Monday, December 10, 2018

The joys of open-ended play

When our son and daughter entered their teens, it appeared they had outgrown their Legos, so we donated them. Not long after, our son showed an interest in playing with the little plastic bricks again and I regretted having gotten rid of them, so we decided to get him a box of new ones for Christmas.

We went to the Lego store at Mall of America, which was something of an ordeal for me because I hate shopping malls. Still, we figured that was the place to find the best selection of Legos and to get a nice large assortment. What we found instead were a lot of "kits" designed to make only certain things, but not one (NOT ONE!) box of just plain Legos for making anything he wanted.

I was disappointed — I had just endured the biggest shopping mall in the country only to come away empty-handed.

I didn't know there was a term for what I was looking for, and what Legos used to be: open-ended toys, like wooden blocks, generic dolls, and all the random stuff that kids naturally gravitate to — rocks and sticks and other low-tech things like Mom's button box.

Open-ended, or unstructured play is when children invent their own storylines and rules, set their own goals, create their own structures and characters. It's the opposite of licensed character dolls from movies and shows, or kits for assembling a specific thing.

And it's so necessary for the health and well-being of children, some doctors are "prescribing" unstructured playtime, which is kind of an ironic concept, isn't it?

The American Academy of Pediatrics even released a report in August stressing the importance of open-ended play to develop flexible brains that can engage in creative problem solving and inventiveness to become well-rounded, successful adults.

"Play is learning" is a quote from Joseph Chilton Pearce
So if you're looking for a good excuse to avoid the mall and to not hunt down the hottest "it" toy for your child, there you have it. How about a good set of handmade wooden blocks from an independent crafter on Etsy?

You can even search the phrase open ended toys on Etsy and get some really inspired results.

Or visit an independent shop that sells consignment items from local crafters. That can be a fun exploration for you as well as have the potential to yield something unique that really engages your child.

Or just get out your button box and let your child rummage through it.

It's the sort of thing I had in mind when I started putting together little collections of random stuff in little tin boxes to sell in my Etsy shop, some of which illustrate this essay.

Happy playtime!

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Butterflies for the Useful Calendar -- some works in progress

I've been painting watercolor illustrations of butterflies for the 2019 Useful Calendar, and sharing pictures of some of them on my Facebook page. But as I always have something  to say about my artworks in progress (the back story, you could say), it occurred to me that this blog is better suited for that.

At the coffee shop, on a day suitable for bike riding, to proofread the calendar in progress.
Even though I settled on butterflies for my calendar illustrations several months ago, I'm a terrible procrastinator, so I started actually doing them about a month ago. Each one takes four to six hours to complete, so I really can't do more than one in a day; and I prefer to allow two or three days for the whole process: two days for sketches and studies and painting, then one day to set it aside before taking a fresh look and adding any finishing touches.

I've managed to condense the process into one day by making it my primary occupation (it's very difficult for me to make anything my primary occupation), and by being rather more disciplined about it than is my nature. It being cold and snowy and getting dark early does help, because I don't feel much temptation to get out on my bike in the afternoon these days.

A slightly later version of the calendar, with a few of the butterflies in place.
But a thaw is coming, and I have bulbs and roots (of butterfly-friendly native plants) still to plant, so I will have to muster a bit of extra resolve to finish the last two (yes, two left!) and get the calendar done and ready to go by the end of this weekend (which I am determined to do). Then I will make it available in my Etsy shop and, hopefully, at a couple of local consignment shops.

Now, here are the first few illustrations, with a bit of context and an explanation for why that butterfly for this month. I'll share more of them over the next week or so. 

Monarchs wintering on eucalyptus 
I wanted each month's butterfly to relate somehow to its month, so, being a Minnesotan, I wondered what I should do with the winter months. That led me to think about monarchs migrating. It's widely known that our monarchs fly to Mexico for the winter, but I learned a couple of years ago that those west of the Rockies winter in coastal California, in eucalyptus groves. So my January butterflies are monarchs on eucalyptus. 

I like to think these are in Pacific Grove, a charming city adjacent to Monterey. We stayed in Pacific Grove when our son graduated from the Defense Language Institute a couple of years ago, at a motel called the Butterfly Grove Inn, so named because it is next to a butterfly sanctuary. It was June, so there were no monarchs at the time, but it was a new discovery for me that monarchs wintered there. We hope to go back some winter.

Pacific Grove has a very nice natural history museum, too. I highly recommend it.

A pig and tiger swallowtails enjoying some mud

The Year of the Pig begins February 5, 2019, and I have made it a tradition to feature the lunar new year animal in my calendars, so I contemplated how to combine the two. What do they have in common? Well, as it happens: an affinity for mud! Several species of butterflies, including the tiger swallowtails depicted here, will gather in mud puddles to extract vital minerals from the wet soil, a practice known as puddling.

Question mark butterfly, left (November); zebra longwing, right (December)
I've not been painting them in any particular order, and since I am showing you winter butterflies (well, the swallowtails aren't a winter butterfly, I just put them in February because they "go" with the pig), here are some more of those.

The December butterfly is a zebra longwing (right), which flies year round in the far south including Florida, southern Texas, Mexico and Central America. It is the state butterfly of Florida, and one of its nectar plants is the firebush, on which I placed it to add a little splash of color.  

The question mark, shown perched head down on a spruce branch, could still be active in November in a milder region than Minnesota. Some of them will migrate to southern states, and some will hibernate in the north. Hibernating butterflies tuck themselves into a crevice in a tree or structure, or crawl into the midst of a brush pile, and spend the winter in a dormant state.  This nature museum in Chicago offers a nice succinct explanation of butterfly hibernation.

Butterflies may hibernate at any stage in their life cycle, depending on species. Those that hibernate as adults emerge fairly early in the spring, likely before there are any flowers to provide nectar. Luckily, flower nectar is not their preferred food; rather, they feed on tree sap, rotting fruit, and animal waste. 

That includes the mourning cloak, my March butterfly and another one that hibernates in adult form. I have seen these flying when there is still some snow on the ground — they'll even land on a snow pile to sip a little moisture, and probably get some nutrients from the dirt that's mixed in.

Hibernating butterflies, in whatever life stage they do it, need shelter in the form of leaf litter, brush piles and wood piles, as well as mature trees with gaps and crevices they can crawl into. You can help them out by not tidying up your yard too much in the fall.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

A nest hidden in the arbor

Earlier this summer, we were enjoying watching a cardinal pair that seemed to have taken up residence in or near our backyard. I had figured they must have a nest nearby somewhere, perhaps in our neighbor's lilacs, or in one of the trees that have volunteered along the fence. By midsummer, the juvenile cardinals were everywhere calling out in their one piping note. They had not yet learned to whistle melodiously like their parents.

And then there was the plain brown young bird that was acting like one of the cardinal brood but did not look like a cardinal. We finally figured out it was a cowbird. The cowbird lays her eggs in other bird's nests, one here and one there, leaving it to the unwitting adoptive parents to feed and raise her chicks. Often, this is to the detriment of the host bird's offspring, but judging by all the young cardinals chirping about in our backyard, the intruder doesn't seem to have done them any harm. (Jim Williams wrote about cowbirds in his Star Tribune birding column here.)

They eventually matured and scattered and I pretty much forgot about them.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, I spotted a small broken speckled egg on the pavement under our narrow arbor leading into the backyard from the alley. We planted an American bittersweet vine on either side of it about five years ago and the vine has grown into a thick and rampant canopy. I looked up to see if I could spot where the eggshell came from and that's when I saw the well-hidden nest in the tangle of vining branches.

The location and size of it fits the description of a cardinal's nest provided by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology on their website All About Birds. The eggshell, however, could be that of a cardinal or a cowbird, they are similar enough that I really couldn't say — I'm certainly no expert, and I no longer have the eggshell to examine it.

I've recently seen and heard juvenile cardinals in our yard again, an apparent second brood, possibly from the same pair, but they don't use the same nest twice, and the one in the bittersweet does indeed look abandoned. 

No sign of a cowbird this time around.

(When researching information about cowbirds and cardinals for this blog post, I came across this terrific collection of photographs on a site called Wild Love Photography.)

Monday, April 23, 2018

Calendar design inspirations part 2

For years, I used to go to the annual Dayton's-Bachman's spring flower show at the Dayton's department store in downtown Minneapolis. It was an elaborate and fanciful exhibition of real flowers and topiary and whimsical statuary, set up in their large auditorium on the 8th floor for about one week in March. I would meet my mom and grandmother there, and later brought my two children at least a couple of times.

There would be a garden path that wound through the exhibition, revealing various vignettes following a theme. And it was all free — with a little gift shop at the end for buying garden-inspired products and a poster to commemorate the show.

In 1989 the theme was a book by Tomie dePaola, who designed the exhibition and created the poster. I was charmed and inspired by the airy whimsicality of it. I bought the poster that year and put it up on the wall in my kitchen, where it stayed until we moved nine years later. I don't know what happened to it after that; it may have been a bit tattered by then and we may have discarded it, or it's rolled up and stored in some forgotten spot.

I thought of that poster when I was playing around with design motifs and colors for the next Useful Calendar. As I mentioned in a previous post, I had settled on a theme of butterflies to illustrate the 2019 edition, and I was considering different fonts and a color scheme to go with that. Realizing that my usual tendency to make a bold blocky title is probably a bad match for the whole idea of butterflies, I started testing airier fonts and lighter colors.  

Another factor influencing my color choices was a catalog for The Company Store that was sitting on my desk as I was working on the design. My eye was drawn to the dusty pastel color palette of the quilt on the cover. It told me that, yes, muted colors can work.

So now that I'm pretty set on the color scheme, it's time to move on to trying different fonts, with a preliminary mock-up of the cover card to see how it looks once printed.

I do believe that design should follow function. I needed to see how well it all fits and looks on the cards. So I took the first four months of the current calendar, removed the artwork and used the space at top for notes about fonts I was trying out on that card.

I had one customer recently tell me that the text on this year's calendar is a little too small in spots. She was gracious enough to respond to my request for elaboration, and we determined that the text at the bottom of each card was the problem. Not only is it really tiny (8 pt), but I had set it in italics and the color blue. So I was feeling a little concerned about  going with my light airy scheme when I already had an issue with readability. 

At this point, I'm thinking that the solution will be to not only use a slightly bigger font, but to set most all of the text in black—and to use fewer words! 

I'll be turning my attention to the content now: checking the dates of the moveable holidays, and researching and writing the notes for the backs of the cards, which feature some less prominent holidays and interesting trivia.

I used to do all of the research and writing before starting on the design, but I have found that not only do I like doing the design work earlier in the process, but it also helps to then set it aside and ignore it for a while so that I come back to it with fresh eyes later on.

Which means that everything could change before it's done. 

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Art, inspiration, pigs, and butterflies

I've been pondering and playing around with design ideas and a theme for the next edition of the Useful Calendar, which I start working on shortly after the current year begins. It comes in two formats: a set of cards for desk or purse, and a year-at-a-glance poster. I focus on the cards first, making the poster only after all refinements and corrections are completed on the cards to save duplicated effort.

Most years I take the Lunar New Year animal as my theme, and for 2018, which is Year of the Dog, I even modified the layout to allow more room for illustrations—because dogs, right?

For most years prior to this I did one illustration for the cover card and put more text on the individual months, as in 2017, the Year of the Rooster:

But in 2016, feeling uninspired by the Year of the Monkey, I decided to change the theme to bees. Specifically, 12 wild (native) bees from around the world. But I didn't have any ideas about how to make more room for the illustrations, so the cards were still quite text heavy and the bees were kind of small—the original watercolors are about 4 x 6 inches; the calendar cards are 2.75" by 4.25".

I did take the bee illustrations and the research I did about them and make it into a zine, which is available in my Etsy shop, and locally at the Minnesota Center for Book Arts.

Which brings us to 2019—Year of the Pig. I wanted to continue with the new layout allowing more room for art, which means coming up with 12 unique illustrations of pigs. I  had started to gather some ideas, trivia, and inspiration about pigs to inform the artwork, including looking for folktales about pigs and bookmarking sites with curious pig trivia, like this one about Pigcasso, a painting pig in South Africa, and another about a spot in the Bahamas called Pig Beach.

But, as fun as those discoveries might be, none of it was inspiring me to start doing illustrations of pigs. I mean, even with the added room for artwork, it's still got to be quite small, and a picture of a swimming or painting pig kind of needs some context, and I still needed to come up with 10 more unique ways to depict pigs. It just wasn't working for me.

So I asked myself, what would I like to illustrate the 2019 calendar with? 

When I am pondering ideas I tend to stare out the window. And when I look out the window I see a foot of snow in the middle of April. So, naturally, I think about my garden, and summer ... and butterflies.

Question mark butterfly, perched on the wood frame of my kitchen garden last summer.

And it just so happens that I've already got a lot of butterfly photos that I've taken in my own garden.

A slightly tattered tiger swallowtail visiting hydrangea in an alley near Minnehaha Falls park
 I'll also do illustrations by referencing a variety of photos on the web to put together a generic composite image, such as for this watercolor of a nonspecific azure butterfly:

So now that I've settled on a theme, the next step is choosing colors (one of them will certainly be butterfly blue) and fonts. See my next post about my design inspirations and ideas here.

Some of my illustrations end up on note cards, book plates, and stickers, which you can see in my Etsy shop, also called Sharon's Compendium.

Friday, January 5, 2018

How bungling and a few wrong turns brought me to the sculpture garden

Antique camera at Spyhouse Coffee on Hennepin Ave.
I was going to bring some warm clothing to the Free Store at Central Lutheran before attending my yoga class in the Nokomis neighborhood Thursday. The church is located in downtown Minneapolis near the convention center. On their website, they say the Free Store is in the triple-wide trailer at the back of the parking lot. I already knew the location of the church, so I figured that should be easy to find. I mean, a triple-wide trailer in a parking lot? How could I miss that?

But I was wrong. Not only about how clearly I remembered the church's location (that took a bit more circling around than I expected, but I did find it), but about spotting a triple-wide trailer in a parking lot that didn't seem to exist.

It looked like the convention center parking ramp and other public parking surrounded the church, and the space adjacent to the church where I expected to find their parking lot with its trailer was all built up or under construction or both.

Circling anything in downtown Minneapolis is no mere trip around the block, either. I crossed the nearby freeway a couple of times and looped back and made sudden changes as I encountered one-way streets I couldn't enter.

And in all that I never spotted a triple-wide trailer in a parking lot. I became convinced that the Free Store didn't exist anymore and the church's website needed updating. So I gave up and headed away from downtown, meaning to take the freeway back to Nokomis, only to get onto a ramp pointing me in the opposite direction. 

I exited and promptly headed the wrong way on a stretch of Lyndale Avenue where it's divided and then made a hasty U-turn up over a curb and onto the sidewalk just to get out of the way of oncoming cars. (No one was walking there at the time. I did look.)

Once the traffic cleared enough for me to come bumpity-bump back over the curb off of the sidewalk and heading in the right direction, my choices were to go back downtown again, follow the lane that leads to another freeway off to the western suburbs, or make a left-turn onto Vineland place between the Walker Art Center and its sculpture garden. I made the turn and pulled into a parking lot and sat for a moment to get my wits about me.

I looked out at the half dozen people walking around in the sculpture garden in the zero-degree sunshine and thought, That's what I need to do right now. So I sent a text to my yoga teacher to let her know I wouldn't make it (it's a small class), wrapped my scarf around my head and neck, and stepped outside.

The first sculpture that greeted me was a stick horse casting an understanding glance back in the direction of downtown. It was a familiar one from the original sculpture garden that I used to visit often when it was new. Now I was entering the north end of the property beyond the iconic Spoon Bridge and Cherry: the "new" part. 

I chose the giant blue rooster as my destination, as it seemed just far enough to get a nice walk in without spending too much time in the numbing cold—especially numbing to fingers when taken out of gloves to take phone photos.

But first I was drawn to a curious black silo with doorlike openings. Was there something inside?

As the above plaque explains, it holds a reclaimed statue of St. Laurence, patron of librarians & archivists. The top of the silo is open to the sky and I thought I really must come back on a summer midday when the sun will be shining right down into it.

The next object that drew me was a set of columns. 

Specifically, an X with columns, says its plaque. You can catch a glimpse of the blue rooster through the rightmost opening. 

The ropes placed around many areas had signs (which I didn't think to photograph) explaining that there were natural plant installations, including meadow plantings, that weren't yet established, so please don't walk on them. It might not have mattered just now, as the ground is surely frozen, but I wanted to honor the signs, even though the snow revealed many footprints of people who did not do so.

The walkway took me from the columns past the iconic Love sculpture that you've surely seen on postage stamps and elsewhere. Interesting how a simple play on typography can capture people's imaginations. Why does the "O" lean away from the "L" instead of toward it? Each person who looks at it probably has their own idea about that.

And then there I was at the gigantic blue rooster. 

Now the fingers of my right hand really were hurting from all of the times I had pulled off my glove to take a photo, so I went back to my car and headed down Hennepin Avenue to a warm coffee shop. (Spyhouse, on 24th.)

There I did what I should have done in the first place — I emailed the pastor of Central Lutheran and Google-mapped the church's address, switching to the satellite view. I still didn't see anything that looked like a triple-wide trailer (but who knows when the image was captured), but I did see that the parking lot is the one I had assumed belonged to the convention center and not the church. 

Pastor Melissa Pohlman soon replied, sorry that I was not able to drop off my donation today, assuring me that, yes, they were still operating the free store, and letting me know where to find it in the parking lot as well as how to enter the lot. 

And she said they weren't open today anyway because it was the last day of their holiday break.