Google and an Art Inheritance by Jeannine Cook

Some while ago, I was fortunate enough to inherit a painting I had always loved in my family home. A coastal scene with a wonderful foreground frieze of golden gorse, it had always delighted me with its luminously expansive feel.  I had been told that it was painted from the veranda of my family's home in Albany, Western Australia, but that was all I knew.

One day, I decided to start investigating to see what I could learn about the work.  I copied onto paper the almost illegible signature, and eventually started working on Google, trying out whatever I could decipher. Google came up trumps - which, in a way, is less and less of a surprise as time and the reach of Google have taught us all.  The signature was of an Australian woman artist, Ellis Rowan,who was active, and prominent, in the late 19th and early 20th century.  As I learned a little more about her intriguing, adventurous life, and her skills at self promotion as she developed her career as a "flower painter", I was filled with admiration.  I was also delighted to find that she had connections with my redoutable great grandmother, Ethel Clifton Hassell - another very strong character by all accounts. Pushing all sorts of boundaries as a woman, Marian Ellis Rowan seemed to make no concessions in her pursuit of flowers to paint and places that might be of interest.

Ellis Rowan travelled several times to Western Australia, following in the footsteps of her much admired flower painter role model, Marianne North, who travelled the world to paint flower species during the 19th century, finally endowing Kew Gardens with a gallery for her wonderful works.  It was thus natural for Ellis Rowan to meet my great grandmother, a community leader in Western Australia and a flower lover.  They possibly got on well and I can imagine the scene of Ellis Rowan settling down on the veranda at Hillside, the Hassell home in Albany, to paint the view out to King George Sound.  Her skill in painting was considerable, especially given that she often used gouache, which is quick drying and often difficult as a medium. She also used watercolours and oils.

Birds and flowers, of preference tropical, colourful and exotic, were Ellis Rowan's favourite subject matter, and many of her paintings in the National Library in Australia show her skills.  She was prolific, and consequently, there is a marvellous diversity in her work.  These are but a tiny sample of her flower paintings.

Wild Cornflowers, gouache and watercolour, c. 1900, Marian Ellis Rowan, (Image courtesy of Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences)

Wild Cornflowers, gouache and watercolour, c. 1900, Marian Ellis Rowan, (Image courtesy of Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences)

Fringed Violet, watercolour and gouache, 1900, Marian Ellis Rowan, (Image courtesy of Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences)

Fringed Violet, watercolour and gouache, 1900, Marian Ellis Rowan, (Image courtesy of Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences)

Norfolk Island Hibiscus, watercolour and gouache, c. 1900, Marian Ellis Rowan, (Image courtesy of Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences)

Norfolk Island Hibiscus, watercolour and gouache, c. 1900, Marian Ellis Rowan, (Image courtesy of Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences)

Swamp Banksia, watercolour and gouache, c. 1900, Marian Ellis Rowan, (Image courtesy of Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences)

Swamp Banksia, watercolour and gouache, c. 1900, Marian Ellis Rowan, (Image courtesy of Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences)

Black Wattle, gouache and watercolour, c. 1900, Marian Ellis Rowan, (Image courtesy of Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences)

Black Wattle, gouache and watercolour, c. 1900, Marian Ellis Rowan, (Image courtesy of Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences)

Places that Inspire by Jeannine Cook

Some while ago, I read a comment by a British watercolourist, Tony Foster, who had been painting on both the North and South Rims of the Grand Canyon.  (He managed to paint six-foot wide pieces on location, quite a feat in of itself!)  What he said was, "My thesis is that despite a world overloaded with imagery, certain places still retain the power to inspire awe and wonder.  All of my work is based on the philosophy that our planet is a gloriously beautiful but fragile place, and that as an artist, it is my role to deliver a testament to the fact that wild and pristine places still exist."

He is right. Art is one way to remind people that we are still able to visit places that transcend our normal humdrum lives, with beauty and grandeur that humble and inspire us.  But the subtext of such reminders is that we need to be vigilant, thoughtful custodians of such places.

This past weekend, when I was out along the Georgia coast, drawing, I felt myself to be in such a place of inspiration.  There is something about a natural environment that has not been much changed nor manipulated by man: it has another feel, another rhythm.  More primal, perhaps, but infinitely more powerful, subtle, complex and yet, very fragile.  As you settle down in such a place to try and create art plein air, the magic of the place begins to seep in - the lay of the land, the movement of water, the breezes, the sounds, the play of light.  It is hard to access how these influences show up on the art one is creating - perhaps only others can see them.  Nonetheless, there is an alchemy, an inspiration that keeps one going.

Even when the art one is creating is on a small scale, unlike Tony Foster's, the dialogue between place and artist is very much there.  Perhaps one is working almost instinctively, but the influences and inspiration of the place seep into what one is doing. 

Marsh wrack, silver/gold/copperpoint, Jeannine Cook artist

Marsh wrack, silver/gold/copperpoint, Jeannine Cook artist

This metalpoint drawing, Marsh wrack, is about the wonderful, but seemingly chaotic patterns left by the dead Spartina grass swept up onto the high water mark by spring tides and left there to decay and re fertilise the salt water marshes.  Having spent time drawing a tenaciously majestic dead red cedar tree in Prismacolor, it was interesting to focus in on the marsh wrack lying in rafts along the shore at high water mark.

Last Days for the Cedar, Prismacolor, Jeannine Cook artist

Last Days for the Cedar, Prismacolor, Jeannine Cook artist

Both these drawings were, in essence, about the cycle of life in such natural, wild places.  The dead cedar was decaying, slowly and inexorably, host to lichen and insects, just as the marsh wrack was home to innumerable small crabs and insects who helped break down the grass stems.

These places of inspiration owe at least some of their power, perhaps, to the implicit reminders that, untrammelled by man's intervention, nature continues its exquisitely balanced and logical cycles of birth, growth, decay. We are straying into a world that should, and can when allowed to,  continue to evolve and exist in amazing, elegant sophistication.

As artists, we are privileged to get glimpses of these wonders.

Gardens and Artists by Jeannine Cook

It is hard to decide whether a gardener-artist is better off than just a gardener.  Most of the famous garden designers, from Lancelot "Capability" Brown (1716-83),via William Robinson (1838-1935), Gertrude Jekyll and into the famed 20th century English gardeners, Vita Sackville-West, Christopher LLoyd, Penelope Hobhouse, etc., are famed not only for their horticultural knowledge, but also for their skills in design. In essence, they were or are just as much artists as gardeners.

That happy combination can be found in many countries where gardening has been of great importance - France, the Netherlands, Italy and Spain, the United States and countries where the British gardening heritage has taken root, like Canada, Australia, New Zealand or South Africa.  On a personal basis, however, I can never decide whether it is of help to be an artist or not when I am planning and working in my flower garden.

Every time I open a plant catalogue or book, or walk into a plant nursery, I feel a double pull.   I love the plants and feel very comfortable with a great number of them, since I have gardened in the tropics, northern Europe, the Mediterranean, the Northeast US and now the South East.  But, and it is a big but when it comes to the purse strings, my artist's eye gets fired up and I can see the plants already installed in my garden, blooming and harmonising with others that I already have there.  This capacity to imagine the "fait accompli" makes for hard choices, I find.  I often wonder if I were not so able to visualise the scene as an artist, I would be a little more hard-headed in my purchases!

This predicament was driven home to me this week when I received a heavy, delightful gardening book I had ordered. Heirloom Gardening in the South by William C. Welch and Greg Grant, published in 2011 by the Agrilife Research and Extension Services at Texas A & M University.  Not only do they briefly evoke the different heritages of Southern gardening, from the Native American, African, Italian and English, but they then have a huge listing of plants and trees they deem of heirloom status for the South.  Oh, oh, did my artist's eye and brain go into overdrive! 

Crinum powellii

Crinum powellii

Suffice to say, I now have long lists of plants and bulbs to think about using in the ongoing creation of what I hope is a garden worthy of an artist.  A garden that not only looks beautiful and peaceful for humans, with plants I can then paint and draw, but also a garden which attracts the really important visitors.  And who are those connoisseurs?  Why, birds, butterflies, moths, lizards, frogs, toads, snakes and even tortoises – all the delightful inhabitants who instinctively know when their environment is "right" for them.  That is always a wonderful challenge for any artist.

Art as Memory Stored by Jeannine Cook

It is always fascinating to leaf through a drawing book or a travel journal of sketches.  Immediately the sights and sounds associated with each work come back to one's mind, the magic carpet transporting one to deep shady woods, brilliantly sunlit docksides, wide marsh vistas.

Memories came flooding back for me today as I bade farewell to a silverpoint drawing, Come into my Garden! that I did a while ago.  It was purchased during a juried exhibition, "Art in the Low Country", at the Averitt Center for the Arts in Statesboro, Georgia.

Come into my Garden!   ,  silverpoint and white gouache highlights, Jeannine Cook artist

Come into my Garden! , silverpoint and white gouache highlights, Jeannine Cook artist

This is a reasonably large work, 16.5 x 15" image, with a toned ground to evoke the wonderful colours of lichen. Highlights are in white gouache, in the way that the Renaissance masters emphasised light when they used tinted grounds for their metalpoint drawings.

Remembering the sultry day I went to find branches festooned with the delicate lichen suddenly made me feel hot again as I thought back to the beginnings of this drawing.  I knew I wanted to weave together aspects of late summer in coastal Georgia, when the wonderful golden orb-weaver spiders have woven their webs into such amazing feats of resilient engineering.The lichen seems similarly tough, with all its different varieties growing on live oak branches.  Their quiet existence, like that of the spider's, goes along mostly unnoticed by humans. Somehow, silverpoint's fine lines seemed to match these late summer beauties, evolving as they do as the silver tarnishes slowly, and yet amazingly long-lived like them.

Silverpoint allows a close and detailed study of nature's complexities.  Executing such a drawing built into it memories that endure for me of a happy, fascinated late summer as I sat enthralled by the sophisticated designs of lichen and spider web.  Good memories to have!

Going for a Walk in Manassas Bog by Jeannine Cook

Several weeks ago, I went with Coastal Wildscapes organisation to a deceptively ordinary-looking place near Bellville, Georgia, called Manassas Bog. It was a hot day in an area that is showing the effects of drought, and the group of us followed each other down dusty, sandy roads to a fenced off area beneath power lines.

Soon, however, the enthusiasm of our hosts had us all excited and fascinated. This seemingly featureless area is home to a multiplicity of plants, rare and more common, many of which were in full, glorious bloom. As we walked along the rolling hill terrain, people were photographing left, right and center. But I suddenly knew that here was a source of many potential silverpoint drawings, although I was not yet at all clear how or even, really, why. Instinctively, I began selecting dried seeds, grasses and dead flowers when one of them "spoke" to me. By the end of the long and interesting morning's walks, I had a handful of "trophies" that I carefully put in the car to bring home. I had no idea what I would do with them; I just knew they promised.

The results of this wonderful walk in Manassas Bog were two silverpoint drawings, one of which I am donating to Coastal Wildscapes to use for fund-raising. I spent time allowing the subconscious dialogue I had had with these dried materials to float up to my conscious mind. I then started trying out arrangements of the different pieces, until it seemed a possible mix and composition. A loose graphite study helped me in deciding how to position things on the page. Finally, I settled down to the often slow development of each silverpoint drawing. Each one brought out a different reaction in me, but both gave me fascination and delight.

Seen at Manassas Bog, silverpoint, Jeannine Cook artist, Private Collection

Seen at Manassas Bog, silverpoint, Jeannine Cook artist, Private Collection

A Day at Manassas Bog, silverpoint, Jeannine Cook artist, Private Collection

A Day at Manassas Bog, silverpoint, Jeannine Cook artist, Private Collection

 I did enjoy my walk in Manassas Bog!

Nature in our Lives by Jeannine Cook

It has been a week of dealing with consumer goods - to put it generically - that all seem to be falling apart in very short order after they are bought and installed. The antithesis of the natural world, these are man made objects that horrify by the implications of their impact on the planet's future health, during their manufacture and also during their disposal. Alas, they all seem to be necessary in our life - things like refrigerators, computers, even plastic nuts for bolts.

A welcome break from these concerns came today when I was present during a visit to my Darien exhibition by a group of charming ladies from a St Simons Island Garden Club. This exhibition, At the Edge of the Marsh, continues at the McIntosh Art Association Gallery until 27th May.

As I stood in the gallery, explaining to these visitors about silverpoint and how you create these silver drawings, I was forcibly reminded of a remark I read some while ago. Julie Lohmann, a German designer, said, "There is a paradox at work. On one hand we are distancing ourselves from nature as far as humanly possible, creating our own artificial world, but the more we do that, the more we long to be a part of nature and bring it back into our lives." (my emphasis).

The reaction of many of the visitors to my art today showed how eagerly they related to the depictions of flowers, of marsh scenes – in other words, of nature. It was as though I was drawing and painting a world with which they felt very comfortable, a world that they welcomed in their lives as a very important ingredient of well-being. Their comments made me feel that there is a very necessary counter-balance to our consumer-driven society: nature and the magical, infinite manifestations of its diversity.

Creative viewing by Jeannine Cook

Before the glory of Christmas cactus flowers fades on my different Schlumbergera, I have been drawing them in silverpoint, especially the delicate white-flowered ones.

Christmas Cactus

Christmas Cactus

As I gazed at the elegant cactus flowers, I could not help remembering a quote I found some time ago by Monet.

He said, "To see, we must forget the name of the thing we are looking at." It is almost as if I needed to blank out my conscious mind and just let the rhythms and undulations of the petals and the strange leaves tell me where to go and how to compose a drawing. It is absolutely academic what it is that is the subject of the drawing - only the aspects of it that resonate and excite one are the ones that drive the mark-making. In fact, as soon as the left hand side of the brain begins to get active, defining or thinking consciously, that is when one gets into trouble with the drawing. And in silverpoint, that is a bad place to reach, given you don't erase the marks made in silver.

Claude Monet knew well about the need to view things in a different fashion. His wonderful use of colour and Impressionistic techniques are testimony to this philosophy. When you think of his extraordinary series of paintings of Rouen Cathedral, for example, his was a very creative view of this wonderful structure. Given the very complicated act of painting this immense building, with the light that was ever-fleeting and the unreliable weather of this maritime city, Monet was amazing in his ability speedily to record light, darks, abstract shapes, atmosphere – as in this painting done between 1892 and 1894, entitled Rouen Cathedral Facade (Morning Effect).

Rouen Cathedral Facade (Morning Effect),  1892-94, Claude Monet (Image courtesy of Museum Folkwang, Essen, Germany.

Rouen Cathedral Facade (Morning Effect), 1892-94, Claude Monet (Image courtesy of Museum Folkwang, Essen, Germany.

There is another interesting optic on creating a piece of art, whether recording a cathedral's glory or drawing a Christmas cactus flower.

William S. Burroughs observed that "Nothing exists until or unless it is observed. An artist is making something exist by observing it. And his (or her!) hopes for other people are that they will also make it exist by observing it." A perfect description of "creative viewing"on the part of artist and then the public. I am sure that most of the French who walked past their looming cathedral did not see it in any way similar to Monet; they probably did not often raise their heads to its soaring facades as they went about their daily lives. Yet after Monet painted his series on Rouen Cathedral, certainly many more people became aware of its massive structure and the extraordinary play of light on it as the seasons turned.

Monet has made the Cathedral "exist" for art lovers ever since he began his series of paintings there in the 1890s. They, in turn, validate Monet by observing his paintings and completing the circle of creative existence.

In the same way, an artist who embarks on a painting, drawing or other form of depiction of something "real" is, in essence, bringing that thing to life, creating it according to his or her artistic eye. This gives one wide licence to create, to bring into existence, but it also implies an often revealing personal involvement - assuming that the art is being created with passion. Sobering thoughts, but mercifully, during the painting or drawing, as Monet wisely observed, we need first to turn off our brains.

Artists and Gardens by Jeannine Cook

Now that the weather has cooled a little and rain has revived the garden, it is time to start thinking of planning and planting the garden once more. Inspired by a recent wonderful Coastal Wildscapes symposium on planting native species to restore biodiversity in one's surroundings and gardens, I have been doing a lot of "mental placement" of perennials and shrubs that I purchased.

My garden has been an extension of my art and a source of my art ever since I created the garden over 25 years ago. After we built our house and learned about the aspects of living on ancient sand dunes in a sub-tropical climate, I planned out - on graph paper no less! - what plants to put where. I tried to combine the principles of garden composition and visual pleasures with the practical aspects of a huge amount of shade, sandy soil and a number of old shrubs that had been planted on the site when it was an oyster cannery. Oh - and speaking of which, I learned that planting in soil that is probably 90% oyster shells can be challenging!

Needless to say, over the years, the garden has evolved and matured, with the plants very much choosing where and how they wish to grow. For the most part, I have let nature dictate, for the results have in some ways been more harmonious than if I had adhered more to the carefully manicured look of my British gardening heritage. As a source of art, I tend to concentrate on single flowers or plants, rather than landscapes of the garden itself. Watercolours - I find - are not the easiest medium by which to convey masses of foliage and flowers. Drawings are more interesting to do.

Perhaps the most important element of the garden for my art is the actual peaceful environment it affords - a backdrop to my daily life and thus to my art-making. The constant visual stimulation and interest combine with my emotional attachment to this garden I created single-handedly. It is also the foreground frame to the marshes and saltwater creeks beyond. Together, these spaces offer tranquillity and the orderliness (most of the time!) of nature, the antidote to our ever-increasingly urbanised society.

Artists have long had deep attachments to gardens. Think of the wonderful details of flowers and animals on the frescoes in Egyptian tombs. Remember the jewel-like flowers and insects adorning monastic manuscripts from the 8th century onwards, like this 1470s Hastings Book of Hours. Artists over the centuries have travelled from medieval depictions of gardens as paradise to careful scientific examinations in modern times. Rubens was well aware of gardens as erotic playgrounds.

470s Hastings  Book of Hours

470s Hastings Book of Hours

But it was the 19th century artists who not only drew on gardens for inspiration in their art, but also themselves created their own very artistic gardens. Monet (whose 1900 painting The Garden in Flower is illustrated) is the most famous of these gardeners, with Giverny. (He had earlier been inspired and delighted when he visited glowing Mediterranean gardens, especially at Bordigher.)

The Garden in Flower, Giverny,  1900, oil on canvas, Claude Monet

The Garden in Flower, Giverny, 1900, oil on canvas, Claude Monet

Cézanne also painted and tended his Southern French garden, while Van Gogn celebrated gardens and what grew in them from his days in Holland onwards. Many of his drawings in the south of France, particularly those done during his period at St Rémy, are quite remarkable. So too are his paintings, such as this one, done in 1889,

Irises,  Vincent van Gogh,   1889, oil on canvas, (Image courtesy of the Getty Center)

Irises, Vincent van Gogh, 1889, oil on canvas, (Image courtesy of the Getty Center)

Almond Blossom,  Vincent van Gogh, 1890, oil on canvas.(Image courtesy of the Van Gogh Museum)

Almond Blossom, Vincent van Gogh, 1890, oil on canvas.(Image courtesy of the Van Gogh Museum)

As the resurgence of plein air art continues, many of the artists are also celebrating gardens in their art. It is important, for as the world continues to lose natural habitats at an ever-increasing rate, we artists can play an important role in showing how beautiful, intricate and serene-making gardens and nature can be.

Botanical Art by Jeannine Cook

Botanical art is enjoying a great resurgence in popularity and appreciation. The British, Australians and some Europeans had continued always to favour this form of art, partly, perhaps, because of the strong horticultural and plant collection/husbandry tradition. Kew Gardens and other important botanical gardens round the world had kept alive the tradition of fine art married to botany. However, with the founding of the American Society of Botanical Artists in 1995, this art form took off. Another decisive factor in this renaissance has been the enthusiastic and hugely influential support of Dr.Shirley Sherwood.  Not only has she collected botanical art all over the world and helped artists most generously, but she has now enabled Kew Gardens to have the world's first gallery devoted to botanical art, the Shirley Sherwood Gallery.  (I am proud to say that she owns one of my silverpoint drawings.)

Azaleas in March, silverpoint, Jeannine Cook artist, Private collection

Azaleas in March, silverpoint, Jeannine Cook artist, Private collection

With increasing interest in botanical art, the ASBA has been organising important exhibitions around the United States. The Society, to which I have belonged for many years, has become more and more imaginative in exhibit themes and attuned to today's environmental concerns. A show which has just opened at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, demonstrates this: "Losing Paradise? Endangered Plants Here and Around the World" shows art done by forty-one artists from the five continents. The exhibit has already travelled to the Missouri Botanic Garden, the Chicago Botanic Garden and the New York Botanical Garden.

Using the simplest of media - graphite pencils, pen and ink, coloured pencils and paint - the artists not only captured the essence of the plant but they document its structure, habit of growth, colouration and general characteristics in exquisite, accurate detail. Again, as with so many works of art done from real life, as opposed to photographs, each artist creates an individualistic interpretation of the subject matter, combining artistic skill with the energy and passion inspired by that plant. In the case of this particular exhibition, there was an additional energy. The Society posted the call for this exhibition about three years previously, so that artists all around the world could seek out endangered plants and help draw attention to their plight by the art created. What more enlightened role could art play!

Rewards of "Look Closely, Look Often" for Artists by Jeannine Cook

Every artist who works from real life intuitively knows that familiarity with a subject brings rewards. A wonderful plein air artist from California, Marcia Burtt, written about in a June 2010 American Artist article, made a remark which really resonated with me about this. When talking about working on location, she said, "choosing a location is based on many variables. If I haven't been painting much, I can spend whole days driving around looking for a subject. If I've been painting regularly, everything looks beautiful. That's the reward for spending hours intensely observing nature - you start seeing beauty everywhere." (my emphasis)

There is a quiet and insistent alchemy at work when one is involved in depicting natural objects in the studio or painting plein air. The more one observes, the more one sees. The light changes the forms, the colours, the sense of space. The world seems to become quieter, more intense. And the more you paint or draw, it is true, beauty appears at every turn. It is as if nature becomes generous with her bounty, allowing the artist to slip on another set of eyes that are keener in perceiving beauty in all its definitions. Perhaps we know the subject matter better in all its complexities after working intensely, but it does often seem that such familiarity allows the brain to relax and see beauty more and more.

I found this generosity of nature at work recently as I started painting and drawing the wonderful Southern Azaleas (A. indica) that have been blooming on our area. I started by a large watercolour triptych, but then found the azaleas' beautiful shapes and purity kept "talking" to me. So I did another smaller watercolour. Finally, before the azaleas disappeared for the season after their brief burst of glory, I turned to silverpoint to depict their beauty again, combining it with other issues I wanted to address.

Azalea  indica , silver-copperpoint, Jeannine Cook artist

Azalea indica, silver-copperpoint, Jeannine Cook artist

It was as if the azaleas were rewarding me for my close attention to them, as I studied the intricacies of their flower forms, the play of light that described each petal, the individual quirks of each flower and leaf.

This generosity of nature is consistently available to every artist, I believe. If we can spend enough time becoming immersed in nature, in whatever way we chose to depict its aspects, the rewards of beauty and inspiration, of delight and fascination, of awe and a sense of the marvellous are all there for us if we wish. Our role, our quid pro quo with nature, is to share with others this beauty through our art, to become ambassadors and passionate advocates on behalf of nature. Not such a bad exchange!