The Chronicle of Wasted Time

Art, farming....and more!

 

Differently Abled Daffy

“What do you mean one of my ducks is simple minded!” my friend Anna Maria wrote with mock outrage in an email to me a couple of weeks ago. In a note I sent her, I had mused that of the three male Muscovy ducks she had given me, one of them appeared to be a little mentally slow. Daffy (my name for him) is definitely different. Whereas the other two are very adept fliers, he can’t fly; when the others zig, he zags; while his companions are out foraging in the yard, he spends much of his day sitting in a corner in the barn looking at the wall. And this isn’t exactly new behaviour. While he still lived at Anna Maria’s place, he one day zigged when he should have zagged, got underfoot, had his tail stepped on and subsequently lost part of it. Truth be told, Daffy is a slow witted, off balance, flightless duck with no sense of direction and only half a tail.

Daffy is the off-kilter duck on the left. Photo by the artist.

In that same email, Anna-Maria went on to remind me that just as people have varying levels of intelligence and competencies, so it is with animals. This is undoubtedly true. Take my dogs, for example. I have one who can slip any collar, and who, through trial and error, learned how to undo the catch on the baby gate to let herself out of the kitchen. I have another who can stealthily rifle through a bag of groceries when my back is turned, extract a package of pastrami without disturbing the other contents of the bag, carefully open the plastic and eat only the pastrami. Pretty smart. And yet we had a third dog so stupid she couldn’t find her way out from under a blanket.

Even among the sheep, an animal with a reputation for stupidity, I have noticed a fairly wide range of intelligence. Take Julius the ram for instance, while not a deep thinker to be sure, he did learn to use his nose to pop the hook on the side gate of the barn to let himself (and the others) out in the morning whenever he felt I was being too slow.

Furthermore, intelligence seems to be inherited. One of my ewes is smart and vivacious and her daughters are just the same. Another ewe, the one we call Dumb Dora, invariably has stupid lambs who get lost in the grass or can’t figure out how to go around an open gate to get out of the pasture, or worse.

One afternoon this past summer, in the middle of a heavy downpour, I noticed my sheep standing outside by the front of the barn, wet, and looking completely miserable. Now, there was no good reason for them to be outside in the rain: the barn was open; they could go in if they wanted to. Weird, I thought. A little later, from an upstairs window, I could see a white shape racing back and forth along the fence line of the pasture behind the barn. I put on my boots.

First I went to scold my stupid sheep for standing in the rain when the barn was open, next I went in the barn to take a look around. Nothing looked amiss, at first. A moment later I noticed a water bucket was missing and I knew exactly what had happened and to whom. It was, of course, Dora’s daughter Violaine who had somehow gotten her head through the handle of the nearly empty water bucket, and it was she who had terrorized the other sheep now left stranded out in the rain, and of course, it was she who was now out by the back fence frantically trying to run away. From herself.

But back to those ducks for a minute. In about ten days, the ducks have a scheduled date with destiny. Destiny being Lavallée’s slaughter house. I have no doubt that I will be able to catch poor, witless Daffy- a sitting duck if ever there was one. As for the other two…I have no idea what I’m going to do. I don’t know how they know, but they seem to be aware of some impending disaster and have recently started roosting up on the wooden supports for the stable cleaner track outside the barn, putting them well out of my reach. I suppose I’ll have to figure something out. But for now, I’m afraid that I must live with the embarrassing truth: That I have yet again been outsmarted by ducks. Like I said before, there is a wide range of intelligence among all animals.

What’s on the Easel?

Well, quite a lot, as it turns out. I’m participating in a studio tour and a group show this fall, so I’ve been quite busy of late. I will include more information about these upcoming shows next post. For now, here are two small pieces .

Goldfish #3- 6×8 painted paper collage on panel ©2010 Alyson Champ

Salamander (Which Way Is Up?) – 5×7 painted paper collage on panel ©2010 Alyson Champ

Back to the drawing board er, collage table!

The Island of Misfit Art

OK, so it’s not really an island. More of a lopsided pile.

On the floor of my upstairs studio there is a stack of unfinished paintings, all of them failures for one reason or another. Mostly they were flawed to begin with: bad colour choices, inherent (but initially not obvious) compositional flaws, or some stupid problem in perspective or anatomy that I couldn’t get right but that I thought would just magically resolve itself if only I kept painting. And sometimes, sometimes, just like kids from good homes who go careening off the rails and wind up in jail, perfectly decent paintings go bad for no apparent reason at all.

Once in a while I will completely give up on a picture and throw it out, but generally I am reluctant to part with my stack of failures. I have been known to hang on to them for years, hoping that my artistic skill will catch up with my artistic desire, or that I will be granted a little flash of creative brilliance and suddenly simply know how to fix something which has, up to that point, eluded me.

This week I felt inspired and adopted a misfit painting out of the stack. It is an oil I had started a year or so ago showing a scene from The Rolex Three Day Event at the Kentucky Horse Park. The reference photo came from a disc of photos sent to me by a fellow artist who had been lucky enough to attend the event. I had high hopes for this painting when I started it and was frustrated when it didn’t work out the first time. This time I figured I really had nothing to lose and decided to make a second attempt at finishing it. There were compositional issues to resolve and aerial perspective problems. It took two days to get it all sorted out. I’m sorry I didn’t think to photograph the before and after so you could also see the transformation. Below is the after. I think it worked out pretty well.

Spring Rider– 9×12 oil on panel ©2010 Alyson Champ

The next painting is the completed landscape from last week: A View of St. Chrysostome. I’m calling it finished, although it’s possible that there will still be some corrections to be made in the coming weeks. I need to look at it for a while first.

View of St. Chrysostome- 20×24 oil on linen ©2010 Alyson Champ

The Lay of the Land




View of Naarden by Jacob Van Ruisdael (Image source Wikimedia commons)

Although I have been focused on making collages just lately, I am not immune to the lure of the landscape. Landscape painting has always been my first love, and every now and then I see a place, frame it in my mind, and think to myself, “Wow, that would make a nice painting!”, and hope that I’ll get around to actually painting it. This time I decided to make the effort to do just that.

Every morning and every evening when I am either taking out or bringing home our sheep, I walk up the rise behind our farm to our back pasture. There is a view of the village of St. Chrysostome from the top of the hill which I find especially appealing. It puts me in mind of some of the landscape paintings of the seventeenth century Dutch masters. The image is dominated by the sky as the horizon line is set low and the spires of the village church are seen in the distance. The overall effect is one of great space and is a reminder that humanity’s place in the world is really rather small. Well, at least that’s how I see it.

The spires of St. Jean-Chrysostome from my back pasture (photo © the artist)

It felt strange to sit down in front of the easel again. I haven’t touched my oil paints for many months. Nevertheless, I am finding the process familiar but also invigoratingly new. Here is the tonal drawing on canvas for my new landscape:

I don’t always go to such lengths to establish the general areas of a painting but, as I haven’t painted in so long, I dread screwing things up. I decided to be extra careful rather than risk wasting a perfectly good (and expensive) linen canvas.

So much of the painting is taken up by the sky that the sky really requires a great deal of attention. People often look at the sky and see blue, white and a little grey. Careful observation will show that the sky is so much more than that. The photo below shows my efforts in colour mixing for the clouds and sky. Note the ochres, browns and pinks on the paper towel.
This is where I finished today. The painting is blocked in from the darkest areas to midtones and the general colour scheme is established. You can’t see the church towers because I haven’t put them in yet- there is so much to do before I get down to that level detail. I’ll be back at it again tomorrow!

How to Pick Up Chicks

If you have been lured to this blog by what you perceive to be a promise of dating advice, you are bound to be disappointed. Sorry, but these chicks are of the small, peeping, fluffy variety, not the thong wearing bar hags you may have been expecting. So if this is the case, by all means, go elsewhere. Please!

Chicken Tuesday

Last Tuesday we got our thirty broiler chicks and twelve Guinea keets from the Co op. The decision was made in the spring to raise these meat birds organically and on pasture as much as possible. Pasture is no problem; we have that in abundance. Organic grain? That was a whole different bag of mash. Although we have some local organic grain producers in the area and one organic mill, I could not find anyone who could supply us with smaller quantities of bagged feed. It was half a ton or nothing. In the end we had to order the grain from a mill in Berwick, Ontario. Not that I have anything against the town of Berwick, but it would be nice to be able to get locally sourced feed and not have the added carbon footprint of all those extra kilometres. A girl can dream…

Chicks and keets Photo © the artist

In spite of a few mishaps and a couple of untimely deaths, the birds now appear to be thriving. Originally the keets and the chicks were supposed to be separated by a fence. As you can see by the above photo, the chicks and keets had other ideas. We gave up on the fence and are letting them eat out of the same feeder. And boy do they like to eat!

So, how do you pick up chicks? “Did it hurt when you fell from heaven?” isn’t likely to work on them. I suggest you scoop them up gently using both hands….

What’s on the Easel

I wonder if being obsessed with sheep is a classifiable psychiatric disorder? If so, I may very well have it. To be fair, I have recently completed some landscape collages, but I just can’t seem to shake this fascination with sheep. This morning I finished my newest painted paper collage. The subject is yet again my friend Anna-Maria’s beautiful purebred Border Leicester ram, Julius Caesar.

Pencil drawing for “All Hail Caesar©2010 Alyson Champ

Above is the preparatory drawing to work out the basic composition. Below is my work table with the work in progress.

At least it looks like I’m working hard. Photo ©the artist

And the finished collage: All hail Caesar!


All Hail Caesar – 8×10 painted paper collage on board © 2010 Alyson Champ

Summertime, and the Living Isn’t Easy

We don’t grow cotton here in St. Crazy but the soybeans in our front field are looking pretty good, and I’m sure if I were to take a stroll down to the river I could probably see some fish jumpin’. The problem is… I just don’t have time!
It must be a holdover over from the many years I spent as a student that my brain is still governed by the academic calendar. The New Year begins in September, not January, and summer is a time for those other three R’s: Recreation, Relaxation, and Rest. Of course, this totally doesn’t jibe with the farming calendar which begins to get busy in the spring with the arrival of lambs and continues to get ever busier as we progress into summer. We’ve done vaccinations, castrations, deworming, and tail docking. We’ve brought in new laying hens, but haven’t yet (ahem) ‘dispatched’ some of the old laying hens, and soon we’ll be getting our broiler chicks and Guineas. We’ve re-fenced the chicken run, turned and planted the garden, stacked next winter’s fire wood, are currently in the process of cleaning and refurbishing the barn, and soon we will have to put in hay and straw. All the while, of course, we do the regular feeding, tending, cleaning and WEEDING. O Lord, let us not forget the weeding.

Our more or less weed-free veg garden

I’m not really complaining. Our lifestyle is a matter of choice, and there really is something very satisfying about putting in a good solid day’s work. And speaking of work…

What’s on the Easel

In spite of all the other labour, yes, I continue to work in the studio most days, and there actually is something on the easel! I have, I’m proud to say, just finished my first collage landscape.
This drawing for Port Daniel Lighthouse I have already posted back when the collage was in its planning phase. Here is the finished work:


Port Daniel Lighthouse- 20×24 painted paper collage on panel, © 2010 Alyson Champ

I’ll get my rest and recreation in November.

Up and Dyed

Last Monday at Pinehill Farm, my friend Anna-Maria was host to a group of school children from the urban elementary school where she is also a teacher. The purpose of the visit was to give the children, many of whom had never spent any time in the country before, the opportunity to visit a farm, meet the animals, and experience nature. The activities included nature walks, hand carding and spinning wool, and tie dyeing their own t shirts with a natural, plant based dye. I was in charge of the tie-dye workshops and showed the kids how to make basic tie-dyed designs and how to do the steps involved in the dyeing process- except for the actual dyeing part. I did that. For obvious reasons, we thought it best to keep the children away from the five gallon bucket of dye.

Indigofera tinctoria

The natural dye that I used was indigo. Indigo is an interesting plant, pretty in its own right, with a long history of use as a dye plant all over the world. The dye is made from the leaves, and in its natural state, is insoluble in water. The dye must be ‘reduced’, a process whereby the oxygen is removed, and it can then be mixed with water. Jacquard makes a ready to use reduced indigo dye, which is what I used. The actual dye in the bucket was a nasty-looking green, and the tied up shirts came out of the liquid first a bright yellow-green, but then turned a deep blue as they were exposed to the air. This was fun for the kids to watch – like magic! After the dye had oxidized and the children rinsed and untied their shirts, they saw what they had created. This was my first experience working with indigo. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but results were quite beautiful.

These two shirts are ones that I made with the left over dye. And there was quite a lot of extra dye. I hated to waste it, so we now have a lot of blue work shirts and linens.

Back in the Saddle

Along with all the gardening and animal husbandry (wifery?) that goes on around here, I have managed to make time to produce some new collages. I made my first attempt at an equine themed painted paper collage with the intention of submitting it to the jurying process for an equine art exhibition in the U.S. coming up this fall. It took a lot longer to make the collage than I thought it would, but I was still able to squeak in under the wire and get my entry in on time. Now I’ll just have to wait and see what happens.

Here is the work in question. I call it “Up and Over”.

Up and Over– 20X16, painted paper collage on panel, © 2010 Alyson Champ

This is a detail shot of the horse’s head. Yes, those are little pieces of painted paper. You can see why it took so long, can’t you?

Up and Over detail

And while we are on the topic of equine art, I found this print in a flea market near where I live. I was admiring it and, much to my surprise, my husband up and bought it for me. It is likely that the frame is worth more than the print itself, but still I thought it was beautiful. It’s probably a copy of a Mughal or Persian miniature.

Ian Brown: Rent-A-Ram

We are having a fitful start to spring out here in Southwestern Quebec. One day it’s blisteringly hot, the next day it’s snowing. My rhubarb and garlic are both up and doing well, but with this unpredictable weather, I don’t dare plant anything in the garden because one day to the next it’s hard to know what to expect. I guess that’s just how it is when relying on Mother Nature; you have to learn to expect surprises.

Last Fall I borrowed a young ram from a friend. Ian Brown (not to be confused with the writer of the same name) is a Dorset/Jacob cross, and I fell in love with him at first sight. He was such a cute little fellow, I was curious to see what the resulting offspring would look like if I bred my ewes to him.

Ian Brown

I thought he might be a little small for the task, and he was certainly inexperienced, but then I figured that Nature invariably finds a way, so after a few days in de-worming quarantine, I put him in with my ewes. He was very interested in the girls. Unfortunately, the feeling wasn’t mutual. Their reaction to Ian fell somewhere between horror and disgust. In his deep, baritone voice (think ovine Barry White), Ian would call to the girls and approach them with what I imagine must have been something like, “Heyyy Baaaaaaby!”. And the girls, well, they ran as fast as they could to whatever place he wasn’t. When he saw the ewes running, of course Ian would run too, no doubt thinking that if they were running, there must be some reason to run. Poor Ian, he never caught on that HE was the reason. This went on for several days. Ian would approach the ewes, the ewes would run; Ian would run in pursuit of the ewes, the ewes would run faster; Ian would try to catch up, the ewes kept running, and so on. For about a week we must have had the most fit and thoroughly exercised sheep in the county. It also seemed highly unlikely that any of them were going to get pregnant that way.

Finally I decided to take matters into my own hands. I put Ian and one of the girls, Fionna, who was in heat, into a pen together. A couple of flakes of hay, a little grain, a water bucket, some soft lighting: the stage was set for sheep romance. Ian was certainly happy with this new arrangement. Fionna couldn’t run away, nor did she seem inclined to- she was too busy eating. Ian tried to approach the matter from several different angles, but Fionna continually evaded him, chewing all the while. Once or twice, I saw her shoot him a look that as much as said, “Do you mind? I’m eating! Quit bothering me, you jerk!”. I started to think that my plan was a lost cause.

I crossed my fingers and left them together for a day or two, and then returned them both to the fold. The others ceased running from Ian Brown and things eventually settled down. The girls accepted Ian’s presence, but there didn’t seem to be a lot “going on”, if you catch my drift. I continued to hope. About two and a half weeks later, what hope I had was dashed when I noticed Fionna had come into heat again. I had to conclude that Ian was just the wrong ram for the job. So I sent the poor boy packing and brought in a bigger, older Border Leicester ram (Julius) to finish the job before my girls went out of season.

I began to suspect something was up a few weeks ago when I noticed a couple of the girls looking very pregnant- too pregnant for Julius to be the father. It seems Nature had some surprises in store for us after all, and I don’t just mean the weather. Sure enough, last week the lambs started arriving.

Finneas Brown and Chocolate Legs

As yet unnamed ram lamb.

Congratulations, Ian brown. Well done and good on ye lad!

What’s on the Easel?

I’m still in the planning stage for several collages. In the next few days I’m going to have to make some decisions about colours and papers. For the time being, I’m still drawing. Here is the line drawing plan of my first big landscape collage. The subject is the Port Daniel lighthouse in Gaspé, Quebec.


Port Daniel Lighthouse– preparatory line drawing on paper,© 2010 Alyson Champ

Something to Crow About?

If you found yourself passing by our yard on a summer evening sometime in the mid-1970’s and heard a cry of “WILLIAM!”, followed by a frantic scattering of children, you might think you were witnessing a game, perhaps some local variant of tag or British Bulldog. But in that notion you would be mistaken. “WILLIAM!” certainly wasn’t a game; he was a rooster.

For reasons I can no longer remember, in my childhood I developed the strange hobby of breeding Bantam chickens. Certainly they were pretty birds, coming as they did in a wild variety of colours and with all manner of fancy plumage. I had Cochins and Silkies, a black Polish hen, a beautiful pair of Mille Fleurs, and…. William. I don’t remember what breed he was, but he was tiny and multicoloured: gold on the neck, dark on the breast, with rusty wings and back, and he had a long opulent tail of the most exquisite dark iridescent green. He truly was a handsome little fellow. Yet only a fool would have been deceived by his lovely appearance and diminutive size. Simply put, William was a nasty piece of work.

An interrupter of games and a spoiler of fun, determined to eradicate all forms of childhood entertainment, William was a ferocious flurry of hackles, talons and spurs. Fast and devious, he would surprise us coming around corners or spot us from across the yard and then run at us full tilt. Nowhere was safe. He chased us. He jumped at the backs of our legs. And worst of all, if he could manage it, he flew right up at our faces.

Not only was he a misery to me and my family, but woe betide any visiting cousin or neighbour. The last straw came one day when I was playing outside in the yard with my best friend- a girl with waist long hair. William spotted us enjoying ourselves from some distance away. He ran at my friend , launching himself at her head and somehow in his fury, he got himself tangled in her hair. She was screaming and crying; he was flapping and fluttering. To remedy the situation I did the only thing I could think of: I grabbed a stick and swung.

Luckily, I missed my friend’s head. Unluckily for William, I did not miss his. The rooster dropped to the ground like a stone and lay there too stunned to move. I thought I had killed him. After what was probably only a few seconds (it seemed much longer), he got back on his feet. Humiliated and chastened, he made a staggering exit from the scene. And his pride wasn’t the only thing that he left without: he also left without his tail. Every single one of his beautiful tail feathers had fallen out and lay in a small heap on our lawn. William was never quite the same after that. Perhaps his change in personality was due to that blow to the head, or perhaps he was simply embarrassed. Either way his reign of terror ended. His tail never grew back either.

Almost William– preparatory line drawing, ink on paper ©2010 Alyson Champ

What’s on the Easel

I have a series of commissions looming- all collages. One will be my first ever large-scale landscape. I am both excited and a bit apprehensive about that. Soon I will also start work on a couple of dog portraits. Those are always fun. I’ll post photos of the work in progress as I go. Strangely, the collage commission which has piqued my interest the most is an order to produce a series of roosters. I’ve gotten as far as making some preliminary drawings, shown here above and below.

Pretty Boy Floyd– preparatory line drawing, ink on paper, ©2010 Alyson Champ

Lighting the Way for Others

The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires. ~William Arthur Ward

Painted paper collage art project for children- Alyson Champ


I’ve had a regular teaching gig for about seven years now. Although I have been teaching music and art privately for decades, it wasn’t until 2003 that I first set foot inside a real classroom. There was nothing quite like standing in front of a class of twenty or thirty energetic children to make it painfully obvious that I really didn’t know anything. OK, maybe that’s not entirely fair. I do actually know quite a lot about making art. But knowing, and being able to impart this knowledge effectively to others, especially children, are not at all the same thing. Teaching is in itself an art. And just as a great work of creative genius is something marvelous to behold and is not easily forgotten, so it is with great teachers. A great teacher teaches you in way that makes you want to learn. He or she inspires you to go beyond the set lesson, to strive and to experiment. No, I’m not claiming to be one of these rare creatures. Most of the time, if the kids enjoy the project, have learned something, don’t have glitter glue in their hair or paint on their good clothes, and the classroom isn’t on fire, I call it a good day. Great teachers are memorable. I have had a few truly wonderful teachers in my life, and one of them was my high school art teacher, Mr. Tilley.

Mr, Tilley was an Englishman, transplanted to Quebec, who somehow found himself responsible for the art program at Chateauguay Valley Regional. How he came to be there I never knew, but during the five bleak years I spent as a high school student, I was awfully glad that he was. The art room was a haven to the school’s social misfits and creative weirdos, of whom I was obviously one. My friends and I lived in that room, spending every free moment there – and Mr. Tilley let us. He certainly wasn’t a strict teacher. He explained and assigned projects and then pretty much left us to ourselves. We did things in whatever order we wished and as long as we did our work and made a reasonable effort, he was happy. Help was always available if we needed it, but mostly we were responsible for ourselves and left to learn at our own pace.

And boy did we ever learn. We explored everything from three point linear perspective, to traditional lettering, basic elements of graphic design to Carolingian calligraphy. We hand lettered diplomas and made posters for local events. We painted in the style of the impressionists, the cubists, the fauves, and the pointillists. We studied colour theory and art history from cave art to modern art. We learned a great deal and we learned it painlessly, or so it seemed to me, because it was fun. Now, when I look back over the past (gasp) thirty years, I am shocked not only by how much he taught me, but by how much I have retained and continue to use.

I have read that the skill of a great teacher is like a candle: it burns brightly and in so doing consumes itself to light the way for others. Mr. Tilley has been dead for many years, but his light lives on in all of us whom he taught. One teacher in a rural high school helped to create the careers of many professional visual artists, graphic designers, illustrators and photographers. He also helped to foster an appreciation for art in countless others. Mr. Tilley probably could not have guessed how far reaching his influence would be. That’s the thing about being a teacher. You never know whose life you are changing.

Mr. Derrick Tilley, CVR yearbook 1982

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