Self-Archeology

Discovering all those letters I sent my mom from China was a huge surprise. I thought I’d thrown out everything in the Great Purge of 2015. Writing the blog posts about my experiences was fun. Transforming them into something like a coherent book was difficult. Integrating the letters was emotionally intense and when I was finished, I was drained, exhausted.

It’s very strange meeting yourself after 35 years or more and that’s essentially what happened.

Some of what I found was inspiring, some was simply informative, some of it showed me how consistent I have been through time. We are more than the sum of our experiences. We’re also something intrinsically, fundamentally.

Most of all I saw how deeply I loved China.

I also saw the virtue of ignorance — if I’d known more about China and its history leading up to 1982, I might not have gone. But I didn’t know, so I was open to being told by the people around me. In my mind was a vague memory about the Cultural Revolution and, of course, the Beatle’s song, “Revolution,” but as none of that had any meaning to me as a teenager in Colorado Springs, I didn’t pay attention.

When I returned from China I literally read everything I could find, had friends in China send me books, went to LA’s Chinatown to buy books, had a friend in Macao send me books and used the library at San Diego State. I desperately wanted to know where I’d been. It was important, ultimately, to do all that learning away from China and away from the influence and commentary of my Chinese friends who’d all grow up “under the Red Flag.”

For a while I felt that I’d really failed my life since the only great thing I’ve done was go to China for a year, the only adventure but then I thought more about that. What’s an adventure? Yeah, I have regrets over many of the choices I made. I think that’s just part of living long enough to be able to look at your own life as if it were a book. We make some choices because we really don’t know better, or don’t have a clear view of our essential selves, or think we’ll live forever and have time to make it up.

This is the third book I’ve written about my life. All of them are show a character who’s utterly consistent. It’s interesting because several years ago I never imagined writing about my own life experiences. I thought writing memoir was self-indulgent and self- important. Again, a completely consistent aspect of my personality. The very thing I mock or say I would never do is probably the next thing on my agenda.

The most wonderful thing I found in all those letters was this. You need to know my mom didn’t want my brother or I to be artists. She said over and over “Art is a four letter word in this house.” But, the poor woman gave birth to two artists. She thought all artists were Van Gogh, insane geniuses who couldn’t be happy and who sliced off their ears. Still, I wrote her this:

“Dear Mom, I think art (you can cover your ears if you don’t want to hear about A-R-T) if it’s any good has to be about something. If you just stay in the same place and do the same things always you’ll write one story and make once picture over and over and over…so maybe I’m in the process of preparing to make something.” October 13, 1982

Fantastic Paintings

A few days ago, a friend on Facebook invited me to join the Norman Rockwell page. I enjoy looking at his paintings both for their own sakes and for the heavy nostalgia factor. They were on nearly every Saturday Evening Post cover of my childhood.

Yesterday, though, via that page, I met another illustrator, Frank E. Schoonover. I sought more of his paintings via the magic of the Internet and I found a picture that pulled my heart strings in perfect tune.

Above Timber Line by Frank E. Schoonover

Obviously he was painting Bear and me on the golf course after a winter storm, right? Seems absurd, but I have the feeling that this hiker is out there enjoying the cold, the snow and his companions, not really GOING anywhere.

Not long ago, I posted about a storm in Nebraska and talked about the “soddies” built by the pioneers. Here’s Schoonover’s depiction of that prairie life.

Looking at his work as a person who sometimes paints, I’m deeply impressed by his courageous brush strokes and the confidence of his images. Really amazing work, to me.

Pastel sketch: Camp in Canada

You can learn more about him here.

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2019/04/14/rdp-sunday-picture/

Snow, Cranes and Wind

Last year Colorado had a drought. This year, thank goodness, no. But…

In my youth, I remember avalanches most often as a phenomenon of fall snows, when the base laid by an early snow had melted and refrozen and more snow fell on top — basically a slippery slide for future snow layers. This year is the heaviest avalanche year on record, not just down here in the San Juans, but up there in the sexy parts, Summit County and nearby environs (Black — High Avalanche Danger — in the map below).

The Rocky Mountains are generally not as sharp and pointy as the Alps and avalanches are somewhat less common, but they do happen. In ski areas, avalanches are triggered ahead of opening in the morning.

As I’ve followed the stories of the avalanches, I’ve been amazed at how many people interviewed believed that avalanches in our mountains are ALL manmade. Several people (in cars) were trapped in an avalanche yesterday — all are OK.

Meanwhile, here in the San Luis Valley (Alamosa and environs on the map) spring is forcing itself upon me. Yesterday, right on time, my crocus bloomed.

Sigh…

My friend E and I headed out in Bella (my new Jeep) to see cranes. It was an intensely windy day and it was a little difficult to find the cranes, but we did. I don’t have any great photos since I went out to look more than shoot pictures. There were thousands of cranes in a barley field on the far east side of the wildlife refuge. They were a lot of fun to watch.

The wind was blowing like a mofo and E and I just enjoyed it. E has a wonderful capacity to be enthusiastically in the moment, one of the great things about her. The featured photo is primarily of a cloud at war with the wind. The wind from the east is blowing it toward the San Juans. At this very spot, it has crashed into a Chinook. The only camera I had was my phone.

Handwriting on the Wall

“Where’s my good needle?”

Saturday, my friends and I went to a nearby town, South Fork, for lunch. On the way back we stopped in Del Norte so E. could get buttons and a special round needle. I failed to ask what kind of needle — but maybe knitting?

The fabric store is kind of a general store for any crafts people might do living 45 miles from the nearest Walmart which is in Alamosa. Along with sewing, knitting, quilting, crocheting and jewelry making, they — I should say she, it’s owned by a dynamic woman named Kathy — have a small section of art supplies. Everything was on sale, but I still didn’t have $30 for a large pad of watercolor paper.

We parked at the side of the two story brick building that houses Kathy’s Fabric Trunk. We were captivated by the writing on the brick wall.

Here’s the building in the 1920s… I don’t know what the store was back then, but Kathy’s is the first storefront, with the awning rolled in (no awning today).

Street life back then was a lot more colorful than it is now. The little building to the left facing was a mineral spring. The spring is gone and all that remains now is the little building, Del Norte’s landmark.

I think of it as a store for all the things people in my immense, cold neighborhood do in winter.

Inside the store are two dogs. A black lab and a little fluffy Maltese/poodle greeting dog. The tiny thing came right to me when I walked in. I don’t just LIKE dogs. I’m interested in them and they know it.

In the very back of the store was a young woman in a wheelchair, clearly living with multiple physical and mental disabilities. The Labrador was in charge of taking care of her and was very good at his job. At one point, while I was helping E choose buttons, I looked over my shoulder and the Lab and the Maltese were sitting together looking out the front door. It was a lovely moment.

I thought of that scene and the whole store afterward. Kathy’s Fabric Trunk seemed like a metaphor for each of us. In front, there are a couple of smiling, competent men standing behind expensive, beautiful sewing machines, prizes for customers who had garnered the most “points.” There are beautiful fabrics, elegant quilts and kits with a careful price point to lure in customers. Wandering back into the deep inside of the store, there is the crippled retarded girl in a wheelchair with her guardian dogs, sitting in front of a computer that’s playing a movie. Further back, are the bottles filled with mixed buttons. A little woman is looking through those buttons trying to find 16 that match, all the right size, with which to decorate the beautiful owl hats she knits for a Christmas bazaar.

Still Fun…

Where I left the painting last night…

I’m having a lot of fun with this painting. It’s fun working with the limited palette that is winter and saving the moment I saw on my way home from Alamosa Monday, with a few editorial changes by way of establishing perspective. I honestly was so captivated by the fog over Pintada and Mt. Bennet that I didn’t even notice the foreground… It’s pretty hard to make a convincing painting out of that, though.

I Could go ON and ON and ON but…

Most of them are just rocks and dirt that people discovered ages ago they could use to paint with. Cave paintings like this one from Argentina have been found wherever there is ochre clay clinging to the rocks, usually near limestone caves. Limestone + water + pigment = fresco. To get these amazing paintings, all they had to do was pulverize some ochre, put it in a hollow reed, wet the wall of the cave, put a hand up and blow through the reed.

Cueva de los Manos, Argentina. Red, brown and white ochre.

Ochre is common throughout the world. I saw brilliant green and gold ochre outside Verona (Verona green ❤ ). I’ve had the chance a few times to go to the Paint Mines not far from Colorado Springs. It’s a spot where Indians dug for face paint, but the white clay there is also good for pottery.

Artists still use these ancient pigments. We draw and even paint with charcoal and lamp black. All of our “earth colors” are really earth colors.

Under the boot and on the toe you can see the color of the pink rock from the Paint Mines that’s in the featured photo.

Other colors were harder to come up with long ago. Red was extremely challenging to produce, and some shades were deadly poisonous. A beautiful non-toxic red — carmine — could be derived from the Cochineal beetle which is found in South America. Carmine made its way to Europe in the 16th century. It was so valuable that the Spanish — who had cornered the resource, obviously — kept its source a secret until the 18th century. The most common red was ferrous oxide (rust). Some very rare and expensive colors are now made synthetically. Artists have benefitted through “better living through chemistry,”

The most beautiful blue came from this rock:

Raw Lapis Lazuli
Padua, Baptistry of the Cathedral, Giusto de Menabuoi

Ultramarine blue was so rare and expensive, its production (obviously) not easy, that for a while it was worth more than gold. For a long time, it was used only on Jesus’ robes. It is Ultramarine Blue — “ultra marine” — across the sea. It is made from Lapis Lazuli and came from Afghanistan to Europe on any of the arduous and dangerous trade routes.

A tube of Ultramarine Blue made from Lapis I bought last year before my hip surgery, and my ultramarine blue watercolor pencil

These days, many of the colors we use are synthetically derived — including ultramarine blue. Paints are less poisonous. Artists’ favorite white, lead white, became illegal in the 19th century and now there are a few substitutes. It’s thought Van Gogh went nuts from eating his cadmium yellow paint in fits of sunflower driven ecstasy.

Like any painter — have favorite brands. For watercolor, obviously, I love Caran d’Ache. I usually use pencils, but I also use watercolor crayons and paints from their traditional box, too.

My favorite oil painting brand is Gamblin Oil Paint. They are made in Portland, Oregon, in a small company, Gamblin Artist’s Colors. The founder, Robert Gamblin, is, among other things, an art restorer who builds traditional pigments, which, of course, I love. One of the main aims of the company is the production of safer paints and solvents. The oil colors and various media are beautiful, easy to use and responsive to my way of painting. The solvents are not only less toxic but also less stinky which is good because the place where I paint has no ventilation other than the doorway to the kitchen.

Well, as I said, I could go on and on and on…

______________________________

I keep my paints in a jewelry box made by my Uncle Hank.

Wander…

Morning came, beautiful and dazzling blue. I awoke fresh and feeling something I had not felt in a very long time. I felt as if I could dance forever on ballerina toes; I felt as if I could fly. Mark was up, washing dishes.

“Good morning!” I sang to him. “How are you?”

“Shut up.”

“I see you’re fine. I’m so glad.”

“Don’t start.”

“I won’t. I don’t feel like fighting any more. I don’t feel like fighting anything. I feel wonderful.”

“You would.”

“Well?

I kissed his cheek, and he pulled back, like a small boy evading a smelly-old aunt. “Oh my, you don’t like me any more. C’est l’amour.”

I was wearing khaki pants and my favorite turquoise shirt, turquoise like the New Mexico sky, like the window frames of New Mexico houses.

“What’s on the agenda today?” I asked, making coffee.

“You leave.”

“Not until evening. Sorry.”

“What time?”

“Plane leaves at 7. I had to stay forty-eight hours. You know that.”

“I know. What do you want to do?”

“I want to go to the Art Institute.”

“You have to go alone.”

“OK.”

“I have to work. Paul left.”

“What do you mean, ‘left’?”

“He’s gone to Colorado to buy boots.”

“Ah. You don’t have boots in Chicago?”

“We sell boots. They’re for the store.”

“Great! I won’t have to spend the whole day in the car.”

“I guess not.”

Mark was not happy. I began to see that he was tired, sad, drained. But then, I’d had no experience in the night with someone. I’d simply slept. I knew very well the hell of our day together, but no idea what had gone on between him and Paul at night, what conversations, fights, discussions. It was none of my business, and I sought no confidences.

“The other thing is, Paul took my car. I have his.”

“So?” 

“Paul’s car won’t make it to the airport.”

“Call me a taxi.”

“You can’t afford it.”

“You can.”

I mixed up some Instant Breakfast and poured my coffee. I guess because Paul was gone or because I was leaving, we began to calm down and to talk sensibly. I walked around the bedroom, finding my things and packing. Mark watched and talked. “What are you going to do?”

“Did I tell you about the foreign service exam?”

“Yes.”

“Well, I passed it. Now I’m waiting to hear where and when I take the oral test.”

“Why do you want to join the Foreign Service?”

“I just want to leave the country.”

“Why?”

“Why not? You’ve lived in France, Italy, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia. You’ve left the country, so you know what I mean, or you should know what I mean.”

“I don’t know.”

“I just want exposure, Mark. To see things, know things.”

“Honey, you’ve already seen more of life than 99% of most Americans. It’s not that great to go away.”

“Maybe you’re right, but I don’t know that.”

“I’m telling you.”

“I have to. All my life I’ve wanted to live someplace with a different way of thinking, of doing things. I need to get perspective, experiences. I feel so blind.”

“Well, you’re not blind.”

__________________________________________

From Fledging….

Color

Twenty-two years ago, for Christmas, I got this:

You can see it hasn’t been used. I’ve been doing little watercolor painting/drawings and last night I thought, “It’s time.”

Whether I’m actively making art or not, I think of art supplies as “real wealth.” That’s an idea I got from Alan Watts during an ethics class in college. He made the distinction between symbolic and real wealth. Real wealth is things you have and can use. They don’t lose value. Symbolic wealth (money), on the other hand, is tied to purchasing power and CAN lose value. Of the two, Watts insisted, REAL wealth is more important. It was his argument against debt and in favor of frugality and minimalism.

When I got my Christmas present from my Swiss family ($200 CHF) my friend and I walked down to Jelmoli, a beautiful department store then in Glattzentrum in Wallisellen, a suburb of Zürich, where they lived, and bought this set of pencils.

It was too precious and too beautiful to dip into. That’s kind of absurd because I’ve been using and re-stocking a 40 pencil set for nearly 30 years. It’s real pencils and no different from what I’ve been using, but all this time it’s represented magical potential.

Anyway, I’m going to start using them on the little consequenceless watercolors I’m doing.