A Trip to the Zoo

An ostrich patrols the fenceline at the Utica Zoo.

Well, it certainly has been awhile, hasn’t it?

In mid-November, my 83 year old mom fell, fracturing a vertebra in her neck. The weeks that followed have been a blur of hospitalization, in-patient physical therapy, helping/giving moral support to my dad (now 92), and multiple interactions with the health care system: bloodwork, x-rays, and follow-up visits with doctors. As an only child, all of this “assisting” falls on me, though remarkably Dad is still Mom’s primary caregiver, but I’ve been busy, to say the least. She has improved tremendously, helped in no small part by taking her off several medications (with the doctor’s blessing) and so things finally seem to be smoothing out now.

Off to the Zoo

And that brings me to my first art “adventure” in many months: a trip to the zoo! The nearby city of Utica, New York (population 62,000 and change) is home to the Utica Zoo, a small regional zoo nestled on 80 acres of wooded parkland inside the city limits.

Why visit the zoo? Well, I’ve wanted to do a painting with a red fox in it for some time but I really don’t have any reference material of my own to speak of. I’ve glimpsed wild foxes (both red and gray) several times, but have had no opportunity to photograph them. The Utica Zoo’s website said they have a red fox in residence in their Children’s Zoo area, and with the day’s milder temperatures it seemed like a good time. Plus, since it’s January, the fox’s coat was sure to be thick and plush.

So, bundled against the chill and armed with my camera, off I went. Admission was modest ($4.25) and as you might imagine, I pretty much had the place to myself. The nice lady at the entrance gave me a map, and it quickly became obvious that I wouldn’t have time to see everything, so I focused on looking for my fox.

Red fox at the Utica Zoo.

The red fox, up high on his little “observation deck”.

Red Fox (No, not the guy in the TV show!)

The fox – a single male, as far as I could tell – perked up when I approached. I found him in his jungle-gym-y pen complete with a ladder to an upper level deck and catwalks. To get pictures, I had to manually focus on him, because the autofocus only wanted to take sharp pictures of the fence mesh. He had a lovely thick coat, but seemed a bit chubby, no doubt due to his sedentary lifestyle (a common problem with humans and zoo residents alike). I had half expected the fox to be curled up with his nose buried in his tail, sleeping. Instead, he was quite active, going up and down his ladder a couple times, stretching, nibbling on some food, and drinking out of his water bucket. I took a number of photos that will help if and when I can start a painting, but alas I’m still going to have to look for other reference, particularly video of wild foxes.

Lunch with the California Sea Lions

California sea lion swimming at the Utica Zoo.

The female California sea lion, swimming in their heated pool.

I also happened to be there in time to catch the 12:30 feeding of the California sea lions. Although their pool seemed a bit cramped for such large animals (the male weighs about 500 lbs.; the female is about half that), I was glad to see their meal was combined with interaction with their “keeper”. (Is that the correct term?) There was a nice give-and-take of hand signals and simple responses, followed by fish rewards.

California sea lion at the Utica Zoo.

The male sea lion orders lunch!

It was a very positive communication that reminded me of my dog obedience days and was much better, in my opinion, than the keeper simply dumping fish in the water and walking away. And, I noticed, each animal was fed separately – the male went into their shelter, while the female was fed first; then he came back out and had his meal. Everybody got their fair share of fish and attention, with no stealing or intimidation.

The Orphan and the Bad Boy

As is so often the case with animals in captivity, these two sea lions reside at the zoo because they can no longer live in the wild. The female was found as a day-old pup on a California beach, abandoned by her mother for reasons unknown. Wildlife officials took her in but she became too habituated to people to safely be released as an adult.

Likewise, the male, born in Oregon, became a bit of a rogue as a young adult, crossing highways and invading suburban backyards. He was captured twice, tagged and released into safer areas, but found his way back to the ‘burbs. The third time was the charm: some kids found him in their yard, thought he was cute and let him into the house. Their mom discovered him in her living room after she returned home from grocery shopping! At that point, it was clear to officials that this guy was also much too comfortable around humans to live safely as a “wild” sea lion.

The audience included a couple of moms with preschoolers in tow, and they commented on how smart and responsive the sea lions are. And that’s true, but I sometimes fear the the flip side: folks with no real knowledge of the natural world could easily conclude that wild sea lions might be just as friendly toward people as these two were. Having caught a glimpse of their teeth, I don’t think I’d want to make that assumption!

Aaaand, a World-Record Watering Can

World-record giant watering can at the Utica Zoo.

The Utica Zoo’s giant watering can. It’s 15-1/2 feet tall and 12 feet in diameter, According to the Guiness Book of World Records, it’s the largest watering can in the world.

There is another section of the zoo that I’m particularly interested in seeing, but it was some distance from the Children’s Zoo and the map indicated that the path is more of a rough trail. I wasn’t sure what I’d be getting into with snow on the ground, so I figured I’d save that for another day – maybe in late March or early April when the snow is gone but before the animals start blowing their winter coats. According to the map, there’s a Canada lynx, Arctic fox and snowy owl in residence there.

Before leaving, I also got to see the famous (and somewhat infamous) giant watering can! Fifteen years ago, Utica’s mayor was, shall we say, rather eccentric. Not long before he abruptly resigned his position, he ordered a $6000, one-ton copper watering can “to inspire and encourage Growing a More Beautiful City”. If memory serves, the thing arrived at city hall on the back of a flatbed truck. With the mayor gone, nobody knew what to do with it, so it was delivered to the zoo. It now looms over a nice little landscaped area at the Children’s Zoo, where it apparently “waters” the pond during warm weather.

Hey folks! November Doe is now available as a FINE ART PRINT – from the original oil painting – on archival paper, canvas and more, starting at less than $20. Order today – it’s simple, safe and secure!

Whitetail doe in ferns

November Doe, original oil on canvas, 14″ x 18″

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Life Goes On (and a New Painting!)

It’s a pretty morning. The sun is trying to burn through a light fog so the landscape outside my window is bathed in a wonderfully diffused, silvery light. The trees are all bare now – well, all except for the beeches, whose tawny orange leaves will doggedly hang on through much of the winter. They contrast nicely with the smooth gray trunks; once again, nature hits a home run with her color harmonies.

A Black-capped chickadee at the feeder

Always busy and cheerful: Black-capped chickadee

My resident winter birds – juncos, chickadees, nuthatches, cardinals and numerous woodpeckers – are busy at my bird feeders, but the chipmunks have gone to bed for the winter. In the shortening days of fall, less than ten hours of daylight – which we reached in the last week or so – seems to be their signal to sleep. I’m confident they’ve stashed enough sunflower seeds and peanuts from the feeders to make it through ‘til spring.

Pinecone in the branches of a white pine.

A cone balances in the branches of my white pine, like a bird waiting its turn at the feeder.

In the garden, only the delicate white alyssum are hanging on (and still blooming!). They’re obviously a lot tougher than they look.

The alyssum just keeps on blooming in spite of the frosts we've had.

The alyssum just keeps on blooming in spite of the frosts we’ve had.

November in central New York is often gray, wet, and dreary but this year we’ve had a beautiful fall with very little gloom – at least weather-wise. The last month, however, has been sad and stressful due to a number of family events, so while I have several new painting ideas floating around in my head, I just don’t have the time (or the energy) to get them out and onto canvas right now. But as they say, this too shall pass. I’m hopeful that things will settle down soon.

New Painting – First Light

First Light, original Adirondack oil painting

First Light, oil on panel, 18″ x 24″. ©Kathy R. Partridge, 2015.

In the meantime, I realized I hadn’t yet shared the last painting I was able to finish, titled First Light. It’s 18” x 24” on panel and is based on a spot I painted at the Publisher’s Invitational in Paul Smith’s, New York. As usual, I made a number of changes and adjustments (including the time of day) from the actual location to create the painting I saw in my mind’s eye.

The Calm

One of the things I love about locations like First Light, especially at the ends of the day, is the calm. There’s usually no wind so the water reflects the cool, quiet hues of the sky and trees like a looking-glass. The resident birds and wildlife are already up and about their business; this being an early summer painting, you can just imagine the chorus of birdsong that’s rising from the forest. And in the far distance, I couldn’t resist painting a Great blue heron winging his way over the marsh in the soft light. His day has also begun as he’s off to his favorite fishing spot.

More to Come

I do in fact, have a couple more recent paintings that I haven’t yet shared here. (My bad!) But I’ll save those for a future post.

Stay safe and enjoy nature!


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The Silence of the Wilds

September in the Adirondacks

It was a pleasantly warm morning for mid-September and the sun was especially welcome after two days of mist and drizzle. As I eased the car down the hill and over the narrow sandy causeway to the island, I paused about half-way over to check out the scene. Across the shallow bay to my left, the sunlight sparkled on the water like a million diamonds. To my right, huge boulders – some the size of a sub-compact car – sat in the muddy shallows, exposed to the elements after being underwater for most of the summer. The landscape was still mostly green with only the first hints of the autumn color to come.

Here on Stillwater Reservoir, water levels fluctuate in a more-or-less seasonal rhythm. Created in 1885 when the first dam across the Beaver River was built, it was last enlarged in 1924 to create a body of water about 8 miles long and 3 miles at its widest. The reservoir (also known as Beaver River Flow or just ‘The Flow’ to locals) is used to control water levels on downstream rivers, and as it drops, a much more interesting (and accessible) landscape is revealed. On this day, the water was down about 9 feet, creating many shallow feeding areas that are perfect for viewing ducks, geese and various wading birds.

Giant boulders and ancient tree stumps about on the shores of Stillwater Reservoir.

Giant boulders and ancient tree stumps abound on the shores of Stillwater Reservoir.

Out on the island (that’s what everyone here calls it – I don’t think it has an official name), there’s a scene waiting to be painted in nearly every direction. September is probably my favorite month for plein air painting here. The Adirondack piranhas (aka black flies) are long gone, temperatures have cooled and the oppressive humidity of summer is past. The sun is lower in the sky, even at noon, so the light is better as well. This is not the spectacular tourist-attracting landscape of the High Peaks/Lake Placid area. Stillwater has a unique rugged beauty all its own, punctuated by those giant boulders and ancient tree stumps left behind after the lumberjacks last swept through nearly 100 years ago.

Pollinators Everywhere

As I reached the island, I decided to pull the car off the one-lane dirt “road” onto a piece of higher ground where there was no chance of getting stuck. Although there were few people in town, this being a Wednesday, I was pretty much assured to having the place more or less to myself. Still, I needed to be out of the way in case anyone came by.

I got out of the car and began unloading my stuff. That’s when I noticed I was surrounded by a sea of tiny miniaturized asters (Flat-topped white aster, I think). Most years, this patch of ground is underwater for much of the spring, so these teeny wildflowers get a late start. They apparently don’t waste time growing tall and wide; most of them were a single stem less than a foot high, with very short side branches and as many tiny blooms as the little plants could muster. And they were covered with humming pollinators big and small; some looked like hornets, others more like little flies. There were butterflies and bees, too: both bumble and honeybees. And none of them paid the slightest attention to me as I walked around the car, getting my chair, tripod, pochade, shade umbrella and painting supplies out. As at home in the garden, we all just went about our business.

Painting and Paying Attention

Once I found my view, it took about 15 minutes to get set up. Finally, after rummaging through my box to find the right painting panel, I got to work.

There are two reasons I enjoy getting out like this. One, of course, is the challenge of doing a painting on the spot in about two hours, before the light changes too much. But the other has absolutely nothing to do with painting. When I’m out “in the middle of nowhere”, sitting quietly, I’m reminded once again of how much life – of the non-human variety – is going on around me. As I work, the other half of my brain takes note of the sounds – the whisper of the wind in the white pine boughs; Canada geese honk-a-lonk-ing on the other side of the island; chickadees and nuthatches in the balsam fir behind me. A red squirrel chatters in the distance – or was that a kingfisher? (I still sometimes confuse the two.) Flocks of blue jays squawk as they fly from one island to the next. Ducks dabble. Very often, a heron will drop in and stalk his prey in the water right in front of me.

A Great blue heron stalks his prey along the shoreline.

A Great blue heron stalks his prey along the shoreline.

Bald eagles soaring overhead are not unusual, either. Usually it’s the immature birds – but occasionally the more wary adults will come close enough for a good photo.

My first painting of the day went pretty well; a study of the shoreline across a narrow channel with reflections and a small balancing boulder, no doubt left behind when the glaciers receded from this area some 10,000 years ago. I’ve found that often my morning paintings do go fairly well; I think it’s because I prefer the cleaner light and if I can get going early enough, the shadow patterns are more interesting.

Shoreline Rock, oil on panel, 8" x 12" (Plein air).

Shoreline Rock, oil on panel, 8″ x 12″ (Plein air).

I tend to approach my afternoon paintings with a little more trepidation, because for whatever reason, I’m more likely to be disappointed in them. But this day, I went out a little further onto the island so I could set up in the shade and do a study of the road I’d just come over, with a sunlit shoreline in the distance – I wouldn’t even need to put up my umbrella (yay!). Surprise, surprise, this one also went well and around 3:30 or so I decided that additional fiddling would not make it a better painting – so I decided to quit while I was ahead.

Grassy Point Road, oil on panel, 8" x 12" (Plein air).

Grassy Point Road, oil on panel, 8″ x 12″ (Plein air).

The Silence of the Wilds

All together, maybe 3 vehicles went jouncing and bouncing by me on their way to check their boats or motor down the Flow to Stillwater (the landing) and the “outside” world. Their intrusion was brief. As for me, I was more than happy to sit and paint in the silence of the wilds: the chatter of the birds, the hum of the bees and the sigh of the wind in the white pines.

On this day, all was right with the world.

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The Adirondacks National Exhibition of American Watercolors

Some of the great rocky outcroppings on the Moose River.

Some of the great rocky outcroppings on the Moose River.

Last Thursday dawned clear and sunny, a bit of a surprise after two days of soaking rain and a forecast that predicted gloom and showers for the rest of the week. Sun, blue sky and high clouds made it a great day for a drive north to see the Adirondacks National Exhibition of American Watercolors, an annual juried show at View, the arts center in Old Forge, New York. This year’s juror of selection was Elaine Daily Birnbaum, AWS, NWS of Madison, WI and the awards juror was Roger DeMuth of Cazenovia, NY, artist and Professor Emiriti of Syracuse University.

I had another mission as well. I wanted to take a short drive down a side road to see and photograph a particularly scenic stretch of the Moose River. Not knowing how long I’d be gone and with the temperature predicted for the mid-50s, I decided to take the dog along, even though she’d have to stay in the car. So off we went on our little jaunt to find lovely scenery, see the autumn colors and appreciate some fine watercolors.

I’ll let the photos tell the tale. Please note that the paintings were all under plexi, so reflections were a problem. Still, I think the photos give a good idea of the quality of the work. There were many more that I could have put up. It was, in my opinion, a really strong show.

Autumn trees

The leaves are really slow to turn color this year and seem dull where they have. Normally, “peak” would have been the last weekend in September.

Sheer rock right down to the water.

Sheer rock right down to the water. Granite, maybe? (Sorry, not a geologist.)

Great sketch on display in one of the hallways.

Great sketch on display in one of the hallways at View. Every year, a special poster is issued for the watercolor show. This sketch is for the 2000 poster.

Adirondacks National Exhibition of American Watercolors

The show!

The main gallery at View where the watercolor show is hung.

The main gallery at View where the watercolor show is hung.

Dean Mitchell's

Dean Mitchell’s Napoleon House II.

Paul's Porch

Catherine O’Neill, AWS, NWS. Paul’s Porch.


Janet Belich, NWS. Split Hairs.

Bird's Nest

Steve Morris, Avian Candominium.

Trout Lilies

Bob Ripley, Trout Lilies. I love how the award medallions are displayed.

Pomegranates and Cranberries

Chris Krupinski, AWS-DF, NWS. Pomegranates and Cranberries.

Another exhibit in the adjacent smaller gallery.

Another exhibit in the adjacent smaller gallery.

Ducks in a row in a different section of the Moose River - in the town of Old Forge.

Ducks in a row in a different section of the Moose River – in the town of Old Forge.

My first Adirondack moose sighting and it's a plastic one on somebody's deck.

My first Adirondack moose sighting and it’s a plastic one on somebody’s deck.

Last shot of the Moose River, this time in Thendara, New York.

Last shot of the Moose River, this time in Thendara, New York.

Clockwork at the 55th Annual Members’ Exhibition of the Society of Animal Artists, Art and the Animal, will be on display at the Roger Tory Peterson Institute of Natural History in Jamestown, New York through October 25, 2015.

Cadence and Dusk, both at the Equine Jubilee exhibit at the Arts Castle in Delaware, Ohio, through October 16, 2015.

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