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

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Easel on Across the Ocean - Hawaii

Okay, I have been dragging my feet on writing this post. Not only was my visit to Hawaii epic, it was the last in my "Easel on Down the Road" adventures. So sad... but, yes, such a fabulous finish!

For one thing, our 50th state consists of the teeniest specs of land in a vast, vast ocean. How did anyone ever find these volcanic tips in the first place? Soft, green mountains rise from coasts that stretch down below the water's surface. The air is moist, the sun's heat dispersed by salty breezes. The clouds are huge and white.

I planned this trip as I did most of the other Easel exploits, one day at a time. I found an apartment to rent in the town of Kapa’a on Kauai, preferring a local’s view of the island over the sterility of a resort. Of course it was also far more affordable than anything with an ocean view. Well, you do get what you pay for!

We could not find the “street” at first because it looked like a dirt driveway past an adult lingerie store, leading behind a strip mall featuring Ace Hardware. Rounding the corner, we were welcomed by clumps of bamboo trees circling concrete statues of Buddhas, mermaids and other iconic figures, all festooned with Christmas lights. Wild chickens and roosters scuttled around, clucking and crowing, as skinny cats darted under stairs and bushes. The apartment was one thin room wide (when standing in the middle, Allen could nearly touch both sides at once), with a loft bedroom. The only windows were up high, as we shared walls on either side. I was discouraged by the lack of a view and fought to remember that this was not a romantic get-away, but a working vacation.

Once we unpacked and settled in, things began to look up. The place was tolerably clean and there were great basics: plumpy towels, beach chairs, a bowl of fresh fruit, locally grown coffee and coconut water in the fridge. We found an amazingly good Mexican restaurant within walking distance and a bike path along the ocean started two short blocks away. The first morning we walked along the paved trail and discovered beautiful beaches and parks, as well as a set of healthy food trucks, Kombucha tea “on tap”.

During our time there, I pulled out my sketchpads and watercolors at every opportunity. The beaches on the north shore were gorgeous. One day we set up between a huge cave with trees above, rising into a towering peak of green, and a surf pounding on golden sands. I kept two watercolors going at one time, trying to catch the jungle aspect of the foliage behind and, simultaneously, the color and movement of the gigantic waves before us. Another day we took a rented motorcycle up into Waimea Canyon. The views were astounding: red layers of rock running horizontally along craggy cliffs that reached forever into the distance, far-away waterfalls punctuating the precipices with tiny white vertical lines. Of course I attempted to draw this expanse, not entirely successfully.

The day I had slated to devote entirely to painting was sunny and bright. After breakfast, Allen disappeared on the motorcycle and I took the rented car up to the top of Waiula waterfalls. I found a close-up view of the triple river of water crashing downward. The sound alone was mesmerizing. I sketched a few quick line drawings but the logistics of painting there were unworkable. I then headed to a point of land near the airport that was purported to have a unique view of the island. I was not disappointed.

The hard-packed, red earth made a suitable seat with a view of black lava rocks, waves crashing upon them. In the distance Anahola Mountain poked into the sky with 3 sharp triangles, an abandoned harbor cutting a thick, blue horizontal underneath. I settled in and began to watercolor. The white foam of the waves looked like thick cream and the water consisted of aqua jewel tones, continually changing. The scene was spellbinding. Time melted away as I focused on the unusual shapes and exquisite colors. I finally packed up and headed back to the apartment, exhausted.

I sit now, at home in my studio, looking at the artwork I produced during this fruitful 12 day excursion.  I have no idea which piece will be the basis of my final Hawaii painting. I will have to make my mind up soon, as all of the paintings need to be finished by the end of this month in order to be photographed for the book. Yes! I am producing a book (with the expert help of friend, artist and designer Angela Saxon) for the show this summer at Saugatuck Center for the Arts. See you there!!!

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Easel on down the Road - The Northwest 7 are Finished

This January I set my sights on finishing the NW7. In July I drove over 6600 miles to capture the great Northwest. It was my last, long "Easel on Down the Road" trip and it contained equal amounts of adventure, excitement and discomfort. I was concerned that I would not be able to connect to these paintings after so much time had passed but as soon as I restarted each one, my feet were back on location. I stayed as true as I could to the original colors and shapes. Here they are, in the order that I painted them.

Flathead Lake, Montana

Nez Pierce National Forest, Idaho

Orcas Island, Washington

Sea Lion Caves, Oregon

Shasta National Forest, California

Medicine Bow National Forest, Wyoming 

Kearney, Nebraska

In two days I leave for Hawaii, my very last state. I am excited for the trip but quite sad to be almost done!