Author: Alexandra Schaefers

Studio Update

Painting Journal

When I was visiting Corvallis for the last art walk I got to see one of my favorite artists Carrie Tasman. I talked to her about how I wanted to develop a looser illustration style but I also missed my old neat and tidy illustrations and she suggested in this delightfully matter-of-fact tone to experiment with new styles in my sketchbook. That is really what sketchbooks are for. Somehow I get overly pragmatic with my sketchbook, all studies and story boards, loose drawings of ideas but very little experimenting. I started a new painting journal with the hope that it would help me be looser and more creative.

In other news I’ve decided my experiment in making art a hobby is complete. I don’t know how to make art into an actual livelihood financially but I can’t deny that it is my livelihood in terms of purpose and meaning and fulfillment.

I feel very fortunate to be able to wait tables and have plenty of time to immerse myself in my art. I’ve started doing a little research into the idea of book publishing. I don’t really think of my poem books as children’s books but other people do, maybe that would be a more natural fit for me.

Finding a Lost Trail

When I arrive at Marshall park three varied thrushes scatter from around the trailhead into the trees. I walk down to the bridge, over the creek, past the playground and up the trail—hopefully on my way to Tryon Creek State Park. Last time I got lost and wandered entirely too far on a deer trail with the absurd notion that this trail, despite being on a map of suggested walking routes put out by the city of Portland, is simply not well used.

As I descend toward the creek again I see a trail on the other side I hadn’t noticed last time. I realize that this was the spot where the trail became thin and unreliable last time so I assume not crossing had been my wrong turn. This time I walk on the wide log over the creek and follow the trail along the water and up the bank to the intersection of Arnold and Boones Ferry.

A couple blocks away I find the North Creek Trailhead. I am elated to have finally made it here after one failed attempt! I haven’t been on this side of the park much. The woods feel open where the creek winds through a wide marshy area, especially without the leaves of the deciduous trees filling in the space.

I walk through the park on my favorite trails admiring the maple blossoms and budding leaves. I love the way the new buds spring up right next to the remnants of fall, old seedpods still hanging on the branches, leaves stuck in the cruxes. It’s been such a cold winter, I am especially eager for spring.

Above me chestnut backed chickadees sing to each other in a cloud of high-pitched chatter. I only get a good look at one who peeks over a mossy branch before darting off into the high branches.

I admire a wren hopping about in the undergrowth loudly defending its territory. Down the trail a ways I find a sunny bench to have lunch on. Behind me a barred owl sings occasionally and I watch people walk their dogs past as I eat the two bread heels out of a bread bag identical to the one my sandwich is in at home in the fridge.

On the way back I startle several more groups of varied thrushes. They aren’t a rare bird but I’ve never seen so many in one walk before and it makes the day even more enchanted than finding a lost trail on the other side of a log bridge.

I’m surprised to find varied thrushes have bold black and white stripes on the underside of their wings. It’s so striking as they fly off through the deep greens. As I watch a female perched next to a broken branch right above the trail I also realize their lovely orange coloring is the exact same color as the inside of a tree before it weathers. I stay very still, watching until she flies off. Up the trail a bit I spy two males on the other side of some bare brush. I watch them foraging alongside the creek until a fellow with a dog passes and the birds scatter.

After I cross the log again and head up the hill I notice this part of the trail is not stable. It is in a terrible process of erosion which makes it seem unlikely to be a city-sanctioned trail. When planning my route I had expected to walk on streets more then I actually did before arriving at Tryon.

I pass a fork in the trail with no signage. I had taken the wider path assuming the narrower trail went into the nearest neighborhood. Now I get out my map and find that this was actually my wrong turn. I was supposed to take the narrower trail to the street.

What a dilemma! I just discovered this enchanting trail but feel morally obligated to take a boring street route next time. If the bank weren’t in such bad shape I wouldn’t mind taking the unmapped trail but it’s not good for the creek and all the life it supports having the bank wash down.

It’s tough sometimes to balance out our rights as mammals to be close to nature with our obligation as stewards to make sure we stop ruining our neighboring species’ habitat. In my ideal world, we restore so many natural areas and effuse our cities and neighborhoods with so much plant life and other-species habitat that we don’t feel deprived when we shut ourselves out of areas that need to be restored.

I walk the rest of the way home and eat my sandwich finally. It tastes all the better for having been missed.

here’s a really great article about one effort to add more nature back to cities!

How to Start an Art Practice Without a lot of Supplies

I meet a lot of people who believe making art requires a lot of time, material, space and/or talent. Actually making art only requires one medium and a little passion. People make art just with their cell phone cameras these days and you don’t even have to be a photographer to do that. What interesting compositions could be made by framing one’s surrounds, what painterly moods could be expressed just capturing the light of a particular moment?

For more tactile people all one needs is paper and a pencil or pen. One could draw on the back of paper out of the recycle, buy a ream of copy paper, find a notebook laying around the house, pick up a sketchbook or notebook at the store, use the inside of paper bags.

My sketchbook is a ream of cotton bond paper, it’s more expensive than copy paper but its takes watercolor paint a little better and is still a lot cheaper than buying sketchbooks. I keep these in a three ring binder but no one needs to be that fancy even. A folder, manila envelope, box. One could scan their drawings onto a computer, post them (or not) on social media, a blog maybe and then recycle the paper copies.

Obviously there is nothing wrong with buying a nice sketchbook or having a lot of art supplies. I’m just trying to make things as simple and flexible as possible so anyone who is stuck inventing entry barriers for themselves may be inspired to let that go. Drawing is the best foundation for all art in my opinion. Even if what you want is to make giant oil paintings beginning to draw will take you about halfway to that goal.

Honestly, if you don’t start to draw you may never make a single painting. If you keep a drawing practice the stage is set. You will, sooner than you thought possible, start painting. Or get carried off in some other art direction more fulfilling than you ever could have imagined.

The particulars of one’s art practice are never as important as we imagine them to be. What is important is this question: are you engaging your passion? It is OK to be passionate about nothing else besides wanting to be creative, wanting to find one’s voice, wanting to find room for passion in one’s life.

So what are you going to draw on your little stack of paper or the notebook you just pulled out of the bottom of the desk drawer? Even if it’s a little uninspired notebook, half-empty, with lines and old to-do lists it’s going to become a magical art-book the moment you make one attempt to express yourself in it.


Drawings can be made in a few minutes, we don’t need to wait for a lot of time to sit down and draw. Commercials, waiting for someone to arrive or text back, coffee breaks. Every time we see a social media post that irritates us it should be like a drinking game but instead it’s our cue to put down the phone and grab a piece of paper.

Starting a new thing and finding time can be hard, I won’t deny that. We don’t have get mad at ourselves or our circumstances. Nor to we have to get mad at ourselves for getting mad at ourselves. The moment we notice we haven’t drawn for a few weeks is the moment to congratulate ourselves for giving passion enough of a presence to remember. The moment we feel frustrated at how many other things we have to do is the moment to have gratitude that we have a strong passion that is going to take us on an amazing adventure even if it seems a little slow compared to the movies we love to watch.

Some people know what they want to draw already. Faces, cats, dishware, shoes, gardens, boats, birds, abstracts…some people know what they love that they want to talk about with art. Go to it. Do not obligate yourself to be good, it is more important to try, to learn. Whatever your drawings look like, trust that they are beautiful because you took the time to make them. Because they are a product of and catalyst for your passion. Because deciding to make art without anyone else’s permission or approval is a subversive act of faith in the worth of your life.

You can worry about making your drawings “good” later. Even better, you can continue to cultivate your voice and discover more of your own beauty.

Some people don’t know what they want to draw, they just know they like art and want to make their own. No problem. Draw something near you. Draw something in your imagination. Draw something that seems like something you would like to draw. Doodle, scribble, put the pencil down on the paper and make some marks. Get to know the marks your hand likes to make. You can decide later what to draw, the important thing is to start. Let yourself start the thing you want to do. Let it be incredibly imperfect. Let it be a tiny seed that looks nothing like the grand oak you would like it to be.

Next time we’ll probably talk more about ways to draw and why drawing works even if we don’t make pretty drawings. If this post inspires you to start an art practice let me know how it goes!

The Exact Shape of the Sky


Ivy Hill was the first place I fell in love with when I moved back to Corvallis. A wide trail loops around the hill on one side ascending to it’s peak where one can stand in the bare meadows and look down on the charming city of Corvallis shrouded in its many trees. The unruly branches of white oaks and open meadows there have the most dramatic relationship with the changing weather. Fog writes intrigue with the silhouettes of twisted trees. Clouds lay heavy in their grey mist passing over the ocher grass. The blue sky shapes itself into jagged panes between each trailing branch. It’s impossible not to fall in love with Corvallis in the spring especially at the top of Ivy Hill.

I arrived in Spring and felt as though my heart was the exact shape of the sky above the contours of North Corvallis. I felt such peace being snugly back in its familiar hills, creeks, and the forested slough slipping into the Willamette.

Today I am here on a visit from Portland where I have spent most of my adult live. I head up the trail and miss the deep fir-filled woods that used to flank the sides of the hill before the oak release. The startling beauty of oaks against the skyline should salve my grief but I do not feel quite at home in the restored oak savanna.

Without ambition or binoculars I spot and hear several acorn woodpeckers, one of the declining species the oak release aimed to make habitat for. Even the oaks themselves were not doing well with so many evergreens crowding them. I didn’t used to see acorn woodpeckers this far east so I imagine this project has been successful.

I walk up the hill looking for the distinct white spots on the wings of the acorn woodpecker as they fly from tree to tree. I stop to admire a group of juncos crossing the trail together. A little grey bird I don’t recognize flits about in the branches alongside the trail with a patch of yellow on its sides. My best guess is that it’s an immature or female yellow-rumped warbler which the internet agrees with later at home.

At the top of the hill I spot a couple white-breasted nuthatches high in an oak, the first time I’ve identified them solo. A western bluebird flies by and I look out across the valley wondering if it will spark the same sense of home, the same sense of paradise and good fortune it did when I moved here. It doesn’t. Which is a relief because I am really enjoying my life in Portland even with its challenges.

I walk back down the hill considering the intelligence of the heart to make itself at home in whatever place it needs to be. It was so peaceful to be in Corvallis the first two years, staying with my folks on 11 acres along the slough, working two days a week at a cafe, riding my bike here and there in no particular hurry, painting in the woods. When I got a full-time job the small town charm instantly evaporated. Then they cut down the firs in Chip Ross Park, gathered the debris in piles all across Ivy Hill and burned it. I regretted the smoldering piles but knew it was right for them to do. I also knew it was right for me to be here with my dad at the end of his life. That the snugness of my heart had more to do with him than the hills. That I might end up back in Portland as if one of a species crowding out the devoted Corvallians.

I hear some hollow drumming as I walk down the other side of the hill blinded by the afternoon sun.

I shade my eyes and look up into the oak by the trail to see a Pileated woodpecker working away, striking in its size and brilliant red crest. I stay and watch it until it slides around the back of the tree, still pecking at the bark.


Snow Book

Here is a video of a book I made from paintings and quotes of my last Landscape Diaries post. I used an old watercolor painting and I have to admit I like the random content book I made on repurposed paper better than the themed book but it was still really fun to make a video of it. Next time I need to set up better lighting.

Illuminated by Gravity


This morning I woke up to find a fresh undisturbed blanket of snow on the ground. A rarity in the Willamette Valley, I decided to go to Gabriel Park to admire the trees and riparian brush under the wintry elegance.

I pass through Spring Garden Park, deeply sloped it has attracted many sledders making impressive use of a scant inch of snow.

I stop at the cafe to say hi to my waitress friends who are mostly unoccupied. There are two customers in the restaurant. No matter how little snow is on the ground it’s almost always wet here and the temperature is generally just above or just below freezing so people are terrified to leave their homes. It’s an easy target for humor; Portland acting like an inch of snow is a life threatening blizzard. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that no one is really great at driving on ice which is what we most often end up with on the roads.

The traffic creeps slowly along the boulevard as I head up the hill to the park admiring the amazing lace of the trees, a Stellar’s jay quietly perched on the top of a branch and two Anna’s buzzing past me with alarming closeness en route to a feeder.

Gabriel Park is dazzling. The star-like patterns of white on fir boughs, polka dots of white in bare brambles, the structure of each brushy swath of woods illuminated by gravity and snow’s brilliance. Everyone I pass looks buoyant and privileged to be out in the spectacle.

Crows call across the woods to each other and I get distracted from the loveliness. I think about what a headache it will be to paint snow in watercolor. This is the territory of artists who like to paint boat docks and architecture.

I try my best to come back and enjoy the day, to trust the struggle to paint will yield something more interesting than expertise would. Something one could at least cut up and use in a collage.

I manage a couple minutes of contentment then start plotting the most efficient route through my favorite parts of the park to take on days I am too tired or cold for a leisurely stroll. I discover I am already on the most efficient route and consider there is some metaphor in there.



The next day I walk through Spring Garden Park again on a loop through the neighborhood. The ground is frozen and crunchy under my feet. The cold gray sky feels larger than normal, or maybe nearer, certainly more exposing. There are only little bits of snow left here and there. The robins collect in holly bushes feasting on the red berries.

I’m absorbed today, as I so often am, considering my direction. A serial haver-of-epiphanies, a connoisseur of fresh starts, I will do everything to make my life lovely except actually believe in myself. I imagine living a personally meaningful life instead of a productive one as a long drive on a solid sheet of ice instead of a stroll through one’s favorite parts of the woods. I don’t really need another reason to judge myself so I decide that when it comes to one’s path in life the shorter route won’t do. Perfection won’t do. Adventures like learning to believe in the compass of one’s own heart should not be abbreviated.

A crow swoops out of a bare tree leaving his partner to pick at the moss for bugs in the bare branches.

A scrub jay flies across the street holding something bright orange in his beak, a bright orange ort that perfectly compliments his blue body.

Smaller Adventure

Stephens Creek Natural Area

It’s sunny in the neighborhood today. I head north with my sketchbook. A tiny grocery list is in my pocket because I love to be quaint and today that means walking to the store for my weekly food stuffs. It would be 24 minutes to Fred Meyer by foot if I took Barbur but a stroll along the main thoroughfare sounds like a terrible morning. Besides, I’m short on adventure lately so I take the long route, crossing Barbur to meander through South Burlingame. From the Terwilliger exit the patch of trees along Burlingame park looks like a dense forest. From here in the park I am surprised to find it a thin, scraggly barrier barely veiling the cement wasteland behind it.

I walk past the playgrounds and through the abandoned tennis court at the end of the park then up the hill to Canby street where there is a shrine of various toys and figurines on an ivy covered burm. I’m not drawn to plastic toys even in the spirit of irony and these dolls have become so dirty outdoors they look even more like trash.

I walk down stairs in the hillside and watch a Cooper’s Hawk hunt in a neighbor’s yard across the street. He dives into the ivy but comes up with nothing before disappearing around the backside of the house, each movement so quick it is only the distinct stripes on his tail that confide his identity.

I take another staircase up to Terwilliger and endure several minutes of traffic hell while I cross main streets to get to the store where I engage in the odd practice of selecting my groceries by weight so my book bag won’t be too heavy on the way home. Next time I’m going to wear my backpacking backpack so I can distribute the weight onto my hips and buy more food.

I feel squeamish about becoming impractically idealistic. No one is going to be happy to bag my groceries into a deep outdoor backpack and placing the eggs just right will be an act of unwieldy devotion. In my 20s I refused to buy a car, new clothes or even packaged food. One day I felt I needed some clear tape and it was a moral dilemma. I bought the tape but I’m not sure if I have forgiven myself yet.

At the time I thought I was an inspiration for good stewardship but looking back I believe I was mostly just a grim and neglected relic of my own ideals.

I leave the store out the parking garage and take Bertha Street to Stephens Creek Natural Area. The first time I came here it was dusk. I was on my bike headed home from downtown and more than a little saddle sore. I locked my bike up along Capitol Hill Road and descended toward the creek raising the ire of a large group of crows. I wasn’t sure if this was their rookery or if there was a particularly nutritious dead animal in the park but they were quite vocal about not wanting me around. The dark sprawling branches of willows with their odd, obtuse angles in the dim light enhanced the menace of the crows into a Hitchcock-like scene. I loved it of course.

Now it is midday and there is not a single crow here. There is an Anna’s singing it’s lungs out above, robins hopping about listening for worms, a couple song sparrows calling. The crows are elsewhere, possibly even in my back yard hunting for bugs.

I stop and sketch the brambly woods a bit and head up the trail. I’d planned to take Capitol Hill Road but get sidetracked on a foot path that sashays up the hill through the unmanicured neighborhood. Sometimes dirt, sometimes gravel, sometimes the bend of a narrow paved lane or the cracked pavement at the end of a cul-de-sac, sometimes lined by ivy or cut deeply by run-off the path carries me up the hill by the water tower and back down the other side to Barbur passing blackberries, brambles and disheveled gardens, a wooden cart with wheels sunk in the mud, a tarped boat. There’s an impressive variety of evergreen trees I’m not able to identify along with some fragrant cedars and at least one Doug fir so tall the wind sings through its needles like the ocean.

I arrive home tired and happy to put my groceries away, enamored that I just carried them over a small hill having an even smaller adventure. I don’t have to walk to the store. I have a working car in the driveway full of gas. It’s a privilege for me to indulge my quaint notions of life. I think of it like a shrine I built to a simple, slower and possibly fictional time when people weren’t cogs in a fast moving economy. If I don’t maintain this shrine it will get overgrown with ego. I will start walking to the store grim in the notion that it’s the right thing to do, that everyone else should too.

Crows at Stephens Creek Natural Area

Book Folios


In my recent decision to take a break from seeing art as a commercial venture I’ve been excited to get back to making art for the sake of exploration. I asked myself, If art is to be just a hobby what do I want to do? The answer was quite clear. I want to make books! said in a tone that suggested some passionate cursing be added to the statement. I also noticed a yen to make more tactile and less literal work.

For years I’ve wanted to shift from being an artist who writes to being a writer who arts but having invested a lot in my art education and seeing a lifelong pattern of losing interest in things before I’ve explored their full potential I thought it might be wise to question the premise.

Now I have a decent paying job I enjoy, ample time to work on projects, and a great need to stop putting pressure on myself to be a “successful” creative person. What’s wrong with reorienting, making mistakes or possibly being a fool now and then…or even often? We can’t all be CEOs for heaven’s sake.

I prefer Maya Angelou’s definition of success anyway, Success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it. We can all become instantly successful the moment we read that quote if we have the courage to believe in ourselves.

Currently I’m making folios of little paintings from sketches on previously used watercolor paper. I have a pure blank sheet for one side of the folio and old designs to work with or paint over on the other side. The above slide show documents my efforts so far. I’m going to stitch these folios together but I didn’t create a sequential story with the text, they are just random experiments.