Border Collie

Just one drawing today… Yesterday coming home from a walk with Bear I heard a song on Mohammed’s Radio that I first heard the day I accepted the offer on my California house and KNEW I was leaving. I’d seen Monte Vista by then, and knew I was moving here, but I didn’t know where. The song struck me as prescient except for some of the details. Of course I didn’t know then, 2014, what the valley to which was moving would mean to me. My river has a different name. And hearing the lyric, “I wish I was a slave to an age old trade…” I thought, “Yeah but I’m retiring.” I still thought that would be cool but what trade?

I started painting again after decades when I was still in California, probably in 2009. I was already in love with it. Painting was liberating while teaching was mostly a struggle. “Is this who I am?” I asked whatever it is we ask.

My writing life and travel taught me about painting, history, materials, motivations. This year when I decided to just go for it and to paint what would sell as well what came from the innermost part of me, I consciously joined the timeless choir of hired painters, and I love it. I am a slave to an age old trade. It’s grand.

Lingering Effects of Poetry

“Tell me not in mournful numbers
Life is but an empty dream;
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.”

Some words trigger memories and some words trigger memorized poetry. Today’s Ragtag daily prompt — the word “slumber” — triggered memories of “A Psalm of Life” a poem written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow when he was only nineteen. My mom tossed lines from that poem at me even when I was very small, but the lines she usually tossed were “Life is real! Life is earnest!” The poem has been a constant echo throughout all these years.

I got to teach that poem several times and I always enjoyed it, but the best experience was in the People’s Republic of China. Somehow my teaching and Longfellow’s poem hit my students just right.

I introduced the poem by saying that, to Longfellow, our lives were something to create, like a piece of marble that we would carve into something beautiful. I remember reading a lot of very beautiful essays written into the little copy books they used that they were going to “carve their stone.”

It’s funny how the poem still resonates for me. It was sometime during the late spring 2020, with COVID scaring the crap out of everyone with half a brain, that I realized I’d better start oil painting and RIGHT NOW because, “Art is long and time is fleeting…” and I had/have a ton of unused supplies.

Art is long, and Time is fleeting, 
   And our hearts, though stout and brave, 
Still, like muffled drums, are beating 
   Funeral marches to the grave. 

“Crap! I have more paint than I might be able to use in the entire rest of my life and if COVID??? HOLY crap! Martha, you don’t have TIME to be afraid of that big canvas!! Get your ass in there!!”

I really did think that, and I got my ass in there.

Essentially, I guess, the poem is a paean to stoicism and “making the best of it,” which is, you know, pretty much all any of us can do .

A Psalm of Life
What The Heart Of The Young Man Said To The Psalmist.

Tell me not, in mournful numbers, 
   Life is but an empty dream! 
For the soul is dead that slumbers, 
   And things are not what they seem. 

Life is real! Life is earnest! 
   And the grave is not its goal; 
Dust thou art, to dust returnest, 
   Was not spoken of the soul. 

Not enjoyment, and not sorrow, 
   Is our destined end or way; 
But to act, that each to-morrow 
   Find us farther than to-day. 

Art is long, and Time is fleeting, 
   And our hearts, though stout and brave, 
Still, like muffled drums, are beating 
   Funeral marches to the grave. 

In the world’s broad field of battle, 
   In the bivouac of Life, 
Be not like dumb, driven cattle! 
   Be a hero in the strife! 

Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant! 
   Let the dead Past bury its dead! 
Act,— act in the living Present! 
   Heart within, and God o’erhead! 

Lives of great men all remind us 
   We can make our lives sublime, 
And, departing, leave behind us 
   Footprints on the sands of time; 

Footprints, that perhaps another, 
   Sailing o’er life’s solemn main, 
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother, 
   Seeing, shall take heart again. 

Let us, then, be up and doing, 
   With a heart for any fate; 
Still achieving, still pursuing, 
   Learn to labor and to wait.

P.S. I appreciate the encouragement on the ink drawings. It’s not my “thing,” but it’s an interesting challenge. One good thing about it is that, unlike painting, I’m not constantly cleaning brushes so the winter cracks on my thumb from cold, dry air and brush washing might finally heal.

Painting and Painting

When Goethe FINALLY found the resolve to run away from Weimar and go to Italy, he discovered so many things he had only dimly felt but hadn’t seen and couldn’t know, the vast number of talented artists whose names were unknown to the world. He was also aghast at the incredible quantity of religious paintings. For Goethe art was self-expression and he threw his bias over the world of Italian painting and concluded that artists would like to have painted something else, but were forbidden to.

When Goethe fled Weimar he was disenchanted with himself as a writer and wondered if he were not really meant to be a visual artist and he went to Italy in search of salvation as a creative being, his heart crushed by unrequited love, his mind clouded by what he feared was an inability to write. He’d had one rock-star success with Sorrows of Young Werther many years earlier and since?

I’ve mulled that over several times in the years since I read Italian Journey. I’ve wandered around parts of Italy myself looking at art, and I’ve seen some of what Goethe saw. Rather than fleeing unrequited love, I went to Italy to embrace it. Ha ha. Art was my redeemer during that strange trip, my rope out of an abyss of anger and disappointment. I had days and days to collect images and see time through that miraculous mirrored time tunnel of a really great art museum — the Pinacoteca in the Sforza Castle in Milan.

I was there before 9/11 and the entire art museum was open to the public including rooms of racks of paintings, the racks on wheels. You could pull out the racks and look at dozens of paintings.

Most were religious paintings. Some were exercises and commissions; others were much more.

I was thinking about that the other day, why the large painting of the crane and the woman, dog and tree are so different to me and people who’ve seen them. The experience of painting them was different, too. I like to paint things that a little risky (for me) and from which I’m going to learn something, and that something is usually about painting. Recently Facebook showed me posts showing the series of steps that led to this painting of an adobe potato cellar. It’s painted over a sunset I tried a few years ago. It was a challenging painting, but the challenge was mostly technical and improved my skills as a painter.

Two other paintings, the Tree and the Crane, are “religious” paintings. There’s no San Sebastian or John the Baptist’s severed head or Mary holding the infant Jesus, but entering each one was an act of faith for me. They were both MORE than most of my paintings had been, more than “Can I do this well?” They both challenged my ability as a painter, but they also demanded a certain journey into a psychological and spiritual unknown, each in a completely different way.

The crane painting is obviously a painting of a crane, and there was the challenge of the large canvas (4 feet x 3 feet), but it’s more than that. I wanted to paint the silence of the big empty under the silvery pre-snow sky. The moment I saw this in real life, the world was silent except for the sounds of cranes. I don’t have words to explain it, but I have long wanted to say to Goethe that the really great paintings are ALL religious paintings and the metaphors people had with which to paint their inner spiritual reality have always come from their world. A world in which the Christian allegory is as potent as hunger will render its spiritual self in those images. It’s more than painting well. There is a mystery behind it.

Matthias Grünewald

Goethe never went to those places with his visual art. He DID go there with Faust and attempted an even more profound journey with Faust, Part II. I’m not sure that the person looking art or reading something is aware of the journey the artist takes in the process.

A finished work is an almost sterile coda to the experience of attempting to show, attempting to say. It’s one experience for the artist, another for the consumer of art. But some works of art allow the consumer inside, if only for a moment. I experienced this with Leonardo’s Last Supper which, in all its ruin and restoration is still way beyond a painting. As Goethe noted, it is a force.

Featured photo: On the Tiber above Rome, opposite the Villa Madama Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

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.

“What did you do on election night, Martha?”

I can’t WAIT to hear and read the florabundance of BS that is about to bloom in America, rehashing the infinite election.

Last evening, on Twitter, I learned that my favorite TV art historian, Waldemar Januzsczak, has done a series for the BBC on American art. It’s called, “Big Skies, Big Dreams, Big Art.” I immediately attempted to log on to the BBC to stream it but guess what? If you’re not in Britain, you can’t stream the BBC. I guess it’s the immensity of the Atlantic Ocean that prevents that.

Wait, no, that’s not it. It’s $$. 🙂

I tweeted at Waldemar and said, “Yeah but I can’t watch it and I’m out here under the big skies, with big dreams and big paintings — my own! I was hoping to get through this strange evening watching your series!”

He hooked me up with a link to his website from which I could buy or rent the series. I bought it. I often watch his shows more than once. I tweeted back, “Thanks, you’re the best, here’s a painting.” I attached the tree painting. He (as I choose to believe) — or one of his minions (impossible; it was him) tweeted back.

I was happy.

He starts out in the American West — which fascinates Europeans, I know from having taught ESL to a variety of Europeans back in the day. I felt his connections between things were a little tenuous, but I wasn’t watching him to learn American history. I was watching to get his take on Art from my world.

He started with Thomas Moran whose huge visionary romanticized views of American scenes have been part of my life since I was a kid. My favorite Teton is named after that artist. I don’t think Waldemar has been in the American west long enough at a time to see that Moran’s fabulous skies didn’t ONLY come from J. M. W. Turner, but from, well, our skies. Here’s an example of a post-thunderstorm sky in June out at Homelake here in Monte Vista.

But, Moran’s paintings of Venice are almost copies of Turner’s so what do I know?

Waldemar’s goal in the show was to get to Jackson Pollack. His route was a little convoluted — going past Frederick Remington and Theosophy — but he got there. I often learn things from Waldemar about painters, especially painters I don’t like and don’t get, Pollack being one of them. But it was cool to learn that Pollack came from Cody, Wyoming and not in the way Kanye West comes from Wyoming. Featured image: Mural by Jackson Pollack. There are horses in it.

As for the election? The one thing I’ve taken away from all this is I have to get myself together and let the future take care of itself. Fuck it. If that’s what the people want, who am I?

Paper Bag Masks

With commentary…
Rainbow Kitty

Today’s “art” project went well. Everyone had fun and the little girl is getting better at handling scissors and pencils and crayons. I always take my own art supplies so they can “play” with and get to know how to take care of really good colors and tools.

Sometimes I think that nothing is happening, no learning is happening, and then I see that it actually is. Everyone now automatically cleans up when we’re finished. Everyone (meaning kids) understands how to use watercolors and can get the equipment and supplies ready. It’s good when their mom joins in because the little girl needs extra help and the little boy deserves equal attention. Sometimes it’s hard being the smart kid in class. Mom even responded to my telling her a drawing she had done was good by trying more art projects herself. So, all in all, I think I’ve done OK.

The big thing is learning how to learn and that’s happening, I think.

Won’t Know ’til the Fat Guy Walks — Mostly about Painting

I learned a new term recently: doomscrolling. It’s when you go on Twitter and just scroll looking for, well, doom. A lot of new terms and behaviors seem to have come out of this historical moment. A fellow blogger wrote about her experiences in a supermarket being called “a Karen” just because she asked the checker to charge her the correct price for some produce. Now we have a Supreme Court Justice who was confirmed in the most unjust way. And she talks baby talk.

I just don’t know. And yeah, a week from today, by midnight on November 3, Election Day, it’s more or less or somehow “all over” but, according to the doomsayers on Twitter it won’t be all over. It will still be a mess and it’s true; elections are really not decided on that fateful November night. Word on the screen is that Sweet Cheek’s Supreme Court confirmation was rushed through so that there would be enough “friendly” justices to discredit the will of the American people should Biden win. But we really won’t know until it happens, so the doomsters are, for the nonce, just doomsters (yes, WP, I invented a word. for $96/year you can let me invent any word I want).

In OTHER news, I’ve been at the big canvas (4′ x 3′) now that I have an easel. Here’s how that’s going. The first is the drawing on paper, from there the evolution on the canvas. The horizon line in all of them is actually horizontal (ha ha) I just wasn’t holding the phone straight.

It’s been fun to paint. I’ve used brushes I bought almost 30 years ago in Zürich and never used before. ❤ For the snow sky I used metallic silver paint, and I was struggling on a blue sky day to paint that sky, the storm arrived and I looked out the window to see exactly the sky I wanted. I was filled with gratitude at that moment. You’d thinking painting a gray sky is no biggy, but what’s bigger than the sky?

Painting on a stretched canvas is different, too. Normally I paint on panel which “resists” my brush while it “accepts” the paint. Canvas doesn’t resist the brush which means the result of brush strokes is different, smoother. I prefer panel, but a panel this big would probably weigh more than I could lift. It’s fine with me. I started out painting on canvas, so it’s not like it’s an unknown.

Painting has been the ONE totally good thing about these past fraught and weird months. And, as if a blessing from a benevolent divinity, when I got my new ATM card, it gave me access to a point system in which I’ve been participating unknowingly since 2014. There was $100 worth of points in it meaning my easel was free. “Here, Martha,” said fate, the great framer of destiny in the sky.

Sometime next week I’ll be going to the Rio Grande County Museum to hang paintings for their Christmas show. It was a little difficult to choose three — and why three anyway? — but in the process I realized that I pretty much ONLY paint winter and fall. The fecund seasons are — to me — just a bunch of green stuff, except, of course, for the Scarlet Emperor Beans of song and legend. I did find one painting to make a less visually bleak arrangement. When you hang your paintings in public, it’s not about you. I might not find winter bleak, but other people do.

Rhyming Time

Yesterday I wasn’t too enthusiastic about going to teach art to the kids. I felt like they were losing their focus, and I’m not the goddess of construction, paper, glue and cute crafts. I’m an artist, dammit! But I went. The kids were waiting in the alley,. The little boy was on his bike. Regular readers of my blog know that a period of my life was spent with a group of boys and their BMX bikes. It was a strange time (but really, how would I know?) and our little group of a lady with a truck and boys on bikes was the best part. And there I was yesterday, looking at C, a little boy who was eager to show me how fast he could ride and the great stop he’d learned.

My heart went back to those Boys on Bikes, now in their 40s, some dead already. The one to whom I was closest is raising his own kids now and is teaching his little boy — who’s about the age of C — to ride BMX.

Mark Twain said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” Personal history too, it seems.

C’s parents are more protective of him than the Boys on Bikes’ parents were of their boys. He’s only allowed to ride in the alley when I’m out there, otherwise he has to ride in his yard and driveway. Knowing this, I walked down the alley very, very slowly. He showed me how fast he can ride and he showed me his skidding stop. He fell, took it “like a man,” and I said, “Good for you. The only way to learn is to fall.”

The Boys on Bikes — until they met me — rode their bikes ten miles from our neighborhood up to the BMX jumps. My Ford Ranger and I, and the fact that almost daily I drove up to where the jumps were, were a big boon to their lives.

It’s just a different world today in so many ways, but I liked our old world. I admired the reckless courage of those boys so long ago and the way they took shovels up there to perfect, adjust and repair the dirt jumps. They were amazing.

Little boys are an interesting species. Much derring-do and showing off of prowess; they are all medieval knights.

Yesterday I ran the art “class” a little differently. I had two activities planned and made them go run around the yard for 5 minutes in between. They’d also done their homework. The little girl, M, had drawn me pictures of animals and C had three nice pictures of trucks. He showed me one and asked if I could read the writing on it. “It’s Morse Code,” he said. “Can you read Morse Code?”

I said no and he told me it said, “Hi Miss Martha.”

He used the charcoal pencil I gave him for the road beneath the truck and the tires.

When they came in from “recess” we made tissue paper sun catchers. They loved the project, which was incredibly messy, and Mom even joined it.

“Isolation…exposed the deep sense of connection I took for granted within my relationships with friends and family. Don’t forget to express gratitude for those connections.” From today’s Washington Post newsletter on coping with COVID-19

The Easel

Yesterday I drove along the 18 miles of Road T in Saguache County Colorado. That was after some 20 miles on the US Highway 285 and before another 15 miles on paved Saguache County Road T. Saguache County is the first county north of my own, Rio Grande County. I was heading to the old mining town of Crestone — now arty-farty spiritual center — to buy my easel.

Nothing notable about the deal — except getting a $500 easel for $100 — but driving toward the Sangre de Cristo Mountains takes my breath away. They resemble the Alps in the way they rise from the valley floor, rugged and young.

The easel is large and it was a struggle to get it into the house, but I did it. But then — as happens — I realized I had to move stuff out of my studio and THAT led to moving stuff out of my living room. It’s interesting how when you get a small piece of new furniture you might end up re-arranging everything and cleaning.

I don’t know yet if in this picture the gray will turn to blue…

I haven’t figured out everything about it yet — the main thing I still have to work out is adjusting the up/down of the tray on which the painting rests. I see how to do it, I just haven’t been able to do it! I’ll make it work for this big painting, but it won’t work for a smaller one but if I never manages that, a cool thing about this easel is it can go flat, like a table.

Now my little studio has three work “surfaces.” A dedicated drawing table, the table of all work, and an easel. Pretty up town, I’d say.

OK, this isn’t much of a video, but I thought, since I have this fancy new upgrade I should try it…