Saturday, July 01, 2006

The Danger Tree

July 1st is Canada Day which is a celebration of the anniversary of the formation of the union of the British North America provinces in a federation under the name of Canada.

In Newfoundland, while still Canada Day, at least since 1949, July 1st is commemorated for a different reason. It is Memorial Day. The 90th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme. On July 1st, 1916, the opening day of the Battle of the Somme, the Newfoundland Regiment fought its first engagement in France, its costliest of the whole war. At Beaumont-Hamel, the 1st Battalion of the Newfoundland Regiment, part of the 29th British Division, lost two-thirds of its entire strength in about an hour's exposure to German artillery and machine guns.

At the end of June, 1916, the 1st Battalion of the Newfoundland Regiment comprised slightly more than 1,000 all ranks. On July 1, 1916, 798 all ranks deployed into the trenches (excluding 33 others detached to Mortar and Machine Gun Companies) and 22 officers and about 758 other ranks were sent forward against the enemy (approximately 10% of a battalion was held in reserve during any attack). Of these, all the officers and slightly under 658 other ranks became casualties. Only around 110 remained unscathed.

And the Danger Tree? The Danger Tree is an infamous memorial to the Royal Newfoundland Regiment who went into battle on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in World War 1, 1st July 1916. It is merely a replica of the remains of a tree trunk, but it marks the spot where the casualties were highest. The Danger Tree was used as the spot where the Newfoundlanders were ordered to gather once they got into No-Man's Land. From there they would receive a new plan of action. However, nobody had realised that the Germans could easily see the tree and concentrated their fire there, thus killing the troops who reached that spot. It is rumoured that nobody made it past the tree alive on the first day of the Somme campaign.

Nowadays, a cluster of small trees grow next to the bare trunk of the Danger Tree, and they are believed to have grown from the same root system as the original Tree.

Kevin Major wrote No-Man's Land. Set in France during World War I, it pulls the reader into the lives of the young men of the Newfoundland Regiment at rest in the village of Louvencourt, preparing to set out for the trenches and what will come to be known as the Battle of the Somme.

An exerpt:

Of the countries he had sailed to after his training, only now, for France, did he feel much attraction. The grain rippling with the wind made him think of the lakes where he went as a boy to fish. The colours were stronger, especially the red of the wild poppies along the roadside, but the solitude was the same. He had come to fields such as this when they first arrived, with thick flakes of snow flying in the air, and he was reminded of the times he had gone with his uncle across the Topsail barrens to hunt partridge.

Even now, with concentration, he could ignore the artillery, as the villagers did. From his tunic pocket he took a pen and the paper he had been saving explicitly for writing a letter home. He unfolded the paper and placed it against his field notebook. He rubbed out the creases as best he could, then in neat, handsome script, he began.

The Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial was dedicated to the memory of those Newfoundlanders who served during the First World War and specifically commemorates those who died and who have no known grave. The memorial site was opened June 7, 1925, by Earl Haig.

Writing about this made me think of the role of artists in war. Every country had its own official war artists and Canada was no exception. One of the better known was Alex Colville. During a long and extremely productive career ranging from the 1940s to the present, Alex Colville has made some of the most powerful and instantly recognizable works in Canadian art history. Colville’s work is often mistakenly termed "magic realism" in reference to American artists of the same period, such as Andrew Wyeth.

But Colville’s work is so personal as to defy an easy categorization, consisting of a huge body of intricate, symbolically rich paintings that document and comment on the human condition. A war artist during World War II who sketched what he saw in some of the Holocaust death camps, he brought back with him to Canada a somewhat darkened sensibility that is visible in his works. His early works were typically taken from family and regional subjects, while his later works are more varied in both subject and symbolism. Inspired more by Quattrocento artists than by artists of his own time, Colville succeeds in creating a virtual world in each of his paintings. Some of the strength of his paintings is due to their careful structure. His works are designed using proportional systems such as root rectangles and other geometrical organizing principles, and are carefully executed over a long time. And while not known primarily for his paintings of animals, he has nevertheless represented among the most memorable and monumental depictions of crows, dogs, horses, and other animals.

Colville himself remarked in 1983 concerning his life and work: "I do have a fear of chaos and a strong sense of the fragility of civilization." The National Gallery of Canada website observes: "Precise. Meticulous. Crisp. The work of Alex Colville is austere in its stark realism. The immediacy of a moment, the intensity of the present, and the impermanence of life – translated through the eyes of the artist into a controlled, frozen scene."

The sketch today is Newfoundland Memorial Park in Beaumont Hamel, France, showing the remains of the trenches in the field from 90 years ago. Done in a sketchbook, graphitint pencils and wash with pen and ink.

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Friday, June 30, 2006

Academic art

When my daughter was about seven years old, she asked me one day what I did at work. I told her I worked at the college - that my job was to teach people how to draw.

She stared back at me, incredulous, and said, "You mean they forget?"

- Howard Ikemoto

I picked up my copy of Art & Fear today and have been delving into it. I keep saying 'Yes, yes, yes' to myself as I read it, as if it is unravelling the secrets of my mind and letting them spill out.

There is a section on the academic world which rings true in many ways and explores the role of art education as either student or faculty and compares either as being 'as attractive as standing beneath a steady drizzle of dead cats.'

"The discouraging truth is that MFA degrees were created largely to provide - and then satisfy - a prerequisite for obtaining teaching jobs. This in effect rendered the entire system a pyramid scheme: it worked only so long as there were a dozen entering freshmen to match with each graduating MFA. For better or worse, this pyramid began crumbling years ago. Today, art education is a steady-state universe, creating virtually no new jobs at all. Chances are - statistically speaking - that if you study art with a goal of teaching it, you'll end up with a career in sales. You study artmaking in order to learn about artmaking."

The numbers of people I have talked with who have gone to art schools and come away disturbed and turned off art makes this statement ring true more and more. Someone teaching you THEIR technique and insisting that is the only way is detrimental to self expression and can stifle creativity and deaden the soul.

I have been experimenting with watercolour tonight in an effort to produce some test illustrations relating to children. A combination of pen and ink and watercolour seems to work. The reference wasn't what I wanted, but I consider it a 'warm up' for the real thing.

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Thursday, June 29, 2006


Many years ago I was introduced to sculpture through Tom Greenshields. Tom helped me discover the concepts of clay modelling and casting, though I never did really take to it. Tom, however, was the master and created many beautiful bronze pieces, one of which was my youngest daughter. At the age of three, she was the right size and shape and posed for a number of sculptures that Tom did, one of which Tom gave to me after it was cast. Unfortunately, in travels the arm broke and was lost. I must get it repaired or order a new one.

The other piece of sculpture that I own was a gift from someone that I found a job for in Cape Dorset. It was a summer lifeguard job for a student who worked with me one year. He used to phone every few days just to speak to someone familiar I think, due to the isolation of that northern community. When he returned to Newfoundland, he brought this little bear with him. It sits on my bookcase and is so smooth and silky and is often picked up and stroked. There is no number on it or identifying mark to trace the artist who created it, but it continues to live with me and brings back memories always.

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Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Watercolour pencils

Watercolour pencils are specifically manufactured with a binder that dissolves in water. They look the same as 'normal' pencils, but if you check the lettering stamped on them you'll see a little symbol to show they're water soluble, such as a water droplet or a small brush, or the word 'watercolour'.

One of my more recent acquisitions was a 24 set of Derwent Graphitint pencils. These are watersoluble pencils that may be used either wet or dry. The colours of the set are soft and muted, well suited for landscape or portrait use.

I have a number of brands of watercolour pencils, ranging from some basic pencils that I inherited from the kids offcasts years ago, to others that I have picked up in travels and some Faber Castell pencils that I rediscovered lurking in the bottom of a drawer that are 20 years old!

To be honest I don't see a huge difference in the watercolour effects of the brands, but then again, I'm not a purist and unless I'm after a particular effect or colour, I do tend to mix colours and brands without ill effects. The difference in using them as main drawing instruments, similar to coloured pencils seems more apparent to me.

Some of the brands that I use:

Staedtler Aquarelle

Faber Castell


Derwent Graphitint

My new Niji Waterbrush turned up in the mail yesterday and I had fun experimenting with it. This will be a big help to me when I go out sketching. It saves hauling pots of water with me. The brush can just pop into my pencil case with the watercolour pencils.

The drawing is the result of my experimentation. A pen and ink base drawing, graphitint colour and then a wash with the waterbrush.

In May, I spent some time in Saskatchewan in Regina and Moose Jaw, where I experienced the wonderful Temple Gardens Mineral Spa. While there I searched for grain elevators and found four or five that I could photograph for later reference. I had planned on spending time sketching in the open landscape or the prairies, but it didn't seem to happen. Here is one of my favourite elevators at Stony Beach. I always think the name a bit amusing considering that I was on a flat,dry field with never ending sky. I'm sure someone will let me know the origins of the 'beach' ending to a number of places in Saskatchewan.

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Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Self portrait # 4

This is another submission to Crack Skull Bob's Self Portrait Marathon. It was a little experimentation with Photoshop. Its amazing what you can come up with when you haven't got a clue what you're doing, isn't it?

Summer swarms

It is officially summer in Newfoundland but with a bonus this year. It is actually warm. Often heat doesn't kick in til July and exists in fits and starts til days start to noticeably shorten and cooler evenings are apparent. But this year heat has drifted in for the last two weeks and its blissful.

However with summer comes some unique phemonenons, not all peculiar to Newfoundland. Today's is flying ants. I finished a couple of days of meetings early and as it was warm and summy, came home to enjoy some of the sun in the garden. Noooo. Heavy rain followed by heat seems to bring out swarms of these creatures and they're everywhere. I don't like bugs in any form, so sitting in the garden with these ants landing on me every minute or so doesn't thrill me.

Of course, the ducks and chickens are having a field day capturing ants after they lose their wings or grabbing them out of the air. I commend their efforts.

The older chickens have been given their freedom for the summer now too. The yard is full of birds with occasional squabbles when one crosses the others territory,in particular the geese maintaining the 20 foot perimeter of 'no go' around the ever growing goslings. The old hens, however, faced with the great outdoors, are cautious. They're anxious to walk across the tarmac to the grass, but fearful of the scope of the world in front of them. A fews days of venturing further and I'm sure I'll be shooing them off the front step and having hunts for eggs in flowerbeds and other odd places as they enjoy their freedom.

With freedom comes danger and there are eyes in the woods and the air watching the chickens. Hawks, foxes, coyotes and mink all wait for a lapse in concentration of either human or fowl to pounce. The geese are good in that respect as they have tackled hawk attacks and are perfect air raid sirens. Retirement, even for birds is faced with problems.

This pen and ink drawing was an experiment in technique, completed as I was learning how to control the medium. I like the position of the pots, but its a bit 'busy' for me and I find it distracting.

Another summer phenomenon seems to be the collection of 'things'. Acquisitions that really are of no great use to anyone except as a temporary splash of colour. Now colour is fine, but it costs money. My husband keeps edging towards a set of patio furniture. I haven't any interest in it for a couple of reasons: 1. Newfoundland summers have 2.5 days of sit-out-and-eat weather as a rule (please prove me wrong 2006) 2. Sets of patio furniture cost around $400 (provided you want one that doesn't collapse under the weight of more than 2 glasses of wine on the table or hefty Uncle George relaxing) Lately acquisition of material items doesn't interest me as it once did. They really are just that, things that serve no great purpose in life except to prove to the neighbours (if I had any) that I work my guts out to buy things that I don't need. I came across an interesting article that summed up some of my views well. Don't Die With Your Music Still In You. On the other hand, the footnote of 'send a donation to Steve' made me laugh at the irony of it as well as the other listings of articles that he had written about increasing wealth.

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Sunday, June 25, 2006

Blizzard revisited

Last month I started a sketch in my moleskine that turned into a more developed drawing.It was of an orphan gosling that I adopted in February - Blizzard. It was appealing and I regretted a little doing a double page drawing in the sketchbook, as it meant it could not be removed and had the line of the spine breaking the drawing.

A number of people wanted to see it completed on regular paper so today I made a start on it and here is the result. It is a more realistic image of the original reference and may complete another self portrait once finished. It is done with mechanical pencil and some charcoal powder on Stonehenge paper 9 x 12.

The geese and ducks have settled into summer mode now, content to browse the grass under trees and linger in the shade, particularly the Muscovy ducks who never like the sun much. For that matter, they don't like the rain either...

Here is Buddy, the Muscovy, being coy.

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