I have had the opportunity to spend some extended time hiking and sketching, taking photos, and painting the Elfin Forest Reserve for the last few months. It is a beautiful place – the more I discover, the more fascinating it becomes.
The reason for my focusing on the reserve as an art project, was that I was invited to show my work there in the fall of 2010. My work was reviewed by a committee that included Lali Mitchel, Jeff Swenerton, Tim Costanzo, (who are on the Interpretive Center Committee in charge of the visitor center programs and art shows) and Jeff Anderson, the head ranger of the Olivenhain Municipal Water District who oversees the park grounds.
For some background on the Elfin Forest area and the interpretive center, I’ll quote Lali Mitchel, “The overarching theme of this building designed and engineered by James Hubbell and his architect son Drew Hubbell is the ecological interrelatedness. It is an off-the-grid green building; lectures and displays related to themes of art & nature, ecological awareness, and exploration of native habitat (flora and fauna– largely the scrub chaparral that covers the hillsides in our area and is considered part of the most diverse habitat in the world).” I found a charming story online of why it was named the Elfin Forest. Taken from the website www.efhgtc.org, “Elfin Forest is one of the terms used by naturalists to describe the vegetation which formerly covered much of Southern California…The Elfin Forest valley contains one of the largest areas of virgin coastal scrub in Southern California…In the 1940’s a fire burned a portion of Questhaven Retreat. The retreat’s founders, Flower and Lawrence Newhouse, invited the director of the Santa Barbara Botanical Gardens to visit Questhaven to help plan for its replanting. He described the characteristic growth of the area as “elfin forest”, a name describing a number of dwarf trees and shrubs mingled together to form a particular variety of chaparral: toyon berry, white and blue wild lilac, manzanita, sumac, lemonade berry, elderberry, mountain mahogany, scrub oak and many more. This combination was found in only three locations in southern California, he said, and the specimens at Questhaven were among the finest he’d ever seen.”
The first thing I did to prepare for my show at the interpretive center, was to take my two Golden Retrievers, Zuni and Sazi for walks there. There was a bittersweet timing to this. My beloved ten year old Zuni had just that week been diagnosed with inoperable heart cancer. Her doctor said she could collapse at any moment, but was basically comfortable and could go about her life gently until the end came. I learned what living in the moment really meant that week. She only lived 8 days from the diagnosis, but every waking moment was devoted to spending happy time and not letting my grief spoil the little remaining time we had. She loved to walk, so we headed to the Elfin Forest for her last three days. We stayed along the creek as we couldn’t do the strenuous hill trails, but it was idyllic. To be out in the morning mist, with the birdsong and gurgling creek, with Zuni and Sazi was incredible.
My style of painting is expressive, my painting scenes are based on emotion. I try to find the feeling and mood in the picture, not just what it looks like. In general I find nature inspires me to have deep feelings more than urban areas do. The feeling of being with just the dogs in a natural world is particularly appealing. We all enjoyed our time there. I was taking pictures of everything, sketching and noticing all the light and shadows dancing across the path, the swinging frozen dance of the trees and the twinkling light flashing off the creek. The girls were basking in the sun shapes between shadows, and splashing at the edge of the creek, rooting around and rolling. For that time, all was right with the world. On the third day of our morning walks, back at home and right at sunset, Zuni passed from our lives. In the days that followed I was filled with wonderful memories and pictures of her, but they just made me sad. I knew in time I would smile and feel happy in thinking of her, but right then the loss was too deep. I spent the next few months returning to the Elfin Forest to walk with Sazi. I’d feel better being there, it was always fulfilling. I felt part of a bigger place, and ideas would come to me fully formed of paintings. In the paintings I am doing of the Elfin Forest I’m trying to capture the sense of joy and the fleeting sense of time I felt during those last walks. We were able to be there because groups like the Escondido Creek conservancy have been working to preserve these areas. The fleeting sense of time I felt also had to do with these vanishing natural areas. What happens when they’re gone? Where will you go then to recharge, and walk through a natural setting and hear birds and creeks and the breeze? If this generation doesn’t pass along our love for nature, why would the next generation feel a need to preserve it? How would they even know what it’s like being in a setting like this? As an artist I love to notice the colors, shapes, textures and patterns that can be found there. I love the stream of thoughts that emerge connecting ideas and projects, problem solving and letting other unworkable problems go. Going for a walk in a forest is like shaking the dust out of an old blanket, and washing it clean and crisp, then wrapping it back around you and feeling the comfort of a fresh start, the promise of a new spring.
And so just as I watched the winter forest renew and cover itself in spring, life keeps moving forward too. We got a new puppy for Sazi. In her grieving for Zuni she was losing her playful character, Seeing that was like losing her too. Now I take our new Golden puppy, Yogi, and Sazi to the Elfin Forest. Yogi is learning to walk on a leash there, testing the creek, not quite ready to get in. Sazi is herself again, but also a new side of her is emerging. She is now the older dog showing the ropes, being patient and sharing toys and people with someone new. She has a very generous spirit, which she learned from Zuni, and one day Yogi will be the one handing it down to the next generation.
Part of the mission of the Interpretive center is to invite and educate the public to experience nature and art. I teach painting so I’m excited to be able to teach some workshops there. The rangers will carry the supplies and art class participants to a beautiful location, and then we’ll have a few hours to more deeply experience and preserve the natural world in a painting. Since my style is expressive I’m not trying to make the scene look fully realistic. I start with what it looks like and then move to what it feels like. I use color to express the emotional content of a painting, and the composition, brush strokes and texture all echo that mood. Painting is not just for artists, I encourage everyone to give it a try and see what happens. Using a style like Impressionism to build up color, I paint in layers. On the first layers, I use vivid color to speak to the inner life of nature that is beyond dirt brown and leaf green. I use opposites next to each other to create a depth of space, what the Abstract Expressionists called “push pull”. The colors that make neutrals like brown sing, are all the brilliant colors. The colors that make greens and blues come alive are their complements, the reds and oranges. When opposites are next to each other they create an interesting area to look at, or a focal point. Seeing these color combinations actually there in nature is an exciting revelation. Learning to add your feelings through color can be another way of relating to the scene before you, and seeing yourself as part of the bigger picture. I find that when I paint on location, usually on a trip, it solidifies that moment in my mind in a different way. When I look back at the painting, even if it’s years later, I can feel the sun and wind on my face again, and I’m right back there.
In order to get a feel for the immensity and diversity of the Elfin Forest, I went on a tour with Jeff Anderson, the head ranger of the Olivenhain Municipal Water District, which oversees the new Olivenhain dam. It was a great day, sunny with a coastal condition blowing in, which gave some character to the sky. I took tons of pictures of trails, chaparral, mountains, and the lake created by the new dam. Truly amazing views from up there of Escondido, mountains in the distance, Carlsbad down to the ocean. I went in spring, when the Yucca were blooming, bunches of little flowers, colorful bushes, the wild lilacs were fat with purple, and all the hills were furry with green spring. I keep going back and seeing the changes. Like an exciting story, I want to know – what happens next? In the winter it was misty mornings burning off into soft sunny days or rainy drama. The spring started cool but will soon turn sunny and sharp, and the green hillsides will crisp into summer. And what will the fall hold? Will the abundance of growth this spring feed a wildfire? Exactly how BIG is Yogi going to get? And so life and nature keep growing, writing the next page, painting another layer of meaning.
Cathy Carey will be teaching outdoor expressive painting workshops at the Elfin Forest. All supplies will be included, All skill levels will be addressed individually. For dates and times check her website at www.artstudiosandiego.com. Or email your interest in a workshop to firstname.lastname@example.org.