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Embroidering Audubon

“I never for a day gave up listening to the songs of our birds, or watching their peculiar habits, or delineating them in the best way I could.”
– John James Audubon

Observation is a powerful skill. Not too long ago we were able to check out bird specimens from our local natural history museum. Sadly they've discontinued this service, but not before we were able to closely observe, sketch, and research more than a dozen species indigenous to our neck of the woods. Simultaneously, we studied the life work of Audubon. As we read, we embroidered original drawings of the birds we were researching.

This past spring, my daughter Hannah graduated from college. As she was a music performance and composition major, she had to write a significant body of original music. All of her music is experimental—Composition for Piano and Toy Piano, Piano and Hands, and so on. But it was the piece that she chose to play at her senior recital that made me smile, no doubt a nod to all the Observation Journal activities from her home school years.

This is what she has to say about composing the piece, entitled BirdTree:

I was inspired to write BirdTree when I stumbled across a video of a man who had created a record player that “plays” slices of tree trunks. The sound was transmitted as though a piano unlocks the music of the tree. In a thrift store, I discovered a book entitled, Field Birds and their Songs. These tools helped me imagine the diverse music of nature and inspired me to compose BirdTree. Reflecting now, all that luxurious time observing birds from the museum up close and personal on our own kitchen table must have somehow informed BirdTree. Without doubt this piece is a nod to Audubon! For this composition real melodies of birds are mixed with my personal interpretations of what different trees might sound like if I were wandering and listening to the forest like Audubon. You can hear a mighty oak, a sturdy elm, a weeping willow, and a tall pine interacting with a black and white warbler, the American robin, the blue jay, and the song sparrow. This piece is meant to echo the ethereal of forest life.

It is amazing how the past is stitched to the future. 

– Kim

Listen to BirdTree



 Further Reading:
Into the Woods: John James Audubon Lives His Dream
, Robert Burleigh
The Boy Who Drew Birds: A Story of John James Audubon
, Jaqueline Davies

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Learn to Read: Be a Copycat

There are many things that can only be said without words. Yes, without words.

This summer we launched a visual literacy campaign inside my guild. We began with observational exercises. I call this close looking. The goal is to discover and decode the phonics of visual art—line, texture, value, shape, color. We began with Paul Klee.

Paul Klee wanted his make-believe faces to be truer than true ones. He wanted to portray complex emotions in his simple paintings, not just what the eye is able to see on the outside. Head of a Man, Going Senile or Senecio, is a perfect painting to learn just how he accomplished this task.

Spend some time exploring Klee's original.

Always use art vocabulary to guide the observation:
What is the personality of the lives in the painting?
What geometric shapes do you see?
Is the composition symmetrical or asymmetrical?
Is the texture smooth or rough?
Are the values bright or dull?
Is the color warm or  cool?
Is the portraiture realistic or abstract?

This particular work was painted in 1922 while Paul Klee was teaching at the Bauhaus in Welmar. The painting now resides in the Kunstmuseum Basel in Switzerland.

Klee is famous for his experiments with bold color. In this painting, notice how the variations of color in the face contrast with each other and how the combined facial colors contrast with the bright orange background. Look closely, notice how the hot red eyes seem to jump off the canvas.

The simple, flat construction of the shapes is child-like—quintessential Klee. Klee used simple geometry to communicate complex mood and this is what makes his art unique.

The colors in this painting are warm and the shapes are simple. But this doesn't mean the composition is simple. Quite the contrary, the warm colors are complex, the simple shapes are constructed in a simply complex manner. And the best way to discover this complexity is to slow down, read the painting closely, and make a copy.

To copy the abstract face you will need:
– Canvas
– Brushes
– Acrylic Paints
– Water
– Paper Towels

1. Begin by mixing little tubs of paints that match the canvas, set aside.
2. Sketch Head of a Man onto the canvas lightly with pencil, paying careful attention to think proportionally.
3. Block in the colors using the paint in a thin manner with a bit more water.
4. Layer paint using a dry brush technique until the desired effect is achieved.

A close study of an abstract work of art takes time, cultivates patience and a host of wonderful character traits in the apprentice. But the most important benefit of a close reading of a painting such as this is the discovery that each line, each stroke of color, each simply constructed shape is certain phonics with vast potential to speak.

– Kim

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One week into the adventure, our errands accomplished, we were still in the van at twilight. Moving to the city was not what my husband and I had envisioned for our family, but food on the table is always a good thing! As we loaded our boxes into the U-haul we promised each other to look on the bright side of the concrete, but that particular night, after fighting traffic for 45 minutes, there was a shortage of positive thoughts. Rounding the corner into our brand new neighborhood I think it was Liam, then an animated three-year-old, who was first to spot them, “Mommy, look!” I slowed the van to a whispering tiptoe. In hushed tones, we watched as a mama raccoon and her kit crossed the street, “Wildlife in the city!” This was the moment we began to feel at home. From that day on we kept our eyes wide open, documenting our discoveries in the Observation Journal.


We’ve been city dwellers for nearly twelve years now. This past weekend our country folk friends ventured to the city to celebrate the beginning of fall. On Saturday, we were just about to begin breakfast when we heard a great commotion. We ran to the yard to find a murder of crows mobbing a Great Horned Owl snoozing in our tree. While I must admit this was an extravagant sighting, I was not surprised. My friends, on the other hand, were flabbergasted by this display of wildlife. Even the neighbors were drawn from their autonomous spaces, cameras and binoculars in hand, to observe the owl and her mortal enemies.


On Sunday morning Sara collected pellets from the base of the tree, “…a dissection opportunity for the Observation Journal.” And as you can see from the photos, the pellets provided a treasure trove of interesting material for scientific inquiry and discovery…not to mention a lot of ohhs and ahhhs.

The owl and the crows spent the weekend with us, then disappeared as mysteriously as they appeared.

Read more about starting an observation journal in the latest issue of Heart of the Matter's online magazine (see page 22).

Note: Should you not be so fortunate as to have a Great Horned Owl nesting nearby you can find owl pellets readily on the internet.

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Pearls in the Sky


I know this has nothing to do with my usual posts, Home Ec, but I just had to share this little garden delight with you.

Almost everyday when I go into the garden, I run into this very industrious spider's web with my head because I can’t see the intricately woven strands. This spider weaves a web to collect a nightly feast between the branches of my apple tree and the vine on the fence. But it’s always in a slightly different place. I’m sure the neighbors can hear me mumbling a malediction as I plow headlong into it on a daily basis!

Today my attitude changed completely as I was greeted with rain and the miracle and beauty of a web adorned with pearls.

Now, was that web the same yesterday and the day before?

Of course it was!

Isn’t it amazing how just a little shift in perspective changes everything?

– Sara

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Pages From a Third Grade Observation Journal

Almost exactly a year ago we posted about observation journaling (A Closer Look – Part 1 & Part 2). Working on this kind of journal is an important and holistic endeavor that builds science, reasearch, art, and writing skills. At the end of the year, if done with regularity, you'll find it's not only a precious memento of pictures and words but a rich and informed body of work.

Revisit our posts for a how-to, and be inspired by these pages from Hannah's third grade journal. I especially love how she takes note of her "fore frecels." Precious indeed!



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Listen with Your Eyes

I love summer not because we are “off” but because we get to jump start and fine tune our rhythm of routine. We get to be outdoors. And this summer that fact, connected to our policy of TQM equaled a thriving garden, well, that plus plenty of water and regular food for our little green friends (thanks for mentoring us Sara).


When my boys came in a few weeks ago with a larger than life-sized squash that appeared over night in the garden, you know, the kind that was not quite ready to pick yesterday and has become a snack for Gargantua over night, the kind that is just too tough for a delicate meal, I ask, “How 'bout grate the mutant into another modified version of zucchini bread?”

A resounding, “No…!”

“Okay, we'll make art!”

So we pull out the sketch pads for an impromptu art session. Because squash (especially in this overgrown state) will last on our counter indefinitely, they are perfect objects to accent a still life composition. But this curvaceous object, I decided, was perfect for contour drawing. So we set out on a visual journey, observing the delicate contours of this enormous vegetable.


Contour drawings show the outline of an object. Blind contour drawings are those created by looking only at the subject, not the paper, while drawing and to make matters more complicated, without lifting the pencil. One continuous line, this is the goal in a perfect world. This practice helps develop eye-hand coordination, helps to train the brain to listen to the eyes and to send the proper message to the pencil whose job it is to put marks on paper. Changes in form and space are tough to detect, this exercise allows the artist to get the eye, the brain, and the muscles to be on the same page.


My dear friend, painter and art mentor extraordinaire, Sandra, has been teaching me the value of contour drawing for many years, “Listen with your eyes,” that's what she says. At least that's where she begins. Here is where that little opener leads:

Putting the effort, (even if it is a little uncomfortable!), into the the practice of contour drawing is important for a few reasons.

  • Primarily, it works to strengthen observation skills, (drawing what one actually sees, as opposed to what the brain “knows”).
  • Blind contour assists in becoming “shape sensitive”… instead of drawing a nose… follow the contour curving left, then sharp turn right…
  • Lastly, It's fun, (if you embrace it)!!!


Whenever I struggle with a sketch… I'm not getting the correct gesture or tilt of the head or shape if the eye and shadow shape…

I switch my brain over to contour mode and rely on my eyes to tell my hand what to do. Right and left brain work together: Right brain follows the contours of shape, left brain analyzes where the shape relates to other shapes.

You can clearly see that she practices what she preaches. This is one of her contours.


This is where her rhythm of routine leads:
Since we live miles and miles apart, she mentors me via iPhone. My youngest son, Søren has been drawing all summer. When I sent Sandra his recent contour, he was tickled to read her encouragement:

“Soren's contour from last night is really good! Those undulations can be challenging, the tendency is to let the brain say, ‘…ya, ya, I know… up and down, up and down…blah blah blah…’. It looked like he was
really letting his eyes inform him! Keep it up!”

Sandra will be pleased to know that after 25+ years, I am beginning to recognize the value of this foundational skill. In fact, Søren and I have committed to a year of as close to daily contour drawing as possible. We will see where this goal lands us. My larger plan is to incorporate contour drawing into science workshops at my co-op this fall—15 minutes of observational drawing. I am sure Leonardo would nod approvingly, but his eyes would not stray from the subject at hand!

Click here for a really creative lesson from Lori over at the inspiring Camp Creek Blog, on how to begin blind contour drawing with younger children.

– Kim

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More Than Dessert


Leonardo da Vinci said, “All our knowledge has its origin in our perceptions.”

Well, Kim sent me this photo of the beginnings of an apple crisp that Taylor made and I just had to write about it! I immediately thought of Escher! It looks like an Escher!

All at once I could see the amazing back-story.

I see a 16 year old who is very artistic for one thing. But this image seems to be born in a musical brain, a brain that has been trained to carefully observe. Taylor’s musical brain is trained to see what is happening under his hands.

Now, my 16 year old would have just dumped the bowl of apples into the pan (as I would have).

I'm sure Taylor didn't have a preconceived picture in his head when he started making dessert. I bet he cut the first apple, observed the crescent shape, and began to ponder, “What would happen if…?” This is a mind that has been trained to step out and risk, to explore.

I taught Taylor when he was in Kindergarten in our home school co-op. He was a child who always appeared to have his thoughts in a cloud. You could just see the wheels turning and I remember thinking that I wished I could know what he was thinking about!

As the one who was trying to get him to concentrate on the subject at hand, however, this was challenging. I remember when Taylor would go to the bathroom to wash his hands, he would climb up on the stool, and just stare at the water flowing under and over his fingers as he slowly, and I mean v-e-r-y slowly, washed his hands. This of course irritated me, being the impatient adult who wanted to get on with the important job of teaching math or whatever!

Hmmm…Now, looking back, I realize that he was thinking very hard about that water—what it felt like, how it sounded. Was there rhythm that only a musical child could hear?

Looking back, I realize that Taylor was doing an Observation Journal without a lesson!

Looking back, darn it! Did I miss the golden opportunity to let him be? I should have just let him stay in there for an hour until he was done perceiving that water.

Well, thankfully he survived me. See what he does now without even being asked?

And I say, “Bravo Taylor!”

– Sara

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The Truth About the Color of a Tomato


We live in a colorful world.

It all begins with a never ending profusion of nuclear explosions in our sun. Eight minutes later all that radiation arrives at the earth in the form of electo-magnetic waves. Outside we are engulfed by white light. Thanks to Mr. Newton, who bent light with a prism—red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet—we understand that all colors are physically contained in white light. Inside the eye, a curious thing is happening.

So, what color is this tomato?

No, it's really not red, it's black. 

If you were holding this tomato in the palm of your hand in a dark cave, it would be black.

Everything on earth is made of atoms which are full of invisible energy. If the energy contained in white light is compatible with the energy of an object, that energy is absorbed by the object. Energy that is not compatible is bounced off the object.


This tomato is absorbing, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet energy.

The pupil then allows just the right amount of light into the eye to detect precise color. Rods and cones on the retina of the eye pick up the signal and decode the electromagnetic waves via the optic nerve in a mysterious spot at the back of the brain.

And voila, the tomato is red!

– Sara

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Observation: One Potato, Two Potato


A couple months ago the boys ran barefoot, shovels in hand eager to pull out the remnants of our summer garden. Last spring we transformed the decorative raised beds that edge our suburban lawn to vegetable patches, set up a compost pile on the strip of land between us and the neighbors, and kept a journal of our progress. At one point my youngest turned to me and remarked, "Happy Winds-day, Piglet," which made me burst out laughing because it truly was a perfectly wonderful blustery day indeed! 


As the boys pulled at pesky crab grass, harvested the last of the tomatoes and onions for afternoon salsa, they stumbled on an unexpected treasure. Growing in the midst of the grass were a handful of taller weed-like plants that we decided to pull from the soil. The boys were delighted to discover potatoes beneath the surface in various stages of development. I asked them how they thought potatoes started growing in our garden when we had never planted potatoes? After some thought and discussion they realized that these were volunteer plants that must have come from our rich compost soil.


I photographed the plants, and placed the real thing in plastic bags in the refrigerator for observation research later in the week and ran to the local library for a handful of books on the subject.


Be looking, be flexible, be ready! Sometimes the most unexpected treasures make the most interesting subjects for observation!