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field trip!

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It's the most wonderful time of the (school) year... field trip time!

My daughter and I have visited the Chihuly exhibit at the MFA Boston three times already, but I still can't wait to go back and see it again. It is amazing what he and his fellow artists can do with glass! Many of the forms Chihuly creates are evocative of organic forms in nature such as trees and flowers. So, I thought today, we'd take a field trip to the MFA to see some of these incredible artworks.

The first of Chihuly's works that you see is in the new atrium. It's an awe-inspiring 42 foot high Lime Green Icicle Tower, which looks like the most beautiful cactus you've ever seen. Except it's made of glass!


The variations in the colors of the over 2,000 individual glass pieces are what make it seem so real. How many colors do you see?


Check out this video of how they installed the piece at the museum!

The exhibit itself begins with a collection of flower-like shapes that Chihuly calls Persians. The name, says Chihuly, "conjured up Near Eastern, Byzantine...smells, was...exotic."


What else do these shapes remind you of?

Farther on in the exhibit, there is an empty room where the ceiling is covered with a kaleidoscopic collection of Persians.


All different hues of light stream down into the room from above. I love the unique perspective on the artwork here. It reminds me of looking at trees. You have to take a moment to look up and see the beauty that is high above your head. You might even want to lay down and play a little "I Spy" with your friends.


In the middle of the exhibit, you arrive in a fantastical undersea world full of weeds and flowers and trees and creatures, all in the most vibrant colors you can imagine.


This installation is enormous! The group of figures fill a space that is 58 feet long and the tallest pieces are 11 feet high! Chihuly calls these installations Mille Fiori, which means "thousand flowers" in Italian and is also the term for a type of glasswork used to make colorful vases and jewelry. Some of the forms that Chihuly includes in his Mille Fiori installations are called Reeds, Herons, Towers, Pods, and Seal Pups. Can you find them?

The final piece in the exhibit is called Neodymium Reeds and is a simple and subtle combination of lavender glass rods and birch tree logs.


Those are real tree trunks! I find it so intriguing that the trees here are horizontal and the rods are vertical. Have the trees fallen? Are these reeds growing out of decaying trunks? Or are they a new order of trees, overtaking the old? They're so perfect and bright, while the birch bark is so flaky, uneven and dull. What do you think about the combination of real items from nature and these surreal glass forms?

Chihuly enjoys this juxtaposition, often placing his works in the outdoors. He installed Amber Cattails in the narrow gardens that separate the MFA's new atrium from its original building.


They look like they're just growing right alongside the trees and shrubs. And yet, they're so strange. Do you think they look like they belong in nature or not?


In recent years, Chihuly has put on dozens of installations at Botanical Gardens throughout America and abroad. Let's take a peek at one installation he did at Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, Arizona. I love this little home made video. It gives you a genuine feeling of what it's like to walk through an outdoor installation like this. Keep an eye open for the glass works - sometimes it's hard to tell what's nature and what is glass!

I love thinking about the fact that it will rain or snow on these things. Just like real trees, real flowers, and real reeds, they are delicate and magical things that must survive the weather every day. How strong do you think these glass pieces are? How strong do you think the trees and the flowers are?

Chihuly's works really impress me in that they seem to have the capacity to excite children as much as adults. It's no surprise that a children's museum has actually dedicated permanent exhibit space, complete with hands-on activities, to one of Chihuly's works.

Fireworks of Glass at the Children's Museum of Indianapolis
picture by Intiaz Rahim

Back in Boston, as we make our way to the lunchroom at the MFA, we are in for one last little - no, a big - surprise. An enormous tree mural!


This is the product of the museum's community arts initiative, in which young students from several Boston-area Boys and Girls clubs worked together with artist Raul Gonzalez. They looked at images of family portraits from the museum's collection and set about making their own.


The kids added treasured items to their displays and put them all together into a wonderful family tree connecting many families and many traditions. What would your family tree look like? What kind of a family tree do you think Chihuly would make?

Perhaps when we get back to school, we'll draw some trees, some fantastical and some familial. For some more inspiration, check out this blog about drawing trees: How to draw a tree. It is full of amazing images, capturing the colors and shapes and wonder of trees. I can't stop reading it!

the mystery of the sticky burrs

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I search my tree every morning for more sticky burrs. So far I've found about 10, but all of them are too far away from my window to really get a good look at. I took a few moments the other day to draw a few that I could see the closest. They seem to come in three different varieties: on the tip of a twig, on the side of a twig, and on a stem on the side of a twig.


Here are the best photos I could get of the sticky burrs on my tree. This one is on the tip of a twig.


The one is on the side.


These have tiny little stems.


And these seem to be growing between two branches.


Overall, these sticky burrs remain a mystery. What's frustrating me is that I don't really see the ones on my tree developing into anything. And I haven't discovered any new ones in a while. So I'm wondering if these maybe aren't quite what I thought they were. Is it possible that these are just leftovers from last fall? Perhaps they're not the beginning of anything, but the end. They could be withered leaves. Which might explain why some of them have stems. And why they are all brown and dry looking.  (Because I would expect new, spring leaves to be green.) Hmmmm...

I wish something else would happen to give me a clue!

the boy who drew birds

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Story time, everyone!

Today, we have a gorgeous book, which, although not strictly about trees, definitely invites one to take a closer look at (or in) them. The Boy Who Drew Birds is a story about John James Audubon written by Jacqueline Davies and stunningly illustrated by Melissa Sweet and is a joy.


(On a side note: Jacqueline Davies is from a neighboring town and recently came to speak at my boys' school. All the third and fourth graders read her book The Lemonade War for a school-wide book group. She spoke about writing that book - and its upcoming sequel - and signed some books for us.) 

We first see John James as a young man with his father in the lush green French countryside. And we learn that what John James most loved to do was watch birds.


Next we see him in the white, snowy Pennsylvania woods. We learn that he was sent to America to learn commerce and to avoid fighting in Napoleon's war.


But what John James mostly does is watch the pewee birds and wonder if the birds he would see with the coming of the spring would be the same ones who had built the nests the previous year.


As he wonders about the birds, we watch the seasons pass, marked on one page by four simple little drawings of a single tree changing. These pictures, like the ones above, really show how much we understand the seasons through trees.


John James comes up with the novel idea to band a baby Phoebe bird with some silver thread to try to identify it if it returns the next year. He waits for the beginnings of spring and return of the birds.


When the birds arrive, he is delighted to discover that the birds he'd watched and studied and drawn in his little cave were indeed the same ones who returned to the cave the following year. And the baby bird he'd marked with the silver thread had established its own nest nearby. I love how Davies frames Audubon's question about the birds as the wonderings of a young boy far from his home, unsure if he'll ever return.

Davies also writes about Audubon's drawings, emphasizing how he studied and came to know his subjects by drawing and painting them. After having to do a few drawings of my own for science class, it's nice to see how effective this very direct and observational approach can be.


And it turns out he might not have liked his drawings much more than I like mine. That's reassuring too.

In the spirit of John James, the education section of the Audubon society's website contains tips on incorporating nature into family time. The Audubon society aims to help kids battle what some are calling a developing nature deficit disorder. For example, they sponsor an annual backyard bird count, an example of citizen science that collects info from volunteers everywhere, who watch for birds over a four-day period and provide a snapshot of bird life in the country. The website also contains tips for teachers for bringing nature into the classroom and teaching outdoors.


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With the help of my husband, I've figured out how to take some really close-up pictures of the buds on my tree and they look much more complex than I had perceived before. What appeared to be one simple bud on the tip of a branch now reveals itself to be made up of several different parts.There's a sort of center bud and two darker-colored, um, let's call 'em wings, on either side. Each bud seems to have this structure. Did these wings used to cover the whole inner bud? Are they pulling away from it? Or are they growing alongside it? Or were they always there and I just hadn't been able to identify them before now?


What amazes me is how this whole bud system seems to arrange itself in threes. I've already noticed that the branches coming off the twigs come out in pairs - that is to say, there'll be the center branch of the twig and then two branches coming off of it in opposite directions. Like this: \ I / . Three. Furthermore, the tip of each twig has a center bud and then a bud on either side of it - 3 buds. And now I see that each bud itself is made of 3 little parts, the inner bud and the two wings. Three. It's a magic number. Is that the key to understanding this tree?

Coincidentally, the buds on my tree seem to be in three different stages. I took a few minutes to draw them.


Some of the buds on the tips of the twigs of my tree still look like one single pointy bud (#1 above), but most of the ones I can see near my window look like #2. I'm assuming they're opening. Bud # 3 is the only one of its kind I can see on the tree and it is amazing! From my window it looks like a bud that is either cracking open or being pushed to the side and has something resembling the sticky burr texture inside or behind it. But with the camera, it is even more intriguing.


And the super, mega, ultra close-up is insane.


OMG, What is that stuff in the middle?! Is that the sticky burr thing uncurling? Is that growing from the inside of the bud? And what is that long thing on the side of it? A leaf? Some part of the twig? Did it come from the bud or was it already there?

Wow. And I thought they were just buds.

logo tree

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My husband has been listening to me talk about trees for over a week now. And he still reads this little blog. Aw. After reading one of my posts about drawing my tree earlier this week, he drew his own tree.


He drew this tree using a computer programming language called Logo, which was developed in the 80's for teaching computer science in a constructivist framewok. (For more on the history of Logo, check out the Logo Foundation website.) Hubby explains how he drew his tree: Logo has a screen on which sits a "turtle." The turtle has a pen attached to its tail and understands commands like "walk forward," "walk backward," "turn left," and "turn right."


That's all you need to draw a tree. Here's his program:

to tree :size
if :size >= 5 [
 forward :size
 left 60
 tree :size / 2
 right 60
 tree :size / 2
 right 60
 tree :size / 2
 left 60
 back :size]

Which means:

if the current size is greater or equal than 5 then do the following:
o draw a line of length size in the current direction
o turn left by 60 degrees
o draw a tree of half the current size
o turn right by 60 degrees
o draw a tree of half the current size
o turn right by 60 degrees
o draw a tree of half the current size
o turn left by 60 degrees
o draw a line of length size backward

Different trees can be made by varying the minimum size (here 5), the rotation angle and the proportion of the child trees to their parents.

Apparently, it's a simple exercise in recursion, which involves the repetition of the same form or function. Hubby says he started thinking about the Logo tree when he read this passage in my post from Monday about the groups of smaller branches that seemed to pop out of the main branches all around the same spot: "And in fact, they are very reminiscent of the original four limbs all bursting out of the main trunk at around the same height. I can see this same pattern repeated in some of the smaller branches too." He explained, that's what makes drawing a tree so simple with this program: the tree is just a bunch of smaller versions of itself (each made up of even smaller versions, etc.) attached to each other.


top and bottom

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Today I went up to the boys' room upstairs to get a different look at my tree. I can see the very top of the tree here and can look down and get a good sense of how many major limbs there really are. In order to capture this, I decided to draw another picture.


I noticed A LOT of new things about my tree. First, I noted that there were four major limbs coming off of the trunk. One of them has split into two similarly wide limbs a few feet up. The next set of branches go off in all sorts of directions. Some have grown downwards, some horizontally, some started growing up and then curved down. What was really interesting, though, was how there would be a stretch of branch with no smaller branches coming off of it and then, bam!, it's like an explosion of new branches all growing out from about the same area. I tried to capture a few of these in my drawing. They looked like the streaks that fireworks leave in the sky, all bursting from the same spot. And, in fact, they are very reminiscent of the original four limbs all bursting out of the main trunk at around the same height. I can see this same pattern repeated in some of the smaller branches too. Fascinating.

Also fascinating was the fact that all of the next set of thinner branches (the ones that are covered with buds) all reach up towards the sky. Even though the branches they have grown off of may be horizontal or even hanging down, their little branches curve back up toward the sky. Neato. Is this to get the leaves up to the sun? How is it then that the larger branches and limbs don't also reach up to the sky? Weren't they the little branches at one point? Did they change direction as they got bigger?

Up here I could also see that the branch that is at the tallest point of the tree has broken, probably either from the strong winds or heavy snow we've had this winter. It looks like something large broke off, a whole branch with smaller branches perhaps. Maybe we'll find it buried under the snow beneath the tree someday. Near that big break, there is a smaller branch that has been ripped off the main branch but is still hanging on. I'm curious to see how this branch develops in the spring. Will a broken branch grow the same way the others do? Will the cut heal itself?

When walking by my tree later in the day, I noticed - I'll admit it, for the first time! - a set of small, thin, smooth, obviously young branches growing out of the main trunk much lower than the main limbs. I'd estimate that the main limbs branch off around 11 or 12 feet up, but these new branches just pop out of the trunk at about 7 feet up. They're so weird!


It's like they were just stuck on there, like funny antlers. There is nothing else growing around them. Big question of the day: Why on earth would these start growing here?

a closer look

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Okay, let's just get this out in the open. I'm not good at drawing. When my three year-old daughter comes to me and asks me to draw a dog or a lion or something, I honestly tell her that her drawing of it will be much better than mine. Her pictures seem much more meaningful. She draws what she's understood about the thing. Maybe that's just the face of a person, so she draws a giant face and adds a few stick legs and arms. (The Germans have a name for this that I love: Kopffüssler, or Headfooted). When I draw, I have no idea where to start. In some ways, I know way too much about dogs to ever draw a picture of one that is meaningful. In other ways, I know way too little. When was the last time I really looked closely at a dog?

For my investigation of my tree, I am supposed to do some drawing. The idea of these science drawings is to take a closer look, to "see" more. Our science textbook suggests that the primary benefit of drawing in science class is "simply that it takes time. It keeps children in the company of an object long enough for them to become familiar with it."[1] The point of this journal is for me to practice the type of science I'd like to teach, therefore, I'm going to draw. Like my daughter does. What do I see? What makes sense to me? I am encouraged by these words: "Freed from the imagined burden of having to create aesthetically pleasing pictures...focus on the subject at hand and learn about it through drawing."[2]

Alright. Here's a sketch of a small section of my tree, as viewed from our living room window.


There's really a lot going on in just this tiny bit that I drew. The bark on the trunk and the large horizontal branch is really rough and mossy looking. It looks like it's full of cracks like paint peeling. The long ridges in the bark run along the length of the branch like poorly built parallel streets, rarely straight, but rarely crossing or meeting.

As a part of my tree-watching assignment, I am supposed to pick one specific twig on my tree and watch it particularly in order to get a close up look at the changes that are happening. Sometimes you can't see the twig for the trees, you know! In order to get to know my twig well, I chose to draw it. It extends towards me off the branch I've drawn above at the point I've labeled with a teeny tiny asterisk.


One thing I noticed while drawing this was just how symmetrical the little branches are on this twig. I couldn't get the perspective right, but there'll be a pair coming out on either side from about the same point and then the next pair will be coming out opposite from each other and usually 90 degrees offset from the first pair. I wonder what causes branches to grow like that. Our textbook suggests that through drawing, "children begin to realize what they know and what they don't know."[3] I don't know why branches grow the way they do. Is it totally random? I did notice that most of the tips of each tiny branch of my twig seem to have three buds - one at the very tip and one on either side. This seems like it could be the reason for the symmetrical branching. The center bud continues the main center branch and the two on the sides become the two new branches going off in opposing directions. So what happened where there aren't two opposing branches? Was there no bud there for some reason? Why are there some branches with just one or two buds at the tip? Did something happen to the second or third buds there? Did they start growing and then break off?

Now, in case my drawings haven't been quite as meaningful to you as they were to me (my textbook comforts me here a little too: "the sloppy or incomplete appearance of a particular science drawing may belie the role that creating it played in helping [one] to learn"[4]), here's my twig in multicolored megapixels for you.


The photo really captures the different color of this branch from the main one. It is also amazingly smooth. I am guessing that it's because this branch is newer and younger. As you move away from the main branches, the smaller branches get smoother and lighter in color. Will they look like the larger branch there in ten years?

(You might notice that I'm highlighting my questions as I'm writing about my tree. I might want to come back to them, so I thought it would be helpful to make them easier to find in a post.)

[1] Doris, E. (2010). Doing What Scientists Do. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. p. 113
[2] Doris, p. 128.
[3] Doris, p. 113.
[4] Doris, p. 128.

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About this Archive

This page is an archive of recent entries in the drawing category.

dogwood is the previous category.

fall colors is the next category.

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