Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Another from the Vintage Photo Drawer

Colored pencil and gouache in my Moleskine sketchbook

Original vintage photo, scanned and enhanced

I'm still interested in experimenting with sketching from vintage photographs. I started with old family photos I scanned, but then discovered a treasure trove of vintage photos of unknown people at a local resale shop. I enjoy rummaging through old pictures, and I find that not knowing the people frees me up to not worry too much about perfect likenesses. I feel no responsibility to make the people attractive, or to be true to the details of the pictures. I love imagining who the people are, what the occasion was, where the picture was taken. In this photo, the man and woman are obviously close, sitting so near one another in the rowboat. Who else was there in the boat with the camera? Are they alive today?

I've tried all sort of approaches to these old pictures. I've used graphite, pen and ink, colored pencil. I begin by scanning and cropping the original picture, then running it off on my printer. Sometimes I adjust the photo in Photoshop Elements, then work from the manipulated picture. That's what I did here. I eliminated the reflections in the water and the waterline, because what I was interested in most was the pattern of darks and lights, the way their heads bend together. I might try another version that shows the mussel shell they are looking at, and shows her boots more clearly, but for now I like this simplified version that emphasizes their closeness.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Squirrel Rant, Year 2

They did it again. I was lulled into security for a couple days, but the furry terrorists attacked my tulips overnight, and today the decapitated blossoms are scattered on the gravel path, on the patio table, and on a bench. It was funny because I took the first picture Sunday afternoon, and considered cutting a bouquet for the dining room table. I decided not to cut any because the flowers were so pretty outside. Wrong decision it seems.

This is not the first time the squirrels have munched their way through my tulips. In fact, they did it last year, and the year before that. I am trying to have compassion for all sentient beings, trying to see the squirrels as part of the great circle of life. But it's hard. Really hard.

In the past we've trapped the critters and given them free transportation to a park several miles away. That worked for a while, but new squirrels always moved into the vacated spots in the neighborhood. I've tried sprinkling moth balls, fox urine, hot peppers, none worked for long.

The trick, apparently, is not to care, to focus on the large clumps of daffodils that bloom in other parts of the garden; evidently daffodils are not as tasty as tulips. I must remember my friend Sloan's mantra, "Serenity now." And maybe next year I can remember to cut the tulips and bring them inside before they become squirrel chow.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Poetry Sunday

False Rue Anemone
(Enemion biternatum)

Today the tulips are blooming, and the violets are starting to come out in the shady back yard. The ferns are unfurling, though I can't seem to get a decent picture, and the false rue anemone is blooming. They like the same habitat as the garlic mustard, so I had to pull some of that this afternoon. It was no trouble because the soil is so damp from our recent rain. I still have not seen the hummingbird, but I put out sugar water earlier in the week.

Prayer in Spring
Robert Frost

OH, give us pleasure in the flowers today;
And give us not to think so far away
As the uncertain harvest; keep us here
All simply in the springing of the year.

Oh, give us pleasure in the orchard white,
Like nothing else by day, like ghosts by night;
And make us happy in the happy bees,
The swarm dilating round the perfect trees.

And make us happy in the darting bird
That suddenly above the bees is heard,
The meteor that thrusts in with needle bill,
And off a blossom in mid air stands still.

For this is love and nothing else is love,
To which it is reserved for God above
To sanctify to what far ends he will,
But which it only needs that we fulfill.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Heads Up!

Virginia Bluebell (Mertensia virginica)

Sometimes it's the little things that make a person most happy. For me it's being able to hold my head upright again. I had my last visit with the resident at the eye clinic, and he said my eye is healing well, and that I no longer have to hold my head at a 45 degree angle. This is cause to celebrate. I can read much more easily, and I don't look quite so dorky walking around. It's great being able to sleep on either side. It's just good.
I still have blurred vision in my left eye, and it still has the gas bubble that looks something like a smoked glass magnifying lens. It bounces when my heart beats, which is fascinating, but distracting. Luckily the bubble is gradually getting smaller, and I can see enough over the top of it to drive a little around my neighborhood. I think my husband will drive me anywhere where there is more traffic for the time being. I'm not working out, not bending over, not lifting heavy things. But I'm typing, and I'm going to try sketching later this afternoon.
My garden is changing daily. The bloodroot blossoms are gone, and the Virginia bluebells are temporarily taking over the back flower bed. I haven't gone exploring today, but I think the false Solomon's seal should be coming up, and maybe the jack-in-the-pulpit. The leaves on the trees are like fine chartreuse lace. The maple on the deck has started dropping little red buds by the bucketful. Spring is here!

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Daffodils and the Outward Eye

I was in college when Gaylord Nelson began the first Earth Day. I remember clearly sitting in the sun near the student union and thinking that life was good indeed after a long Wisconsin winter. My daffodils this year inspire the same thought; life is good indeed when spring returns after months of snow and cold.

Knowing full well that few people are interested in health issues, I'll just say that I think my retinal tear is on the mend. I have two doctors at UW Madison working with me, one an associate professor, the other a resident. The surgeon did his thing on Monday afternoon, then took off for a conference, leaving the follow up care to a resident who is anxious to do everything right. I have to stifle the urge to think of this nice looking and ernest young doctor (who graduated from Harvard and Columbia) as a cast member of Greys Anatomy. I keep telling myself, he is only fascinated by my retina, and that I should keep my eye on the bouncing gas bubble. I'm supposed to keep my head at a 45 degree angle, to keep the bubble pressing on the repaired area of my retina, and I mostly do, but my neck is getting really tired. I am cultivating a thoughtful pose with my head resting on my left hand. Reading is slow, since the book or newspaper needs to be held up in the air in front of my good right eye, so I am burning my way through the New Yorker podcasts that have been gathering dust on my hard drive. I haven't tried painting or drawing yet. I'm trying to just relax and let the eye heal, but I'm not the most patient of women.

William Wordsworth

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.
The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed - and gazed - but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

Monday, April 21, 2008


EDM 167 - Something that needs fixing

You just never know.  Yesterday I was outside with my muddy garden shoes and my shovel attacking the front yard weeds, pulling a juniper that didn't survive the winter, when my left eye went fuzzy.  I can only compare it to my windshield in winter after following a truck on a slushy highway.  So I called my eye doctor back, went in, and was not too shocked to learn I have another detached retina.  I'm scheduled for surgery this afternoon, and I expect it will be fine.   

It might be worth your time to know what the signs of a detached retina are.  You don't have to be in an accident for it to happen.  The first time it happened to me I was sitting in the kitchen eating soup.  This time I was gardening.

Signs to watch out for:

Flashes of light.  You can get little personal fireworks, electrical flashes in your field of vision.  It doesn't matter if your eyes are open or closed, if it is dark or light.

An increase in floaters or tiny specks in your field of vision.  I've always had floaters, but the past couple days new ones appeared, and there are thousands of tiny black dots, the sort of thing you might see right before you faint.

A dark curtain across your field of vision.  Sometimes it is described as a veil.  I've never seen that, but that's what people always say to watch for.

Nearsighted people and people who have head accidents or other eye surgery seem to be at more risk than other people.  According to what I have read, detached retina is most common in people over fifty.

Anyway, it's good to know these signs.  If you have anything like this, call your eye doctor ASAP.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Ramble Round My Garden

The past couple days have been interesting for me. I've had intimations of mortality twice, once last week when an ancient baby tooth crumbled after I bit into a delicious piece of crusty bread, and Thursday when my left eye sported a large new floater and began flashing. The tooth turned out fine. A quick trip to the dentist spiffed it up with what seemed to be to be a fancy version of auto body filler. I love being able to come to an appointment in the middle of the day. I was more nervous about the eye, since six years ago I had similar symptoms, and ended up having surgery for a detached retina. But it appears that this time my eye isn't looking at hospitalization. The doctor said it was just a vitreous detachment, a common occurrance in nearsighted folks over 50. She sent me home with Darth Vader sunglasses to protect my dilated eyes, and I spent the next few hours grateful to be able to read, sketch, and see my spring garden with two eyes. One ironic thing, I was afraid I would have to call our local school for the visually handicapped and tell them I couldn't judge their forensics meet last night. As it was, I did judge two rounds of young people who really did lose their sight. I felt incredibly lucky.
This morning my back yard is rain-washed, and sparkling. I missed getting a photo of the crocus that were so pretty yesterday because the rain beat them into purple pulp on the ground. But the daffodils, pansies and bloodroot are all lovely. The forsythia is blooming too, and the Virginia bluebells aren't far behind. This is the nicest time in my shady yard, and I want to spend as much time looking at it as I can.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Useful Birds of America

Yesterday was a glorious spring day, warm and sunny, windy. The yard is filled with a carpet of blue scillia, and the birds are singing. Late in the morning I went foraging through the dresser in my studio that I reserve for papers and miscellaneous bits for collages. I found a stack of old bird trading cards that I picked up from the consignment shop last winter. I'm not sure I can collage the actual cards, they're too wonderful. After a little online research I discovered that from around 1915 until 1938 Arm and Hammer Baking Soda issued trading cards in their packages. Each card encourages the reader to buy Arm and Hammer, "An Excellent Tooth Powder," and gives all sorts of information about the bird. Each card ends with the comment, "For the good of all, do not destroy the birds."

Downy Woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens medianus): A lively little all-the-year-round resident of North America. He makes an excellent customer at feeding stations and suet chunks, but the bulk of his diet is made up of harmful insects which he searches out of cracks in the bark by the incessant hammering of his sharp bill. Farmers recognize him a valuable friend. His staccato note of "peek peek" closely resembles that of the hairy woodpecker. From to six white eggs are laid in May, usually in the hole of a dead tree.

Red-Winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus): The redwing is a well-known inhabitant of reedy marshes throughout North America. In different regions is varies slightly in size, form and color ad is therefore divided into several races: while in the Pacific Coast is is replaced by two distinct species, the Bicolored and Tricolored Blackbirds. The male in his glossy black plumage and scarlet epaulettes , is conspicuous about his haunts and if these are invaded he greets the intruder with loud cries of protest. His song is a rich "oh-ka-lee" often given as he sails downward on spread wings. His mate is somewhat smaller and very different in color , brown above, below white streaked with black. The nest is usually built a few feet above the water in a bush or a sapling with four or five eggs that are bluish white curiously scrawled with black.

Robin (Turdus migratorius) : The one bird known by everyone. His friendliness to man has in turn won him man's friendship. His markedly cheerful song, heard most frequently at dawn and dusk, is one of spring's earliest signs. He usually nests near human habitation in trees of orchard, lawn and thin woodland. His building materials are of a wide variety , including grasses, roots, leaves, string and paper for the outside, and inner wall of mud lined with fine grasses. Eggs are bluish-green and three to five in number. Man need not begrudge him the small amount of fruit he eats, for that damage is abundantly offset by the large numbers of insects and worms he destroys. His range is North America, from the treeline to the Mexican tableland.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

One Year Blog Birthday

Old postcard, found at Carousel Consignment. Could this be me?

It has been just a year since I started the Late B(l)oomer blog, and it has been a good year. Having a place to write about family history, art, and poetry has been like having a public illustrated journal, one that I try to keep as positive and interesting as possible. No whining, or at least not too much. In fact, my personal paper journal has shrunken down to whatever I can write in a Sierra Club daily planner; but my sketchbooks have bloomed in the journal's place. Score one for the blog! I have enjoyed not only the writing, but also the chance to meet people who stop by to comment. Thank you to everyone who has taken the time to read here, and also let me know what you're thinking. It keeps me motivated, and makes me feel connected. And when people leave comments I often discover other interesting blogs, which is another motivating thing for me. There are so many interesting and creative people out there. Blogging has helped me find lots of them.

A year ago my daffodils were blooming; this year they look ready to pop but haven't yet. They're full of potential, needing only a few more sunny days to bring them to bloom. The snowdrops and tiny azure scillias are blooming though, and the leaves on the lilacs and maples are thinking seriously about coming out. Spring is arriving at last in southern Wisconsin, and people are out again walking without fear of breaking their limbs, and as the season unfolds it reminds each of us of our own potential, our own opportunities to bloom.

Happy birthday to the Late B(l)oomer!

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Worth a Look - John Ruskin

Graphite sketch of Orson Welles from a photograph in the New Yorker

I've been doing so much experimentation with acrylics and unusual surfaces lately that I felt the need to do something realistic, hence this version of Orson Welles, done in my Moleskine journal. I had been reading The
Elements of Drawing the past week, and Victorian writer and critic, John Ruskin made me want to pick up a pencil.

I was impressed by Ruskin, though his ornate Victorian language might put some readers off. His love of nature, his knowledge of both artistic technique and of art history are impressive. I copied out some notes for myself, and thought some are worth sharing here. The book is short, structured as three letters to beginning artists. He suggests a series of exercises to train the mind and hand, and gives advice on how best to proceed. Here are some quotes I liked.

"Do not think that...you can learn drawing...without some kind of hard and disagreeable labor. But do not, on the other hand, if you are ready and willing to pay this price, fear that you may be unable to get on for want of special talent."

"Bold, the the sense of being undaunted, yes; but bold in the sense of being careless, confident, or exhibitory, --no, no, and a thousand times no; for even if you were not a beginner, it would be bad advice that made you bold."

"...good and beautiful work is generally done slowly; you will find no boldness in the way a flower or bird's wing is painted..."

"....there are all kinds of art - large art for large places,, small work for narrow places, slow work for people who can wait, and quick work for people who cannot - there is one quality...in which all great and goof art agrees; -- it is all delicate art."

"understand that no detail can be as strongly expressed in drawing as it is in reality; and strive to keep all your shadows and marks and minor markings on the masses lighter than they appear to be in Nature; you are sure otherwise to get them too dark."

"...for a beginner, it is always better that his attention should be concentrated on one or two good things and his enjoyment founded on them, than he should look at many with divided thoughts. It is one of the worst error of this age to try and know and to see too much: the men who seem to know everything, never in reality know anything rightly."

"In a great man's work, at its fastest, no line is thrown away, and it is not by rapidity, but the economy of execution that you know him to be great."

"All merely outlined drawings are bad, for the simple reason that an artist of any power can always do more and tell more, by getting his outlines occasionally, and scratching in a few lines for shade, than he can by restricting himself to outlines only."

"A good artist habitually sees masses, not edges, and can in every case make his drawing more expressive...by rapid shade than by contours; so that all good work is more or less touched with shade, and more or less interrupted as outline."

Friday, April 11, 2008

Poetry Friday

A Room in the Past
Ted Kooser

It’s a kitchen. Its curtains fill
with a morning light so bright
you can’t see beyond its windows
into the afternoon. A kitchen
falling through time with its things
in their places, the dishes jingling
up in the cupboard, the bucket
of drinking water rippled as if
a truck had just gone past, but that truck
was thirty years. No one’s at home
in this room. Its counter is wiped,
and the dishrag hangs from its nail,
a dry leaf. In housedresses of mist,
blue aprons of rain, my grandmother
moved through this life like a ghost,
and when she had finished her years,
she put them all back in their places
and wiped out the sink, turning her back
on the rest of us, forever.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Getting Out

This weekend it began to look like spring might arrive in Wisconsin. All but the biggest snow piles have melted; robins are hopping the lawns; tulips and daffodils are up about two inches, and the Wisconsin Film Festival was back in Madison for the tenth year. We have been taking in the festival for six or seven years, and this year did not disappoint. There were 220 offerings scattered around eight venues, and the hardest part was choosing what we wanted to see and figuring out a schedule that would allow us to hike from screen to screen and still allow enough travel (and eating) time. So many movies, so little time!

Every year it gets easier. I've been taking a painting class in Madison once a week, so a month ago I was assigned the job of getting the printed schedule from the Isthmus newspaper. We haggled over the films we thought would be good, then ordered tickets online, a big improvement over driving 40 miles to the box office, standing in line, and hoping to get the films we wanted. When we both were working Thursday night was out, but now that we're retired the entire schedule was there to choose from.

We ended up seeing two films after on Thursday, and four on Saturday. We decided, based on the films we enjoyed most previous years, to choose all documentaries, though due to circumstances beyond our control we ended up seeing a foreign bio-pic on Genghis Khan. It may be that I am getting too old to see four films in one day. It isn't the miles of pounding pavement that is wearing me down (I've learned to wear hiking shoes), it's the sitting. By 10:00 PM Saturday night my back and posterior were feeling their age.

Here's what we saw:

British Television Advertising Awards: This was an hour of award winning television commericals from the UK, and it was my husband's favorite. Whether they were pitching Guinness, Marmite, or were a public service spot about drunk driving or child abuse, all were entertaining, provocative, or both. I laughed out loud at a live action version of the introduction to The Simpsons.

Garbage Warrior: This is part of a series, Tales from Planet Earth, and tells the story of Mike Reynolds, a New Mexico architect who builds homes from things like plastic and glass bottles and old tires. His goal is to build self-sustaining homes that are off the grid, needing no power lines, or water or sewer hook-ups. The documentary showed his "earthship" homes, and showed the difficulty he had in getting official approval for these nontraditional dwellings.

Mongol: We didn't buy tickets for this one, but we used vouchers the festival gave us when one film ran so late that we missed the one for which we had tickets. Still, we enjoyed this historical action epic about young Genghis Khan.

Naked on the Inside: This was my most memorable film. The documentary introduced men and women with body image issues. There was an artist who had breast cancer, a gang member with tattoos, a fat woman who is also an artist's model, a man with no legs, a former model with an eating disorder, and a transgender person. Each one reveals him or herself to the camera, clothes on, and clothes off. It was very moving.

The Pixar Story: Nothing less than the history of digital animation as it grew from hand-drawn cartoons. My husband and I both really enjoyed this, and try to see animation festivals whenever we can. We were pleased to have seen all the Pixar films, including the very early shorts.

The Unforeseen: Another documentary about the relationship between development and preserving the natural environment. This one was about a west Texas developer named Gary Bradley who was cashing in on the building boom of the 1970's and who ran into all sorts of problems when he tried to develop a subdivision near a park in Austin. As the story unfolds it becomes clear that Bradley isn't the ultimate bad guy, and we become gradually aware of the power of money to sink both private entrepreneurs and public interest groups. Fascinating and depressing.

The other interesting thing we did this weekend was to attend a charity dinner. A local peace group sponsored the event as part of the "Night of a Thousand Dinners," which raises funds to clear landmines for the UN. This group was supporting Bosnia. A local restaurant served chicken soup, a spinach cheese pie, homemade sausage, yogurt, and dessert. Each table had a map of Bosnia, and each place mat had information about the Adopt-A-Minefield program, which raises funds to clear minefields so that the land can once again be used for farming, and for building. Monies also go to assist survivors, which these days are mostly civilians and children, with medical and emotional issues. It was a fun and easy was to raise money for a worthy cause.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Vintage Inspiration

I have the ideal relationship with my local consignment shop. Jone and Larry, the owners, always greet me with a smile, an offer of a cup of coffee, and as often as not they hand me money for the little things I have taken there to be sold. I love loitering by the counter, chatting with the other regulars, catching up on local news, and browsing through the dolls, housewares, books, and general odds and ends the shop features.

It took me a while though to see what a treasure trove it is of paper ephemera, old pamplets, magazines, and photographs. Lately I take my coffee to a file drawer in the back room and riffle through the old black and white photos. It's sad, all these snapshots of friends, family gatherings, soldiers with their parents or sweethearts, children. None of them is identified with a name, a year, or anything to suggest who these people are. I like to adopt pictures now and then, take them home, scan them, crop the images, and then see if I can draw the scenes. Their smiles, their clothing, their poses all speak to me. Scanned and enlarged the photos suddenly are easier to see, the people clearer and somehow more familiar. I hope to do a series of these unknown people from times past, and bring them out of the darkness of the back room file drawer.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Celebrate Your Creative Self

The past few weeks I've been making a conscious effort to work with different materials and in different ways. To help with that goal I ordered a book through interlibrary loan, and luckily for me it came from a campus in the UW system, and I had the book for a month. The title is Celebrate Your Creative Self, by Mary Todd Beam. In some ways the book was frustrating. Often she went through a project step by step, only to show an end picture that had nothing to do with the previous photos. Sometimes she would go through all the steps for creating an interesting background, only to not show any finished project at all. But in many ways the book was good for me. I limited myself to four fluid acrylic colors, plus black and white gesso, and also four very similar watercolors. That meant the dozen or so projects I completed all coordinated with one another, and I really learned how those colors behaved, both alone and blended. I was also happy because I only bought a few items; most were already in my stash of materials.

For me, working through many of the book's projects, which emphasized large, loose, colorful and expressive work, had me using materials I wasn't comfortable with. Most of the paintings were done on illustration board, which I learned to like because it doesn't buckle or need support. I rarely used acrylic before, and most of the paintings I did from the book used that medium. I have bought flats for workshops in the past, but rarely used them. For these paintings I almost never reached for my smaller round brushes. I had never used gesso to create opaque shades and tints, and I had never used heavy gel medium to create texture when I was working on watercolor paper.

I had fun working in a new way. I finally used up all the illustration board I had bought, so I started playing with new techniques on scraps of foamcore. These two small paintings (8x8 inches each) were painted on leftover foamcore. I coated the lightweight board with acrylic varnish to seal it before I started working, and the results look like tiles, though much lighter. I'm thinking they would look good with wide mats, the images floated so the result is almost like a shadow box. A bonus, my husband, who likes his art representational, likes these images. Good thing too, since the book goes back to the library tomorrow.