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.

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!

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!