Night Long Ago Aches to Become a Painting

This part of this post is a reprise from 2015. It describes an unforgettable night, a compelling image that still holds my mind.


It’s a summer night in 1957 and I lie on the back seat of the 55 Ford with my three year old brother. My grandfather has died and my dad flew up that morning to be with his mother. On the very same plane, my Uncle Hank arrived from Billings. He’s going to drive us to Billings to be with our dad. My mom doesn’t know how to drive.

Together my little brother and I about fill the back seat with our sleeping bodies. The car stops. I wake up. “Where are we, mom?”

“Wheatland, honey.”

My Uncle Hank says, “I’ll go see if he’ll open up and sell me gas. The store lights are on. He can’t have been closed long.” The green neon Sinclair dinosaur in the window lights the parking stalls in front of the station. Pink and white neon lines the roof-line.

Once the car has stopped I sit up to look out the window at the Wyoming night. Beyond the gas station, the city park, soft, summer darkness, out across the plains forever.

Suddenly there is a burst of girls in long frothy dresses, running and laughing. They run past us, their dresses lit momentarily by the neon of the gas station lights.

“Rainbow girls,” says my mom, thoughtfully. “The Lodge must be nearby.”

“What are rainbow girls?” I ask.

“It’s a club for teenage girls, honey. Your Aunt Dickie was a member.”

“They’re wearing long dresses!” I am five and in love with long dresses.

“Those are formals. They wear formals at their meetings.” My Aunt Dickie — the youngest of the 7 sisters among whom my mom was third to last — reached high school when my Aunt Florence, Uncle David and Uncle Sherman were were working and sending money home, helping out enough that Aunt Dickie could do things none of her older sisters could.

Uncle Hank comes back with the service station owner who has turned on the lights over the pumps. He looks sleepy, but understanding as unlocks the pumps and fills the tank. I’m sure my uncle explained everything to the man. “Thank you kindly,” says my uncle, “Sorry for waking you.”

“You take care, sir,” says the man. “Safe travels.” We’ll make it to Billings.


I have been thinking of this night for the past few weeks as a subject for a painting. I haven’t figured it out yet, but it’s swirling around in my mind, trying to form itself. I’m a little stumped on point of view, how to put that little wonder-struck girl into the painting. Right now I’m leaning toward the girls being somewhere in the distance, just close enough to the gas station for their long dresses to catch the light.

Former Edward Hopperish Featured image ❤

The Right Word at the Right Time

I’ve been generally disillusioned and unmotivated, even to paint or even like my paintings. I shared this with an artist friend who said, “You paint the best skies. Paint a triptych.”

I thought that was a good idea since the sky here is endlessly amazing to me and it’s most of what I paint so… I started the second painting in the triptych yesterday using Indian yellow, water pollution lavender, and ultramarine made of real lapis. I worked on it again today with zinc white (the most transparent white) and Gamblin’s radiant white which is very bright, opaque and beautiful. Here it is with the other painting (so far) in the triptych.



Let Go!!!

I had no idea how to approach this tree (well, on foot, clearly) but decided I had to go for it. That was an experience (that worked). I held my brush at arm’s length, perpendicular to the panel, barely holding the brush and voilá! It was so much fun. And though there is more I could paint, I don’t see any reason. The tree has emerged as itself.

Now to figure out who the woman is.

Scary Painting?

You might remember the painting I began at the beginning of the pandemic that freaked me out so much that I didn’t want to paint it. It seemed to be a grim picture of a friend looking into the vast and terrifying unknown.

I started working on it again a couple of days ago.

I realized, while painting, that when you put a human being in a painting you will end up with a story. No person, no story. I saw all the directions this story could take and it was very tempting to paint a very powerful scary painting. I decided I didn’t want to.

It’s based on a photo from a moment in a March day that was really great. I called my friend to ask if she wanted to out and look for cranes with me. I picked her up in my NEW CAR and we headed out to the wildlife refuge. The cranes weren’t where I expected them to be, but I had another possible destination in mind. On the way to that second spot, we saw this amazing, immense dead cottonwood tree. My friend wanted a photo and when I saw her taking her photo, I saw the whole scene and took my photo. We continued on and ended up seeing thousands of cranes.

That’s truly one of the best things that can happen in the Big Empty. The painting is a long way from finished, but I think I like it fine, so far.

It’s a very large panel. To take a photo, I had to climb up on a step ladder.

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.

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.

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.