Inspirations: The Natural World

Today, I launch an informal, irregular series about my inspirations in life and work. I’m stepping out of my comfort zone a little. I don’t like to “explain” art, but I hope to share the interests and ideas that make my work what it is.

I have an absolute passion for planet Earth, and of course, I have strong feelings about climate change and humanity’s role in both driving and stopping it. As an artist and as a person, I feel a duty to speak on this issue in the ways that the arts can, that the arts are supposed to speak. So what am I saying about it?

JFries Interphase Multiversal Observatory
Interphase Multiversal Observatory #1

Nature is the omnipresent context of everything humans do, and my work pushes back against the idea that humans and nature are somehow alien and distant from each other. You can find nature in almost all my work. The street scenes of the Cities series include birds, weather, plants. Even a toy like the Interphase Multiversal Observatory references the infinite night sky.

I want to lure people into seeing nature differently, feeling differently about their relationship to it. I show them what is in front of them every day. This is Earth. Yes, it’s polar bears, but it’s also right here, right now, next to you.

The Mystic River Project

The Mystic River Project will be a long journey examining this relationship of humanity and the natural world via the Mystic River watershed here in the Boston area. It’s a dramatic tale of human impact, of US history, the Industrial Revolution, politics and cultural attitudes, environmental degradation and recovery, and the persistence of nature.

The story will be told in collages, objects, books, maybe some videos (not sure about that yet), and in chapters focusing on different parts of the river, using my own photographs as well as made and found materials.

JFries MysticBirds1 Herring Gulls 4.2.19
Estuary Birds: Herring Gulls

The first few species portraits of the Estuary Birds chapter set the mood. My photos of the birds and the Tobin Bridge are cut apart and reconstructed to capture moments as I saw them at the Schrafft’s City Center in Charlestown. Anyone can go there and see for themselves. That’s what I want people to do. 

We see these birds every day, but maybe the problem is that we don’t see them. We should. They are our neighbors. They have survived all our bullshit and stupidity, and they are still here. They are the nature we struggle with and long for, staring us right in the face. They are every bit as much the natural world as the legendary, romanticized whales, which, by the way, also happen to be right here among us, just outside the river, passing through Massachusetts Bay.

Estuary Birds may end up with as many as twenty species portraits. Just last week, I saw two birds I’d never seen before, a male surf scoter and another I’m still trying to identify. Then there’s the rest of this micro-ecosystem – the life under the water and on the streets. And later, chapters on the upper river, the lakes, the tributaries.

In every part of it, there is the struggle, the presence of human beings, and the question of what we will do with our living world. Which brings me to the other side of my inspiration. The shadow side, as it were. There are always shadows when you deal with me.

JFries Judgment detail
Judgment, detail

In 2014, I made an assemblage titled Judgment in response to an article in Smithsonian Magazine online. It was about climate change melting the glaciers of the Italian Alps. As the ice melts, it uncovers the remains of soldiers killed in World War I. The campaign there was called the White War and included a vicious and environmentally allegorical tactic. Apparently, each side used artillery to deliberately trigger avalanches to destroy each other’s encampments on the mountainsides. Thousands of soldiers were killed this way, their bodies and belongings encased in miles of ice, lost – until now. The report said that every day brings another discovery of human bones washed down the melt-swollen mountain streams into the villages below. I found the Biblical reference apt indeed.

Nature in my work expresses what I love most about life. It is beauty and continuity and hope. It is the seamless connection of every person to the whole of creation. It is what really matters.

And it is the choice we face. Humanity is at a crossroads, brought here by our past choices. In one direction awaits judgment for our mistakes. In the other, a new way of thinking, an adjusted set of priorities. One, payment for the past. The other, a future based on love and connectedness.

As I try to sort it all out, I find myself celebrating the natural world in the city. I hope to raise people’s consciousness of their immediate surroundings. The world worth saving, the one where each of us makes a difference, is the one we happen to be standing in.


A Selection of Recent and Older Works
Inspired by the Natural World

Out of the Studio – Mystic River Walk

JFries Mystic River border 1.11.2020

This week’s post takes us out of the studio for an impromptu hike along the Mystic River. It was 70 degrees F in Massachusetts yesterday – not entirely reassuring re climate change – and I took advantage of it to stroll the river walk from Assembly Row to the Blessing of the Bay Boathouse here in Somerville to refresh my lungs and my spirit and refill my creative reserves .

It was a red-letter day for water fowl. I saw hundreds of herring and black-backed gulls, at least 80 by my count mute swans, the same or more of Canada geese, and the flocks of bufflehead and mallard ducks, and red-breasted mergansers. The real stars of the day were the swans, who were everywhere one looked. These are the inspirations for my Mystic River Project, of which the Estuary Birds are part.

Please enjoy these shots from my 2.5-hour walk.

A Walk in the Woods

JFries forest border 1.5.2020

I thought I’d share a glimpse into my creative process today. 

I did some monotype practice, making black and white dendritic prints. Those are the ones where you squish paint or ink between two panes of glass or sheets of metal – two impermeable flat surfaces – then pry them apart, leaving a pattern of branching forms on each surface made by the physics of fluids. You then pick up the patterns on your paper, producing two mirrored images.

JFries bw monoprint 1.5.2020

There are a lot of tutorials on Youtube, so I’m not going to teach you how to do it. Just go squish some paint and see what you get.

No, I want to talk about the process of designing a collage. The thing with dendritic prints, similar to inkblots, is you will see in them whatever your mind creates. I typically see landscapes, so go psychoanalyze that. The point is images emerge, and the artist will build upon them.

JFries bw forest dark 1.5.2020

So I focused on this print and thought, “It’s a forest. A deep, dark forest. Who will I meet there? What action will I witness?”

Scenes began to coalesce in my imagination, and I hit my clippings files to find figures and objects to play the parts.

Unfortunately, all the images that would work are also black and white and tend to disappear on this background. Adding color masks didn’t work.

JFries collage composition 1.5.2020

I need an image in color or which can be colored. Something in the right mood. I have this one image from a Victorian Christmas decoration. It’s about two inches high, a little girl holding a miniature Christmas tree that would be perfect for what’s in my head.

This kid has been haunting my studio for nearly ten years. Clipped ages ago but never quite fitting into a scene, she’s constantly fluttering about, in the way, falling out of every stack of papers I pick up.

Wouldn’t you know, today I can’t find her.

JFries bw forest light detail1 1.5.2020

Obviously, I went first to where I thought I’d last seen her.

Then I checked a succession of places she could likely be.

Then I went back into the files on the off chance I had inadvertently put her away where she belongs.

JFries bw forest dark detail2 1.5.2020

By that point, I was pretty well cursing her, her damned tree, and the entire Victorian era straight to the Devil, and considering stopping everything to completely reorganize all my collage clippings. Maybe my whole studio into the bargain.

Then I got called for tea, and I realized it will soon be dinner time, and I have other things to do.

Still haven’t found the papery little pest. The cat better have eaten her, that’s all I can say.

This is the life of a creative. The prints came out well, though.

JFries bw forest light 1.5.2020

Happy New Year – It’s the Roaring Twenties!

JFries leaves banner 12.31.19

Tomorrow dawns the 2020s, and I realized that exactly 100 years ago, the 19th Amendment became part of the US Constitution, and American women got the vote.

The parallels between then and now are uncanny. We were talking it over at dinner this evening. In addition to giving women the vote, the 1920s saw the rise of extreme political and religious beliefs, overweening morality laws and backlashes against them, social and political grassroots organization, massive advances in science and technology with accompanying benefits and abuses, domestic and international terrorism, a great flowering of arts and intellectualism, and fundamental, permanent changes in the ways people lived day to day. In the wake of WW1, it was a decade of no going back to the old conformist pantomimes of class and propriety of the 1890s and 1910s. We can debate whether it was good or bad, but it was truly a revolutionary decade.

I’m pretty sure our 20s will be revolutionary too, with climate change crashing into us, the return of extreme ideologies, science racing forward, and all of us facing the challenges of a shifting world. One way or another, I think we are all going to change our lives forever. I think there will be a lot of ideas to express. Who knows, but we might even finally settle some of the fights we started way back then.

It’s scary but also exciting. Maybe I’m just itching to mix it up with the world. Maybe I’m tired of the same old same-old. I can’t help it – I’m an Aquarius. We like new things. We live for tomorrow.

But tonight, I say farewell to the 2010s. Here is the last of my final project of the decade, the East Somerville Trees collages – preserved memories of autumn under our urban canopy, part of the Botanicals and Cities series. It’s about the things that really matter in the midst of all the changes.

These are destined for a book, so be on the lookout for updates on that.

Happy New Year!

Free Tutorial: Quick Altered Greeting Card Notebooks

A Gift From Me to You

It’s been a season of ups and downs, hasn’t it? These past few weeks have been all business-business-work-work-work, with little time for art, and not much for enjoying the holidays, either. But art and holidays are here nonetheless, and by hook or by crook, I’m going to wrest some festivity out of December. 

So, for all you wonderful folks who follow this site (thank you so much!) and for all harried, distracted, stressed-out folks in need of a last-minute gift, I offer an easy, free tutorial for making notebooks from altered greeting cards. A little gift from me to express a lot of appreciation for you.

First some work-work news:

  • I have posted a new Privacy Policy for Jen Fries Arts. The link is in the footer of each page and under the Home tab. Please take a moment to read it.
  • I have added the leaf specimens and the autumn zines to the Artworks gallery under Cities, Botanicals, and Zines and Art Books.
  • I am working on more leaf specimens as we glide into winter proper, so look for those before the new year.

And now, the tutorial.

Altered Greeting Card Notebooks

Do you like greeting cards but wish they were more useful? Do you have treasured cards from friends and family and want to do more than keep them in a box somewhere? Let’s remake them into notebooks!

This project uses sharp tools and is best for teens and adults. Kids may participate with adult supervision.


You will need:

  • Greeting cards, old or new
  • Paper – writing or printer paper is best
  • Ephemera, stickers, scrap paper, paint, stamps, ink, etc. (optional)
  • String or embroidery cotton
  • Tapestry or embroidery needle – blunt point and big eye
  • Scissors
  • Book awl or other fine pokey tool
  • Ruler
  • Bone folder (optional)
  • Pencil and eraser
  • Paper clips
  • Cutting blade or paper cutter
  • Cutting mat or other surface safe for cutting and poking
  • Paper glue
  • Wax paper

Step 1: Design

A) Take a look at your cards. These will be the covers of your notebooks. 

How big are they? If they have a printed message, do you want to keep it? Do you want to change the image, color, or feel of the cards? Do you want to do anything to the back of the cards?

For this project, we’ll keep things simple and just add some color and pockets to the insides of the cards.

B) Experiment to see how many pages your cards can hold and still close comfortably. For this project we will use 5 folded sheets per card.

TIP: The number of pages will depend on how you plan to use your altered card notebook. Five sheets is comfortable for writing and drawing. If you plan to paste in family pictures or memorabilia, those will add thickness, so use fewer sheets.


Add little pockets and tuck spots.

Step 2: Embellish your cover

A) Apply your background paper or color. For this project, we are using acrylic paint. If you want to keep the printed message, cover it with a piece of paper to protect it. Lightly sponge or splatter the paint over the inside of the card. Work fast with small amounts of color. Keep your sponge or brush as dry as you can and still get color onto the card. Keep going until you like how it looks. Allow to dry. 

B) Cut paper for the inside pockets and fit them in where you want them to be. Glue in place. Do the same with any other ephemera you wish.

Sponged acrylic paint. Use a light hand with paint and glue.

TIP: Use as little glue and paint as possible to avoid warping the card. They tend to be very warpy. If using paint or ink, it’s better to do several light, dry layers than one heavy, wet one.

C) Lay a sheet of wax paper inside the card, and let it dry closed under weight, such as under a few books. This should not take long. Prep your pages while you wait.


Use care with cutting tools.

Step 3: Cut and fold your pages

A) Measure your card from the top edge to the bottom edge. That is the height of your pages.

B) Measure your card from the center fold to the outer edge of the face of the card. That will be the width of your pages.

C) Mark the height and width measurements in pencil on one sheet of paper. Stack five sheets, and trim them all together with your blade or paper cutter. Erase any remaining pencil marks

TIP: Greeting cards are often folded a little off center, so no matter how you measure your pages, it won’t be perfect. For now, measure just the front face of your card. Then double that measurement to get the full width of your page sheets. This will make sure the pages match the part that people will look at the most.

Folded sheets nested together.

D) Fold each sheet of paper in half, using the bone folder to sharpen the creases if you like. Then nest the folded sheets together. This is your signature of pages. Snug the signature into the card and see if you want to trim the edges any more. Be careful – the more paper you try to cut through at once, the more likely you’ll get a mis-cut.



Step 4: Sewing your notebook

A) Nest the signature into the card as snugly as possible. Use clips to hold the pages and card together, if needed.

Clips hold the pages and cover together while sewing.

B) With your awl or pokey tool, punch three holes into the center fold line, making sure to go through all the layers. Place the holes at the center and a comfortable distance in from the top and bottom edges. You can measure, but it’s okay to eyeball it. Wiggle the awl in the holes to make sure they are all well open for ease of sewing.

It’s easier to pierce from the inside of the book than the outside.

TIP: Don’t flatten the notebook completely to make the sewing holes. Holding it slightly closed so you are piercing into the fold makes it easier to keep the holes right on the spine.

C) Cut about an arm’s length of string or thread to give you enough to work with. Thread your needle.

D) Sew the book as follows:

1) From the outside of the book, go in the center hole. Leave a good tail hanging.


2) From the inside of the book, go out one of the edge holes.


3) From the outside of the book, go in the other edge hole.


4) From the inside of the book, go out the center hole. 


Looking at the outside of the book, you should have a long line of thread along the spine and two tails hanging loose from the center. Make sure the line of thread runs between the two tails.

5) Tie the tails in a knot or bow over the line of thread to anchor everything in place. Pull snugly but not too hard, or you might tear the paper. Trim the thread ends to desired length.

And you are done!

These little altered card notebooks make a wonderful gift for Christmas or any holiday or occasion. Make a little brag book for the grandparents, or a guide to dorm life for a new college student. Going on vacation? Make a travel journal with a card featuring your destination to collect special ephemera on your trip. Or take that special card you received from someone close and make it a journal of what they mean to you.

If you make some of these notebooks, I’d love to hear about it and see some pictures.

Happy Holidays!

Nature in the City: Leaf Specimens, Geese, Ducks, Sunset

JFries Tobin and boat banner 12.19

Hello, all! This week’s – (checks calendar) – er, I mean this fortnight’s artwork comes from my walks under the urban canopy of Somerville, Massachusetts. I made these specimen collages from just a few of the many tree leaves that have found their way amongst the pages of my books. I have a deep fondness for leaves as objects – their colors, textures, intricate inner structures, varied shapes. So I present them just as they are in a vaguely scientific context, for contemplation and exploration.

I am also working on 2020 updates for the website, and wouldn’t you know it, this month, every government in the world decides to announce new laws affecting online content to be implemented as of next month. So now I get to learn more things. Life is chaos. I believe some physicists say that, don’t they? If not, they should because it is. In any event, be on the lookout for a working contact function (finally!), new pages and reorganized categories, and yes, it’s really happening, a way to buy stuff. I know, right? Miraculous.

Bird-Nerd Update: A recent walk along the Mystic estuary was highlighted by some rather nice afternoon lighting and bird sightings. Between bad weather and ill health, I’ve fallen behind on my birding, but last week, I got buzzed by a small flock of Canada geese as they swooped in to graze the ball field – always a little thrill – and I observed some Bufflehead ducks bobbing and diving in the river, one male and two females. Unfortunately, the light by then was fading, and Buffleheads are quite small. This blurry shot of one of the females is the best I could do, but she can be known by the distinctive white strip on her cheek, and the white spot on her wing. The male, by comparison, is a striking black and white with iridescence on his head, but he was too far from the dock for me to get a good shot of him as the sun set. Buffleheads winter in Massachusetts. I hope these stick around so I can get better pics and add them to the Estuary Birds series.

Leaf Specimens



Female Bufflehead in shadow

JFries female bufflehead 12.19


Canada geese grazing

JFries canada geese 12.19


Tobin bridge, tug boat, and the Pier 4 barge

JFries Tobin and boat 12.19


An ironic view of the Everett side in really gorgeous light

JFries powerplant and casino 12.19

Bats! The Die Fledermaus Opera Crown is complete

JFries Die Fledermaus 11.2019 banner

It’s done!

I’m sorry for having dropped off the planet for a while there, but the Die Fledermaus Crown ended up consuming me entirely as it finally took shape. Pop-up technical issues had to be solved. Last-minute design edits happened. Inevitabilities had to be accepted and let go.

And so I present the first studio photos of the Fantasy Opera Crown of Die Fledermaus (music by Johann Strauss, bats by me). BEHOLD!

This might be the single craziest object I have ever made, and I am rather pleased with it, if I do say so myself. I plan more polished photos, maybe a few cards and posters, a video showing off its details such as the gold and silver origami moths and stars. You can wear this on your head – have I mentioned that? I wonder who among my friends I can con into modeling it for me…

While completing the crown, I also finished my autumn-themed sketchbook/journal and began a series of autumn leaf specimen collages for the Botanicals series. I’ll post about those soon.

It’s good to be back. Now to clear the decks for the next projects.

JFries futility of human endeavor 11.23.19

Anyway… See you all soon.

JFries Die Fledermaus 11.2019 banner2

Deadline Slightly Blown: Zines, Loose Ends, and Something to Wear

As mentioned in my last entry, I was sick through much of October and had just over one week to try to complete four weeks of projects. I did better than I thought I would, and I’ve decided to cheat slightly by extending the spooky season to the end of this weekend, to finish a few things and tie off those loose ends.

Completed in October proper, two zine-type books: 

– “Masquerade,” featured last week, a book about masks, disguises, and false fronts. The hand-typed text is taken from dictionary clippings and famous quotes, and the illustrations are paper collage.

– “On the Emergence of Ghosts,” a mini collection of monotype prints. These are some of my favorites from a recent printmaking session. I first made the Rorschach-like blot prints with ultramarine blue acrylic paint on sketch paper. Then, before the paint was fully dry, I took a ghost print from the blot by laying over another piece of paper and folding and pressing it again.

Still progress from October:

– “Cemetery Dance,” a zine on a memento mori theme with quotes from Shakespeare.

– Mini mask cards, just some small toys.

– Die Fledermaus Crown, a piece of wearable art. This was my big project for the month, and I’m amazed I was able to get it about 80% done in a week. I wanted something wearable for Halloween, but I’ve been a little off masks; I need to think about them some more. Then the words “bat” and “crown” popped into my head. The first-draft idea was Dracula-esque, then it evolved into a kind of naturalist ode to bats, but you know what? It’s a bat crown. It’s neither possible nor appropriate for such a thing to be dark or quiet or serious. So it ended up inspired by the frilly, fizzy, champagne-popping operetta Die Fledermaus by Johann Strauss, the Viennese Waltz King. I figure it will be just as appropriate for New Year, which is when most opera companies perform Die Fledermaus. Maybe I’ll do a series of opera crowns. The Magic Flute is starting to suggest itself.

In any event, the crown still needs a little construction. The stars, moon, and moths need to be added. And it needs color because, yes, it’s going to be in color. But I decided it looks mad enough to share.

If I can finish these by end of Sunday, I will call October a technical success and take a few days off.

Die Fledermaus Crown in progress


On the Emergence of Ghosts


And also…

Milkweed pods from the garden

JFries milkweed pods 11.2.19
JFries milkweed pod 11.2.19
JFries milkweed seed 11.2.19

A stormy day over the Tobin Bridge, with cormorant in foreground

JFries Tobin Bridge with cormorant 10.28.19

Sunlight through a maple leaf

JFries maple leaf 11.2.19

The same sunlight on a little black cat, Junior Studio Assistant, Scipio

JFries Scipio in studio 11.2.19

October is masks, bats, and butterflies

We at the home attached to the studio have been sick as dogs since the middle of September, which is why I fell off the planet for a few weeks. But we are on the mend at last, and I’m racing to complete as many of my October projects as I can in these last few days of the month while still having fun.

First thing done: A zine titled “Masquerade.” It’s a little book of collages on the theme of disguise and falseness, social status and self-deception. It was inspired by Halloween, but of course, I took it in a weird, cynical, critical direction because that’s what I do. 😉 Soon, I’ll post information about hand-bound facsimile prints of this book, so please keep an eye out for that. Send a message via the Contact form or this site’s new Facebook page if you’d like to be notified when it is available.

I also attempted my first-ever video of a flip-through of the zine. Yes, it’s true, I have never tried to video anything before. I don’t know why. The video came out well, but the audio has an annoying buzz. Quick research suggests it’s probably something called a “ground loop,” having to do with the power adapter. I’ll have to solve that somehow without buying new equipment, such as a microphone like everyone else in the world uses.

Next, I’m cranking through to try to finish a wearable art object. It has bats on it! I don’t usually do wearable stuff, but sometimes you just have put on a bat. We love bats. This is Bat Week, though my wearable thing will be finished late because I didn’t know until this morning that this is Bat Week, and it’s already Friday.

I might not have time to finish the magic and reality essay book, but I’ll give it the old college try. Same with a zine about ghosts and an October-themed journal I’d very much like to make just for love. And I’ve been marbling and aging paper like a mad thing. All of this was supposed to be done over four weeks, but due to the aforementioned sick-as-a-dog-ness, I’ve had about one week of actual work so far.

In other areas of life, I have resurrected my vintage Olympia manual typewriter. Poor old girl needs a spa day, but I am so happy to be able to clack away noisily with her again. Most of the text in the “Masquerade” zine was made with her, and I can now print my fifty-word stories the way I want them to look.

The gardening season is winding down, but the raspberries aren’t quite done, and the sunflowers, zinnias and marigolds are nowhere near done. Bees and butterflies are still visiting so I won’t be clearing out anything for a bit yet.

Oh, and as mentioned above, I created a Facebook page for this site. Yes, it is the Evil Empire, and I have a dysfunctional relationship with social media, ranging from none to hostile. But needs must, and this is the 21st century, and if you can’t beat them, join them, and you can’t sabotage – um, I mean win – the game if you don’t play, so I have a page. If you Facebook, please join, follow, like, whatever it is people do, and drop me a message or a comment, ask a question, whatever you wish. I check the page just about every day, and will gladly respond in a reasonable time frame – health, work, and fate permitting. Click the button below to visit.


A sneak peak at Masquerade


Marbled papers and collected leaves


Bats have little hands with long fingers.


Monarch on marigold


Painted Lady on dandelion


Olympia!

Come Sail Away…

I must admit to a failure of time management when, surfacing happy from deep immersion in work, I find the entire summer has slipped by without a word from me to the wider world. Oops. Let’s say I’ve been on a summer artist’s retreat. Yeah, that works.

So, I’m back from my summer artist’s retreat, during which quite a lot of things have happened, haven’t they? (Looks at wider world; considers returning to the retreat.) Anyway…

Highlights:

I built a boat. And a cloth doll. My first of each. This was a commission for toys illustrating a children’s story. I blew my labor budget experimenting with materials and techniques, but it was worth it. The client is happy, and it spawned a gaggle of project bunnies along the way.

I enrolled in a dollhouse workshop taught by Laetitia Miéral, a paper artist in France. Her work is beautiful, and she’s an excellent teacher. You must check her out at Merveilles en Papier. I heartily recommend her workshops for both beginners and more advanced artists. She offers both big and small projects, great techniques, and is outstanding at getting her students (or at least me) past perfectionism and commitment phobias.

Appropriately, I worked on dollhouses, too. I either solved a problem with the novel or created a new one – not sure yet. I wrote an essay on magic and reality – release date TBD. I hand-bound sketchbooks and journals, observed wildlife, gardened like a maniac, and did a lot of thinking.

And suddenly, it’s September. Break’s over.