Monday, December 27, 2010

Sheep Pellets of Wisdom: The Year in Review

Well, here we are nearing the end of another year. Although I am looking forward to what the New Year might bring, like most people I can’t help but cast a glance backward over the old year now drawing to a close. On our farm, 2010 was a pretty good year. We had a number of successes: a healthy little crop of lambs which sold easily, many bags of beautiful fleeces, a freezer full of fat roosters and Guinea fowl, and a wonderfully productive vegetable garden with some of the most beautiful tomatoes I have ever grown. In the failures column, we had no zucchini, inedible pole beans, edible but strangely deformed pumpkins, some trouble with pasture parasites, and a favourite wether had to be euthanized. We got some things right and we got some things wrong. Where the sheep were concerned, 2010 was a year of learning from mistakes made the previous year and, no doubt, making new mistakes- ones which I am sure are bound to reveal themselves in due course. But that’s for next year. For now, here are the top twenty things I learned about sheep in 2010.

20. From the point of view of the sheep, there is no such thing as too many windfall apples.

19. From the point of view of the shepherd, “too many” windfall apples is approximately one half bushel less than the amount required to cause gastro-intestinal upset in sheep.

18. The friendliest, most persistently affectionate animal known to humanity is a 200 lb wether with diarrhoea .

17. Don’t de-worm sheep on a day when it is cold and wet unless you also would like to be cold and wet.

16. Delphinium: It’s sheep Latin for “Poison? No! Eat me, I taste like candy!”

15. If it is thirty degrees and mid-July, and the renderer says he will be coming on Wednesday to pick up a dead sheep, he really means Friday. If it is minus thirty degrees and mid-January, when he says Wednesday, he means Wednesday.

14. Under no circumstances ever tell your dinner guests what is under that tarp outside the barn. If anyone asks what it is, just say, “Stuff”.

13. Sheep who turn their noses up at slightly coarse hay will, in the very next instant, eat their straw bedding.

12. Sheep are untroubled by such concepts as irony or logical consistency.

11. The first time your ewes lamb, your whole family comes out to the barn with you in the middle of the night to make videos or take pictures or to otherwise be a witness to the miracle of birth. Lambing the second time around, when you complain to your husband about having to go out to the barn at two am, he says, “Well, you were the one who wanted sheep,” then rolls over and goes back to sleep.

10. To a lamb, everything looks like an udder except an udder.

9. Ewes can’t count.

8. When given a choice between running through a gate to rejoin its mother and running headlong into a fence, nine times out of ten a lamb will choose to run into the fence.

7. A fat lamb will always find a way to get into the creep feeder. Getting out is another matter.

6. The first time you take your lambs to the butcher, you cry in the truck during the drive to the slaughter house. The second time, you plan the menu.

5. The most agile animal on the planet is not a gazelle, a cat or a squirrel. It is an overweight seven year old Border Leicester ram who does not wish to have his feet trimmed.

4. If your sheep are standing outside in driving rain when they could be inside, one of two things has occurred: either a) the doorway to the barn is currently occupied by a flock of bad tempered Muscovy ducks or, b) one of Dumb Dora’s offspring is in the barn, racing around with a bucket stuck on its head.

3. A long wool sheep with an itch is a force of nature.

2. The number of times a person is willing to replace, repair, or re-position automatic waterers which have been ripped off the wall by itchy sheep before one gives up on automatic waterers and goes back to using buckets is: six.

1. To look out at your pasture in the spring and see it clothed with healthy ewes and playful lambs is possibly the best feeling in the world.

Photo by the artist

Monday, December 13, 2010

Eric's New Coat

For inexplicable reasons, I have recently developed a fondness for images of dogs wearing doggie coats. There is something about the way they look, the expression on their faces, that strikes me as funny. So when I saw a photo of a friend's dog all decked out in his new threads, well, I just couldn't resist, could I?

Eric's New Coat - 9x12, painted paper collage on panel ©2010 Alyson Champ

Eric, whose official title is Eric the Perfect Dog, is a rescued greyhound. He belongs to Dr. Cathy Gallivan, who is an animal geneticist, and who is also the owner and editor of Sheep Canada Magazine. Sheep Canada, you will recall, is the quarterly magazine to which I contribute a humour column derived mainly from the sheep related contents of this blog.

Cathy and I met kind of by accident when I was looking for ways to get my sheep art out to the public, and strange as the world is, it turned out that we had friends in common. Funny how that happens.

Out of this nascent friendship, we have formed a business partnership and this year have produced a line of Sheep Canada Christmas cards which feature my sheep collages on the front.

I wanted to make an artistic holiday arrangement of the cards in order to show them off to their advantage, but as you can see, my studio assistant Tabitha had other ideas. Here are the images:

Winter Julius - 5x7 card, printed on glossy card stock, with envelope, $3 each

Gerry - 5x7 card printed on glossy card stock, with envelope, $3 each

Celeste - 5x7 card printed on glossy card stock, $3 each

Bazoo - 5x7 card on glossy card stock, $3 each

The Sheep Canada logo is the back of each card, along with my contact information. The interior of the cards is blank.

The cards are available from me or from Sheep Canada -see the link above. The cards are sold individually or in packets of eight for $20 CAD, plus shipping. I will accept U.S. money orders and cheques at par.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Can I Get There from Here?

As I wrote in my previous blog post, my studio is finally more or less finished, and every Saturday afternoon for the past month I have been teaching an Intro to Acrylics class to an absolutely terrific group of talented and enthusiastic women who have decided to throw caution to the wind and learn to paint.

Starting a painting is often intimidating, and not just for beginners, but for more experienced artists as well. A blank canvas is a scary thing- so much possibility, not only for success, but also for failure. How do you start?

When I was an art student, I can remember some of the most useful and instructive classes I ever attended were those where the teacher did a painting demonstration for the class. Not only were you told what to do and when, but you were actually shown how to do it. That really de-mystified the process for me. I once watched a teacher in a figure painting class paint a 24x20 inch nude portrait of a model, alla prima style, in just under three hours. He showed us how to make a basic drawing on the canvas to establish proportions. We watched him block in the major areas of the painting, watched him lay down shadows, make choices for colour and value, gradually developing the whole image, until the end when we saw him paint in the brightest highlights in the woman's hazel eyes and on the tip of her nose.

And then we watched him scrape the whole thing off with a knife when he was done.

He didn't destroy the portrait because it was a bad painting, but because it was just a painting, a job, a process, made simple for him because he knew what he was doing. He was capable of reproducing the same steps over and over again, with consistent results.

What's on the easel

That type of demonstration was what I had in mind last week during the Saturday acrylics class. Unfortunately, I am a slow worker and I talk too much in class, so I didn't quite get the painting finished during class time.

Anna-Maria's Garden- 12x16 pencil drawing

When the composition is complicated, I like to work things out on paper first. This saves me a whole lot of headache later on. It's so much easier to correct problems on paper first, rather than trying to fix things on the canvas later. I transferred the drawing onto the canvas by simply putting some charcoal on the back of the paper, placing the drawing over the top on the canvas, and then retracing the basic outlines again with a pencil. When I removed the paper, a simple charcoal outline is left on the canvas, which I then secure by painting over it with diluted, earth toned paint. (Sorry, I forgot to document that stage.)

Anna-Maria's Garden - blocked in

Next, I try to establish the most important shape areas, colours, and shadows. It helps me to have a sense of where the painting is going in its entirety. I keep the paint fairly thin in order to avoid unpleasant lumps and visible brushwork where I perhaps don't want them.

Anna-Maria's Garden - the middle uglies

The middle phase of any painting is usually the worst part. This is where the tough decisions get made. I can see that some of the perspective is wrong and that the busy colours and brush work on the barn wood and the roof is too distracting for its place in the composition. It doesn't recede enough, and since I want the flowers to dominate, I can see I'll have to tone that part down and reserve the colour and detail for the flowers in order to achieve maximum impact.

Anna-Maria's Garden - 12x16, acrylic on canvas ©2010 Alyson Champ

I put a little more time in on this canvas and it feels pretty much finished. There may still be a few wrinkles to iron out, but I'm fairly pleased with it. The art class can critique it on Saturday!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Spaced Out

I've been dreaming about having a proper studio for a long time, so when my husband and I were looking at properties a few years back, one of the requirements I had for a place to live was that there also had to be adequate work space for me.
We bought the Funny Farm in part for its beautiful garage- yes, I know most people are hooked on kitchens and bathrooms. The kitchen and bathrooms in this house were great, too. But it was that 15 by 30 foot garage with a north facing wall, already wired AND with running water that really sold me on the place. No more tiny spare bedrooms or poorly lit basement studios for me! All the garage needed was insulation, some new windows, finished walls and a floor, and it would be a perfect studio. I could so easily imagine myself working away in my own little haven, teaching classes comfortably. I would finally be able to use my big French easel, get a drafting table! I would be so productive! Oh the possibilities! It's a good thing I have an imagination, because imagining my perfect studio was pretty much as far as it got. For three years the studio remained unfinished.
Since moving here, I have been working in a small upstairs bedroom, where the glare is so terrible I have to contort myself to see what is on my easel. When I started making collages, I found I needed even more room to spread out, so I shifted some of my work space to the ground floor, into the room where I teach music, a space where I also wound up teaching art classes. Once in a while, my art has taken over the kitchen when I needed extra room to paint, or to build a box to ship artwork, or to pack something. Even the living room wasn't immune, as I sometimes went in there to work on drawings. Forget the problems of urban sprawl. In our house the problem was definitely one of art sprawl: easels everywhere, paintings and collages stacked up against the walls, empty frames, boxes of art supplies, packing materials and two separate studio spaces, both woefully inadequate. Fortunately this house hasn't got much of a basement, or I surely would have found myself down there as well.

Lucky for me, my wait for a studio is now almost over. My kindhearted husband, who is a carpenter and a masterful maker of fine furniture, was able to find the time to get the studio almost finished- finished enough to make it a usable space, and for the past three weeks I have been able to work in it and teach in it.
Funny farm studio from the front. Photo by the artist.

You can't imagine the happiness I feel whenever I open the door and see all that space, the perfect light, the beautiful north facing window, the peace and quiet ...

Studio interior. Photo by the artist.

OK, the walls aren't finished and the sink drains into a bucket, but still....

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Out of Commission




Dori (oil) © Alyson Champ

I had one of those moments recently where I was reminded of why I rarely do commissioned work: it's a pain in the neck. I didn't always have that opinion, though. For years commissions formed the main part of my artistic income, my bread and butter, so to speak.

When I spent most of my creative energy producing equine paintings, not only did I accept commissions, I eagerly sought them out. I traveled to horse farms, training facilities, and race tracks. I met all kinds of people- some real characters,too- and got a first hand look at the "back side" of horse racing in all its weird, distasteful, beautiful, hard working, corrupt, and somewhat faded, glory - something most people never get to see.


Fier-a-bras (oil) © Alyson Champ

So why did I give it up? Well, for one thing, the market basically bottomed out. The race track in Montreal closed and a lot of the people who were in the business either got out of racing entirely or pulled up stakes and moved elsewhere. There was also the question of my stifled creativity and restricted artistic growth. When you spend all your time working according to the specifications of other people, you don't really get to grow much as an artist. Commissioned work very seldom allows you the opportunity to experiment or take chances. He who pays the piper, gets to call the tune, and after a while, dancing to someone else's tune gets a little boring.
Then there is the Human Factor: you have to handle other people's egos, their unrealistic expectations, their sentimental attachments, and in the case of the very rich and very busy (mostly) businessmen/racehorse owners, you also have to also have to work around their crazy schedules.
I don't mean to suggest that doing commissioned work was a completely negative experience, on the contrary! It taught me the two most important rules for an artist: 1) Always Have a Written Contract, and 2) Always Get a Nonrefundable Kill Fee of 30 % Upfront. It also taught me how to say no to jobs I knew just wouldn't work out, how to humour difficult people, and how to distance myself from my work so that I didn't take criticism personally. And if I hadn't danced to the tunes of others, I would have been deprived of such learning experiences as:

- Being commissioned to produce a double portrait of a teenage girl and her horse only to have the 'girl' part of the portrait proclaimed unacceptable by the unpleasant mother because the LIKENESS WAS TOO GOOD! The girl had a rather prominent nose, which I had faithfully reproduced. The horse part of the portrait was deemed adequate and they eventually settled on the horse alone.

-Receiving photos in the mail of an aged brood mare and being asked to paint a portrait of the horse, but would I please: straighten the animal's back, lift the sagging belly, remove a scar on the neck, flesh out the neck a little more, make the eyes more youthful, fill out the mane, and not include all the ear hair. I should have asked them if they would perhaps have preferred that I paint a different horse entirely.

-Being handed a handful of blurry, underexposed, distorted snapshots of a standardbred in a stall, and being asked to immortalize an animal I could barely see.

-Having to do a photo shoot of a racehorse outdoors in a snowstorm because the trainer was only available that one day. The owners wanted a summer scene.

-Delivering a completed racing portrait to an owner only to have him look at it and say, "But that's the wrong horse." Whereupon ensued a rather heated cell phone conversation between the owner and the trainer in which the owner said, "Bay? What the hell is bay?!"

-Being paid by an owner in cash,in thousand dollar bills, from a desk drawer stuffed with money, the provenance of which I dared not ponder. Fortunately he didn't want change, either.

-Being sent to the wrong address and ending up at a sort of abandoned looking horse farm, only to find myself alone and surrounded by Rottweilers.

-Arriving at a training facility to photograph a stallion worth a couple of million dollars, and being told by the trainer that they were too busy to deal with me, at which point he handed me a towel and a bucket full of brushes and said, "Go put him in cross ties and groom him yourself." So I did.


Idole (oil) © Alyson Champ

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Dog Who Could Have Been

We first met Bella, a lovely smooth coat Jack Russell terrier, in our veterinarian's office during one of our many visits with our poor, chronically ill, miniature schnauzer, Cleo. My daughter instantly fell in love with Bella and, as luck would have it, Bella fell in love with my daughter. Whenever we had to make a visit to the veterinary clinic, we had to pay a visit to Bella too, as the clinic kennel was Bella's home away from home. She was (and is) one of Dr. Bill's own dogs. And last summer, for a very brief time, she was also ours.

Cleo was my daughter's special dog, and unfortunately she was a dog with myriad health problems. We knew that her life would be cut short, and sure enough last spring, just past her ninth birthday, Cleo had to be euthanised. Her death left a gap in our little pack and a hole our affections.

We had often joked with Dr. Bill that if he ever wanted to get rid of Bella, he knew who would take her, seeing as the dog and my daughter had hit it off so spectacularly. He told us that he had always wanted a Jack Russell and when he found one that was returned to its breeder in a divorce case, he jumped at the chance to adopt it. This was how he came to have Bella. Dr. Bill really liked her, but as time wore on it became obvious that the dog did not feel the same way. Not that the animal was hostile to him. No, in fact it was worse than that. As anyone who has experienced unrequited love will tell you, active dislike or hostility is at least something. The opposite of love isn't hate: it's indifference. My vet found himself in an unfulfilled, emotionally lopsided relationship with his dog. Naturally, he began to wonder if perhaps she would be happier somewhere else. So the next time we had business at the clinic, we came home with a Jack Russell terrier.

It started with the rabbit. Our pet rabbit Jasper, who completely lacks a fear of dogs (he must not have received the "prey animal"memo), looked on with placid amusement as this new deranged animal danced, yapped, bounced and snapped at his cage over and over again. She seemed never to tire of it, despite our repeated scoldings and corrections. A dwarf lop-eared rabbit and a Jack Russell in the same house was an accident just waiting to happen.

Then she fixated on our cats. First to catch her eye were the barn cats, and when she had succeeded in thoroughly terrorizing them, she turned her attention to our house cats. I knew that Jack Russells had a reputation as persistent hunters and could be problematic with animals of the feline persuasion; but, as Bella was already accustomed to living in a multi-cat household, and as Dr. Bill had assured me that she showed not the slightest interest in his cats, I didn't think this would be a problem. I could not have been more wrong.

The pursuit of our cats both indoors and out quickly progressed from an irritating game to something considerably more sinister. We were unable to correct Bella's behaviour because, quite simply, we couldn't catch her in the act. Hell, we couldn't catch her period. She was greased lightning on four legs, a white and tan Jack Russell whirlwind. Chased upstairs, downstairs, over the sofa, under the bed, up trees, and under the porch, our cats eventually became so panic stricken that they went into hiding. Obviously Bella couldn't stay. Even my daughter, who loved the dog, was not willing to sacrifice the life of one of our cats. Shortly thereafter we returned Bella to Dr. Bill. And do you know what? She was HAPPY to see him!

What's on the Easel

I couldn't send Bella back home without immortalizing her, now could I?

Bella Looks Up - painted paper collage on panel ©2010 Alyson Champ
In the collection of Dr. William Johnston.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Apple Heaven

The Circuit des arts Hemmingford Studio Tour took place this past weekend. We were blessed with good weather, a little cool perhaps, but the sun was shining. Because my actual studio is outside the boundaries designated by the Circuit organizers, I packed up my studio contents and took them to Hemmingford, a village which is a twenty minute drive away from where I live.

Hemmingford IS Appletown- no doubt about that. There are numerous orchards, juice makers, and several award winning cider and ice-cider producers in the township. I was at the Petch family orchard and had set up shop in their boutique/café with young up and coming artist-illustrator Melissa Perreault.

Melissa Perreault taking a break from her sketching.
All photos by Alyson Champ

We were lucky this year to have wandering minstrels to entertain us and the crowds.
Singer/guitarist Kevin Bickes doing his thing. Melissa's artwork in the background.

Overall, Petch's exudes a warm, friendly, family atmosphere, and it smelled fantastic! Throughout the day, in the café kitchen, the cooks were baking apple pies, apple crisps, apple strudels, and Petch's famous apple doughnuts. Mmmmmmm doughnuts. I thought I had died and gone to apple heaven.

The gardienne of the strudels


Art sales were a bit slow, but lots of people came out, and it's always nice to visit with friends and family that I don't get to see very often. And there was one unexpected bonus: when I was unpacking my artwork this morning, guess what? It all smells like apple pie!

Apples, apples, and more apples.


Of course, I came home with a big bag of fresh, crisp, juicy Cortlands, some strudels, and a box of doughnuts. Which reminds me, I think it's time for a coffee break. But first...

What's on the easel

Here is the latest sheep collage. I didn't have time to post this one last week because it was off being framed. It's called Dora in the Doorway, and if you've been following this blog for a little while, you'll know Dumb Dora as my "wing nut" ewe. Here she is looking like her loopy self.


Dora in the Doorway- 10x8 painted paper collage on mdf panel ©2010 Alyson Champ

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Boundary Issues

One evening last fall, my sheep came home to the barn with their fleeces a tangled mess of burrs and thistles. I noticed one ewe was also sporting a fringe of blackberry canes, another one had accessorized herself with a small tree. Now our pastures aren't perfect, but I did find this odd considering I had gone to some pains to cut down, dig up, and burn as much of this sort of debris as possible. The next morning I went out to check the pastures and the fences and discovered that the back gate was open. The sheep had been out in the fallow no man's land between out place and the neighbour's woodlot, no doubt scrounging for crab apples. I cursed irresponsible teenaged ATV riders and closed the gate.

What I had hoped was a unique event began to look more like a pattern when the episode repeated itself the following week, except this time it had been raining. Not only were my beautiful, white, long-wool sheep covered with sticks, burrs and brambles again, but they wrre also WET. The first time had cost me hours of labour pulling out the burrs and disentangling the sticks; the second time I used the hand shears and gave the worst offenders "punk rock" haircuts. At least two of the sheep looked like they had been shorn by a blindfolded lunatic using a lawnmower.
Celeste with haircut. Photo by the artist.

Of course, that back gate was open again. This time, along with the requisite cursing, I also considered getting a padlock or at least putting up a sign asking whoever opened the gate to please shut it behind him (or her), thank you very much. As it turned out, I didn't have to do either.

One Saturday morning as I was unloading groceries, a strange car pulled into our yard. A blond man in his early thirties got out and introduced himself as Sylvain, our neighbour. His house sits near the end of our long driveway, and although he had lived there for more than a year, this was our first real meeting. Casual observation of his behaviour from a distance had led me to conclude that Sylvain was both trigger happy, (he almost shot our other neighbour while out hunting deer the previous fall), and that he was quite possibly a pyromaniac, as he was always burning something in his yard, and had set fire to our ditch twice in a six month period. It was with some trepidation that I shook his hand.

"I was up here this morning, " he said, "but no one was home, so I was watching through my scope for your car. Your sheep are loose out in the neighbour's bush. I have permission to hunt there; I thought they were coyotes and I almost shot them."

While I was annoyed that my gun wielding firebug of a neighbour could mistake a flock of Border Leicesters for a pack of coyotes, I was even more dismayed that this rather strange man had been using his scope to watch our house. My days of topless gardening were obviously at an end.

"Well, my sheep wouldn't be loose if some idiot wasn't always opening our back gate." I answered.

"What gate?" he asked.

I explained the situation to him.

"Oh," he said, "well where does your property end?"

And I explained that to him too.

"Oh." he said, and paused as if contemplating something, then asked, " Do you want help rounding them up? I could get my four-wheeler."

I told him not to worry about it, that the sheep would come back on their own (which they did), if he would just please not shoot them in the meantime (which he didn't).

This autumn I closed off the back pasture completely so the sheep no longer have access to it at all. Better safe than sorry, I figure. Throughout the year I have continued to check the back gate from time to time, just out of curiosity. I have never found it open since. Not once.

What's on the easel

The Hemmingford Studio Tour takes place this week end (Oct. 2&3, 2010) from 10 am - 5 pm, both Saturday and Sunday. I'll be at Petch Orchards flogging my wares. If you are in the area, stop in and introduce yourself.

Here are a couple of new sheep collages which will be on display during the tour exhibition.

I give you Miss Juliet,
10x8 painted paper collage on mdf panel ©2010 Alyson Champ

Fabulous Fionna,

9x12 painted paper collage on mdf panel ©2010 Alyson Champ


and of course... Celeste!

9x12 pencil drawing on paper ©2010 Alyson Champ

Thursday, September 16, 2010

You Gotta Know When to Hold 'em

One of the toughest parts of being involved in any kind of creative work is knowing when something is finished. Rarely do I realise my artistic vision so completely that there is no doubt. Once in a while, I'll call something completed when I can no longer stand to look at it. Most times though, I have to live with a piece for a little while before I can really sign off.

I was working on a large, ambitious collage recently and thought I had finished it, yet there was something about the piece that left me uneasy; I didn't really feel I had accomplished visually what I had set out to do. I wasn't happy with it, but I didn't know why. So I decided to set it aside for awhile- this after having heralded the collage's imminent arrival on my Facebook Fan Page. That will teach me. The fat lady wasn't in fact ready to sing; she was merely clearing her throat.

I had the collage set up on an easel in our downstairs hall, a very central part of our house. This forced me to look at the thing, confront it, examine its flaws throughout the day, everyday, for a couple of weeks. That did the trick. Eventually I worked out what the problem was and how to fix it. It took some tough love and a little "renovation" work, but now it really is finished- finished and soon to be up on display at Salle Alfred-Langevin in Huntingdon as my contribution to the local collective exhibition for the Journées de la culture. The vernissage is Friday, September 24th at 5:00 pm. If you are in the area, come and check out the show.
Last Light, Ormstown- 24X30 painted paper and fabric collage on canvas
©2010 Alyson Champ

Friday, September 10, 2010

Differently Abled Daffy

"What do you mean one of my ducks is simple minded!" my friend Anna Maria wrote with mock outrage in an email to me a couple of weeks ago. In a note I sent her, I had mused that of the three male Muscovy ducks she had given me, one of them appeared to be a little mentally slow. Daffy (my name for him) is definitely different. Whereas the other two are very adept fliers, he can't fly; when the others zig, he zags; while his companions are out foraging in the yard, he spends much of his day sitting in a corner in the barn looking at the wall. And this isn't exactly new behaviour. While he still lived at Anna Maria's place, he one day zigged when he should have zagged, got underfoot, had his tail stepped on and subsequently lost part of it. Truth be told, Daffy is a slow witted, off balance, flightless duck with no sense of direction and only half a tail.
Daffy is the off-kilter duck on the left. Photo by the artist.

In that same email, Anna-Maria went on to remind me that just as people have varying levels of intelligence and competencies, so it is with animals. This is undoubtedly true. Take my dogs, for example. I have one who can slip any collar, and who, through trial and error, learned how to undo the catch on the baby gate to let herself out of the kitchen. I have another who can stealthily rifle through a bag of groceries when my back is turned, extract a package of pastrami without disturbing the other contents of the bag, carefully open the plastic and eat only the pastrami. Pretty smart. And yet we had a third dog so stupid she couldn't find her way out from under a blanket.

Even among the sheep, an animal with a reputation for stupidity, I have noticed a fairly wide range of intelligence. Take Julius the ram for instance, while not a deep thinker to be sure, he did learn to use his nose to pop the hook on the side gate of the barn to let himself (and the others) out in the morning whenever he felt I was being too slow.

Furthermore, intelligence seems to be inherited. One of my ewes is smart and vivacious and her daughters are just the same. Another ewe, the one we call Dumb Dora, invariably has stupid lambs who get lost in the grass or can't figure out how to go around an open gate to get out of the pasture, or worse.

One afternoon this past summer, in the middle of a heavy downpour, I noticed my sheep standing outside by the front of the barn, wet, and looking completely miserable. Now, there was no good reason for them to be outside in the rain: the barn was open; they could go in if they wanted to. Weird, I thought. A little later, from an upstairs window, I could see a white shape racing back and forth along the fence line of the pasture behind the barn. I put on my boots.

First I went to scold my stupid sheep for standing in the rain when the barn was open, next I went in the barn to take a look around. Nothing looked amiss, at first. A moment later I noticed a water bucket was missing and I knew exactly what had happened and to whom. It was, of course, Dora's daughter Violaine who had somehow gotten her head through the handle of the nearly empty water bucket, and it was she who had terrorized the other sheep now left stranded out in the rain, and of course, it was she who was now out by the back fence frantically trying to run away. From herself.

But back to those ducks for a minute. In about ten days, the ducks have a scheduled date with destiny. Destiny being Lavallée's slaughter house. I have no doubt that I will be able to catch poor, witless Daffy- a sitting duck if ever there was one. As for the other two...I have no idea what I'm going to do. I don't know how they know, but they seem to be aware of some impending disaster and have recently started roosting up on the wooden supports for the stable cleaner track outside the barn, putting them well out of my reach. I suppose I'll have to figure something out. But for now, I'm afraid that I must live with the embarrassing truth: That I have yet again been outsmarted by ducks. Like I said before, there is a wide range of intelligence among all animals.

What's on the Easel?

Well, quite a lot, as it turns out. I'm participating in a studio tour and a group show this fall, so I've been quite busy of late. I will include more information about these upcoming shows next post. For now, here are two small pieces .

Goldfish #3- 6x8 painted paper collage on panel ©2010 Alyson Champ


Salamander (Which Way Is Up?) - 5x7 painted paper collage on panel ©2010 Alyson Champ

Back to the drawing board er, collage table!

Friday, August 6, 2010

The Island of Misfit Art

OK, so it's not really an island. More of a lopsided pile.

On the floor of my upstairs studio there is a stack of unfinished paintings, all of them failures for one reason or another. Mostly they were flawed to begin with: bad colour choices, inherent (but initially not obvious) compositional flaws, or some stupid problem in perspective or anatomy that I couldn't get right but that I thought would just magically resolve itself if only I kept painting. And sometimes, sometimes, just like kids from good homes who go careening off the rails and wind up in jail, perfectly decent paintings go bad for no apparent reason at all.

Once in a while I will completely give up on a picture and throw it out, but generally I am reluctant to part with my stack of failures. I have been known to hang on to them for years, hoping that my artistic skill will catch up with my artistic desire, or that I will be granted a little flash of creative brilliance and suddenly simply know how to fix something which has, up to that point, eluded me.

This week I felt inspired and adopted a misfit painting out of the stack. It is an oil I had started a year or so ago showing a scene from The Rolex Three Day Event at the Kentucky Horse Park. The reference photo came from a disc of photos sent to me by a fellow artist who had been lucky enough to attend the event. I had high hopes for this painting when I started it and was frustrated when it didn't work out the first time. This time I figured I really had nothing to lose and decided to make a second attempt at finishing it. There were compositional issues to resolve and aerial perspective problems. It took two days to get it all sorted out. I'm sorry I didn't think to photograph the before and after so you could also see the transformation. Below is the after. I think it worked out pretty well.

Spring Rider- 9x12 oil on panel ©2010 Alyson Champ

The next painting is the completed landscape from last week: A View of St. Chrysostome. I'm calling it finished, although it's possible that there will still be some corrections to be made in the coming weeks. I need to look at it for a while first.

View of St. Chrysostome- 20x24 oil on linen ©2010 Alyson Champ

Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Lay of the Land




View of Naarden by Jacob Van Ruisdael (Image source Wikimedia commons)

Although I have been focused on making collages just lately, I am not immune to the lure of the landscape. Landscape painting has always been my first love, and every now and then I see a place, frame it in my mind, and think to myself, "Wow, that would make a nice painting!", and hope that I'll get around to actually painting it. This time I decided to make the effort to do just that.

Every morning and every evening when I am either taking out or bringing home our sheep, I walk up the rise behind our farm to our back pasture. There is a view of the village of St. Chrysostome from the top of the hill which I find especially appealing. It puts me in mind of some of the landscape paintings of the seventeenth century Dutch masters. The image is dominated by the sky as the horizon line is set low and the spires of the village church are seen in the distance. The overall effect is one of great space and is a reminder that humanity's place in the world is really rather small. Well, at least that's how I see it.
The spires of St. Jean-Chrysostome from my back pasture (photo © the artist)

It felt strange to sit down in front of the easel again. I haven't touched my oil paints for many months. Nevertheless, I am finding the process familiar but also invigoratingly new. Here is the tonal drawing on canvas for my new landscape:

I don't always go to such lengths to establish the general areas of a painting but, as I haven't painted in so long, I dread screwing things up. I decided to be extra careful rather than risk wasting a perfectly good (and expensive) linen canvas.

So much of the painting is taken up by the sky that the sky really requires a great deal of attention. People often look at the sky and see blue, white and a little grey. Careful observation will show that the sky is so much more than that. The photo below shows my efforts in colour mixing for the clouds and sky. Note the ochres, browns and pinks on the paper towel.
This is where I finished today. The painting is blocked in from the darkest areas to midtones and the general colour scheme is established. You can't see the church towers because I haven't put them in yet- there is so much to do before I get down to that level detail. I'll be back at it again tomorrow!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

How to Pick Up Chicks

If you have been lured to this blog by what you perceive to be a promise of dating advice, you are bound to be disappointed. Sorry, but these chicks are of the small, peeping, fluffy variety, not the thong wearing bar hags you may have been expecting. So if this is the case, by all means, go elsewhere. Please!

Chicken Tuesday

Last Tuesday we got our thirty broiler chicks and twelve Guinea keets from the Co op. The decision was made in the spring to raise these meat birds organically and on pasture as much as possible. Pasture is no problem; we have that in abundance. Organic grain? That was a whole different bag of mash. Although we have some local organic grain producers in the area and one organic mill, I could not find anyone who could supply us with smaller quantities of bagged feed. It was half a ton or nothing. In the end we had to order the grain from a mill in Berwick, Ontario. Not that I have anything against the town of Berwick, but it would be nice to be able to get locally sourced feed and not have the added carbon footprint of all those extra kilometres. A girl can dream...
Chicks and keets Photo © the artist

In spite of a few mishaps and a couple of untimely deaths, the birds now appear to be thriving. Originally the keets and the chicks were supposed to be separated by a fence. As you can see by the above photo, the chicks and keets had other ideas. We gave up on the fence and are letting them eat out of the same feeder. And boy do they like to eat!

So, how do you pick up chicks? "Did it hurt when you fell from heaven?" isn't likely to work on them. I suggest you scoop them up gently using both hands....

What's on the Easel

I wonder if being obsessed with sheep is a classifiable psychiatric disorder? If so, I may very well have it. To be fair, I have recently completed some landscape collages, but I just can't seem to shake this fascination with sheep. This morning I finished my newest painted paper collage. The subject is yet again my friend Anna-Maria's beautiful purebred Border Leicester ram, Julius Caesar.
Pencil drawing for "All Hail Caesar" ©2010 Alyson Champ


Above is the preparatory drawing to work out the basic composition. Below is my work table with the work in progress.

At least it looks like I'm working hard. Photo ©the artist

And the finished collage: All hail Caesar!



All Hail Caesar - 8x10 painted paper collage on board © 2010 Alyson Champ

Friday, July 2, 2010

Summertime, and the Living Isn't Easy

We don't grow cotton here in St. Crazy but the soybeans in our front field are looking pretty good, and I'm sure if I were to take a stroll down to the river I could probably see some fish jumpin'. The problem is... I just don't have time!
It must be a holdover over from the many years I spent as a student that my brain is still governed by the academic calendar. The New Year begins in September, not January, and summer is a time for those other three R's: Recreation, Relaxation, and Rest. Of course, this totally doesn't jibe with the farming calendar which begins to get busy in the spring with the arrival of lambs and continues to get ever busier as we progress into summer. We've done vaccinations, castrations, deworming, and tail docking. We've brought in new laying hens, but haven't yet (ahem) 'dispatched' some of the old laying hens, and soon we'll be getting our broiler chicks and Guineas. We've re-fenced the chicken run, turned and planted the garden, stacked next winter's fire wood, are currently in the process of cleaning and refurbishing the barn, and soon we will have to put in hay and straw. All the while, of course, we do the regular feeding, tending, cleaning and WEEDING. O Lord, let us not forget the weeding.
Our more or less weed-free veg garden

I'm not really complaining. Our lifestyle is a matter of choice, and there really is something very satisfying about putting in a good solid day's work. And speaking of work...

What's on the Easel

In spite of all the other labour, yes, I continue to work in the studio most days, and there actually is something on the easel! I have, I'm proud to say, just finished my first collage landscape.
This drawing for Port Daniel Lighthouse I have already posted back when the collage was in its planning phase. Here is the finished work:

Port Daniel Lighthouse- 20x24 painted paper collage on panel, © 2010 Alyson Champ

I'll get my rest and recreation in November.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Up and Dyed

Last Monday at Pinehill Farm, my friend Anna-Maria was host to a group of school children from the urban elementary school where she is also a teacher. The purpose of the visit was to give the children, many of whom had never spent any time in the country before, the opportunity to visit a farm, meet the animals, and experience nature. The activities included nature walks, hand carding and spinning wool, and tie dyeing their own t shirts with a natural, plant based dye. I was in charge of the tie-dye workshops and showed the kids how to make basic tie-dyed designs and how to do the steps involved in the dyeing process- except for the actual dyeing part. I did that. For obvious reasons, we thought it best to keep the children away from the five gallon bucket of dye.


Indigofera tinctoria

The natural dye that I used was indigo. Indigo is an interesting plant, pretty in its own right, with a long history of use as a dye plant all over the world. The dye is made from the leaves, and in its natural state, is insoluble in water. The dye must be 'reduced', a process whereby the oxygen is removed, and it can then be mixed with water. Jacquard makes a ready to use reduced indigo dye, which is what I used. The actual dye in the bucket was a nasty-looking green, and the tied up shirts came out of the liquid first a bright yellow-green, but then turned a deep blue as they were exposed to the air. This was fun for the kids to watch - like magic! After the dye had oxidized and the children rinsed and untied their shirts, they saw what they had created. This was my first experience working with indigo. I wasn't sure what to expect, but results were quite beautiful.

These two shirts are ones that I made with the left over dye. And there was quite a lot of extra dye. I hated to waste it, so we now have a lot of blue work shirts and linens.