Thursday, February 16, 2017

Sketching in the Food Forest

My nature journal entry after my visit. 
Click on images to view larger.
The class
Tuesday I had the opportunity to be with a group of Professor Mary Voytek’s Environmental Art students as we scattered throughout the Food Forest at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers. Sketching plein air in a nature journal is one of their assignments for the course, but what I saw from their work went beyond mere obligation. I was inspired by the deep observations made as they struggled to translate a moving forest of color and light and shape onto a two-dimensional rectangle of white paper. Some captured small bits of landscape while most focused on a smaller detail or a plant portrait.

 Making art
One of the things I always find fascinating is the way different artists translate the same subject. We each see the world through a different lens, informed by our interests and experiences. The story we record on paper is our story: our relationship and reaction to our subject. For instance, several students drew in the banana tree area. Some were caught by the torn and fluttering flags of the leaves, some by the structures of the entire tree, some by the contours of a close-up leaf. Each was unique, each a different story, each wonderful in itself.

And drawing and painting en plein air is a struggle, no matter how experienced you are. In the classroom or studio, we are surrounded by an environment we control to some extent. Outside, we are subject to all of our senses, to weather, temperature, other people, insects, and animals, noises from natural and manufactured sources. Our light source changes as the sun moves. Air currents lift and drop delicate leaves and branches. All of these serve as the backdrop of the story we tell with marks on our pages.

Red mulberry tree is native to Florida; its story
is linked with humans over centuries.
That particular story has deep roots. Back to the human who interacted with plants and some form of medium – a cave wall? A piece of blackened carbon? Is this plant good to eat? Does it help with pain in the head? With healing? Our entire food and pharmaceutical chain is founded on plant life. Humans have shared information on the plants good for food, shelter, healing, and making tools. When we put pencil or brush to paper, that action connects us to all those who came before, who recorded their story of the plants around them.

Shaded paths circle and criss-cross for access to all parts.
The garden 
In the Food Forest, it is easy to imagine that scenario. It is indeed a forest, not a traditional garden with plants in regimented rows. Tropical fruit and nut trees shade paths that wind through herbs and shrubs. Most of the plants yield edible parts, while some are there to entice pollinators. Tomatoes and other vegetables grow in sunny spots, there are fruit and flowers on several mulberry trees, and the bananas have finished flowering, stalks of miniature fruit on their way to becoming edible adults. Splashes of yellow, blue, and red signal flowers of pigeon pea and papaya, blue porterweed and Cuban oregano, Turk’s cap and tropical sage.

With permission, I brought home some things to sample and sketch – a perfect way to extend my visit! And to remember the participants and their wonderful artwork, their stories told with pictures. These are the people who are changing our future. It was a student who first conceived of the Food Forest, and students who maintain and plant, harvest and educate. How exciting to think of the new and ancient paths they are making and taking! I appreciate being part of this as a guest speaker and artist, even for the short time I shared with them. Thank you, everyone.

Read more about FGCU’s Food Forest on their website (also created and maintained by students): 

And learn about the day-to-day plants and activities on their Facebook page: 

 Strathmore Visual Journal sketchbook, 
140 lb. watercolor cold-press, 5.5 x 8 inches .
7 mm mechanical pencil 
Mondeluz watercolor pencils Niji waterbrush M