I stopped on my run the other day to observe a tree whose leaves were so eaten by caterpillars that they looked like lacey puzzle pieces. The younger branches of the tree were smooth and straight but the older ones had grown thick and stubby, branching off at wide, awkward angles. The flowers in the field below were small bluebells and scabiosas with a geranium variety here and there. A stream flowed by the meadow and the ground was soft and moist, as indicated by the density of water-loving plants thriving there.
I am inspired by nature’s patterns and stories- the veins of a leaf; the cycles of moths and the plants they eat; and the character of a place, its climate and tone, as reflected in the indigenous plants. Half of this body of work was done in my home of Leavenworth Washington where it is dry, sunny, and somewhat alpine, with plants that survive well through 100 degree summers and snowy winters. The other half of the work was completed in Bellwald, Switzerland – a tiny town on an alp at 5,000 feet near the eastern-most end of the Rhone valley – where I was the artist-in- residence for two months. The forests in Bellwald were lush, and the alp meadows were so thick with flowers and grasshoppers that the volume was deafening.
I began drawing plants during an informal study of botany and geological history, and I developed my understanding of line, value, and composition by drawing the natural world. For me, plants are a vehicle for exploring the ephemeral and fleeting. They get eaten by bugs, torn by the wind, and shrivel up and die. Their structure is a paradox, both infinitely simple and complex, like the whorls of seeds in a sunflower. Everywhere Igo the plants tell a story, for example Leavenworth is home to a few endemic plants (species that are found nowhere else) because the area was sheltered from the last ice age. The plants I found in Bellwald told a more personal story. Throughout my childhood I visited my mother’s family in Switzerland. The alps and the plants there returned me to memories of playing with cousins, getting nettle burns, and making alp-herb tea.
In addition to the individual plants that I’ve drawn over the last several months, I was inspired by the new setting in Switzerland and the open-ended possibilities to adventure into the landscape. I challenged myself to draw onsite-outside on a mountain with wind, rain, sheep, and the occasional passing helicopter. It felt like a natural leap from drawing the plants that characterize a place, to depicting its landscape and topography. The southern Swiss landscape tells stories of early land cultivation and taming of the Rhone River and ancient Roman invasions, all the way to the recent extreme feats of engineering immense tunnels through mountain ranges. I took chair lifts up the mountain with my roll of paper and ink and then hiked to the best viewpoint. Working quickly to escape the rapidly changing mountain weather, while attempting to capture the great relief anduniqueness of the view below was exhilarating.
Human incursions into the landscape make their way into my work. One can still find remnants of how humans have divided lands, both recent and centuries old. I’ve found hundred-year old barbed wire from WW I high up inthe Tyrolian Alps and huge anti-tank cement blocks covered in lichen still marking the Black Forest border between Switzerland and Germany. In my drawings, barbed wire weaves through a hedge, or the unkempt boundary of a mown field ends in an impenetrable wall of brambles and stalks.
Some boundaries are simple separations of place, while others belie a history of suffering and division. This reoccurring theme is compelling to me because of the Jewish tradition of passing down stories of persecution and discrimination. They are retold in the first person as a way of internalizing and learning from the tragedies.
In fences and walls I see the scars on our collective memory. As I observe the once caterpillar-eaten trees that have regrown and now thrive, I wonder about how we can move forward without those walls.
Attempting to cut a branch of wild rosehips with my pocketknife, my thumb slipped into a large thorn. In spite of the pain and swearing, the glossy black sumi ink lines on the crisp paper brought me a joyful calm. I became absorbed in the predicable pattern of thorns and the chaotically waving sepals- the elegant impression of the arching bramble and the reality of its harsh barbs all twisted together.