Capturing the Magic

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Capturing the Magic

Recently a dear friend decided to invite herself to my deck to see a sunrise … providing she could pull herself from bed early enough and find some strong coffee. A comment that another friend suggested she get there early before the sun actually breaks the surface. “By then,” he said, “the magic is often gone.”

I could almost agree. For as long as I can remember pre-dawn light has intrigued me. Even as a kid walking to a catfish pond hopeful of a trotline bonanza. Yet, it wasn’t until moving here to Listening Stones Farm that I had a horizon crafted like a natural stage, and many mornings the show is worthy of an encore that rarely, if ever, happens.

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I appreciate having “edge” for definition and interest, including an occasional bird.

Each day, it seems, begins differently. Pastel hues with a softness in all colors and shades. Sometimes solitary, sometimes as a blended crowd. Perhaps blazing glossy reds and yellows, shouting strongly across the horizon like the voice of a cadre sergeant. Some days the sun is a mere peek, enveloped by ominous, darkened clouds extending 180 degrees in all visible directions. On others, an unseen choir provides a harmony of blues and purples with a just hint of yellow as the earth turns toward our star, ever brightening the sky in breathless speed.

Some days a sunrise is the only color you will see until another morning. Over these past few years I’ve made many images of both the pre-dawn colors and sunrises. And while my friend was basically right about what happens when the sun breaks the horizon, some interesting images have been made with sun balls, light glares and dawn shadows as well. Yet, it is the surprise of a coming color that captures your soul, that brings you back for more.

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A sun “flair” brings added color to the yellow flowers in the home prairie.

Even before moving here to this Prairie Pothole region of the western Minnesota prairie, sunrises were my favorite time of the day. I find them much more interesting than sunsets. Years ago as we returned from a kayaking trip into the Everglades and was boating into Chokoloskee, I asked the young guide about the “widow walks” and rooftop decks on many of the houses in the small, quaintly palmed town-scape. “Sunsets,” he explained.

“So, what does one see?”

He looked at me strangely and replied, “Sunsets. You know, colors and clouds. You can see them better at rooftop. Either there, or you drive up to the coast somewhere.”

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Although the actual sunrise often brings an end to magical hues and colors, sometimes a foggy morning brings a nice surprise.

Actually, the Florida coast and Keys are famously flocked to by sunset worshipers; folks who come to watch the sun sink into a featureless sea. I’m more like whitetail deer and largemouth bass. Give me features and edge to give definition and interest to the colors.

You don’t need rooftop decks here on the prairie, and my sunsets are nearly as free standing and captivating to the west as sunrises are to the east. To see sunsets over the summer months here on the farm you must hike down into the lower prairie, which isn’t necessarily an entirely awful experience. Especially when you flush pheasants or scare up a deer.

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My farm is blessedly located in the last remaining vestiges of the natural Prairie Pothole region, and the wetland over the hill from my bedroom window often gives me pause.

Yet, my eye gravitates to the east most mornings. My office allows me an east-facing window to the prairie where I can monitor the rise of the morning light. Often I will simply head outside to my deck with my camera before wading somewhere into the home prairie. Maybe I’ll jump into my car and head to one of several nearby restored native prairies, outcrops or wetlands, depending on the season and the types of grasses and forbs that are then growing.

My imagery is highly dependent on ambient colors for I use no filters, and I have neither the desire nor time to create something wholly unnatural with computer technology, adding fake ambiance and color. Some mornings the colors are stunning, and by that I don’t mean aiming the lens directly toward a rising sun like many do with sunsets.

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Winter or summer, the colors of dawn are typically magical and interesting.

Often the favorable colors are off to the side, pastels over a sweeping landscape. We call this a “Monet light” and sometimes I feel as if I’m “painting the same haystacks” over and over again as I aim my lens toward the distant tree line east of my prairie on many mornings. I’m humbled when sometimes someone suggests my work is “Monet like.”

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Some days, a sunrise is the only color you may see for the entire day, as was the case on the day I made my “Daybreak” image.

If there is any hint of fairness to such a comparison it’s that we both, a couple of centuries apart, were seduced by the light and hues set before us by a willing God (if you will). Perhaps it was in our collective nature, in our soft seduction, to place these magical moments of various colorful hues onto our respective medium. If our only kinship is such a seduction, I can live with that. Happily and gracefully.

Ditch Bank Ladies

There they stood. Mere inches in height, poking through low-hanging, scruffy looking ditch bank grasses. Spirals of white blossoms, circling around a thickened dark green stem. My very first view of the native orchid, the Nodding Ladies’ Tresses (Spiranthes cernua).

“These,” said naturalist Gary Lentz, “is a true barometer of the start of fall.”

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My original viewing and image of the Nodding Ladies’ Tresses, hidden in the scruffy grasses of a roadside ditch bank in Renville County.

Minnesota is home to a vast variety of native orchids, many of which I would not have known nor seen if not for true naturalists like Lentz. One cannot have enough naturalists in your life, and although I’m a Minnesota Master Naturalist, I’m far from the real thing. All that means is that I’ve completed the 40-hour course and have done a fair amount of volunteering for the past several years. Indeed, a kindly forestry professor at the University of Missouri sat me down one day after class with these words: “If you continue with a study of the sciences you will become the most frustrated of scientists, for you don’t have the mind for it. You should be a writer. Someone who observes and appreciates, not someone who delves into the analytics. Let me introduce you to my friend, Dick Lee, in the journalism department.” A huge weight had been lifted.

About a week or so before my brief visit with Lentz, he had posted a photo on social media saying the “ladies” were close to his mailbox near his hideaway farm nestled along Cottonwood Creek between Granite Falls and Echo. It turned out to be a convenient stop on the way home from dropping a friend off at the airport.

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Delicate blossoms that spiral up the stem. The Ladies’ are apparently more common in Eastern Minnesota although apparently more rare in the western prairie region.

Lentz is one of the naturalists I’m fortunate to know. He, like the others, have a nose for the prairie and an eye for spying the natural nuances of life in the wild. Among the others are Kylene Olson, a walking encyclopedia of Latin names and native species recognition; Dave Jungst, of Morris, who seemingly is in the fields of Polk, Swift and other nearby counties almost daily observing and recording the changes in native prairie life; and of course, Lentz. Amy Rager, Terri Dennison and Chris Ingrebretsen also come to mind. There may be more, for the worst part about making a list is leaving off deserving people, which I’m sure I’ve done.

One of my first river valley naturalists was Ed Stone, whose small house just up the slope from Vicksburg County Park, was tucked in the woods against some of the most beautiful Minnesota River gneiss outcrops. Stone’s living room was basically a naturalist’s office, with a huge, centering table where he sat to record his daily observations of the natural life around him. Every January he would pass along his copious notes to various country newspaper editors like myself to print if we wished. I was fortunate to visit with Stone several times, including my favorite venture when we climbed into the outcrops that were as sheer and flat as they were angled to “hunt” for a rare skink he promised lived in the crevices. We spied two, but in no way were we close to catching either for closer observation.

This summer at a “pop up” arts festival where I was showing my impressionistic prairie photography, a woman asked if I had known Ed Stone. After some shared remembrance, she said, “You know he passed about two years ago?” I didn’t, for I had lost contact after moving to Listening Stones Farm almost three hours away. Ed Stone was a gentle man, someone you could picture as a modern day Aldo Leopold, author of the classic “Sand County Almanac.”

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Some were in clusters like these, but more often singular plants.

So here we were, stepping carefully around the “ditch bank ladies” taking pictures. I told Lentz that I had swerved a time or two while seeking what he had shown on the site of the white blossomed plant while driving down the main highway toward his gravel turnoff. My surprise was their delicate stature, for I realized you would require more minute observation than that from a windshield to see them.

“We were able to convince the county to not disturb this particular road bank when they wanted to widen the road. As orchids, they won’t grow just anywhere. Whether that is because of certain microbes in the soil, or what, I don’t know. I’ve tried collecting the seeds to propagate them without much luck,” he said. “You’re seeing them at their peek. In a few days they’ll be gone.”

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A view from the top of the plant.

He was right, for I did drive back once I realized that in my excitement and efforts to capture the incredible spirals of blossoms that I had not made a defining, overall “ecology” image — my curse observed years ago by the forestry professor.

As I walked along the now barren seeking even one of the delicate orchids, Lentz was right. This was another fleeting moment in the natural world. Ah, the knowledge of true naturalists. I then remembered that moments before we climbed into his pickup to drive to this obscure roadside site Lentz had positioned a couple of seeds under his microscope to show me. It was a moment straight out of Ed Stone’s “naturalist handbook” and cause for another smile. And further proof that someone like me can’t have enough naturalists in their life.

Sweet Goodness

Several years ago a wonderful friend, Jill Bruns, shared what turned out to be an incredible recipe for a tomato sauce. We were working together at the time for an exchange student organization matching host families with teenagers from around the world and monitoring those sometimes tenuous, often-time beautiful relationships. For us, August and September were quite stressful times, and Jill’s recipe was nearly as hands-off as it was delicious.

Her recipe was one of the cherished items packed on our move to Listening Stones Farm more than four years ago. Along the way it has been altered somewhat depending on the year and creative muse. For a couple of years back when I was married we started smoking my ex’s beautiful eggplant to include in the simmer. In no way can I garden as well as she could, so last year after making the first batch “naked” … without the smoke … I made a second batch where the offset smoker was once again put in play. This time to smoke the skin-on tomatoes.

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Heirloom tomatoes are used, smoked on the offset using apple wood. When moisture rises into the opened core, they’re ready to add to the roaster.

This created a sweet and lovely aroma that seemed to encompass not just the kitchen, but the entire house, creating such a sweet goodness.

Our method then was to let it simmer overnight in the roaster, which allowed the sauce to thicken quite well. Since I have begun to can the sauce the same day because it seems to hold the flavors better. The delicate flavors are captured for winter joys rather than lost in the overcooking.

Last week I made my first batch of Jill’s Sweet Goodness. In my recipe I continued to use garlic and onions.

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From my first batch, with the basil leaves on top. 

As is typical, my garden has more tomato plants than should have been planted, and more fruit is coming off the vine daily. I have more than enough for my own needs, and a really good salsa has since been canned. One that is decidedly less vinegary than the one I made last year … which tasted just fine before being canned but was much too vinegary come winter. This one has more lime and much less vinegar, and is just what I like in a salsa.

Yet, I love Jill’s Sweet Goodness and have eyed making another batch, this time with two people in mind. My sister, Ann Roeder, and a dear friend, Mo Stores. Both suffer from an onion and garlic allergy. While it seems almost sacrilegious to make a tomato sauce without either ingredient I was curious if it was doable and if the flavor would hold.

So once again I smoked the tomatoes. All the various ingredients from the recipe were added along with about three quarters of a cup of chopped herbs. Included was a healthy sprig of rosemary, and about half and half of fresh basil and sage. A knife was used to chop the herbs finely before being added to the roaster. I had used fresh basil and rosemary in my original batch, though not the sage. My idea came from Ann, who sometimes uses sage as a substitute in her cooking. Indeed, this may be the best batch of the bunch!

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After the vegetables have been pureed, add three 12 oz. cans of tomato paste, and use the emulsifier again.

This is truly a simple sauce to make. My only change is that I peel the carrots and cut up the celery. Those tomatoes are cored before going onto the smoker. An emulsifier is used to puree the sauce, and to blend in the paste afterwards. Two of my friends wouldn’t can this without a pressure cooker, and two others, including Jill who is a county health nurse, stick with hot baths. I prefer the hot bath method and did it this way for years with no problems whatsoever.

The sauce is excellent for spaghetti and pizzas, and sometimes I add some pesto that I have frozen. All the vegetables are organic, including those I grow here on the farm. Here is Jill’s recipe, so please, enjoy!

Jill’s Spaghetti Sauce

(Makes 8-12 quarts)

50 tomatoes (enough to fill a large electric roaster. I smoke in an offset smoker with apple wood.)

1 batch celery — chopped

8 green peppers

8 onions

8 cloves of garlic

8 carrots

1/2 c salt

1 c sugar

1/4 t cloves

1/2 t allspice

1/2 t paprika

1/2 t oregano

1/4 t pepper

1 bay leaf

Several sweet basil leaves

3 12 oz cans tomato paste

Put cut up vegetables into roaster. Add all ingredients except tomato paste. Simmer for 4 hours at 225 F degrees or so, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking. You can simmer overnight to puree in the morning, or all through the day. Use a blender or emulsifier to puree. Add paste and simmer for at least two hours. Put in jars and hot bath for 40 minutes. Rebecca used a pressure cooker at #10 for 40 minutes. Great for spaghetti, chili, lasagna and most anything using a tomato sauce. I use pint jars for more convenience of single living.

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I’m not an “organized” canner, using a variety of jar types and sizes. It’s what is inside that counts! 

Art … It’s What We Do

Random thoughts are a malady, and one came charging through this summer while judging 4-H projects for a nearby county fair. All through the building youngsters were carrying boxes full of projects for us to judge, and from the look on many of their young, eager faces you could almost identify those who had crammed to complete those projects into the wee hours of the night before.

My random thought? Are there artists on the Meander Upper Minnesota River Art Crawl like those 4-Her’s cramming the night before the Meander? Highly doubtful, although there are certainly some last minute coursing as you prepare your studios and work in anticipation of the hordes of folks about to come through. That said, most of us work with our art throughout the year. Not only are we creating new and different works, and hopefully growing individually as artists, but we’re also involved with our work in other instances and venues.

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Potter Richard Handeen works the wheel at Moonstone Farms near Montevideo.

For example, many of us have individual showings around the area. Speaking of myself, my work was involved in three one-person exhibits in two states, two juried shows (including the Horizontal Grandeur) plus showings at two arts festivals. Many Meander artists do this and more … all while creating new works. So I’m not alone.

Since the last Meander I can think of at least three artists who have exhibited at the Southwest Minnesota Arts Council’s (SMAC) gallery in Marshall … Liz Rackl and Edie Barrett, both of Ortonville, and Malena Handeen, of Milan. Handeen also created a mural for a craft beer brewery in Montevideo and was a principal artist creating a four-sided mural on a barn on commission for an organic dairy cooperative in Wisconsin.

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Malena Handeen discusses one of her paintings at her opening at the SMAC Gallery in Marshall earlier this year.

Odessa photographer Rob Rakow and I were both in the Horizontal Grandeur, an annual prairie arts juried show sponsored by the Stevens County Historical Society that is based on an essay by the late prairie writer, Bill Holm.

Silversmith Jean Menden and bent wood artists, Dale and Jo Pederson, of Granite Falls, are mainstays at the Brookings Art Festival in July. Pity those who would attempt to keep up with all the pop-up festivals Granite’s Bradley Hall displays at each year.

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Classes like this one taught by Melanie Gabbert-Gatchell are part of many artists’ year.

Then there is Meander artist Deb Connolly, of Danvers, who provides a brief overview of her work as an artist: “Red River Watercolor Society’s National Watermedia Exhibition is one of the shows I do and it is based out of Moorhead, MN.  I have earned “Signature Status” at that exhibition which means I can put the letters RRWS on my watercolor paintings near my own signature.  All of that means that I am a paid member of the Red River Water Society and I have been accepted into the national exhibition three times over a 10 year period. ‘Arts in Harmony’ is an Annual International Show that I enter most years.  It is a multi-media show based out of Elk River. Almost every year I enter the Minnesota State Fair Fine art show, and I had a piece selected by the jury process. The piece that was chosen ‘Lilacs and Oranges’ had been previously accepted into the ‘RRWS National Watermedia’ exhibition and the ‘Arts in Harmony’ show. Besides shows I enter, I hang my art in local galleries. I display my art each year at the Art of the Lakes Gallery in Battle Lake. It is a cooperative gallery where I volunteer my time to hang the gallery and work four shifts per year. I also do the three-day Art of the Lakes Studio Tour each July that they organize – which means I haul my art to a host studio closer to the cluster of artists who display. This small town gallery draws good numbers of lake country locals and visitors and I find it invigorating to display my work along with many great artists and get a chance to work meet and work with them.  I also display at Prairie Renaissance Cultural Alliance (PRCA) in Morris and other galleries that have come and gone over the years.”

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Deb Connolly works on a painting in her Danvers’ studio.

This summer Ortonville’s Kathleen Marihart opened her own “The Smallest Art Gallery” on the town’s main street where she and other artists offer a number of classes. Granite Falls’ photographer/artist Melanie Gabbert-Gatchell teaches many classes in the alcohol ink on tile technique, along with other member artists of the Granite Area Arts Council.

Gene and Lucy Tokheim hosts open houses and maintain their rural Dawson area studio throughout the year, creating Norwegian-inspired pottery and paintings. Gene is among the artists who teaches various courses at the Milan Village Arts School.

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A summer afternoon of work awaiting the kiln.

This is just a sprinkling of activities involving the 39 artists on this year’s Meander. Yes, we are working artists who are intent on creating new and interesting work be it pottery, paintings, jewelry, photographic images or interesting wood arts. For those touring the Meander, rest assured that very little of what you see was produced by cramming through the night before. For us it just doesn’t work that way! For us, our work isn’t a “project” … art is our way of life. Art is what we do.

New Meander Poster for Collectors

(Second of three Meander Blogs … )

This year John George Larson took his turn as the featured artist on the annual Meander Upper Minnesota River Art Crawl poster. Chalk one up as another in a growing line for the collector’s of these interesting if not unique posters.

Just in case you’re wondering, yes, I’m one of the collectors. Mine are framed and line the stairwell of my rural Ortonville home.

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Some of my Meander poster collection.

Not only is the art on each of the posters personalized, but each of the artists must go through a process before a poster is finalized by the printer, Andy Kahmann.

Apparently past artists are the ones who decide who will be upcoming featured artist, and that artist then works closely with Kahmann to create a design that will work well with the plate engraving process as well as lending itself well to the annual Meander brochure. A third of the poster image typically appears on the brochure cover. That poster design is a well guarded secret between Kahmann and the artist until an all-artist meeting held in the late spring when the revealing is often met with a chorus of cheers and applause of approval.

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John George Larson listens as Andy Kahmann explains the printing process as Franz Richter listens.

As one of the participating artists in the Meander, I was quite curious back in May when it was announced that Larson was the featured artist since he is quite well known as a potter. Being a potter, and he is an excellent clay artist, those of us who knew of him only as a potter quickly learned that Larson has talents that exceed well beyond the wheel. In this case he “shared the wealth” with the other artists from the 2016 event, creating his piece from the chosen images of those on that version of the Meander. Imagine my surprise to see my Prairie Clothesline image as part of his poster, which might be as close as I come to being the featured artist!

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Doug Pederson designed the 2016 poster.

So I’m now in the process of piecing together a frame for Larson’s poster, which will be added to the collection on the stairwell wall. Which makes me wonder just how many others are poster collectors are out there? How many have the entire collection? Interestingly, some posters are quite rare, including the 2008 poster by Franz Albert Richter. Richter did a wonderful trio of bison, and Kahmann claims he has two of Richter’s posters hidden away, and that as far as he knows, those are the last of the bunch. “That one was quite popular,” said Kahmann.

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John George Larson’s artwork graces the 2017 Meander poster.

For those who wonder, Bradley Hall was the initial featured artist the first year of the Meander in 2004, followed by Malena Handeen. Katia Andreeva was next in 2006. Milan’s internationally known rosemahler, Karen Jenson, followed Katia. The list continues as the “who’s who” of noted prairie artists: Deb Connolly, Lucy Tokheim, Kerry Kolke-Bonk, Audrey Arner, Don Sherman, Kristi Link Fernholz, Tamara Isfeld, Doug Pederson and finally, Larson.

Personally I have nine of the 14 posters framed and hanging. It would be cool to have all 14, although it’s doubtful that will happen. Especially if Richter’s bison are extremely rare.