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Draw what you know: The spirit of the Allegheny River

The desire to "draw what I know" opened my heart to welhik hane "The beautiful stream". Now known as the Allegheny River, its 325 miles flow through our area in New York, then, south to Pittsburgh, PA to the Gulf of Mexico via the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.

Draw what you know

I learned this lesson early in my career, thanks to a failed drawing of a Milwaukee Brewer's baseball game. Displaying a pen & ink at an art fair with the players out of position was one of those life-lessons I can laugh at now, but it was embarrassing at the time. I learned from that baseball drawing to do research before I begin a project.

Our river-themed art show, CURRENT, would not be complete if I didn't include a drawing of the Allegheny. This waterway is both wild and scenic and dramatically dammed, forming the Kinzua Reservoir, south of Warren PA. Researching the Allegheny piece, I discovered some interesting history. I was moved by the controversy around the building of the dam and how this affected the area people, including the Seneca Nation in the 1960s. Johnny Cash even sang a song about it. (Song written by Peter LaFarge, sung here by Johnny Cash, Pete Seeger and June Carter.) This was eye opening, it was more than just a beautiful stream. How could I do justice to this river in one drawing, with so many personalities?

Getting to know my subject first hand

On this quest, Bill and I drove from the headwaters in Potter County Pennsylvania, up into New York State, then, back down into PA to Kinzua Dam near Warren, PA. Watching my husband's delight as he stepped over the tiny stream at the beginning was a highlight. But that's Sandhill Bill's story to tell. My objective was to get a good view of the river for a big charcoal drawing. Traveling by car we were limited to following roads and crossing bridges. We stopped along the way and enjoyed the views, but something was missing. I felt like an outsider, I was back at the baseball game not fully understanding what the players were doing.

A call-out to local friends produced many suggestions for the best view of the Allegheny. Almost without exception, they were from a kayak. I had to get personal with this subject and learn to kayak. Writing this now, I realize how silly it is to even say, "learn" to kayak, since it turned out to be so easy. A group of workmates invited me along for my maiden voyage and I was hooked. Shortly after that, Sandhill Bill and I rented kayaks from Allegheny Outfitters and set out together on the river. It was magical! I finally felt I had experienced the Allegheny and found my perspective. A Merganser's-eye-view was just what I needed to inspire my drawing.

The following morning, I set up a large piece of paper on our front porch, masked off some areas to stay white and poured out my soul into this drawing. It flowed out of me like the river itself. I used my hands to create broad areas of tone, then, picked out details with a kneaded rubber eraser. With giant chunks of intense black charcoal I attacked the paper with quick, unrestricted strokes. In an effort to "draw what I know", I discovered the spirit of the Allegheny.

Quiet (Allegheny River) 32" x 46" Charcoal on Paper


This post is the second in a series delving into "CURRENT", our art show at the Octagon. Furniture maker Sandhill Bill and I will be displaying our work together concentrating on a common theme: waterways. The Octagon Gallery is in the Patterson Library, 40 S. Portage Street, Westfield, NY. The exhibit opens with a reception on April 20th and runs through June 1. We would love to see you there!

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