Botany & gardening, history & folklore, shorelines & forests
Deer ate 4 of my 5 paltry sunflowers which germinated; the lone survivor being partially hidden by ornamental grasses. The sunflower fought its way through the tall grasses and emerged above, brilliant as a spotlight, in late September. I was caught in its glow every time I stepped outside. A sunflower’s center is hypnotic; much like old science fiction movies showing people being subjected to mind control by swirling patterns. That pattern is the Fibonacci sequence. Each number in the sequence, is the sum of the previous two numbers. Nature is more than a pretty face.
EMBOSOMED IN THE BOWER
My south-west facing deck has me locked in a summer battle of the umbrella. Easily blown over by Atlantic breezes, showered with earwigs as I crank it open, thwarted by the sun’s rays which creep under it. I yearn for a bower in which to sip my tea. The bower was essential for ladies in the medieval garden, along with the turf bench. A bower of overhanging branches ahead, rewards sweaty Rails to Trails pilgrims with dappled light and coolness. Our heating planet had brought new meaning to shade.
WINDSOR ROAD TRACERY
When we moved to Chester during the 1980s, I had been in Nova Scotia for less than a decade. The Windsor Road connects the village to the town of Windsor and the Annapolis Valley beyond. I quickly grew to love the road; a narrow carpet rolling out the landscape from rocky shoreline to verdant farmland. The tree in this painting is one of my favourite landmarks en route, especially after the leaves fall. Every spring I hope it has survived yet another winter and feel joy when I see it standing there, across the fields.
WHISPERING TO THE WIND
Bulrushes intrigue me all year. Perky green swords emerge in spring, next the chocolate velvet seed heads of summer, and finally, the untidy woven mat of winter. Although these aquatic plants are beneficial friends of fish, birds and humans, king Midas wasn’t as lucky. The jealous god Apollo changed his ears into those of a donkey, after the king admitted preferring Pan’s pipes to Apollo’s lyre. The barber found out, and fearing he would blab, dug a hole, and buried the secret within. Alas, indiscreet bulrushes growing near by whispered to the wind, and the secret was out.
Walking through Lunenburg one brilliant late March day, I came across a red house surrounded by bare maples showing the first rosy whisper of swollen buds, and the earth hinting at the green to come. While painting this piece, I became interested in why barns are red, because I often use the iconic red barn image in my paintings. During the late 1700s, farmers created a preservative from skimmed milk, lime and iron oxide to deter mildew, which also turned barns a reddish hue. Another belief is farmers painted their barns red so that the cows could find their way home, but cows are colour blind and cannot distinguish red from green.
WOOD FOR SNOWSHOES
Long after fall’s colourful carnival, the needles of the eastern larch turn saffron yellow and are shed, announcing winter is definitely on its way. Like other deciduous conifers, the wily Hackmatack practices ‘super cooling’. By dehydrating its cells, the tree is able to withstand incredibly cold weather. The Algonquin named the tree, Tamarack, which means wood for snowshoes. I enjoy my backyard specimen the most after a snow fall. The otherwise nondescript branches transform into a lacy wedding dress on a carpet of powdered sugar.
Nova Scotia’s wrinkled shoreline provides ample watery nooks for vegetation to take hold and be admired by me. Verbascum thapsus, commonly called mullein, is yet another European that has colonized Canada. Verbascum is a very old plant and has acquired many nicknames to illustrate its uses. Jupiter’s Staff, rising up from a rosette of velvet leaves, can grow to seven feet. From the pinnacle spring candles of yellow flowers; when dried Hag’s Taper becomes a fire torch. The leaves of Beggar’s Blanket’s insulate shoes against the cold. Bend Our Lady’s Flannel towards your lover’s house. If it springs back all is well. If not, your love may not be true.
BETWEEN THE TIDES
Grasses make me swoon. They are blissful to paint because of the abstracted lines that ripple across the canvas. Paint on the artist’s brush blends and shifts between colours and forms, as do salt water grasses which shift between terrestrial and oceanic ecosystems. The mother of the shoreline; salt marshes form a buffer between the tensions of water and land.
EMBERS OF NOVEMBER LIGHT
Autumn sunlight paints the northern landscape with an opalescent gold brush. November grasses and branches are not yet bleached of colour and bent low by Atlantic storms. Grass remains green in my seaside village of Chester, well into December. The soft carpet under the spiky forms combine to create an incongruous colour interplay for a few brief weeks before the first snows of winter.
In Nova Scotia the slow striptease of leaf shedding begins in early October. A slow drifting down of occasional leaves like the peeling off of long black gloves by the Burlesque performer. As the dancer slowly turns and gazes over her fan, so do the trees gradually reveal teasing colour. Finally, the show is over and the leaves, gone. But stay for November and see the colour and form that has been exposed. The earth has some heat left, and wood smoke fills the air.
One of our earliest domiciles in Nova Scotia that my husband and I shared was a log cabin surrounded by woods. My first introduction to Canadian gardens was the wild flowers I discovered there. In late summer we drove to the Annapolis Valley to pick apples. Along the roadsides were wild asters (Greek for star), the latest blooming wildflower of summer. After the biblical flood stars fell to Earth and emerged as asters. The beauties that inspired this painting are located in Marriotts Cove. The day was wet and foggy, low tide exposed yellow seaweed, the complement of purple.
I painted this a year ago, but became caged in because I could not resolve it visually. I repainted it over and over, except for the grosbeak, which I was happy with. I set the painting aside. After a recent snowfall, my gaze through the kitchen window always fell on the dogwood branches aflame in the snow. Birds flittering around the garden reminded me of the discarded grosbeak painting. I repainted him on a throne of ruby branches; releasing me from my aesthetic cage at last.
Early each summer frilled poppies, Papaver paeoniflorum, prance around my garden in peachy-magenta profusion; petals like hallucinogenic lava lamps. P paeoniflorum are a subspecies of Papaver somniferum, the opium and seed poppy. During the Bronze Age the Minoans on Crete cultivated the plant mainly for its nutritious seeds. They also made a mixture for crying babies from milk, honey and opium. As a first-time grandmother, I’m not as appalled as I should be.
Before garden centres, gardeners depended on cuttings and seeds passed along from their neighbours to expand their gardens. Rose Campion, in the mid ground of this painting, is a pass-along from Europe, and has been in the Americans since the 17th century. Mine arrived uninvited, a few years ago, and have become welcomed squatters in my garden. I used the tangle of Rose Campion to visually knit the background to the foreground in this painting. I am admittedly a sucker for the latest hybrid flowers with their other worldly contours and colour combinations, but then a pass-along drops by and brings me back to earth.
April 2020, I was recovering from a fall that broke a number of bones. The world had shut down a few weeks earlier due to the pandemic. My garden and the world appeared defeated. I felt defeated. But then I saw my Lenten Rose flowers rising bravely from the still cold earth amongst their winter shredded leaves. Perfect, fresh, alive. Hope returned with a gush and sent me to the studio to paint Covid Rose.
What a fall from grace: the orange ditch lily, Hemerocallis flava was once considered a subject for Chinese painters, a thousand years ago. Traders carried the plants along the silk routes of Asia to Europe, who passed the botanical baton to North America. During the late 1800s hybridization began, which continues today resulting in over 80,000 cultivars. Nova Scotia’s own Niki Jabbour, master gardener and author, has a hybrid named after her. But not this one, which is ‘Naughty Red’ or Autumn Red’ or….? Whatever the name, daylilies are a delight to grow and paint.
Not all apples are carefully bred by fruit scientists. Some result from chance seedlings. A picnic beside a brook on a sunny afternoon. Lovers share an apple and juicy kisses. The apple core is forgotten in grass flattened by their embrace. Winter covers all trace of romance. The seeds slip into muddy fissures and rest until warmth returns. Two seedlings sprout, grow into twin trees, producing fruit as sweet as a memory; and wait patiently for an artist to walk by during apple blossom time.
On bright winter days, I would take my mother to the Peggy’s Cove restaurant for gingerbread cake with lemon sauce. The vista of brilliant blue sea and sky was punctured by the sharp angles of the lighthouse. Softly rounded, white granite rocks, much like giant, huddled sheep encircled the scene. After glaciers melted 12,000 years ago, the rocks had been swept clean of soil and vegetation. Humus to support future plants soon gathered from debris blown in by the ever-present wind. During summer tiny irises bloom in protected crevices. So unexpected, they loom larger than the massive boulders around them. The goddess Iris delivers messages of love from heaven to earth. Where she steps down, irises bloom and I think of my dearest mom.
CICADAS LOVE SONG
Big Tancook Island Elementary School is one of the last remaining one-room schoolhouses in Canada. I had given a teacher friend a book about it; when she visited, we took the ferry to the island one late summer’s day. We stopped at the tiny school, painted turquoise, and went on our way to walk the island. With the sun hot on our backs, the quiet was broken by cicadas, high in the trees, singing their hearts out, looking for love.
I finally visited a sunflower maze last summer. Although the blooms did not tower above me, I felt decidedly outnumbered. Their trunk like stalks, huge cyclops faces, sandpapery leaves, let me know who was boss. I painted this field of helianthus during the storming of the White House, and president Trump’s final days in power. Day after day in my studio, as the news feasted on the mayhem, I fought with the sunflowers on my easel. Working from multiple photographs, I kept losing my place on the sunny battlefield of flowers. I have gained respect for sunflowers as subject matter. Better to walk among them and be lulled by the humming of bees.
BIEN DIA SEÑORA MARIPOSA*
I’ve been growing milkweed for years and receive more monarch butterfly visitors each season. The monarchs that visit my garden fly from Mexico, thus it’s fitting I greet them in Spanish. What pleasure it is to be on my knees in the soft earth while butterflies flit overhead, and take a seat on the sea urchin (echinos in Greek) cushion of an echinacea’s centre.
*Good Day Madame Butterfly
RAY OF HOPE
On a drive to Cape Breton Island, we passed a hill topped by a weather beaten shed. Below this humble structure, nature spread a vast quilt of mauves. Upon closer inspection, I saw that the plant was my garden’s arch nemesis, vetch. This perennial vine is a pioneer plant, being one of the first to colonize wasteland and is often found around abandoned homesites. All parts are edible, including the seeds, which are 25% protein. Vetch, like all pea plants, fixes nitrogen from the air and returns it to the soil. Instead of continuously applied chemical fertilizers, vetch, as a cover crop, is a ray of hope for increasing yields of the soil. With a taproot that descends a meter into the earth, vetch will outfox my weeding hands every year.
MARY’S GARDEN OF EDEN
Mary Saunders was born in the village of Chester in 1928. Mary’s great love of her life was her garden. She worked in it every day and when seasons prevented her from doing so, I suspect she dreamed about it. Mary is in a senior’s home now, her house, where she was born and raised, and eventually moved back into, was sold to non-gardeners. Wild plants have taken hold but one day the oriental poppies stood tall and I thought of Mary bent over weeding, head buried in her flowers.
September is Nova Scotians’ favourite summer month. Humidity has lifted, the days are warm, farm bounty fills farmer’s markets. Along the shore, a sweet melancholy stirs the collective soul, for beach parties and boat tie-ups are soon to end. The first hints of colour tint heavy maned maples. Between storms blowing up from the Caribbean, waters are languid and warm to trailing fingers.
BIRDS IN FLIGHT
When I visited the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens in the USA, I learnt that Magnolia x brooklynensis ‘Yellow Bird’, is a hybrid developed there. I planted a Yellow Bird and although only in its second season, my magnolia rewarded me with a flush of flowers as large as my hand, like many birds in flight. On the canvas they transformed from back yard flowers to exotic designs swirling around an ancient ceramic urn. The Brooklyn Gardens café is named Yellow Magnolia and the scones with clotted cream and preserves are divine.
CLEOPATRA’S LAST COCKTAIL
If arsenic is the king of poisons, aconite is the queen. Used as wolf bait in Europe, the plant is called wolfsbane. Germanic tribes, on the other hand, consumed it to transform themselves into werewolves through hallucinations. Some believe Cleopatra did not die from snakebite, rather, she consumed a cocktail of aconite, poison hemlock and opium poppy. As my garden’s grasses grow tawny and asters look up with their starry faces, the mysterious deep azure of autumn monkshood stands tall and lasts long, even as the occasional early snowflakes make their appearance. Flowers are powerful, complicated life forms that keep me on my toes.
Magnolia fossils date back 20 million years, are older than bees, therefore they are pollinated by beetles. Body builders of the flower kingdom, magnolias are beautiful examples of survival of the fittest. Across nations their longevity symbolizes endurance. Purple magnolias are believed to send out vibrations that help us achieve luck and health. Stick your head up into the branches of a blooming magnolia, stand very still, can you feel the vibrations?
SUMMER’S LAST HURRAH
This small public garden is cared for by the Chester Garden Club and is located on what was once the village dump. I regularly walk through it and admire the service the club does for the likes of me, the artist.
TURN YOUR CLOCKS BACK
Walking along Chester’s Front Harbour, I was enchanted by lemon-gold leaves clinging to the latticework of rosebushes’ bare stems. The light, soft and overcast, intensified the leaves’ colour. Across the cove, leafless trees were rendered in watercolour. I stood for a long time on the shore in admiration, then hurried on my way because daylight would soon be gone.
I almost painted over this painting, it vexed me so much. Painting on an elongated canvas was new for me. I loved the image of the tree roots reaching towards each other, but the painting just didn’t work for me. I laid out the canvas on a table ready to obliterate it with a coat of white. Then something inside me said paint the sky yellow. Now paint the rock-face purple. Now add blobs of orange. Sometimes paintings paint themselves.
BUMBLE BEE BUFFET
The two young men who mow my lawn pulled up. I went out to greet them and saw the most magnificent dandelion crop in years. Wait! Wait! I yelled at them, while I dropped into the grass and digitally captured these amazing flowers. After much eye rolling the men did the slaughter. Be assured I have many left overs for the bees in the rest of my garden.
In 2020 I fell down a steep slope and broke a few bones. The most serious being my elbow. The first painting I did after surgery was this. I was in a full arm cast and a moon boot. Hedges in Nova Scotia are unfortunately still created from spruce trees, because they are cheap and fast growing. Spruce trees, however, want to be eighty feet tall not eight. Owners move or pass away and the trees are set free. The result is a row of contortions caused by pruning a tree with a central leader, into a multi stemmed hedge. By the time this large painting was finished I had bonded with the trees’ twisted limbs, which I too carry to this day.
THE ILLUSIVE BEACH
This beach only exists at low tide. It’s barely noticeable and the entrance is marked by a row of garbage boxes. I love how the trees create a green bower, and speak to the wondrous northern summer. Like this beach summer is all too fleeting; but like this beach, it will return.
SUNDAY MORNING SLEEPING IN
The turquoise boat and its reflection are the inspiration for this painting. I don’t have many opportunities to use turquoise in the north, and when it naturally appears, I pounce. A quiet Sunday morning; only the crows were up, picking through the washed-up seaweed. I originally planned on adding the crows but once caught up in the water’s reflections I put off their black silhouettes for another painting.
Years ago, my husband and I were sitting on our wharf in Chester, enjoying the antics of a teenager repeatedly diving off the wharf next door. I stealthily snapped image after image not knowing what I was capturing, but hoped to paint the airborne freedom of the diving boy. In 2020 I had a solo exhibition called Dive Right In. Although nothing to do with actual diving, I retrieved the diver’s images and created this painting for the show.
I WILL BE HERE AFTER YOU HAVE GONE
I was purposefully looking for lupines to paint. Down a slope I saw a cluster and the lupine paparazzi I am, collected many images. Back in my studio, I noticed the tree perched above. A bit bedraggled, listing to one side by years of being buffeted by wind. I had walked right past the tree and not noticed it; I was so taken by the lupines. Their beauty is short lived then they age badly, flop over and become compost. The tree, on the other hand will stand tall for many years to come.
THERE IS LIFE IN US YET
I live in a century home that has remnants of heritage apple trees around it, which are the subjects of this painting. Last winter a tree fell over. Spring revealed many shoots sprouting from the trunk, which the deer love to nibble. Some of the roots remained in the soil and continued to nurture the tree. A reminder that until we breathe our last breath, we are very much alive.
This diminutive triptych was painted for a group show. All entries had to be eight inches square. After painting one daylily I enjoyed the experience so much that I painted another, and then another.
Each year I watch for where my annual poppies sprout. Their sage green foliage emerges and then slowly the science fiction buds appear upside down. They unfurl and split to reveal a flash of hot pink petticoat. The dance begins and the skirt like petals are swirled around in a floral cancan. Glimpses of purple bloomers bob in the breeze. After all that skirt shaking petals fall fast to reveal the seedpod. And that’s a whole other story.
SUNSET FOR OTTINA
There is a very small cove on Chester’s Back Harbour that is protected from wind, resulting in water reflections that make my artist’s mouth water. I lose myself in painting reflections because they are abstractions and my mind can drift away into a meditative state. When my son saw this painting, he asked me for it. I named it after his unborn daughter whom I have jokingly named Ottina – after my father, Otto.
A beloved area for walking and kayaking just outside of Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. I took my German cousins there for a languid summer walk. As usual I collected digital images for possible paintings. This scene was cluttered with boats and fishing gear. What held my interest was the design that Blue Rocks has so much of. The geometry of building block fish sheds, stripes of water, waves of wild plants. The pile of logs was bleached grey. What more can an artist ask of a place?
The iconic Nova Scotia beach fire. Faces glow pink, mosquitoes are slapped, bottles clink. Colours take on different hues as the light dims. Van Gogh’s night paintings continue to fascinate me and I wonder why I don’t paint more. I need to start walking at twilight.