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Winter view at the Falls of the Ohio State Park, Feb. 2015

And just when we thought we were winter-proof…the cold descended.  Literally, one day it was near 60 degrees and a few days later came the snow, ice, and record-breaking cold.  Although it has been a mostly mild winter in the Kentuckiana area…it has also seemed like a longer than necessary season.  Everyone I know is winter weary.  Cabin fever has me out venturing among the frozen willow trees at the Falls of the Ohio State Park.  From winter’s past, I know that when conditions are just right, I can expect to see some interesting ice formations near the river.

The Artist at Exit 0 in winter time, Feb. 2015

The right conditions are also cold conditions and you need to dress appropriately.  I find I’m in good shape wearing my vintage pair of Wind-Dodger goggles to keep my eyes from getting all watery.  An old treasured scarf across my face and an all wool, German, military surplus, submariner sweater add to the many layers I have on.  I bring along my trusty walking stick which I use frequently to test the thickness of the ice over frigid water-filled puddles.  Outfitted in my best polar garb I feel confident as I venture forth over a hibernating landscape covered in snow and ice.

Ice formations on the dam's wall, Feb. 2015

In the eastern section of the park, ice has formed on the dam’s wall.  This wall is all that separates the full force of the Ohio River from impacting the lower levels of the park that I am familiar with.  The true height of the river is many feet above my head.  The more swiftly flowing water keeps from freezing.  Debris of all description and the trunks of washed away trees build up on the upriver side of the dam.  More than likely, all the pent-up driftwood will find release when the spring floods come and even the walls of this dam can’t keep the river from rearranging this area once more.  It is a dynamic environment ruled by the river.  If I were to contrast the scene before me with the way this spot will look like in six month’s time…you would think you were on a different planet altogether.  I try to appreciate the variety before me which also has a way of keeping out the cold.

geese tracks in the snow, Feb. 2015

I find there is a surprising amount of life out here.  Although I’m the only person around, I have already spotted several species of birds that don’t seem to mind these conditions.  Geese have left there meandering tracks in the snow.  In the air, I watched both a Peregrine falcon and a nice flock of Ring-billed gulls engage in aerobatics over the river.  I come across other tracks in the cold mud that has me momentarily frozen in place.  I sort of recognize them, but there is also something not quite right here that I can’t put my finger on?

beaver tracks in the mud

To my eye, they appear to be beaver tracks, but they are too small.  I run all the possible candidates through my mind’s mammal filter, but I’m drawing a blank.  I chalk it up to my inexperience.  Try as you might, you can’t learn everything from books and there’s no substitute for doing the fieldwork.  I left the tracks and headed towards the spot on the river where I’ve seen good ice formations before.  Along the way, I find many chewed up willow branches and cuttings near a stand of willow trees.  Something has been dining fairly regularly in this area and with luck I may find other evidence identifying my mystery animal.  As you may have already guessed…luck was with me!

The Polar Beaver, Falls of the Ohio, Feb. 2015

If it hadn’t moved, I doubt that I would have seen it and I would have missed the first recorded occurrence of the Polar Beaver (Castor arcticus) at the Falls of the Ohio State Park!  In size, this remarkable rodent is about the size of the common house cat.  I stood transfixed as this all-white animal concentrated its intentions on the ice-covered willow trees near the river’s edge.

Polar Beaver, Falls of the Ohio, Feb. 2015

I wondered if the Polar Beaver could appreciate the varieties of shapes and forms that frozen water can take?  In the background, the Ohio River seemingly “smoked” as the surrounding air is much colder than the water.  This vapor or steam gradually coats the structures nearest the river.  As the condensation freezes it creates the many shapes that I like to describe as ribbons, sausages, and candles in this beautiful wonderland.  During these special moments, one can appreciate water as it exists in three different states of matter…gaseous vapor, flowing liquid, and rock solid.

The Polar Beaver, Falls of the Ohio, Feb. 2015

Historically speaking, the Polar Beaver is a fairly new animal to be described by science.  Although its beautiful snow-white pelt has been a valuable and prized trade item by the northern indigenous people…it was thought these rare white furs were taken from albino morphs of the common beaver.  Ironically, crypto-zoologists looking for the legendary Sasquatch, instead brought to light the existence of this very rare rodent.  DNA testing confirmed that the Polar Beaver is a truly unique species.  Some of the first observations about this animal documented that this beaver’s coat turns white as autumn transitions to winter.  This is a trait it shares with other polar animals like the Arctic hare and Stoat.

Polar Beaver with willow branch, Feb. 2015

During this time at the Falls,  I was able to observe the Polar Beaver feeding.  Deftly, the beaver chose just the right willow twig and with a quick bite, severs it from the parent tree.  Holding the stick with its front paws, the beaver than carefully chews away the surrounding bark revealing the ivory warmth of the wood.  “Tool marks” left behind by the beaver’s teeth are recorded in the wood.  Willow makes up a significant part of this animals diet, but it is now known that other tree species and plants are eaten “in season” as well.

Polar Beaver feeding in its ice shelter, Falls of the Ohio, Feb. 2015

Polar Beaver feeding on willow branch, Feb. 2015

If the Polar Beaver noticed me at all…I couldn’t tell because it seemed so intent upon feeding.  I watched this animal carry a willow branch to a small “ice shelter” where it focused on the task on hand.  The muddy Ohio River gently lapped the shoreline.  When the beaver finished its meal, it continued to explore the immediate environs with its many ice formations.

Polar Beaver at the Falls of the Ohio, Feb. 2015

I noticed the beaver sampling willow it had already chewed upon as it moved down along the river’s edge.  I stood transfixed by this nearly mythical animal.  I finally lost sight of the beaver when it went behind an ice formation and unseen by me…slipped back into the water and disappeared.  I searched around for a couple of hours hoping to have another glimpse of this Polar Beaver or any others that might have been around, but ultimately was unsuccessful.  I returned during the next two days, but this beaver apparently moved on for good.  I was lucky to have seen it, but can you blame me for being greedy and wanting more time with this magical animal?  Wouldn’t you wish for the same if you were me?  When my reverie lifted, I realized that I could no longer feel my toes and my digital camera was also feeling the cold and not operating properly.  It was time to go home and I will leave you with one final image from this trip.  Here is a view of a favorite old willow tree as it appears during the heart of winter.  Spring will soon be around the corner and I will see you again at the Falls of the Ohio.

Old willow tree in winter, Falls of the Ohio, Feb. 2015

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wooden cable spool and willow tree, Falls of the Ohio, March 22, 2014

It’s a sunny Saturday and warm for this time of year.  One of those days I can’t wait to get to the river.  Spring is still slow in developing, but it can’t be much longer now.  I spent a good part of the day just filling up my canvas collecting bag with all types of odds and ends both man-made and natural that have washed up on these fabled shores.  I’m finding so much stuff that for practical reasons I decide to see if I can find a spot up the bank and under the willows that might make a good location for a temporary outdoor art studio.  I can offload some of my larder for future use while continuing to walk the edge of the river.  I’m enjoying the sunshine and taking deep breaths of the fresh air.

U.F.O. studio...Unidentified Floating Object studio, March 2014

U.F.O. studio, Falls of the Ohio, March 2014

I chose a spot bordered by a large log that keeps most of the driftwood at bay and what I call the U.F.O. or Unidentified Floating Object which is circular metal platform that was once painted white with blue trim.  It’s starting to show some rust now.  This large object washed over the dam during a high water moment three or four years a go.  Since then it’s changed positions with the rising and falling river levels and was once completely buried under driftwood.  The U.F.O. is a platform that normally would be anchored out on  the river.  Barges and other water craft can tie on to it if necessary.  Some how this one got loose and relocated to the park.  When I first discovered it here I also imagined that it was a giant bathtub plug that helped keep the water in the river.   I was lucky that I had the same outdoor studio for many years before this winter’s high water rearranged the landscape again and floated all my collected materials away.  I spent a few hours walking the river collecting Styrofoam and sticks and can’t wait to make something new.

Mega Spool figure in progress, March 2014

Completed figure at the U.F.O. studio, March 2014

The first figure I make here is from the largest chunks of polystyrene I had found on this excursion.  I used two fishing floats (one larger than the other for expressive effect) for the eyes.  The nose is a plastic piece from a fooseball table.  The mouth is a red reflector.  My figure has ears, arms, and legs that are pieces of driftwood.  The figure has a benevolent feeling to it and I can’t wait to photograph it by the river.  I did run into a young sculptor attending the Kentucky School of Art who was collecting driftwood for her own project.  Her name is Jenn and she approached me asking if I was the person with the show at the Carnegie Center for Art and History?  She and her classmates had seen the exhibition.  Jenn is building an installation at the school and promised to let me know when she completed it.  It will be fun to see art made by someone else from materials collected within the park.

Large Styro-figure on a tiny willow island, March 2014

Styro-figure on tiny willow island, Falls of the Ohio, March 2014

When I first meet the river, I spend a little time looking around and scouting out potential locations to create the photographs that will represent this day in my project.  I decide that I like this tiny “willow island” which consists of clay and sand bound together by the living roots of this tree.  Waves and water wash all around it and at times it does look like an island.  As the river recedes to its normal pool, this tree will be high and dry at last.  It’s amazing what it takes to keep this tree in place with such a dynamic river always testing its resolve to survive.  During the highest river levels, this tree would be completely submerged underwater.  Many of the willows along this stretch of the river bear scars and wounds from large logs battering them, breaking branches, and grinding bark away.  I pose the figure on the root mass and move to the next shot which isn’t too far away.

Styro-figure and large, wooden cable spool, March 2014

Styro-figure and wireline spool, Falls of the Ohio, March 2014

Near tiny willow island is a large wooden “spool” for wire line or cable.  I’m amazed by this object’s heavy-duty construction.  This spool floated into here and is now partially sunk into the sand.  Small waves lap the shoreline and you can also see black coal dust swirling around the water’s edge.  Later when I see my pictures I’m struck by how similar this spool is to the circular platform that now forms part of my latest outdoor studio.  This new area to cache my materials is very visible and hence ultra public, however, if we have heavy spring rains…it’s very possible that all this will be washed away and rearranged again.  I often wonder what might go through people’s minds when they stumble upon my outdoor atelier?  It’s an odd archeological site of Styrofoam boulders, small piles of plastic toys, and a tangle of found roots and driftwood.  All the stuff you need to make an absurd figure!  I left my latest Styro-creation next to the spool.  I will go a head and tell you…I returned a week later and all I could find of him was his body and legs.  There must be headhunters out here?  I searched the area, but found no further trace of my figure.  As with most of my Falls projects, they continue to “exist” as images.  The exhibition that Michael Wimmer and I are participating in at the Carnegie Center of Art and History is entering its last week.  I’m so appreciative of the positive response I’ve received for my work.  The show will end with a tea and cookies closing.  If you are in the area, please stop by.

Final shot from the big spool and tiny willow island, March 2014, Falls of the Ohio

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I’m back at the Falls of the Ohio and I can always count on finding different conditions or something new in the air…literally.  On this trip the willow trees were sending out their white fluffy seeds from their catkins.  In the low-lying areas in the sand or against some other barrier, the fluff accumulates into drifts like delicate dry snow.  Today the air is filled with this material as the willows express themselves.  I got used to seeing ghostly spots cross my vision.  Here is an image of where the fluff comes from.

At the river’s edge, more white stuff could be found washing ashore.  Unfortunately, this material is not as environmentally friendly as the willow’s product.  In several places I encountered thousands of tiny, soft, white, beads and I instantly recognized the source.

The white object on the right is a river-turned chunk of polystyrene.  Waves pounding the Styrofoam into the teeth of water born logs and the grinding of the Styrofoam into the sand at the river’s edge “sculpts” this material for me.  These mostly biomorphic forms are so hard-won by nature…that I feel a collaborative responsibility to not alter or impose my will upon them so much.  By shaping this material into organic shapes I “feel” the environment is curiously attempting to “humanize” the polystyrene by removing its rough edges.  Besides, I don’t want to free anymore of these white beads into the world if I can help it.  Here is another place I encountered where the freed polystyrene beads have run a muck.

And now, here are a few of the Styrofoam chunks I found this day followed by an image of where I store them until I can make use of them.

In the earliest days of my project, I can recall trying to fill up bags of this stuff for “proper” disposal.  It made me feel good that I was doing something environmentally friendly in the process.  Unfortunately, there is just too much Styrofoam in the world and places that I had picked up just became littered again with the next bout of high water and flooding.  That’s when it occurred to me that I could try to use this as an art making material.  If I could make something compelling enough…others might want to try to exercise their own creativity or help me out by taking the artwork home.  To some degree, I have been successful at this, but there simply is more garbage than people who care about what happens to it. At this point (soon to be nine years later) I’ve found that my own sense of aesthetics has changed greatly.  I’m from the old school that appreciates the narrative of art as it has developed with its various cultures, museums and landmark masterpieces.  Now, I feel that if we can’t develop (and soon) a more real sense of what is life-enhancing (namely the condition of the environment)…those other traditions won’t matter much.  Of course, there are other aspects of the formal art world that irk me as well and to see Edvard Munch’s fourth version of his “Scream” painting set a new world record into the millions of dollars makes me want to scream too.  Money is also a precious resource that should be used for better purposes.  Anyway, diatribe aside, here is my latest “mess-terpiece” for your delectation.  It continues the story from a recent post .  Enter the tire swing.

My little red-capped Styrofigure investigated the tree fort created near my outdoor atelier.  He visited his much larger relative who amazingly enough was still standing although his nose had fallen off!  It doesn’t look like the people who created this fort have returned recently.  Here is a photo from the family album.

After the visit, my newest figure did a little exploration of his own.  He came across a perplexing sight that made him scratch his head.

In a tangle of white fishing line was this image of futility.  How in the world, did this ball of monofilament snag a comb?  This seems the ultimate in entanglement.

Venturing to the water’s edge, my little Styrofigure found another large section of Styrofoam that was now beached.  For me, it was all becoming too much of this stuff on this day and my figure expresses this with a gesture of its arms.  “Why do we need even more of this material…is there nothing better for the intended purpose?”

Meanwhile…back in the river, the story continues.

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Falls facing west, 6/09

On Father’s Day I got up early and headed to the river.  I had a three hour window of opportunity before the family gatherings began.  Those close to me know how special these excursions to the river are for me.  It’s part of my mental health maintenance ritual.  I need to come out here, see what I can see and make an object/image from what I find.  Here’s this day’s post.

King's head in studio, 6/09

This is where I sit surrounded by the materials I use to make my particular form of art.  Whatever that is happens to be open for debate.  Where exactly does the art occur?  Is it in the process of walking the river and selecting materials?  Is it in the sculptural models I make from them?  Is it located in the images I photograph of those models in their unique site specific contexts?  Could it be in some of the great conversations I’ve had with people intrigued by what I do?  Is it in trying to build awareness of our inherent creativity and connection to the planet?  Does it reside in the activity that is this blog?  Maybe someone out there can help me out?

Falls looking south, 6/09

I’m not deterred by weather…unless lightening is involved.  I’m out here when it’s 100 degrees or below zero.  Today it rained off and on.  Where I sit under the willow trees you can mostly stay dry.  The activity of making something causes me to forget my physical discomfort.  The Ohio River has been a little higher than usual because of all the rain that fell east of here.  The little bit of wind was generating waves that forced the driftwood to tumble over the debris and collect along that day’s shoreline.

King's Rain, 6/09

I imagined this figure as being some kind of “king”.  I think that comes from his head gear.  You can’t really see this, but there is a plastic rose under the “crown”.  His nose is a burnt out Christmas lightbulb.  The ears are some rubber object I broke in half.  The mouth is a plastic bottle cap.  His eyes are waterlogged nuts.  I liked posing this figure near the water’s edge…just out of reach of the waves.  The green ring could be his symbol of office.  I later lost the ring, but found a green wiffle ball that took its place.

Facing east, 6/09

This shot gives a good view of the willow habitat as you look east.  I didn’t see this until I got home, but the tree lying in the foreground connects with the bridges beyond it.  Very few people came out today.  I did see the mink again which delighted me.  I hope it hangs out for awhile and calls this place its home.  It’s a little bit of unexpected, but welcomed wildness.  Last shot is of the “King” set up in a different location.  The smudge to the right is rain water on the camera’s lens I didn’t notice at the time.  I left the figure standing at the Falls and went home.

The King's game, 6/09

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Figure with River Sun Disk, 6/09

Today was the first classic hot and humid day at the bottom of the river.  It can be amazing how much can change in a week.  All the vegetation was approaching it’s greenist and the waves were rolling across the sand.  Another river sweep occured today and I did my part by making this sculpture.  I found the foam, sticks, plastic, etc…along a walk I did Saturday morning.  This post is as much about the power of context…same figure, but different backdrops within the park’s confines.  Different possible narratives are suggested by changing the locations.  The first picture is one my wife said I should put in.  She likes that yellow disk I found and set up for the photograph.  I found it on the water’s edge and equate it with the sun.  Moving right along…River Sweepers, 6/09..  …. .   ..  .    .    .

 

A scheduled river sweep brought a dedicated group of concerned citizens together to pick up trash around the interpretive center.  I intersected them at the fossil rocks.  I wonder what they think when they trip across my studios with their caches of polystyrene?  Bless them for their labors, but try as you might…you just can’t get it all.  I know because I looked over the other side of the dam!

Fish Dance, 6/09

Alive this was a really impressive fish.  Probably one of the larger Freshwater Drum I’ve seen here.  They are kind of common and considered more of a trash fish than table fare by the local fishermen.  I put the sculpture next to the drum…it’s one way to get the river’s fish in the picture.

Dancing figure, 6/09

With a foot wedged into the crack along the fossil cliffs…the figure becomes a graceful dancing character.  The leaning tree adds another point of interest in this design.  It still needs a little more light on the figure.

Head in hand, 6/09

The milk jug cap folded in two made a great mouth.  The nose is a cap of a pen or marker.  One eye is a fishing bobber the other is a round piece of plastic with a hole in it.  I added the blue insulation foam crest to increase the presence of the head.  One last image…from what proved to be fruitful day on the river.Sun Dish and River, 6/09

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Orange-collared Thickbill, 5/09

The shoe/figure from the previous post wasn’t the only piece I made that day.  Here’s another in my Styro-bird series I call the “Orange-collared Thickbill”.  It  wouldn’t surprise me to learn that somewhere among the world’s 10,000 plus bird species is an actual bird called this!  All the elements came from this day’s walk.  The blue bill is the nose cone of a bottle rocket.  The eyes come from sycamore seeds.  I wanted to create another image with the willow fluff before the expected rains wash it away.

Orange-collared Thickbill and fluff, 5/09

I’m seeing fewer actual bird species now and feel we are settling into our summer time mode.  Cedar waxwings are still around…taking advantage of a bumper crop of mulberries.  The resident Eastern Kingbirds are back flycatching from their willow posts.  Orioles still flash through the treetops as they pursue their own kind relentlessly.  Closer to the ground, I came across a small flock of American Goldfinches.  Their bright yellow bodies, black wings, and orange bills add a color note to the muted tones of sand and gravel.  I remember seeing once, a small flock of about twenty goldfinches their numbers doubled by their reflections in the shallow water they were bathing in…now that was beautiful! 

male, American Goldfinches, 5/09

Last shot is of one of these amazing willow trees that survive being immersed and battered by the river’s currents.  It’s like walking through this habitat of giant bonsai trees. 

willow tree, 5/09

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hair brush and willow fluff, 5/09

Today was one of those unusual days were you couldn’t tell the color of the sky.  Neither blue nor gray it just seemed heavy with humidity.  Wafting on the air currents…fluff from willow catkins formed drifts against the landscape.  I have never seen so much out at one time.  I came across this brush in the fluff and thought it summed up the magic.  Are these seeds for the willow trees?

little guy pulling shoe, 5/09

Or, is it some kind of organic pixie dust?  Today was full of odd moments.  I was listening to the Belle of Louisville’s steam calliope…the music carries from its dock on the waterfront to the sands of the Falls.  When a particularly rousing rendition of the theme from “The Sting” finished, I then heard the Beatles “Can’t Buy Me Love” kick into gear.  Simultaneously with the Belle’s concert was a bit of strangeness Louisville calls “Abbey Road on the River”.  It’s a three day Beatles festival that also takes place on the waterfront and draws tribute bands from all over the world.  I wondered which Beatles group I was listening to…the one from Norway, Japan, or Germany?  Oh, and then there was this Little Guy pulling a shoe…

Little Guy pulling a Shoe, 5/09

He was struggling mightily and I give him credit for dragging  it as far as he did.  He also wasn’t much on conversation and I can only speculate what was so special about this particular shoe.  Perhaps, for whatever reason, it was just his size.

Shoe Rider, 5/09

After a bit, the Little Guy did something astounding!  He climbed into the shoe and started hopping which made the shoe cover the sand more efficiently.  Sort of sack-racing style if you know what I mean?  I soon lost sight of him…my mind swimming to the odd musical amalgam of Stephen Foster melodies meets John Lennon lyrics.  Anyway, I hope that shoe fellow didn’t hop to the river’s edge….the mud there is over your ankles.

Riverscape, 5/09

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