Friday, May 30, 2008

Great River Bike Trail

painted from our motel balcony overlooking the Mississippi River, near No. 6 lock and dam

painted at home from a photo taken yesterday morning

One wonderful aspect of being retired is our opportunity to be spontaneous. We can take off whenver we get a good idea and the weather looks cooperative.  My husband loves to bicycle, and makes ever increasing goals for riding every summer.  He rode something like 1,200 miles last season.  I, on the other hand, am a slouch.  I belong to our local athletic club, but it doesn't take much to convince me that my walk to the library or morning gardening is enough physical activity for the day.  I don't accompany him often on rides just because he rides faster and farther than I can.  But sometimes we do ride together. This time we decided to revisit one of our favorite areas, southwestern Wisconsin, along the Mississippi River.  

We try to drive part of the Great River Road along the Mississippi every year, usually in the fall.  Sometimes we get lucky and see the Mississippi Queen steamboat as she makes one of her fall foliage tours down river from St. Paul.  We almost always see lots of birds, since must of the area is a wildlife refuge.  It was fun this time to see some of it closer on a bike. We parked our car in Onalaska, and rode 15 miles of the 24 mile rails to trails conversion to the village of Trempealeau.  That section of the trail has lots of bridges over creeks, marshes, and the Black River, and it runs parallel to an active railroad line, so that we saw and heard trains several times.  We had time to get off our bikes so I could get some feeling back into my numb parts, and were rewarded with seeing turtles sunning, tiny fry swarming around their fishy mother, and colorful Baltimore orioles and bluebirds.  

Once we arrived at our motel, he was anxious to explore nearby Perrot State Park on his bike, but I needed to recuperate, and wanted do a watercolor sketch.  My little Strathmore watercolor journal and the homemade watercolor set I created from in metal cigarette tin worked just fine, though I never seem to be able to recreate the way the coulees stretch into the distance, or the way the water on the river sparkles in the afternoon sun.  Note to myself: I could use a better brush for this set.  I keep hoping that better materials will compensate for lack of expertise.  

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Memorial Day, 2008

Grandma Nora, Great Grandma Sarah, Great Grandpa Donaldson, Uncle Hawley

I have a clear memory of being about fifth grade, and being in a school program at the Sugar Creek Town Hall.  My class was part of a Memorial Day program that included singing songs (from the halls of Montezuma, to the shores of Tripoli), and reciting poetry (in Flanders fields the poppies grow...).  We all received little flags and marched about a block across county highway A to Mount Pleasant cemetery, where local veterans of Korea or World War II made speeches, shot off guns, and a good time was had by all.  This particular year Jake. R. was supposed to recite In Flanders Field, but he conveniently missed the program and I recited it instead.  He knew I was a show-off. 

Mount Pleasant is indeed pleasant.  Situated on high hill that looks over flat farm field surrounding it, the cemetery has stones going back to 1853.  My mother was big on putting together flowers for all of her and Dad's relatives, and she let me help assembling flower boxes to put on the graves.  I clearly remember driving up the steep hill to the oldest part of the graveyard, though in those days none of the names on the stones had any meaning for me.  The idea of the people under the sod was abstract, unlike now when many of the names on the stones have faces attached in my mind.  

I stopped by yesterday to make another attempt to find my great grandparents headstones. Both Cornelius (Con) Donaldson and his wife Sarah are buried there, according to my records. His parents came from Norway, hers from Ireland.  The only things I know about them are what I find in old photographs, and notes my mom got from Grandpa Pierce.  It didn't help that Mother never referred to either of them as Grandma or Grandpa, simply calling them Con and Sarah.  It took years before I understood they were my Grandma Pierce's parents.  Anyway, I didn't mind walking the rows on a sunny, windy day looking for their names.  Unfortunately, I didn't succeed in finding their headstones this trip either.  But I did copy down a telephone number for information from a signpost, so perhaps I can find a person with a map of where people are buried.  Then I can continue Mother's tradition of decorating all the family graves sites.

Late update: A telephone call to a man named Lee G. who has all the cemetery records was interesting. One of the first things he asked me was "Are you at the cemetery?"  Must be that people looking for lost relatives call on their cell phones.  When I said I was at home he was obliging in describing where I could find the graves I wanted.  Turned out they were near the place I remembered, but much further in the row.  I gave up too soon the other day.  Mystery solved.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Too Many Projects, Not Enough Time

5x7 inch monoprint on Khadi paper

I have so many things I want to do, and while I have as many minutes available to me as anyone else, I don't seem to have the energy to get them all done as quickly as I'd like. While I have been doing at least some art every day, other springtime tasks are staring me in the face. I wanted to get flowers to my family graves before Memorial Day. I wanted to get the bedding plants I bought at the FFA sale last week in the ground before they all died. I wanted to get going on the deck, since about half the stain peeled up over the long wet winter. I might have gotten to some of this earlier, but was being cautious as my eye healed after my April 21 detached retina. I actually got most of this accomplished, but all my energy drained right out of my body, and all I could do was sit and stare.

I have art projects in mind too. The Beloit Riverfront Park plein air event is coming up at the beginning of June, and I am trying to get used to painting with watercolor outside. Sun and bugs are the least of my problems. Finding available water, figuring out what I absolutely need and can still physically carry, dealing with wind, are all daily challenges. I know I don't paint water all that well, and so I'm reading books, doing exercises on that subject. I'm considering trying to monoprint outside, and I keep playing with papers. On Friday, when we took part of the day to drive to Madison and attend BratFest, I went to my favorite art supply store on State Street, and found a pack of papers that I finally tried tonight. It's called Khandi papers, "handmade paper from the Khadi mill in South India. This paper is made from recycled cotton rag." ( I bought a package of 20 9x12 inches sheets, and it cost $13 and change. The paper is lovely, nubby, cream colored, with a nice deckle. I was able to do a 5x7" print on the paper and it took the watercolor beautifully. The paper dried nice and flat, and is ready to frame. Can I print outside? I'll find out tomorrow, if the weather dries out. I have had some success with Arches, but the paper holds too much water and I have trouble making it dry flat - an it's expensive. Illustration board works well, but it doesn't look as classy as this lighter weight cream colored paper. Maybe I'll try both.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Not Quite Identical Twins

Watercolor monoprint on Arches paper

Watercolor monoprint with colored pencil on Crescent board

The experiments with materials that might work plein air for the Beloit event continue. I painted this scene the other day on gessoed Arches paper, in a vertical format. These two horizontal versions were done by coating a 5x7 inches Plexiglass plate with Createx base, then painting with watercolors over the base. The first experiment with soaked Arches paper is a little too bright and crude for my taste. It took ages to dry, since I had soaked the paper so long. Since then I discovered I can keep a sheet of dampened paper moist by sandwiching it between sheets of plexiglass. A prepared sheet could be taken outside safely, clean and ready to print in this way. I also forgot to flip the image before working with it, since it is a print. Oops. It probably doesn't matter, and if I do the process on the spot the image will be backward no matter what.

The second version used Crescent board instead. I misted the board a bit before laying it on the plate, and the results were less garish than the first try. I liked it even better when I went back after it was dry and deepened some parts with colored pencil. I'm going to try both methods outside this weekend.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Garden Wearing White

White Shrub Rose


Solomon's Seal


Most of my garden is in the shade of maple trees, though I have sun in a small plot in front and and on the east side of the house. I like the white blossoms. In sun, they set off the colors of other flowers, in shade they reflect back light. Right now I have white lily-of-the valley, old-fashioned Bridal Wreath (Spirea), thorny white roses, trillium, Solomon Seal, and anemone. There are the variegated green and white hostas, the snow-on-the mountain, and the silvery soft lambs ears. To me, they are more beautiful than snow.

The Garden
Mark Strand

for Robert Penn Warren

It shines in the garden,
in the white foliage of the chestnut tree,
in the brim of my father’s hat
as he walks on the gravel.

In the garden suspended in time
my mother sits in a redwood chair:
light fills the sky,
the folds of her dress,
the roses tangled beside her.

And when my father bends
to whisper in her ear,
when they rise to leave
and the swallows dart
and the moon and stars
have drifted off together, it shines.

Even as you lean over this page,
late and alone, it shines: even now
in the moment before it disappears.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Plein(ty of) Air

Riverside Park, Beloit

Bank and parking structure by the Rock River, near downtown Beloit

I'm still working on my strategy for the Beloit plein air event in June.  I cannot bring myself to show anyone the 12x16 inch painting I struggled with for two hours, before I needed to be home for dinner.  These  two paintings are 8x12 inches (I'm adjusting my size expectations downward), and were done on Saturday and Sunday from photos I took Friday.   I learned some things.  First, I like to paint water, trees, and sky much more than buildings.  Also, I like working on watercolor paper that has been coated with gesso because I can lift out highlights. This is especially nice with foliage.  I'm still trying to see how to make interesting compositions that feature the river, somewhere where I can have access to water.  I think I still want to experiment with painting on illustration board, that would not need stretching.

Quick observation, why do people like to blast their car stereos in pretty places filled with birdsong?

Monday, May 19, 2008

My Garden Shall Wear Purple

Allium and wild columbine

Lambs ears and purple garden phlox

Crane's bill geranium


Cool bright May days have been kind to my garden run wild. The past week has been filled with shades of purple. The giant allium, related to chives and onions, are blooming where their seeds fell last year. The Ajuga is sending up purple spires from burgundy rosettes along the gravel path, and the beautiful hanging flowers of the columbine seem to be making a bid to take over every spare spot. The last of the grape hyacinths the there, and the ancient lilacs still scent the morning. Under the tree the cranes bill geraniums are at their best, before they grow so tall and lanky they must be cut back. There are the periwinkle stars of vinca on the hill by the driveway, and the pansies are thriving in the spring cool weather. In the front of the house where there is plenty of sun, the creeping phlox is coming into its own, while the cat mint already needs pruning.

I posted this poem by Marge Piercy before, but the spring palette in my garden makes me want to revisit it..

Colors passing through us
by Marge Piercy

Purple as tulips in May, mauve
into lush velvet, purple
as the stain blackberries leave
on the lips, on the hands,
the purple of ripe grapes
sunlit and warm as flesh.

Every day I will give you a color,
like a new flower in a bud vase
on your desk. Every day
I will paint you, as women
color each other with henna
on hands and on feet.

Red as henna, as cinnamon,
as coals after the fire is banked,
the cardinal in the feeder,
the roses tumbling on the arbor
their weight bending the wood
the red of the syrup I make from petals.

Orange as the perfumed fruit
hanging their globes on the glossy tree,
orange as pumpkins in the field,
orange as butterflyweed and the monarchs
who come to eat it, orange as my
cat running lithe through the high grass.

Yellow as a goat’s wise and wicked eyes,
yellow as a hill of daffodils,
yellow as dandelions by the highway,
yellow as butter and egg yolks,
yellow as a school bus stopping you,
yellow as a slicker in a downpour.

Here is my bouquet, here is a sing
song of all the things you make
me think of, here is oblique
praise for the height and depth
of you and the width too.
Here is my box of new crayons at your feet.

Green as mint jelly, green
as a frog on a lily pad twanging,
the green of cos lettuce upright
about to bolt into opulent towers,
green as Grand Chartreuse in a clear
glass, green as wine bottles.

Blue as cornflowers, delphiniums,
bachelors’ buttons. Blue as Roquefort,
blue as Saga. Blue as still water.
Blue as the eyes of a Siamese cat.
Blue as shadows on new snow, as a spring
azure sipping from a puddle on the blacktop.

Cobalt as the midnight sky
when day has gone without a trace
and we lie in each other’s arms
eyes shut and fingers open
and all the colors of the world
pass through our bodies like strings of fire.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Wee Sketches

I've been having trouble keeping up with my commitment to sketch every day in May.  It has just been busy, and I have not had quiet time to sit with my usual sketchbooks.  There was an overnight driving trip to Iowa earlier in the week, an all-day plein air workshop yesterday, an Art Walk last night, a WRAP (Wisconsin Regional Artists Program) workshop that took until mid afternoon today.  What did I do when I was working full time?

I carry a tiny sketchbook in my purse.  It is called the Hampton Mini Sketch Book, and the pages are only 3.5 by 4.75 inches.  I got it because the pages are heavy enough to take a light watercolor wash, although I rarely use it for that.  It has quick sketches of people on boats, in theaters, at restaurants.  None of my sketches in here are too noteworthy, but they do remind me of events, and some days they are the only drawing I do.  The size is also good for writing down ideas, people's addresses, and books I want to check out at the library.

I chose three to show here.  The top one is my favorite, a blind contour drawing of an audience member at the Wisconsin Film Festival in April.  I did several of these quickies at the various films we saw, lots of backs of heads.  The middle one was another sketch of two women at a theater performance of Compleat Female Stage Beauty, which was playing in Madison. The audience at that play was really lively, and dressed up for the occasion.  The last one I did this morning at the WRAP workshop.  I was sitting next to a wonderful life sized paper mache  sculpture of a paper boy, collaged all over with pieces of newspaper.  The original is much more charming, but I couldn't resist trying to capture his expression.  I took a picture, and may try again some time with that reference, since the original is so much more appealing than my drawing.

None of these are my favorite work, but I feel good if I can get even a little drawing in on a busy day.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Nervous Nelly - Beloit Plein Aire

Watercolor, Beloit Riverside Park

I admire people who go out into parks, fields, and seashores and paint outdoors. My college roommate, a wonderful pastel artist, works outside often, and many of the artists on the Everyday Matters group seem to have the process nailed.   These folks have figured out what they need in order to capture the beauty they see around them, and how to cope with sun, wind, bugs, shifting sunlight, and curious onlookers. That said, I have never been one of these people. I am most comfortable in my converted upstairs bedroom/studio where I can listen to my iPod, grab whatever I need easily, and paint in my PJs if I want to.  I can control how quickly or slowly my paper dries, and nobody comes up to me and reminds me that the ability to do art is "A gift from God." 

However, I have been working hard lately on my drawing and painting.  I do some art pretty much every day, and I put my work in shows and online.  I have my first solo show at the local library in June, the fulfillment of a long time goal.  But recently I have been thinking that as the weather improves I want to paint outside.  Summer is glorious and relatively short in Wisconsin, and I hate to spend it sweltering inside.  Plus I just want to improve my ability to look and really see the landscape, something that isn't so easily done seated inside.

So, I entered a plein air painting event in nearby Beloit.  The Rock River runs through both Janesville and Beloit, but our southern neighbors seem to do more with their riverfront.  This will be the second year that the "Friends of Riverfront" have sponsored an open air painting event, and a friend who participated last year urged me to try.  I have been walking the area, looking at possible views, seeing where bathrooms and sources of water are located.  Yesterday I started this painting, and did OK with what I brought, though next time I'll remember a few extra brushes and a trash bag.  Only one child yelled out at me from a bridge, "WHAT'CHA DOING?"  I yelled back, "PAINTING A PICTURE,"  and he lost interest.  I didn't finish in the park though, rather completed the watercolor at home with the aid of a photo I took before I left.

Tomorrow I'm going to a one-day workshop at Beloit College for folks like me who are new to the process.  A volunteer from the Friends group left a message on my machine to bring my easel (don't have one) and two canvasses.  I think my watercolor paper will do.  I'm nervous about the whole thing, but am willing to give it a go.  I hope I'm not the only person working in watercolor there.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Mom's Art

Mothers Day is a very good thing; we need to go out of our ways to remember and value mothers every day. For me, though, it is bittersweet, since my mother died in 2004.
She was a creative person, and as a young woman she had a goal of going to art school. She graduated from Elkhorn High School in 1947, then attended Milwaukee State Teachers College (now UWM) for a year. The letters she left reveal a very lonely girl who came come often to see her parents and her boyfriend. She found school difficult, struggled with tests, and was probably depressed. She intended to transfer to Layton School of Art her sophomore year, and in fact was accepted there. She said that they kept her portfolio, which contained what she thought was her best work. But she never attended. Instead she dropped out of school, married her boyfriend, and turned her urge to create to sewing clothing for children, slipcovers and draperies for her farmhouse.

I have a few of her pieces. These were all done with gouache on illustration board. I cropped them and fixed a few stains, and I'm responsible for the shadows from my lack of photography skills. She has drawings as well, mostly in pencil, and mostly of country scenes. I wonder if she didn't come home weekends, go to the farm where her boyfriend, lived, and draw there. Today I wish I could show her my work, tell her how much I appreciated her support for my own artistic ambitions, thank her for being our mom.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Spring Morning, Rotary Gardens

We took a walk this morning a mile or so from our house to Rotary Gardens. When I first moved here, the area was a mass of scrub trees and brush, with and BMX track running through it. Over time the gardens have become a treasure for people in Janesville, and quite a tourist attraction. If you'd like to see the gardens official web site, it is listed on the right side of my page.

One of my favorite areas is the Japanese garden. Today a chipmunk found his breakfast on a rock by a stone sculpture. People often come to the gardens to take pictures or to paint. It's always hard for me to find an area to concentrate on, there is so much to look at.

A family of Canada geese also was out for a walk on the raked gravel path. It's hard to see, but several walkways were closed because of high water. I love the redbud blooming here.

Loveliest of Trees, A.E. Houseman

LOVELIEST of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.
Now, of my threescore years and ten, 5
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.
And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room, 10
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Currently Blooming

Spring is show off time in my back garden.  The leaves on the maples are coming out now, so soon there will only be enough light for the ferns, hostas and impatiens, but before the shade takes over I have lots of woodland blooming plants.  Currently on stage are the jack-in-the-pulpits, false Solomon's seal, bleeding hearts and trillium (soon to exit, the Virginia Bluebells).  Waiting in the wings, the lily of the valley and lilacs.  If I were a more dedicated person I'd dedicate an entire sketchbook to the plants that grow in my garden.  Maybe next year.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Tulip Trio and an Anniversary

My spring bulbs are already on their last legs. I've been taking the kitchen shears outside and cutting off the dried up tulip and daffodil blossoms, trying to encourage the plants to put their energy into their bulbs, and not into making seeds. A week or so ago I took some shots of a yellow tulip I brought inside, with an eye to seeing how the sun shone through the petals. This morning I did my best to capture the bright yellow of the petals in sunlight, and also the shadows. Most of the painting is watercolor. I was playing around with the background, and found it to be too distracting, so I went over the whole area with an indigo Prismacolor pencil. I'm not sure the colored pencil works well with such textured paper, but the effect is more unified than what I had before.

I know the rest of the world is getting ready to celebrate Mothers Day, but since I am not a mom, and both our moms have passed away, we don't celebrate that any more. However, last night when I was upstairs working my dear husband called me down with a surprise dessert. These decorated cheesecakes are to celebrate the one year anniversary of our adoption of our cat, Bucky. When she came home, Bucky was a seven pound, big eyed, scaredy cat. Today she's twelve pounds (I'm guessing) of fur and purr. She came home in a ventilated box from the Humane Society, but she is going to need a new, bigger, carrier for her one year vet check up. She gives us both a lot of pleasure and companionship, and we're glad she is here. Happy anniversary, Bucky!

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Every Day in May, III

I'm still plugging away at my daily "every day in May" sketches, though I keep asking myself if it is worth the time. I feel comfortable working on pieces like the Mardi Gras sun from  yesterday.  I took the picture, and I know how to graph it out and work in up as watercolor or colored pencil, and I know I'll get results I like.  

This drawing on the fly, on location, is less predictable, more risky.  But I want to get comfortable drawing or painting in public, and I want to train my eye better, so this is how I'm choosing to do that. Drawing in the coffee shop showed me two things.  First, I need give myself enough time to complete what I start.  Second, if I'm just using a pen and notebook, nobody pays any attention to me.  That is a relief.  I suspect, however, that if I had my little watercolor kit it would attract notice.  Drawing outside showed me that I am going to have to pay attention to things like insects.  I was in the shade, so no problem there, but mosquitoes and little gnats left my neck and arms itching.

All this is leading up to a challenge I set for myself for next month.  I just sent in my entry fee for a plein air painting event to be held in Beloit in June.  A painter friend twisted my arm (a little) and said we could work together.  There are some prizes, and according to her a fairly limited field of entrants.  There are cash prizes, and a sale of completed paintings.  I've never done anything like this before, and I am nervous.  But I'm also determined to try.  So these informal sketches are a start in a new direction.  If I bomb, I bomb.  But I'll never know unless I try.  If you want to read about the event, check it out here:

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Here Comes the Sun

4x6" colored pencil
from a photo I took at Kern's Mardi Gras World, New Orleans, 1999

The warm sunny spring day, singing birds, and blooming garden inspired me to finish the drawing up, and I found myself humming this Beatles song:

Here comes the sun,
Here comes the sun,
And I say
It's alright.

Little darling,
It's been a long cold lonely winter.
Little darling
It seems like years since it's been here.

Here comes the sun,
Here comes the sun,
And I say
It's alright.

Little darling,
The smiles returning to the faces,
Little darling,
It seems likes years since it's been here.

Here comes the sun,
Here comes the sun,
And I say
It's alright.

Sun, sun, sun, here it comes (four times)

Little darling,
I see the ice is slowly melting.
Little darling,
It seems like years since it's been clear.

Here comes the sun,
Here comes the sun,
And I say
It's alright.

Here comes the sun,
Here comes the sun,
It's alright.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Every Day in May, II

Doing "quick and dirty" sketches every day is proving difficult.  I allow myself to be sidetracked by all sorts of things.  The paperwork for my upcoming library show needed completing and delivering, no time like the present.  I realized I haven't backed up anything on my Mac since the new year, so I did some of that.  A friend called and asked if I had ferns to share, so of course I went out, grabbed a shovel and dug.  There is a fussier drawing that is taking a few hours. Then there is my goofy vision.  The last couple days I actually taped an improvised patch (a folded tissue held in place with masking tape) over my bubble-filled left eye so that I could concentrate better on my sketchbook.  Looking at distant things is much easier than reading, drawing, or even walking down steps which requires I look downward through the gas bubble. Finally there is my dreaded inner critic telling me that these informal drawings are worthy only for the bottom of the birdcage.  But hey, this is what I decided to do, so I'm sticking with it.

The first drawing was completed as I sat in a lawn chair at the back of our garden.  A friend gave me a birdhouse kit ages ago, and I assembled it and painted it shades of gray.  Every year a wren comes and sets up housekeeping, cussing me out whenever I come too near.  She's back this year, and she did not appreciate me sitting drawing her house.  The rest of the garden is in riotous disarray, filled to overflowing with spring flowers - and spring weeds.

The second sketch is of a wee vase of grape hyacinth.  I enjoy the bright purple of these hardy spring bulbs along side the bright yellow daffodils and tulips.  I put the little container on an upended plastic tub that once held potato salad, but now serves as a water container when I paint, and the results are here.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Bird Bed and Breakfast

In the spring lots of birds stop in our yard on their way north. This week the rose-breasted grosbeaks paid us a visit. The photo could be better, but it was taken through the window on our enclosed porch. The card is another from the “Useful Birds of America” series, which were premiums for buying Arm and Hammer baking soda back in the 1920's and 1930’s. I like the illustration by Louis Agassi Fuertes very much. Here’s what the card says about these beauties.

“From the throat of this beautifully plumed bird is poured forth in the lush of t
he May morning so sweet a song that lucky is he who hears it. He frequents the second growth and thickets of small trees and bushes in overgrown fields. Of inestimable value is his service to man, for he consumes large numbers of tent caterpillars, gypsy and brown-tailed moths, canker worms, potato beetles, and many other harmful insects. The nest is in low trees and bushes and is made of twigs and fine rootlets. The eggs, which number four or five, are pale blue and heavily blotched with brown. The bird is found breeding in the northern United States and southern Canada.”

This site allows you to listen to their song:

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Every Day in May

I decided to do a series of informal sketches of odds and ends here at my house each day in  May, nothing too detailed or obsessive. No half sheet watercolors or crazy detailed drawings. Nothing gridded off from one of my gazillion photos. Just quick and dirty sketches. Truth be told, that's about what I can capable of doing right now. Yesterday I was trying to paint and add detail to an acrylic gel transfer of a sketchbook drawing, and the gas bubble that is helping my eye heal swam into the middle of my visual field, bouncing, glinting light, magnifying parts of the paper, distorting others. I tried holding my left hand over the eye, but besides being awkward, it fogged up my glasses. It occurred to me perhaps I should tie on a red bandanna, and add an eye patch, and become Sherry, the Painter Pirate. Arrrrrgh! Anyway, the two wee sketches here are from yesterday and the day before.

Other than that I am preparing for my first solo show at our public library in June, writing and rewriting a biographical statement and artist's statement. For a former English teacher I am finding it surprisingly difficult to write something that is true, brief, and readable. I'm making an inventory of the paintings I plan to include, and have begun to fret about if I need extra insurance to cover what is essentially all the best artwork I have done the past decade. Having my own show has been one of my goals, but lately it is seeming more and more daunting.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Worth a Look, Painting as a Pastime

Every now and then I stumble onto a piece of writing that does more than simply inform or entertain; it speaks directly, in agreeable language, to my own interests. This is certainly the case with the slender book Painting as a Pastime, by Winston Churchill.

I was fourteen when Churchill died in 1965, and aside from President Kennedy's assassination, Churchill's death was one of the first in my life that made a big impression. My parents and grandparents, who admired the man from his role in British politics and World War II, talked at length about his character, his military and political accomplishments. But I don't remember them ever mentioning his love of painting, and his artistic side didn't make it into my history lessons.

I came to reading
Painting as a Pastime when I mentioned John Ruskin's book The Elements of Drawing, to an artist friend. She recommended Churchill's extended essay, so I ordered in inter-library loan from our excellent Hedberg Library. It's short, only 25 pages of text, and my edition has 18 color plates of his oil paintings in the back. I'm not an art critic. I have no qualifications to decide if Churchill's work would stand the test of time if he weren't a former Prime Minister. That said, I think his paintings are charming, full of life and color, and reflective of what he loved, landscapes, florals, and his beautiful home, Chartwell. What I will remember longer is his joyous voice, speaking to me in 2008 from 1921, when he wrote his essay on the power of painting to refresh and mind and soul.

Here are a few representative passages which I hope inspire to read the essay in its entirety.

"Many remedies are suggested for the avoidance of worry and mental overstrain by persons who, over prolonged periods, have to bear exceptional responsibilities and discharge duties on a very large scale. Some advise exercise, others repose. Some counsel travel and others retreat... But the element which is constant and common in all of them is Change."

"The cultivation of a hobby and new forms of interest is therefore a policy of first importance to a public man. But this is not a business that can be undertaken in a day or swiftly improvised by a command of will. The growth of alternate mental interests is a long process. The seeds must be carefully chosen; they must fall on good ground; they must be sedulously tended, if the vivifying fruits are to be at hand when needed."

"Broadly speaking, human beings may be divided into three classes: those who are toiled to death, those who are worried to death, and those who are bored to death."

"It may also be said that rational, industrious, useful human beings are divided int two classes: first those whose work is work and whose pleasure is pleasure; and secondly those whose work and pleasure are one. Of these the former are the majority... But fortune's favored children are the second class. Their life is natural harmony... Yet to both classes the need of an alternative outlook, a change of atmosphere, a diversion of effort, is essential."

"It is a great pity to read a book too soon in life. The first impression is the one that counts; and if it is a slight one, it may be all that can be hoped for. A later and second perusal may recoil from a surface already hardened by premature contact. Young people should be careful in their reading as old people in eating their food."

"Painting is a companion with whom one may hope to walk a great part of life's journey.
Age cannot wither her nor custom stale
Her infinite variety.

One by one the more vigorous sports and exacting games fall away. Exceptional exertions are purchased only by a more pronounced and more prolonged fatigue... But painting is a friend that makes no undue demands, excites no exhausting pursuits, keeps faithful pace even with feeble steps, and holds her canvas a a screen between us and the envious eyes of Time or the surly advance of Decrepitude."

"Happy are the painters, for they shall not be lonely. Light and colour, peace and hope, will keep them company to the end, or almost the end, of the day."

"To have reached the age of forty without ever handling a brush or fiddling with a pencil, to have regarded with a mature eye the painting of pictures of any kind as a mystery, to have stood agape before the chalk of a pavement artist, and suddenly to find oneself plunged in the middle of a new and intense form of interest and action with paints and palettes and canvases, and not to be discouraged by results, is an astonishing and enriching experience."

"But are inclined - late in life though it be - to reconnoitre a foreign sphere of limitless extent, then be persuaded that the first quality needed is Audacity. There is really no time for the deliberate approach....We must not be too ambitious. We cannot aspire to masterpieces. We may content ourselves with a joyride in a paint-box. And for this Audacity is the only ticket."

"Painting! What are you hesitating about? Let me have a brush --- the big one. Splash into the turpentine, wallop into the blue and white, frantic flourish on the palette --- clean no longer --- then several large fierce strokes and slashes of blue on the absolutely cowering canvas. Anyone could see that it would not hit back... The canvas grinned in helplessness before me. The spell was broken. The sickly inhibitions rolled away. I seized the largest brush and fell upon my victim with Berserk fury. I have never felt in awe of a canvas since."

"I write no word of disparagement of water-colours. But there is really noting like oils. You have a medium at your disposal which offers real power, if only you can find out how to use it."

"Just to paint is great fun. You can keep on experimenting. You can change your plan to meet the exigencies of time or weather. And always remember you can scrape it all away."

"One begins to see... that painting a picture is like fighting a battle; trying to paint a picture is, I suppose, like trying to fight a battle. It is, if anything, more exciting than fighting it successfully. But the principle is the same. It is the same kind of problem as unfolding a long, sustained, interlocking argument. It is a proposition which, whether of few of numberless parts, is commanded by a single unity of conception."

"I think this heightened sense of observation of Nature is one of the chief delights that have come to me through trying to paint."

"When I get to heaven I mean to spend a considerable portion of my first million years in painting, and so to get to the bottom of the subject."

"Painting is complete as a distraction. I know of nothing which, without exhausting the body, more entirely absorbs the mind."

"Lastly, let me say a word on painting as a spur to travel. There is really nothing like it. Every day and all day is provided with its expedition and its occupation -- cheap, attainable, innocent, absorbing, recuperative."