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…

Color’s Determined Boldness

I recently decided to participate more fully in our pandemic by letting The Washington Post send me a week of advice/activities for dealing with the “lockdown.” I got the first one today. One thing it said struck me. It relates to time.

“…attention, emotion, stress and novelty, researchers say, are all related to how we perceive time.” 

The article goes on to say, “… time, as we perceive it, is “extremely malleable,” said Martin Wiener, an assistant professor of psychology at George Mason University. It acts just like a sense does, he said. And like hearing or sight, it can be tricked… Factors like attention, emotion, stress and novelty…are all related to how we perceive time. Uncertainty, grief and isolation have stretched them all.

Time is a weird thing. Some belief systems say there is no time; that it’s an illusion, and what we have is duration. I like that idea, though it’s admittedly a little difficult for me to wrap my head around.

Living alone and retired in a small mountain town is at least half-way toward a “lockdown” so, I can’t say I’ve really experienced the “timewarp” of the pandemic. That’s fine with me. My experience of it is mostly through my awareness of the deadly, political blustering of our Asshole in Chief balanced by scientific information from the ambient world and the wisdom of my state’s governor.

“On call with campaign staff, President Trump says people are tired of hearing about coronavirus. ‘People are saying whatever. Just leave us alone. They’re tired of it. People are tired of hearing Fauci and all these idiots…Fauci is a nice guy. He’s been here for 500 years’.”

The pandemic’s effect on my daily life has been through my understanding that it’s scary and my resolution not to get sick. I also feel the reality that no one is OK right now. The “ordinary” tragedies of life are not on lockdown. People are still going to struggle with their lives, personal problems, dread diseases. COVID 19 is like a glaze an artist might paint over an entire painting to give it a particular color “cast,” or the sobering darkness left by time on a work of dazzling color.

I enjoy watching Waldemar Januszczak’s art history documentaries. I get to see paintings and places, and I learn a little something. 😉 Last night I was watching his biographical piece on Manet. There was a painting — The Old Musician — being restored at the National Gallery. Waldemar said to the restorer, “Wow! Is this the same painting?”

“Yes,” she said. “We’ve removed all the yellow varnish. Now we have all these colors.” Since the viewer probably had no memory of the painting before, the film showed the restoration process in progress at one point. I was moved by the determination of color.

P.S. I don’t think I’ll ever use the word “hardihood.” Sorry. It’s just kind of weird.


I guess any artist who lives in the San Luis Valley will sooner or later do a painting of a Sandhill Crane. Mine has been an image in my mind since this past March when, on a gray day, I saw a gray crane walk on the winter-gray grass in a small forest of small willow trees. Cranes are seldom solitary so that was something, too. It was an image so quiet and so personal to me — no one else was there. The monochromatic day was one of the last slumbering days of winter.

This has been percolating in my imagination since then. So, I went at the big canvas (4′ x 3 ‘/121.92 cm x 91.44 cm) and altered the underpainting a while back. It was blue sky and golden fields and blue mountains. Who’s surprised? 😉

Then the crane image. I have done a couple of drawings but the perspective/point of view kept bugging me, but now I think I got it. I had to draw it so I could use the drawing for the painting — it was so much fun.

Then, as I was drawing, an easel showed up on Facebook for sale. It is the VERY easel for which I’ve long yearned and couldn’t afford. Last Sunday, my friend gave me $100 for the horse painting, and that’s what the easel costs. An added wonder is my friend’s husband was an artist but is now blind and can’t paint. He mentioned last weekend he wished he had his old easel to give me. Well, I guess in a way that is happening. And, I get to drive up to the mountains to get it. 🙂

Ruminating on Inspiration

Lately I’ve been something like a professional artist. Anyway, I’ve done work requested by other people. I’ve enjoyed it very much and want to do more. It has all been work I would not have done on my own hook (I know what that phrase means but WHY?) so it’s pushed me as an artist as have the “How to Draw” videos, though I might be done with that for now. There’s only so much a person can do holding the “camera,” speaking and drawing simultaneously and off the cuff (again, I know what that phrase means but WHY?).

The thing about inspiration is that you HAVE to wait for it and you CAN’T wait for it. It’s one of THOSE things. My recent drawing of the livestock guardian dogs and the sheep was for a customer but at the same time I loved doing it. I love drawing big white dogs and the other parts of it? It was a challenge. I’ve drawn sheep before, but never in a situation where I had to represent two different breeds of sheep. I had a photo but I couldn’t just draw that. Pencil is pencil. That was another thing — I’m usually a frictionless artist (paint) and dragging a tiny graphite line across paper is different. In that drawing inspiration came in little bursts of ideas of how to solve problems in the drawing. “Put the black sheep here to emphasize the white dog in front of it,” kind of thing.

I know there are artists who plan everything out before they do anything. One of my favorite wildlife artists — Greg Beecham — uses photos, puts a grid over the photo and then paints it piece by piece into a grid he’s sketched onto his canvas, essentially doing a hundred little paintings all linked together. His work is amazing, and I love it, but his plein air work — where he’s painting outside, directly and NOT working with a plan, grids, cameras or anything — is completely different. His work reflects a mind that likes to know where it’s going.

Is that a better strategy? I don’t know. I guess it depends on the artist’s goals. All this said, I am not a professional artist, just a confirmed dilettante.