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Local artists find their muse in nature

Local artists capture the great outdoors through stone, paint, leaves

Inside his Mountain View warehouse late last month, Booker Morey was rustling through stacks and stacks of dried leaves.

"The maples — they've got a lovely shape. And the cutleaf birch" — he held a serrated leaf by its stem — "isn't that neat? It looks like a tree."

Morey, a Palo Alto resident, is in the business of giving dead leaves new life — as art. His work preserves the leaves' lacy "skeletons" and shows them off in black velvet shadow boxes, delicately restored to the vibrant hues of autumn: mossy greens, golden yellows and burnt oranges.

Nature has long inspired Morey, but his work with leaves over the past 20 years has only increased his appreciation, he said.

And he's not the only one. From landscape paintings to mineral sculptures to leaf art, local artists frequently find their muse in the nearby foothills and baylands. During the holidays, artwork that brings a piece of nature indoors has made for a perennially popular gift, merchants say.

The practice of "skeletonizing" and arranging leaves is an ancient tradition, with examples going back to Persia and China's Ming Dynasty. But Morey, a former engineer, has updated the process with a decidedly high-tech method of removing the leaf's brittle flesh and leaving only the flexible, tubular veins.

"It's an etching process that's sometimes used in the semiconductor industry," the bespectacled Morey said, a tad secretively.

The leaves are then bleached and color added with an airbrush. He and his staff use only natural colors, to celebrate rather than alter nature.

"No purples or pinks," he said.

Then the leaves are arranged with birch branches in framed shadow boxes as large as 2 x 3 feet.

Only 1 to 2 percent of leaves on a tree are undamaged and shapely enough to make it as art, according to Morey.

In working with some 30 varieties of leaves, collected from here to Yosemite, Morey said he's learned a great deal about the fragile foliage that surrounds us.

"The ginkgo is the most primitive leaf that still grows," he said. "The way the veins are arranged, it's like a fan."

If a bug bites the ginkgo leaf near its stem, damaging a vein, it destroys the leaf's ability to feed the tree. But more modern leaves have developed networks of interlocking veins, like mesh, so nutrients can find alternate routes to the stem.

"It's like having a freeway and streets around it," Morey said. "If you look at some Google maps that just show streets, they look so much like the veins in the leaves, it's just uncanny."

It takes about a month to take a leaf from freshly picked to product, he said. In addition to shadow boxes, Morey's Leaf Lines offers leaves in other displays, from coasters to bowls to paperweights. His work is sold in 150 galleries nationwide, including Shady Lane in downtown Palo Alto.

At the Portola Art Gallery in Menlo Park's Allied Arts Guild, Kristen Olson and other artists take a more traditional approach to capturing nature's essence: painting and photography. Olson draws upon local landscapes and landmarks, from Carmel to Yosemite, for her paintings, using a darker palette and dense strokes that hover between realism and Impressionism.

"I call myself an American Impressionist," said the Maryland native, whose brush strokes mimic the subjects she draws. For water, her hand moves in flowing curves; bricks are depicted using firm, short strokes.

As a child — and an active one at that, she said — Olson relished the great outdoors and easily took to riding horses and hiking.

"I always loved nature, and I still do," Olson said. One of her favorite locales is Portola Pastures.

"I love the light that comes early in the morning," she said recently, pointing to one of her works in which a horse grazes quietly by a eucalyptus tree.

Other artists featured at the cooperative gallery include Steve Curl, whose vivid watercolors depict finely detailed birch trees at Lundy Lake and the pinkish glow of the setting sun on the sand bars of San Gregorio beach.

For those whose tastes run more toward fauna rather than flora, artist Teresa Silvestri uses watercolor to bring to life rabbits, sheep and pigs.

Larry Calof has turned his camera's lens to animals as well, capturing in one metal print several wild, galloping chestnut-brown horses, the snow flying from under their hooves. In another, a trio of squinting polar bears, their eyes like slits, pad hulkily side by side. Titled "Los Tres Hombres," it was shot in Canada. Calof has also photographed wolves, mountain lions, elephants and technicolor birds.

Often, though, nature's beauty speaks for itself, said Carol Garsten, owner of Nature Gallery in Los Altos, which offers fossils and minerals.

"I bought these because they are works of art by themselves," Garsten said on a recent walk through her store. "About everything here, I ask: 'Is it sculptural?'"

She pointed to some druzy quartz, a knobby gray rock with white veins, that sparkles due to a coating of fine crystals formed on the rock's surface. Next to it, a hefty round stone is actually a fossilized sand dollar from the Jurassic period.

In a display case, a piece of green Chinese fluorite, which grows in cubes, is so smooth and clear, it looks like jelly.

Some minerals and fossils stand alone, but others have been carved into sculptures, boxes and vases or formed into artful jewelry.

Guy Michaels, an El Granada artist, turns Utah alabaster into delicate, translucent orange vases with neat walnut-and-ebony inlaid trim. He uses a lathe and his years of experience as a wood turner to achieve a thickness of 3/16 of an inch.

Garsten's gallery features a kids' section, where tiny hands can pull open drawers to find golden pyrite cubes, fossilized shark teeth and spiraly ammonites. Bits of tiger eye, onyx, amethyst and more nest in small baskets, some going for as little as a dollar. There are even pointy, oval orthoceras fossils, the 400-million-year-old relative of the squid, from Morocco.

And for the one-of-a-kind gift seeker? An amethyst geode from Brazil, several feet in diameter, has been cut open, its splayed halves forming the shape of a butterfly. Intended for use as a coffee table, it sells for $12,875.

For more information:

Leaf Lines, www.leaflines.com

Shady Lane, www.shadylanegallery.com

Portola Art Gallery, www.portolaartgallery.com

Nature Gallery, www. nature-gallery.com

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