Pondering Cranes and the Animal/Human Relationship

The Sandhill cranes are still here. It’s amazing and wonderful. Teddy and I headed out yesterday and, for Teddy, the biggest excitement (except going with me) was flushing two ducks out of a ditch. He didn’t mean to, and I didn’t mean to, but those guys startle easily.

When we were at our turnaround point, the cranes, thousands of them, suddenly took to the air, calling loudly to each other and the world below. It was a spectacular show, but what interested me most was seeing whatever had set them in motion. I did, though not close enough to identify it exactly. A large hawk or eagle was flying low and fast away from the pond, having given up on what he must have thought would be an easy meal.

After watching five hours of nature documentaries (BTW this is NOT a good strategy for relaxation; stick to film versions of Jane Austen novels), I started thinking about the Romantic poets and the so-called “Romantic Era.” Is that where our attitude toward nature changed? There are writers who argue that it is, that until the early 19th century humans regarded the whole big mess of kill-or-be-killed reality as an adversary. I can’t accept that kind of blanket perspective about anything, but it’s probably true that before there were tunnels through mountains, mountains were less appealing, more obstacle than wonder.

The argument kind of hinges on how many early cultures ultimately began raising food on farms rather than gathering random seeds and chasing the woolly mammoth. Thinking about that, I began to see a small domestic farm as a refrigerator. “Grog, honey? Next time you go out, maybe you could bring back a live prairie rooster and hen? You were saying that there are hardly any prairie hens out there any more! I think we could just build a little enclosure and feed them and have the hens we want and their eggs, too!”

WHAT??? Are you impugning my hunting skills?”

“No no nothing like that, but you said it was getting harder and harder to find them.”

I’m sure it happened EXACTLY like that. Word for word.

In any case, no one has domesticated the Sandhill crane. They are hunted in various parts of the United States, but apparently are not easy prey. Ask any eagle.

“Though not quite as prehistoric as dinosaurs, sandhill cranes are thought to be the oldest living species on Earth, with fossilized specimens dating to 2.5 million years ago. Over those roughly 250,000 generations, the birds have gotten pretty wary. That’s why successful crane hunters have big spreads of hyperrealistic decoys, spend more time patterning birds than they do actually hunting them, and take care not to overhunt specific areas.Outdoor Life “Stealth and Decoy Tips”

Thinking about this led me to think about how many early people regarded their prey animals as gods. The plains’ Indians believed that a buffalo they were able to kill was giving itself to them.

That makes me think that we have always seen the beauty in the wild creatures around us, maybe even mores in the days when we lived together with them. And Sandhill cranes are VERY wary, though, on my last couple of forays out into their world, they have flown directly over me as if they finally got the message that I’m not going to kill them. I believe they are every bit as observant of me — more even — as I am of them.


“Logo,” “Motif,” or Mess of Paint?

Last winter? Winter before last? I started to do little water colors of the mountains nearest my town as I’d seen them on walks with Bear. They are Windy Mountain and Pintada Mountain. “Pintada” in the archaic Spanish of the Spanish explorers and the native Spanish speakers of the San Luis Valley means “painted.” ❤

They are the eastern-most range of the San Juan Mountains, the largest range in Colorado. “My” mountains very often catch the very last bit of moisture coming East from fronts that come our way from the Gulf of Mexico or California. They did that yesterday. Just an hour away, “our” ski area got 18 inches (more or less half a meter) of snow. Down here? Nothing. Nada. Zilch. I love watching them scrape snow from the clouds even when I really want the snow they’re STEALING from me and Bear.

After I’d painted them several times, their image seems to have moved into the space between my hand and eye. On the back of my paintings on board or panel, I do a “free-hand” painting of Windy and Pintada Mountains in acrylic. That’s my motif and why I named my Etsy store “Windy Peak Fine Arts.”

In the “Count Your Blessings” column, yesterday 45 “Tweeted” the closest thing I think we’re going to get to a concession speech and the money for the transition has been made available to the new president. C-19 vaccines are rolling out, including one that doesn’t need such intense refrigeration. The company that’s making it says it’s between 60 and 90% effective and it’s going to make it available to developing nations at $3 a “shot.” Our flu vaccine is 60% effective so, pretty impressive.


My Parade

Though I usually take a dog out at a particular time of day, sometimes I get an inexplicable urge to take one out RIGHT NOW. This happened today around 11:30 am. As I neared the Refuge, there were thousands of cranes rising, circling up, higher and higher. I parked Bella and got out. This is what I heard and saw:

I think the dumpster really brings it down to earth 😀

I’m still a little “migrainy” and it all seemed somewhat dreamlike. I was enveloped in the wild racket of thousands of cranes for the first 1/4 mile.

We took Bear’s favorite loop and I was enchanted by the pastel November colors and reminded why I always want to paint them.

Bear’s favorite loop and the beauty of the day…notice the tree in the distance…

As we rounded the loop’s first curve, the cranes became silent. I wondered what set them off — a predator — but WHAT predator? A cool morning. Snow falling on the mountains to the west. No way for me to know. Then, we rounded the third curve on this 1/3 mile loop and I saw…

We always think of owls as night hunters, but the Great Horned Owl hunts in daytime, too. Was it him?

My eyes filled with tears AGAIN. Oh man… And then I realized, “This is my parade! I painted this. Naturally THIS is playing the band and sending out ‘floats,’ the whole thing!” Birds being floats, of course.

I loved the thought and it seemed right. My big painting depicts one of the quietest moments in this silent (except for animals, wind, and the occasional “Hello!”) place. It’s the kind of scene revealed by hours in a wild place. It doesn’t take your breath away or stimulate awe. It’s just a quiet crane moment on a dull day. It’s a love letter from me to the Refuge. My parade couldn’t have been any better, I thought, and then…

I noticed something land on the top of one of the cottonwood trees…

Seems to be a Cooper’s hawk

Soon after I took his photo, this lovely being launched himself from the tree. You can see that moment in the featured photo if you look really really hard, then swooped down in front of Bear and me, then up and began circling the group of cranes and other water birds now hanging around the pond. “Like a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow bend.” (Hopkins, “The Windhover”)

“What a beautiful float!” I said to Bear who wondered why we weren’t moving and smelling stuff. I also realized that I was thirsty and a little hungry, so we turned back. Just as I arrived at the parking lot I saw a pair of Harris Hawks. These guys are noisy compared to other raptors. Their adaptation to environments where prey is scarcer has also “taught” them to hunt in groups. They’re darker hawks, reddish brown and reddish black. I’ve seen this couple a few other times. They like to hunt by the paved road that runs past the Refuge.

Best parade of my life. ❤

Painting Hangover

The big canvas on which I painted the crane came to me from a friend who lost his vision to macular degeneration. He wanted to be an art teacher when he “grew up,” but when he was still pretty young, it became obvious that wasn’t going to happen. A lot of his paintings hang in in house, and one of them hangs in mine. I have some of his brushes, too. He still likes to talk about painting. Though it’s hard to imagine the conversations make him happy, they seem to. That’s a testament to his resilience and courage. When he couldn’t paint anymore, he went after his other love, music.

I like to talk about painting. I like to talk about artists and pigments and all that stuff that some of you have “had” to read about on my blog over the years. I guess it was around this time last year I invested money I didn’t really have in a set of natural pigments and was completely enthralled by them. I still am. It’s all a big miraculous wonderful thing to me that you can pick up some dirt, pulverize it, mix it with oil or water or eggs or acrylic medium and you have paint.

Finishing the big painting yesterday left me with the bereft feeling I had when I finished writing my first novel. I poured a lot of life and time into that canvas. It sat in my garage until three years ago or so when I thought I knew what it was supposed to be and painted the underpainting. That idea never “jelled,” and the canvas just sat in a corner of my studio, partially painted, all Indian yellow and blue, waiting.

The image of the crane is something I saw briefly in the winter part of March this year. I passed the crane as he walked in solitude between willow saplings on a gray day with lifting fog. I thought, “That’s beautiful,” and kept going. I didn’t know at the time where it would lead me, that it would end up the painting on the big canvas, that I’d find an easel, that I’d drive 100 miles to get it on a glorious early fall day. I didn’t know anything about where that solitary gray image would take me. Now it’s there, no longer furtive and brief, but held as if in amber by the miracle of minerals and linseed oil, a different geology.

Doing a serious painting takes the artist somewhere. This year I’ve gone a lot of places in paintings, via paintings, in paintings. The weird part is finishing and re-entering daily life. You’ve done this THING, difficult and transformative, and when you emerge — not just from the work but the idea — and you’ve succeeded, you wonder, “Where is everybody? Where’s the parade?” 🙂


Qi Whiz…

I heard a lot about “Qi” during my year teaching in China. Everything involved Qi. In a way, it’s “breath” or life. I interpreted it as “life force.” A person’s Qi could be blocked because their house was too cluttered for the Qi to move. On New Years it was very important to clean the steps in front of one’s house and to wear new clothes to attract the best Qi of the new year. Qi is constantly in motion.

Qi exists in our minds, too. If you’ve ever puzzled over something a long time only to have an epiphany, that’s Qi being released and the mind clearing. Tears at something beautiful, music, a painting — Qi releasing, the heart opening. The complicated graceful motions of Tai-chi? Designed to help Qi move as it should, as it wants to.

I like the idea of it, but a lot of my Chinese friends considered it a superstition. I don’t really think so. I think there are a lot of complicated “micr-forces” that act on our well-being and not all of them are supernatural or even out there. People often have a higher self-esteem when they’re dressed well. Light coming into a house has a cheering effect (because we can see better?) Neatness and orderliness in our homes makes life less frustrating because we’re not perpetually tripping over stuff.

After I finish projects in my little studio I clean the surface I’ve been working on. I’m not thinking that I’m opening it up so the Qi can flow, but any Chinese would. Sometimes (and this is Qi, too) I discover things that challenge or lighten the Qi in my mind. This happened the other day.

I had cleaned off the surface of the table that is the “table of all work” in there and I found a little pile of treasures I’d set aside and hadn’t dealt with. I picked up the treasures and put them in the Big Envelope of All Small Treasures I Cannot Throw Out. All of them went into that envelope but one photo that I missed. It is a photo of my brother, his wife and me in 1979 working on a giant snow bear behind my mom’s condo in Denver. My mom took the picture.

It was my niece’ first Christmas. She was just a 6 week old baby. It was a very happy Christmas for all of us and it was improved by a massive dump of snow.

My mom really hated the fact that my brother and I were artists. “My children are NOT going to be artists,” she said. “Art is a four letter word in this house.” But my brother was an artist and I am an artist and there really wasn’t anything she (or Kirk or I) could do about it. Her attitude was one of the things I’ve had to overcome in my life, and I’ve only succeeded in fits and starts. I guess the support and approval of our parents (duh, Martha) is important, but not everyone has that, or even parents for that matter. We have to do our thing without it, but there is a gnawing ugly thing inside that messes up our Qi.

I’d seen this photo many times but I had never turned it over. I didn’t turn it over this time, either. I dropped it. On the back I saw my mom’s handwriting…

I’m never going to understand that very complex woman, but that she wrote this, expressing wonder over what her two strange kids were doing?

Let the Qi flow. ❤


“You’re a painter, Martha.”

The opening of the Christmas show at the museum was lovely. Not a lot of people other than the artists were there, but I think that’s only to be expected given the reality of our times. On the little table as you entered the museum, Louise had set up the guest book, hand-sanitizer, and a small pile of masks one of the artists had made. In lieu of a pretty table of treats, Louise had filled brown paper bags with goodies and red and green tissue paper. We all talked to each other through layers of cloth and spoke about our lives since we saw each other last.

I saw from this how fortunate I am to love nature and find companionship — friendship — there. I thanked the Scarlet Emperor beans and the cranes and the wind and the mountains for being there for me and saving me from the kind of alienation and loneliness that many are feeling right now. Even the sense of ephemera I felt in those rooms filled with other older people in cotton masks has been eased this whole time by the constant push and pull in nature between permanence and ephemera. It’s true that everything in nature is ephemeral, but everything is on widely difference schedules. My valley was once a lake. My mountains were volcanoes. The individual cranes I see now may not be here next year, but as a species they’ve endured millions of years.

During the opening of the show, I found myself in a heart-to-heart with one of the women who was outright mean to me, publicly yelling at me more than once, 5 years ago when I “launched” my little artistic identity here in the San Luis Valley. It was bizarre. Outside the Post Office she harangued me one winter day for a window painting I had done on the art co-op of which she wasn’t even a member. She carried it on a couple of weeks later when an art guild to which we both belonged opened a Christmas show in a local B & B. Time passed, of course, as it does, and I have mostly kept my distance, though this big valley is a small valley and we have mutual contacts and friends.

She has joined a Toastmasters group and was telling me yesterday how good it has been for her. “I’ve learned that we might think someone is in our way, but they’re not in our way.” She said more and I realized she was apologizing and reaching out.

I guess the trick is surviving through it and still painting, but her behavior and that of another really put the kibosh on me as an artist for a while. We don’t — well I don’t — think of others being “in my way” but, in fact, they can be, physically and psychically. We are liberated by each other, too.

The artistic jam I was in for a few years, artistic immobility, after being publicly abused by this woman was broken open by a friend with whom I (back in normal times) went to Taos from time to time. She always took me to a gallery near the shop where the amazing clothing and fabrics she made were for sale. One day at this gallery, looking at a painting, I said, “I can do that.”

She said, “Si. Puedes.” You can. When I did a painting of that caliber, she was the first to tell me. I have her words printed out and on my wall in my studio.

“Lo hiciste.” You did it.

I don’t know against whom we struggle. I don’t think my long period of not painting was caused by this woman’s words, but they affected me. She seemed to think I was threatening her livelihood, and I wasn’t. Wouldn’t.

Competition between artists is no new thing; my brother competed against me. Still it’s true that the words of others can have a big effect on us, even when the real struggle is against ourselves. It’s a lovely thing to have one’s work validated by another artist and that happened to me yesterday, too.

I didn’t take as many photos of the show as I should have, but here is a little peek into it. It’s very eclectic. I sold a little painting and many Christmas cards. 🙂


Big Painting Update

The good news this morning is that I can’t think of a single 19th century work of fiction that featured eye-rolling. Some that caused it, but none that feature it. Tomorrow is the opening of the little Christmas art show at the Rio Grande County Museum and I’m both dreading and looking forward to it. Yesterday I did some work on the large crane painting and I’m not sure at all how that painting is going. It’s an exploration, an adventure in a small sense. It’s a strange thing to be attempting to paint mystery, solitude and magic, all pretty abstract, but they were part of the moment last spring that led to the painting I’m working on now.

This is how I left it yesterday. I’ve begun painting the small trees and I’m using metallic silver oil paint. This morning I got a sense of how it will be. The paint — though not dry — was somewhat more settled and the morning light hit it at an angle.

Back in the 90s I was in Laguna Beach with a friend and saw the work of a Russian artist, an emigré, who painted large beautiful paintings that gave the effect of being icons. One of the reasons was he used metallic paint. I loved his work. I’ve used gold metallic paint (made with bronze particles) in a few paintings. I like it. It does its job really well.

In my imagination, this scene with the crane needed silver paint because it would kind of disappear depending on the light. I don’t know if it’s going to work that way, but it’s fun finding out. The thing about cranes is now you see them, now you don’t.

Bear and I took a walk yesterday and there are far fewer cranes than there have been. It’s OK. They have to go down to New Mexico for Christmas. I’ll miss them, but as I wasn’t walking out at the Refuge last winter, this will be the fourth season of discovery for me out there. I imagine it will be a Rogers and Hammerstein experience with the wind whipping down the plains… The cranes will be back in early March.


Christmas Show

People asked yesterday so here’s the low down on the little show at the Rio Grande County Museum. The opening is Saturday — I have no idea how that’s going to work, only that the woman who runs the museum is as concerned about C-19 as I am. But, I’m pretty sure there will be no crowds of people and it will not be a super-spreader event. Masks are required.

Today I’m hanging my stuff. I’m the first artist to hang (ha ha) so in a little while I’ll head into the snowy world just west of Monte Vista.

I’m hanging 3 oil paintings, taking three garden signs, some tree ornaments and Christmas cards. Yesterday I put a price on the tree painting. I thought, “I can’t hang it in this tiny house, and I need a new computer and phone.” In the middle of the night I woke up realizing I can’t sell it. A little voice said, “Not for sale!” I don’t know why, still if your painting is going to talk to you you either call the men in the white suits or do what it says. I’m hanging it but NFS.

Along with me is a very eclectic group of people and art, including two children. I think that is very cool.

I’m nervous, honestly. It’s the first time I’ve shown my work along with that of the people who gave me so much shit five years ago. Long story, but when I first moved here I joined two artist groups and an art co-op. Being the new guy, and from “outside,” it was a little tricky (ha ha use of understatement). I read recently that in this valley of 40,000 people there are 500 known artists. I think that might be a high percentage. But maybe after my being here for six years, they’ve accepted I’m here to stay.

I finished all the relevant tasks yesterday about 4 and loaded the car.

Apropos of other news, I wonder if we’re so inured right now to the daily crisis that we’re going to have a little trouble coming down from all that angst and adrenaline.


Sandhill Crane Garden Sign

I feel a little guilty posting when I’m so far behind reading, but here is the finished Sandhill Crane garden sign. It will go live in northern Montana and hang on a fence so its person can see it from the house through the winter. The mountains in the back ground are “my” mountains though the one closest behind the standing crane isn’t really “there” in real life. It’s north of Monte Vista. But I like that mountain so I stuck it in. Artists can move mountains. It’s acrylic on plywood. Tomorrow I’ll varnish it.

Joy or Pain?

The painting below is The Artist at His Easel by Rembrandt. The first time I saw it was in a program narrated by Simon Schama. Art historians and commentators and critics say a lot of stuff about paintings, but what Schama said about this stayed with me. All the energy in the world is coming from that canvas. Of course logically and in the world of physics, there is a window in front of the canvas and it is reflecting the day, but even that is pretty beautiful.

I have two paintings going now — both cranes. One is the big painting and the other is on a piece of exterior plywood; a garden sign. The person who ordered it ordered a sunflower sign in August and now wants a sign for winter.

Last evening, I watched the second installment of Waldemar Januzsczak’s three programs on American art. It ended with Mark Rothko whose work I don’t get and will probably never get. Januzsczak centered the episode on the twentieth century phenomenon of New York City — which I don’t get and will probably never get. It’s strange that Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, San Francisco, LA, Chicago, Milan, Zürich and Venice were welcoming and wonderful places, but New York City? I’ve been there three times and every time I could’t wait to get out. I’ve even driven in that city, but, no. It’s not for me. Still, it is an amazing place.

Some of what I saw and heard was familiar — I, like many people, went through an Edward Hopper phase and pondered, in my twenties, the problem of alienation in the midst of people Hopper depicts so well. Now I recognize that alienation is the human condition, but at 24? I’d hoped for something beyond a terrible marriage and crowds of people I didn’t know, to whom I had nothing to say.

Edward Hopper Night Windows

Januzsczak’s favorite New York artist is a man who painted New York in the 1930s, a guy named Reginald Marsh. His work is very alive, filled with people, and the kind of crowded, purpose-driven I have felt when I’ve been in New York City. I liked Marsh’ pictures, too. (Featured photo: Twenty Cent Movies)

I saw many beautiful paintings in this episode, but the biggest thing I got was the source of much abstract art was the religion of Theosophy. The essence (according to Waldy) is that under everything there is an order, a structure, a divine reason. This philosophy/religion had a tremendous influence, apparently, on modern art and was the motive behind abstract painting. Since, honestly, abstract painting never seemed to have a “reason” behind it (for me) though I often like it, it was interesting to learn this. For a long time, this has been the most important words about art I’ve read:

“The artist must have something to say, for mastery over form is not his goal but rather the adapting of form to its inner meaning.” Wassily Kandinsky

When a person looks at one religious painting after another in a museum that person might think, “Good God!” (no pun) Goethe was sorry all these artists had been “forced” to paint only one story. I shrugged reading Goethe’s words. How could he know how they felt or what else they may have wanted to paint? Painters paint for money and the church was where the money was and, what’s more, that was not just the “same painting” for a lot of those artists. Painting virgins, babies, etc. was more than that, possibly a spiritual thing.

For me, there’s something more to painting than slapping paint on a surface. Way more. I’m not going to put words on it, not any more than that.

Sadly, Mark Rothko and another Theosophist abstract artist of the era both hung themselves. The other’s life had turned into a sad country song. He’d gotten bowel cancer and was tied to a colostomy bag forever and his wife left him. It took him three tries before he found the old barn with a beam that held the rope and suspended his weight. As for Mark Rothko? Perhaps there is no why. I took all this focus in Januzsczak’s discussion as more of the same: artist’s are tortured souls who are difficult for us normal people to understand, a thread that has run through many of Januzsczak’s discussions of art.

Maybe it just isn’t that interesting to people to think that an artist might be, as the little painting by Rembrandt, above, seems to say, happy, humbled and filled with wonder at the prospect of painting. Still, I think Frank Stella was wonder-filled and happy when he painted these.