The Chronicle of Wasted Time

Ninety percent art. Ten percent chickens.

 

The Dog Who Could Have Been

We first met Bella, a lovely smooth coat Jack Russell terrier, in our veterinarian’s office during one of our many visits with our poor, chronically ill, miniature schnauzer, Cleo. My daughter instantly fell in love with Bella and, as luck would have it, Bella fell in love with my daughter. Whenever we had to make a visit to the veterinary clinic, we had to pay a visit to Bella too, as the clinic kennel was Bella’s home away from home. She was (and is) one of Dr. Bill’s own dogs. And last summer, for a very brief time, she was also ours.

Cleo was my daughter’s special dog, and unfortunately she was a dog with myriad health problems. We knew that her life would be cut short, and sure enough last spring, just past her ninth birthday, Cleo had to be euthanised. Her death left a gap in our little pack and a hole our affections.

We had often joked with Dr. Bill that if he ever wanted to get rid of Bella, he knew who would take her, seeing as the dog and my daughter had hit it off so spectacularly. He told us that he had always wanted a Jack Russell and when he found one that was returned to its breeder in a divorce case, he jumped at the chance to adopt it. This was how he came to have Bella. Dr. Bill really liked her, but as time wore on it became obvious that the dog did not feel the same way. Not that the animal was hostile to him. No, in fact it was worse than that. As anyone who has experienced unrequited love will tell you, active dislike or hostility is at least something. The opposite of love isn’t hate: it’s indifference. My vet found himself in an unfulfilled, emotionally lopsided relationship with his dog. Naturally, he began to wonder if perhaps she would be happier somewhere else. So the next time we had business at the clinic, we came home with a Jack Russell terrier.

It started with the rabbit. Our pet rabbit Jasper, who completely lacks a fear of dogs (he must not have received the “prey animal”memo), looked on with placid amusement as this new deranged animal danced, yapped, bounced and snapped at his cage over and over again. She seemed never to tire of it, despite our repeated scoldings and corrections. A dwarf lop-eared rabbit and a Jack Russell in the same house was an accident just waiting to happen.

Then she fixated on our cats. First to catch her eye were the barn cats, and when she had succeeded in thoroughly terrorizing them, she turned her attention to our house cats. I knew that Jack Russells had a reputation as persistent hunters and could be problematic with animals of the feline persuasion; but, as Bella was already accustomed to living in a multi-cat household, and as Dr. Bill had assured me that she showed not the slightest interest in his cats, I didn’t think this would be a problem. I could not have been more wrong.

The pursuit of our cats both indoors and out quickly progressed from an irritating game to something considerably more sinister. We were unable to correct Bella’s behaviour because, quite simply, we couldn’t catch her in the act. Hell, we couldn’t catch her period. She was greased lightning on four legs, a white and tan Jack Russell whirlwind. Chased upstairs, downstairs, over the sofa, under the bed, up trees, and under the porch, our cats eventually became so panic stricken that they went into hiding. Obviously Bella couldn’t stay. Even my daughter, who loved the dog, was not willing to sacrifice the life of one of our cats. Shortly thereafter we returned Bella to Dr. Bill. And do you know what? She was HAPPY to see him!

What’s on the Easel

I couldn’t send Bella back home without immortalizing her, now could I?

Bella Looks Up – painted paper collage on panel ©2010 Alyson Champ
In the collection of Dr. William Johnston.

Apple Heaven

The Circuit des arts Hemmingford Studio Tour took place this past weekend. We were blessed with good weather, a little cool perhaps, but the sun was shining. Because my actual studio is outside the boundaries designated by the Circuit organizers, I packed up my studio contents and took them to Hemmingford, a village which is a twenty minute drive away from where I live.

Hemmingford IS Appletown- no doubt about that. There are numerous orchards, juice makers, and several award winning cider and ice-cider producers in the township. I was at the Petch family orchard and had set up shop in their boutique/café with young up and coming artist-illustrator Melissa Perreault.

Melissa Perreault taking a break from her sketching.
All photos by Alyson Champ

We were lucky this year to have wandering minstrels to entertain us and the crowds.

Singer/guitarist Kevin Bickes doing his thing. Melissa’s artwork in the background.

Overall, Petch’s exudes a warm, friendly, family atmosphere, and it smelled fantastic! Throughout the day, in the café kitchen, the cooks were baking apple pies, apple crisps, apple strudels, and Petch’s famous apple doughnuts. Mmmmmmm doughnuts. I thought I had died and gone to apple heaven.

The gardienne of the strudels
Art sales were a bit slow, but lots of people came out, and it’s always nice to visit with friends and family that I don’t get to see very often. And there was one unexpected bonus: when I was unpacking my artwork this morning, guess what? It all smells like apple pie!

Apples, apples, and more apples.

Of course, I came home with a big bag of fresh, crisp, juicy Cortlands, some strudels, and a box of doughnuts. Which reminds me, I think it’s time for a coffee break. But first…

What’s on the easel

Here is the latest sheep collage. I didn’t have time to post this one last week because it was off being framed. It’s called Dora in the Doorway, and if you’ve been following this blog for a little while, you’ll know Dumb Dora as my “wing nut” ewe. Here she is looking like her loopy self.

Dora in the Doorway- 10×8 painted paper collage on mdf panel ©2010 Alyson Champ

Boundary Issues

One evening last fall, my sheep came home to the barn with their fleeces a tangled mess of burrs and thistles. I noticed one ewe was also sporting a fringe of blackberry canes, another one had accessorized herself with a small tree. Now our pastures aren’t perfect, but I did find this odd considering I had gone to some pains to cut down, dig up, and burn as much of this sort of debris as possible. The next morning I went out to check the pastures and the fences and discovered that the back gate was open. The sheep had been out in the fallow no man’s land between out place and the neighbour’s woodlot, no doubt scrounging for crab apples. I cursed irresponsible teenaged ATV riders and closed the gate.

What I had hoped was a unique event began to look more like a pattern when the episode repeated itself the following week, except this time it had been raining. Not only were my beautiful, white, long-wool sheep covered with sticks, burrs and brambles again, but they wrre also WET. The first time had cost me hours of labour pulling out the burrs and disentangling the sticks; the second time I used the hand shears and gave the worst offenders “punk rock” haircuts. At least two of the sheep looked like they had been shorn by a blindfolded lunatic using a lawnmower.

Celeste with haircut. Photo by the artist.

Of course, that back gate was open again. This time, along with the requisite cursing, I also considered getting a padlock or at least putting up a sign asking whoever opened the gate to please shut it behind him (or her), thank you very much. As it turned out, I didn’t have to do either.

One Saturday morning as I was unloading groceries, a strange car pulled into our yard. A blond man in his early thirties got out and introduced himself as Sylvain, our neighbour. His house sits near the end of our long driveway, and although he had lived there for more than a year, this was our first real meeting. Casual observation of his behaviour from a distance had led me to conclude that Sylvain was both trigger happy, (he almost shot our other neighbour while out hunting deer the previous fall), and that he was quite possibly a pyromaniac, as he was always burning something in his yard, and had set fire to our ditch twice in a six month period. It was with some trepidation that I shook his hand.

“I was up here this morning, ” he said, “but no one was home, so I was watching through my scope for your car. Your sheep are loose out in the neighbour’s bush. I have permission to hunt there; I thought they were coyotes and I almost shot them.”

While I was annoyed that my gun wielding firebug of a neighbour could mistake a flock of Border Leicesters for a pack of coyotes, I was even more dismayed that this rather strange man had been using his scope to watch our house. My days of topless gardening were obviously at an end.

“Well, my sheep wouldn’t be loose if some idiot wasn’t always opening our back gate.” I answered.

“What gate?” he asked.

I explained the situation to him.

“Oh,” he said, “well where does your property end?”

And I explained that to him too.

“Oh.” he said, and paused as if contemplating something, then asked, ” Do you want help rounding them up? I could get my four-wheeler.”

I told him not to worry about it, that the sheep would come back on their own (which they did), if he would just please not shoot them in the meantime (which he didn’t).

This autumn I closed off the back pasture completely so the sheep no longer have access to it at all. Better safe than sorry, I figure. Throughout the year I have continued to check the back gate from time to time, just out of curiosity. I have never found it open since. Not once.

What’s on the easel

The Hemmingford Studio Tour takes place this week end (Oct. 2&3, 2010) from 10 am – 5 pm, both Saturday and Sunday. I’ll be at Petch Orchards flogging my wares. If you are in the area, stop in and introduce yourself.

Here are a couple of new sheep collages which will be on display during the tour exhibition.

I give you Miss Juliet,

10×8 painted paper collage on mdf panel ©2010 Alyson Champ

Fabulous Fionna,

9×12 painted paper collage on mdf panel ©2010 Alyson Champ

and of course… Celeste!

9×12 pencil drawing on paper ©2010 Alyson Champ

You Gotta Know When to Hold ’em

One of the toughest parts of being involved in any kind of creative work is knowing when something is finished. Rarely do I realise my artistic vision so completely that there is no doubt. Once in a while, I’ll call something completed when I can no longer stand to look at it. Most times though, I have to live with a piece for a little while before I can really sign off.

I was working on a large, ambitious collage recently and thought I had finished it, yet there was something about the piece that left me uneasy; I didn’t really feel I had accomplished visually what I had set out to do. I wasn’t happy with it, but I didn’t know why. So I decided to set it aside for awhile- this after having heralded the collage’s imminent arrival on my Facebook Fan Page. That will teach me. The fat lady wasn’t in fact ready to sing; she was merely clearing her throat.

I had the collage set up on an easel in our downstairs hall, a very central part of our house. This forced me to look at the thing, confront it, examine its flaws throughout the day, everyday, for a couple of weeks. That did the trick. Eventually I worked out what the problem was and how to fix it. It took some tough love and a little “renovation” work, but now it really is finished- finished and soon to be up on display at Salle Alfred-Langevin in Huntingdon as my contribution to the local collective exhibition for the Journées de la culture. The vernissage is Friday, September 24th at 5:00 pm. If you are in the area, come and check out the show.

Last Light, Ormstown- 24X30 painted paper and fabric collage on canvas
©2010 Alyson Champ

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.