Enter the Exploritorium

New to Backwoods and Beyond:

The Exploritorium–A process journal for my year long alternative printing project.  


Several years ago I did a workshop with Eileen Rafferty and Elizabeth Stone on Alternative Processes where I was introduced to a smorgasbord of photographic printing techniques, including the historic processes of cyanotypes and VanDukes, and more modern possibilities, ranging from image transferring to encaustic.  I was immediately hooked.  The possibility of integrating the subject with the style of presentation opened up a whole new world of exploration for me and I loved the idea of hand crafting unique pieces of art.  Over the next few years I continued my explorations in a number of workshops put on by the Photographers Formulary with such extraordinary teachers as Kerick Kouklis, Dan Burkholder, and Christina Z. Anderson.

This next year I am embarking on a project using salt printing and gum dichromate processes with a portfolio of Yellowstone photographs taken over the years in the wintertime.  Visiting Yellowstone in the winter makes one feel as if you have stepped back in time, so one of the earliest processes–salt printing, will express that historic feeling and combining it with gum dichromate, the earliest color process, will emphasize the unexpected rainbow of colors created by the hot springs.  I am hoping to share my process in this journal as I work over the next  months.


The last two weeks in Missoula have been unrelentingly cold with inversions trapping the valleys under a veil of dismal grey.  For many people this has been trying–particularly since we are all breathlessly waiting for snow and the beginning of ski season.  But the photographer in me has been rejoicing because the fact that the daytime temperatures never rise above the mid-20s means that the pond and riverbank have been an ever-changing landscape of ice.  The fascinating forms captured by the freezing water are artworks far surpassing what my own imagination could ever conjure up.  

In a workshop at the Photographer’s Formulary with Dan Burkholder, I learned how to use precious metal leafing techniques with prints made on translucent velum.  This creates a modern take on the famous orotones done by Edward S. Curtis in the 19th century west.  

This technique is wonderfully suited to my series of icescapes. A selection of these silver leafed prints are in the current show at the Dana Gallery in Missoula, MT.


The Call of the Wild

“Talk of mysteries—Think of our life in nature,–daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it,–rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! The solid earth! The actual world! The common sense! Contact! Contact! Who are we? Where are we?                                                                                                                           H.D. Thoreau

The day after Thanksgiving. Sitting amidst my family last night, I had a sudden realization. I am no longer the center of anyone else’s life. My children grown, my parents gone, and Ted and I both, freed from the focus of raising kids have spun out from the center of family and are each pursuing our own questions and passions. What does this mean, to be freed from that kind of responsibility?The day after Thanksgiving. Sitting amidst my family last night, I had a sudden realization. I am no longer the center of anyone else’s life. My children grown, my parents gone, and Ted and I both, freed from the focus of raising kids have spun out from the center of family and are each pursuing our own questions and passions. What does this mean, to be freed from that kind of responsibility?

I look up from my list of have tos and must dos and watch what’s happening out the window. The antics of a squirrel as it leaps from the bouncing wand of the thinnest branch tips to the birdfeeder. Then a doe, unexpected in my garden, chewing the remains of the cabbage. A glance out the kitchen window reveals the two rabbits that have taken up residence in our mower shed, grazing on the still green grass. One is a deer brown, streaked and splotched with black, giving it a certain derelict air. The other a russet beauty with black tipped ears. With the relentless chores pulling at me to get something accomplished, I almost turn my back on these calls from the wild—but no—not this time.

I don boots and jacket and head to the backwoods. Rather than take my usual circuit, starting with the pond, I wind around the other way, following the rusty, tawny path of leaf litter. A red-tail circles overhead, checking me out. I watch his loops and dives and something flutters to my feet—a long thin feather striped cream and umber.

I make my way into the cushiony moss meadow, which I sometimes refer to as the dying place, since there have been several deer carcasses, and mounds of dove feathers from the hawk’s successful hunts. And yes, gleaming white against the incongruously spring green moss is the jawbone of faun.

Looking toward the river my eye is caught by the sun gold light shimmering on the hills through the cottonwood trunks, pressed between the steely blue of the far mountains and the river. With my eyes fixed on those two colors that speak November, I don’t notice the tips of the antlers sticking above the dry grass not 20’ in front of me. Not until the buck jerks awake, clearly as startled by my presence as I am by his. He rises, stands for just a moment before gracefully leaping the fence. He looks back at me as if to say, “Don’t you wish you could do that?” and then saunters away, secure in the knowledge I can’t.

The hawk circles overhead again. By the time I push my way through the willows to the water, the buck is nowhere to be seen. A heron startles off the bank across the water, it’s pterodactyl form outlined against the pinkening clouds

I find a perfect oval wishing rock, bigger than my palm, with a wide white band of quartz encircling it. As I am contemplating what to wish for, a splash erupts from the river right in front of me. Confused, I glance up to see the ring of water spreading from the center toward the spit where I stand. I look back down at my hand, which still holds the wishing rock. I scan the riverbank looking for someone else, but I am alone.

And then, downstream a small dark brown nose pops out of the water, then a little round head, a V of wake streaming behind. It must hear my delighted gasp, because its body humps up out current and its tail whacks the water , making another resounding splash as it dives below the surface. Walking downriver I watch as it rises and slaps, each time getting more distant until I can no longer see or hear it.

I could however hear the cacophonous sound of a huge flock of geese, doing their calligraphic flight formations, long stings of them flying back and forth, as if stitching the clouds together into a story.

This. This is what I want. This time to “daily be shown matter, to come in contact with it,–rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks!” Time to answer the call of the wild, and to stitch my experiences together with writing and photography.

I grasp the wishing rock in my hand, but instead of a wish, I whisper a commitment to myself. To take the freedom I now have from being the center of other people’s lives, and to become the center of my own life. To make my art, not something I do only in stolen moments, but the real focus of everything.

I throw the wishing rock far out to the center of the current and watch as it creates silvery rings which spread in all directions.

Plein Air Writing

Last month the Dana Gallery in Missoula held their annual Paintout.  Several local writers were invited to accompany the artists into the field and write in response to the scene.  I was fortunate to join Robert Moore in the Lavelle Creek valley.  The paintings and writings are on display at the gallery through August.





Word Painting 

Begin with an underpainting. Great gravelly shores of a lake tens of thousands of years gone. Dusky grey with thin soils that lie heaped to the horizon line. Begin to sketch in the grasses whose network of roots hold that soil from gathering up into the winds that rake this slope.

Pull the individual stems from the plain brown hillside. Mix words on your palette to give definition to those grasses. Timothy and fescue, tawney and ecru, tufted hairgrass and sedge, raffia and buff. Struggle to give the right shape to your words so feathery seed heads come alive and dance on the page as they are shimmying now in the breeze. Look closer and see the greens that are woven into the tapestry. Sagey lupine heavy with furred pods and dusty verdigris balsam root drying in the searing sun. Try to capture the rustle of leaves and stems as some unseen creature darts among the safe cover of grasses, while overhead a feathered form sails across the clear blue sky.

Upslope, the burnt umber shadow of the single pine pools from its base and crawls uphill. How to render the ponderosa? Not spired like spruce or leggy like lodgepole. Words must spread in great boles and boughs, tufted with long needles. Pull the vanilla scent from the puzzled bark onto the page. Try to find the right values for your words. Suddenly the rock nestled at the foot of the ponderosa resolves itself into the hunched form of a wild turkey, escaping the midday sun.

Let the image of the turkey pull you into your own cool shade. Hunker yourself into the shadow of the serviceberry bush that softens the roadcut where you sit, dabbing letter into word into image.

You read the scene you have painted on the page. You like the way the colors mix and blend, the shading that has given it depth, and pulled you into the picture.

A branch dangles just above your eyes, heavy with small hard berries. Know they will ripen with time into something that will nourish you, the way all this foliage is transforming sunlight into life.

Bone Spirits


Basho, the 15th century Japanese Haiku artist’s first journal begins:

bleached bones

on my mind, the wind pierces

my body to the heart


Our bones not only give structure to our bodies and permit movement, they contain our very life blood. Bone marrow produces more than a trillion red blood cells every day.

Throughout history bones have been sacred in many cultures. They are venerated, used in rituals and divination. There was a belief in 16th century Europe that bones revealed the relative nature of things, and the hidden affinities between all living creatures. The Chinese congi for bones also means deep truth.

Bones tell the stories of the lives they once supported.

And for many cultures, they contain the spirit of the dead and can therefore be reanimated. This belief was especially common among people in northern Eurasia, as well as parts of Asia and can also be found in the myths of Germany, Africa, South America, Oceania and Australia as well as ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia.

I often come upon bones on my rambles through the woods and it always inspires a deep sense of curiosity of wonder. Who was this? How did they die? How did they live? Piecing these scattering of bones together, they come alive again in my imagination. Examined closely and isolated, it’s as if the individual bones, with their vast array of shapes and textures come to life under the eye of my camera as well.

My Bone Spirits are part of my show currently on display at The Montana Natural History Center through the end of March.


Cabinets of Curiosity

Wunderkammer (Cabinet of Wonders)

Modern day museums evolved from the Cabinets of Curiosity that originated as far back as the 1500’s and reached their peak of popularity in the Victorian Era. They were collections of extraordinary objects that categorized and told stories about the wonders and oddities of the natural world.

I have always been a collector. As Georgia O’Keefe said, “ I have picked flowers where I found them—have picked up sea shells and rocks and pieces of wood …When I found the beautiful white bones on the desert I picked them up and took them home too…I have used these things to say what is to me the wideness and wonder of the world as I live in it.”

Working in the Morton J. Elrod Collection at the University of Montana I had the rare opportunity to work with specimens that dated back to Elrod’s original collections.  At the same time I was reading George Dennison’s biography of Elrod and his scientific curiosity and sense of wonder in nature became a part of my own vision.  I hope the three curiosity cabinets I created from my experiences as Artist in Residence at the Montana Natural History Center inspire that same sense of wonder in you.


Articulating a Story

Leslie Marmon Silko’s story Skeleton Fixer has been the guiding myth through my career as a writer, photographer and book artist. Gathering ideas, experiences and insights I strive to fit them all together to tell a story, a story that may intrigue, inspire and resonate with my “readers.”


Haunted by Owls

Last January I came across an owl that had just been hit by a car. I brought it to the museum at the University and was thrilled when Libby Beckman, the curator allowed me to be present as she prepared it as a speciman. Before she began she carefully checked it for molting, then separated the feathers on its abdomen to find the patch of bare skin where birds use their body heat to incubate their eggs. Opening up the owl’s stomach we discovered the half digested remains of a dove, whose own stomach contained the seeds it had just eaten. Removing the eye, I was amazed to see the long bony tube that encased it which protects the long rods they use to see in the dark.

Swan Song

The articulation of bones to create a skeleton has always held a fascination for me, so I was very excited when I had the opportunity to watch Larry DePute work on the trumpeter swan. The first time I met Larry he was making a magic wand from a bone for a baby shower, and I knew I had found a soul mate. Seeing the hollow structure of the bones that allows these birds such grace in flight and looking into the elliptical curve of it’s windpipe that gives it it’s distinctive call was a revelation.

All are on view at the Montana Natural History Center, along with my Bone Spirit series through the end of March.

Artist in Residence

This winter I had the incredible opportunity to be the Artist in Residence at the Montana Natural History Center.   It was truly an adventure in curiosity and wonder. The collections, both at the center and at the Philip L. Wright Zoological Museum at the University of Montana opened up the natural world in new ways, with the diversity and complexity of the life contained in those cabinets and boxes

Being able to hold specimens in my hand was a completely different experience from glimpsing the creatures in the wild, or reading about them in books. It filled me with a sense of discovery. I could slip my finger into the razor sharp talon grip of an owl, see the way the edge of their wing feathers formed to allow for their silent flight, be surprised by the fine fur like feathering of their legs, or how their chest feathers parted to reveal bare skin where their body heat could warm their eggs. The sense of discovery was very different from learning “about” something. And I made those discoveries because I could spend time with the specimens and allow them to slowly reveal their secrets.

These natural history collections are a tangible accumulation of generations of scientists and naturalists working and interacting with the world. I was able to hold a finch specimen from 1898 , some of the bones I worked with had been donated decades ago by Gene Miller, my hiking buddy.   Seeing those skeletons revealed another time in his life long before I knew him and connected us on another level by our shared fascination with natural history.

Drawer after drawer revealed it’s wonders and excited and inspired my imagination. They challenged me to capture those feelings in my photography. In 1833, on a visit to the Cabinet of Natural History in the Garden of Plants in Paris, Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Here we are impressed with the inexhaustible riches of nature. The universe is a more amazing puzzle than ever, as you glance along this bewildering series of animated forms…the upheaving principle of life everywhere incipient, in the very rock aping organized forms…I feel the centipede in me, –cayman, carp, eagle, and fox. I am moved by strange sympathies; I say continually ‘I will be a naturalist.’”

Curiosity and Wonder

For the month of March the results of my artistic explorations will be on display at the Montana Natural History Center, 120 Hickory Street, Suite A, Missoula.


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