Simple sticks, tiny twigs, leftover leaves, furry moss, clinging vines, cones, nutshells, pebbles.
This time of year, the forest floor is cloaked in detritus and ripe for mining as a source of art. Ephemeral art, that is: impermanent and subject to decay.
Almost anyone can creatively carpet the ground with imaginative arrangements of forest duff and other natural, found materials. So transform a simple walk in the woods into a creative outlet.
With a few sticks, stones or cones, kids can build an imaginary universe at ground level. Adults may assist with assembly, or let their own creative impulses run free without permanently marking the landscape.
That’s one way to approach such outings. But you also can exploit the opportunity to collect the ingredients for indoor applications. There’s almost no end to the ways people employ natural materials to decorate, craft or create art.
“You can make all kinds of things from nature that’s just lying on the ground. And this is the perfect time because so much is there,” said Natalie Ries, a Metro Parks Tacoma graphic artist and environmental science student at University of Washington Tacoma.
Ries, for example, put moss and driftwood together to create a couple of homes for imaginary beings. She created them as part of UW class in eco-art.
Other projects are simple enough for children to do, on their own or with a little adult help.
This time of year, it’s commonplace for folks to assemble evergreen wreaths, swags or garlands. Children can use similar techniques to turn vines such as honeysuckle or English ivy into small crowns. Depending on the season, these can be adorned with flowers, berries, small cones or ribbon.
Ries is a wellspring of ideas about how to engage children in nature, based in part on her own child-rearing experiences. When her daughter was small, they traipsed around collecting leaves, berries and twigs: raw materials for projects.
“Kids don’t need fancy things. They’re happy with the simplest art projects,” she said.
One her daughter enjoyed was to turn flora into imaginary fauna. On plain paper, with some strong glue, she arranged the leaves, berries and twigs in the shapes of little critters, such as spiders, caterpillars, insects or butterflies.
She also pasted leaves on paper and with a little paint transformed the leaves into animals: some real, some imaginary. Ries supplied her daughter with acrylic paints, but poster paints or other water-based based would work as well.
Ries also suggests incorporating other recycled, found or inexpensive materials in the creative process. As an example, discarded shoe boxes make good display cases for small dioramas. She also scours thrift stores for things such as baskets or old picture frames. Using a quick-drying, strong glue, decorate these items with shells, cones, seeds or pebbles.
A woodsy trek also might be a chance to gather the elements of a dream catcher. For the frame, look for a thin, flexible branch, such as willow. Twist this into a secure circle. Attach a length of sturdy thread to one side, pull it across to the opposite one, then continue winding it back and forth to make a web. The next time you take a walk, look for other natural materials, such as castoff feathers, to weave into the web or hang from the bottom of the frame.
Outdoor adventures can yield a surplus of treasures deserving display: sea shells, smooth stones, seed pods, cones or feathers. Add two or three sticks, and you have the basic elements of a mobile. You’ll need yarn or string, and probably some craft wire, from which to dangle your tiny trophies below the sticks. Use your longest stick for the top of the mobile and hang two or three shorter ones below it. To make your mobile turn, insert one or more fishing swivels in the lines of string.
Leaves and evergreen needles lend themselves to painterly applications, including custom gift wrap. For example, individual sprigs of needles can be coated with acrylic paint, then carefully pressed onto tissue paper. Space the resulting images to create patterns. Change colors for variety.
If you have small children who enjoy crayons, try using veined leaves to make rubbings. Place a leaf on a flat surface with the vein side up. Put a thin piece of paper on top. Use one hand to hold the paper and leaf still. With the other hand, rub the side of an unwrapped crayon over the area of the leaf until the outline and veins of the leaf appear on paper. Afterward, coating the image with a contrasting color of watercolor paint may add to its appeal.
Another way to create imagery is to use the various shapes of flattened leaves or flowers as stencils. Because flattened ones work best, you may want to press them under something heavy for a day or two before trying this. You’ll need a sponge. Put a little water-based paint in a pan or flat dish. Using double-sided tape, attach the leaf or flower to a large, blank piece of paper. With the sponge, dab paint around the leaf. Carefully remove the leaf to reveal its silhouette. Repeat.
Here are some books that are sources of good ideas:
▪ “Nature’s Art Box” by Laura C. Martin.
▪ “Nature Crafts” by Joy Williams.
▪ “Kid Style Nature Crafts” by Gwen Diehn and Terry Krautwurst.
▪ “The Stick Book” by Jo Schofield and Fiona Danks.