Ossabaw Island – Georgia’s Gifts From the Sea

Painting of Moonlight over Ossabaw Island by Ann LitrelI grip the thin handrail of the boat as it crests another wave. We’re entering “Hell Gate,” a narrow sea passage on the way from Savannah to our destination. At the wheel, the captain seems unconcerned that six middle aged women are perched on the edges of his bouncing boat.

We’re headed for one of Georgia’s wildest places – Ossabaw Island.

This is “Turtle Weekend,” a trip organized by Ossabaw Island Foundation, which stewards Ossabaw in partnership with Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources. It’s a chance for us to learn about Georgia’s sea turtles – and perhaps see a turtle nest hatching.

Naturalist John “Crawfish” Crawford sits in the front of the boat, wasting no time in launching our education. His gray, curly-haired head seems overflowing with a lifetime of lore about Georgia’s salt marsh, and the ways of her birds and wild creatures. In a tumble of words, he spills the treasure of his knowledge as we travel through the waves.

Ossabaw sparkles bright green on the horizon. The sky arches high overhead. I am unprepared for the shore’s utter wildness: this could be the New World a half millennia ago. Welcoming us ashore is Elizabeth, the Executive Director, who takes us to our accommodations. The century-old Club House is tucked into the trees, built long before the island was designated a State Heritage Preserve in 1978.

After dinner Crawfish gathers us around a table in the common room for our orientation. Amid an array of turtle skulls, a Green Turtle shell, and a preserved turtle hatchling in a jar, he relates the ecology of the island and the history of ongoing sea turtle conservation and research. Two solitary research residents have lived here all summer, monitoring the turtle nests, counting hatchlings as they emerge. Twenty years of national conservation programs appear to be successful: a decade ago, Georgia’s annual count of sea turtle nests numbered 1005. This year, the count is 3956. But Crawfish cautions us: Hurricane Dorian wreaked havoc this summer.  Many eggs were drowned in the rising storm waters. He wants us to be prepared for the nest we will see tomorrow.

The next morning I grab a mug of coffee to watch the sunrise over the marsh. The full moon is setting, faintly illuminating the ghostly forms of tall birds fishing in the water…  wood storks and white egrets.

Promptly after breakfast, a jeep appears to take us to our destination for the day – South Beach, to see a turtle nest, a hatching – or whatever we may find.

The Beach is a graveyard of trees, their twisted forms looming out of the sand like the bones of huge skeletons. We meet the researchers, Brianna and Caleigh, at the nest site they have marked for today’s excavation. It’s been 65 days since the mother Loggerhead turtle laboriously dragged herself out of the sea to lay her eggs, leaving her trail in the sand. Caleigh begins to dig. This is the reason we are here – to see the hatchlings.

But as feared, it is not to be. Caleigh brings the eggs out of the hole one by one – round, the size of ping pong balls. They have all been drowned.  She breaks open one of the soft, permeable eggs to show us the unborn turtle with his tiny flippers.

Brianna reminds us of the good news, that more turtle nests were laid this year in Georgia than ever before. Many hatchlings are already safely in the ocean. More will hatch, no doubt.

On the return ride to the Clubhouse, we are a quiet group. The ruined nest, though expected, has dampened our spirits. Halfway back to the Club House we pass a bare, leafless tree marking the edge of the marsh. Amid the branches we catch a glimpse of movement – bright pink, flashing  –

There, strutting and bowing on the branches are strange birds – rare Roseate Spoonbills! Prehistoric, with platypus like beaks and bright red eyes – looking for all the world like the distant dinosaur cousins that they are. They cavort like pink-plumed clowns, dipping and flapping their wings.

Roseate Spoonbill at Ossabaw ISland - painting by Ann LitrelWe watch for long minutes, this unearthly gift from a wild place.

Not what we expected. But beautiful and rare just the same.

This year, as you wind up this season of gift-giving, consider seeking out the gifts from Georgia you may not know you have.

 

Explore the Bucket List of Georgia’s Gifts:

“35 Natural Wonders of Georgia To See Before You Die.”

Chattooga River – Unexpected Adventure

We strap on our helmets and sign the waivers. Two pages of fine print list the ways in which we can be hurt, crippled or drowned while whitewater rafting on the world class rapids of the Chattooga River.

Three friends, Amy, Celeste, and Yasmin, have joined me for this adventure. We’re here because the Chattooga made the bucket list of 35 Georgia Natural Wonders I’m painting on a three-year project. The manager of the rafting outfitter has been kind enough to arrange one of his best guides for us. He’ll pull us aside for photos at the river’s most scenic spots.

We line up for the “Safety Talk.” Our guide, Brandon, appears to be approximately the age of my youngest son. He instructs us how to float – feet first – if we fall out of the raft. That way, he explains,  we won’t smash our heads on a rock.

I wonder if the others are thinking what I am: “WHY did I think this was a good idea?”

“With all the rains we’ve had,” Brandon continues, “we’re in for a treat. The water is very high in Section III, and we’ll see some world class rapids and beautiful waterfalls. It ends with an amazing run, Bull Sluice. We won’t know if we can take it until we get closer. Normally we only take more experienced rafters.”

The girls and I look at each other and raise our eyebrows.

“It’s cloudy today,” says Brandon, “but I think this is when the river is at its best, when it’s all gray and misty like this morning. Then you can see why the Chattooga is special – why it’s called a temperate rainforest.”

We climb into the raft. Brandon pushes off and jumps in. The waters are turbulent, swollen with recent rains, and we are swept away on its powerful current.

Designated a “National Wild and Scenic River,” the Chattooga is protected from human development for miles and miles.

For the next six hours we are transported into untouched wilderness. Giant rocks loom out of the water, evoking fallen monuments, or the remains of ancient civilizations. Birds cry unseen from trees that line the river like a wall of green. Turning one bend, we are surprised by a high waterfall tumbling down the right bank, its lacy fingers running down to the river. Everywhere around us, the voice of the river, wild and tumultuous, follows us on our journey.

Periodically, the peace is broken by runs of rapids. These moments are exciting, tense. “Get down,” Brandon says, and we slide to the bottom of the raft. This minimizes the chances of flipping. If we fall out, we know to keep our feet from dangling down as we swim. The chance of getting a foot entrapped in a rock and being submerged by the current is real.

As we approach Bull Sluice, Brandon steers our raft to shore and confers with other guides gathered there with their groups.

“We won’t be taking Bull Sluice today, “ he announces. “It’s too wild. But we can watch a more advanced group take it.”

I am both relieved and strangely disappointed.

We climb out of the raft and scramble to the highest rock to watch the more experienced rafters take Bull Sluice. The river explodes in white spray, crashing into a narrow gap between large rocks, thrusting the boat like a toy into the churning waters below.

The rainclouds open up. We are soaked and exhilarated, filled with wonder at Chattooga’s power and the beauty of this wild rainforest.  And watching the explosion that is Bull Sluice, we agree that we are already feeling the loss of this wild and beautiful place –

And we vow to come back, to meet Bull Sluice another day.

 

Resources:

Rafting the Chattooga – WildwaterRafting.com

Full list of 35 Georgia Natural Wonders 

 

Design Moment: How To Simplify a Scene for Painting

This complicated scene from Cortona, Italy, demanded that I take a step back to understand and simplify. For me, this means analyzing through sketching!

Typically I go through this process when I need to simplify a subject with a lot of detail. Below is the photo reference for this work, a snapshot taken on a morning walk to the square.

Piazza and Building facades in Cortona Ital;y

Reference photo of town square in Cortona, Italy

1. Light and Dark

The first step was to see this scene in terms of Light and Dark. In my sketchbook, I used a black pen to draw the image in the simplest forms of black and white. This helps identify the big, important shapes and how the image will “read” from a distance.

In the sketch, you can see how I ignored all the little windows and incorporated them into the large dark mass of the buildings, so they diminish in importance. This puts more emphasis on the wonderfully quirky roofline in the upper part of the painting. In the lower half of the sketch, the main focal point is now clear. Positioned like a fulcrum on which the entire scene balances, the slender figure of the woman is silhouetted against the wide sunlit square.

In the sketch, you can also see I made the decision to darken the blue on the left side of the sky. This created a larger dark shape so that there would be unequal amounts of Light and Dark in this work. As a rule of thumb, you want a piece of art to be primarily either light or dark. An equal balance of light and dark creates “tension” and a lack of focus in the composition.

2. Warm and Cool

The next step was to dissect this scene in terms of Color – Warm and Cool. The sketch helped me decide to position the warmest colors toward the center of the composition. The large blue shape of the upper left sky connects to the blue of the street shadow at the bottom right with a few blue accents woven into the center of the work.

You can see I hedged a bit on the cool tones on the light clouds, above right, and the sunlit section of the street, below left. I ended up pushing both of those into a warm gray instead of a cool one as shown on the sketch. Many artists gravitate toward primarily warm or cool tones. (I find I usually swing warm – honestly, it’s just personal preference.)

3. Lines and Edges

Finally I explored the Lines and Edges in the scene. In the sketch, I found that all the jagged lines connected and led downward to the central figure. Having decided that she would be the focal point, I could see that I needed to make the sharpest “edges” in the painting lead the eye  to her.

In the final work, you can see that the sharpest edges drawn are those that outline the sunlight on the woman’s figure, the greenery behind her, and the two levels of roofline directly above her head. Because the shapes in the painting are many and intricate, these sharp lines attract the eye and help center and stabilize the composition.

Read more in Design Moment Part 2: How To Build a Complex Scene In Layers

 

Spring Paintings from Cherokee County Georgia

Spring means I’ll be road tripping around Georgia to paint our state in all her spring colors! The astounding color of red maples and oak trees in bud seems to me as brilliant as any foliage in the Blue Ridge Mountains in the fall.

Below is a series of pastels from past spring road trips. This spring, I have trips planned from south to north, from the Altamaha River – Georgia’s “Little Amazon” – to the wilds of Rabun Mountain in the north at peak wildflower season. Stay tuned – As always, I’ll be posting work in progress on my studio Facebook page.

Let me know your favorite wild Georgia spots – I love to hear discoveries!

 

Ann Litrel painting of the Etowah River, Georgia, showing riverside rocks and trees budding

Spring on the banks of the Etowah River

 

Ann Litrel painting of horse pasture in spring, Cherokee County Georgia

Sunlight dazzles on the pasture and red-roofed barn in this roadside scene in Cherokee County

 

Ann Litrel painting of the Blue Ridge Mountains and spring color in Cherokee County, Georgia

The Blue Ridge Mountains as spring color explodes in the trees, red maples and golden oaks in bud

Fire and Water

Fire and Water med Ann's rev (2)

“Fire and Water” – click on painting for enlarged detail and color

Purchase a print online through Fine Art America. Range of sizes and frame options.

 
For a canvas print with a hand painted brush texture simulating the original, contact the artist.
In the studio, 36″ x 24″  signed print, $325.

 

Fire and Water

Oil on canvas, 36” x 24”
Private collection

It’s safe to say the Gresham Mill at Sixes Road has been the subject of more paintings and photographs than any other landmark in Cherokee County. In high summer, 2003, I added my own version. I visited the mill in early morning, and captured the mists and morning sunlight that softened the heavy blanket of green that Georgia wears in the summer.

But autumn is my favorite season in Georgia, so I was thrilled when I was approached by a couple celebrating their fortieth anniversary: they wanted a painting of the mill in autumn.

pen and ink finished revIt was still early summer when I visited the Mill once again to make preliminary black and white sketches, as I do for major works. Working on the play of lights and shadows without the distraction of color, I can examine the “bones” of the scene. I sat outside for a while watching the early morning light move across the eastern face of the mill. I tried to discern how the scene made me feel—what is was “communicating.” This is one of the most important but perhaps least understood aspects of what an artist does. The undercurrents of emotion that a scene evokes are the submerged text that must be manifested in the painting. This is what separates the art from a photo.

As fall came to Georgia and the colors reached their height, I returned twice to the scene. The transformation wrought by color heightened what I had seen in summer—the mill was almost shrouded by trees, cast in shadow and embedded in the hillside. The movement of the bright foliage around it was like sheets of fire cascading down the hillside, finally extinguishing themselves on the rocks amongst the cool shadows of the stream. I made a color study in pastels.

Mill pastel studyIn looking at the final painting, you can see how the artist’s vision differs from the initial color rendering. The final work of art matches the vision in my mind’s eye:, where it seemed to me as I looked upon this scene, I was seeing the last glowing flames of life warming the Mill before the slumber of cold winter.

 

Footloose Artists and Trappist Monks: Kindred Spirits?

monk at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit

“Beside the Still Waters” – painting, 9″ x 12″

Footloose Artists and Trappist Monks: Kindred Spirits

My friend and fellow artist Marsha Savage called me on Monday night. She was headed for an outdoor “paint out” for artists, invitation only, at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit this week. They’d had a last minute cancellation. Was I interested?

I’m stuck.

Two thoughts immediately popped into my head and began doing battle. Yes: I have been wanting to visit this Catholic Monastery for years. It is well known for its bonsai collection and as a retreat on 2300 acres of bucolic land just east of Atlanta. I would love to see the monastery – of course.

No: I’m scared. I’m not a regular outdoors (plein air) painter. Plein air is French for “open air.” But painters who fit the term are no French salon sissies – they are the cowboys of the artist world. A rugged bunch, they paint and finish their work, usually in a few hours, entirely in the elements of the Great Outdoors. I, on the other hand, love to take my time inside the air conditioned comfort of my studio, massaging the edges of painted shapes until they melt into perfectly distilled space. I’d dabbled in plein air painting. But now I felt a nagging undercurrent of insecurity. Could I measure up?

Against my better judgment, I go with Yes.

My van packed with paint and blank canvases, I barreled down the highway through Atlanta and then east on I-20, slowing as I left the city and turned into the old farm roads. As the traffic thinned, I felt my heart and pulse slow. Reaching the Monastery entrance, I called Brother Callistus, the monk in charge of public relations for The Monastery. I found myself surprised – how could a monk be in “Public Relations?”

I knew that Brother Callistus had organized the “Paint Out,” inviting select artists to stay for seven days and paint. The resulting art works would be featured in an “Art Collectors Gala and Wet Paint Sale” at the end of the week, to benefit the Monastery. I could only stay for two days. I worried, Will I will be able to contribute something worthy?

Surprises

Brother Callistus drove up the wide green lawn in a golf cart. He is a tall slim man with bronze skin, and he wore traditional monk’s garb, hood pulled back. I would later discover that Brother Callistus, in his younger days, worked on Wall Street. But his first words of greeting revealed only his passion for the nature of monastic life. “I read your artist’s statement on your website. You are a true contemplative,” he enthused in a lilting Caribbean accent. “The words are beautiful.”

I was pleased and surprised. My artist’s statement is my raison d’etre. It’s held a quiet spot on my website since 2006, but since that time, to my knowledge, only one other person in the world has read or commented on it. Ironically, earlier in the week I had decided it was too “airy-fairy,” and had edited it out of the biography Brother Callistus had requested after I accepted Marsha’s invitation.

It was as thought I had been recognized by an old friend. And I was suddenly pierced with the feeling we experience too seldom:  I have come Home.

I’ve believed for quite some time that being an artist is not just a calling with a spiritual side, but that it’s a calling that is entirely spiritual. One thing an artist quickly learns  –  when people have money to spend, a couch wins out over a painting nine times out of ten.

I don’t blame anyone. I own a couch myself, my first purchase out of college, as a matter of fact. Money is for the needs of this world – and art has nothing to do with our worldly existence. Art does not feed the body. It does not clothe the body. It does not shelter the body. It does not carry the body around on four wheels with leather seats in an air conditioned box.

Money, money, money

So artists do not choose to paint because they want to get rich (although a few do). But if we agree on that, then what exactly so powerfully compels a sane person to desert the more logical vocational choices?

I’ve arrived just in time for lunch, and this is the question that Brother Callistus wants to talk about.  Because obviously monks, too, have a calling that is not about money.  Is there a common bond? Are these monks, constrained in their monastic lives to vows of obedience and stability – never leaving – akin to artists, famously footloose free spirits who often ascribe to no established religion at all?

Plein Air artists at The Monastery Paint-Out in the Guest House

Artists and Monks Share Wine and Fellowship

Brother Callistus and I take a seat at a table with a half dozen other artists. I’m pleased that somehow I know many of them – from various studio tours, or odd days painting together on informal outings. They range from mostly middle-aged to outright gray-haired. Maybe I will fit in, after all.

Brother Callistus speaks about the contemplative spirit that is the basis of monastic life. He says that in leaving behind the world, a monk learns to discern the spiritual nature that permeates all living things. He says that as you grow this perception, you learn to see beneath the surface of things to a spiritual truth. You look beyond the physical appearance of a person to their eternal nature. You are looking at the soul.

All the artists seem to speak up in agreement. Yes, creating art is like that. When you paint, you are not simply painting what you see on the surface. You are looking for – perceiving – the unique voice that inhabits each subject. Otherwise, you could simply take a snapshot and be done with it.

Brother Callistus nods and smiles. “Yes, perceiving the spiritual is the nature of a monk’s contemplative life. That is what we are all here for.”

As lunch ends, I head outside with the other artists. We acknowledge the challenges of the physical world with our umbrellas, our bottles of sunscreen and bug repellent. But we are full of hope – that we will see something Wonderful. That we may produce a painting that will capture – dimly, or miraculously, with glorious vividness – the Eternal Truth that inhabits every tree, stone, and human being her on earth.

 

paintings by Ann Litrel of the Monastery of the Holy Spirit

Two works from the Monastery, the Belltower and the Cloisters – “Lift Thine Eyes”, and “Morning Illumination”

 

Morning on the Platte River

Morning on the Platte River

Morning on the Platte River

pastel on board, 12″ x 9″
$295.

This original pastel captures the morning light on Nebraska’s Platte River at Rowe Sanctuary Audubon Center, during the height of the Sandhill Crane Migration. You can see a small group flying in the distance as they make their way to the fields to feed during the day. In this work, I wanted to capture the waterside view at the sanctuary, and the warm light of the rising sun on the trees at the water’s edge. The Rowe Sanctuary is a resting place and feeding ground for the thousands of migratory water birds that fly north each spring.

For the many human pilgrims, who like us, come to the River to witness a wonder of nature, the calls of the cranes are haunting and awe-inspiring.

Nebraska 2

left – Cranes Calling At Dusk

pastel on board, 7″ x 5″   $195.

right – Evening Light, Winging Home

pastel on board, 7″ x 5″   $195.

A Perfect Day (Bridge Mill golf course)

A Perfect Day

To inquire about purchase,
contact the artist.

A Perfect Day, Bridge Mill

Acrylic on canvas, 16” x 12”

The water acts like a mirror in this morning scene at the entrance of the Bridge Mill golf course.

Brick Mill Falls

Brick Mill Falls
To inquire about purchase,
contact the artist.

Brick Mill Falls

Acrylic on canvas, 18” x 24”

The painting depicts a picturesque waterfall on Scott Mill Creek, part of the Etowah River system. Its appearance makes for a beautiful surprise at the end of Brick Mill Road. The morning I first saw these falls, the colors really were this intense – blue rocks and pink dawn.

The City At Dusk (the Twin Towers)

The City at Dusk

To inquire about purchase,
contact the artist.

The City At Dusk (The Twin Towers)

Oil paint on canvas, 40” x 30”

Many moments in our lives gain significance only in hindsight. Such was the case one day over ten years ago, that I spent in Manhattan with friends and family. We shopped, went to the Metropolitan Museum, watched a show on Broadway – and at some point in the growing dark, stopped to take a few photos of the City, blossoming with internal lights.

The photo had been long forgotten when I came upon it in an old file this summer. The impact of suddenly seeing the Towers again was like a physical blow.

I had been in the midst of painting a series of landscapes based on the countryside of Cherokee County, my home in Georgia. Rolling hills, old barns, and train depots occupy these canvases. But upon remembering my long ago trip to New York, I felt compelled to drop the hometown scenes and pay a tribute.

Thus it is that the skyline of New York came to reside in a collection of landscapes from Georgia. Its presence in my studio is glaring, a painting of harsh lines and black amidst images of rolling greens and red Georgia clay of Cherokee’s hills.

Yet it is not misplaced. The Towers of the World Trade Center belong to Cherokee County: to America, to all the places where memories live. They are our inheritance. The day the Towers came down, Americans rose up. We became one people, and the Towers became a part of all of us. Rising into an endless sky, their columns endure, abiding in the eternal Landscape of the American Consciousness.