Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Italian Art-Immersion Adjourns

I could not leave Italy without declaring my intent to return. Angela promised a magical land and she delivered. The uniqueness of the light, the landscape, the art and the people (not to mention the food and wine) stole my heart. I am hooked!

Nepi was our last stop. We spent a long weekend in the ancient town that is located about 35 miles north of Rome. It has been inhabited since the 8th century, B.C. and the "old" part has a river on two sides, with an archaic wall built into the rock cliffs rising high above. A waterfall and the remains of a castle mark one entrance. A section of Roman aqueduct introduces another. We arrived after an easy drive from Monteleone Sabino, parked the car and walked along the narrow, cobbled streets, looking for our rental.

The address brought us to uneven steps that led down past several child-sized doors of wood, decaying in places and held together with padlocks and big bolts. Did people really live there? What kind of dwelling would we find behind "our" iron gate? Incredibly, we opened the door into an apartment with a modern kitchen, two bedrooms, two full baths, a living area with a fireplace and a view of the green valley beyond. Good work, Angela!

Up until then, I had felt relentlessly driven to make art. Suddenly, I realized that slowing down in order to actually experience the culture was a completely valid (and essential) part of the total art-immersion process. The buildings' colors and surfaces alone were mesmerizing. The custom of serving a spuntino, or snack, with every glass of wine was endearing. The cadence and song of the language were enchanting (despite my inability to understand it). And the Italian people were charming and warm. I relaxed. I drew a fountain. I watercolored from our terrace. We explored. I set up my easel on a path behind some homes and painted a view with a distant manor on bluffs. I breathed in the sweet smell of Spring and thought about what I had learned.

For one thing, it is very good to travel with another artist, especially one who has knowledge of the country and its language. Angela was an exceptional tour guide, but - more importantly - we shared the focus of making art. That goal informed our days in such a way that we took advantage of early evening light rather than eat just because it was dinner time. A second reward was the opportunity to experience how another artist works. Angela settles in and gives herself time to look in order to find out what interests her. She waits for her eye to tell her what to do. She works with the abstract shapes of any given subject so that her finished piece is as much about the relationship of those shapes, as about the subject itself. I love the idea of reaching past the landscape to the feelings it invokes in me. Now I'd like to combine that with a more measured approach, where I consciously consider the composition, apart from the scene. Explore the shapes. Be curious about the light. 

And so, my initial take-aways are artistic. I cannot wait to see how they impact my work at home. I imagine that this trip may also affect my lifestyle. Perhaps I will let my days flow, responding to what's around me rather than trying to force-fit expectations. Possibly, I will better weave art-making into the rhythm of living. Look. Paint. Relax. Then look some more.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Monteleone Sabino

Yes, the name of this tiny hillside town just rolls off your tongue. Monteleone Sabino is guarded by a stone lion on a pedestal, so old that its teeth are rounded, its tail embedded in the curved flank. There is a one-room grocery tucked into a steep street, a butcher, a post office, a school and two "bars" where the cappuccino is savory and strong. A couple of kilometers away, down a steep road and up a bluff, sits the stone cottage that became our art studio and home. La Torretta's walls are thick and peppered with remnants of Roman ruins. It sits on the foundation of an ancient bath and the grounds have dug-up pieces of pillars and capitals scattered about that provide seating. Olive groves with century-old trees surround the property and several yellow-ochre buildings across the valley reflect the sunrise each day, blue mountains behind.

After spending most of my time drawing in Rome, I again picked up my pen and recorded the landscape with line, then watercolored some of these pieces, coloring-book style. It was a pleasure to settle in and really focus, the hum of bees my only distraction. The second day I pulled out acrylics. I have not used this medium since I painted the backdrop for a high school play. I was curious to see how it would compare to oil paint, my current favorite. Because of my inexperience, I allowed myself to play, not caring about the result. It can be a challenge to let go of the familiar, but - once done - it is sweet indeed to simply explore.

Sometimes, while painting, I would lie down in the scratchy grass with my sunhat over my face and wonder if I had somehow passed through a portal to a previous century. We were living so simply: hiking, painting and eating, our meals easy combinations of fresh fruits and vegetables, meat grilled over an open fire and lots of local red wine. Night brought interesting discussions about what makes a good composition, how did Van Gogh respond to olive trees and why our art-making goals here might be different from those at home. Each morning I felt fresh energy, invigorated by these conversations and inspired by surroundings so different from West Michigan.

Ten days flew by. I struggled with rendering the strange shapes of olive trees. The chenille-bedspread texture of distant groves tickled my vision, teasing me. Acrylic paint's tendency to dry quickly and its jelly-like consistency (compared to oil paint) just about drove me crazy. But I learned so much by letting go of expectations and simply experiencing. And now I'm sure that these old olive trees will remain in my heart and my brain, perhaps taking on new life in my studio at home.

Saturday, March 25, 2017


Angela and I stayed in a little apartment in the historic center of Rome. Via dei Gesu is a narrow road, paved in smooth black hand-hewn stones that go deep into the earth like teeth. We arrived at the giant wooden front door after traveling for something like a day. I was punchy from lack of sleep, and followed Angela from the airport, through the countryside via rail and onto bus 64 like a zombie, rattled by my complete ignorance of the language. She understands Italian. Phew!

Vinod met us out front with the keys; I struggled to unwind my hair from the straps of my backpack and purse. My suitcase felt heavier than a refrigerator as I lugged it up four flights of rounded marble steps that canted downhill. Before departure, I had pulled out two sweaters, a pair of jeans and a set of foam hair curlers, but nothing could truly lighten the load of 35 tubes of paint (26 are small ones for watercolor, but still), numerous pads of drawing/painting paper and the travel easel that Allen made for me out of solid wood. I was in Italy to make art, damn it, so I marshaled my emotions as I tugged at my bag, pulse pounding.

As it turns out, I hardly painted while in Rome. Most days Angela threw her travel kit of gouache, pencils and crayons in her backpack. Aside from not being nearly as savvy with portable art supplies, I felt completely compelled to draw. Everything pulled at my heart and my pen: small architectural details, complicated Bernini sculptures, griffins guarding monuments and dragons defending tombs. Angels and cherubs beckoned to me from their perches above lintels. Paintings lured me too, especially the Caravaggios that we found tucked into the side chapels of churches. The sheer volume of original art was overwhelming. I walked around with my phone (for picture-taking) in one hand and a sketchbook and pen in the other. Never mind the Roman ruins, I was here to draw!

And so six days in Rome flew by, punctuated with hot cappuccinos, coconut gelatos and delicious handmade pasta dishes (red wine too, of course). Now we are tucked into the countryside north of Rome, surrounded by olive groves. The calm is restorative; I am ready to slow down and paint. As an artist on retreat, it is tempting to think of my Rome drawings in terms of building blocks - to what will they lead? But making them gave me so much pleasure that perhaps they are an end in themselves. Certainly, they were a very personal and intimate way to experience this ancient city.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Anger and Hope

I have been painting crashing waves and active skies since the new year began. I feel driven to pin down the triangle shapes as the water stretches across the sand and pulls back again. These patterns challenge and dare me to conquer them. It is a delightful game!

And, it is more. West Michigan's tumultuous skies and roaring lake have intrigued me for as long as I can remember. Not only did I grow up swimming these shores, the wild winds cleared my mind many a time. Here, I feel closest to my loved ones who have passed on. I feel connected to a greater power. I plant my feet in the sand and understand that these elements hold me lightly, a teeny spec of a creature, as a witness to their endless expanse of power.

And there it is - this landscape is my connection to Mother Earth. I can feel her anger as the lake bellows. Have we humans forgotten her beauty and taken her unlimited bounty for granted? The clouds cluster majestically, then shimmer apart. How much longer do we intend to carve out and collect before we show constraint? Humankind has put excessive profit above the health of our planet. Shame on us! I paint my angst into the waves and, feeling their thunder, hope that our species comes to its senses, that we continue to wholeheartedly protect our one-and-only earth, rather than take away current measures of conservation.

As I brush the final layers of color on these paintings, a flash of hope appears in my heart. The clouds rush over my head; light glimmers in the distance. Of course people will realize the riches that the earth has given us and we will all cherish this planet that holds us close. Gratitude and respect will drive our decisions, not money. Sustainable measures will ensure that the planet remains intact. I have always been an optimist and now is no time to stop.

Now is the time for me to lay this passion down on canvas, to paint about my fears for the future and my wonder of the world. To do what I do best, with my heart in my hand, and hope that the urgency I feel translates to you, the viewer.

Friday, July 15, 2016

The Big Sky Series | Thoughts on the Interaction between Life and Death

When my mom passed away in January, none of us were surprised. She was 97 and had gone from fairly capable to bedridden in less than 3 months. In some respects, it was a relief to let her go after watching her struggle to sit up, swallow or catch her breath. She had long since outlived her skin. But, when I got that phone call, I knew I faced a major challenge in accepting that she had left this earth. I took the following week, time I had reserved to be with her in Florida, to paint full time, all technology turned off.

What happens to one person's energy when they die? I decided that studying the sky was the closest I could get to the place where that energy passes from the physical body to whatever-happens-next. I have always loved depicting clouds, so I began to paint them in earnest.

The first painting was very bright, the colors highly saturated. I listened to my gut and left them strong. This was forceful stuff - trying to capture the life/death transition.

The second painting flowed out in a liquid fashion. I played with fanciful lines in yummy colors. Who would paint this, if not me? Mom's energy was in the room.

Big Sky #3, as I began calling these pieces, took much time and many layers to resolve itself. I continued to search for the interaction between life and death.  I decided that it may very well exist outside of time. I let the brush do its own thing, holding it loosely by its farthest end and listening with my body for possibilities.

Big Sky #4 went through many stages. Its large, square shape rattled my attempts at natural balance. I felt unconnected and stuck.

And then Big Sky #5 birthed itself. I could feel power circling my body. The act of painting made me laugh. I was so tuned in to translating the movement of clouds and water that I lost verbal thought. This is a very fine place for an artist to be. I felt joyous.

Later, in #6, the dialogue between water and sky happened on its own. I felt the universe as one big, moving organism. Communication between elements became seamless. Life itself tingled in my middle and radiated out my arm.

Currently, another Big Sky painting is on my easel. I may be nearing the end of poking at this unknowable phenomenon, but I am still curious. Time will tell.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The Short Story of the Beaver at my Window

Ok, so this happened two days ago. I was in my kitchen, cleaning up and puttering about after a weekend of both children visiting/living at home (so fun). I heard a very loud thunk, as if a bird had flown into my window, but louder. I live on the river, up a fairly steep bank, and the view of my decks and the marsh beyond is visible through four big picture windows and one sliding glass door. Frequently birds try to enter the reflected world and bang into the glass, mostly flying away, sometimes not.

This time I looked out and saw - what? - some mammal, not much bigger than a squirrel, with a pointy rodent face and wet, dark fur. Muskrat? No - the tail was flat and wide. A beaver?? It was sitting on my windowsill, looking around. What? I started talking to it in an accusatory tone. I have had snakes and mice and chipmunks and bats and even a squirrel inside my house but never a beaver so close! I did not even think they were in the Kalamazoo River. "What are you doing here? Why are you at my window? You cannot come in!" It shook its head and ran under the deck steps. I felt thankful that it had not crashed through the screen at my open slider.

But, really? A beaver? Did it climb the bank and why would it? Did it think there was some amazing food inside? Did it need to meet Charlie the dog? That evening I described the scene to Allen. After thinking briefly, he solved the mystery. The very young (they are normally 4 to 12 times that size) beaver at my window had fallen from the sky, having been lifted off in the talons of an eagle or an owl or a hawk, all of which live on the river here. It had struggled hard enough to get free and it landed on my deck. Right?? Yes. No other plausible explanation.

My hope is that it made it back to its parents and the water in fairly good shape. I am happy to know this ecosystem is healthy enough to house beavers. Another score for mother nature!

Thursday, April 14, 2016

The end of Easel on Down this Road

I pulled out all of the paintings on a rainy Saturday in March, three years and two months after my first trip. Most were carefully stacked behind a big leather couch in my studio. Some were leaning against the wall behind my father’s large drawing table. Alaska and Hawaii were sitting on easels, still wet. The sheer volume of canvases filled me with satisfaction.

I sat and stared. I remembered every location as if I’d just been there: the heat, the wind, my fatigue or elation. I remembered where I had stayed, how well I’d slept, how afraid or lonely I’d been. Each painting connected me in an intimate way to the state in which it was born. I knew the mountainous forests in Northern California; I understood that the rocky coasts of Maine and Oregon and Minnesota were sisters in their similarity. Vast plains, burbling rivers and secret spots wove into my history. I was in love!

Yes, I will miss this project. I was a free agent on the road. The anonymity was refreshing and the opportunity for adventure – exhilarating. Conquering the challenges of traveling alone empowered me. The format of a three-year plan was a very welcome structure in my life. On the road my purpose was clear: drive, paint, write. My days were focused and production was completely interlaced with the rhythm of living. Nothing is better than that!

And, this quest has had positive effects on my art. Aside from the many hours spent solving the problems of rendering an unfamiliar landscape, working on the run taught me a lot. I did not have time to dilly-dally, especially when it was cold or hot or uncomfortable. There was absolutely no agonizing over choices or fussing with detail; I simply put brush to canvas. I have brought that sense of urgency back into the studio. I have a greater trust of my skills in color-mixing and mark-making. It is clear that painting is about connecting to the process without thought.

Lastly, I gained a full appreciation of the quality of my life. The road was exhausting. Part of what took extra energy was being hyper aware of my surroundings at all times. This was like a tiny current, continuously buzzing in my ear. Each time I reentered home’s familiarity, relief flooded me. I recognized the good fortune of a comfortable place to live and a functional studio. I understood the importance of my family and friends. I fell into the arms of a man who respected my independence and loved me the more for it. Returning was the best part of every trip.

And now, at last, I am home for good (at least until I invent another quest!), feeling a little like a pioneer after endless exploration. I have achieved what I’ve been striving for my whole life: painting is my number one priority. It is my job, and the most important work that I do. Here are the final three.

Homer, Alaska

Chicago, Illinois

Kapaa, Hawaii