making art with dirt

i’m a stealth gardener.  i’ve always propagated plants wherever i could, whether it meant taking the smallest of succulent leaves that had fallen to the floor at the garden center, or wrenching seedheads off of neighbors’ flowers to scatter in a bed around the house.  i’ve always made gardens where i could.

i was once fortunate enough to have an abandoned lot next to the apartment building i lived in 30 years ago.  from my fourth storey windows i could see it behind a tall wall, choked with ivy, invisible from the street.  first i climbed over into it to reconnoiter.  then i noticed the bricked up door and started picking it apart brick by brick for an entrance i wouldn’t have to scramble over.  i never asked permission, never notified the caretaker of the apartment building – it was my secret place, and it had to be invisible to everyone; it just had to.  i rolled back the ivy and pulled up its roots, declaring a war on ivy that persists to this day.  i clandestinely divided primroses and daffodils along the public paths nearby, and planted the divisions in my secret garden.  and cuttings.  and seeds.  it was beautiful before i moved away, and it’s probably still doing okay 30 years later, because i make my gardens to go untended.

when i lived in an apartment in brooklyn, 30 years ago, there was a 2’x3′ chunk of broken up cement behind an ankle fence right next to the front door.  i broke that up and uncovered the dirt, and stuck a bunch of seeds into it that popped right up and happily clambered all over the place.  and then i turned my attention to an abandoned fenced-in almost park at the end of the block, and before long others were colonizing bits of it, and people were bringing kids and dogs to play, and it was getting to be a neighborhood thing.

when we lived in the suburbs and my kid was just starting school, 25 years ago, they started building a new elementary that she was slated to attend once it was built.  naturally i hung around the building site (looking for interesting rocks), and asked questions, and had a look at the plans, and saw that nothing was being done with the central courtyard.  so i contacted the head of construction, and the soon-to-be principal, and asked if i could do something with it, and they said sure and here’s a 20k budget to go along with it.

courtyard plan

so i designed an almost 300 foot x 25 foot enclosed courtyard that stretched from the library to the cafeteria, and had classrooms opening onto it all down its length.  i used sacred geometry (daring in the south, had anybody asked me about it), xeriscape plants, put in a garden plot so the kids could learn how to grow vegetables, specified fruit trees and shade trees, bat houses, a pond and fountain, teaching areas and seats.

2 courtyard - spring hill south

1 courtyard - spring hill north
school courtyard, first year

it all came to happen, and nobody knows it but me, because when i went back recently to get photographs of the project 20 years later, the trees were thick and tall, the concrete paths were still wandering down the length of the courtyard, but every other feature had changed.  the garden suffered first, because i neglected to specify fresh dirt, and the school was built next to the county dump, so it wasn’t the nicest soil (the janitor told me he grew tomatoes the first year, and they tasted awful).

Screenshot from 2016-06-09 12:28:38
how it looks now, 25 years later, still being used as an outdoor classroom

and i even got a tad of fame, if you don’t mind illegibility and an ex last name.

clipping garden

when i did a year and a half of art residencies in europe and the states 15 years ago, i took dogwood seeds with me, and oxalis corms, picked up things from where i was staying, and planted and cross planted all up and down the east coast.


i’ve had my own garden around my own home for 12 years now, and i plant whatever will grow there, and then divide that to some other part of the yard and grow more of it.  i capture seeds from flowers on our dogwalking route and prepare small beds for them in my yard.  i take a single iris from healthy patches that need thinning.  i dig up stray magnolia treelets and dogwood seedlings and native ferns.  i transplant some of my vinca to every dirt slope i find.  i still pull up ivy, and poison ivy and i are currently at a standstill, because i refuse to use roundup.

when i went to north iceland on an art residency two years ago, i began to think about gardening in the arctic.  some amazing things grow in the botanic garden in akureyri, including bamboo, which isn’t usually that hardy.  i thought up a nice project to do the next time i go back (next summer) – called the troll garden.  i even talked to the mayor about it, and he said fine to moving a bunch of trees in an abandoned nursery.  we put them down the main drag, far enough away from the snow ploughs to be safe and grow up big and tall.

in our neighborhood is a cul de sac that serves as a place for the kids to run around, and a shady place for the ambulance crews to wait for a call.  we’ve been talking about turning it into a community garden, and then learned that there’s now a city-sponsored program to develop urban agriculture, and called up for a meeting with my local city councilwoman.  and so we met the mayor’s head of urban agriculture, and i’ve got my in with the system.

Screenshot from 2016-05-09 19:06:18

now comes the organization.  i’m used to doing it all myself, but that’s not a thing at my stage of life, so it’s going to take lots of people helping.  luckily this is something the folks in the neighborhood have been talking about for years, so it’ll be easy to start off.

first we’ll put above-ground garden plots – boxes that serve to impede traffic and claim the space.  and then we’ll go thru the hoops necessary to take control of the land, get permission and someone to take all the asphalt up, get permission to thin out the scrub forest, get the city to put up a barrier fence between the area and the interstate onramp.  it’ll take fundraising, ownership, an account with the water company to run a line.  all sorts of stuff.  this will all take years, but this is a great year to start a big project.

and, still to come, next summer i’m going to be back in iceland for three months, hosting the residency program, inviting artists from around the world to come to the troll peninsula and make art about trolls, elves, the hidden folk – unseen beings among us.  my personal project will be to make a 15′ high troll statue out of local volcanic rock, set on a hillside overlooking the town.  around this i will plant a garden of things that grow, and things i hope to see growing there in the future (lupins, birch, spruce, willow – hardy bamboo!)

so stay tuned for the further adventures of a stealth gardener on her rounds of this earth we can only steward and never own.


finishing my first exterior wall mural


here we come to the last in many posts detailing my progress on this mural.  at this point i only had a couple of days left to work on the mural, and a combination of rain, a fall off a bike, last minute parties and trips and odds and ends before leaving town.  so the very last part of the mural was done between 5 and 6 in the morning, on a very cold day when my hands would start to freeze up after ten minutes of work.  so the timelapse clips are going to be shorter than usual…


mainly what i have done on the outside was to put on a very thin coat of the truest of the blues i used on the ocean around the figure.  i needed to obscure the lines between colors, and also make the sea lighter.  the other thing i had to do was make his eye blue, and finalize the colors in the beard.  there is black, a very strong green, and a very light green used here, and i took some even lighter green, approaching white, as highlights on the ‘gray’ parts of the beard.  i wanted to make him old, but ageing is fine, too.


next was the lettering.  i started by using my krink marker, and it’s the same problem with using rollers.  i can’t control them well enough, and prefer a brush.  tho i took pains to mark out the level baselines of the letters, i ended up putting the letters in all wonky.  the baseline isn’t level at this point, and the round letters like o,s,a and d were ungainly.  of course, talking to someone who stopped by to have a look while i was putting in the lettering remarked that trolls can’t write straight either, and that made me feel better.  but the letters are still all wrong.


so at 5 in the morning on the day i left town, i came out with the greenish white paint, and restated the lettering.  it’s now much thicker, and shadowed by a line of black.  i kept getting off the ladder and moving back to take a look, and then going back in for some more work.  and of course, at the end, i still wanted to put a raven at the bottom corner.  i had some good experiences with the ravens of the town, and ravens are associated with trolls, so if i couldn’t talk to the trolls, i could explain myself to the ravens, and i did so.  now they are my totem animal.

and this is the completed mural.  i am going to copyright the image and give a permanent license to the town of fjallabyggd to use for promotion.  and it’s part of a much larger project that i’m going to be giving a lot effort to. so stay tuned.

wall mural more

it’s been awhile; i apologize.  things have been a little busy, which you can see over on my travel blog.

so when we last did anything about this mural, it was to continue adding white to the blue paint and go around the figure making oceanlike lines.  pretty boring, as the timelapses will show.  and i’m  not even done with that in the picture below.


but finally i am finished.  then i took the flesh tone and went around making the nose especially a little fatter, and then i took the green and made sure to get every little fjord, and the same with the red.  i find i had originally drawn it all in pretty sloppily, and wanted it to be an exact map.


at that point it was time to stop messing around and commit myself to the facial features.  so i got out a thin brush and some black paint, and transferred the markings from my gridded drawing.  and suddenly the locals were paying a lot more attention to the mural.


the eyebrows and forehead hair was left to last because i didn’t feel like getting up on the ladder at that point.


i began lightening the antler headdress with whitened red-black paint, meaning to keep adding white and keep building up the lights in the middle of the antlers.  and while i was at it, i gave the figure red lips, red nose, cheeks, and ears.  just because i can’t stand to have a loaded brush and not make marks.


and when that was done, i decided i had to put color on the beard, so i got out the yukky green and slapped it up as thinly as i could, partly because i hate the color, adn partly because i only had a little green paint.  at this point one of the little kids who ride their bikes all day long in this area (because they’ve made several jumps in the back), decided to come up and make some remarks on my work, which of course i couldn’t understand, as neither of us speak the same language.  but everybody speaks art, so i handed him the paintbrush and he put in a considerable part of the lower beard, and then rode away.  i wonder if he told his mom or his friends that he helped.  i’ll be he will later.  if i see him again i’ll get him to put his name on it somewhere.


after the green was up, i toned it back down with the light green i used as a base.  and then restated the black lines.


and then i went around the frame of the picture with primer, having scraped it when i decided the picture needs a frame.  i’m not sure what i will paint it when i’m finished with the mural, but i will decide when i’m done.


at this point i still need to lighten up the antlers.  then i need to make the first few rings of blue ocean a little lighter, so that it reads from a distance, and while i’m at it i will smooth out the transitions in the blue.  and then there’s the raven, and the frame, and the title and labels (i’m going to put the cities in).  and then it’ll be done.  yay.

here are the relevant timelapses, 23, 24, 25, 25a, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30

wall mural 9

yesterday, or was it the day before, i took the pot of blue that i’ve been mixing things into, and put it on the wall straight.  it’s quite blue.  i was careful to blend it over the blue black to

obscure the edge, feathering it with the side of the brush both onto the previous color and onto the white wall, tho that doesn’t seem to make any difference, as the next color goes on and obscures whatever is underneath.  a sense of closure, i suppose.  the blue black layer now appears more like a shadow than anything else, and that’s okay with me.


today was nice when i started…i took the blue from the can and added white this time.  not a whole bunch of white, about half and half.  and of course it’s too light, so i’m thinking i’ll be going over it with the straight blue once i’m done, to tone down the line.  the feathering didn’t make much difference in this case.  there was too much contrast.


this afternoon i went out again, in a slight drizzle, and painted it an even lighter blue, made by taking half of what i had and adding more white.  i now have lots of different pots of blue, just in case i have to resort to them before i’m finished.  i think that’s wise.


i’m going to keep adding white to the blue until i run out of room.  i’m getting it on the wood surrounding the picture, and i’ll have to decide what to do with the ‘frame’ when i’m finished.  maybe white housepaint, maybe a color.  maybe black.  i am planning on putting a raven at the lower right corner, where my signature should go.  we’ll see about signing it, but i’m positive about the raven.  ravens and trolls go together.

here are the relevant time lapses, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21.

wall mural 5, 6, 7, and 8 (or something like that)

so okay it’s been a few steps.  let me post the pictures and then i’ll talk about the process.


after i got the outline up – imperfectly but not to worry – i took stock of my colors – black, white, light blue, yellow green, phtalo green, scarlet, dark pink – and decided i might could mix up a nice caucasian skin tone.  not that trolls have white skin, mind you.  or maybe they’re pasty white because they live in the mountains and only come out in the winter when it’s dark and nobody’s about to see them.  i can’t be sure.  but anyway, i need a nice light color for the skin or the rest of it won’t make sense.  anyway nothing is final until i put the varnish on.

you can see dark around the edges of the color.  that’s because the graphite contour lines and the grid are unfixed, meaning the graphite smudges into the paint just like any good pigment.  that’s why i need to put a second coat of everything on there, even the black.


then, the next day, i mixed up some scarlet and black and got a nice brownish reddish color that i put on the antlers.  on impulse i also brushed some lightly onto the trolls cheeks, lip and nose.  just as indication, and because when i have a wet paintbrush in my hand nothing is safe.


the next day i found a film can full of green earth dry pigment, and it was enough to mix in with the white house paint.  however, it was very very faintly colored (as green earth is among the weakest of pigments) so i was forced to put in a tiny tiny drop of phthalo green paint, which of course was too much.  so now i’m working with seafoam green, which would have been great back in the 60s but looks a little odd now, especially against that white background.  but i have hopes to make all the white disappear in the end.  it really makes the face color stand out, tho, doesn’t it?  and please note i’ve extended his nose a wee bit and will have to fill it in later.


today, not knowing how to proceed with the hair and beard, i decided to start with the outside of the mural.  so i mixed up that horrid light blue with some black, and slapped it on around the outline of the troll with a 3″ brush, feathering the outside edges so there wouldn’t be a hard edge.  the trouble i’m going to have with this is that now it’s hard to distinguish the antler headdress from the surrounding ocean because there’s a lot of black in both colors, so no contrast.  it means i’ll have to highlight the antlers, which i guess i was going to do anyway.  now my hand is forced, tho.


later on today, since i wasn’t working very well on my other projects, i took the container with the blue-black and mixed more of the blue in, then went around the figure again, another 3″ out from the contour line, feathering the lighter blue into the darker blue and kind of glazing over the darker color so there wasn’t an edge. the effect is kind of a shadow near the figure.  later i intend to take the straight blue out of the can and put it up around the figure, and then take whatever blue is left and mix some more white into it and finish the painting to the edge.

but this is as far as i’ve gotten.  people in the town are beginning to slow down as they pass, and some even go up to it and point.  it’s obviously a map of iceland, but i’m not sure how many schoolchildren have seen the troll face in it.  it can’t be that i’m the first, tho i’ve asked and everybody says so.  but hey, i’m not going to copyright it or anything.

here are the relevant timelapses of the progress. – five, six, seven, eightnine, ten.

wall mural 3

in the studio, i took my drawing and made a grid over it.  it’s the map of iceland, turned sideways so you can see the face it makes.


then this morning because it wasn’t raining, i put the grid up on the wall using a stick of graphite and a ruler (see timelapse).  then i took the graphite and put in the drawing to scale.  i took a timelapse, which you can’t really see because the camera is too far away, even tho i halved the distance from the other timelapses.  oh well.

and that’s all there is to it.

it rained once i put the grid up, and so there are cute little runs where the graphite got wet.  it’s a new product, water soluble graphite, so you can use it like sumi ink or like a pencil.  i love it.