Solitude for Art and Birding

 

“Greenlining” by Gail Hewson Hull, 9/2020; colored pencil, 5.5″ x 11″. The ZIA sun symbol is sacred to the Zia Pueblo Native American. It is found on New Mexico license plates and is used by artists, non-profit organizations, government entities, and merchants of NM. In August, SITE Santa Fe, a local contemporary museum, held an art contest; this was my entry in answer to the theme: what does resilience mean to you? My term greenlining (suggesting life, health, growth, inclusion) is to me the opposite of redlining (suggesting discrimination, intolerance, injustice, exclusion).

 

Drawing in and on Solitude

Now more than six months into the Covid-19 Pandemic and avoidance of most in-person socializing, I find myself following some of my interests totally alone for hours at a time and finding intense soul satisfaction. What follows are attempts to describe these two distinct pursuits that rely on solitude. 

I realize how long it has been since I’ve had the luxury of being by myself, not only for solitary walks or reading, but for extended periods of activities more personally challenging. Putting pen, pencil or brush to paper kindles questions to self. What am I made of? Having processed and admired others’ art for most of my life, what does my own inward eye see? As a child of twelve I remember grabbing the TIME Magazine from the mailbox before anyone else in the household in order to study the weekly art pages. It was in TIME in the late fifties and early sixties that I first learned about the abstract expressionists, and about national and international art exhibitions. My interest in art and the art world has never ceased. So now, what can I create that is truly original artistically? Self-enforced habits of staying busy and, as a “practical” person, earning a living, always working for others, have governed me until retirement last year from managing a nature reserve and crafts store in Costa Rica. But an instinct that making art is fundamental to my sense of self-worth has always been with me. The discipline to DO art, however, came in very irregular waves. Now with my remaining years diminishing, I like the axiom Lend yourself to others, but give yourself to yourself.* Solitude for creativity is a gift to self.

Like many with artistic urges, I studied art history and took studio art courses in college. And in my late twenties, I took two painting classes, one in egg tempera at the College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, and another class in painting–quite influential to my technical skill–with Franklin Williams at the San Francisco Art Institute. At that time I also wandered city streets taking photographs, eventually selling some photography through the Museum of Modern Art Rental Gallery. I sold or gave away early large painted canvases to friends and family. The drawing below from that period is one that I’ve kept all these years.

 

“The Sweet Smell of Leather”, High School Softball Mitt. Colored pencil and charcoal, Gail Hewson Hull, 1979. The glove was a gift from the Hamilton-Wenham, Massachusetts Regional High School Athletic Department upon my receipt of the Sportsmanship Award at the final senior assembly. The coach knew I was very attached to my mitt after three years on the softball team. The mitt traveled to Paris, France for my junior year in college abroad. I was the first female to play in the International Softball League on spring weekends in the Bois de Boulogne in 1968. Even stranger is that with this glove I was the winning pitcher (in relief) for the American Businessmen’s Team in its first bout that season against the Marines Guarding the U.S. Embassy Team. 

 

Much creative work–like fine art or writing–requires meditative concentration; each decision about what to do next is not always clear and it takes courage before going forward. In writing one can always hit the delete button and rewrite, but making a miscalculation in a drawing can be devastating. I am one who cannot listen to music while thinking with purpose; nor can I listen to anyone speaking. Radio or TV voices are out of the question for my habits. Hours speed by; I can take a break and make lunch with my husband or go for a walk, but then am glad to get back to standing at my drawing table. To conceive an artistic intention, to be motivated intellectually and emotionally, and to act out a plan with persistence–few results in life to me are more rewarding. The nurse of full-grown souls is solitude. **

 

“TV Series #3: The Pope’s Coronation with Electical Interference”, egg tempera, ink and colored pencil, GH Hull, 1981. At that time televisions had CRT tubes that were sensitive to static. I took a photograph of the colorful result of interference and used it as an inspiration for the painting.

 

What a lengthy journey–in my case at least–it has been to prioritize solitude and to plan a daily schedule around it. I like to feel, after my 73rd birthday earlier this month, that I’m really just getting started. Maybe by the time I’m 80 I will have a recognizable style! 

 

 

Golden Toad (Incilius periglenes) is an extinct species of true toad, once endemic to elfin cloud forest in Costa Rica. Ink and colored pencil, “Golden Toad” [Detail], GH Hull, 2007. I was lucky enough to see live Golden Toads at the Monteverde Cloud Forest ranger station in 1987, before the wild population of toads died off due to chytrid fungus. The last Golden Toad was seen in 1989. Its disappearance was the first extinction attributed to human-caused global warming. 

 

“Ratatouille to Be”, colored pencil, GH Hull, 2007. Harry and I took a course together in Biological Illustration with Colored Pencils at the California Academy of Sciences and this is one of my results.

 

 

“Red-capped Manakin”, Mixed Media: hand-carved stamps, acrylic and bird in colored pencil, G.H. Hull, 2014. This was one of a series of eleven works that I created to sell in my indigenous crafts store in San Vito, Costa Rica. 

 

“Ode to New Mexico with Cottonwood and Aspen Leaves”, colored pencil, G.H. Hull, 9/2020. I am in a green phase. In this drawing there are fifteen shades of green.

 

The Benefit of Solitude While Photographing Birds

The Randall Davey Audubon Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico–an excellent nature reserve–is just a short drive away, and on occasion I go there alone to get exercise and to bird. A few weeks ago (September, 2020), I went three times in the space of ten days and decided to change my birding strategy from slowly walking along the trails to just sitting still, mostly in a forested area adjacent to the Audubon reserve called Bear Canyon. Even at the end of summer, there are some green grassy areas in the lower section of the canyon’s otherwise dry creek bed indicating water slowly trickling on or near the surface. I sat on a rock near one of these grassy areas with my camera and binoculars and just waited and watched quietly, letting the birds get used to my presence. Indeed, they did gradually come closer and looked at me with curiosity. 

This is what the habitat looked like in this small depression in the canyon surrounded by coniferous forest of Two-needle Pinyon, Juniper, Ponderosa, Lodgepole, and Whitebark Pine. To the right and west of my observation seat:

Scraggly brush, pine cones, bushes and grass. This will become a stream from snow melt in winter.

In front of me, the hidden water source beneath the grass that attracted many birds in the hours I observed the site:

Water is scarce, but it is keeping the grass green and attracting birds and probably mammals, too.

To my left and east, more good habitat for warblers, nuthatches, chickadees, wrens:  

Mixed habitat, good cover, water, insects associated with water: birds are active here

 

To my delight, a coyote spotted me from the hillside forest to my left above me about 40 yards away. It barked at me and howled for about five minutes. I spoke to it in a calm voice, “Hello, Coyote. Everything’s OK here. I’m just watching the birds, don’t worry,” and it soon moved on, assured I was not a threat (not prey!).

Coyote observing me through the trees.

 

Howling coyote. I think it wanted to be acknowledged, so I finally spoke calmly to it.

I love solitary places, where we taste the pleasure of believing what we see is boundless, as we wish our souls to be.***

Many parents, I think, teach young girls to be afraid of venturing out in nature alone. Fortunately, my parents were unusual in trusting that our communities in either rural or exurban areas, were completely safe. I often went exploring for what seemed like hours in nearby woods. So even in Santa Fe, where there are bears and coyotes in the coniferous forests and in the juniper/pinyon pine forests, I am not afraid; I know what to do. Nature never did betray the heart that loved her. ****

But you are probably reading this far to see some birds, right? These are the species I saw on three occasions over a period of three hours all together.

Cordilleran Flycatcher

 

MacGillivray’s Warbler

 

Red-breasted Nuthatch

 

Wilson’s Warbler (female)

 

Wilson’s Warbler (male)

 

Mountain Chickadee

 

House Wren

 

And overhead, a curious Clark’s Nutcracker

 

So the lesson here is, if you want to become an object of curiosity for nature’s creatures, just sit still, preferably near water, and you may be rewarded with their company.

 

Searching for Answers

And finally, so much has happened in my country–and the world–since my previous post in May. People have died needlessly of the novel corona virus because our president does not believe in science or in leadership that would support our formerly prestigious CDC’s medical professionals’ counsel. George Floyd was murdered before our very eyes. And we have had our eyes opened even wider about injustice to immigrants legal and illegal as well as to black and brown people in the daily course of their lives, while driving, while shopping, while sleeping, even while birding in New York’s Central Park. I defer to others more eloquent than I to speak words of wisdom:

There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustices, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest. –Elie Wiesel, 1986. Nobel Laureate and Holocaust survivor.

Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are. –Benjamin Franklin, president of the Pennsylvania Abolitionist Society, 1787.

 

Young boy’s perch while watching the Harvest Day Festival and Parade, San Francisco City Hall. G.H. Hull, 1979

 

* Michel de Montaigne [1533-1592]

**James Russell Lowell [1819-1891]

***Percy Bysshe Shelley [1792-1822]

****William Wordsworth [1770-1850]

 

I thank Harry, my cheerful managing editor and tech supporter.

 

Jose Pablo Castillo

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