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…


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. 🙂

These 3 Horses make my grand total of horses painted 4!

I have to say that painting horses will never be my favorite thing. I think I need to get out there with the horses and sketch them for years and years and years. I was going for something here between real life portraits of three actual horses and a cave painting.

The only horse I think is half way good is the one I did when I was pissed off at my failed horses. I was “Fuck it.” And there it was.

In other news, I don’t mind failing. I figure that — as an artist — if I’m not failing I’m not going anywhere and a couple of my failed paintings turned out to be anything BUT failed paintings after a few years had passed. You just never know.

Outdoor Clothing, Bison and Painting, O My!

Patagucci (Patagonia), the premium outdoor clothing manufacturing company, recently sent me their catalog. I love their products in spite of their jackets costing as much as it cost me to get my back yard cleaned up. BUT, I have two winter jackets — one I bought used the other on sale. I call the jackets my “minks.” They are all I need here even when it’s -20 F.

Patagucci’s annual catalog is less catalog than it is incredibly gorgeous marketing tool with stories and pictures interspersed here and there of their products. Patagucci makes most of their stuff with recycled materials. It’s wonderful, but pricey, to make things this way. I wish it weren’t. I wish the technology were so cheap and available that every clothing manufacturer did it.

One of the stories is about a South Dakota rancher — Dan O’Brien of Cheyenne River Buffalo Ranch — who raises American buffalo (bison) and the reasons for it. One of the reasons is that buffalo don’t destroy grass the way cattle do since they don’t chew it down to the roots. This rancher raises his bison on a prairie of native grass that the buffalo have helped restore. The bison is harvested for meat and pelts. OK normally, the skin of an animal as large as a buffalo isn’t called a pelt, but that IS the word this morning and I’m going with it.

This rancher salts down the hides there in the field and they’re shipped off to be cured and prepared for Patagucci (and others) to make shoes with.

I think this is pretty cool.

In other news, I started a painting yesterday. I have an immense stretched canvas that was given to me as a present. I started a painting on it a few years ago but the painting didn’t go anywhere. Recently at the Refuge I remembered something I saw this past March when I was walking with Bear one cloudy day. I saw it as a painting. Yesterday I got the big canvas and began setting up the new painting. The weird thing is when I’d finished, I wondered if I should just stop. I don’t see myself as suddenly turning into a painter who does abstract art, but this is kind of captivating.

That Morning Moment

In A Moveable Feast Hemingway writes about his young-man mornings, going to a cafe in Paris, ordering a cafe au lait and sitting down to write. He writes this scene several times in the book and describes it as “the best times.” No frothy cappuccino for Ernie, (and, yeah, I realize he was in France, not Italy) just a simple bowl of coffee with milk.

In A Moveable Feast, Hemingway gives (good) writing advice around those scenes, saying, “Always stop work when you know where you will start the next day.” I think Hemingway was terrified NOT knowing where he was going the next day. He did, after all, compare writing to bull-fighting and characterize the blank sheet of paper in his typewriter as the “white bull.”

There are two movies I would like to see. One is about a writer/artist who’s not “tortured” for/by art and is not an asshole in any way and, in SPITE OF THAT, manages to do good work.

We really focus a lot on the lives of artists (more than? as much as?) we look at or read their work. During the time I was a university teacher, I saw Hemingway vanish from the shelves in the bookstore labeled “required reading for American literature.” Hemingway’s place was taken by, I don’t know, Kate Chopin (fine writer, but…) or someone. I thought, “Why not BOTH?” and was grateful I wasn’t teaching literature. Like Hemingway or not, he was a writer that had an influence on American culture but WHATEVER. Personally, I think our focus should be on the work people have done, not the incomplete schema we have of their personalities.

A couple days ago I read an article in Brain Pickings about a kid’s book that has been written about Gauguin. I wasn’t very impressed by the story, but I thought this was lovely. An old man teaches the little Gauguin about painting, saying, “Painting is magic,” he said to Paul. “You can start with next to nothing and still do anything you want.”

Gauguin, like Hemingway, is a victim of posthumous psychoanalysis and disgust and most of the comments following the article said Gauguin should not be shown, taught, to children (or anyone?) and we should not appreciate his work because Gauguin was a pedophile. Hemingway, of course, has been labeled a woman-hating, chauvinist SOB.

I thought about all that for a while and thought that probably in the case of both Hemingway and Gauguin (and many others, many of us) the truth lies in that 7 am untouched morning moment, that bowl of coffee and the empty page, the colors on the pallette, the vision that’s seeking realization. The tortured soul emerges sometime around 3 in the afternoon. I don’t believe the 3 pm person is any more real than the 7 am person. For myself, appreciating Gauguin’s painting doesn’t mean I condone pedophilia. Loving The Old Man and the Sea doesn’t mean I think Hemingway’s treatment of women was good.

Thinking about Art and Kids

Today I had my little art class. I was worried about it since last week I came up against some problems that I wasn’t sure I was equipped to deal with, mainly that one of my little students has a physical problem that gives her challenges learning, the same little girl for whom I wrote the book, “Are You Smart?” Last week she struggled to fold paper correctly to make a little folder for her art cards. (You can learn what that means here) and struggled even harder to write the notes about the card she’d chosen.

So today I thought I wouldn’t make them write. If we did the art cards today (as was on their calendar) they could just tell me. The lesson plan was to make a watercolor color wheel using only red, blue and yellow. I got there and said, “We’re going to do magic today.”

“I like magic!” said the little girl.

Mom had set up the table with baby food jars filled with water in front of each of our spots and paper towels. I brought watercolor paper for them. I’d drawn a circle and divided it into six “pie” pieces. I wrote Red, Yellow and Blue over the ones they needed to paint those colors. I had one too. We did it together.

They were 100% into it. Then we got to the part of mixing the colors, and they thought it really WAS magic (it is). Then the little girl said, “We’re making a rainbow!”

When we finished, the little boy said, “What are we going to do now?”

I said, “I don’t know. What do you want to do? We can draw…”

He and his sister both said, “The cards.”

I said, “OK. Do you want to talk or do you want to write?”

The little girl said, “Write.” I was happy. They even had their folders ready. (Thanks mom)

I spread six cards out on the table for them to choose. My favorite was a painting by Kandinsky but I said, “I don’t even know what is the top.” The little boy is AMAZINGLY attentive, saw printed in faint gray on the card an arrow pointing and the words, “This is up.”

Yellow, Red, Blue

They did their worksheets writing in the name of the painting, the artist, and why they like the picture. The little girl didn’t follow instructions and I called her on it. I said, “You need to read. See? What does it say here?” So she fixed her mistake. I learned today that she responds very well to inductive teaching, and I will do that with her as often as possible from now on since it compels her to focus and she’s rewarded when she reasons correctly.

Then her mom said, “We’ll figure out a way to pay you.”

I didn’t say anything directly to that. Something heavy and profound hit me, something about art and me.

I have been thinking about that all day. Art is two things. It’s something people look at and appreciate, a language across time and culture that adds an important dimension to humanity, maybe even defines humanity. But what it is to the artist? I cannot speak for anyone but myself, but art very literally saved my life. I didn’t get support for it from my mom, though as long as he lived, my dad nurtured both my brother and me as artists. I didn’t get much support in school, either. I had a couple of teachers who saw something in me and were encouraging, but most of the rest? Nope. But it didn’t matter. Art is a thing inside of me, an inexplicable, indomitable something that is in and of itself all the reward I need.

When my brother — an extremely talented artist — threw his life away on alcohol, one of the many things I couldn’t understand was why he didn’t turn to his art instead of booze. There’s the theory (which may have a basis in fact, though I doubt it) that artists are tortured souls. That may or may not be true on an individual basis, but I don’t think it’s art that tortures them. Maybe money? Maybe wishing they could be famous? I don’t know.

When I think of art — my own art — this is a story that evokes the magic for me every time. Making art is an experience that doesn’t always have something to do with the end product. For me the end product is just what happens if you finish something.

My mother hated that I am an artist, but toward the end of her life there was a moment. At the end of her garden there was a large wild plum bush. It grew in a field that belonged to her neighbor, the man and his wife who’d owned and farmed the land before it was developed. They Davises were were well into their 80s. My mom said to me, “Why don’t you go pick those plums for Mrs. Davis. She wants to make jam and she can’t pick them any more. She can’t leave Mr. Davis alone very long and she can’t walk well now.”

I picked up a paper grocery bag and went out and picked plums. When I looked at them in the bag I thought they were so very beautiful. Red, pink, golden, purple, plum (duh). I took them inside and said to my mom, “I want to paint them first.” She didn’t say anything. I had paints there — maybe my brother’s, I don’t know.

I did a watercolor of the plums then took them to Mrs. Davis’ house and left them on the back porch. They weren’t home.

Several hours later she called my mom and said, “Tell Martha Ann to come out.”

Mrs. Davis stood in her yard, white hair back-lit with late afternoon Montana light (there’s no light like that anywhere) holding a plate with a big white cake she’d made for me. I was still living in the painting I’d just finished, and the scene was just one more enchantment brought by those beautiful plums.

I sold the painting to a friend sometime later.

I don’t know if I’ve conveyed “art” the way I want to. It’s — for me — the enchantment of life. It’s a gift I have been given by the creator or DNA or whatever, helped by some good teaching, natural curiosity, pleasure in doing it, travel, excellent museums. I’ve held onto it like Ariadne’s thread throughout my life. Art saved me when I was in a major depression, suicidal, terrified, fragile. Drawing every day, just that, a magical ladder of color out of the abyss.

My body, my abilities, all I’ve learned? I’m just a vessel carrying this around for this moment in time. Like every artist. Every single fucking artist who ever lived has done nothing more than say, “Here is the world as I have seen it, as my hands can depict it. Here.” From the first cave painter to me. It’s ONE thing. THIS is what I am teaching the kids. To be paid for that? No. It’s my honor to hold it in my hands and to be able to share it at all. It’s Mrs. Davis holding a beautiful white cake, behind her Montana’s afternoon summer sun breaking against the Beartooth Mountains.

Apple Orchard

I tried painting an apple orchard like those I saw in Switzerland, but it didn’t work, so I got pissed off and tried to rub off the paint with a solvent soaked rag. All that happened was the paint got smeared.

I put the canvas away thinking sometime I’d paint over this failed painting. That was YEARS ago.

I recently dragged out the painting and liked it. “Hmm,” I thought, “what can I do with this?”

Then it hit me. I had to do a little drawing, and of course I had raw umber on my hand but what the hey…

I’m so glad I wasn’t in a hurry to paint over this thing. ❤

One Who Loves

Yesterday I posted the written instructions I have given my two adult art students for “How to Draw.” Then I got the idea of making videos for art lessons.

If I were a great artist, a successful artist, I guess I’d be living somewhere other than in the back of beyond, but who knows? I’m not a great artist and certainly not a successful artist but a long time ago I realized how absurd a dream that is. Does doing good work lead automatically to success in ANY field? No. And art? Life is hard. Work is hard. Some things in our lives just SHOULDN’T be.

For a long time I didn’t draw and I didn’t paint. Well, I drew in my journals, “The Examined Life”. It wasn’t until 2012 when my stepson and his wife gave me brushes and a canvas that I thought of trying oil painting again. I hadn’t painted in oils since high school when I did a large oil painting and my art teacher told me I had no talent and more or less said he wasn’t going to teach me any more. I’m not sure he ever taught me which might be a salient point but WHATEV’.

It was late fall and rainy in San Diego County when I resolved to give it a shot. I had some oil paints that had belonged to friends. I took a photo of the cattle across the street and decided to try something I’d never done before.

Many Renaissance painters painted from dark to light, from dark, dark, dark brown or black, to light. My brother always said my paintings had no “depth” so I decided to start by painting my little canvas (11 x 14) with black Gesso. It was an incredible experience pulling a painting out of the darkness and I LOVED the painting even though, initially, one of the cows only had three legs (my bad). After that, I went for it. I bought paints and surfaces on which to paint.

I gave the three legged cow a fourth leg in the meantime

I painted small paintings — 5 x 7 — because, in my mind, I was in school. I joined the local art guild and showed my work twice a year. I kept painting. It got me through some awful times, always a source of joy, discovery, distraction. The more I painted, the more I learned about painting, paints and colors.

It meant so much to me because in my “real” (ha ha) life I was teaching EVERYONE. I could go into my shed, paint and the whole stupid idiot expensive difficult outside world disappeared. And then, as it happened, in 2013, I got two paintings in juried shows. The one below was in a juried show put on by the San Diego Art Museum Artists Guild.

The World is Out There

How did it come into being? Well, I’d been asked by my step-daughter-in-law to paint a scene of New York. In that scene the word “Stop” was painted on the street. I went to work and realized that the scene wanted to be a water color, not an oil. I put this panel away and did a water color that worked pretty well. Then I got a flyer from a fellow artist advertising her work in a gallery in Kansas. In that flyer was a photo of this sofa. I have always been amazed by how the old masters painted fabrics and wondered if I could paint velvet so I pulled out that “ruined” panel and painted the sofa. I let the sofa dry and put the panel away, but the whole panel was starting to intrigue me… I painted a lot of things on this panel that I cleared off with solvent before I painted this. I liked this panel a lot because it was interesting and mysterious.

Nothing I painted during this time was 100% successful (to me) but every one of those paintings (and those I do now) was 100% satisfying as an experience. I realized through this that the most important thing about art — for me — is its power to inspire me to keep doing it.

Lots of people stop because they’re not satisfied with their work. For me that’s a reason to keep doing the work. My great hero, Goethe, went to Italy in 1786. He was suffering a broken heart, inner turmoil, a personal crisis. One of the things he was looking for in Italy was inspiration.

In those days without cameras people had to draw their own souvenirs or hire a professional artist to do that for them. Goethe had a lot of talent as a visual artist and was torn about maybe, by writing, he’d gone in the wrong direction. He drew everything along his way as he had whenever he traveled. I have a little book of many of the ink and wash drawings he did on his journeys.

Somewhere on his Italian journey he decided he wasn’t good enough and he hired an artist to travel around with him. It seems that was the end of creating visual art for Goethe. If I could talk to him, I’d ask him about that. Like me, one of Goethe’s reasons for going to Italy was to look at paintings. Maybe he got daunted and, as Hemingway wrote, one should never get daunted. The featured photo is of one of Goethe’s ink wash sketches of a scene in Italy.

In imitation of Goethe, in 2004, in Giardino Giusti in Verona (which Goethe also drew) I drew this. It’s not that easy to keep a good record of what you see by drawing it.

My goal with my “students” is simply to inspire them to try without worrying about failing. Our world is so concerned with perfection and success that failure is undervalued. In the process of learning to paint or draw, there’s a lot of failure, but those failures are more useful than the things we “get right.”

There is a painting (sold long ago) that started out a thing of real beauty. I destroyed it (IMO) by forcing my idea of what it should be onto it. Funny thing, I have no photos of it once it was “finished,” but I have photos of it while it was still in the process of being painted, before I wrecked it. It was important to me to retain THAT moment, not the failed moment. Why? Because this painting taught me that it’s not all up to me. Creating the painting or drawing I WANT sometimes means stepping back and seeing what the painting or drawing itself wants to be. Anyone who tries is 100% sure to fail. The point is it doesn’t matter. Failure is — in art — the best teacher.

Descanso Valley, CA

To help my students, I made a couple of very rough videos yesterday. I’ve put the drawing video at the bottom of this post. It seems to have worked with one of them, so that’s cool. It’s purpose is not to give any technical instruction, just maybe to inspire enthusiasm to try. Inspiration in instruction is often underrated because it cannot be measured or controlled, but I think, in art, it’s important. Not all inspiration leads to great masterpieces, but it always provides the energy to try.

For me, painting is like skiing. I was never — and will never be — a great skier but no one has more fun. The word “amateur” means, “One who loves.” I’m proud to be one.

Beans and Friendship

It’s pretty woodsy in my backyard at the moment. I went out yesterday with my trusty branch saw to reconnoiter and decided it was way too dangerous for me to approach. How do I know but what one little handsawable branch isn’t holding up the universe? I don’t. I said, “Teddy get out from under there,” and came back inside.

Today I’m taking the day off. Yesterday, I spent hours cleaning the remnants of the snowpocalypse from the garden part of my yard. I had a long chat with the beans, explaining that I was sorry a bunch of their leaves were hanging there near death from being weighted down by a wet and frozen bed sheet. I then told them the story of Faith, the Indomitable Aussie Pumpkin who came into the world this time last year and STILL grew to be almost 10 inches in diameter. “Buck up, Poets,” I said. “It was just a snowpocalypse. Not the end of the world.”

The tomatoes are just going, “Well THAT was different.”

Meanwhile, everything that’s not broken looks like nothing happened, like summer was never interrupted, and now it’s business as usual.

Today my Facebook memories brought a photo of me with a woman who was one of my dearest friends for thirty years. She was my boss at the first teaching job I had in San Diego, and our relationship evolved from a not especially great boss/employee relationship to real friendship. She was an extraordinarily talented painter, and some of her paints are in my “studio”. I don’t use them. I do use her palette knife and some of her brushes. In the paint box, in the colors she used, and even in the way the brushes are “worn,” I see Sally, her way of painting and, well, her. It’s very lovely. The featured photo is us together at her house, Thanksgiving 1997.