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.

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

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

Mystic Birds, a New Exhibition, Green Life

Work abounds, and thus I’m late again. This past week, I launched at last a project in planning all last year. Mystic Birds 1, 2, and 3 celebrate some of my favorite waterbirds – Herring Gulls, Common Terns, Canada Geese, and Mallard Ducks – against the backdrop of the Mystic River estuary and Boston’s Tobin Bridge. I used some of my own photos of the birds and bridge, taken over the last year at the Schrafft’s Center in Charlestown. You can go there any time and see these scenes just as I did.

If you happen to be in Somerville this spring, you can also see these collages at the Brickbottom Gallery, in the Brickbottom Artists Association annual Spring show “Green,” running April 18 – May 18. You can come and meet me at the reception, April 29, 5 – 7 pm, and be sure to visit all the artists during Somerville Open Studios, May 4 – 5. Details at the BAA’s website.

These Mystic Birds are the first of a series of works exploring the life of the Mystic River watershed from Boston Harbor up to the Mystic Lakes. Once one of the most polluted water systems in the US, the Mystic is now one of the most improved, getting stronger every year, but still threatened by development, industry, and climate change. Learn more about it from the Mystic River Watershed Association. It is wonderful to spend time by the river, see the wildlife carrying on their business, and realize that the human world and natural world are not at all separate, but one and the same. Our own neighborhoods are environments worth saving, something I remember as I write this and listen to sparrows outside my window and a woodpecker working on a tree somewhere nearby. I hope with my new Mystic River Project to raise awareness of the vibrant nature around us all the time, and to encourage people to live in nature wherever they are, even in the middle of big cities.

So this year look for more of my love letters to this urban river. Also more walks around the rest of my city, commissioned toys and objects, artist books and self-publishing, and blog posts about greening up my studio and art practice. Spring is the time for cleaning up and getting started.

I hope to see you at the Brickbottom “Green” reception!

Spring is here!

green monoprint border 3.18.19

Spring starts this Wednesday, March 20! The trees are budding. The first green shoots are showing through winter’s litter. The birds and animals are setting up house. The sun is higher and warmer, and everything seems full of energy and movement.

I celebrated by making my annual mistake of cleaning my rooms. I learned that I don’t need any more clothes or hair ties, my cats don’t need any more toys, and the only things that are ever truly lost are the ones that are a big pain to replace. I didn’t even do the Kondo method, and I’m overwhelmed – but motivated afresh.

Experiments with monoprint continue, and I’ve started a small set of collages on paper using natural botanical bits. This first one is a tribute to the season and our city rabbits down by the Mystic estuary. It belongs to my ongoing series about walks around town.

JFries Charlestown Spring in progress 3.15.19
JFries Charlestown Spring in progress 3.15.19

Organizing the studio; books and birds

Hi, all. I’m a bit late with this post, sorry. I spent the past two weeks reorganizing my studio – not quite done yet, but much better than it had been. Finally able to get back onto my work tables, I have jumpstarted the dollhouse and begun work on a future workshop on non-adhesive bookbinding. I’m also running behind on my 50/Week story challenge, but I did write a nifty little period piece about a mad monk. I need to do two more before Saturday to be back on my weekly schedule for that.

It hasn’t been all dust and heavy lifting, though. I spent several days photo-hunting loons and other birds on the Mystic estuary and watching wildlife from my kitchen window.

JFries - My writing desk, 2.13.19
JFries – My writing desk, 2.13.19
JFries - Book models in progress, 2.13.19
JFries – Book models in progress, 2.13.19
JFries - The dry media table, with distraction, 2.13.19
JFries – The dry media table, with distraction, 2.13.19
JFries - dollhouse gables, 2.13.19
JFries – dollhouse gables, 2.13.19
JFries - Loon, Charlestown, 2.11.19
JFries – Loon, Charlestown, 2.11.19
JFries - Canada goose, Charlestown, 2.11.19
JFries – Canada goose, Charlestown, 2.11.19
JFries, Rock, Charlestown, 2.11.19
JFries, Rock, Charlestown, 2.11.19

Monoprint, Micro-fiction, and the Mystic life

JFries Bufflehead ducks, lower Mystic, 1/2019
JFries Bufflehead ducks, lower Mystic, 1/2019

2019 promises a lot of challenges, and I feel pretty good about that. This month’s Full Super Wolf Blood Moon, with total eclipse, falls on my birthday, which also happens to fall on Martin Luther King Jr. Day this year. It’s hard not to feel a certain emotional boost.

So I am embracing the theme with a series of art, writing, and lifestyle challenges. 

First comes “50/Week,” in which I must produce one 50-word story each week. In this update of a micro-fiction game from a previous blog, I’m upping the ante by making an illustration for each story. These past two weeks, I have written a version of Rapunzel, focusing on star-crossed lovers, and a suspenseful heist thriller. Watch for these to become available soon.

I’ve also decided to learn a new skill – monoprint. My first attempts are oil pastel transfers – a fun and satisfying creative exercise.

Finally, I’ve started a new year of wildlife spotting on the Mystic River estuary. Last year, I fell in love with the birds, fish and other creatures of the Mystic and began primitive efforts to record their comings and goings. This year, I am laying the groundwork for an ambitious online project. Keep track here.

JFries monoprints 2 & 3, 1/2019
JFries monoprints 2 & 3, 1/2019
JFries monoprint 1, 1/2019
JFries monoprint 1, 1/2019
JFries Mallards, lower Mystic, 1/2019
JFries Mallards, lower Mystic, 1/2019
JFries Red-Breasted Merganser male, zoom, lower Mystic, 1/2019
JFries Red-Breasted Merganser male, zoom, lower Mystic, 1/2019

Birds of Somerville and dollhouse progress

It’s been a crazy several weeks, with a strained knee, two bouts of the flu, a blizzard followed by record warmth in February, and a nor’easter to usher in March like a lion, so I haven’t had time to put together a blog post until now. But progress has been made, and a new hobby has emerged.

On the dollhouse, the clapboard siding is finished at last, and I am working now on replacing the acetate in the windows with small wood frames. I found it difficult to focus a camera through the acetate, and in any event, I just didn’t like it all that much.

And the new hobby – wildlife-spotting around scenic urban Somerville. My at-home feeders serve a resident flock of about 15 resident European house sparrows, two pairs of house finches, one lingering junco, a mated pair of northern cardinals, several mourning doves, two blue jays, and the ubiquitous feral pigeons and gray squirrels. Meanwhile, near where I work my day job, I’ve also noticed a welcome return of water fowl to the Mystic estuary, where year-round herring gulls and summer-resident Canada geese have been joined by a pair each of red-breasted mergansers and mallard ducks, and some red-throated loons appear from time to time. This past month, I decided to break out the camera.

The Dollhouse

The Birds on the Estuary