had run and leapt into his arms. Not exactly the response he was expecting, but then Chet is not your average stray dog. He held Chet and carried him toward the house, read his tags, figured out where he must belong, and then he and Chet heard my super-duper acorn whistle and Chet leapt out of his arms and tore back up the stream to us. He just drove up to the house to make sure Chet had found us and made it home. He told me he wasn't worried that Chet would harm the cattle, but he was worried that come spring when the cattle had calves, they would no longer be playing when they charged him. I thanked him and apologized profusely on behalf of my bad, bad little dog with the blue shirt.
I am hoping that tomorrow brings wave upon wave of normalcy. I don't want to see any ice turrets, any mysterious woodland balloons, any trucks in the driveway, or the disappearing rump of my dog. I want to take Liam to the doctor, come home and clean the house, that's what I want to do. Urrgggh.

Blogzilla, signing off.**

**Bill calls me Blogzilla now.

Child Labor Buys Studio Time

Sunday, February 19, 2006

What a peaceful day it was. Our favorite neighborhood playmate McKenzie came over, and she, Phoebe and Liam spent the entire day counting the spare change that had accumulated around the house over the past two years. Honest, I didn't put them up to it; they wanted to do it! Soon Phoebe's floor was dotted with piles of coins. Each pile had been painstakingly counted, and if the piles got stepped on or kicked, the effort was for naught. Liam had to dump some excess energy in a safe place before being allowed to walk across the floor/minefield.
Chet, of course, took full advantage of this situation. I don't know if this is a breed trait, but this Boston terrier cannot bear to see anyone absorbed in anything, whether it be reading, counting change, wrapping presents, or taking photographs, while reclining on the floor. He identifies the focus of your attention, then simply sits on it. So Chet alternated between dragging toys in and chewing them atop the coin piles, or simply plopping himself on the coins. He so wanted to be a part of the process, but having no fingers, had to use his butt.
no, that's not a Boston pup asleep behind Liam, but the place-holder I bought Phoebe a year ago, when we were waiting for Chet to get old enough to be picked up...

The kids were amazingly patient with him and worked around him, quickly sequestering counted piles where Chet couldn't sit in them. When it came time to put the coins in rolls, I came in to help. McKenzie would count, while I started the rolls and handed them to the kids to finish filling. When all was counted up, they'd sorted and rolled more than $316.50! Each kid got a $10 roll of quarters for a good day's work.
note Chet, chewing a stuffed toy on Liam's chest, and the assortment of toys Chet brought in throughout the afternoon.
I've been amusing myself lately by tracking two of my commentaries on NPR's Most E-mailed Stories list. This is the first time I've had two commentaries air in the same week ("Blogging: A Boon or Blight to Marriage?" aired Monday, and "Bird Watchers Begin Great Backyard Bird Census" aired Thursday. "Blogging" was crazy--it hung in at #3 for the first two days, bopped down to #11, went back to didn't drop out of the top 25 until Sunday (today). I think that was because it got onto four or five major blogs, and there was a snowball effect as people heard about it and then checked it out. Meanwhile, "Bird Watchers" got as high as #4, and is still on the charts at #15 Sunday night.
Both were Editor's Picks on the NPR home page. Pretty heady stuff. NPR gave both Bill and me a link to our blogs, and mine has gone from picking up around 25 new readers each day to adding more than a hundred. If you're new, welcome!!
Today, though, I let the computer sleep while I worked on three drawings I'd started several weeks ago but never got time to finish. These are for the New York Breeding Bird Atlas. Here's a female blackpoll warbler, incubating.

Here's a northern waterthrush, feeding tadpoles to its young. Northern waterthrushes often nest in the upturned rootballs of wind-thrown trees. Thus, the roots protruding from the soil. The tadpoles came from an observation I made in Connecticut, where I was amazed to see a northern waterthrush catching wood frog tadpoles from its perch on a stump in a vernal pool.

And here's a Louisiana waterthrush turning her eggs. Their nests are very cleverly concealed in earthen banks. They stuff wads of wet, muddy leaves into an existing hole for a foundation, and they make a porch of wet leaves that then dries and is quite strong. I watched a pair build their nest and almost succeed in raising the young to fledging before a predator clawed them out of the bank near the Chute some years ago. I was heartbroken. I'd been so careful to keep a great distance, and only watch them through binoculars...but when there are 20-odd feral cats roaming the area from the nearby shanty, it's really only a matter of when they're going to find the nest. Another reason I must find a way to buy that land.

Charlie is never happier than when I'm working at the drawing table. He hangs out either on my shoulder or right by my left elbow, where he will be handy should I reach over to tickle him or preen the feather sheaths off his head. He's amazingly good about leaving my books and art materials unmolested, which is more than you can say for most parrots. He understands, I think, that sitting on the drawing table is a privilege which can be revoked for bad behavior. For my part, having his bird consciousness so close is a part of my creative process. If I forget to go fetch him when I first sit down at the drawing table, he lets me know! Parrots are excellent at letting people know what they need. AWK!!!

and extremely good at giving people what they need, too.
[Back to Top]