Specimen Days and Michigan Trees

Specimen Days

I conceive of no flourishing and heroic elements of Democracy in the United States, or of Democracy maintaining itself at all, without the Nature-element forming a main part – to be its health-element and beauty-element – to really underlie the whole politics, sanity, religion and art of the New World.
Walt Whitman, Specimen Days

I have spent nearly half of the summers of my adult life in the remote Keweenaw Peninsula in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, on the shores of Lake Superior. The summer of 2020 was different from most in that I arrived a month earlier than usual and experienced the late spring of the far north for the first time. It was also different because of the pandemic. The usual panoply of summer activities and events were replaced by a simple rhythm of daily walks and studio work.

I resumed a practice from the summer before of taking walks or riding my bike to a patch of skunk cabbage – Symplocarpus Foetidus – just outside of town, and bringing the large leaves back to the studio to make prints. These are unique prints – as similar and different as my daily walks – made by pressing a leaf into a watercolor wash freshly painted on a sheet of paper. Each print records a specimen leaf and a daily walk.

I don’t remember where or when Walt Whitman’s Specimen Days came to my attention, but the title felt right for this series and for this moment. Whitman published his prose memoir – a collection of “specimens” from his notebooks and journals – in 1882. As he wrote of this effort, “It will illustrate one phase of humanity anyhow; how few of life’s days and hours … are ever noted.” The most vivid of his entries record his impressions of the Civil War years in Washington D.C., where he was a regular visitor to the sick, wounded and dying soldiers in the military hospitals. He bore intimate witness to a divided nation in crisis. As we live through our own crisis in a divided nation, American history seen through the eyes of a poet is instructive, and perhaps comforting.

Liz Ward
November 23, 2020

  • Specimen Days, 2, 2020 Red/Blue: Quin Burnt Orange, rose of ult. blue, ult blue watercolor on paper 12 ¼ x 9”

  • Specimen Days, 5, 2020 Blue Green: Aureolin yellow; kyanite & amazonite watercolor on paper 12 ¼ x 9”

  • Specimen Days, 6, 2020 Blue: Undersea green, ult blue watercolor on paper 12 ¼ x 9”

  • Specimen Days, 7, 2020 Orange: Quin burnt orange, green gold, rose ult watercolor on paper 12 ¼ x 9”

  • Specimen Days, 9, 2020 Serpentine green, Raw umber violet, hem., Violet, fuschite watercolor on paper 12 ¼ x 9”

  • Specimen Days, 11, 2020 Aureolin; cascade green watercolor on paper 12 ¼ x 9”

  • Specimen Days, 13, 2020 Blue-green watercolor on paper 12 ¼ x 9”

  • Specimen Days, 14, 2020 Brown: Aureolin yellow; minn pipestone, lunar red rock watercolor on paper 12 ¼ x 9”

  • Specimen Days, 16, 2020 Blue: Cascade green, manganese blue watercolor on paper 12 ¼ x 9”

  • Specimen Days, 22, 2020 Verditer; Rose ult, fuschite, hem. Violet watercolor on paper 12 ¼ x 9”

  • Michigan Trees: Black Walnut, 2020 Silverpoint on tinted gesso on paper 14 x 10”

  • Michigan Trees: Black Walnut Tangential, 2020 Silverpoint on tinted gesso on paper 14 x 10”

  • Michigan Trees: Raspberry Island, 2020 Silverpoint on tinted gesso on paper 14 x 10”

  • Silverpoint on tinted gesso on paper 14 x 10”