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Early morning view on the Ohio River, mid March 2016

Went out to the river, but to tell you the truth…I thought it would be too high.  Just a couple of days earlier, the Ohio River was once again over its normal banks.  Every year is different and this year the tail end of our winter was marked by warmth and high water.  Although the riverbank was muddy, I was happy to be able to walk around.  I’m having a show at a friend’s place in May and I was on the lookout for more washed up materials.  As it played out, this first official day of Spring would be a more memorable one than I had first anticipated.

Heisenberg's Hammerkopf or Hammerhead, Falls of the Ohio, March 20, 2016

Heisenberg's Hammerkopf in view of Louisville, KY, March 20, 2016

One of the reasons that this can be an interesting time of the year at the Falls of the Ohio is the annual Spring migration of neotropical birds.  I have been known to set my collecting bag aside and just hit the woods on the look out for migrating birds.  The first time you see a male Scarlet Tanager or a Rose-breasted Grosbeak will make a bird watcher out of a lot of people.  This past weekend, which is still a bit early for the usual migrants…I came across something totally unexpected that I couldn’t identify at first.  I didn’t get many pictures, but what I have is here.  If you have never seen (or much less heard of) Heisenberg’s Hammerkopf, (Aviana indeterminus)…you wouldn’t be alone.  Hammerkopf translated into English is hammerhead and that description seems to fit.  Heisenberg’s bird is about the size of an American Robin.  Among the features that stand out the most are its massive red bill and the petal-like feathers found at the base of its neck.  The wings can be brown or white and it has been known to have a crest, but some individuals have been seen that don’t have this feature.  There is no consensus as to its overall population, but a few individuals seem to make the news each year.  This bird is an enigma and it seems to prefer things that way.

Heisenberg's Hammerkopf, Falls of the Ohio, March 20, 2016

The individual I came across is a second year male.  Looking at the info there is on this species did say that the unusual ruff of feathers around its neck could turn bright red as the bird matured and was ready for the breeding season.  What little there is in the scientific literature suggests that this is a highly variable species that can be found anywhere at any time.  With this bird, you really can’t pin down where it originates and it doesn’t seem to have a “normal range”.  It seems to be a very uncommon bird with a world-wide distribution.

Heisenberg's Hammerkopf at the river's edge, March 20, 2016

Heisenberg's Hammerkopf investigating goose tracks, Falls of the Ohio, March 20, 2016

This individual kept surprising me.  I almost felt that it “changed” the more I observed it.  By that I mean at first I found it by the mud and then it changed habitat by going into the trees.  I lost track of it for a short while, but rediscovered it at the water’s edge.  From there, it moved back under the willow trees where I eventually lost it for good.  I saw it use its large bill to delicately probe the mud and hammer through a driftwood log and in both cases wasn’t sure of what it was eating if indeed it found anything to begin with?  I just saw enough of this bird to pique my interest, but I have had bird sightings that have lasted mere seconds that were satisfying enough to last a lifetime.

Chiel collecting driftwood, Falls of the Ohio, March 20, 2016

While I was out exploring the Falls environment, I did come across another individual who can vouch for me that this strange bird was indeed out here.  I struck up a conversation with him and as it turns out he is also an artist.  His name is Chiel Kuijl and he is from the Netherlands.  He has a residency at the Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest in Clermont, Kentucky where he is working on a unique outdoor rope environment.  He was looking for select, interesting pieces of wood that he could incorporate into his art project and the Falls of the Ohio are a perfect place to do this.  Talking with Chiel, one of the things he is enjoying most are the new and unfamiliar birds he is encountering in this country.  I asked if he had ever seen a Heisenberg’s Hammerkopf before and he said that he hadn’t and it was really unlike what he was accustomed to back home.  I am sure I will see Chiel again, but what of the hammerkopf?

Final view of Heisenberg's Hammerkopf at the Falls of the Ohio, March 20, 2016

I don’t often make an appeal to the larger blogging world, but if anyone should happen to see this bird or something similar to it…I hope that you will post pictures of it.  It might make an interesting research project to see where in the world this species will turn up and what it might have to say about those particular places where it is found.  For now, I will leave it here and hope you will follow along the next time I am hiking at the Falls of the Ohio State Park.

Goose tracks in the mud, Falls of the Ohio, March 20, 2016

 

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The holiday season is upon us and I’m here at the Falls of the Ohio to renew one of my Christmas traditions.  For many years, I have been creating and sending out card images from stuff I’ve made or found washed up here.  This post documents what I came up with on this particular visit along the Ohio River.  Friends and family tell me they enjoy receiving these admittedly unusual cards.

To continue the story a bit from my last post, I came across some evidence that my friend Steve the Arrowhead Man had visited this area before me.  I came across this site where he sat on a log and chipped away rock from its matrix to reveal the projectile point that he sees within it.  The wind has blown away his foot prints.  Talking with Steve, he is an individual who believes that “all hell is about to break loose” and he views man’s poor treatment of the environment as the reason this crisis will occur.  To him, it might not happen today or tomorrow, but the road before us is clear to him and it is not a pretty picture.  During my last conversation with Steve he urged me to obtain a book on edible wild plants and study it.  I know that Steve has been periodically homeless and has tried living off the land.  I’ll admit that during my more pessimistic moods…that I agree with him.  However, I come out to the river to appreciate the natural world and exercise my creative muscles.  This usually puts me in a better frame of mind.

Since my last visit the river level has dropped exposing more of its sandy shoreline.  The aluminum boat that was out here is gone and I wondered if Steve was able to salvage it or if the authorities contacted its owner based on the registration numbers along its side?  As I walk along the bank, I’m keeping my eyes open for whatever is new that has washed ashore.  As usual I find toys like this miniature dinosaur which I scooped up into my collecting bag.  There’s an animated holiday special that airs on television each year that has been a favorite of mine since I was a child.  I know I’m revealing a lot here by admitting that I’m a fan of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”!  There is one setting within this Christmas classic that always gets me.  It’s the Island of Misfit Toys where irregular play things (like a train with square wheels and a Charlie in the Box) are sent into “exile” on this island and “exist” with the hope that Santa Claus will eventually rescue them and present them to kids who will love them.  Ah, pathetic fallacy strikes again. The poignancy of that image has loomed large in my imagination ever since I first saw it.  At times I feel that the Falls of the Ohio State  Park is that island and that the lost and misfit toys arrive here via the river.  Here are a few other toys I found on this particular day.

Here is the remains of a remote control car that was deposited upon the driftwood.  I wonder why it found itself in the river?

I came across this washed-up plush figure with a big nose and mustache.  I feel I “know” this character, but can’t place him at the moment.  Lying less that ten feet away from him was this very recognizable and classic character.  I wonder if they  traveled together?

I turned this Winnie the Pooh plush figure over and removed the burrs that were attached to it and then brushed some of the wet sand off of it.  Who doesn’t love Winnie the Pooh and what is he doing in the river?  He is far away from the Hundred Acre Woods.  I carried Pooh and the “mustache man” with me as I gathered the other items I found (including a large chunk of Styrofoam and parts of a garden hose) and proceeded to make my next Falls creation.

Here is version #1 of the Styro-Snowman.  He’s a bit larger than most of the figures I have made out here.  I used a plastic coffee container for a hat, but wasn’t satisfied with it.  I wish I could have found different head-gear, but this is what that day presented to me.  I posed my two little outcast friends at his base and snapped this image.  This was a relatively warm and super bright day as you can see by the strong cast shadows.

This is version #2 minus the coffee container.  The eyes are the blackened remains of nuts from the buckeye tree.  I used other buckeyes and a few walnuts for the “buttons”.  The remaining elements are plastic fragments and driftwood.  Here is another detail.

I also found a length of yellow nylon rope which I employed as a belt.  I tucked the Pooh figure under it as well as a plastic booze bottle to add that extra element of holiday cheer.

As the day was moving along and since I was needed elsewhere…I left this figure at this location, but added one more element.

I added this message in the sand and walked away.  Inside my camera were enough images that I later printed for my holiday cards.  Along the walk back I noticed this white chair near the top of a tree.

This image is another reminder of how high the river can get during one of its flood stages.  The chair was deposited here during last Spring’s high water, but is especially visible now because the leaves have dropped.  I’m always amazed at how variable this relatively small place can be.  I hope everyone out there in the wider world has a great holiday season and I will end with one more message in the sand.

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As expected we set a new yearly rain total record and we still have time left in 2011.  At the moment, we have had 66 inches of rain breaking the old mark by two inches.  I waited for the river to go down a bit before returning to the Falls of the Ohio.  The water was still high which restricted how far I could go.  One very noticeable difference from my last visit was this lost boat.  The high water we did receive loosened it from its mooring up river and it showed up here.  I wonder if someone will attempt to salvage it?

I am always hopeful that I will find lots of cool stuff and this is what I came up with on this trip.  I’ve started collecting the plastic toy wheels that come off toy trucks and cars.  I don’t know what I will eventually do with them, but then again that’s part of the fun!  Here’s a closer image of the blue plastic parachutist in the spot where he landed.

This other figure in the blue coat is my friend Steve the Arrowhead Man.  I’ve nicknamed him this because he likes to knap or chip projectile points from the local rock as the Indigenous people once did.  For him it is a primeval aesthetic.  Steve was the only person I saw on this very cold, but sunny day.  Steve was hunting for rock, but was having no luck because the river was still too high.  I asked how life was treating him and he said that things were a little better for him.  He now has permission to be in the park to practice his craft.  Steve did tell me he once received a ticket for “littering” because someone found a small pile of rock chips he made during the creation of an arrowhead.  We both had a good laugh about that considering his “waste” rock is far less offensive than the daily barrage of plastic bottles and Styrofoam cups that other visitors have strewn about the park.  The new administration at the park has actually embraced people like Steve and potentially me too.  The two of us are living interpreters of the Falls of the Ohio State Park.  For so long, it felt like the only interesting events occurred in this place two hundred or more years a go.  The Falls, however, is a living site and should be treated as such.  This blog is a sampling of the reality that exits in the park at the present moment.  No doubt two hundred years from now people will find a completely different set of circumstances and folks might be curious about us…or not?

This is the figure I made with found materials on this day.  I walked as far east as I could in the park before the river and deposited driftwood blocked the way.  Along my walk, I came across a discarded life vest and I appropriated it for this figure.  I also found the Styrofoam here and there and carried it under my arms. The distinctive black eyes are old nuts from the buckeye tree. The nose is the spray nozzle from a plastic bottle.  A friend told me the other day that he prefers the animal sculptures I make over the “human presences” I create from these poor materials.  I had to agree, but told him that my figures do contain a certain amount of realism to them because they reflect so well the absurdity of the human condition and our relationship to the planet.

With his thin smile I left this figure waving goodbye and turned around for home.  It was time because I was feeling cold and my left knee was aching.  One of the parting remarks that Steve said to me was that he was considering trying to save the aluminum boat we saw earlier.  I wonder if he tried?  I’ll ask him next time I see him.

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I was taken a bit off guard on this visit to the Falls of the Ohio by a rising Ohio River.  While we have not received much precipitation recently, the same can’t be said for the parts of the Ohio River Valley north of here.  When I showed up on this visit much of the accessible riverbank was already underwater.  Here at the Falls the river level is regulated by a system of tainter gates and dams that helps ensure a steady water level for commercial barge traffic at the McAlpin Locks.  It is a curious notion to think how much of this environment is managed for the benefit of man.  Water is also released under these gates to help manage flooding along the length of the river and the land it passes through.

While walking the receding shoreline, I came across the remains of the larger recent figure I had set up in the tall grass.  The river had already captured and changed it.  I did find some new materials to make something with and this is the figure that resulted.  I have no doubt that it too is now gone.  I may find parts of it again once the river recedes.

He’s not the most attractive figure to say the least, but he’s what I had to work with on this day.  At first, I positioned him by some other objects that had washed into here during the spring floods.  As is my habit, I also moved him around to other locations that increasingly were being encroached upon by the rising river which was sending wave after wave crashing against the sandy beach.  Here are a few images of where I eventually left this figure to its fate.

The sky had this interesting quality to it.  Although it was still warm, the light conditions evoked a colder landscape.  I nearly expected to see a flock of Sandhill Cranes to pass by high above me in their characteristic “V-shaped flight pattern.  Since the day was proving to be less promising than anticipated…I decided to cut my day here short and move on to other concerns.  I left my latest figure on the log where it waved its good byes to the city on the opposite bank of the river.

All and all it was a rather melancholy day.  There are times I think I’m going to  be able to do more than I actually accomplish, but on this day the river was calling the tune.  I wonder how high the river will eventually get?

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As promised, here are a few images from my completed bottle project.  For the last several months I have been finding empty liquor bottles and filling them with the coal that washed into the park after last spring’s flood.  A recent invitation to participate in a coal-themed art exhibition gave me a new reason to work with familiar materials.

It’s my assumption that the coal is in the Ohio River because it washed or fell off barges destined for power plants in the valley?  In places under the railroad bridge there were deposits several inches thick on the beach.  Not all of it was coal gravel, but included pebbles and larger pieces as well.  My “favorite” rocks were the ones that the river tumbled smooth into egg-shapes.  The white flecks in the black gravel are fragments of mussel shells.

In my mind I made a link between the empty booze bottles and the coal.  Both are products that require extraction to bring into being before being consumed in ever addictive quantities.  Putting the coal back into the bottles was a way to put random carbon back into storage and also feel some sense of doing something positive and purposeful by at least removing these materials from the Falls of the Ohio.  In Kentucky, we are consuming our mountains for their coal a sip here and shot there and the social and environmental challenges are adding up to a bigger headache in the wider world.

Since I started this piece here I also wanted a photo of it in the environment in which it was created one found and filled bottle at a time.  Between trips to the Falls I would store the bottles in my basement until I got enough of them to make something with.  When I finally decided I had more than enough I dragged it all back down to the river and set it up on a pretty autumn day.  I also recalled the badly twisted ankle I had over the summer that took weeks to heal.  I was doing this very activity when I rolled my ankle over in the sand.  I think the finished piece has about sixty bottles on it. Most of them are made of glass, but the smallest ones are plastic. All the wood table/altar pieces were also originally found at the Falls of the Ohio.  I used a small folding hand saw and cut the wood to length before bringing it home.  Here’s a few views of the completed sculpture set up by the river.

I had trouble coming up with a title for this work, but finally thought “Mountaintop Minibar” was working for me as much as anything else.  Who knows…I may think of something else in time.

I prefer seeing my work out here by the river.  All the other information in the  pictures just adds to the moment.  I did take a few images of my minibar against a black cloth at the church studio.  Here’s what it looks like by itself and with a detail of the bottles.  So far, it looks like this work will be exhibited in an exhibition in October 2012 and perhaps other opportunities will come up before then.  And now, for the last two images.  Thanks for checking in!

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We have had a warm and mostly dry autumn thus far at the Falls of the Ohio.  I’m taking advantage of another lovely weekend to go exploring along my favorite spots on the riverbank.  I usually begin by going down to the water’s edge to see if anything new has washed up.  Here are a few of the objects I came across and added to my ever burgeoning collecting bag.  Some of my finds I will use in my sculptures while the more interesting objects will enter one of the various river collections I have been assembling.   As usual, I find some doll or doll element along the river’s edge .  Aside from plastic balls…dolls are the toy that I find the most which has always struck me as being odd. First, I came across this tiny doll with purple hair.  If you look closely you can see burrs that are snagged in her hair-do.  Later, I found this larger doll that was buried in the sand.  I flipped her over and took her “portrait” and then walked away.  It’s very possible that I will find her again in a different context. My most interesting find of the day was this plastic ax-head.  I’m always on the look out for any real artifacts from the Indigenous people who lived here for thousands of years before Europeans arrived, but I have never found even the slightest fragment of pottery or the flakes left over from chipping projectile points.  I think the river here is just too dynamic for those kind of discoveries.  Nevertheless, this plastic ax-head says a lot about the time in which it was made.  First, it is made of hollow plastic which is of course not nearly as durable as flint.  Second, it clearly says where it was made which in this case is Hong Kong.  Lastly, it promotes an inaccurate characterization of who are native people are.  Here are the images that are on this souvenir tomahawk.

After scoping out the river’s edge…I move up the riverbank with the larger pieces of Styrofoam I have found and submit to my own urge to make something.  Here is this day’s figure starting with the head in progress.  You can gauge its size from my feet which are intruding in the bottom edge of the frame.  As I walk along, I’m also looking for expressive sticks to use for arms and legs.  The only tool I’m using here is my pocket knife.

After putting all the pieces together…I move back down to the river and try to capture another portrait in the context of this day.  Usually, I take several images and a few of these capture how active the river was.

The sunlight was bright on this day and cast strong shadows which I like.  One difficulty of photographing polystyrene is that it is so relentlessly white that it reflects the light so strongly often washing out my images.  Sometime’s it is if the light is emanating from the figure itself.  I’m sure photographing some of my sculptures with infrared film would yield interesting results.

The last picture I snapped is where I left the figure before heading home.  I came to call him “Wedgehead” because of the shape of his noggin.  He was last seen standing in what looks to be tall grass, but is in fact young willow trees that sprouted since the last flooding.

Soon, all the leaves will be down and the bare bones of the Falls of the Ohio will show itself.  The sense of space will also greatly change creating another stage for the drama that is the Falls of the Ohio.  Have a great week everybody!

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It’s been a hot, hot summer at the Falls of the Ohio.  For me, the best time to be out here is as early in the morning as possible.  One advantage in doing this is you are more likely to see birds and other wildlife.  I found this Indigo Bunting singing away from the topmost branch of this tree.  For as open and publicly trampled as this park is…witnessing such small and intimate moments where man and nature freely mix keeps me coming back for more.

This adventure occurred during my last visit to the park and early in the month.  As it turned out, it was a memorable visit.  I’ll go ahead and tell you that I twisted my right ankle which isn’t big news or a particularly rare occurrence.  But this time, I was sure it was broken and I limped out of the park with the aid of my trusty walking stick.  I was walking along in the sand and my ankle just collapsed.  That’s all it took.  All my early sports injuries have left me with a weak ankle.  The x-rays didn’t reveal a fracture, but I was surprised by the bone spurs and bone deterioration.  As I write this three weeks later, I’m still limping along but without the aid of crutches so I guess I’m on the mend.  Returning to that day and before the sprain,  I revisited the sand sunken tire from previous posts and replaced the coal that was removed from it and then moved on.

I created a little friend to keep me company and to help me with the day’s projects.  He’s made with Styrofoam, sticks, plastic, and a little bit of coal for his eyes.  I have used the coal that washes up here for as long as I have been doing this particular body of work which is approaching eight years now.  As a material, its relevance has always been appreciated by me.  Like the corals and brachiopods that have left their traces in the limestone at the Falls…these black rocks also speak of ancient life, but coal has a different and contemporary purpose that is won at great cost.  Walking along the eastern section of the park, I explored and gathered the coal I found interspersed among the sand and driftwood.  My little helper tagged along and soon we filled the hole in a second found tire.

I noticed after I selected this tire that it had once been painted white.  I have seen this before where people of thrift have used cast off tires for garden planters.  On this one, most of the paint has worn off and the river has given this tire a unique patina.  For the Little Man and myself, this would just be the beginning of our play with the found coal out here.

Among the other found objects I scavenge along the beach are empty pint bottles made from glass and plastic.  I like them when I find them with their labels soaked off by the river and their bottle caps in place.  A little more than a year a go I shared a river adventure with video artist Julia Oldham and we marked the day by putting notes and colorful fishing floats in other empty bottles.  I sometimes think of those bottles and wonder if anyone has ever found one of our notes?  In all my years here, I have never found a note in a bottle and by now I have looked at thousands of bottles.  Some of my friends at Living Lands and Waters report finding notes in bottles all the time and I’m guessing that this happens more along the Mississippi River than it does the Ohio River?  For me, finding a note in a bottle will happen when it’s supposed to…I just hope that it’s written content will be interesting!

You have just seen a few of the bottles I have filled with coal.  The white flecks you see mixed into the coal are bits and pieces of mostly zebra mussel shells which is another unwanted element in this river.  Filling these bottles with coal is meditative for me.  Usually, there is still a little bit of whiskey or alcohol in the bottom of these bottles that scents the coal inside its container.  Coal is such a complex subject in our region that it is enough to drive one to drink.  On one side it is a common and available form of energy, but the costs to the land, people, and larger environment are extreme.  Having visited the coal fields in eastern Kentucky, it is certainly plain that the people whose land and mountains have been mined out from under them haven’t benefited to the extent that you would think since poverty and despair are far too common.

I’m going to continue to explore coal as a material and social issue with the help of some new friends.  I have been invited by a group of mostly younger Kentucky artists to participate in an exhibition to be held sometime in the near future.  A blog has been set up called Project Reclamation and if you would like to follow along…just click on the link on my Blog Roll on the right column. I will keep you posted.  To close, here is one other bottle or carbon storage image I photographed with a found rubber duck behind the transparent bottle.  I look forward to going back out to the Falls of the Ohio as soon as my ankle fully heals.

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