I kicked off my summer creative endeavors by beginning the sketch phase of a project that I had been hoping to start almost two years ago. For I long time I have been fascinated by bonsai. On a field trip to the National Penjing and Bonsai Collection, I asked my students to be Poet/Painters. That is, they were to select a subject tree from the collection and write and illustrate a poem inspired by the little tree. While there I wondered, what would it be like to pick three different trees and draw, paint, and create block prints of each in the four seasons. So a project was born! Just as I was preparing to begin the project, the pandemic happened, and I found that all of my potential subjects were sequestered behind closed doors. What a joy to begin my summer by finally being able to visit museums and galleries again! A most especially to visit one of my favorites: The National Arboretum and in particular the National Penjing and Bonsai Collection.
Since my last visit, like many folks, I had developed a pandemic obsession. Perhaps it was the fact that I couldn't access the collection which spurred me on to start my own humble bonsai collection. I only know that I am so glad it happened. An online class and numerous books on the subject, as well as a local enthusiast club whose dedication to the art form happily spilled into Zoom meetings kept feeding my curiosity. Since then I have learned so much about the art of penjing (the Chinese term for "tree in a tray") and bonsai (the Japanese term for the same). Although I know I have only scratched the surface, I never imagined what a cross curricular adventure it would be! Not only have I learned so much about the history of China and Japan (Buddhist monks brought the art of Penjing to Japan in the early 8th century BCE) but I have also learned so much about the biology of plants, trees in particular, and the environment as a whole. I also never imagined how valuable my knowledge of the visual arts including the elements and principles of design would be in not only appreciating these living works of art, but in understanding how artists are shape them. Lastly, too I was amazed to discover the important role of philosophy, in all this as well. I find myself truly pondering my place in the natural world and my role in fostering and shaping the growth of a living work of art. So I suppose that in a way the pandemic served as not only a true test to my commitment in starting to the the project which I'm calling "3 Trees 4 Seasons" but it thankfully provided an opportunity for me to deepen my understanding before I even lifted a pencil.
When I walked through the Arboretum I could't help be struck by the joyful atmosphere as I a passed by the newly filled koi pond and through the cool evergreen glade at the gate of the bonsai collection. It wasn't just me, it was in the air, everyone was so happy to be there. As I wandered through the collection I couldn't believe how much some of my old favorites had grown and changed, it was in many ways like seeing some of my students with their masks off for the first time in a year! I took my time snapping pictures of trees that caught my eye and their labels with my phone for review when I returned home. Then I found a nice shady spot with cool flat stones to sit on and I began the first sketch, seen above.
This sketch I used water soluble graphite pencils with watercolors highlights. This was my first time using this media, so I was stumbling through the combined techniques of pencil drawing and watercolor and trying to find what worked and what didn't. I was really pleased to discover that the pencils give a beautiful range of values, similar to sumi ink. I'm looking forward to practicing with this media more.
Since that first day, I have returned and started a second, larger sketch that I am hoping will be the underdrawing for a watercolor. The good news is that this wonderful Japanese Black Pine (#130 in the collection, too bad them don't have names!), will definitely be one of my three trees. Stay tuned for more about this project!
My next creative endeavor was participating in an online workshop given by the Delaware Chapter of the Guild of Book Workers. If you would like to learn more about them click on the button below.
The workshop focused on creating a clamshell box out of cardboard, which was a new thing for me. This experience ensured that I will never take a perfectly mitered corner for granted ever again, for boxes excellent construction is everything! To see the entire process you can go to my "Works in Progress" page for the step by step photos. The next part of the workshop was to link the boxes using a Jacob's Ladder. Thankfully, I was familiar with this binding having made a Jacob's Ladder book with fish prints before (again, for this please check out my Works in Progress page). The entire box was constructed with a foundation of Davey's board (a heavy cardboard, typical for book covers) black book cloth, and a beautiful Japanese decorative paper I got from TALAS Bookbinding and Conservation Suppliers. (check out www.talasonline.com). The ribbons used in the binding were some decorative ribbons I picked up from my local Joanne Fabric shop. I used PVA adhesive.
This project really helped me sharpen my cutting and construction skills which were a bit rusty since it had been several months since I had built anything three dimensional. Also, I was very happy I took the recommendation of the instructor and I had all my tools ready and materials cut out ahead of time.
Since attending this workshop, I have been wondering about the future of Zoom learning and the nature of online learning communities. Recently, I signed off of my social media accounts for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that I am a teacher and I feel that the social media giants have been increasingly insensitive to the negative impacts of social media on young people. As an adult, in small doses, and through carefully vetted sources, I have greatly enjoyed my online learning experiences. Those that stand out in particular are with this organization, the Morgan Library, and the Prince's Foundation School for the Traditional Arts. I have been amazed at technology's ability to bring the world closer together (the instructor for this workshop was located in Mexico City!) and create enriching, albeit, temporary learning communities. I have no great revelations, but I will be curious to see how the learning landscape changes in the future.