Rooted in Art: An interview with Joan Backes

IMG_0185_Backes_Bangkok,Thailand Hanging.Leaves300dpi-3

Hanging Leaves: Bangkok Installation, by Joan Backes

I always appreciate the stark and intricate beauty of winter’s bare branches, but there’s something about the curtain of falling leaves at the end of the Atrium at work that’s good for my autumn-loving soul.  Recently, I had an opportunity to interview Branching Out artist Joan Backes for the Peabody Essex Museum’s Connected, to ask about her multinational leaf collection, working in a storybook forest, and more.  You can read her responses here: “Leafing Out with Joan Backes.”

Never say there is nothing beautiful in the world anymore. There is always something to make you wonder in the shape of a tree, the trembling of a leaf.

— Albert Schweitzer
This will also be my last post for Connected, as after five remarkable years at PEM I am moving on to a new position with the New England Museum Association, starting in February.  All my past Connected posts can be found here, and I’m looking forward to sharing my continuing museum adventures with you as always here on Brain Popcorn.
Though I say a fond farewell to PEM, there's a whole world of interdisciplinary adventures yet to be had! (Mega Mega Planet by Josh Simpson, photo by Allison White)

Though I say a fond farewell to PEM, there’s a whole world of interdisciplinary adventures yet to be had! (Mega Mega Planet by Josh Simpson, photo by Allison White)

Ideabox: Seeds

"Tangle" by Beth Galston, featuring thousands of acorn caps.  Now on view at the Peabody Essex Museum.

“Tangle” by Beth Galston, featuring thousands of acorn caps. Now on view at the Peabody Essex Museum.

We’re down to the last days of seed-pods before winter settles in and gets comfortable in our neighborhood, but if you’ve got a pocket full of acorns from your last nature walk, this post is for you.  Since we’re on quite a tree-kick here at the Art & Nature Center, I’m focusing on tree-seeds for this Ideabox:.  However, if you have great seed-based activities for other kinds of plants, please do share them in the comments below!

ideabox seeds

Visual Art

Seeds in homemade paper, seeds glued to burlap for a plant-able ‘mosaic,’ seeds preserved like jewels in resin (See more of Beth Galston’s works)–there are a lot of cool options for making art with seeds!  My favorite is below:

Creating seed and nut sculptures (click for source, warning, it's in Dutch!)

Creating seed and nut sculptures (click for source, warning, it’s in Dutch!)

Science

Take a sock-walk!  Collect seeds from trees (and other plants) by putting an old fuzzy pair of socks on *over* your walking/hiking shoes.  Head to the nearest green space/meadow/park/forest preserve/backyard/hiking trail and see what you pick up from the sides of the trail.  Pair this with a seed identification book and see how many species you collected.

Seed identification kit from Nature Watch.  Also great for observational sketching! Click for source.

Seed identification kit from Nature Watch. Also great for observational sketching! Click for source.

Plant a tree!  Fruit trees are a great option for trying some sprouting experiments, because it’s easy for kids to relate to them.  Here are a few sets of recommendations for sprouting trees from your lunchtime leftovers:
Apples
Peaches
Lemons
Cherries

Math

Combine some hands-on, soil-on botany with math by measuring, tracking, and graphing your seed-germination experiments!  What percent of seeds planted sprouted?  What is the average sprout height after two weeks’ growth?  If you give each plant pot a half-cup of water (or considerably less, depending on the size of your pot!) how much water is that in milliliters?

Literature & Dramatic Arts

There are lots of good stories out there about famous tree-planters (Wangari Maathai, Johnny Appleseed, etc.) but here are a few other ideas for talking about tree seeds through literature and dramatic interpretations:

Creating planting pots with a Lorax theme!  This link leads to a whole Lorax-themed party post, but a number of the ideas there could translate to the classroom/art studio/museum.  Click for source.

Creating planting pots with a Lorax theme! This link leads to a whole Lorax-themed party post, but a number of the ideas there could translate to the classroom/art studio/museum. Click for source.

Good for young readers and as a read-aloud to the littlest listeners, this book about seed dispersal has beautiful images to accompany the fairly simple text.  Click for Powell's link.

Good for young readers and as a read-aloud to the littlest listeners, this book by Jerry Pallotta about seed dispersal has beautiful images to accompany the fairly simple text.  Very fun for drawing those animal/plant connections or as an intro to taking a seed-walk.  Click for Powell’s link.

A nature fantasy about a seed guardian who shepherds her charges through the winter and safely out into the world to sprout in spring.  Very sweet book by Eliza Wheeler.  Click for Powell's link.

A nature fantasy about a seed guardian who shepherds her charges through the winter and safely out into the world to sprout in spring. Very sweet book by Eliza Wheeler, could be fun as a kick-off to a seed-collecting expedition. Click for Powell’s link.

seeds - up close

Beautiful photography of tree elements, including amazing seed images of sorts familiar to a New England audience in several stages of development. By Nancy Ross Hugo and Robert Llewellyn. Click for Powell’s link.

What did I miss?  Share your favorite seed activities, stories, and more in the comments below, or explore other tree-related posts.

You may also like:

Ideabox: Bark
Ideabox: Leaves
Ideabox: Twigs
Trees in the News

Ideabox: Bark

ideabox bark

It’s time for more tree-inspired fun from the Ideabox!  This week we’re looking at bark (and by extension, some logs, because it is occasionally hard to get one of these without the other).  As always, the Ideabox features suggestions on how to explore an everyday material in an interdisciplinary way.  Suggestions are always welcome!

 

Book of bark drawings by Sallie Lowenstein, featured artist in Branching Out, Trees as Art

Clothed in Bark, book of bark drawings by Sallie Lowenstein, featured artist in Branching Out, Trees as Art

Science: Close-Looking and Identification of Bark

There are still beautiful leaves on the trees to help you tell your white oak from your black oak and your sugar maple from your Norway maple, but soon enough a nature walker will need to be paying attention to bark patterns to identify winter’s sleeping trees.  Enter Michael Wojtech‘s book, Bark: A Field Guide to Trees of the Northeast.  Wojtech is a fascinating person to talk to, and very passionate about encouraging people to simply *notice* more about their environment (especially trees).  He ran a great session at our Branching Out opening day involving making tree and leaf rubbings, and also using sharpies on acetate to trace the patterns of bark from close-up photographs.  People described the experience as inspirational, meditative, relaxing, and addictive, which seems like a pretty good spectrum to me!

My favorite fact I learned from Michael’s book: tree bark patterns can change as a tree ages.  It makes sense, of course–our skin changes, why wouldn’t a tree’s?  But it makes me look at the trees I walk by every day in a whole new way.

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Literature

Pear tree journal by Tanja Sova. Click for source

Pear tree journal by Tanja Sova. Click for source

I’m not advocating we all carry trees in our pockets, but the journal above was too adorable not to include.

I’ve already linked to cool books about bark elsewhere in this post, so I won’t belabor the point.  Bark is, however, a great source for writing prompts.  Wordlists about texture, color, scars, age marks, fire damage, insect damage, human damage, intersections between human construction and tree life (growing through a fence, perhaps?)–all of those can lead to powerful and imaginative writings for your students or museum visitors.

Culinary

Are you teaching a unit on trees and passing up a chance to make edible bark?  If so, you’re missing a grand opportunity for punning and classic snacks (“ants on a log,” anyone? I always preferred my logs ant-less.  Raisins and I have a very off-again-on-again relationship.)

Here are a few tasty-looking variations on the ‘bark’ candy idea, all featuring chocolate, my favorite tree-based food:

Music

Were you the kind of kid that picked up a stick and ran it along fences or trees on your walk through the neighborhood?  Are you a percussionist at heart?  You may be looking for  The Raw Log Amadinda from Elemental Designs, like the one we have in the Art & Nature Center.  There are a lot of fun ways to make rhythm with sticks and downed logs and tree stumps, but the extra resonance and tuning provided by the folks at Elemental Designs make this particular interactive extremely popular!

The Log Amadinda installed in the Art & Nature Center, just before opening

The Log Amadinda installed in the Art & Nature Center, just before opening

Visual Arts

Cedric Pollet's paperback maple photograph

Cedric Pollet’s paperback maple photograph

Bark is a great option for art-making.  Flakes of bark picked up off the ground (never off a living tree, please!) work fantastically as collage material to give texture.  Bark rubbing or tracing (as seen in the Michael Wojtech pictures above) or drawing (as in Sallie Lowenstein‘s work also above) are classic options for the budding naturalist and the artistic sketcher. For sheer visual impact, not to mention color exploration, it’s worth checking out Cedric Pollet‘s Bark book as well.

I’ve never tried printing with bark, but I’m willing to bet that with the right kind of bark, decent paint, and patience, you could come up with some beautiful textures.

And, of course, there is birchbark etching.  This works best if you know exactly what you’re doing when collecting supplies, and if you’re collecting (or purchasing from someone who collects) responsibly so as not to hurt the tree.  Birchbark, when peeled in winter, has a dark innermost layer that peels off with the outer bark, that when scraped away, reveals the lighter bark of summer.  Artist David Moses Bridges is particularly well known around New England for his work with this material.  He uses both traditional implements, such as horseshoe crab tails, and dental tools to achieve the etching effects he wants on his baskets, plaques, and other works.

Moose on birchbark, etching by David Moses Bridges, featured artist in Branching Out

Moose on birchbark, etching by David Moses Bridges, featured artist in Branching Out

And if you’re in a photographic turn of mind, PEM’s “Trees as Art” Instagram contest is running for one more week.  Tag your photos with #TreesAsArt and enter to win a very fun prize pack from the PEM shop.  Details here.

 instagram trees challenge

Find more tree-related Ideabox fun here:
Ideabox: Twigs
Ideabox: Leaves

Or you might want to check out:
Weird and Wonderful Watercolors
Nature in the Neighborhood

Do you have an inspiring way to explore tree bark?  Share it in the comments below!

 

Inktober, the Big Draw, and why you should pick up a pencil this month

Doodles are good for the brain! Zentangle-style artist trading cards by Meg Winikates

Doodles are good for the brain! Zentangle-style artist trading cards by Meg Winikates

“But I’m not an artist!”

“I haven’t drawn since, like, fourth grade.”

“I so can’t draw.”

Is this you? 

“I just doodle, you know.  Edges of meeting notes, that sort of thing.”

“I never show people my drawings, but I’ve got books of them.”

“My parents still hang my stuff on the fridge, but that’s about it.”

Is this you?

“I love to draw.  I don’t even need an excuse.”

Is this you?

If  you answered yes to any of the above, then October, the month of Inktober and The Big Draw,  is the month for you. (Yes, all of you.)

inktoberWhat is Inktober?  The brainchild of artist Jake Parker, it began in 2009 as a personal challenge: draw every day to improve skills and develop good habits.  Now, it is an international celebration in which thousands of artists, both amateurs and professionals, participate.  According to Parker’s website, the rules are simple:

1) Make a drawing in ink (you can do a pencil under-drawing if you want).

2) Post it on your blog (or tumblr, instagram, twitter, facebook, flickr, Pinterest or just pin it on your wall.)

3) Hashtag it with #inktober

4) Repeat

Note: you can do it daily, or go the half-marathon route and post every other day, or just do the 5K and post once a week. What ever you decide, just be consistent with it. INKtober is about growing and improving and forming positive habits, so the more you’re consistent the better.

That’s it! Now go make something beautiful.

As directions go ‘now go make something beautiful’ is definitely one of my favorites.  Check out the link above for pen reviews, templates for ‘inktober’ branded pages, social media links, and archives from previous years.

Print

And how about The Big Draw?  Billed as “The World’s Biggest Drawing Festival,” it runs for the month of October every year (this year through Nov. 2), and it too is an international celebration of drawing at all skill levels and for any and all purposes.  It began in the UK and each year they have a wide-ranging theme to help event organizers etc. pull together a range of awesome programming.  This year’s theme is “It’s Our World,” and we’re celebrating it at PEM on October 11 at our own Big Draw Festival.  The Big Draw not only celebrates drawing, but works with cultural institutions of all sorts to promote visual literacy and draw attention to drawing’s role in communication and creativity.  They are backed by the charitable organization, The Campaign for Drawing, who have assembled quite an impressive set of resources for teachers, parents, students, event organizers, and more.  (They also have a very active Pinterest board.)

Need more convincing?  Even the Wall Street Journal reports that doodling can improve your memory.

Doodles by Jim Henson, click for source.

Doodles by Jim Henson, click for source.

Plus it’s fun!  If it’s good enough for Jim Henson, it’s good enough for me.

Do you have a habitual doodle?  What about a favorite art-making memory?  Share it in the comments below.

Branching Out Opens Tomorrow

Salem Willows at Sunset, September 2014.  Photo by Meg Winikates

Salem Willows at Sunset, September 2014. Photo by Meg Winikates

The Art & Nature Center’s new show, Branching Out: Trees as Art opens tomorrow, and it’s going to be a fun day of tagua nut scrimshaw, bonsai demonstration, maple syrup and chocolate tasting, storytelling and musical performances, and more.  Learn how to engage in active meditation with a tree, hear participating artists discuss their work, or create your own visual art with data taken from the bioelectric energy of a potted plant in the Maker Lounge!  Programs run 10:30-4.  If you’re in the eastern MA/near NH area tomorrow, come say hi!

Pledge to Play

From "Let the Public Play," a recent exhibition at the Cambridge City Hall Annex, photo by me.  See more from this exhibition at "The Playful Season" post linked below.

From “Let the Public Play,” a recent exhibition at the Cambridge City Hall Annex, photo by me. See more from this exhibition at “The Playful Season” post linked below.

I’ve been blogging over on PEM’s Connected again, this time about the importance of intergenerational play.  Did you know that playful behavior in adults can improve your mental and physical flexibility, but that play involving adults and children can also improve empathy and conversational skills on both sides of the age divide?

Check it out here: The Playful Season.

Do you have any playful plans for this summer?  I’ll be overseeing/sitting in on a watercolor painting class, for one, and looking forward to digging out my diving gear in a week or two as well.

Weird and Wonderful Watercolors

I believe I mentioned how overwhelmingly inspiring and simultaneously despair-inducing visiting the Sargent watercolors show was at the MFA earlier this year.  (I look at his work and kind of want to bang my head against a wall, but in a good way?)  I had a similar reaction checking out the Turner & the Sea show at PEM earlier this week, where Turner can make oil paintings look like watercolors and watercolors look like oils.

"PanPan" by Blule, click for link

“PanPan” by Blule, click for link

The good news is, you don’t have to be a Sargent, a Turner, or even a Blule to have fun with watercolors — and if the artistry just gets too much, tackle them with science!

This cyanometer from the 18th century is a watercolor gauge that helped scientists determine that water vapor in the atmosphere helps determine the blueness of the sky.  Click for link.

This cyanometer from the 18th century is a watercolor gauge that helped scientists determine that water vapor in the atmosphere helps determine the blueness of the sky. Click for link.

Artful Experiments (emphasis on the ‘art is fun’)

 

Color mixing via water gun, by Dreamscaping with June Rollins

Color mixing via water gun, by Dreamscaping with June Rollins

Water Pistol Color Mixing – Watercolors are fantastic for exploring color interactions, and misting a canvas prepped with pre-sprinkled paint with a water pistol sounds like a really good summer camp project.  I wonder if you could actually shoot liquid watercolor onto a paper?  What might happen then?

 

For a softer look, using liquid watercolors in a spray bottle works great.  Seems like a 'let's do this outside!' activity if you don't want to have to do a lot of clean up, though! Click for source.

Watercolor prints by Artful Kids

Watercolor Spray Negatives – I’ve linked these before in a prints post, but the fact remains that this is a beautiful technique and one I still want to try!

Artful Experiments (emphasis on the ‘scientists can have fun too’)

Painted salt sculpture from Fun at Home with Kids

Painted salt sculpture from Fun at Home with Kids

Painted Salt Sculptures – a fun color mixing and absorption activity, with bonus crystal study!  I wonder what would happen if you used sugar or some other substance instead of salt?

 

Flower watercolors from Learn Play Imagine

Flower watercolors from Learn Play Imagine

Make Your own Watercolors 1 – From Flowers  or 2 – From Fruits, Vegetables, and Spices – I especially like the first link, but the second has some suggestions for source materials I hadn’t seen elsewhere.  This would be a fun activity to do in concert with/relation to a study of pigments in leaves, as well.

Oil and Watercolor interactions from Easy Art Activities with Kids

Oil and Watercolor interactions from Babble Dabble Do

Oil and Watercolors, Theme and Variations – Eyedroppers, oil, water, and watercolors make for a great experiment in density and paper marbling!

Erupting watercolors from Learn - Play - Imagine

Erupting watercolors from Learn – Play – Imagine

Erupting Watercolors – This is a combination of multiple science explorations: water absorption, color mixing, chemical reactions – I can’t wait to try this out with a group at the museum.  I just need a good story or art object to tie it to!  (We’ve got to have a volcano related artwork somewhere in the collection…)