Archive for June, 2010

Fishing is an important year round activity at the Falls of the Ohio.  When the right conditions are present (and this is best known by the fish) the fishing can be excellent.  Such was the situation this past weekend.  It was unbelievably hot and humid, but the fish were in the shallows and everything that fishes was out here.  Lining the more accessible banks and from boats, anglers were throwing both natural and artificial lures into the riffles and coming up with some nice stringers of fish.  On the less accessible fossil banks on the Kentucky side of the river and from strategically placed rocks in the flowing water, herons and vultures were waiting.

While the herons were actively fishing, the resident colony of Black vultures were doing their part by scavenging on dead fish.  I came across this one bird dining on this fish head from a large carp.  Their sharp beaks have no problem picking out the best morsels.

The human fishermen were catching a variety of big river fishes.  I watched one angler land a large Blue catfish that gave him quite a fight.  He placed the big catfish in a wire mesh cage which kept it fresh in the swiftly moving water.  Large rocks stacked on top of the box anchors it in place.

Among the other fish being caught included striped bass hybrids, channel cats, drum and more.  It is still not recommended to eat the larger bottom dwelling fish for fear of toxins in their tissues.  The smaller fish supposedly are alright if you don’t eat too many too frequently.  With the economic conditions as they are, I know there are many people out here augmenting their diets with these fish.  It’s not just about sport anymore.  The top two bass in this photo are about 3 or 4 pounds each.

I was doing my own brand of angling but not for fish!  I walked the riverbank and collected as much Styrofoam as I could find and carried it  to my studio spot under the willow trees.  This is what it looked like when I posed it all for a photograph.  Until the next bout of high water, I’m going to try to use as much of this material as I can for my sculptures.

I have some large chunks in here, but the heat prevented me from getting too ambitious with it.  After drinking much of the water I brought with me, I did make one modest figure and moved it around the different contexts presented by the Falls of the Ohio on this very hot and sticky day.

Here’s the nameless figure with the dark eyes standing in what was its nursery.  This guy has walnut eyes and his nose is a plastic strawberry.  I’m guessing that this figure is about 3 1/2 feet tall, but truthfully, I don’t pay much attention to scale out here where everything is as big as life to me.  Most of the time, I prefer you gauge scale by comparing it to what else is  present in the context that you may be able to recognize.  Not knowing also lends some mystery that I find appealing.

First, I posed this figure near the spot where I made it.  I found a plastic flower and placed it in his hand.  This area is cool and shady, but the mosquitoes are also waiting for any passer-by pumping blood through their veins!  I quickly picked this piece up and ventured to the riverbank where the insects aren’t as bad.  The soft mud makes it easier to stand this figure up, but traction out here can be a slippery affair.

So far, it’s looking like this June will either be the hottest on record or second hottest.  The difference between the two is about a degree.  The final place I photographed my newest figure is by this improvised child’s fort.  This is the kind of activity my two sons enjoy doing out here.  My sculpture looks at home and is enjoying a respite from the oppressive heat.  The shade does look inviting!  I returned “dark eyes” to my outdoor studio, collected my belongings and trudged back to my car.

Today’s final image came from this morning’s adventure.  I saw this trumpet creeper vine growing on a tall tree and thought it attractive.  When I got home and downloaded my pictures I could see that many small bees were swarming around the blooms pollinating the plant.  This is what I like about the Falls of the Ohio.  In a relatively small area, you can see so much life going about its business.

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A group of volunteers did a river sweep clean-up last week at the Falls of the Ohio.  Our June has been brutally hot and I can see how trying to clean up the park would be a daunting task…there’s just so much that needs picking up.  I did document some of their efforts which I now present to you.  I suspect that most of this stuff is now landfill bound.

I know it may seem odd to present photographs of bags of trash in a blog that tries to concern itself with art, however, if we can view this act of cleaning up as an aesthetic act…than I think we can say we are making some progress.  I realize we are used to thinking of conventional art in aesthetic terms, but that life-enhancing quality that the term “aesthetic” embodies is often best seen in other actions.  Although I wasn’t part of this coordinated effort to clean this stretch of the river, I still show up regularly and try to do what I can using what I know how to do!  On this adventure, I had a friend who assisted me in picking up a few things.

Among the items we found this day included our second snowman of the year!  It’s a little container of some sort.  After taking its picture, I popped this beauty into my collecting bag.  It will probably show up again in one of my Christmas cards.

Among my more popular blog entries is my pages section where I feature my Found Fruits and Veggies Collection.  Currently, the physical collection is on display at Oldham County.  Soon I will need to update those photos featured in this blog because I keep finding more stuff all the time.  When I’m in the field, this material is presented by the river in a very causal way.  Here’s a picture of my latest plastic orange in situ.

The figure accompanying me isn’t very large, but he’s a hard worker.  I snapped this image as he was picking up plastic bottles.  It was just so darn hot that I was on the edge of what I can deal with in terms of humidity.  My clothes by this time are just plastered to my body making me feel that much warmer.  I have been better about carrying water with me when I come out here on particularly hot days.  My friend, however, had fewer complaints than I did.  He just worked at his own pace.

Despite everyone’s best efforts and intentions…the river clean-up just scratched the surface.  There is just so much garbage in the world which I suppose is also an indicator of material richness…from affluence to effluence!  That sounds like a good title for a future post.  Unfortunately, you just can’t get all the trash and if you could…the river would just deliver fresh debris the next time another flood happens. We need to be better at getting this stuff at its sources.  Still, we shouldn’t surrender and I know I won’t.  The planet is just too important a place to give up on!

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Of the many objects that wash up upon the shores of the Falls of the Ohio, few have the visceral effect that these found dolls produce.  For as long as I have been doing this project, I have been amazed by how many of these toys I have come across.  The various toy balls are the only other playthings that surpass these lost dolls.  The wayward balls I can understand getting into the river because most of them are round and inflated with air!  It would be very easy for a lost ball to become washed or even blown into the river, but what is the story with these dolls?  I came across an especially interesting doll recently and thought I would introduce the lost doll topic.

I came across this doll laying face down in the soft earth.  Several pieces of driftwood partially obscured a full view.  Recognizing what it was I reached down and lifted the doll up and was amazed that several plants clinging to the body had used this decaying doll as a substrate and were in fact growing on it!  I have seen many abandoned dolls, but this one was unique because nature was so actively intertwined with it.  I eventually placed the doll in a sitting position on a log near the place it was discovered, took my pictures and walked away.

The moment of discovery always produces a double-take for me.  There is a slight hesitation before the brain registers the scale differences and I recognize what this really is…just a toy.  I have come across little hands sticking up out of the sand that have sent fearful jolts of adrenalin rushing through me.  People are always asking me if I have ever discovered a human body before?  Fortunately, I haven’t, but these things come a close second.

No doubt about it…these objects are psychologically charged like creepy clowns are and stumbling across a lost doll is like viewing a mini crime scene.  The idea that we would intend a representation of an infant as a plaything strikes me as an odd idea.  So what are these dolls doing in the river so far from home and the people who care for them?

At first I thought it was plausible that many of the hundred or so dolls I’ve found in six years simply washed off or accidently fell off recreation boats.  And then I thought that perhaps the world is just full of mean prankster boys who think it’s fun to throw sister’s doll into the river.  There is that scene in the first Toy Story movie where the boy next door, Sid, engages in this kind of behavior.  And then another idea occurred to me that also seemed possible.

What if it’s not little boys, but instead little girls that are tossing out the baby with the bath water?  What if even on a subconscious level, these girls are rebelling against gender stereotypes they don’t fully understand?  Aren’t many of the baby dolls intended to reinforce the notion of girls becoming mothers?  I have had conversations with female friends who said that they never could relate to dolls and prefered other toys instead.

My wife reminded me that boys play with dolls too and that’s certainly true.  I had a G.I. Joe action figure “we” (me and the other boys in the neighborhood) eventually blew up in the sandbox…ala Sid.  The truth about the river dolls is that every possible way one can imagine these objects getting into the water can and does happen.  I have this other mental image of the dolls that missed the Falls, continuing on their long watery journey until they reach the Gulf of Mexico and then its open ocean from there as the currents circumnavigate the globe with them.

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Reading the old journals from the exploration period…you can hear the authors’ amazement in trying to describe the overwhelming abundance that once existed here.  If you came across a flock of passenger pigeons numbering in the billions and as you watched them cross the sky like rolling smoke until they collectively blotted out the sun’s light how would you record the event?  But it wasn’t just flocks, there were also forests of trees, immense herds of bison and schools of cod and salmon.  In some cases, this was here less than two hundred years a go.  Now this seems remote and out of our living memories.  You don’t miss what you never knew.  Forgetfulness is another type of erosion.

Over the sounds of the river smacking the shoreline, I could discern a few grunts among a high almost “metallic” bugling/whistling in the air.  Or so I imagined as I introduce my latest Styrofoam creation.  In the old days, (which according to my youngest son is anything over nine years a go) the American elk or Wapiti was plentiful in Kentucky and through out the United States.  Several sub-species existed and were classified by geographic region and habitat.  The bulls of this large deer with their immense antlered racks are an impressive sight and are symbolic of nature’s majesty.  Well, mine is not nearly as good…but for the purposes of this post…will do fine!

We are lucky they are still with us today!  As loss of habitat occurred as well as hunting pressures…our elk were driven westward until they were gone east of the Mississippi River.  Eventually, the elk were allowed some federal protections and our herds are rebounding.  Kentucky has led the way in elk conservation by experimentally transplanting a herd to the eastern section of the state where they have thrived!  Their reintroduction has been so successful that a limited hunting season on them has been established.

During the Lewis and Clark trek across the country, elk meat made up a large percentage of the meat consumed.  It remained the meat of choice until the native Americans introduced the explorers to dogs and then that was preferred!  As the country was “settled”, elk continued to disappear from all kinds of pressures.  There was even a brief fad where elk teeth were used for watch fobs!

The elk is a member of the megafauna that was once was a large part of the North American ecosystem.  While I’m taking pictures of my sculpture, a smaller member of this ecosystem came hopping by.  To be honest, I don’t see many frogs out here and I’m surprised this Leopard frog isn’t in a more boggy area.  I think many people by now are aware that amphibians aren’t doing as well as they use to for a variety of reasons that range from climate change to exotic fungi.  If a Great Blue Heron spots this guy, then our frog friend will become bird food.  It’s as if life weren’t already difficult enough without adding to it.

The frog is a reminder that even the most humble of species plays its part in the bigger scheme of things.  So often it seems that the smallest players have the out-sized roles that make the biggest differences to the smooth operation of life at large.  My stag is bellowing and issuing a protest and challenge to protect the environment that sustains us all!  There is far too much in the river that doesn’t belong there especially items dependent on crude oil.

Take this stag for instance, it is dependent on crude oil for its existence.  The body, head, and parts of the leg are made from polystyrene.  In this case it is all river-polished Styrofoam.  The lower jaw is the sole of a shoe and also made from petrochemicals.  The eyes and plastic collar are plastic and derived from petroleum extracts.  Only parts of the nose, legs, antlers, and tail are biodegradable.  The Styro-stag is an animal we can afford to lose and it will be interesting watching the river for signs that the exotic materials that comprise it are on the wane.

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I left the “Petro-totem” sculpture on a small island created by the tenacity of a willow’s roots.  Living this close to the river is an invitation to disaster.  Sooner or later the river will wash away this little refuge, but for now we are okay.  Or are we?

The first two images in this post were taken on a Saturday when everything seemed relatively well.  When I returned the following morning, severe thunderstorms had drenched our region.  The river level was noticeably higher.  The sounds of normal life were rudely interrupted by the sound of the dam’s siren letting more water under the gate.  A tremendously powerful torrent is created when so much water is let loose.  While I went about my scavenging, I made a mental note as the river crept closer and closer to my sculpture.  Here are pictures of what I mean.

The large decaying log was lifted off the shore and began to drift away.

Meanwhile, the surging river was getting my sculpture’s feet wet.

It didn’t take long before the large log started moving in rhythm with the waves and entered the periphery of the camera’s lens.  Although I didn’t hang out to witness the ceremonial washing away of the sculpture, I’m fairly sure it’s gone now.  It wasn’t an especially glad looking creation.

Before the river reclaimed this section of the shoreline, I did come across this pair of toy binoculars.  All around me, Rough-winged swallows were picking off small insects including the left-overs of the latest may fly hatch.

I was frustrated by trying to look through the faux field glasses.  When I peeked through the eyepieces, all I could see was the river water that had seeped through the plastic seams.  More river discoveries and Styrofoam sculptures in the next Falls of the Ohio adventure!

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The debris I find along the riverbank is an unfortunate sign of the times, but that pales to the ongoing debacle in the Gulf of Mexico now in its 58th day!  The signs that our way of life are overly dependent on fossil fuels and petroleum in particular have been in place for some time now.  The funny thing about signs is that after a while they become so familiar that they are also easy to ignore.  I decided to visit a place I feel I’m familiar with and learn what I could from the other more literal signs that are around here and this is what I found.  The further away from the park you are, the more likely you are to find signs that beckon or welcome you.  The Ohio River Scenic Byway sign promises an adventure complete with the possibility of steam boats and church steeples if you only follow the road that runs parallel to the river.  Next you come to a sign that alerts you to the historical significance of the town itself which is just outside the park.

As you travel from east to west in our country you run into all kinds of markers that are a reminder of how arbitrary the “west” actually is…eventually you do run into the Pacific Ocean which was Lewis and Clark’s eventual goal.  There are several signs that lead you into the park starting with this rather modest example.  Eventually things do build up leading you to the Interpretive Center with its limestone sign.

The historical significance of this place not only to our country, but to the world’s heritage is well-marked.  I’ll start with the more recent sign that represents the effort to recognize the Lewis and Clark bicentennial.  This expedition of discovery was one of the great moments of exploration and deserves remembrance.  We had to remind the historians, however, that this area played a huge part in the overall trip and had to fight for the recognition which included lobbying on the highest levels.

At least the sign for the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail includes two representations of the explorers.  I think it’s doubtful one of them wore a coonskin cap!  Here’s the bronze plaque under the “official” statue (a story for another time!) explaining some of the significance of the voyage to the history of our country.  And , one other plaque I found on the Interpretive Center honoring the fossil beds themselves.

Around the park are other descriptive markers that alert you to some of the attractions in the park.  This sign describes the rich bird life that has been recorded here dating back to Audubon’s experiences.

The oddest signs in the park, however, describe two piles of dirt and rubble that I think we can thank the listed corporation for?  They are used for educational purposes so kids in particular can have a fossil finding experience by sifting through this material.

Once you are in the park, however, one also encounters many signs that tell you what you can and cannot do.  The park and Army Corps of Engineers have many rules and some of them alert you to potential dangers and hazards.  Here are a few of those signs in the contexts in which they are found.

And if you break the rules…you better watch out because…

I can’t leave this post on this note, so just two more images.  The first photo is the sign that gives credit where credit is due…and the last image is what it is giving thanks for!  I know it is said that people no longer read, but if you pay attention to your surroundings, then you can learn all kinds of interesting things and ways to say them.

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I was standing by the river’s edge when the dam’s siren went off.  At first it scares the pee out of you!  It’s a loud wail, but you get use to it.  The Army Corps of Engineers gives the warning whenever they plan to release more water under the dam.  Throughout the region there have been heavy thunder showers and the river has risen quickly.  I worked at the Falls both on Saturday and Sunday and so I have a number of things I can share over the course of the week.  Technically, it’s not yet summer, but my clothes are stuck to me with sweat and I’m glad for the nice bottle of cold water to drink.  So often, I’m guilty of not bringing something with me to keep hydrated.  I make a pact with myself to do better this summer.

The weekend’s weather report calls for rain on both days, but I managed to dodge that.  I spent a lot of time exploring a mammoth deposit of driftwood near the dam.  If the past is an indicator of the future, then the river will probably not change very much for now and I look for a site higher on the riverbank to set up another temporary studio.  I did come across a project I did a few weeks back that was featured in the post “Tug of War”.  His buddy must be around here too.  I find the plastic broken toy-part I used for his friend’s crazy hairdo…they are cartoonish fisheyes.

With such humidity, this is a perfect time for mushrooms and fungi to get their hyphi through the soft tissues of decaying matter.  The process of reclaiming old life kicks into gear.  It’s really the small stuff like bacteria, viruses, and fungi that do the dirty work of releasing nutrients back into the system.  The planet is ruled from those kingdoms while we posture around self-importantly.  This fungus was tiny, but so colorful that I thought I would try to magnify it and reveal how fleshy it is in its crack.


On a nearby log, a male Five-lined Skink is taking a break from his hunt to bask in the sun.  For him, it’s breeding season and you can tell that by the reddish blush he has around his head.  This guy’s lines are indistinct and he’s  bronze in color.  The young lizards have very pronounced black and white stripes and their tails are bright blue.

One of the sites I considered for my informal studio is this place with a chair set in front of this large upturned tree.  Sitting in the chair you can perfectly study all the intricate roots as easily if it were situated in your home library.  I decided it’s just a little too public and I look higher up the bank, under the willows and their welcomed shade.

I’ve scouted out the area pretty well and on my mental map of this place, I’ve noted where the nicer Styrofoam pieces are.  It took almost two hours to move things into place.  The larger pieces I hoist onto my shoulder and carefully walking on top of the logs and driftwood reach the new cache I’ve created.  Here’s a piece nearly as tall as I am from the Styrofoam mine that I set upright and photographed.  I don’t have an idea for this one yet!

Here’s an in process shot of the gathering of the polystyrene.  There are several nice sitting logs in the area to work from and it’s under the willows enough to avoid the direct sunshine and there are usually birds around here as well.  My favorite Lewis and Clark canvas bag is nearby for scale.

Here’s the same site about an hour later.  There is still one really large piece I haven’t secured at this location yet.  I can’t wait to start making something from all this stuff!  I also have started gathering driftwood to serve as the arms and legs and I’ve stashed that away here as well.  The mallet in the foreground is made of plastic with simulated wood grain.

By the time I got around to making a sculpture, it was fairly late in the day.  The resulting piece I dubbed the “Petro-totem” and it takes its initial cue from the skull-like piece of Styrofoam that makes up part of the head.  This piece also features a plastic heart, genitalia (made from walnuts and a plastic toy fire hydrant I found).  The hat is some kind of funnel.  The finished work is far from one of my happier creations.  I just started working on it and making decisions as I went along and this was the result.

I posed this sculpture in several places and photographed it as I moved it around.  There are many tires on the beach and someone has cut many of them so they can’t retain water.  Mosquitoes love to breed in the dank water that collects inside these tires.  An old paint can with its red pigment is used to “sign” the tires…somehow I doubt these are the same people who altered the tires.  It seemed a provoking enough spot to set up a my Styrofoam figure.  I snap of a couple of shots and moved on.

In a future post, I will show you where I eventually left this work.  In closing, I found this little commentary on the big driftwood pile and recorded that with my camera.  The “behind the eight ball” figure was found near by and I added that to the image.

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