I usually keep my posts on The Creative Cat to animals, art depicting animals and the artists who create it, but I also stretch to artists who are inspired by nature.
In a general sense, artists choose a medium in which to express an idea because that medium has qualities that help an artist to speak. When you love your medium, you let it speak by choosing subjects where it will speak on its own rather than forcing it to represent something that’s not easy for it to express. That may sound like philosophical gobbledygook, but what it means in this case is that wood taken from stressed trees has color and grain and texture and shape and wouldn’t be well-used to create something flat and square and colorless, but you would use it instead to create a shelf or a platter or a wall piece that proudly displays all the swirls and scars of the grain and even the rough edges of the bark.
We lost an artist in Pittsburgh last week, an arborist who built a co-op studio to create art from downed city trees. I met John Metzler and his art and philosophy when I designed the post card for a show his studio held at The Clay Place Gallery last year. The images of what he and his fellow artists coaxed from the twisted and scarred trees formerly gracing Allegheny Cemetery are still with me.
(Just a note: John didn’t make the table on this post card, that was created I believe by Jennifer Bechak. John wanted to use one of the pieces by a participating artist on the post card instead of one of his own.)
He grew up loving trees and saw the same piles of trees I did when a local shopping mall and office park denuded and reconstructed hills along the highway. The trees were pulled out like weeds, piled up and burned. I felt real pain at this and couldn’t pass the site while it was under construction, avoiding it still at all costs.
John decided trees simply shouldn’t be treated that way and devised a way to find trees that were cut down, salvage them and turn them into art through Urban Tree Forge.
“City trees tell a story,” I remember him saying, “and you just have to open up the wood and let the story out.”
He was doing just that, working on a piece outdoors in front of his studio when a U-haul trailer let loose from a truck that had hit a pothole rolled off the road and hit him. It’s hard to believe a vibrant and energetic personality and an incredible talent will be silenced by a freak accident.
Please read about him, his studio and his art. His obituary is in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, visit the website for Urban Tree Forge to read about the studio, and visit the Urban Tree Forge blog to see photos of the trees he collected and what he and others made of them, including the trees used to make the tables for the G-20 Summit in Pittsburgh last September, and the pieces he had created, especially those included in Cemetery Gate–especially don’t miss the fireplace mantel in this blog entry, apparently his first piece and made from one of the trees taken down for that shopping mall.
Clean off those branches and put out some seed and suet if you can
I was entranced overnight as the snow quickly fell and piled on every surface, even tiny twigs. By morning I was ready with my camera, photographing out of windows and emerging on to the deck and porch to capture the rare and magical transformation of a snow-covered morning here in Western Pennsylvania. Shrubs and small trees were bent down and everything, my brush piles and tall natives left in the habitat included, was covered with an undulating snow blanket at least 18 inches deep.
Doves were lined up on the clothes line on my deck and wrens and sparrows were perching under the rockers and other chairs, using my deck for cover and no doubt waiting for me to put out the goodies.
However, as I cleaned off the deck and filled the feeders around the railings and the improvised bird bath I saw flocks of birds headed for both the deck and at least one of the feeders at the end of the yard (the other was hopelessly covered by its small tree completely bent over under the weight of snow), but they weren’t using the feeder and they weren’t perching, which was very strange behavior.
I had filled the seed and suet feeders and put out some ear corn yesterday afternoon so they would have it first thing in the morning instead of waiting for me to dig out. If the Cooper’s hawk had been around I wouldn’t have seen any birds at all, except perhaps a sacrificial mourning dove.
Then I took another look at this lovely landscape—the forsythia which is usually filled with sparrows, the pussy willow hosting the larger cardinals and blue jays, even the American Hemlock and brushy saplings around the larger feeder on which and in which the birds are usually perching in wait for the feeders, were all covered with several inches of snow which the birds couldn’t perch on. All the tall stems of goldenrod, asters, coneflower and bergamot that I leave standing for the birds to use as both perches and food sources were completely bent down and covered in snow. Even the ground around the feeders was covered with snow the birds couldn’t even land on top of without dangerously sinking in.
They had no place to land and nothing to eat.
This was a totally different interpretation of a lovely snowy morning, and potentially fatal to all my avian visitors. Where smaller mammals can and do tunnel under the snow and larger ones travel over it or can walk through it, birds can’t brush away snow and ice before they land or dig through it to get to something underneath. In order to use the feeder they need to land close, then hop to the feeder. Unless they could land right on the feeder, they couldn’t eat from it, and all their natural sources were under snow, not only in my yard but everywhere.
Well, I’d probably gotten as many photos as I wanted, so out came the broom and I waded in snow that had drifted deeper than the 18 inches I had measured earlier and swatted away at the forsythia, pulling the longer branches out of the snow on the ground so they could swing free. Then I reached the pussy willow from the deck railing on one side, and the lilac from the other side. As I was working a large clump of snow fell from higher up in the trees at the end of the yard and conveniently knocked the snow off of the feeder in the yard as well as the hemlock and saplings. Thanks, nature!
I was barely finished with clearing one bush and then the other before the birds were in it, chattering and fluttering. And even though they are familiar with me—the blue jay had announced that I had come out onto the deck earlier, and that’s the signal for birds to gather in the shrubs around the deck anticipating the daily feeder refill—they don’t usually fly right past my head to get to the feeders, but today they did.
“Eating like a bird” has been famously misinterpreted indicating a picky eater, but while birds don’t all eat twice their weight in food every day, they do need to eat proportionally much more than humans, especially in cold weather. Imagine having to hop out of bed into a situation you physically can’t negotiate and having to forage for enough quality food to equal about a quarter to a half of your body weight just stay warm and alive for the day and overnight, using only your face and toes as tools.
Tonight is forecast to be in the single digits, and some birds would simply die overnight if they hadn’t been able to find or access any food today. Out in nature, nobody would brush off the trees and fill the feeders, but with songbird populations imperiled because of habitat fragmentation and pesticide use, they could use a little help from us.
If you do feed birds, put out some extra stuff, especially high-protein, high-energy foods like hulled sunflower, peanuts and even other unsalted or plain nuts you might have on hand; I donated a cup of crushed walnuts, which were a really big hit. Dried fruits are very good for them now, too, even just a handful of raisins snipped in half so smaller birds can manage them. Many birds eat insects as well as seeds, and suet fills that part of their diet when no insects are available. The extra protein will help them get through a cold night and into tomorrow.
Don’t forget the water—just a shallow pan of warm water will keep from freezing most of the day and be easy to punch out and refill in the morning. Rising steam from warm water will help attract them to it.
I have articles on making your own inexpensive bird treats in Birds?! Attract them with homemade suet cakes and also a series of articles on Backyard Wildlife Habitats for more information on inviting and feeding wild birds and other wildlife in your backyard.
If you don’t normally feed birds it’s highly unlikely you’d be able to attract them to a new feeder or water source today. But at least knock the snow off of any shrubs with twigs small enough for bird claws to grasp, and especially from any dense shrubs they would normally use for cover. Birds roost overnight in tree cavities and in other protected places, usually huddled together for extra warmth. While snow is a great insulator this snowfall was really unique in that snow is piled on branches where I’ve never seen it, on the lee side of trees, and some shrubs are completely filled with snow, leaving the most typical spots for avian protection unavailable.
I hadn’t actually realized how much art I’ve done in, or and inspired by my backyard until I made my list. I had intended when I moved here to fill my yard with subjects for painting, and I guess I succeeded.
So here are thumbnails with links to the pages on my website where you’ll find them. I have them categorized by wild birds, landscapes, flowers and still lifes, and Winter White, which was a show I did entirely of small pieces of winter-themed artwork. You’ll have to scroll around because my pages are still in html, not php or any other script where you can do a customized search, but I hope you enjoy browsing.
All of these images are available as prints or sets of notecards, or you may purchase reproduction rights for use on a website or print publication. Please respect my ownership of these images and purchase them if you’d like to use them—check my online Marketplace to see what’s available and check my Marketplace blog for Backyard Inspired Greeting Cards and Eye on the Sparrow Notecards and Writing Paper, two sets which feature many of these images.
These are also primarily Landscapes but since they are winter-themed I have them linked to Winter White.
I hope you enjoy your visit!
Read all the articles in this series
That “blue time of day”…a quick walk in the woods after a heavy snowfall as the sun set on the distant horizon, bare trees like sentinels. This time of day always carries a certain melancholy for me, as if a deep instinctive part of me realizes the sun is about to leave and may not come back. The moment stands in all its silent beauty along Robinson Run in Collier Township, on a trail running parallel to the Panhandle Trail.
Every once in a while I do a painting that comes straight from the heart. I wandered onto this scene one Sunday evening after a quick, heavy snowfall with only my camera. I photographed it, intending to come back to do a painting–difficult as that would be at this time of day when the light changes so quickly. But by noon the next day the snow had melted significantly, and then I waited for similar conditions for two years with no significant snowfall around the right time, about 5:00 p.m. in mid January, or early December as the time of day and light would be about the same.
I couldn’t wait any longer and began with my photos and ended with my vision, this painting, Dusk in the Woods. You can also visit this work and other related works on my website in Landscapes or Art of the Watershed.
And there is a cat connection with this painting. My precious Moses was nearing her end as I worked on it, me all through the night at my easel, her at my feet, every day losing a little more physical control as, at 19, her body just began giving out. I needed a project as big as this to bear the process of her loss, and in turn my strength and calm as I worked helped Moses. I will always connect this painting with her, and those late nights when I disappeared into this scene in order to paint it from memory.
In addition, I will always be happy that the original was purchased by the couple who helped to conserve this very spot along the Panhandle Trail, and, in fact, live above it at the top of the hill.
I sell this image as a 5″ x 7″ greeting card, and I also have a range of prints both framed and unframed, from inexpensive digital prints beginning at 8″ x 10″ all the way up to the highest quality giclee prints at the full size of the painting, 31″ x 24″. I also carry it in a woven cotton blanket, mentioned earlier in this blog–in fact, this painting inspired me to have those blankets made in the first place!