Don’t Try This at Home

Art is mysterious to artists as well as those who appreciate it. Stone Age cave paintings are among the most amazing human artistic achievements. On the rough walls of a cave, those artists could portray the rushing movement of a whole herd of stampeding bison. The techniques and materials are as old as time and still used. Most of the paintings are done in charcoal and ochre; ochre is clay. Many of the cave paintings are on limestone which makes the cave paintings very ancient frescoes. I LOVE the idea that fresco painting is THAT old, that it’s just come down and down and down and down through humanity’s almost countless generations.

We have these paintings but we don’t know the people. Archeology loves that mystery, I think, and I enjoy reading their discoveries and conjectures. The newest is that these Stone Age artists did their artwork — which is often in the deepest darkest parts of these caves — while they (the artists) were high on oxygen deprivation. Not just that they were high, but that they painted in those dark inaccessible places on purpose.

I don’t know much about the minds of Stone Age people (who does?) but maybe the archeologists were right. I’ve had a little challenge sussing out the cause and effect from what I’ve read , but the gist is that the artists painted in the convoluted depths of the caves BECAUSE to paint there they had to take flaming torches which would deplete the air of oxygen, inducing visions and confusion in the brains of the artists. It seems to me that the paintings could have been (some archeologists have posited this) a kind of prayer. Maybe the archeologists are right, too, that the artists sought an “altered state” to bring them closer to whatever mystical power (muse) inspired the paintings. If the Stone Age artists didn’t know WHY they ended up in an altered mental state when they were back there, they could easily have believed that those spots in the cave had mystical powers of inspiration and clarity; showed them the future, allowed them to commune with the beasts they needed to eat and those who sought to eat them, the old kill-or-be-killed thing.

Art and mysticism have always been very close together. Both the Illiad and the Odyssey begin with an invocation to the Muses to be with the poet and inspire their words and their performance, all convey the message that poetry is not in the day-to-day realm of human endeavor. Though there is no Muse specific to painting, I know that in the times in my life when I’ve been truly inspired, I haven’t felt “normal.” Those have been really glorious moments and working in that state of mind (heart?) is very different from the normal day-to-day. I don’t use — and haven’t ever used — anything external to get into those states; they happen spontaneously, often the result of seeing something striking, like a single crane walking among the winter willow saplings. It doesn’t happen immediately. Inspiration seems to need some time to mature, to make the journey from my eyes to my mind and heart and eventually to my hands. Sometimes it is the result of the work itself, seeing through the process of writing or painting what something wants to be. I think others can see the difference between work done in inspiration and those done from other motivations, like the simple pleasure of painting. Anyway, I can say in total confidence that I’m not likely to try this carbon monoxide trick any time soon.

l You can learn more about this archeological theory here.


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.

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

Painting vs Evil

Painting has turned out to be an effective strategy in other dark times and seems to be working now. It makes a big difference to me to focus on something beautiful rather than something ugly. And making something beautiful seems to be the definition of positive thinking.

Yesterday Facebook showed me a painting I did last year when I first got the natural pigments. Looking at it (and I like it and am proud of it) I thought, “You’ve come a long way, baby.”

Snowy Trail (actual size)

It’s been important because in no other sense have I been able to “get anywhere,” especially in these times when so much is out of my control and so much of it is bad and scary. The little painting above is 5″ x 7″ (13 x 18 cm)

Right now I’m painting garden signs. They’re fun, colorful, don’t take up a lot of space, and people buy them. My order of acrylic paint finally arrived late last night (??,) so I can finish a couple garden signs that are hanging fire and start one that needs a color I couldn’t mix.

I listened to Biden’s speech yesterday and his plan is expensive (initially) and ambitious, but I think his point that if people HAVE money they can SPEND money and with the rolling out of vaccines, people will be able to go into the marketplace more freely. I know that when I don’t have money, I can’t spend it. Most of all, his plan is kind. Right now that’s worth a lot to me. I doubt Trump will ever get his comeuppance, but I really don’t care, do you? 😉


It’s been a really long day. I sincerely hope no one really expected that by turning the page on the calendar, things would be better.

Today I cleaned out all the old oil paints bequeathed me by an old friend and filled her nice paintbox with acrylics. It’s sad when oil paints go bad but they do. I wrapped books I have promised to people and the yard sign I made for my cousin as a prayer, I guess, that she’d live to see it. I followed the news to see how impeachment part deux would play out (but I already knew), and even I think it was a foolish waste of time and made our country even worse than it is. Not that I think the insurrectionists (including 45) should get off scot free, but I think the Amish and Mennonite practice of shunning might be a better direction. We need vaccines, jobs and peace. I don’t think the second impeachment helped because I don’t think 45 gives a rat’s ass about whether he’s impeached or not. He just wants his Twitter account restored.

I’m just going to try to paint my way out of this mess. Paint and walk the dogs. I can’t see any other ropes to which I might hold on. I plan to take a break from WordPress, but we’ll see how that goes. Just know it’s not you, it’s me. ❤

Painting Against the Gotterdammerung

Art is the only way to run away without leaving home” pretty much sums up my feelings at this moment. I have no great inspiration right now, but just the act of painting, realizing an idea or facing down a challenge, is healing and distracting.

On my birthday, I spent the morning on the phone with my cousin for whom I did this painting as a birthday gift from my cousin’s daughter:

On the phone she mentioned she loved it but what she REALLY loved was the painting on the back which is my “logo” — a little quickly done painting of the mountains near my house, notably, Windy Mountain. So, I decided to paint her a little painting featuring that scene (featured image).

The big project I was struggling with was a salmon colored poppy. Red poppies are easy because the color is intense and self-reliant, but salmon? When you start mixing colors and are dealing with pastels, everything is trickier, for me anyway. Not my favorite painting, but not a total failure, either. This garden sign is 23 x 12

Meanwhile, they’re alleging snow, but Bear and I are skeptical. I’m not doing great art at the moment. It’s been an intense and artistic few months and the psyche is a little tired, not to mention the relentless scary ugliness of current events. SO… I guess I’ll just keep painting toward better days and hope for snow… March is sometimes the snowiest month of the year.

This poppy is in my Etsy Shop.

Who Are You?

“Yet in my lineaments they trace
Some features of my father’s face.” Lord Byron

As a kid, people said, “Martha Ann looks like Bill.” (My dad) In my late forties/early fifties I realized how much I looked like my paternal grandmother. And NOW? In later life the invisible internals of those people begin to assert themselves.

Genetic science is interesting, but, of course, you have to pay to find out the really good stuff, stuff beyond your eye color, hair texture, whether you like cilantro or not (I do), etc. You know, stuff you already know. Except I was pretty excited to learn that I have the “sprinter gene” which means I run fast for short distances. I did. And, beyond that, I see the benefit in that when escaping from Smilodons and such back in the day. I haven’t paid and won’t.

Maybe in the future, it will be part of a kid’s first medical exam. My dad and I talked a lot about death and one of the things we agreed on was that it was better that he went through his life until age 35 or so not knowing he had MS and where that was likely to lead. We pondered how a person would live life if they knew at the get-go when and how they were likely to die. The upshot of our conversations on this topic was always that death isn’t the important thing. Life is the important thing.

I wonder, though, how much personality is genetic. I’m a very tough, resilient and optimistic little person. Was my personality the result of my own lived years, or did I come into the world with this as an edge against the bad stuff that was going to happen? My mom used to say of my paternal grandmother, “You’d think that the life she’s lived would show but it doesn’t. It seems to pass right over her like nothing happened.” I can’t speak much to that because I don’t know the details of my grandmother’s life other than her own mother dying of diabetes when my grandmother was still a little girl, marrying my charismatic but alcoholic grandfather, living through 2 world wars, grandpa going to prison for 2 years, her son getting MS and dying at 45 — wait, do I really need MORE than this?

And IF these traits are passed on genetically, how would they track them? This adds a new dimension to the whole question of the invisible and ineffable.

In daily news, I brought home everything from the museum yesterday and put it away. The best part of yesterday was seeing 30 or so Sandhill cranes circling above me as I unloaded my paintings. I don’t know why I love those guys so much, but I do. ❤ I ordered new notecards for the museum and my Etsy store. They should be in stock in a week or so. I don’t know what art project is on the horizon. I expect to use these unseasonably warm January days to cut plywood.

Paintings I’ve converted to notecards (so far) there may be others…

The featured photo is my paternal grandmother — Helen Berggren Kennedy — my brother and me sometime in the early 1960s. The little tree on the end-table is a tumbleweed I flocked and hung little red balls on. My mom saw it in a lady’s magazine and sent me out to find a tumbleweed. It was a cool — and beautiful — project and I still think of doing it again every Christmas. 🙂

A New Brush

Lettering is really difficult, maybe in general, but certainly for me. Last week I did a little research into how I could make it easier and do a better job on the garden signs. There are a lot of tools out there but most of the fancy and easy ones seem to be for lettering on paper, not plywood. Then I looked specifically for lettering brushes.

I think it was back in 2009 when I built the art shed outside my house in Descanso, CA and I had some “extra” money (little did I know that the economy was about to go CRASH and my income with it). Anyway, I went online to find my old-time favorite art store in Denver and I bought a bunch of fancy and expensive brushes. I don’t remember the criteria I used, either. Maybe it was totally random, but I ended up with a bunch of very beautiful brushes. I had the belief, then, that I was on the verge of becoming a serious artist. Of course, the economy came in between that belief and reality, but I still had the brushes.

A long time ago, back in college, I learned the difference between real vs. symbolic wealth from Alan Watts. REAL wealth is things that you own. So, I was rich in brushes I didn’t know how to use but cash poor.

Values, right?

So there I was online the other day trying to learn how to letter signs more easily and better and I finally found lettering brushes. I put one in my cart on Dick Blick Art Supplies but didn’t buy it because I KNEW that the giant bouquet of inscrutable brushes, about which I know nothing, might…

Real Wealth

And THERE it was.

“How will I ever us that thing?”

So, having acted on one of my New Year resolutions yesterday, I realized I needed to get AT something, start something fresh, so I started a new sign. At a certain moment, I had to put words on it. I grabbed (well, I was gentler than that) this brush, took a deep breath and picked up a brand new, unused, fresh brush.

I still have a lot to learn, but it was a better lettering experience than I’ve had so far. I thought it was a good sign (ha ha)

Some of the garden signs I’ve painted in the past year…

Voltaire for the Garden

A nice afternoon painting a garden sign.

This is a quotation from Voltaire’s novel, Candide. If you’ve read the novel, you know it, if you haven’t, it’s a satirical novel written in the 18th century by Voltaire. Basically, the main character, Candide, goes through EVERYTHING one could in life to an exaggerated (and humorous) degree. At the end, he and his friends are living in Turkey where they live peacefully and simply. Candide’s philosopher/old teacher, expounds based on his philosophical theory that “this is the best of all possible worlds” and goes into a long rant about how all the crazy stuff that’s happened has been a long “concatenation of events” leading to the present moment, basically the “Everything happens for a reason” argument. Candide simply responds, “…excellently observed, but let us cultivate our garden.”