Sunday, November 29, 2009

Travelogue: Key West

Dick and I both prefer warm weather and sunshine to drizzle damp and cold, so we planned a Monday to Friday get-away to Key West, Florida over Thanksgiving. Dick had never been there, and the last time I visited was with my grandparents in 1961. I remember because even though I was only ten, the newspapers were full of the news of Ernest Hemingway's death.

My grandparents and I arrived by car, and stayed in a traditional motel along the highway. Dick and I flew to Key West and stayed in a nice bed and breakfast. The Heron House is a restored Classical Revival style house on Simonton street, in Old Town very near Duval street. We had a lovely and quiet room with views of their tropical garden, complete with waterfall. The place serves a continental breakfast every day, which was a little disappointment to us. Most B&Bs we've visited have a traditional sit-down breakfast, and an opportunity to chat with other guests and the hosts. This had a much more informal atmosphere, and we ended up not talking with anyone else. To be sure the breakfast buffet of coffee, cereal, juice and sweet rolls was all we needed to get started each day, and the patio was pretty. It just wasn't the homelike atmosphere we had expected. Think small inn rather than bed and breakfast.

The weather was comfortable, and I loved being able to shed my jeans and wear Capri pants, short sleeves and sandals. It rained a little each day, but we still were able to see all we wanted. We walked everywhere, though we could have rented bicycles or an electric car. Next time I'd do that, since my airplane-swollen toes raised blisters the first day.

Key West is 90 miles from Cuba, which is closer than it is to Miami. Key West once had many cigar factories, which are all gone now. But there are shops that sell cigars, and at least one that features Cuban-themed merchandise. Cuban grilled pork sandwiches are available at many restaurants, and in fact that' s what I had for lunch on Thanksgiving. Delicious.

We really didn't have a bad meal anywhere. I had delicious fish tacos one night, a pile of boiled pink shrimp another. There is a vegetarian cafe that served the best falafel I've ever tasted. But my favorite place was here. Actually this sign marks two restaurants, Alonzos downstairs and Berlins upstairs. We ate twice at Alonzos, which is the more casual of the two places. We kept ordering appetizer plates to split, all sorts of fresh oysters, and bowls of white chili. I had lobster/crab cakes that I remember fondly for a very long time indeed. We loved the bread pudding and the key lime pie here too.

On Tuesday we took an old town trolley tour of Key West. I was a little unhappy about the cost, but to be fair we could have gotten on and off the trolley all day and saved ourselves some walking. We just rode the big loop and got some sense of where the big attractions are and something of the history of the place. Our driver and guide was friendly and informative, and I don't regret spending the money. There is another similar tour in the format of a train, but we didn't try that.

We enjoyed our visit to the Audubon house. This photo is a little wooden bowl of nests, feathers and shells that the artist collected. The house is lovely, filled with antiques and bird prints, and there is a pretty garden on the grounds. I heard that sometimes there are orchids blooming, but the day we visited none were.

Another historic site we both wanted to see was the Hemingway house. Of course we were both English majors in college, and have read most of the Hemingway novels and short stories. I used to teach The Old Man and the Sea, though I generally liked it better than any of my students. The house is lovely, and our guide was friendly and well informed. There were a handful of children on our tour, and they seemed most interested in the many six-toed cats that roam the property, many resting on Spanish antiques and old textiles. Here one is curled up on a chair in Hemingway's writing studio, oblivious to the chattering tourists and their cameras.

There are lots of literary connections in the keys. Robert Frost wintered there and wrote poetry. Tennessee Williams wrote plays in a downtown hotel. I believe poet Elizabeth Bishop had a house here, Zane Gray spent winters nearby, and there are probably others as well.

On Thanksgiving we took a stroll to the historic cemetery. We both like looking at the old monuments, and seeing what history we can learn from the stones. This cemetery has a section devoted to those killed when the Maine was blown up in Havana Harbor. I was interested that most of the graves are above ground, as they are in New Orleans. The island sits on solid rock, and it is very expensive to excavate. This rooster, one of hundred of chickens that roam the city, was finding some insects to feast on.

We never went to the beach, but we did walk around the harbor, admiring the boats, feeding the fish, having a few margaritas and beers. Key West is famous for its sunsets, and thousands gather at Mallory Square to applaud the setting sun each night. We skipped that, but we did sign up for a sunset ride on a catamaran. We've done this in Mexico and in Jamaica, and always have fun. The "cruise" was a two hour ride with complimentary beverages. By the end of the two hours everyone knew each other and was in an exceedingly good mood.

The sunset cruise was our last activity in Key West. Friday morning we headed out for a lovely breakfast at Sarabeth's (shrimp and bacon omelet), then packed and headed for the Key West airport.

I was surprised to be pulled aside and patted down in security, since most people look at me and wave me right through. The last time I was patted down was in 1972 in Paris after a series of hijackings that led to an international airline strike. But other than that, our flight to Miami and then on to Chicago was smooth and trouble free. It's good to be home again, and the cat seems relieved to have us back.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Hunting, JFK, Etc

Ralph Pierce, about 1958

Deer hunting season started this weekend and that always makes me think of my dad. He and his buddies used to drive up to the Rhinelander area every year when I was a kid, and stayed for a week. He only brought home a couple deer that I remember; I think he enjoyed hunting ducks and geese more. We had a couple little horns made into coat hooks in the house, and a tanned skin he said he wanted to get made into something, gloves maybe. But he never did. After he died in 1983 one of his hunting buddies admitted that they spent more time just walking the woods, eating out and card playing than anything.

He was gone hunting the day that Kennedy was shot. I was in seventh grade, sent home early once the news was announced over the junior high school PA system. I remember going to my grandmother's house and watching coverage on the black and white television set, the adults very quiet. That night Mom and my sisters and little brother went out to eat, a rare event in those days. We went to the Traveler restaurant and all had hot beef sandwiches. Funny what stick in a person's memory.

Today my husband and I went for a walk at Oakhill cemetery. The weather here is very mild for November, and we thought we'd look at the old markers, and visit the grave of a close friend. She is buried on top of a hill that looks out over trees, and miles of fields. As we were coming back to our car, a white-tailed deer, a young doe, bounded across the markers ahead of us. I hope she stays safe.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Something New

9x12 inches, watercolor on canvas

I'm excited about how this little watercolor turned out. Normally I paint from photos that I have taken, but a few days ago I read about an online friend's vacation to Copper Canyon in Mexico, and she included a link to some of her husband's photos. I fell in love with the image of this potter, and wanted to paint her. Normally I use 140 lb. Arches watercolor paper, but I had purchased a Fredrix watercolor canvas in a class last year, and never even opened the package. I decided to give both the photo and the new surface a whirl.

There are good and not so good things about working on the watercolor canvas. One of the best things is that the canvas, once dampened stays damp quite a while, making blending nice and easy. Once the paint is dry, it's also easy to lift pigment. Fixing errors and restoring highlights is no problem. It's not so easy to glaze over colors because of the way color lifts. However if the underlying paint is very dry, and the glaze is applied gently it can be done. The large area of dark door way was a real problem. I prepared what I thought was an adequate pool of indigo and a little burnt sienna, and realized that I wasn't going to have enough to make a uniform dark area. Then I accidentally touched the edge with a damp finger and lifted a spot. When the whole thing was dry I went back in with an indigo watercolor pencil, and evened it out. I actually like the way the dark watercolor pencil sits on top of the weave of the canvas, and the color does look less blotched. A couple more pluses with using the canvas are that the surface never buckles as watercolor paper can, and the finished painting doesn't need to be matted or framed. So the extra initial cost of the canvas is offset by savings in framing expense.

Anyway, I still need to fix the color on this painting, since any moisture will make the paint lift. I'm going to have to wait for a still dry day so I can spray outside.

Here's a ten minute video from Tom Lynch demonstrating using watercolor canvas:

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Another Poem and The Ace Hardware

12 x 12 inches, acrylic on canvas board

I was excited about how the last acrylic painting turned out, so I launched into another last night. One thing I like about Janesville is some of the old-fashioned signs in town. This one is huge, rising over the old hardware store that is one of my favorite places to shop. There is another over a downtown jewelry store, though the wonderful neon diamond on that sign blew down in a storm a few years ago. I painted the neon sign on front of our venerable Chinese restaurant (the oldest in Wisconsin) a few years ago, although I'd like to paint it again, larger, and in acrylic. My problem is that I don't manage to paint buildings and lettering especially well. If I practiced more on it I'd probably improve, but I suppose I'm too lazy to paint something, then write it off as "practice."

Tree Cutting
by Hanne Gauls, in the 2009 Wisconsin Poets Calendar

The county Artillery
lined the corner
of Timberline
and Europe Bay Road
declaring war
on enemy trees
obscuring the view
of highriding SUVs.

Bloody branches
spattered the road
winded trees
stretched their
injured stumps
yellow eyes egging
for their missing limbs.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Rain on the Pumpkins

12x12 inches, acrylic on canvas board

I'm still playing with the techniques I was introduced to in last week's workshop. I see now that the pavement needed an orange under painting, but this will have to stand as it is. I photographed the scene a couple days before Halloween, when we were out looking for pumpkins to carve. It was drizzly and cool, and everything was wet.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Three Days, Three Paintings

16x20 inches, acrylic

The Shelby Keefe workshop I attended at the Peninsula Art School certainly got me painting. I mostly finished three paintings in three days, and realized what a slow painter I am. This fall scene was my first attempt, and though I like the way the under-painting makes the colors vibrate, I probably will go back and make the trees look more three dimensional and the leaves look less like blobs.

I believe there probably are enough barn paintings in the world already, but I wanted to tackle my personal nemesis, architecture. If I were doing a watercolor I would have plotted this baby out on a graph and gotten it as close to right as possible, but here I eyeballed it. I looks a wee bit like paint-by-numbers, but I am satisfied enough for a class exercise. The blue peeking through the gold soybean field adds interest, and ties the bottom of the painting to other areas.

This poor woman ended up with essentially no face and an arm that appears to have been badly broken in childhood. I like the rowboat best, and again the orange and blue in the under-painting adds more interest than would have been there otherwise. This photo was a challenge for the Different Strokes From Different Folks blog, and I've wanted to try it for ages.

So, now I'm back home in my teeny studio, and am trying again. This time I have a photo from a local farm market of pre-Halloween pumpkins, and I hope the blue underneath will lend sparkle to the painting. It's certainly a different way of working for me, and I have hopes that I'll like the results.

All these paintings were done in acrylic paint. Keefe only uses acrylic for her under-paintings, then uses oils for the main part. I've always been hesitant to use oils, though I have a small selection of water mixable oils set aside. My big concerns are that they smell strong in such a small space and that I cannot figure out where I would put them to dry. Still, I want to try using them, if for no other reason than I already bought the paint.

Fiddle-dee-dee, I'll worry tomorrow.

Monday, November 9, 2009

My Extended Weekend "Up North"

The past few days I've been having fun "up north." I signed up for a painting workshop at the Peninsula Art School for last Thursday, Friday and Saturday, but left a day early to spend a day with my aunt in Algoma. People sometimes call the small town on the shores of Lake Michigan the "air conditioned city," and in the summer it is almost always cool. I have been visiting there since I was a child, and have a pile of photos from the little harbor. It used to be lined with commercial fishing boats and tar paper fishing shanties. Most of the shanties have been torn down to make room for condominiums, and now there are only two left. This one was refurbished and moved to its prime location near the red lighthouse. I managed to crop out the condos.

After a good visit with my aunt I headed to Fish Creek for my workshop at the Peninsula Art School. My aunt doesn't like coffee, so when I got to Fish Creek Thursday morning I popped into the Blue Horse Cafe and bought a latte. I was charmed by the smiling face in the foam and was sure it was a good omen for the day.

I have always been fascinated with the Mexican celebration of Day of the Dead, and the gallery of the art school had several shrines filled with food, photos, artwork, religious symbols, and these wonderful calaveras (sugar skulls).

The main reason for the trip was the painting workshop, and it turned out to be a winner. The instructor, Shelby Keefe, paints by using an acrylic under painting in complementary colors, then the main part of the painting is done in oils. She demonstrated part of each morning, then we had lots of time to work on our own. She was helpful and encouraging, and I was happy with my first attempts at working this way. Actually I worked all in acrylics, since I didn't have a way to transport wet oils and didn't want to smell them for the entire two hundred mile trip back home. I got mostly finished with three small paintings, which I felt good about since I tend to paint rather slowly.

I hope to post pictures of my finished paintings later this week.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

November Scenes, a Poem, and a Workshop

Our pumpkins are on a fast downhill slide. Too ripe when they were carved, the squirrels are nibbling on the the soft Jack-o-lanterns. Dick's "snowman" looks like he has been lethally shot from behind and is on a slow pitch forward toward the deck.

I was glad to have a sunny day, because I needed some more reference photos for a painting class I'm taking this week two hundred miles north in Door County at the Peninsula Art School in Fish Creek. Shelby Keefe, an artist who paints mostly urban landscapes in oils with acrylic under paintings is the instructor. I've been collecting materials, painting in acrylic, and assembling reference photos in an effort to be prepared for three intensive days of painting.

This shot of an old brick barn on the Tallman House property appealed to me because of the lines, and the single fall leaf against a window.

I liked this photo of downtown Janesville for the geometric shapes and bright colors. You can't see it, but the Rock River runs along beside these old buildings. I will be back on Sunday, and I hope to have some interesting paintings to show.

If you'd like to see some of Shelby Keefe's work, check this link to her website:

Just for fun, here's a poem from the 2009 Wisconsin Poets' Calendar to celebrate the start of November.

Before the Fall
by Alice D'Alessio

We brake against the earth's spin,
clutching this lush
and gaudy day; spiral
of hawks against the blue
and sumac spreading fire
in tallgrass prairie.
We gather apples
from the last tree --
lumpy rejects, they burst
with cidery exultation
on the tongue. Then
pause once more
by the beaver pond
where fresh-gnawed sticks
arrest the stream. As if by
peering deep into the murky
bowl we could unlock
time's secrets.
A single yellow leaf drops,
Somewhere the night begins.