Nature’s art supply store

Published 9:50 pm Thursday, March 5, 2020

By Biff and Susan Andrews

Picasso looked at a bicycle seat and a set of handlebars and — presto! — he created a bull.

Found object art. I’m starting to indulge in it myself — but the objects I’m using are from nature, not the Tour de France. I’m using driftwood.


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Wood that has soaked for months, drifted, shed its bark, dried, aged, turned silver, hardened — it has character. Its veins and grain are revealed; its true nature is on display — both strengths and weaknesses. Natural wood is best, but weathered boards have their place. Still, branches, bushes, entire small trees, even small pieces of branches can be attractive on their own or incorporated into attractive depictions of fish, birds or flowers.

Real artists, people who make a living selling their work, more and more are creating compositions of smaller bits of wood. Just check in studios on the Outer Banks. Some use a frame; some create mobiles; some glue wood to wood to wood. All have a vision of a finished product (which sometimes escapes me), but all are attractive. The works I create have only to please a few people. Most friends and family seem to think the stuff I come up with is attractive, so….

Creations may depict real creatures, scenes or objects or they may simply have an abstract beauty of their own. Susan and I found a board years ago that was so unusual that we hung it from a tree branch and regularly watch it blow in the wind. Viewed one way, it looks like a sperm whale without a tail. Viewed from the opposite side, it looks like the head of a firebird or thunderbird of Pacific Northwest Indian fame. We’ve looked at it for more than a dozen years and still can’t decide just what it is — but it’s either a whale or a thunderbird.

Walking along a river beach last October, I came across what looks like a mini-Joshua tree. “I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick’s” doing, so I took it home and decorated it for this year’s Christmas tree. Much better than chopping down a living one. We mounted it — all three feet of it — on a large base of driftwood, then decorated it with things natural and nautical. It is hung with shells, starfish, fishing bobbers made from goose quills (in Russia), birds, boats, fish, sand dollars painted by children … call it a work of whimsy. Perhaps it was not a traditional Yule tree, but it worked for our family.

So try it! Find a shoreline — river or ocean — and walk along checking flotsam and jetsam with a discerning eye. I like the beach and marl at the south end of the James River Bridge. There’s a convenient parking lot there and a mile of riverfront collecting sticks, bushes and boards for you. About an hour will provide you with a haul — one real prize, 10 really attractive bits, and a bunch of wood chunks that you could use to compose a larger grouping. You are only limited by your imagination or lack thereof. You, too, may increase your appreciation of Mother Nature’s Art Supply Store, and become a found object artist.


Susan and Bradford “Biff” Andrews are retired teachers and master naturalists who have been outdoor people all their lives, exploring and enjoying the woods, swamps, rivers and beaches throughout the region for many years. Email them at