My Friend

My friend has a developmentally disabled son, now in his 30s if you look at his birth year, but all over the place if you look at his development. I spent the past weekend at their house and the first quality time I’ve had with him in a while.

He can be maddening. Sometimes you want to say, “Could you just stop being so weird and annoying for five minutes?” but he can’t. Soon after you think that, you shrug and relax into “M time” and “M reality.” It’s seriously non-negotiable. If you can cross the bridge, you stand to experience some moments of extraordinary sweetness.

I paint rocks — as everyone knows. I’ve painted a few for M. He loves snakes, so I painted a rock of one of his snakes — a corn snake — as a Christmas present. I’m not sure he recognizes HIS snake in the rock, but he likes the rock and that’s what matters. Suddenly, this past Sunday, M wanted to paint snakes on rocks. I said, “OK, let’s do that,” and sent him out to find some good rocks to paint. He came in with rocks that were too pretty to paint and too small.

“You need to find some bigger rocks, M. Flatter, too. And these are too pretty.” M has a well-developed, if slightly bizarre, aesthetic sense, and I’m fairly sure he chose those rocks BECAUSE they were pretty. He went back out. His mom and I agreed it was a good strategy to send him out to a yard full of rocks so we could have a little piece and quiet.

When he came back he had two plausible snake-painting rocks. He got his paint, a new brush he’d bought at the art supply store the day before when we all went together, and he was ready. He even got a little plastic model of a coiled rattler, ready to spring, to model his painting on. The problem is that the plastic model was three dimensional and the snake on the rock would be two.

“Good idea,” I said. “But we can’t paint exactly that on the rock because it’s flat. Does that make sense? We can paint him, though.” I drew the coiled snake on the rock explaining to M what I was doing. Then he painted the coiled snake white. As the paint dried, he painted another snake on the other rock, this time green. It came out like a green blob because M’s unique physical coordination doesn’t give him excellent small motor skills. The white paint was dry, so I sketched the snake on the white paint and Mark painted it. “We need tan paint,” I said. All we had was an assortment of primary and secondary colors, no earth tones.

“How?” he said.

“Like this. Give me some green.” He slowly and deliberately opened the green paint. He didn’t want to spill it. “Great. Now I need some red.” He did the same with the little tub of red paint. “Awesome. I need some yellow.” Two shades of tan emerged, perfect for the rattler.

Then I sat back and watched. This is where the M magic comes in. No painter EVER felt more love or interest for his/her painting than M did for what he was doing. It was a very beautiful moment and I got to witness it.

You never know. More and more I think the purpose of life is the appreciation of small beautiful moments.

That evening, he, his mom and I played some card games together, Uno and Skip-bo. M is very skillful at both. Then it was time for him to go to bed, but he didn’t want to go. He employed every manipulative trick in his repertoire to delay that moment. At one point he looked at a photo on my phone. I put my hand over my phone, looked up at him, and grinned. He picked up that I was onto him and he started to giggle. I giggled, too. It was truly very funny, our inside joke.  And I thought, “Who’d think I’d be giggling at this point in my life?” I silently thanked M for that.

Kind of Arcane Post about Painting

I got cabin fever in Heaven and a sudden urge to go to a city. I had no inkling WHAT city, but my friend Lois invited me to Colorado Springs. It’s not the kind of city I had in mind, but it’s comparatively close and the dogs are welcome, and I love my friends, so yesterday Dusty, Mindy, Bear and I drove up to the “city.”

I did a city thing. I went to an art supply store and bought “classic” gesso and a painting panel. The gesso is the sizing, or background, a painting is painted on. The gesso makes a surface that paint adheres to and, I’d even say, likes. Classic gesso is made with rabbit skin glue, gypsum and marble dust. It’s what the guys painted on back in the day, like several hundred years ago. It is different from most of what oil paintings are painted on now in that it absorbs the oil paint and makes a reflective surface. I don’t know, but I think the transition from fresco to oil painting may have led artists to want oil paintings to do what buon fresco can do. Buon fresco is painted on wet plaster rather than dry, so the paint becomes part of the plaster. Since gypsum and marble dust are crystaline, the paint reflects light.

Back in the day, painters painted on panels not canvas or linen. Sometimes canvas or linen was glued onto a panel, but most of the time they painted on gessoed wood.

The gesso requires work to prepare, and I don’t know how it will come out. I’ve been painting on pre-gessoed panels and discovered that I don’t have to glob on the paint ala the impressionists. There’s nothing wrong with the technique, but I like frescoes. However, fresco is an enormous project that requires more space, skill and muscle than I have. Anyway, I like the intensity of oil paint. I’ve gotten a bit of the best of both worlds with oil paint on the pre-gessoed panels, but this gesso — if I make it right and apply it correctly to the panel — might be even more fun.

This painting has both oil paint IN the gesso and ON the gesso. It was very interesting to do. It was the first oil painting I’ve done that wasn’t just paint slapped on a surface, and it was an accident. It was meant to be a different painting completely, but I realized about halfway into it (or what I thought was halfway into it) that the painting I was doing should be a watercolor, so I trashed this and got a piece of paper. 🙂 Then, later, I got this panel and tried to paint the sofa as practice. It came out so cool and surprising that I just went with it. 🙂



Oil paint on pre-gessoed panel

Sibling Rivalry

I loved my brother and respected his talents. But…of all the rocks I’ve painted, people like the one with his cartoon character on it most. It’s almost as if he’s back. I hear our art teacher saying to me, “Why are you always hanging around the art room? You don’t have any talent.”

That is not true.

My mom, “You’re the writer, Kirk’s the artist.” That was that, pure and simple. My reaction against this was instantaneous and visceral. Art is not just ONE thing.

For the most part — between us — my brother and I didn’t have any issues over this. Our work was very different AND different people liked his work from those who liked mine. My brother liked my work. In fact, he was my biggest cheerleader — up to a point.

When my work sold, paintings sold, he wasn’t too happy. He should have been since he was always hitting me up for money, but… He got over it. “You’re an abstract expressionist,” he said.

I had to look that up.

“The thing about your paintings, Martha Ann, is they’re not on the public pulse.” That was true.

I have never had any interest in drawing comic strips. I don’t enjoy them very much and to draw the same thing over and over again in order to advance a narrative (that’s the new way to say “tell a story”) seemed tedious. Why not just write the damned thing? But my brother’s comics were hilarious. I have a decent sense of humor it’s more situational than it is a world view.

Still, my brother wanted to do conventional paintings and he did some. I felt his imagination kind of died in that kind of work, but he was hoping to sell them for big bucks.

That led my grandma to say that which was never to be spoken, “Kirk’s a cartoonist. I think Martha Ann is the fine artist in the family.”

My mother’s face paled. Kirk’s reddened. I was pleased, but I looked down at the ground. The taboo had been broken.

Between us it was really not about whose art was better. I helped my brother paint cells for the animated cartoon and he taught me to make paper and sharpen my linoleum carving tools. Really that’s the point. I painted this rock so that Leafy could wander around Colorado Springs (where my brother lived most of the time).


He'll wander around Colorado Springs on this painted rock. :)

Leafy Wanders, my brother’s cartoon alter-ego.


Most earth pigments tend to be opaque, literally like “looking into dirt” because that’s what they are, dirt. They can be thinned so they seem transparent — watercolors make use of earth pigments but in particles so fine and watered down so well, that paper or other layers of colors show through. Mineral pigments and some modern chemical pigments are often transparent by their nature. Some pigments made from stones — Ultramarine blue was made from Lapis Lazuli — retain a magical reflective ability even when they’re ground to powder.

I stopped painting sometime last year. I’ve tried to figure out why, and finally came to understand it. Basically, it’s other people.

I can’t remember not drawing or not painting. I have done both those things since I was a little kid. But, as I got older, and more interested in it, my mother became vehement about not wanting me to be an artist. “I just want you to be happy,” she said. “Artists are not happy people.”

Now I know that people are either happy or they are not. Just because one is an artist, doesn’t mean they’re on the verge of schizophrenia or suicide. There have always been more happy artists than unhappy artists, but because of our twisted mentalities, we humans build cults around romantic misery — van Gogh, Jim Morrison, etc. Plenty of artists — most artists — just do their work, earn the wage, and live their lives as respected members of the community. Before cameras, being an artist was a respected trade. Humans have always wanted — and created — images of their world.

When I moved to Monte Vista right after retiring, I immediately joined the local artist group and became a member of the fledgling art co-op. I’ve written about both experiences in other places and have moved on, but the painting thing? I’ve done one painting since I left these organizations. It was a pretty good painting, acrylic, the person who owns it loves it, but…

The Princess and the Hens

The Princess and the Hens

To be an artist, you need a thick skin. I don’t have one. I have several artist friends with whom I have a mutually constructive relationship, but being in an organization in a small town with local artists? What a nightmare that turned out to be. I know art has always been competitive — look at Michelangelo and Leonardo, competing against each other and several other very fine artists — but in a milieu like this one where no one’s life depends on it, and no one’s work is really that good, it seems stupid.

I’m hoping to return to the place where my work is personal to me, and the sounds of these strident voices (“I hate realistic art!” “Why would anyone paint landscapes!”) have faded far enough into the distance that I will want to paint again. Why? Well, as you can see, I have a lot of paint…


My mother was a native of Sardonia so what she called criticism was actually the highly sharpened, lacerating edge of a flying knife — or knives. Then I’d get my feelings hurt and she’d say, “You have to learn to take criticism or you’ll never make it in this world.”

That was true, but I knew I’d leave home eventually. 😀

I did learn from her that there is criticism and there is that other thing. Criticism is great. It can help you make your thing better, whatever you do. I love it when someone says, “If all the bison are dark brown, then it makes the picture flat.” And another artist friend of mine said, “Your paintings have no atmosphere.” I had NO idea what she meant. Mood? Ambiance? Huh? But then I saw a video about Turner and saw atmosphere in a painting. I’d actually always thought Turner just couldn’t paint, but there it was, the air, mist, sunrise, the Venice lagoon and I got it. Atmosphere

Criticism can help a person grow. I’m not sure about Sardonia.

Art and Life Converge

“In the magical universe there are no coincidences and there are no accidents. Nothing happens unless someone wills it to happen.” William S. Burroughs

In 2006, I went to Fresco School in LA. I had prepared well for this. It was a HUGE experience for me to learn to paint what Martin of Gfenn had painted. I had fallen in love with fresco from writing about it and fallen deeper in love from seeing it in Italy. A few years later, I wrote about it — finding it today, I was stunned and entertained and wanted to share. I was rewriting Martin of Gfenn in 2009 and reached a passage in which Martin’s teacher tries to help Martin understand the difference between a detailed sketch and what will ultimately work on a large wall.


January 2009 — Perhaps behind our perception of coincidence is a level of unconsciousness. In my novel, Martin of Gfenn, the protagonist, Martin, faces the moment when he paints his first solo wall-mural fresco. The subject he’s been given to paint is a sequence of panels telling the story of Man’s Fall from the Garden. He begins with the Temptation of Eve, and is guided by his teacher, Michele, to understand that the central symbol of the story is not the serpent, but the apple. Martin decides (correctly) that the apple must be perfectly beautiful and irresistible. When he brings the painted sketch to his teacher…

Michele smiled when Martin showed him the colored sketch of the apple. It was an elegantly colored drawing, rich in detail and intensity, lovely on its own but impossible for its purpose.

“That will never work, Martin. Such intricacy will be lost in a picture of this size. Your strokes, shapes, everything, the colors, must have meaning and these will have no meaning.”

“How can you say that? It is clearly an apple.”

“You are not making fruit, Martin. You are painting fresco! It is an apple NOW, but on that wall it will be confusing, unless everything else you have in mind is of the same pattern. Then it will simply be bad.”

“It should look real if it’s going to be believed, you said that yourself, you said, ‘catch the life within it’.”

“The life within the apple, Martin, is not that it has myriad tiny yellow dots.”

“But it does, Michele. I drew from life; it is an apple.”

“I don’t say that it is not a lovely rendering of an apple. It is just that it will not come to life as an apple on the wall you are painting.”

“But isn’t THIS the center of the picture? Isn’t this the essence of the sin? I think it has to be perfect!”


“An apple, a perfect apple, as an apple is perfect. Here,” Martin reached into the pocket of his cassock. “This is it!” The two were virtually identical. “Is that not a perfect apple?”

“All right then. Tell me. Do you want to illustrate books and have your work closed between jeweled covers where only monks will look at them or do you want to paint for people, stories they can see? Decide now.”

“You make no sense! You keep saying, ‘discipline your eye and hand to see what is in front of you’ and I have done that; you yourself say, ‘that is a perfect apple’ so I have disciplined my eye and hand and produced this and you tell me it is wrong. If that discipline is wrong, what is the point?”

“Discipline, Martin, is not only in your eye and hand as you draw from something in front of you. It’s also in the tools, the paint, the walls. You must cooperate with them.”

“But I will be the master, isn’t that right? It is just a wall!”

“A true master surrenders to the imperatives of the craft, of the surface. You must see them as partners, teachers. Someday, God willing, you will understand that is freedom. Go try again, or not, as you choose. It is your wall.”

I have been going through this part of the novel today, making sure all the bits fit together in preparation for another attempt to send it out there. As I read this I remembered something and was amazed I had not thought of it before.

In March 2006 I went to L. A. to The Fresco School. I had spent the whole winter in my freezing, drafty, leaking laundry shed relearning how to paint watercolor (because I had the idea that fresco would be like watercolor) and relearning how to draw. I had no idea what my fresco would be, but I had been told to find a simple subject for the one fresco I would be painting on a 12 x 12 tile. At the store I found an apple; it was absolutely the most beautiful green apple I had ever seen, and completely different from all the other green apples there in the apple bin at Vons. I bought it and three more apples and brought it home. It would be my fresco. I was honestly in love with that apple.

I photographed the bowl with its apples, and drew from the photo since I knew my divine apple would lose some of that perfection through time (or I’d eat it – I never did, though…) and drew a black and white sketch, and a colored pencil sketch, and a grey and black wash drawing, and everything I could think of to get to know that apple as I’d placed it in the bowl with the others. The result was that THE apple appears larger than the others (bigger than life!). I sent it to my fresco teacher who approved the drawing. He liked it!


Colored Pencil Drawing of What I Imagined My Fresco Would Be

When the time came, I got in the Scion and drove up to LA, to my sleazebag hotel in Venice Beach (do not ask me why; I had some Bukowski reason or flaky nostalgia or something to account for that choice) and my agonized hip. It was cold and damp and the deteriorated joint made my life very difficult, but I was excited. That night I parked where I had been told, ate my dinner, read my book about Masonic rituals (which I left in the sleazebag hotel) before going to sleep with ear plugs and the two vicodin that made sleep possible. In the morning I headed off to make my fresco dreams come true.

There are many stories of that weekend but this post is to tell the story of what I realized today as I worked on my novel when I realized that my first fresco was the same subject as my protagonist’s first fresco, almost as if I re-enacted his experience in my own. How much do our creations captivate our minds? I think it may be impossible to know.


The Hideous Painting that Was My Fresco

I hated my fresco when it was done — not ONLY because it was bad (it was) but because my teacher took over. Two people cannot paint a small painting. He was just so worried that I would fail, or be unhappy with the result, that he took the brush out of my hand, painted the apples and the rocks himself, and stole from me my own glorious opportunity to fail. I drove home frustrated and resentful with another bad painting in the back of my car. There was ONE good part and I took some consolation knowing I painted it all myself. I love the medium and really want to learn it; that I had THIS success was heartening.

The One Good Part — the Wicker Seat

So the question, does art follow life or does life follow art? I don’t know. Is art the future and did I predict in my story what I would do when given the chance? Maybe. Is the protagonist of my novel me? Loosely, I guess, as much as I can be a male, 13th century artist who gets leprosy — certainly in that he is my creation — but I am ready to argue now that I am also his.

Clarity vs. Atmosphere

I have a few artist friends whose opinion I pay attention to. One of them, Lilliana, told me once (though her philosophy toward a painting and mine are different) that I needed to learn how to paint something called “atmosphere.” I could NOT figure out what she meant. She tried explaining it, but…

Then I began to appreciate the work of J. M. W. Turner, work I’d always thought was just a bunch of muddy smudges. He pretty much ONLY paints atmosphere.

Venice, Moonrise 1840 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Venice, Moonrise 1840 Joseph Mallord William Turner (mostly atmosphere)


One view of Venice by Turner (lots of atmosphere)


Another view of Venice by Turner (must’ve been a clearer day, but atmosphere communicates distance)

I believe atmosphere = humidity.

I tried explaining to my friend that I had learned to paint in Colorado where there is little or no “atmosphere.”

I began pondering the difference between “luminosity” and “clarity” and I realized that my friend was right. A landscape painting has to fool the viewer into believing they’re looking at a scene and it has to give the viewer information about what to look at. “Atmosphere” also gives the viewer information about distance.That was a new perspective (ha ha). It also conveys time of day. There is more atmosphere in the morning and in the evening than at noon.

Rita, the other artist friend in question, paints Colorado but her paintings have “atmosphere.” She even put up a video tutorial about how to paint this. I watched it and it was great for two reasons. First, it was only a couple of minutes long. Second, she SHOWED “how” to do it.


It’s like writing a compare/contrast essay. No writer sits down with that as an intention any  more than a painter gets up and says, “Today I’m going to paint atmosphere, the middle distance, and the three values.” Those things are tools.

BUT…Where I live now there is, often, absolutely NO atmosphere. The only thing between me and the mountains fifty miles away is fifty miles. The light here — which I love — is NOT luminous. It’s CLEAR. You can see the clarity in the photo; what you can’t see is that I could see all the nooks and crannies of the distant Sangre de Cristo mountains from where I stood as I took this picture.


Wright/Shriver Recreation Area, Monte Vista CO with the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the distance.

Clear light. I thought about it some more. That is probably the meaning of “art” vs. “nature.” A painting that imitates the absolute clarity of this scene could end up visually confusing.

In this painting, I painted atmosphere.

Ancestral Memory

Ancestral Memory by Martha Ann Kennedy

I’ve learned all this but I’ve yet to apply it to a landscape. Ultimately learning this has confused me as a painter. I don’t know if I want to have a system and to get things right. I don’t know anything at all.

and THEN…

I spent the last weekend with friends in Colorado Springs. It was good to leave Heaven for a while and do different things. Anyone who’s read Martin of Gfenn knows I’m intrigued by the way pigments are made. Outside Colorado Springs is a place called the Paint Mines where for centuries local Indian tribes got paint for face painting and clay for pots. Some of the people I knew in high school used to go there to get clay but I had never even heard of it until I moved back last fall. My friends and I visited this weekend and it was really beautiful. Here are photos.


The pink rock is very soft. Unfortunately, it’s now illegal to take pigment out of this place because I’d love to try it!


Trail into the heart of the Paint Mines


I had to wonder what put the hole there — weather or people over the ages taking the ochre clay?

But the biggest discovery of all is that I can now walk well enough to keep up with my friends so I decided to put off the knee surgery at least until summer and probably until Medicare can foot (ha ha) some of the bill.


H and the Goats

H and the Goats

A few years ago I tried a painting with oils (the first since high school) and liked it so much that I began painting pretty much ONLY with oils with a watercolor thrown in for the hell of it. Today I started a painting of my step-granddaughter and decided to use acrylics. I used NEVER to paint with oils and ONLY painted in acrylics, but it’s been more than 20 years. I liked it! Even though the paints I have right now are old and not great quality, and did not feel as good as oils, it was still a really positive experience. The painting’s not done, but I think I like it fine, so far! It’s 8 x 10 The colors are off because I took the photo against the light.