Horsing Around

I read an article this morning that said medieval horses were “not much bigger than modern day ponies.”

I can’t believe that this had to be researched by zooarcheologists. All anyone had to do was look at Icelandic horses, the direct, unadulterated horses brought to Iceland by Vikings in the 10th century throughout the medieval era. They are little horses. They’re great, but they’re little. And anyone who’s looked at an armory in a museum can see how small people were — not just in medieval times, but even at the turn of the 20th century. Whenever I’ve looked at medieval or early modern armor I’ve thought, “Those were fierce little guys.” I’m 5’1″. Much of that old armor is for men smaller than I am, and certainly smaller around though I’m not especially heavy. It was a different scale of human. How would a 4’8″ human in full armor get on and off a Friesian the way he would have to in battle? That and for those people horses were transportation; they had to be convenient, intelligent, responsive. Not one trick ponies, but companions.


We have such fragmented views of the past. I thought about this listening to a friend tell me about his boss. My friend was sure the guy had been in Viet Nam because he had photos of airplanes on his walls, looks to be in his 60s, etc. Turned out, no. The guy’s hobby is photography AND he’s too young for “Nam.” “I just made all that up!” said my friend. It wasn’t an illogical story, but minus some readily available facts.

Back in undergraduate school I took astronomy which I loved. For our final project, we were assigned a star. My star was E-Ori or the middle star in Orion’s belt. It’s a very interesting star actually more than one star. I had to do spectroscopy on the star and various other things and write a ten page paper about my star. Well, I couldn’t find ten pages worth of material about E-Ori (I should have tried harder, I admit it) so I wrote a fable purportedly from an ancient culture that believed the stars were the souls of the dead.

When I got my final project back, I got an A on the lab report and a mixed grade on the fable. My professor gave me an A; the lab teacher an F. “This isn’t science,” the lab teacher wrote. “Good story,” wrote the professor. And other things that boiled down to his belief that literature and history had something to tell science. His point was that IF the fable had truly been from an ancient culture, we could have learned where Orion was in the sky and where the people had lived, among other things, including that these people were very aware of the position of constellations. Those are pretty cool bits of information — were they navigators? Did they live by water? Did they live in the desert? Had the star positions changed in the intervening millennia? All kind of questions could emerge from a story like that, questions that could help scientists thought, admittedly, they wouldn’t say much about the chemical nature of the star. He tried to persuade the lab teacher to soften her position on the grade but to no avail. The question is there any such thing as “pure” science, “pure” art, “pure” history? I don’t think so.

My professor’s words really struck me. Maybe science and history are not exclusively this or that. Supposedly I’m an artist, but the more I’ve learned about the chemical composition of my paints, the more interested I am in being an artist. In the process of writing Martin of Gfenn I learned a lot about how paints were made in medieval times and THAT interested me in the whole chemistry of fresco painting. The world — human life — itself is not so neatly compartmentalized. Anyway, just my wandering thoughts this morning.

Skies of the Big Empty

I could use up all the memory left in my WP plan if I posted photos to illustrate the constantly changing, wildly variegated skies of the San Luis Valley. I’ve even attempted to paint them, but the ineffability of clouds is a huge challenge. That’s OK. I don’t think it will keep me from trying. I just figure I have to be a better painter and that might happen by continuing to try.

This time of year the phenomenon of lenticular clouds appears pretty often because the air over the mountains is colder than the air in the valley.

In my painting life, I know I’m confronting a turning point but I don’t know what it is yet. Painting sky and painting weather seem to be my thing which is lucky because there is a lot of both down here. I have a painting on the easel right now and it’s not living in my mind which means I’m probably going to cover it to keep the dust off and wait for a better day. You can’t hurry love.

I was “talking” (in epistolary language) about my reaction to selling paintings with a friend and he put it in clear language. “…stai solo raccogliendo i frutti ” … “You are gathering the fruit”. I have always painted and written without much thought of that. I think that’s the best approach because what happens after I finish something and put it out there is really none of my business. The sky just does its thing.

The philosophy behind a painting or book? I guess that’s what critics and the future get all lathered about and, I’m sure that, in my case, that isn’t going to happen. For me painting and writing are more like one of the images in Yeat’s poem, “The Double Vision of Michael Robertes:”

On the grey rock of Cashel I suddenly saw 
A Sphinx with woman breast and lion paw, 
A Buddha, hand at rest, 
Hand lifted up that blest; 

And right between these two a girl at play 
That, it may be, had danced her life away, 

For now being dead it seemed 
That she of dancing dreamed…

O little did they care who danced between, 
And little she by whom her dance was seen 

So she had outdanced thought. 
Body perfection brought..

For what but eye and ear silence the mind 
With the minute particulars of mankind? 

A break is probably for the best. My wonderful short-term job judging independently published books for the contest is about to begin. I’m expecting boxes of books to start arriving any time.

Featured photo by Lois Maxwell

Wandering…

Yesterday Bear and I were out at the Refuge which is probably a huge surprise to all of you, but there you have it. It was a wonderful, silent walk except for a couple of jets flying over the fly-over area. The geese I saw a couple of days ago seem to have made their way further south at the end of the big storm that hit the Rocky Mountains a couple of days ago. There were no ducks. Just a couple of small brown birds brave and hardy in the rushes. White mountains in all directions, infinite visibility, and in all of this one hungry Harris Hawk skimming the ponds and the grasslands for a sleekit mouse, unsuspecting rabbit, chipmunk or pretty much anything. I watched him, savoring the silence and the beauty of his flight, sorry for him that it was so hard to find food, and thinking of the past month, “Well that was wonderful but I’m glad it’s over,” meaning all the social life I’ve experienced since November 20. The only “chore” (hardly a chore) remaining (so far) is a drawing of the little Episcopal church here in my town.

I felt a little strange last night thinking that the protagonist in my novel, Martin of Gfenn, ends his life with a walk in the fens. “Gfenn” is an archaic Middle German (Swiss) word for wetlands or swamp — fen. When his heart is troubled or he needs to get away from the community, he goes for a walk in the fens. Martin is basically walking in the fens near the leper community as often as he can and looking at the faraway alps as if they were “distant blue and white promises.” I don’t know any writer who doesn’t, in some way, write from his/her life. When I wrote the book, the only fens I had any acquaintance with were THOSE fens, and I believe in medieval times, they were much more “fennish.”

It would be really cool if there IS such a thing as a “collective unconsciousness” from which we draw knowledge we don’t know how we have, people we were in the past, ancestors etc. telling us stories from somewhere and here, in our own lives, we find those things and know they belong to us. I will always wonder HOW I got that story. The absolute insanity and urgency of events that led me there were really like a great hand taking me by the throat and saying, “It’s now or never, Sweet Cheeks.”

After Hamlet talked with his father’s ghost and learned of his uncle’s betrayal, his friend, Horatio, says the meeting is “wondrous strange.” Hamlet answers, “…therefore as a stranger give it welcome. There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Meanwhile, someone did get to eat out at the Refuge yesterday or night before last. I think a coyote or two managed to get a low-flying duck.

Feathers, matted grass, bloody bird breastbone.

Random Quotidian Update 41.3.ii.xi

Here it is Monday and I still don’t have to go to work but I CAN. That is the coolest thing in the world. I actually have some work to do today. I sold some Christmas cards on Etsy (yay me) and some other stuff to mail.

My friend’s visit was great. Bear, Teddy and I were sorry to see her go. Ahead of me is the reading. Snow comes and goes from the forecast, but I’ve resigned myself to the reality that neither Bear’s nor my desires in that regard have anything to do with anything.

I used some of my sold-painting money to buy new surfaces, and that’s probably going to be a big part of my Christmas this year. The other part? The fact that I’m here in Heaven.

I recently got a lovely, small art job from the Rio Grande County Museum. I have been hired to do a pencil drawing of my favorite church in Monte Vista, St. Stephens the Martyr Episcopal Church. It’s a small stone church built as an exact replica of a village church in England by some English immigrants. I saw it soon after I moved here and was struck by the fact that it looks like Europe, almost like the little church in Gfenn, Switzerland. I took it as a confirmation that I belong here. It’s my friend Elizabeth’s church and I’ve attended a few services there and once gave a workshop on my book, The Price, in the church hall. THAT was wonderful because there were some people from Pennsylvania there who knew a lot about the Swiss Mennonites and the conversation was great. It’s always lovely when other people can enter into one of my highly specialized enthusiasms…

Otherwise, the book reading/contest-judging gig is about to kick in as well. This year, it will be six categories which could be 100+ books. Winter is a strange and wondrous time. Yesterday, after the busy weekend, I saw about 15 sparrows on the fence by the birdbath, clearly saying, “Where’s our water?” Normally they’re keeping warm in the lilac hedge.

No Lead in My Studio (So far…)

Yesterday I went to the museum in Del Norte to collect some money and restock my notecard offerings. It was a good weekend for me financially, and I was able to buy surfaces to paint on. Not the BIG canvas, but some pretty good sized panels and a linen canvas. With all drugs, you can be happy with “cheap Mexi” until someone gives you something better. Last summer I painted on oil-primed linen and I don’t think I’ll ever be the same woman.

It’s a small painting — 8″ x 10″. It turned out that this oil-primed linen is a wonderful, wonderful surface. For the last little while I’ve been trying to figure out how I could organize this technology myself, stretching and priming my own canvas, and it turns out I don’t want to. A lot of the stuff that becomes paint and related substances is poisonous. Some of it is very poisonous. I had to draw a line. Sometime down the road? I don’t know but for now…

The woman who runs the museum is also my friend and as you might know if you read this blog regularly, she lost her husband this past summer. They were married for 58 years. I’ve been listening/talking to her about it all this time and, recently I’ve heard something different in her voice which is she is beginning to see what she CAN do now; she’s looking into the future.

I spent some time Thanksgiving chatting with a friend in Switzerland who lost her dog not long ago. Through a lovely concatenation of events, she has a puppy, but the emptiness of the loss is still eating her up. I can imagine — but don’t know — people saying “She was just a dog,” and the kinds of things people say when losing an animal is out of their experience. Obviously, I don’t feel that way, but I have lost 25 dogs so I have a lot of experience losing and recovering.

As I was talking with my friend at the museum I tried to support her recent decisions to paint her house and travel to Europe (yay!) with the salient point that we live here and forward. I remember the moment I realized that. It wasn’t all that long after my mom died. I was opening the garage door and suddenly had an epiphany that my eyes were in front of my face for a reason. The same with my Swiss friend. Nothing replaces what we’ve lost, but it seems to me that even in calm and ordinary times, we’re a slightly different person every day than we were the day before. A big loss hastens the transformation.

I think that’s part of the sorrow, strangely enough. We don’t just lose the person/dog we loved, we lose the part of ourself who was (in a way) an attenuation of that person/dog. I recognized quickly when I had to put my last Siberian Husky, Lily, to sleep that it marked the end of trail-running Martha even though I hadn’t been able to run for a while. The possibility of that person existing was completely gone with Lily’s passing. I didn’t just lose my beloved — and very old! — dog; I lost a big part of myself, or the way I saw myself.

These recent weeks — selling paintings and confronting the inner Wicked Witch of the West — I have realized I’ve held onto my mom without even knowing it. Part of my trauma with selling a painting to strangers was letting go of yet one more finger of that woman whom I loved in spite of everything.

Maybe I’m Not the Only One???

The other day I sold a painting to a stranger, a nice young couple who were in love with all my work and spent a long time looking at all of it. It was the opening of a holiday art show at the local museum in Del Norte, Colorado. 

I have never sold a painting to a stranger before, not in those circumstances, face-to-face. I found it weird, embarrassing, uncomfortable. I don’t think I showed that. On an abstract level I was able to be THE ARTIST, but I turned the conversation away from my work to them. It was a way out. 

By the time I got home from the event I felt very strange. It took a while to understand WHAT I was feeling. 

I was feeling ashamed. 

It’s a “thing” to blame our parents for our neuroses so I don’t feel so good moving into that territory right now, but here I go. 

I have always been an artist, specifically a painter. I have loved painting since I was a LITTLE kid. Among my dad’s souvenirs was a pencil drawing I did when I was 6 or so presumably of myself as a grownup. I’m standing in a big room. I’m wearing a long dress (like all little girls want). Behind me is a window and from the window you can see a mountain range. All around the woman (me) are sleeping dogs. In front of me is an easel with a landscape on it.

And here I am. THAT lady. The three things I love most in my life are dogs, mountains and painting. I always wanted to be an artist, have dogs and live in the mountains. 

I don’t know how we come into this world, if we come in with a pre-programmed job description (like the Dalai Lama) or if it’s completely random. I SENSE there’s more to it than being completely random and in my case it certainly has been. I have always known who I am but not how to get there. Who tells us that the self is a destination, in the sense of destiny? I fought hard several times for my own survival; as a kid against diseases, as a woman against abusive men. Until my therapist (long story) explained to me (after listening to me for hours) HOW I’d been raised, I didn’t fully understand that my home was an environment in which I’d been used as a scapegoat to enable my mom’s alcoholism and that I would — naturally — feel more comfortable in environments where I’m not appreciated and even treated badly. 

Most of all, my mother hated that I am an artist. She hated it vocally and publicly and all her life. When she died, I found some of my work rolled up and stashed in the guest room closet. I also found a couple of small drawings in a scrapbook of clippings about me and my life. The woman had (obviously) no clear perspective about her feelings for me. I can’t say the same about my feelings for her.

I don’t have any feelings for her. I have somehow integrated both the good and the bad from that woman and live it every day. The good is good. If she’d lived in MORE of the good about herself she might not have been bitter, angry, hateful and drunk. The bad? It’s landmines and I stepped on one Saturday when those people bought my painting and rhapsodized over my work. I realized that though I’ve sold several paintings, they had all been bought by people who know me and like me. On some level my mom’s voice has said, “Well, they like you, so they bought your painting. I don’t know why they like you, but they do. If they knew you like I do, they wouldn’t have bought your painting.”

She actually DID say things like that. Publicly. Until she died.

SO my job is to get her to shut up by recognizing that I know a lot about painting. I’ve looked at paintings all over the world and done a lot of other things to “self-teach” myself. I’ve written a prize winning novel about a medieval painter. I like my paintings — not just doing them, but looking at them. I’m interested in how to do them and what I learn from them. I have painted since I was a child. It’s not a new thing. And, most of all…

Learning More about Being an Artist

the first imperative is to work. That much I get. But today, I sold another painting and learned more.

Don’t worry; I’m not freaking out. I know the person I sold it to, not really well, but still I know her. This morning I took a painting to the museum to hang where the one that sold Saturday had hung. The buyer works at the museum and wanted to see it so she followed me when I hung it.

“It’s the river,” I said. “Frozen, mostly.”

“Uh-huh.”

“The paint, though. Yeah. It’s special.” I told her all about where the pigments had come from and that I had seen them “in the wild.” I told her about the prehistoric “Buon” fresco I’d seen in the limestone cliffs north of Verona where the green in this painting “grows.” “All these colors,” I said, “except for that lighter blue there and the white, come directly from the earth. Well this color,” I pointed at some burnt Sienna, “was heated to bring out the iron color.” I pointed at the highest part of the sky and told her about ultramarine and lapis lazuli, how special it is, how expensive in olden times. I told her about the book I wrote about the artist who painted fresco. Then she said, “I want this painting.”

She went to the bank and came back with the money. “I love it, but hearing you tell me about the colors makes it mean even more.”

That made sense to me. Colors are miraculous. “It’s all dirt,” I said, “everything we are, everything we eat, all of it, all these beautiful things.” I personally see it all as miraculous.

Talking to a customer THAT way is totally possible and made me happy. It’s part of what my paintings are; part of who I am.

The Only Way Out is Through

I really appreciate the support I got yesterday for the excruciating trauma I experienced from selling a painting. I know it was absurd, but none of us is uncomplicated. And, the only way out is through.

It might not be too difficult to guess what this will be when it’s all grown up. Teddy and I headed out today to make some progress on this painting that’s been on my mind for a while. We both had a great time. No cranes but dozens of deer tracks and a magpie. Teddy tells me he had a GREAT time with all the smells along a road he’s never walked on before.

Drugs ARE Really Expensive…

After the question, “Do you have larger paintings?” was posed to me at the little art show recently, and having heard the advice (for a long time!) of my friend Perla that I should paint big paintings, I decided to see if I could reasonably manage larger paintings on a regular basis. I have ONE truly large painting and one pretty large painting. I have the truly large painting because a friend — a painter friend — had gone blind from macular degeneration and he gave it to me. It hung out in my garage for four years intimidating me every time I went out there. Then I saw a painting waiting to happen on my way home from Salida one day and I brought it into the house. I could see painting it was going to be a major challenge because, at the time, I didn’t have an easel. OH well, I had a table and a wall. 🙂

That idea never germinated, though the underpainting did. I got the REAL inspiration for it last year and painted the large canvas with an image FAR different from my original idea. I finished the painting almost exactly a year ago. It’s 4′ x 3′. It was a wonderful experience to paint.

This past year I also experimented with oil primed linen canvas.

Wow.

So yesterday I opened the catalog of Martha Porn (art supply catalog) and looked for 1) large canvases 2) oil primed linen canvases 3) rolls of unprimed canvas (cotton AND linen) and stretchers (this has got to work somehow, right?).



I’m ready to grow flax.

I reached ONE conclusion after a not-exactly-exhaustive search. Now I’m pondering a triptych but I’ve already done the math (in my head) and it’s just as expensive as a big canvas. Still, I found one that might be possible. Bottom line, drugs are really expensive.

Drugs? Huh?

Yeah. A LONG time ago I dreamed that my dad (already long dead) picked me up in a white van and we drove to San Francisco. We had a blast on the road and ended up in LA where we got lost when my dad wanted to see the “old places” he knew from back in the day (1942 WW II, 1957 Family Trip/work). We ended up on Venice Beach. “How do we get back on that goddamned freeway, MAK?” he asked me. I told him to turn onto Venice Blvd and we could get on the 405. I don’t even know if that’s right, but it seems right. ANYway, we did that and just as we were to turn on to the freeway there was an art store right outside the window of the van.

From the awning hung plastic bags of raw pigment shining in the sun. “Stop, Dad!” I called out. The most beautiful of all was a blue pigment.

“Are you sure, MAK? Those are drugs. Once you’re hooked…” He was right and now I’m twitching.

P.S. The featured image is the logo of a government driven anti-drug movement from back in the day. Sadly, it was only moments before D.A.R.E. became “Drugs Are Really Expensive” which, oddly, might have been a REAL deterrent. All the kids I knew made fun of it. Sometimes our leadership is completely tone deaf.