Thoughts on Being an Artist

(This blog post was originally published last July. Recycling is good, right? )


One cold rainy night last winter my husband and I went to a club to hear a blues band. Truth be told, on that Tuesday night, after a full day’s work, we both really wanted to stay home and sit by the fire with a nice cuppa.


But we had tickets so we bundled up, got in the car, risked the bridge traffic, and went out.

Later that night, in the middle of the performance, when the band had warmed up so much I thought they were going to ignite, I thought to myself once again…how wonderful art is. Here were five ordinary looking middle-age guys, with no auto-tune or lightshows or sexy costumes—and they were practically bursting into flame right there on the stage. We got to sit by the fire, after all.

In the heat of a performance like that, it’s easy to see why artists want to do what they do. It’s like creating your own fire, your own energy. Imagine how it would be to paint like Van Gogh, or dance Swan Lake, or play the violin like Joshua Bell. It would be like having super-powers…like flying, or leaping tall buildings…bringing the audience to their feet and the young men or ladies to their knees. What glory!

Reality check. There’s the other side of art, of course…the work. And not just work, but really hard work. True, it’s not like working-in-a-coal-mine-hard, but some days, to me at least, art just feels impossible—laughable even. Oh, so you think you can do that? Ha! Think again. You’ve got it all wrong…the composition is bad, the perspective is off, you’re being way too stiff. Go back to the easel. Do it again. Again. Again!


But, the thing about art is…it keeps you hooked. Because in between all those hours of slogging away come little sparks, little bursts of flame. Just when you think you’ve had enough and you’re ready to pack up the paints and toss them out the window…you look through the big stack of ugly paintings and find one that looks…pretty good.

Aha. A spark.


Last year, I went to the documentary “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” by Werner Herzog, about the Chauvet Cave in France and its 30,000 year-old cave paintings.

When I put on those 3D glasses and followed Mr. Herzog into those hidden chambers, I literally got the shivers. What struck me most was the perfect example of Art in its most elemental state—both from human beings and Nature itself. What better example of Earth the Artist than limestone formations—those swirls, the sparkles and waves, solid rock being made to look liquid, taking thousands of years to form.

A snippet from my Beaver Falls Karst project shows limestone formations similar to Chauvet Cave.


And the paintings! However they are scrutinized and analyzed by experts for their significance—to me, they spoke a singular fact: even as long as 30,000 years ago, artists were doing what artists have always done. They were exploring and expressing the complexities and simplicities of their world. They were artists searching for clarity.

Whenever I want to reignite my own creative spark, I get out my copy of “The Artistic Spirit”, by Robert Henri, written in 1923. I can flip to almost any page, and find some nugget of pure inspiration to get me beyond whatever artistic challenge I’m facing at that moment. It’s not a really a book of instruction…it’s simply the words of a man who was unusually clear about what it means to be an artist. I’m sure that if those cave artists read Henri’s words they would say, “Yes, that’s it! That’s exactly what we were trying to do.” Henri speaks the common language of artists.

“There are moments in our lives, there are moments in a day, when we seem to see beyond the usual. Such are the moments of our greatest happiness. Such are the moments of our greatest wisdom. If one could but recall his vision by some sort of sign. It was in this hope that the arts were invented. Sign-posts on the way to what might be. Sign-posts toward greater knowledge.” — Robert Henri


A word to aspiring artists

Whenever you feel the creative spark inside you, fan it! Don’t let it go out. Where there’s one, there will be more. Keep at it, one little spark at a time. You are lighting your way on your own search for clarity. It’s not the destination that counts…the searching is enough to put you in the company of artists since the beginning of time.

It’s good company.




Karst, caves and sinkholes


NOTE: In a sad coincidence, as I was writing this post, (a continuation of the last two posts—click here to go to the first in the series), a man in Florida was killed when a sinkhole opened up below his bedroom. Today’s post discusses the interpretive topics of the project I was working on in Southeast Alaska, including sinkholes.


Princes of Wales Island in Southeast Alaska is karst country. Karst is a landform that develops when water dissolves the carbonate bedrock, resulting in unusual features such as caves, sinkholes, shafts, disappearing streams and caves.

The following illustrations are details from the first sign of my project at Beaver Falls Interpretive Trail.


In limestone caves, features such as spires, pinnacles, soda straws, stalactites and stalagmites take thousands of years to form.

Soda straws are delicate, hollow tubes that hang from the cave ceiling, growing longer with each drip.


Eventually soda straws build up layers of minerals and become stalactites. Below, stalagmites form.















This detail from one of the signs shows the influence wetlands have in the development of karst.


Muskeg, or peat bog wetlands above ground contain very wet, acidic soils that are a catalyst in cave development. As the water flows through the muskeg, it sometimes flows sideways across layers of hard clay until it finds a way down through the porous limestone.

The entire sign.


A detail illustration from a sign interpreting the karst formation of sinkholes.


Sinkholes are etched into the landscape as water trickles down from the surface. The second illustration in the sequence shows what happens when the “roof” wears thin and suddenly collapses.

The full sign.


Trees in Alaskan karst tend to grow larger because the soil is rich and the limestone helps anchor the the trees against fierce storm winds.


Many animals use caves to escape harsh weather, find safe places to nest, give birth or hibernate. Some creatures spend their entire lives in the darkest interiors of caves.

A detail illustration of the many species that use karst caves.


The signs were installed on an accessible boardwalk trail above the cave.










To find out more about Prince of Wales Island and Beaver Falls Karst Interpretive Trail, check out:

The Pacific Northwest is not immune to sinkholes. In Shorelline, a city just north of Seattle, a giant sinkhole took out an intersection, just missing a nearby house. I designed some interpretive signs for the nearby park (written by Chuck Lennox). Check out the third sign in the series of project: Boeing Park