Went for It

Underpainting sky and tree; painting the road.

My house’ plumbing is seriously fucked up. I’ve attempted to deny it for the last few days, but today it became impossible. I had to clean large brushes which means a lot of water into the kitchen sink. It seems (and I pray) my house has two separate lines draining into the main line with the sewer line being lower and the line from the kitchen/laundry being higher. In any case, it’s only clean water from the kitchen and laundry that is draining into the back yard. Even so, I know from my life experience with home-ownership, nothing gets better and I’m not an expert.

Monday I’ll be calling a plumber and soon thereafter I’ll be going further into debt. A reminder that life’s little crises do not suspend themselves because of the corona virus.

Yesterday was a dark day for me but through it I discovered where I stand in this situation, and I guess I needed to figure that out. One of the things I determined in that dark night of the soul was that I have a lot of oil paint, some new brushes, and I might die way ahead of schedule. This sounds pretty awful, but it’s actually a good thing to remember. In the words of Jim Morrison, “Well I got up this morning, and I got myself a beer. The future is uncertain, and the end is always near.”

My version of “beer” seems to be paint.

To quote Jim again, “I guess I like it fine, so far.”

Going for It

It hasn’t been a good day. In fact, for me, it’s been the worst day since all this started. That makes sense as it generally takes me about 3 weeks to get cabin fever and I’ve been mostly holing up for that long. I spent the day napping, thinking, drinking water and humidifying the house since it’s negative humidity here in the Back of Beyond and the wind is blowing in 45 mph gusts.

After a quiet day of just NOT looking at the news, reading a book and taking a nap, I decided to unwrap a large Ampersand panel I bought a long time ago and to try the tree painting on that. I’m more used to painting on panels than on canvas.

My easel is crappy, but I need to use it for this. I set it up and sketched the painting. I instantly felt better. I don’t know where I’m going with this or how it will work or even what I want it to look like, but who cares? It will be fun to try and to struggle with it.

Pocket Relics of Beauty and Human Life

Several years ago I was at the Getty Museum in LA looking at an exhibit of medieval books of hours. The raison d’être for the exhibit was the 14th century Tres Riches Heures of the Duc de Berry that had traveled from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Along with the exhibit of books was an exhibit of pigment, but I’ll refrain from another rhapsody in THAT direction. 😉

A book of hours, “…derives from the practice of reading certain prayers and devotions at the different ‘hours’ of the day.” Not a literal hour (as we think of it) as back in those days time was not measured as we measure it now, in sixty minute increments, but a space of time “…allotted either to business or religious duties.”

Books of hours that belonged to nobility — such as the Tres Riches Heures — are elaborately decorated. Others are worn, plain, well-thumbed and simple. These books are small enough for a person to put in his/her pocket; pouch hanging from a cord worn around the waist. General literacy in the Middle Ages was higher than we usually give them credit for.

In the Getty exhibit, some of the books were intact. Some were just loose pages. All of them were in glass cases. Many of the pictures depict life as it was at the time the books were painted — agricultural scenes frequently illuminate the passing seasons. The little books could give their owners a sense of order in the universe, calm and hope in the unpredictable storms of human life.

Most of the paintings are of moments in the life of Christ, important moments from scripture, the lives (and, more often, deaths) of the various saints.

One of the pictures in the exhibit — a loose page, part of the Getty’s own collection — was of a man sneezing. All the people around him looked at him in fear and were leaning away from him.

The first symptom of the plague was said to be sneezing. “Bless you!” probably accompanied by the sign of the cross, a kind of anticipatory last rites.

The 14th century was the first known epidemic of bubonic plague in Europe. Paleoarcheologists now know that there were earlier bubonic plague events, but the 14th century was unique in that Europe’s population exploded in the 13th century, and people were writing down their history.

*Books of Hours, Phaidon Press, 1996 — a beautiful small semi-replica of a book of hours that contains hundreds of pictures from various books of hours from the 13th — 16th centuries.


The San Luis Valley and Me: the Mystery

LONG before I retired and moved back to Colorado I painted this painting:

It’s supposed to represent the phenomenon of writing about my actual Swiss ancestors before I knew anything about them, the sense I had that the whole earth is an immense grave and anywhere we go, any place we dig, we find people and stories — maybe our own people and our own stories. It’s a personal painting. I don’t show it if I hang my paintings anywhere. The figure in the painting is me. I am digging in the ground essentially for stories. The sprouts are “human beans.”

When I moved to Monte Vista several years later and hung the painting it wasn’t long before I realized that without ever having been here I had painted the landscape in which I now live, and very very accurately. Here. You can see it in these two photos my friend took last evening when we went out to see the cranes. In the first photo if you look at the silhouette of the mountains, it is what I painted. In the second, if you look at the far right facing of the sunset, it is what I painted. The mountain landscape is static; this sunset happens similarly often.

It really did happen when I wrote Savior that I wrote a novel about my family without knowing that it was my family. When a Swiss man who had read Martin of Gfen wrote me a kind of fan email and suggested I had Swiss ancestry, I finally did some patient genealogical research and found my own family, beginning in the 11th and 12th centuries, living on the exact mountain (small mountain) I had written of in my story. Their castle/fortress was as I had described it. Even their names — except for that of one character — were the same. It was so creepy, so eerie, so unbelievable that I didn’t sleep for a couple of nights.

Way too “Twilight Zone” for me.

So here I am, living in the very landscape I painted in 2012, two years before I ever saw this place.


I hadn’t planned to write about disease today. I’d planned to write about sewing. You see I recently bought a Singer Start from the classifieds in my town. It was $50 (good deal). It came with a bin filled with sewing supplies and tools. I bought it from a really nice woman on a cold, snowy day (back in the good times before early spring hit, boo-hoo).

I started sewing when I was four and my mom had mending to do. She sat me on the love seat in the spare room and showed me how to thread a needle and stitch things. She lectured me on why long stitches don’t hold well. I sat beside her and sewed lines on strips of cloth while she mended.

It’s one of the sweetest memories I have of my mom.

My grandmother Beall had taught her to sew. Over the years I learned that my mom adored HER mother and followed her around all the time. My mom’s sisters let me know that my mom really wanted to be grandma’s favorite but the odds weren’t good in a family of 7 girls, a family living by subsistence farming. But with my mom hanging around all the time, my grandma had to teach her to sew and I learned that sewing with mom was, in my mom’s mind and heart, a mother/daughter bonding thing. I inherited my grandma’s sewing machine. The most lovely thing about it is the drawer my grandfather repaired. ❤

Time passed and various home-ec classes starting in sixth grade. By then, I’d I’d long graduated from making pot-holders (our class activity) and had sewn a dress for myself. By the time I was in high school home-ec, I was making most of my own clothes.

My mom took sewing classes at some point in my childhood and learned all kinds of cool short-cuts for marking fabric that my home-ec teachers took issue with until they realized that the result was as good as their methods.

Sometime in the 1980s I quit sewing. Discount department stores like Loehmann’s made buying nice clothing easier than sewing it, and the ever rising cost of fabric made the stores cheaper. But the last two shirts I made, well, I wish I had the patterns.

I made this blouse in the 70’s. I loved it. Photo from 1979.

Lately I have thought that I don’t want to forget things that I know. I also don’t think I have any more books in me, and I’ve learned that, as a retired person, I’m happier when I have a creative project. Sewing doesn’t require a lot of inspiration, but writing and painting do (for me). I began to see sewing as a project that could yield some good stuff without requiring the same mental energy as writing and painting. Besides, my friends here sew. It’s something to talk about and share. That matters to me now as it never did back when I had no real time for social friendships. I’m also a little disgusted by the buy and throw out trend in our culture. I’d like to mend towels and sweatshirts I love rather than tossing them. I’m not made of money, right?

My Aussie friend Elizabeth inherited bins of fabric from her mother-in-law. Once I got my machine she and I spent a great afternoon going through this stuff. I brought home a bunch of free material and imagined what I could make. Among the fabrics are flowered patterns, with pansies. These are my step-daughter-in-law’s favorite flowers. I thought of making her a table runner, but then I decided to make my step-granddaughter a skirt. I got a pattern, cut it out, experiencing all kinds of weird memory things like I automatically, without a ruler, marked the seams with straight pins at 5/8s inch. The whole experience has been full of stuff like that, like my hands and unconscious mind have this under control.

But I hate my sewing machine. I’m sure it’s an “improvement” over older models of Singer Sewing machines, but I find it annoying. It’s hard plastic, things are “simplified,” so much I have less control over the machine than I’m used to. The pedal is so lightweight that it almost flies around there on the floor instead of staying put. Yesterday I actually went on eBay and bid on a machine just like that on which I learned. This would be a 65 year old machine. There was a real bidding war over that and others of that model sell for more than new machines on eBay. I found that informative.

A machine just like my mom’s from the mid-fifties, like the one I didn’t win.

Ultimately, I succeeded in doing what I had to do, but I’m still (kind of) hoping to find an old machine. And the skirt’s coming along well. It’s just waiting for the waistband and hem.

No Where Near Being a Master

Every time I paint, I paint a masterpiece. It’s true. I am completely in love with most of my paintings as I’m painting one and right after I finish it. Then, with few exceptions, I’m not in love with it any more. Sometimes I’m on to the next one, sometimes not.

Maybe the reason I’m not a “master” is because I never got serious about painting. The pity there is that I’m not good at a lot of things and I approach the surface not knowing what’s going to happen. Maybe no artist knows what’s going to happen.

There’s a wildlife artist whose work I like very much, Greg Beecham. His work is amazing. He offers lessons — I’d like to learn some things about his technique. I’m pretty sure he uses glazes, something I’d like to try, but haven’t figured out. I watched a segment of one of his lessons and what intrigued me wasn’t him, what he was saying, or how he was painting, but how he’d literally drawn everything onto the painting surface somehow. It resembled the surface of a paint-by-number kit from back in the day.

When I approach the surface, it’s with colored pencils. Depending on the painting I’m imagining, I might have a small version in water color like this one for a BIG painting I started two years ago and that now overwhelms me. Usually I just block in main areas of color and that’s it for “drawing.”

Sometimes I draw elements of the painting and then take my painting from the drawing, but I don’t normally draw much on the painting surface. In my mind there’s a difference between a drawing and a painting. I think most artists have their ‘approach.”

I drew this painting on an envelope at a conference. There are a lot of strange things in this painting. First, I painted it in California but it is a painting of the San Luis Valley down to the contour line of the San Juans as you see them from the 160 between Monte Vista and Alamosa, pure accident. Second, it was inspired by the stranger than fiction tale of having written about my own family in Savior without knowing it at the time. When I did genealogical research later and discovered that, I realized that all I’m ever going to find as a writer is something about myself and the entire planet is an immense graveyard of bones and stories.

I integrated a quotation from Goethe as the bottom strata of the land where “I” am digging. It says: “How all in a single whole doth weave, one in the other works and lives.” This painting hangs in my living room along with another that is more mysterious, even to me.

The World is Out There

I didn’t fully understand this painting until I’d lived here for a year. I painted it in California few years before I moved. It began as a painting for my stepson and his wife, a street scene of New York I started in oils and realized it would be better as a watercolor. Quite a distance from one to the other…

My paintings — for me — fall into two categories. Personal paintings and landscapes. Only one landscape has crossed the line a little bit.

I don’t have — for myself — an identity as an artist. It would take more painting for me to figure that out. Mostly I experiment and play.

In school, I got encouragement from some teachers and outright discouragement from others. Over the course of my life, what this gave me was freedom. I didn’t even try to make a living as an artist. I didn’t believe I could, I understood the competition and the difficulty, and art went into the “garage,” the “shed,” and now the back room. It’s good that it did. Most of us are not going to be “great artists.” I’ve had some work hang in juried shows and sold most of my bigger paintings which is good because they take up space, but I think the best I can do is enjoy painting.


Natural Pigments #5

All my paintings kind of look the same because winter in the Rio Grande Riparian Zone looks pretty much the same everywhere. Today I decided to try painting all in one “swoop” and learned from my friend, Rita Cirillo, painting that way is called Alla Prima. Basically, painting wet into wet. I’m not an artist that mixes a lot of colors and with the natural pigments that hasn’t worked really well since the colors are all, essentially, dirt. They mix all-right with each other and with white, but they are also what they are, no matter what.

This little painting is the work of an afternoon, basically two hours.

I think I’m finished for a while. There is nothing new happening in the paintings now, but who knows.


I love Federico Fellini’s films. I think if I’d had the opportunity to know him, I might have liked him, too. I first learned of him — his films — when I was a little kid and a then-scandalous “foreign” (OH MY GOD!) film came out. My parents went to see La Dolce Vita. My brother and I had a babysitter that night. All I remember hearing about it the next day was, “I don’t like subtitles.”

I watched Nights of Cabiria in a college film class. Afterward, my teacher explained what Fellini was doing. I listened without being convinced. It’s an incredibly dark film made before Fellini broke from the post-war vision of most Italian directors.

The next Fellini film I heard about was Satyricon. There was a big article about it in Life Magazine that sparked my curiosity. I was in college, and Satyricon was at the Denver art theater, the Flick. A guy from the Colorado School of Mines was trying to date me. He picked me up at the dorm, took me to the theater, and expected me to pay half. THAT wasn’t my idea of a date at all. We didn’t see the movie and I never saw him again.

Eight years later my best friend, her boyfriend and I went to see City of Women at Denver’s Vogue (vague) Theater. It was hilarious, and it beat out all previous films in my experience for quantities of phallus images (to be fair also images of birth canals). As we were leaving the theater, we looked in the window of the nearby Mexican restaurant at all the cocktuses and laughed.

Somewhere in there I had decided that God had abdicated responsibility for guiding my fate and had subcontracted to Federico Fellini. I’d told my friend this one night over dinner. She just laughed at me until one of the songs in City of Women was this disco hit by Gino Soccio that she’d heard ONLY at my house. It convinced her. 😀

Fellini’s semi-autobiographical film about failure, the artistic vision vs. investors, monogamy vs. human nature, the constant pulls on the human heart and the artist’s imagination was my best friend for a long time. Whenever I felt discouraged about teaching, writing, love, life, money, identity, I watched 8 1/2.

In 2004, in the midst of my Felliniesque life, I even gave a paper at a professional conference. The topic was “The Image of the Hero.” My mind went right to Fellini’s corpus. I named the hero of Fellini’s films “Old Half Head,” the nickname given to a statue of Julius Caesar standing in the town square of the movie version of Fellini’s home town, Rimini, in the film Roma. Half of Caesar’s head has broken off. I saw this image over and over and over in Fellini’s films, and over time, realized that it represents what an artist does to himself when he/she gives up, gives in, loses faith. The “Fellini hero”, in many films, “half-heads” “himself.”

The protagonist of La Dolce Vita half-heads himself in the very last scene of the movie. As construction proceeds in a subway in Roma, a Roman villa is discovered and there is a floor mosaic of Fellini with part of his head broken away. In 8 1/2 the hero, Guido, stops short of half-heading himself with a pistol. The half-head is what happens when an artist loses faith. There is also “half-heading” in I Vitelloni, Intervista, and the unfinished Voyage of G. Mastorna.

I haven’t yet lost faith in the journey, even though it often seems dark and desperate. The important thing of man today is to hang on, not to let his head droop but to keep looking up through the tunnel, perhaps even inventing a way of salvation through fantasy or will-power, and especially through faith. For this reason, I think the work of artists is really important today. Fellini on Fellini

P.S. I just learned that yesterday Fellini would have been 100 years old. ❤


Rio Grande in January (Natural Pigments Day #4)

I don’t know if it’s finished. It will depend what the colors do as the paint dries.

When I paint, I tend to bring bring what I love closer to me in the painting and make the things I love larger than in real life or laws of perspective allow. When I began this, the mountain was immense, something you’d see in the Cascades, maybe.

And when I finished the painting I saw I’d brought the river closer to the shore than it actually is in real life. Two things I love most here are the mountains and my river. I dealt with the mountain today, but did not move the river. Just imagine I took a few more steps… ❤