Forest Park in the Rain

Forest Park in the Rain

I went for a walk through Forest Park with fellow artist Alyson Provax on April 23, 2017, despite the promise of rain. We began on Leif Erikson Drive at the top of NW Thurman Street. I generally start at the Lower Macleay Trail via Macleay Park — but a first hike with a long-time friend seemed like it warranted something other than my usual route. I wanted to look with new eyes, to consciously note the various textures and hues of the park. With coffee in one hand, I studied my little guide to Forest Park’s native plants (previously acquired from Portland Audubon’s Nature Store) while I waited for Alyson to meet me. It was not unlike how I would study before a quiz when I was student. I am out of practice, though: I forgot at least half of the plant names, and the rain prevented much consultation of the book during the hike.

The rain fell in earnest almost as soon as we entered the woodier, windier part of the trail. We tried to shelter from the fat, wet drops under the viney branches of a young tree just beginning to shoot out its light-colored leaves. A few runners came by, each alone, and they smiled laughingly at us as they went past, cautious of the slippery, dark mud as it splashed up their calves, but otherwise undeterred. If one wishes to make a regular habit of traversing Forest Park, one must make peace with damp and mud. We didn’t see any of the runners again. This is one of the magical properties of the many winding, interconnected trails: you can be surrounded by people and still be alone.

I forgot what it was like to hike in the rain, usually concentrating my hikes in the dry summer months. It was beautiful and wonderfully quiet, with more things in bloom than I ever noticed before. We saw trillium — such a strange and elegant flower, with its three stark petals — often accompanied by little bursts of woodland violets (a misnomer, given their distinct yellow hue), fuzzy-budded Pacific waterleaf, salmonberry flowers in vivid pink, and little white petals floating down like snow from the bigleaf maple branches high above. My favorite flowers were the Hooker’s fairy bells. They remind me of bleeding heart.

Setting plant identification as a specific goal made me see Forest Park in a more complex way: each texture and shape, once named, became a distinct part of a whole, rather than a wash of tangled but monolithic greenery. I feel like I’ve taken the park for granted, and am just now learning to appreciate it for itself. Where else does a born-and-bred urbanite like me enjoy such ready access to an expanse of wilderness, wondrously populated with so many plants and animals? Someday, I tell myself, I will learn to distinguish not only the varieties of trees, but the different voices of the birds darting out and disappearing back into their foliage.

You can read about how Forest Park came to be (much more recently in history than I assumed) via The Oregon Encyclopedia, a project of the Oregon Historical Society.

Visual Chronicle of Portland: new acquisitions now on view

Visual Chronicle of Portland: new acquisitions now on view

Toward the end of last year, Polygons No. 5 (Oregon Blueberries) was acquired by the Regional Arts & Culture Council for the Visual Chronicle of Portland collection. A special exhibition of all new acquisitions made during 2016/17 is now on view at the Portland Building, through April 21, 2017. Visual Chronicle works normally move around, exhibiting on rotation in different public buildings throughout Portland – so this is a rare opportunity to see many from the collection at once, and probably the only opportunity to see all recent acquisitions together.

Polygons No. 5 (Oregon Blueberries) is also one of the pieces I keep referencing regarding works I’m proposing for PDX-CSA. Learn more and buy in before April 16.

An edition of my first handmade book, A Means of Centering the Mind, also found a home in a collection at the end of 2016, in the Ella Strong Denison Library, Scripps College in Claremont, California.

Acquisitions like these are important: they allow artwork to remain accessible to the public, making sure that culture is not accessible only to the top income-earners; they offer essential financial support, particularly to early- and mid-career artists – even those whose work may not be suited to commercial galleries. The National Endowment for the Arts is responsible for supporting a multitude of organizations across the United States, including the Regional Arts and Culture Council. RACC makes Oregon a great place to be an artist, and I have certainly benefitted directly from their programs.

Unfortunately, the National Endowment for the Arts is on the chopping block in the current proposed national budget. If you are a U.S. citizen, please contact your representatives to let them know that the NEA is essential, and that you are against de-funding the arts.

A Means of Centering the Mind, 2009-15, accordion book, 4.75 x 3 x .25 inches (closed), ed. of 6.
Community Supported Art

Community Supported Art

Earlier this year, I was invited to participate in the PDX-CSA program. The spirit of it is why I agreed: it offers affordably-priced original artwork at the concept stage, meant to encourage aspiring and nascent art collectors to invest (their reward being not only the finished art, but following along as the artists create the work), while offering artists a measure of financial security for their project yet preserving their creative autonomy (unlike most private commissions).

The individual projects are all priced at $175 or less, while “pairings” (related yet independent work by two simpatico artists) offer the opportunity to purchase two projects at a small (around 10%) discount: an instant collection.

I proposed small gouache pantings, in the manner of the Polygons series, focused around Portland’s Forest Park. $175 is probably the least anyone will ever pay for one of my original paintings, making the individual buy a great deal – and the pairing with Alyson Provax even better. I’ve long admired her work, and I’m thrilled by the chance to share ideas, influences, and hikes through our famed city wilderness.

Pre-buy now through April 16, 2017.

Heather Lee Birdsong and Alyson Provax, PDX CSA artist pairing.

Polygons Process: Sketchbook to Sketchup to Substrate

The sketches I make when preparing a new Polygons painting look simple, but it takes quite a bit of time to draw each form. I draw, erase, redraw, making smaller and smaller movements as I get closer to what feels right. The way they lean, the balance of obtuse and sharp angles, the height to width ratios, are all gestures invested with emotional resonance. It is deliberately analogous to the way I think of people: I remember them less from their looks or names, and instead think of people in terms of how they feel – how they inhabit space, the emotional resonance of their interactions. Over time, people who feel similarly begin to blur together in my memory.

Once I’m satisfied with the shapes, I reconstruct them in Sketchup and move them around. This program gives me incredible latitude to play with them, establishing spacial relationships that evoke narrative.

When the drawing is resolved, I redraw the whole scene on a flat, bright piece of hot-pressed paper. The final part, which is often the most difficult, is the color. I probably spend more time mixing than anything else – there are very few out-of-the-tube hues in my work. I like gouache for its flatness and ability to be rewet after it dries on the palette.

I’m not yet sure what color these ones will be. The colors I drop in with Sketchup may establish an overall tone, but they rarely carry over to the actual painting.

New work in polygons

New work in polygons

For the last several weeks I’ve been painting instead of making prints. I was feeling a bit of an itch to paint, it’s true, but the primary factor is that printmaking is difficult to do without the right equipment and supplies – supplies too toxic or messy, and equipment too expensive or cumbersome for a one bedroom apartment with two humans and a graceless cat. Gouache is easier. Cleaner, faster, smaller, lighter.

I think all artists fantasize about possessing endless, or at least very generous, resources that allow for the freedom to create whatever is in our heads. But the reality is that restrictions of time, space, and (mother of all) economics often shape our practices. The years for this struggle are long and arduous: it takes time to build relationships with art dealers, curators, consultants, collectors and institutions. Extraordinary work (we hope) must happen within the most quotidian constraints.

Recognizing the practical limitations I must contend with for now, I began painting in gouache. I thought of them as studies, at first: rough, unfinished little things that I would dream up bigger, better, someday. My partner chided me for calling them studies. “What are they studies of?” he asked. I said something very clever, I’m sure, but I was dissembling. I was afraid to invest in them. What if they didn’t work out? I haven’t painted in years. Shortly after that conversation, I stopped calling them studies.

These six are, I believe, a solid beginning. It’s so satisfying to work serially, to give myself a wide but coherent land to explore. I’m excited to see where these take me – which might be the best and most satisfying way to feel in the creative process.