Sunday, December 30, 2012


6x6 inch, paper collage

My 62nd birthday was yesterday, a day that passed relatively quietly.  The studio needed straightening up in a big way. I had piles of gallon-sized plastic zip lock bags filled with collage papers piled on my work table and I needed to put them away so I could think.  Some people thrive on clutter, but I am not one.  My focus is too easily distracted by salvaged stacks of butterflies and moths, tissues and Japanese printed papers, 1940's magazine ads.  So at least for a while the table only has stacks of watercolor paper, prepared into my favorite 6x6 inch size, and some old comic books, snipped into separate panels and sorted by dominant color.

Being in my sixties is something that I am trying hard to adjust to. Grandma Tess, who lived to within three months of her 100th birthday, used to make me laugh because she said she felt young inside, not counting her failing eyesight and hearing.  She was interested in fashion and the television news, and resisted joining activities at the local senior center because she didn't want to be around old people.  She didn't identify with old people.   I am beginning to understand her point of view, although part of me has always liked older folks.  My aunt and my dad's cousin are both women in their eighties, and I love visiting with them, admire them, and find them beautiful.  I'm having more trouble thinking of myself in that way, though if I avoid mirrors I can just carry on as if time was not passing.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

See Jane Red

6x6 inches, paper collage

It was a gray, cold day, but working on this little collage put me in a sunnier place.  I originally wanted to do a more or less monochromatic collage with a floral theme, but then I remembered how much I like complimentary under paintings in my regular painting work, so I added the green first layer.  Then I found this charming little girl from an old science text.  Then I thought I needed something blue to really make the center of interest pop, so I added some British postage stamps from the letters of my pen pal.  There are lots of things that mean something to me - a bit of a Wisconsin map, tinted red, part of a pretty cocktail napkin gifted to me by a friend, a bit of a receipt from Dad's old business.  It all goes together nicely, I think. 

Sunday, December 23, 2012

First Snow

6x6 inches, paper collage with splattered paint

On Wednesday we had our first real snow of the season.  Here in town we probably only accumulated four or five inches, but further north and west they had a real blizzard.  It's hard to complain, since it wasn't too long ago I still had greenish grass and pansies blooming.  It''s all covered in white now, and much more festive than it was before the storm. 

I saw a news photo from Madison of a young woman playing in the snow with her dog, and decided to adapt it for this small collage.  I used bits of magazine ads and photos, part of a Wisconsin map and some bits of graph paper.  I love the dark shape of the jumping dog.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012


6x6 inch collage, 1980s Superman comic book

I have been coping with recent horrific news reports by limiting how much time I spend watching them, and by spending time in the studio.  

I've been wondering if these little experiments in comic collage bend all sorts of copyright rules.  That certainly isn't my intention; my goal is to celebrate the artwork, study it a bit, and see how I can manipulate the colors and images to create something new.  

I am also curious how the papers will hold up, outside of their original covers.  The pieces of panels are all encased in acrylic gel medium, and sprayed with an UV inhibiting spray, but I imagine they still may fade.  Perhaps the UV spray will help delay that.

Where is Superman, when you really need him, anyway?

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Dark Day

6x6 inches, collage with found and altered papers, stamp

The past couple weeks I've basically ignored Christmas, with the exception of addressing and writing notes in several dozen cards.  No duplicated letter this year, probably because I have slowly come to realize that people who are close to me already know what we've been up to - which is the same as last year - and nobody else is fascinated by hearing about our lives.  Or worse yet they think that I'm bragging about our travels, and that we have altogether too much time on our hands, with all the miles my husband has put on his bicycle, or the art work I have finished. I'm not imagining this; variations have fallen from the lips of friends and relatives more than once. And absolutely nobody is interested in my plantar fasciitis or recent costly dental work.  So I have settled on writing a couple lines wishing the recipients happiness and health.

There probably are reasons for my annual winter funks.  Christmas is one. We do not have children, so obviously we also do not have grandchildren, and children are the focus of most Christmas events around here.  We don't have little ones wanting to see Santa, begging to put up trees or make cookies. No school programs. Our parents are gone, so no gifts bought or visits planned, and neither of us needs or wants much by way of gifts for ourselves.  If we need anything, we go out and get it - usually second hand.  We're not church goers, for all sorts of personal reasons, so are not involved in those sorts of activities and programs.  I find myself occasionally feeling wistful about missing the old excitement of the season, and not even heading out to the holiday light show at the local botanical garden, watching lighthearted television and movies, or dropping off a donation at a fine local charity does much to lighten my mood. Our lack of snow and dark wet days don't help much either. Television news is simply one catastrophe after another, each one worse than the previous.

Light deprivation is possibly a contributing factor in my gloominess; I should go outside more, though there is little sun to be found out there. I bought my winter bottle of vitamin D rich fish oil last week, and have been sitting at my work table with the fill spectrum light - am still waiting for those benefits to kick in.

So, for now I'm listening to  my winter playlist, and collaging away like mad.   Some days I go back into my stash of papers and saved images and reorganize, or weed out things that don't speak to me any more, or I paint tissue paper in colors I want to use.  Other days I just settle down to cut and paste, and wait for the light to return.

These are the sorts of things I've been working on recently.

6x6 inches

6x6 inches

Thursday, December 6, 2012


One of the good things about being retired is that I can pursue my interests in more than one way, and sometimes the Universe sends me something that sparks an idea.  I heard about this book on NPR a while back, and then my husband brought it home from the library.  He read it very quickly, so I decided to also read it before it needed to be returned.  I've always been interested in lettering, though I do not have particularly fine penmanship, and little patience for practicing calligraphy.  But I am fascinated by printing styles, and was happy to discover the Hamilton Wood Type Museum in Manitowoc.  This little book has me staring at typeface in magazines, along the roadways, and on restaurants. 

Another book I had been meaning to take a look at is this one by collage artist Randel Plowman, whose blog posts I follow, and who not so long ago moved to this area.  He came out with this slim book that has clear explanations about what materials he uses and the processes he uses to assemble his work, as well as ideas for getting started. 

So, this week I've been trying out some of his exercises.  This one, using images from a Spider Man comic book, appeals to me because of the grid organization.  I did several from different comic books and this one was my favorite so far.  I think it is the big splashy words that give the  little 6x6 inch collage its punch.  I've always liked including writing in my collage work; it makes the art more personal, and little words seem to make people stop and try to read the text.  I often incorporate old diaries, letters or bits of novels or textbooks into my work.

This collage, also six by six inches, is from an advertisement in a 1970s Life magazine.  The ad was for a Kodak camera that warned you when your flash cube needed to be replaced.  All I did was take the headline, "Seeing Red" and cut it into squares, also bits of the flash cubes and the image in the viewfinder.  I attempted to make the typeface into an abstract design, and the little red photo makes a good focal point.

So, instead of putting up our tree, baking, or even writing out my cards,  I have been cutting and pasting.  I really must get going on Christmas - maybe tomorrow.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

New Collage, a Poem

3x4 inches, collage with vintage paper, altered papers

Sleeping in the Forest  
Mary Oliver 
I thought the earth remembered me,
she took me back so tenderly,
arranging her dark skirts, her pockets
full of lichens and seeds.
I slept as never before, a stone on the river bed,
nothing between me and the white fire of the stars
but my thoughts, and they floated light as moths
among the branches of the perfect trees.
All night I heard the small kingdoms
breathing around me, the insects,
and the birds who do their work in the darkness.
All night I rose and fell, as if in water,
grappling with a luminous doom. By morning
I had vanished at least a dozen times
into something better.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Honoring Family Veterans

Herman Heinrich Adams, my great great grandfather, was a Civil War veteran. I hadn't realized that until I visited the cemetery in Washington state where he is buried, and noticed that he had two headstones, a family stone and a government stone that indicated his military service.

Adolph Kern Pierce, my great uncle, was a veteran of World War I.  I had not realized this until I inherited this photo, then asked some questions of my remaining elders.  He was stationed in the United States since his poor eyesight prevented him from being sent overseas.  This past summer I went to the local veterans office and got a WWI flag holder for his headstone.  I hope that will let future generations know that he was a veteran.

Henry Leaver Pierce, another great uncle, also served in World War I, overseas in France.  I was thrilled to get a copy of his diary last year.  Once again, the photo was my clue to even know to ask about his service, since I had never heard it spoken of by my parents.

Howard Funk Tess,  my grandfather, was an MP in World War I.  He never spoke of the war, though after his death I asked my grandmother about it.  I didn't learn much except that he was desperately seasick in the ship going overseas, and that he had spoken about rats in the trenches.  I didn't know about his military service until his funeral, when his casket was draped with a flag, and his service mentioned in his funeral service.

LD Smith, on the left, was my step-great grandfather, a surgeon who served in the National Guard in WWII, and his son, James DuRell Smith, also in the National Gauard, served in Alaska during the same war.

Peter Hadley Pierce Pierce and his brother Richard Leaver Pierce, were my dad's first cousins.  Both served in the US Navy in World War II. I only learned of their service while interviewing Peter's wife when I was working on my family tree.  Peter was part of the initial landing on Iwo Jima. Their parents both taught radio code to members of the Air Force and Navy who were stationed in Madison.

While I do not have a military photo, another son of my dad's cousin, Lt. James Pierce, was killed in 1942 while flying patrol over a base in Alaska.  His  plane was lost at sea and his body never recovered.

Gene Earl Pierce, my uncle and my dad's only sibling, served his country during the Korean War.  I knew about his service because my parents spoke of it, and because he had brought home a tiny pink satin Korean outfit, trousers and an embroidered top, home for me.  A few years ago, a year or so before his death, I asked him if he ever wanted to return to see Korea, and his was emphatic that he had no desire to remember the place.  He wasn't open to talking about his experiences, but when I expressed an interest in seeing photos of him in uniform, he agreed and sent me several.

Joseph Hyers Ellestad is my second cousin's son, and the most recent veteran that I know of.  Here he is with his mother, returning home from service in Afghanistan.

For many years when I was a younger woman, I  knew next to nothing about the men - for in my family it has been all men - who served their country in military service.  My parents were never involved, didn't talk about it, and I only thought to ask questions once I started looking into family history seriously, after I retired from teaching.  And it makes me feel bad.  I wish my uncles, my grandfather, had felt open to telling me about their experiences, or that I had found a way to show interest, but I know that doesn't always happen.

A few years ago I tried to ask a World War II veteran, a close friend of my aunt, about his army experiences in World War II, especially when he complained bitterly about how long it took the United States to have a memorial for those veterans in Washington D.C.  My comment to him then was that I was not alive during that war, never knew anyone to talk about it, so why should other people in my generation be anxious to promote a memorial to a war that veterans apparently didn't want to discuss?  I didn't get far with that line, but when I asked to see photos of him in uniform, and didn't press, he opened up and told me a bit about what happened to him in the Philippines.  Perhaps that is a technique that will open up some veterans to talk, at least in general terms, to lifelong civilians like me.  I believe that telling stories is crucial, so that history will be remembered, and to help family members and friends understand each other better, no matter what their political beliefs might be.  If there are no living veterans, I hope parents talk about those veterans who are gone, of  their service, to their children.  I hope that the upcoming generations don't take as long as I did to seek out stories of service in their own families.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Virtual Paintout - New Brunswick

5x7 inches, oil on paper

Bill Guffy's site, The Virtual Paintout, is a challenge blog that selects a different part of the world each month, and asks artists to visit that area via Google Street View, then paint a scene they find.  This month the area is New Brunswick, Canada.  New Brunswick is lovely, filled with trees and water, with lots of trees, water, and covered bridges.  I'm certain there are people there,  just not many outside.  I gravitate toward scenes with people, and it was a real challenge this time to find folks outside.  Was everyone inside because of the day the photo car chose to visit the area? Was the weather an issue?  Do people in New Brunswick just prefer to stay indoors most of the time?  
Anyway, I had the best luck in Moncton, where I found these women walking, deep in conversation, past a street musician. The challenge, besides finding subject matter I wanted, was simplifying busy areas, like the storefront, which originally had lots of signage, and the shadows on the sidewalk.  In addition, the woman on the left was originally wearing a light green coat that made her blend into the storefront.  So, I needed to make some adjustments.  I may still try a scene with boats, but I'm not making any promises.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Post Halloween Letdown

There are Halloween People and there are Christmas People.

I am a Halloween person.  I have loved scary stories as long as I remember being alive.  Ditto for scary movies.  I like dressing up in a costume that hides my real identity, like autumn leaves, like seeing trick or treaters in their costumes.  I like carving my jack o' lantern, lighting it with a real candle, and like the smell of the cooking pumpkin.  The baked seeds are a favorite treat of mine. I like miniature Snickers candy bars, which I only buy this time of year, with the intention of giving them away. I like my Mexican Day of the Dead miniature figures, my hand carved raven with a star in his beak, my collection of black cats.

I like the fact that I am not obligated to do anything for Halloween by way of cooking, decorating, card sending or festivities organizing.  Nobody judges me one way or the other if I just ignore Halloween, which I don't.  This year we re-watched Werewolf of London, a documentary on Lon Chaney, Halloween, and Werner Herzog's version of Nosferatu.  I re-read Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes for its beautiful language and meditation on the nature of good and evil.  We went to the farm market for doughnuts and apple cider, and our pumpkins.  We visited the local pop-up Halloween store, though we didn't buy anything.  We put candy in a basket and waited for the children to come down the dark leaf-filled street.

Only three rang our doorbell. 

I hope they were out on other streets, that trick or treating hasn't disappeared completely.  I see costumed youngsters on the pages of my friends on Facebook, so children still dress up.  Maybe my street is too steep, too dark, too scary.  I don't know, but I sure have lots of miniature Snickers left.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Life on the Mississippi - At Least a Long Weekend

Sculpture garden, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis

Last weekend we revisited some favorite places, but in a different way from usual.  We took a short cruise on the upper Mississippi River on the refurbished steam boat, the American Queen.  Actually we had traveled on the American Queen before, on other parts of the Mississippi and on the Ohio River.  But the company that ran the boat before went out of business, and she was stored a few years before being bought, spiffed up, and back into service this past spring.  When we saw that she was once again plying her way on the Big River, we knew we had to book a trip.

This time we invited my husband's sisters to join us, so we had the enjoyment of having people along who had never experienced the pleasures of a steam driven river boat, moving at a leisurely seven miles and hour past towns and power plants, under bridges, and through locks - never had the silly joy of seeing people line the river bank to wave, cars pull over to stare, and folks snapping pictures as if a real queen was passing by.

We went a day early to stay over night in Minneapolis, though the boat departed from St. Paul.  It had been years since we visited there, and the sky line seemed different, filled with more tall buildings than I remembered.  We visited the Walker Art Center, and had a good morning strolling thorugh the sculpture garden and the contemporary art inside.

 The American Queen, moored in Wabasha, Minnesota

When the booked the trip last spring, we imagined that the colors would be close to their peak in mid October, and had no idea that the summer drought would speed up nature's calendar so much.  Most of the leaves along the way had already fallen, though there was still some color, as you can see in this photo.  It was cool, but not cold, pleasant enough to stand or sit in a rocking chair outside and look at the scenery.  

The first stop was at Wabasha, Minnesota.  When we were first married we stayed at an old hotel there, the Anderson House.  Back then there was a good restaurant, and the hotel rooms featured not only antique furniture, but also a cat, if you wanted.  The building is still there, was closed for a while, but has reopened as a bed and breakfast.  We visited the National Eagle Center near the river, a very nicely organized museum staffed with enthusiastic volunteers. 

 The red paddle wheel on this boat actually helps propel the boat, and is not simply for decoration.

The second stop was at Red Wing, Minnesota.  We have visited here many times, sometimes staying at the fine old St. James Hotel.  In the past we have visited the old Red Wing Pottery buildings, climbed up Barn Bluff, and ridden our bicycles on the Cannon River Trail.  This particular day was pretty relaxed, we just wandered up and down the streets downtown, had a beer in a local place, and enjoyed the sunshine.

Grain elevators, the railroad, and Barn Bluff at Red Wing.

I managed to read quite a lot in the comfortable chair on the deck.

The trip was fine - nice people, friendly staff, excellent food.  My only wish was that we had spent more time actually traveling the Mississippi.  The boat moved mostly after dark, and spent more time than I wanted in each town. I realize that I am familiar with the area, and perhaps other people wanted lots of time to explore. Still, the big charm of steam boating is drifting past the scenery, in my opinion.  Both days we left the town at 5:00 p.m.,  which only left a couple hours to watch other boaters, and try to spy eagles.  

The eagle in this tree is small, but if you click on the photo you can see it better.

Another pleasure on the upper Mississippi, is going through the locks and dams.  The last evening it was still light enough to see all the mechanical workings of Lock and Dam #3.

So, our annual fall journey up and down the Mississippi River was not a car trip this year.  It was, instead, a leisurely journey the old fashioned way, from the middle.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Digger - Finished at Last

8x8 inches, acrylic on canvas board

I finally finished this little painting this afternoon, well into autumn, despite the summery theme.  I follow other blogs sporadically, mostly other art-related blogs, but also one called Old Picture of the Day.  A black and white photo of a child holding a pail and shovel came up last summer and I was charmed by the posture of the figure, and curious too.  Is the figure a boy or a girl? What has captured his or her attention out there in the water?  What are the plans for that pail and bucket? 

Anyway, I had the drawing done back in August, and it sat and sat, until I decided I had to either paint it or gesso over the drawing and do something else.  My initial intention was to gild the background, as I had done with a couple other paintings the same size and shape.  But then, as I played with the colored I imagined for the water, I gradually got to like it the way it was. So I have decided this will just sit on my shelf as it is, reminding me that summer will come again.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Virtual Paintout: Croatia

5x7 inches, oil on mat board

I enjoy painting, but sometimes I fall out of the habit.  That happened this summer when the temperatures upstairs in my studio were sauna-like.  I did anything except paint - in particular I got lost in a local history project that kept me researching online, visiting elders to mine for memories and walking cemeteries recording information.  But yesterday I decided to just get back on the art horse that I fell off this past summer.  

I painted this little scene for Bill Guffy's popular challenge blog, The Virtual Paintout.  Each month Guffy invites artists of all skill levels to virtually visit a different country and paint a scene found on Google Street View.  This month Croatia is the country.  I was moved to try this month because just a year ago we visited Croatia on a cruise - even though the visit was only for a morning.  We were both impressed with the beauty of the coast there, the mountains, blue ocean, and mild autumn climate. I was anxious to see more.

Virtually driving a country's roads can be equally fascinating and frustrating.  Sometimes the Google camera car seems to go out of its way to find deserted stretches of highway on dreary days.  I like to look for figures, and it seems to me that most often images of human beings are primarily found in big cities, and are often partially hidden behind cars or trucks.  I lucked out with these girls though.  They were sitting at a restaurant with outside seating, looking up from their conversation into the bright light at the bizarre sight of the Google camera car.  I toyed with the idea of eliminating the young woman with her back to the camera, but decided I liked the contrast of her light hair, and the suggested friendly conversation a group of three suggested.  I also considered giving the central figure a more distinct face, but finally decided to emphasize the larger shapes and play of light and shadow instead.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Learning About Home

Me holding a postcard I found on eBay of Millard in the 1920s, where I grew up, more or less the same spot.

I grew up on a farm, land owned by my family since the 1840s, in Sugar Creek township, Walworth county, Wisconsin.  The nearest community, perhaps a mile away, was Millard, formerly known as Barkers Corners, but renamed for Millard Fillmore in the 1850s.  In its heyday, the place had a general store, a feed mill, a church, a school, a cheese factory/town hall, a couple taverns, and a couple blacksmith shops.  People socialized, had box lunches, ice cream socials, went to dances, played cards and had bowling and softball teams.  People expected Millard to become a city, once the railroad came through. My great great grandfather, an immigrant from Ontario, who had about a thousand acres of land in wheat production and a couple of mills, had high hopes for rail coming through, but died disappointed that the trains took another route, bypassing the hamlet. Through  generations sons sold off their acres, until my dad had 120 acres and a dairy operation when I lived at home.  After he died most of that land was sold, and now my brother lives on a couple acres, all that remains.

When I was small the general store was run by Ed and Vera Bray, nice people.  Vera gave my very first bag of corn chips, a special treat. In the 1950s the store no longer was a post office, but people stopped there all the time for gas from the single pump, groceries, or other sundries like school supplies, comic books, small toys, kitchen utensils, or even blue jeans.  I got into big trouble once when I was about ten when I rode my bicycle to the store because I wanted an frozen orange, but I neglected to let my parents know where I was headed.

Today there are no blacksmith shops, though there is a little machine shop.  The old feed mill burned in 1959, and was rebuilt down the road.  The elementary school closed when rural schools consolidated in the late 1950s, and is now a private home. The general store is a taxidermy shop, and little museum of dinosaur bones.  A hand lettered sign on the door says it is open weekends from 10 a.m. until 5, but I've stopped twice and never found open.  Some of the houses have burned down, or been torn down, and others are for sale.  The church is doing fine - I recently stopped by for the funeral of the organist who had been there when I sang in the church choir in high school.  She had been playing church music for 80 years.  I wanted to pay my respects, and I couldn't resist the luncheon the church ladies put on afterward.

My family, great grandparents, grandparents, great aunts and uncles, parents, sister all all buried in the little cemetery, and I have walked the rows of stones since I was a toddler, since my mother always cleaned and decorated family graves.  Since she is gone, I visit at least twice a year, to set out silk flowers in the spring, and later in fall to pick them up again. It's a quiet place, a little overgrown, surrounded by farm fields. This year I was inspired to go a step further that just tending my family lots..  I decided to make sure that all the burials, especially the oldest ones, are posted on the internet (Find a Grave.Com) for people who are interested in local history and family genealogy. 

The stories the names and dates suggest fill my mind with questions.  Why were so many of the earliest settlers in Sugar Creek from Canada?  I expected many of them to be from New England, from Norway and Germany, but not so many from Nova Scotia.  What happened in the family who left behind three daughters, one dying each year for three years?  What happened in the family who sent two sons to the Civil war, had a new baby the next year after one of their soldier sons died, only to have the infant die as well?  Why are there so many single women, buried alone?  What happened to Nancy Tinker, the women whose stone I loved best when I was a child, but is nowhere to be found any more. I was surprised, though I supposed I shouldn't have been, to see how hopelessly intertwined by marriage the biggest family groups are.  Many local people have the same last names even now, and I suddenly had some insight into why my parents knew everyone and their family histories.  I'm just figuring it out, a little, now.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Capping Off Summer

 Dubuque Museum of Art - with huge statues to the left

Summer seems to be winding down here in southern Wisconsin.  The evenings are getting cooler, the nights filled with the sounds of crickets, the flowers looking tired and ragged.  My husband celebrated his birthday this week, and his desire was to take a multiple day bicycle ride home from the Mississippi River.  The weather forecast for the week looked good, so we drove west to Dubuque, and stayed over at the Hotel Julien Dubuque - very nice indeed.  Then he took his bicycle off the rack, hooked on the panniers, and left for a ride that included a side trip to the Quad Cities, a total of nearly 3oo miles by the time he returned home yesterday.

I had wanted to see the Dubuque Museum of Art, but it was closed on Monday when we arrived, so before I left Tuesday I waited around for it to open.  I wanted to see both their current exhibit of folk art, and their collection of Grant Wood art.  The museum opens at 10 o'clock, so I had time to sit in the park across the street and sketch the giant American Gothic figures that stand near the entrance.

My quick sketch of the statues - complete with a giant suitcase

The original Grant Wood painting, taken on a recent trip to the Chicago Art Institute

Before coming back home I drove north on the Iowa side of the Mississippi to McGregor, where I had made arrangements to be outfitted as a Victorian lady for a couple upcoming events with our historical society.  River Junction Trade Co. is a wonderful place, two stores, one for men and another for women.  It is filled with everything a historical society docent or re-enactor could need - hats, shoes, fans, dresses, undergarments, jewelry, anything.  I ended up with a walking skirt, mutton-sleeve shirtwaist, belt and cape.  I'm still considering what to do for a hat, but I had reached the full amount I had budgeted.

Mel helped me select clothing appropriate for a Victorian lady. My outfit is considerably less flashy than hers!

I had some time once I got home to read, water the garden, and take my annual trip to the Walworth County Fair.  It was hot, so I was not too surprised to find the midway uncrowded.  Or perhaps it was just because it was a weekday, and most adults were working.  Being retired, I not only got in for a reduced admission, but got to visit on a day the building were almost empty, and no lines at the stand with pork sandwiches, or cream puffs.  

It was crowded for the pig races, though.  These little porkers seem more than happy to scramble for the chance at an Oreo cookie.

I enjoy the fair, seeing the garden produce, the 4-H projects, the antiques.  I like wandering through the barns, seeing kids washing and brushing their cattle, feeding their chickens or rabbits, showing their goats or sheep.  But it always feels a little sad too, remembering how the fair was always a place to win ribbons, meet friends, ride the rides, mooch quarters off my dad or grandfather, who always seemed to be there too.  I did see one friend from school at the fair, but all in all, I felt a little like Rip Van Winkle, unrecognized in a familiar but changed place.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Urban Sketching - More or Less

I have been filling up sketchbooks for a handful of years, sometimes working from direct observation, sometimes from imagination, often from my own photos. I admire people who boldly sit outside drawing in public, especially those who have no problems rendering buildings. bridges, and other man made edifices.   I'm not so confident.

Anyway, there is a group of dedicated direct-observation sketchers in an online group called Urban Sketchers.  The original group was in Seattle, but now there are Urban Sketchers all over the world, and they travel to meet one another.  These folks are good, really good. I decided to join in, even though I am shy about drawing in public (I draw lots of sleeping people in airports and libraries), and my buildings mostly look like they are about to fall down.  So be it.

Last week I drove over to Delavan, WI, to meet my sister for lunch.  Afterward I sat in a park drawing a larger-than-life fiberglass giraffe, erected in the park to commemorate Delavan's history was winter headquarters for several circuses.  My poor critter has legs too short.  I must have been worried I wouldn't fit him in my notebook.  Since I was using a pen there was no going back, only forging ahead. The park also has an elephant and a clown, but they will have to wait for another time.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Report from Figure Drawing

14x17 inches, Tombow marker on Strathmore drawing paper pad - 20 minutes

Since 2007 I've been working on my direct observation drawing by attending figure drawing classes.  I started out with evening sessions at UW Madison, but eventually quit after a series of dates where the model never showed up.  There was that, and the fact that I drive 40 minutes each way to get to the university, have to pay for parking, and then get out very late for me.  Summer is also road construction season in Wisconsin, so it often meant long dark drives filled with alternate routes, or the need to negotiate a maze orange construction barrels.  I often didn't get home until about 11:00 PM.

I finally discovered a non-instructional community figure drawing group that has been meeting at UW Whitewater since the 1970s.  It's twenty miles closer, and the sessions are very affordable.  While each session runs from 6-9 PM in the summer (schedules vary during the school year), I typically leave at 8:30 PM and get back home with enough time to put away my gear and settle down a bit before bedtime - even if there is road construction, as there is this year.

My early drawing were a sincere effort to be as accurate and beautiful as possible, but most of the drawings just look pallid and tight.  I have learned that the longer I work and rework, the less interesting the results are to my eyes.  So my preference is for a series of quick warm ups and shorter poses.  The majority of people who show up to draw at Whitewater seem to prefer longer poses, which occasionally puts us at odds.  They want to study in depth; I want to collect shapes and experiment with materials and color.  So usually I just move around, or attempt two drawing during an extended pose.

 14x11 inches, pastel on 93 lb. Bee Paper notebook - 25 minutes

I have used watercolor, acrylic, graphite pencils, ink pens, all sorts of media.  But this summer I've been using exclusive dry media, charcoal, conte crayons, pastels, or brush tip markers.  I'm fond of a Golden pastel medium that I brush on the paper ahead of time to create good tooth, and I bring along pieces of plastic to put between the pages to keep things neat until I can get the sketchbooks home and spray fix the pages.  I've been trying to be bold and bright, focusing on shapes and the way light plays on the figure, rather than trying to make a technically perfect rendering.

11x14 inches, pastel on 93 lb. Bee Paper, "Aquabee" - 45 minutes

The other experiment I tried last night was using a lightweight portable easel for drawing.  I don't like to drawing while standing, so instead of using the heavy duty easel the school provides, I typically sat at a drawing horse and worked there, often with my sketchbook clipped to a portable drawing board.  I got a good deal at University Bookstore recently on a Norcross Steel Tripod Easel. It's very light, has a nice carrying case with a shoulder strap, and is quick and easy to set up.  My notebooks sit securely on the easel, and I found it to be perfect for comfortable drawing last night. 

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Vintage Series, Continued

8x8 inches, acrylic on canvas board

The past couple days here in southern Wisconsin have been pleasant, in the 80s, and the result for me was a feeling of enthusiasm and energy that I haven't experienced in weeks.  Encouraged by results on the old photos from my stash, I decided to take a stag at this boy on a pony.  The tiny black and white photograph was obviously snapped on our family farm, and since my grandfather saved it until his death in the 1970s, I assume the child is a relative, I'm guessing Grandpa's older brother John's son.  It looks to me like the boy's outfit is from the 1920s, which would be about right for that family.

I decided to do a series of these photos, all the same size, on inexpensive canvas board from the local hobby store.  I gesso the boards first to fill in the rough texture a bit, and to just get over my hesitation at making a first mark.  Then I drew in the figures, and built the images up layer by layer.  This time I experimented with a slow dry medium added in to the acrylic.  It seemed to give the paint a bit longer before it dried, and gave me the ability to thin each color a bit, improving the application, and allowing me to glaze.

I intend to apply gold leaf to the background, just as I did with the panting of the girl with the rabbits.  I may also go into this with some colored pencil, perhaps add some shading in blues or violets.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012


5x7 inches, acrylic on paper

It has been such a hot summer, I find myself combing through old photos of people sunbathing, swimming, in boats, and fishing.  I certainly haven't been doing these things.  These two girls were high school friends of my mother's, and I decided to try to depict them.  This was supposed to be the under painting, with color added later, but I think I'll leave them as they are for now.  Or maybe I'll try another version in color later.  I suppose there's no reason to rush a decision.  In the original photograph, which is small, in black and white, they sit in front of dark foliage, so that their hair blends into the background.  I decided to eliminate the trees and just emphasize the young women.  Somehow they speak to me of pleasant summer days spent with friends.

by Joyce Sutphen

This was when my daughters were just children
playing on the rocky shore of the lake,

their hair in braids, their bright-colored jackets
tied around their waists. It was afternoon,

the shadows falling away, their faces
glowing with light. Whatever we said then

(and it must have been happy; it must have
been hopeful) is lost as I am now lost

from that life I lived. This was when nothing
that I wanted mattered, though all I wanted

was happiness, pure happiness, simple
as strawberries and cream in a saucer,

as curtains floating from a window sill,
as small pairs of shoes arranged in a row.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012


old snapshot, found in a file drawer at a consignment shop today

Green Canoe, by Jeffrey Harrison

I don't often get the chance any longer
to go out alone in the green canoe
and, lying in the bottom of the boat,
just drift where the breeze takes me,
down to the other end of the lake
or into some cove without my knowing
because I can't see anything over
the gunwales but sky as I lie there,
feeling the ribs of the boat as my own,
this floating pod with a body inside it...

also a mind, that drifts among clouds
and the sounds that carry over water—
a flutter of birdsong, a screen door
slamming shut-as well as the usual stuff
that clutters it, but slowed down, opened up,
like the fluff of milkweed tugged
from its husk and floating over the lake,
to be mistaken for mayflies at dusk
by feeding trout, or be carried away
to a place where the seeds might sprout.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

New Paintings

5x7 oil on canvas board

Last week I joined a group of painters for three days at the Senior Center in Fitchburg.  Most were people I have known for several years, mostly folks who work exclusively in watercolors.  I wanted to paint there to see them, get some feedback on my work, and to have a cool place to work. I emailed ahead to see if I could use my water mixable oils, since the cleanup only requires soap and water, no stinky solvents.  I got the OK, so I packed up my kit and headed out for three days.

This little painting of my brother-in-law is based on a snapshot I took of him about ten years ago.  He loves his tractors, and it showed in the picture.  I did a monotype of this image, even framed it, but over time I've come to like that version less and less, and wanted something I liked better to replace the monotype.  This is what I have so far.  I think the face needs to be darker, hidden under the hat as it is, so I think I'll need to go back in later, though I mostly don't like to keep fiddling with oils.  I do like the simple shapes and colors in this.

5x7 inches, oil on canvas board

This is another interpretation of an old snapshot of my mother seated at the picnic table by the farmhouse where we lived when I was growing up.  I think what attracted me was her voluminous skirt, tailored blouse, and heels.  She must have been headed out somewhere, maybe to meet up with one of her high school girlfriends who lived in Elkhorn.  This had to be in the 1950s, since by the 1960s she mostly wore slacks and tops, and wore her hair shorter.

I approached both of these little paintings the same way, drawing out the figures first in pencil, then painting the image in gray scale in acrylic, to work out the values and make adjustments.  Then I went in with oils and added the color.  The lightest lights and darkest darks were already worked out, so that made the oil painting straightforward and fun.

I like painting this way, working from photos of people I know, making adjustments in composition, painting out thinks that are distractions, like the lawn chairs that cluttered up the original photo of Mother.  It pleases me to look at these photos carefully, and put them in paintings that are a bit nostalgic for other people as well as myself.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Stealing Like an Artist

Little Sister, 8x8, acrylic and colored pencil, gold leaf

I've actually been painting the past couple weeks, even though my upstairs studio is often sauna-like and stuffy.  With no attic overhead to insulate the room, and a tiny vent for the AC, temps sometimes climb into the mid 80s there, and I find myself dressing very minimally and drinking lots of ice water.  That, and I signed up for a painting studio session out of town in a pleasantly air conditioned room in a senior center.  Thinking back, it might have been more cost effective to just crank up the AC here at home, what with the fees for the sessions and the gasoline to get there, but if I had stayed home would have missed seeing other painters I know and like, and I may well have gotten sidetracked playing Bejeweled Blitz on the computer downstairs.  I'll post the two small oils I finished there later on.

Earlier in the month when we were playing tour guide for a visiting out-of-town niece, I bought a little art book at Arcadia Bookstore in Spring Green.  We stopped in to cool off and get some coffee, and I found Steal Like an Artist.

I sometimes think that reading about art is just a way of procrastinating and not getting going making art, but this slim volume appealed to me very much. He is simple, direct, decidedly un-fussy, and sometimes quite funny.  Like local artist Lynda Barry, he is an advocate of just getting going, and using your hands (As opposed to an electronic device).  His general idea is that of course artists are influenced by other artists, but that your job is to keep track of the people who are your models/influences, learn from them, then add something of yourself, combine ideas, transform them to make them your own.  Kleon has a blog I like too, and you might find it worthwhile to check it out.  I also am enjoying his suggested reading list, which is mercifully short.

Which brings me to my most recent painting, an 8x8 inch picture of my husband's youngest sister, adapted from a 1950s black and white snapshot.  I glued a piece of embossed wallpaper on a canvas board, gessoed over it, draw the girl and rabbits, then started painting.  It was a challenge, since the photo was small and indistinct, and the girl was surrounded by a wire mesh fence that obscured lots of detail.  So, I invented.  When I had the image pretty much done, I added gold leaf around the entire background, a step that terrified me at first, but which later pleased me.  I know there are other painters who use vintage photographs, and who use gold leaf, but I've never seen one who works as small as I typically do, or who primarily uses personal photos.  So, maybe I am stealing like an artist.  I hope so.

Stay cool, folks.