Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Landscapes Closer to Home

In the recent past, I traveled all over the United States in search of adventure in the form of landscapes I had never seen, much less painted. It was a fabulous quest, but a completely different story from today's. This summer I am content to stay closer to home. I swear there is something magical about the West Michigan coastline. It holds secrets from the past and whispers of the future.

Last week I packed up my plein air supplies and drove 6.5 miles to the Saugatuck Harbor Natural Area. This beautiful stretch of open dunes and wetlands encompasses 173 acres. In 2011 it was purchased by the City of Saugatuck with the help of the Land Conservancy of West Michigan, the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund, the Coastal and Estuarine Land Conservancy Program and numerous private donors. The diverse ecosystem holds wetlands, woods, dunes and shoreline along with rare plant and animal species. It is a true treasure! As I walked the trail up from the Oval Beach Parking lot, I was hailed by the sweet smell of a lake breeze and the soft song of cottonwood leaves tapping against each other, beachgrass rustling below.

I set up near a stand of trees and watched the light play along their branches with genuine joy. I am forever grateful that this special landscape is preserved, not just for my pleasure, but so that generations to come will be able to witness its unique beauty. I am lucky to live in West Michigan and luckier still to be able to celebrate its splendor by making marks on a canvas with oil paint.

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.