Night Long Ago Aches to Become a Painting

This part of this post is a reprise from 2015. It describes an unforgettable night, a compelling image that still holds my mind.


It’s a summer night in 1957 and I lie on the back seat of the 55 Ford with my three year old brother. My grandfather has died and my dad flew up that morning to be with his mother. On the very same plane, my Uncle Hank arrived from Billings. He’s going to drive us to Billings to be with our dad. My mom doesn’t know how to drive.

Together my little brother and I about fill the back seat with our sleeping bodies. The car stops. I wake up. “Where are we, mom?”

“Wheatland, honey.”

My Uncle Hank says, “I’ll go see if he’ll open up and sell me gas. The store lights are on. He can’t have been closed long.” The green neon Sinclair dinosaur in the window lights the parking stalls in front of the station. Pink and white neon lines the roof-line.

Once the car has stopped I sit up to look out the window at the Wyoming night. Beyond the gas station, the city park, soft, summer darkness, out across the plains forever.

Suddenly there is a burst of girls in long frothy dresses, running and laughing. They run past us, their dresses lit momentarily by the neon of the gas station lights.

“Rainbow girls,” says my mom, thoughtfully. “The Lodge must be nearby.”

“What are rainbow girls?” I ask.

“It’s a club for teenage girls, honey. Your Aunt Dickie was a member.”

“They’re wearing long dresses!” I am five and in love with long dresses.

“Those are formals. They wear formals at their meetings.” My Aunt Dickie — the youngest of the 7 sisters among whom my mom was third to last — reached high school when my Aunt Florence, Uncle David and Uncle Sherman were were working and sending money home, helping out enough that Aunt Dickie could do things none of her older sisters could.

Uncle Hank comes back with the service station owner who has turned on the lights over the pumps. He looks sleepy, but understanding as unlocks the pumps and fills the tank. I’m sure my uncle explained everything to the man. “Thank you kindly,” says my uncle, “Sorry for waking you.”

“You take care, sir,” says the man. “Safe travels.” We’ll make it to Billings.


I have been thinking of this night for the past few weeks as a subject for a painting. I haven’t figured it out yet, but it’s swirling around in my mind, trying to form itself. I’m a little stumped on point of view, how to put that little wonder-struck girl into the painting. Right now I’m leaning toward the girls being somewhere in the distance, just close enough to the gas station for their long dresses to catch the light.

Former Edward Hopperish Featured image ❤

Trying to Hold My Shit Together, but…

All that stuff we’re supposed to do to maintain our mental health can sometimes feel like pressure, one more thing we have to do. It’s crazy how in our world with the ubiquity of advice and opinion that things like “thankfulness” are “prescribed.” The idea of counting one’s blessings isn’t new, but being bombarded by “mindfulness” advice? The insistence on gratitude and so on can make a vulnerable person feel guilty for NOT feeling grateful all the time, for feeling angry, anxious, frightened, tired, resentful, — the whole rainbow of so-called human emotions.

I’ve been wondering how I dealt with everything so much better last year when things were, in many ways much worse. I don’t think I’m alone. I don’t think (we) animals are designed for a persistent crisis — in fact a crisis CAN’T be “persistent.” A persistent crisis is not a crisis; it’s life as we know it — like “living” with the plague (as Shakespeare and pals did so long ago) or The Bomb. That’s all it is. I feel more anxious than I have felt in years, more fearful of doing anything, even going hiking with a friend in a couple of hours. I woke up nauseated and sick to my stomach. Stress? Waking up 2 hours before the alarm just to be sure I’d be ready, but I packed my little day pack and filled my hydration bladder yesterday.

And painting and writing. I look around and see 900,000,000 other people painting, most of them do better work than I do. Why should I paint at all? And writing? What futility! I remember an acquaintance asking me, “Why would you write a book? What for?” It’s difficult to remember right now that painting and writing have always been MOST important to me and maintaining a happy engagement with life — but this “persistent crisis” saps our sensibility. 2020 was a challenge of hope; 2021 is something else, but I don’t know what. And what’s with this arbitrary demarcation of spaces of time other than a traditional acknowledgement of the passing seasons? That’s ALL it is, yet we enter a new year filled with expectations and hope even IF we don’t build up a bunch of resolutions.

So I’m painting anyway, nothing grand, just Christmas tree ornaments, but it’s tranquilizing and possibly good practice and and I sold a couple in my Etsy shop. That’s a little something.

This whole thing is nuts but here we are. Sorry for whining, but, you know, if this speaks to you at least you know you’re not alone. ❤

Someone asked for a link to my Etsy site. Here it is: https://www.etsy.com/shop/MarthaAnnKennedy

The Apple(s) of My Eye

This past Saturday my friend and I went to pick apples. I picked some and then, seeing how incredibly lovely they were on the tree, I took some photos. I have had a lot on my mind in recent weeks — some of it personal, related to to me, some involving a friend who has been struggling with himself. If you’ve ever had to struggle with yourself, you know it’s no fun.

So, since I’m in an artistic slump (it happens and doesn’t worry me) but really wanted to make art I decided on an “apple a day.” Today, as I worked on the fourth apple, I thought about art philosophy and criticism.

This past Saturday my friend and I went to pick apples. I picked some and then, seeing how incredibly lovely they were on the tree, I took some photos. I have had a lot on my mind in recent weeks — some of it personal, related to to me, some involving a friend who has been struggling with himself. If you’ve ever had to struggle with yourself, you know it’s no fun.

So, since I’m in an artistic slump (it happens and doesn’t worry me) but really wanted to make art I decided on an “apple a day.” Today, as I worked on the fourth apple, I thought about art philosophy and criticism.

It’s unlikely I will ever be a NON-representational artist. After spending time last week with an artist friend who had a very different philosophy and who chides me for being what I am, I’ve been thinking about that. I finally told her, “I don’t see me doing abstract paintings.”

“Why not? Your brush strokes are abstract.”

It’s not because I don’t like abstract art. I do. It’s just not fulfilling for me. My primary relationship is with nature; the important questions for me are “how does this work? What is it really? How can I see it better?” For me, a painting is a synthesis of brush strokes. It’s not brush strokes. It’s a totality. For me, it’s a way of seeing.

So, four days of apples. Some from “life” (those I picked), one from a photo. These are notecard size and I’ll use them for that.

I could hear my friend in my head saying, “You don’t have to get every little thing!” a chorus I’ve heard before. But what is it to work toward “every little thing”? (Which I don’t actually do) As I worked on the two apples on the tree I realized what was going on in my head. I was relieving the stress of the last several weeks. I was meditating. The image — the colors of the leaves, the striations on the apples, the problem of the branch — all of it — drew me out of my self into a clearer mind. There’s not much smaller to make art with than the sharpened end of a watercolor pencil.

Reblogged from My Amazing Life Distilled.

Thoughts on Painting/Drawing

Things proceed in the normal way here in the back-of-beyond. Planning has begun for the Christmas art show at the Rio Grande County Museum. I don’t have much new work, but I’ll be there. Normally I’d be aghast at such precipitous planning — it’s August, for the love of God! — but not this year. I understand completely the need my friend Louise feels to anchor herself in the future. I’ll also be doing a reading from one of my books — I’m probably going to read from Finding Refuge, and I expect to read the chapter that relates the moment the Refuge invited me to spend Christmas there (which I did).

On the famous artist front there’s not much going on. I don’t feel much attraction to the pastels, in fact, I feel no attraction to them. The book I bought from which I could learn technique is full of images and instruction, but pretty de-inspiring. It’s going in the “books I don’t want to see again as long as I live” box. The two artists whose use of pastels most impress me are Degas and Lautrec –> Featured photo, Rider on a White Horse. Their work has little in common with what I find in my instruction book AND it has the magic of dry media — spontaneous motion.

I know what it would take would be some hours in the studio playing around with them and attempting the kinds of images that belong to me. 🙂

A very silly thing that bothers me is that drawing with pastels is now called “painting.” I shouldn’t be flummoxed by this because I draw/paint with watercolor pencils all the time and have no problem calling them “paintings” (as long as water is involved) but calling a pastel drawing a painting makes my teeth itch. Drawing is as wonderful as painting. I guess in my mind painting involves all the magic and challenge of a wet medium. Pastel? Blending pastels isn’t the same to me at all. It feels different. The results are different. Psychologically — for me — it’s different. BUT… I don’t know. The words and theories involved in art can be very alienating. There is a point, though, when a pastel drawing LOOKS like a painting. I looked this up on the sainted Internet and found this very satisfying answer:

So how do you define pastel artwork? Is it drawing or painting? It is a perplexing question. My observation is that if we stick to the dictionary definition, pastel is a drawing medium. It is pigment in a dry stick form. But, when placed in the hands of an artist who applies it with the intent of creating an image that communicates to the observer with the symbolic use of shape, edge, value, and color, it can be considered a painting medium. While the definition debate will inevitably continue, for most of us it is of little concern. What matters is if the artwork has successfully communicated our intent and we enjoy the medium. As an artist friend once said, ‘I let others label what my artwork is, as long as they see it as beautiful’.” Drawing or Painting with Pastel: Which Is It?

Seeking a Little Refuge

Yesterday the sweltering heat took a short break, the wind began to blow, I looked at my big white dog and said, “What do you think, Bear?” It was a silly question because I KNEW what she thought, but it’s good to be polite. I didn’t think we’d have a very large window of opportunity, and I didn’t know about the deer flies (they might be gone!), but I have been really tired of the combination of heat, the sore shoulder, the smoke in the skies keeping us homebound for the most part. I carped the diem and we headed to the Refuge.

We found ourselves embraced by the late summer, golden blooming wetlands that can be so pretty to look at and occasionally pleasant to be in. Bear was happy. I was happy. The Refuge even seemed happy, and, for the first time in more than a week the mountains to the west were visible.

There are, for now, fewer birds, but that will change soon. Often by now the Sandhill Cranes have begun to return on their way to Bosque Apache in New Mexico, and, naturally, I hoped they were back, but I neither saw nor heard any sign of them. That doesn’t mean they’re not around. It just means they were not there right then. But, if I were them, I’d be in no hurry to fly through all the smoke that has been lingering in the air points north of here.

As for the deer flies? Well, I think the wind blew one straight at my forehead where it may have exploded, but that could have been the seed of a plant. I heard one mosquito, so it’s possible that the bug days of summer are coming to a halt. The wind blew from the north which was, to me, a harbinger of good things to come — including the cranes.

I’m also beginning to come out of the cave into which I crawled after my return from The Big City. I had a funny text exchange with the kid’s mom I’ll share for laughs. The first time they came to my house, they wanted to see my room because they’re kids and their rooms are everything to them, and because they seem to see me as a kind of kid. “Can we see your room?”

I said to the kid’s mom, “How do you feel about naked people?” She looked at me in bewilderment and concern. “I have a painting of a nude in there.”

“Oh,” she said. “Probably not. I don’t think we’re ready for that talk.”

I have a painting of a naked lady over my bed. I did the painting. it is a naked lady but it also isn’t. It’s Danae and the inspiration for it was the first night I spent in Munich on my way to Verona where I spent a month learning Italian, going to operas, studying frescoes on church walls and a lot of other stuff. That night I was so exhausted that I fell asleep while I was taking off my socks. I woke up in the night to the bright saffron light of an Indian restaurant shining through the open window of my room. I stayed awake long enough to finish actually going to bed. It wasn’t such a big deal except it was the beginning of a wonderful adventure. There’s another naked lady in my bathroom. I remembered Danae and stashed her under my bed, but I forgot the one in my bathroom.

ANY-hoo, the kids’ (kids up the alley) mom texted me that they had a present for me. Yesterday she wrote:


There’s nothing prurient about either painting, but you don’t want to force a mom into answering questions about naked people if she doesn’t want to. 🙂

Art Criticism

Made it home from my journey to Colorado Springs with no problems. During the week I was gone, the beans thrived. The tomatoes were very wilted — all but the cherry tomato which is a drought resistant type — and the Aussie pumpkin seems no worse for the adventure. Time will tell. I ate a handful of Scarlet Emperor Beans for supper. There are two that are already too large to be tasty so they will hang on the vine to ripen for next year. My shoulder hurts, but it functions pretty well if I’m careful. I think it’s a matter of time, rest, and ice. I will call my doctor later on so that I can get hooked up with physical therapy.

Once I got home, and saw the painting of the rainbow I was so in love with, well, time and distance, right? It’s nothing special. I think I’m in need of a break or something.

My trip to Colorado Springs was partly to pick up the two paintings I had hanging in a gallery in Manitou Springs. I had packed them carefully when I sent them up with my friend Lois a couple months ago. I don’t know why, but I had the illusion that the gallery actually cared about the art entrusted to their care. I imagined the paintings would be back in their boxes waiting. Why did I think that? Because that’s what I would have done. I would have paid attention and seen that the paintings hadn’t come from a local artist and I’ve have taken the 15 minutes to repack them for the person. BUT…we got there. The people behind the desk said, “They’re over there on the wall. You can go get them.” As we were carrying them out they said, “Did you bring others to hang for this rotation?”

“No. It’s too far. I live in the San Luis Valley.” I looked at their blank faces and realized they didn’t — probably — know where that was. We walked out. I stuck the paintings behind Bella’s seat, and that was that. I thought about it some more. If those paintings had sold, that little gallery would have made money, basically money from NO EFFORT on their part.

I realize artists are a dime a dozen, and every second retiree thinks they’re a painter. The thing is, every business does better by cultivating good will.

I felt kind of crappy after that (of course I didn’t know how crappy I would feel in another two days, ha ha).

Back in Monte Vista, I went through all the mail that arrived while I was gone. There was a lot. Among them was a beautiful small painting of Bear done by Chris at https://mallabandbrown.com. There were two pads of paper for pastel drawing which I haven’t tried since childhood, but it seemed like a good way to turn this art journey back into play. There were some other things including the local newspaper.

In a place like this obituaries are big news and they are always on page 2. I always read them because I learn about the community by reading the history of people who live/d here. I immediately saw that Alex Colville, the husband of Louise who runs the museum in Del Norte, had died the day I went to the Springs (no cause and effect). He’s been ill for a long time with Alzheimer’s. In fact, I’ve only known him for the past few years and I’ve seen the rapid decline. Oddly, Alex always knew me when he saw me which was bizarre but a kind of honor (to me).

Last year he and Louise bought one of my paintings for each other for Christmas. It’s a painting of the San Luis Valley, the Refuge at sunset after a storm in summer. The painting “spoke” to both of them. When I talked to Louise yesterday, offering condolences and some small reminiscences, she mentioned that Alex loved the painting and enjoyed looking at it. Alex was born in the San Luis Valley. He was the kind of person who, had I met him years and years ago would have been my friend. He was an outdoorsman, a climber, a skier, a wanderer, teacher and an artist with wood. He was 20 years older than I. I could only imagine how interesting he must have been when all of his mind was in one place. He was interesting to listen to even with many of the pieces missing. I’m happy that, at least, I got to know him a little. I’m happy that the first time I met him — 2019? — he more-or-less told me his life story. At the time I felt the bittersweetness of that, as if he was telling me who he was.

I thought about that a long time. I’m honestly not done thinking about it. As far as I’ve gotten in the journey to comprehending that is the way I felt driving down the pass yesterday. My heart lifted when I saw the sign on the highway that said, “Entering the San Luis Valley.”

The Right Word at the Right Time

I’ve been generally disillusioned and unmotivated, even to paint or even like my paintings. I shared this with an artist friend who said, “You paint the best skies. Paint a triptych.”

I thought that was a good idea since the sky here is endlessly amazing to me and it’s most of what I paint so… I started the second painting in the triptych yesterday using Indian yellow, water pollution lavender, and ultramarine made of real lapis. I worked on it again today with zinc white (the most transparent white) and Gamblin’s radiant white which is very bright, opaque and beautiful. Here it is with the other painting (so far) in the triptych.



Calumnation

This morning in my Facebook memories were photos of one of the best days of my life here in Monte Vista. The new Valley Art Co-op (of which I was a member) was about to have its grand opening. I didn’t know any of the people, I liked everybody, was living with my post-teaching resolve just to be nice to people and was in the first blush of love with this place that has turned out to have many sinister little corners. I still love it very much, but it’s not Heaven. The Valley is Heaven, but where people go gets complicated though human complications and nature’s complications are similar — if not the same.

The local window painter had decided against joining the co-op and everyone wanted the windows painted for the Grand Opening. They were mirrored windows and no one could see inside to the shop so this was important. Someone hired the local window painter to paint the windows beside the door, but there were (miles?) of windows and the co-op had no money. I also think, maybe, some of this painter’s friends who were members were a little angry and very disappointed that she hadn’t joined in the experiment of an art coop..

“Can you paint windows?” someone in authority asked me.

“Sure,” I said. I never had but…

I spent a few days sketching and planning the windows. I saw them as the San Luis Valley. People (tourists) driving by the co-op would see the whole valley painted there. We were the VALLEY Art Coop so that made sense and no one complained. I didn’t know the valley well then (I still don’t) but I had a general, global idea. We were going to paint them as PART of the grand opening celebration.

I wanted to use tempera so they’d be easy to wash off, but the local professional window painter said I should use acrylic. I had a lot of craft acrylic so that was all good. The day before, I painted an underpainting of white so the next day all of the painters would have a place to start.

It was glorious.

During the various seasons (Christmas and Crane Festival) we added to the paintings.

Part of the Christmas window

The “calumny” began when the professional window painter got jealous and thought I was after her job. The gossip machine started to roll and it was ugly. First she (behind my back) accused me of using the wrong paint. I’d used what she’d told me to use but when I saw how hard it was to get off the window, I switched to tempera for all the seasonal changes. Then she went at me publicly in front of the Post Office and then during the Christmas show of the art guild we were both members of. Calumny was heaped upon my head (which, I understand from 19th century novels, is the usual way of dispensing calumny). She even went and scraped off part of the painting. OH WELL.

Her life would have been so much easier if she’d just 1) joined the co-op in the first place and painted the windows herself, 2) asked me if I wanted to paint windows all over town and compete with her (I didn’t). But strangely how people often don’t do the easy thing.

How does this relate to nature? Ah, geese. At this moment, the two geese families and their babies (almost fully grown) are swimming serenely together in the pond as if the competitive ugliness of spring mating, nest building, egg sitting had never happened. As if they hadn’t gone at each other with the full capacity of killing each other.

And this town “pond” — like that at the Refuge — is small. In the passing years, this woman and I have participated in shows together. Last year, with Covid, the show at the museum still happened, but we artists were pretty much the only people there. She sat down beside me and opened up. I just listened, thinking to myself, “OK, you’re sorry, but you still did that. I forgive you because you thought I was after your bread-and-butter, but you could have saved yourself and me a lot of grief back then and never had to carry around this thing you’ve carried around for 5 years by just TALKING to me.”

Words from Hamlet went through my mind:

“Use every man after his desert and who shall ’scape whipping? Use them after your own honor and dignity. The less they deserve, the more merit is in your bounty.” Hamlet (2.2)

It was one of those “There but for the grace of God moments.” No one likes calumny heaped upon their head, and I feel about her now the way I feel about rattlesnakes. I don’t seek them out, but I appreciate their role in the ecosystem and see their beauty.

My Parade

Though I usually take a dog out at a particular time of day, sometimes I get an inexplicable urge to take one out RIGHT NOW. This happened today around 11:30 am. As I neared the Refuge, there were thousands of cranes rising, circling up, higher and higher. I parked Bella and got out. This is what I heard and saw:

I think the dumpster really brings it down to earth 😀

I’m still a little “migrainy” and it all seemed somewhat dreamlike. I was enveloped in the wild racket of thousands of cranes for the first 1/4 mile.

We took Bear’s favorite loop and I was enchanted by the pastel November colors and reminded why I always want to paint them.

Bear’s favorite loop and the beauty of the day…notice the tree in the distance…

As we rounded the loop’s first curve, the cranes became silent. I wondered what set them off — a predator — but WHAT predator? A cool morning. Snow falling on the mountains to the west. No way for me to know. Then, we rounded the third curve on this 1/3 mile loop and I saw…

We always think of owls as night hunters, but the Great Horned Owl hunts in daytime, too. Was it him?

My eyes filled with tears AGAIN. Oh man… And then I realized, “This is my parade! I painted this. Naturally THIS is playing the band and sending out ‘floats,’ the whole thing!” Birds being floats, of course.

I loved the thought and it seemed right. My big painting depicts one of the quietest moments in this silent (except for animals, wind, and the occasional “Hello!”) place. It’s the kind of scene revealed by hours in a wild place. It doesn’t take your breath away or stimulate awe. It’s just a quiet crane moment on a dull day. It’s a love letter from me to the Refuge. My parade couldn’t have been any better, I thought, and then…

I noticed something land on the top of one of the cottonwood trees…

Seems to be a Cooper’s hawk

Soon after I took his photo, this lovely being launched himself from the tree. You can see that moment in the featured photo if you look really really hard, then swooped down in front of Bear and me, then up and began circling the group of cranes and other water birds now hanging around the pond. “Like a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow bend.” (Hopkins, “The Windhover”)

“What a beautiful float!” I said to Bear who wondered why we weren’t moving and smelling stuff. I also realized that I was thirsty and a little hungry, so we turned back. Just as I arrived at the parking lot I saw a pair of Harris Hawks. These guys are noisy compared to other raptors. Their adaptation to environments where prey is scarcer has also “taught” them to hunt in groups. They’re darker hawks, reddish brown and reddish black. I’ve seen this couple a few other times. They like to hunt by the paved road that runs past the Refuge.

Best parade of my life. ❤

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…

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2020/10/22/ragtag-daily-prompt-thursday-grey-turns-to-blue/