Friday, August 28, 2015

The Transformative Cliche

Great Blue Heron in Tree, Red-tailed Hawk and Ruby-throated Hummingbird at Honeysuckle. Sumi Brush Pen Field Sketch by Ken Januski.

I want to nudge the birdwatcher into a wide-eyed frame of mind, and to be open to ways of watching which will greatly enhance the time they spend looking at birds. It takes a while to unscramble the filters that our brain puts on everything we look at. When we do, we experience moments to savour that carry with them evocations of time and place that can transform our bird watching into poetry.
John Busby, LOOKING AT BIRDS: An antidote to Field Guides.

I was struck by this quote from the late John Busby as I leafed through the first few pages of his latest book, in particular the part about transforming bird watching into poetry. I guess I would also say it is about transforming sketching into visual poetry. It is much more than just getting the details right.

I hate to use the word transform since it seems to be one of the great clich├ęs of the last few years. We have transformative politicians, transformative technology, etc., etc. Only time will tell just how transformative anything really is. Remember the New Economy?

But when I read this small section about transforming bird watching into poetry it made perfect sense to me. There is a way of looking at the experience of birding that can be much more than just a tick on a list. Pete Dunne wrote the same thing recently by saying that he was not a lister. And then the bulk of the article was about his own personal list of interesting experiences he's had while birding.  His list is called a journal.

What I think both Busby and Dunne are getting at is that capturing the actual experience, especially when it is more than just finding a bird you haven't seen before, can be memorable. And your personal connection to it can change it into poetry or its visual equivalent, art.

Juvenile American Robin with Grasshopper. Sumi Brush Pen and Watercolor Sketch by Ken Januski.

I had also been thinking about this because of my recent field sketches. For some reason I just haven't felt like trying to get down the details, even in the abbreviated manner of 'getting down the details' that I use. Instead I keep going for very quick sumi brush pen sketches. Everything portrayed here was either done in the field or when I got home from my memory of something I'd seen. None of these rely on photos or guide books. AND it shows! No doubt about it. What in the world is in the mouth of the Robin above?

This was an interesting experience because I saw something moving low along the ground today along the Manayunk Canal. It was so low and seemed to be moving in such a straight direction that I assumed I'd eventually find a rabbit or some other 4-legged animal. Instead I found a juvenile American Robin, poking at a large grasshopper. I guess he was following him along the ground and thus looked more reminiscent of a rabbit than a bird. In any case I just tried to remember what the grasshopper looked like, not that I really saw it well, and it has turned out as somewhat of a mess.

But that's not all that important. What is important is that I've gotten down the experience. It was enjoyable in itself and it also, now that I've visualized it on paper, might prompt me to do a more developed painting or drawing. Though I enjoy more realistic field sketches I find that they rarely lead to other work for me. I'm sure that I incorporate the knowledge gained in some way. But they rarely lead to a painting or print. They are learning  experiences, but they are learning about what something looks like and how to represent that on paper.

They are not about creating poetry. The final sumi brush pen sketches below are a bit more interested in getting down what I saw, for instance the shape of the black facial marking on a Sora. But by using the sumi  brush pen I can't be very realistic. This shows up even more I think in the Tri-colored Heron. It is almost nothing. And yet it does, at least for me, capture what I saw. It also has enough freshness to it that it might spark my interest in doing something more developed from it.

Sora, Tricolored Heron, Acadian Flycatcher. Sumi Brush Pen and Watercolor Field Sketch by Ken Januski.
I have conflated two ideas here, John Busby's notion of another more rewarding way of birding, and my own sumi brush pen drawings from life or memory. But I think that they are closely tied together. And I'd encourage any birder to read his last book. It is very simple but also very fresh.

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