Timeout for Art: Not Making Art

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There’s been lots of activity in my world here on Beaver Island. Last week, my family was here; four sisters with three of their partners; four nieces with their families; and a few cousins just to round out the numbers. There were days at the beach for swimming and playing, trips to explore the island, and evenings at the beach for sunset. There were puzzles and games keeping us up until all hours of the night, and shared meals gathered around big tables. It was wonderful!

It didn’t, however, leave much time for other things. I neglected my home, garden and yard. My dogs became accustomed to – though not happy with – my erratic coming and goings. I struggled through shifts at work, with little sleep and no energy. I didn’t write. I never stepped foot in the studio.

Then, there’s the “catching up.” Mowing lawn and weeding garden and flower beds compete for my time. Showering my dogs with love and attention is also at the top of my list. Then there’s laundry. Housework. And, I admit, nap-time. Then back to my outside-of-the-home jobs. Which, especially at this time of year, can be exhausting, leaving little energy for anything else.

Though I’ve had no time or energy for making art, I’ve been busy at tasks related to studio work. There’s always something to do! Last week, I switched out the mats and frames of collages for a couple who have been good customers and loyal supporters of my work. I framed new work for an upcoming show, and put wire hangers on the backs of some others.

While working outside, I deadheaded my daylilies and bagged the spent blooms. Added to my collection of leaves and petals in the freezer, they’ll be there when I need them for papermaking. Yesterday, I delivered my work to the building where the Museum Week Art Show will take place, then filled out the paperwork and paid my fees. Last night, I cut to size, dampened and wrapped printmaking papers, so that they will be ready to print on this evening. That will be the first actual art work I’ve done in weeks! Often, though art-related activities take up much of my time, there is no art-making going on!

Heartbreak

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I’ve been skittering around the topic of heartbreak for several weeks now. How to write about it? What to say? It seems, often, that heartbreak is all around. But is it mine to speak of?

Illness and loss of ability are common, and heartbreaking to see. Death is ever-present: people that I went to school with; relatives; friends; residents of this small island. Lately, there has been news every week of one loss or another. I knew every one of them, some better than others. I am saddened by each death. It feels arrogant to talk about my own sadness, though, and somehow disdainful of those closer to the loss. I’m not one of the parents, the spouses, the adult children, or the best friends.

I could skirt the subject entirely. I could talk about the heart-breaking-ly beautiful way my hollyhocks have bloomed this year. They came up like two giant bouquets in my narrow flower bed. The stalks lean, so I see their red blooms, visited frequently by bumblebees and hummingbirds, through the window of my kitchen door. I could write about floods in Germany, wildfires in the northwest, or the rise of the Delta variant. Lord knows, every day’s news offers plenty of heartbreak!

I could talk about my own personal heartbreaks. Some of them don’t hold up very well in hindsight. There was the man that rejected me, throwing me into a months-long depression. Honestly, I had already been gathering a list of faults and grievances about him. If he hadn’t walked away, I’m sure I eventually would have. There was the job I thought I wanted and felt I deserved, that broke my heart when I didn’t get it. Realistically, I can think of a hundred reasons why it would have frustrated me, and why the way it worked out was better all around.

Of course, I’ve also had true, stand-up-to-time heartbreaks. More than enough. I understand the frustration and sadness of not being able to do things that used to be taken for granted. I know that it’s often just as hard for those watching the decline, as it is for the ones experiencing it. I know how difficult it is to see those we love in pain. And I recognize that, sometimes, when death comes, it is a blessing.

I know, too, that no matter the blessing, no matter the acceptance, that is only the beginning of the heartbreak. That is when the harsh reality sets it. When the realization strikes that somehow life will continue on, and yet never be the same. There are the litany of holidays and special events that continue to arrive, in spite of the glaring absence of the loved one. There are all the ordinary days when you look up and expect to see them coming through the door, pick up the telephone and expect to hear their voice, or when you – from a scent or a shadow or a summer breeze – feel that they are right beside you. Then, the heart breaks again, with the cruel reminder, “still gone.”

A segment on this morning’s news was talking about a disaster somewhere. It was just background noise as I worked on something else. I looked at the screen in time to see one of the bystanders talking into a microphone. “You see all the heart-ache,” she said, “and it breaks your own heart.” That’s it, exactly! Whether, in sympathy, we can say, “I know what this feels like,” or, “I can’t imagine what you’re going through,” is not important. Our hearts break when we see the heart-ache. Our hearts break for you; our hearts break with you.

Happy Day!

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Today, I’m good.

I slept well, and woke up feeling rested, strong, and ready for the day.

I’ve lost about ten pounds so far this year. I notice it a little bit in my face, and I have a few pair of pants that now need a belt, but mostly I look about the same. Still, it feels like a good accomplishment.

The dogs seem content. Though they each have health issues, this has been a good week for them.

I’ve got several good books going. I’m reading That Sounds Fun by Annie F. Downs, Everything is Figure-outable by Marie Forleo and Indelible by Laurie Buchanan. For my morning study time, I’m reading The Power of Daily Practice by Eric Maisel, PhD. For my evening walks, I’m listening to Eternal by Lisa Scottoline.

I’ve just completed filling every page in my sketchbook with drawings, and I’m ready to start another.

My bush beans have finally poked through the ground in the garden. The peas are up, too. The pumpkin is looking quite impressive. After a traumatic start, I think my tomatoes are all going to make it. The pole beans have just started to climb their tepees.

I had a couple really productive days outside last week. I moved a rhododendron plant to make room for several daylilies that I had to thin and move from another bed, to make room for two Gold Drop Potentilla that I bought on sale. I think the bushes will stand up better to my big dog’s thrashing through the flower beds looking for snakes. The daylilies seem to have handled the mid-season transplant just fine. In fact, I swear they seem a little relieved to be out of the big dog’s path of destruction! My hollyhocks are up, taller than me, and loaded with buds, just outside the kitchen door.

I crawled around on hands and knees pulling weeds. Nothing new, except that I can actually see the progress I’ve made. I moved the last of my straw to the garden, to mulch the tomatoes and squash. I picked up a bunch of windfall and a dozen dog toys. I mowed the back yard and, oh, it looks nice!

I met a few friends and cousins after work for a drink on Friday. On Saturday, I ran into a couple other cousins, and had a good chat over coffee. Then I ran to the gallery for a wonderful conversation with another cousin, who shared the news that my work is selling well this year. And even better, reported that she’s getting good feedback about it, too.

Today, before work, I’m going to stop in at the farmhouse to say good-bye to my cousin, Keith, as I won’t be able to be in town to see him off. I’ll be working at the golf course, then, for the rest of the day. After today, though, I have three days off. Oh yeah, plus…the boat that will be coming in to the harbor and carrying Keith away…will be delivering my sisters to the island!!! Oh, Happy Day!!

Timeout for Art: One Thing to Another

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I’ve been making art for a long time. And, I’m a “saver.” Together, those things result in a good deal of accumulation. Then, with changing sensibilities, a more discerning eye and limited storage space, I end up with a lot of rejects. Complicating the issue is the fact that I hate to throw anything away.

A sheet of handmade paper could be rippled, but still have redeeming qualities. A collagraph print might have poor registration, but still have beautiful color and texture. A drawing or painting that is not strong in composition can still have value as raw material. In my studio, technical failure rarely leads directly to the trashcan.

I have boxes, folders and envelopes full of used papers, waiting to be put into service again. Old drawings, covered with paint that partially obliterates the original subject matter, often become the basis for collage. I think the “pentimento” adds a welcome layer of interest. Handmade papers, as well as cut or torn bits from prints and paintings on paper, become collage materials.

I have been, for several years now, on a mission to recycle and use up every bit of scrap in my studio. It is a herculean task. Sometimes it seems like I generate more than I use, with every single project! Still, my efforts continue. I imagine large basket-like hanging forms, similar to the nests made by paper wasps, but with color and texture still visible, hinting at the past life of the materials they are made of. To that end, I’ve been experimenting with various basket-making techniques, mostly with little success.

Some good things, though, come from the most uncomplicated ideas. I have an on-going series that expands very basic weaving techniques. I think the strength of the finished pieces are in their graphic simplicity. The process is a little more complicated, however.

First, I go through my stacks of “rejects” to select pieces similar in weight, and with colors that work together. I trim the edges, cut them to size, and put them through the paper shredder. They have to be picked through, sorted, and spread out on the drafting table. Usually, I select one color for the vertical lines, and an assortment for the horizontal weave. Sometimes it’s all just based on random selection. I make more weavings than I will need,, so that I’ll have choices later.

Next, I prepare the surfaces that the weavings will be mounted on. I like the background to have its own interest, but I keep the nuances of color and texture subtle enough so that it will balance, not compete with, the graphic pattern. Eventually, the surface will be coated with a thick layer of polymer gel, and the woven grid will be set into that. After that has dried, I have my starting point.

From this point, the piece will dictate what else is needed. Sometimes that is easy, sometimes not. It may involve embellishments of ink, collage elements, or layers of paint. I am not above peeling, scraping and sanding the surface of a piece to get to the place where it is finished. When it reaches that point, it seems to announce “Done!” Or, as sometimes happens, “Ruined!” In which case, it joins the collection of failures waiting to be repurposed!

A Few Things About Peonies

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My Grandma Thelma used to grow peonies. She was my mother’s mother, and we lived next door. She had a large rectangular flower bed halfway between the road and our houses, in the front yard that we shared. In one far corner was a birdhouse, high up on top of a trellis that my Grandpa Ted had built. It looked kind of like four ladders leaning in toward each other. In the center of that trellis, a climbing rose grew. My mother told us that the rose’s thorns would keep snakes from stealing the bird’s eggs.

In the front corner of the flower bed, nearest to our house, peonies bloomed in the springtime. I’m sure I didn’t know what they were, as a small child, and the flower bed had been dismantled and mowed over long before I was old enough to ask. Rather, I recognize them from the peonies that bloom in my garden now. When my plants finally flowered, I remembered my grandmother’s peonies.

I’d actually had peonies for over ten years, and in two different locations, before I ever saw a blossom. I started with two plants, in another location on Beaver Island. They had been in the ground there for five years without ever so much as a bud, so I moved them down to this house with me, even though I know they prefer to not be moved. Here, they had a plenty of time to get used to their new location, and still they refused to flower.

When the hardware store started carrying plants in the spring, I bought two more peonies. These had buds already formed on the ends of branches, so I figured that at least I’d have a few flowers. I expanded the bed to accommodate two more peony plants. That year, and for every year since, all four plants have bloomed! And what flowers! The big, exuberant blooms are almost too much. They seem like caricatures of flowers, too big and heavily scented and full, extreme in every way, to be real. After a rain, the blossoms become so heavy, they bend to the ground.

Ants seem to love the peonies. Some years they are just covered with them. Folklore suggests that they are necessary to open the buds, but I don’t believe it. I think the ants are there for the sweetness. This year, ants are scarce, but beetles have moved in. After a little research, I determined that they are likely rose chafers. Because I rarely use poisons on any plants, and never on flowers, I’ve been reduced to picking them off. I drop them, then, into a container of water mixed with dish soap. Morning and evening, a hundred or more each time. I started with a small sauce dish, but have graduated to a gallon-sized bucket. It’s practically a full-time job!

I love having bouquets in the house. Usually, they are made up of wildflowers. Though I grow lots of flowers, I don’t have a “cutting garden,” so stealing blooms from my flower beds has to be very selective, or the beds end up looking derelict. That’s not the case with my peonies, though. First of all, they produce a lot of blooms. I can easily make several bouquets, and still have many blossoms on the plants. Secondly, when the branches are so heavy with blooms that they are being weighted down, it seems almost necessary to snip off a few of the heavy flowers. And finally, when the beetles seem so intent on destroying every flower, I’ll happily rescue them!

Timeout for Art: Other Things

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This week, I’m working on Other Things.

Though there are plenty of projects underway in the studio…projects that need my attention, require my presence and are calling out for my focus…I am not there.

This week, I’m spending a lot of time outside.

I’ve been weeding the flower beds. Around the outside where the bordering stones stones meet the yard, and inside, where the long roots have spread the grasses to live among the blooms. I’ve been moving straw to mulch around the tomato and squash plants, to keep the moisture in the ground. I’ve been planting, and replanting.

I had to buy a little six-pack of tomato plants, to replace one tomato seedling that didn’t make it. That left me with five extra tomato plants without a space. It took a bit of finagling, but my Dad would be pleased, I think, to see the spots I’ve tucked them into! Only about half of the pole bean seeds, planted now over three weeks ago, came up. Even less than that of the peas. Not a single bush bean sprouted. I gave them plenty of time to show themselves. I checked the dates on the seed packets. I carefully poked around in the soil, to see if the sprouts were just getting ready to burst out of the ground. Finally, yesterday, I replanted seeds in all the gaps.

I’ve been working at pruning the grape vine. That should have been done much earlier in the spring. Actually, it should have been done two or three years ago, in the early spring. The vines are tremendously overgrown, tangled around the branches of the forsythia bush, fence posts, and the surrounding trees. I’m saving the vines that I cut away, with intention of using them to replace the back wall of my garden fence. I imagine a beautiful, curved and cohesive design…but then, imagination is easy before I begin. Already, I can see that the distance between fence posts might present problems, and that the vines have a tendency to curve their own way.

After a much needed rain, the grass suddenly needs to be mowed again.

And, I have quite a few “other things” going on inside, as well.

Yesterday, the morning felt like fall. The temperature inside my house hovered around 50 degree until after noon. I couldn’t bring myself to get out of my warm robe. I thought seriously about once again carrying the portable heater downstairs. Since it was such a perfect day for it, I made soup. Enough for a hearty, warm and comforting dinner last night, and plenty for lunches all week.

After an unexpected and unexplained electrical outage that lasted through all of the afternoon and into the evening on Monday, I spent yesterday catching up on my weekly laundry. Though there are still clothes waiting to be folded. And, when the dogs finally move to get out of bed today, I intend to wash the sheets and hang them on the clothesline.

That’s not everything, of course. There is an on-going writing project that I give some time to. I’ve had phone calls to make and letters to write. There is the normal everyday “stuff,” from meditation to sweeping the floor, that keeps my life and my house running smoothly.

Sometimes, when all of the other things take over, the studio just has to wait.

Here I Am

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I’ve been neglectful of my writing for a couple weeks now. The first one I missed – a “Timeout for Art” blog – was easy to skip over. It hasn’t been that long since I re-started an art-centered blog, and I’ve already missed a few times. The other one, my Sunday blog, has been a pretty regular habit for a while now. I don’t like abandoning my commitments, and it didn’t feel right to skip my weekly post. Then another whole week went by, with nothing. And then another. No art blog; no Sunday blog. By that time, the “gremlins” moved in.

These questions ran through my mind:

“Has anyone even noticed?”

“Does anybody even read what I write anymore?”

“Do I even have anything new to say?”

“What difference does it make?”

“Who cares?”

These thoughts were accompanied by all the usual justifications and excuses:

“I’m too busy!”

“I have too many other obligations!”

“There isn’t enough time!”

And these were followed by self-criticism:

“I’m a quitter.”

“I never follow through.”

“Lazy bum.”

It’s quite the worm hole I travel down, when I neglect things. I’ve had similar conversations in my head over not getting my daily walk in, or letting the recyclables pile up.

When I first started this blog, almost nine years ago, I wrote “when the spirit moved me,” usually two or three times a week. It was a way to pay attention to life as it was going on around me, and a bit of self-discipline that, I thought, couldn’t hurt. Then, my friend Lisa and I agreed to share our artwork and methods in a weekly “Timeout for Art” blog. Lisa was much more dependable than me, and I gave it up before long. Often, I participated in the “April A to Z Challenge,” posting a blog every day except Sunday for the month. Once, I took on a more extreme challenge, and posted a blog every single day of the year!

Eventually, I settled on a couple regular weekly posts, on days that coordinated with my work schedule. Recently, feeling a little overwhelmed by other tasks and obligations and, honestly, by a real concern that I have pretty much already said everything I have to say, I cut back to one blog per week, on Sunday. Then I reintroduced Timeout for Art, on Wednesdays. Though I sometimes scrambled for writing material, I had settled into a habit. Then, three weeks ago, in the middle of all the craziness that spring brings to my life, that habit fell apart.

But, I missed this outlet. Whether or not anyone cares, or reads it, this is different from the private ramblings in my journal. I need to consider that others may see what I write, so I have to keep my ranting in check. I have to think about grammar, punctuation, and spelling. And, the reasons that drove me to start a blog in the first place are still valid. So, here I am. Again.

Haunted

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It’s true what they say, that the older you get, the more familiar you become with loss.

I’ve grown accustomed to death.

First, there are the somewhat expected ones: grandparents and elderly family friends. Next, parents, godparents, aunts, uncles, and teachers. Then contemporaries, siblings and friends. Interspersed throughout are the tragic, unexpected and “too soon” deaths of the very young. As a child, dumbfounded by loss, I thought I’d never get used to it. Now, with age, it has become all too familiar.

If I were to place all the people I have known in my life in two columns, one for the living, and one for the dead, I’m sure that second list would outstrip the first one by a mile. Fortunately, my memory is not nearly good enough these days to even attempt it. It might make a slightly morbid but entertaining group exercise, sometime.

But I am not haunted by the dead.

My Dad, long removed from this earth, often accompanies me as I work in the garden. We keep a running dialogue going, in my head, as I make the furrows and plant the seeds. He offers bits of advise that I’ve heard many times before, and sometimes I get a brand new kernel of wisdom from him. He hasn’t softened much, in his opinions. Flowers are still “Nonsense! A waste of time and garden space!” And “that damned quack grass” is still a mortal enemy. Still, it’s always a pleasure to have a chat with him.

Others visit me when I’m asleep. When my dreams are peopled with friends and dear ones who are no longer here, I wake up smiling. How nice to have had such a good conversation with my Mom! Or, there was Vince, such a comforting presence, talking fervently about local politics, and offering me tea. Grandpa Ted. Ernie Martin. Muggs Bass. My brother David. Being just as predictably maddening as he always was in life.

The difference is that, having experienced the loss of my brother David, having realized what a treasure he was, having spent much time missing him, and mourning him, in my dreams I now know better. No matter how annoying his behavior, I look at him with love. My precious little brother. I wish I’d seen it when he was alive: how special his own crazy personality was; how fleeting his life. It’s things like that that haunt me.

When I was much younger, I used to be haunted by moments when I looked foolish, or did something that embarrassed me. Now, I’d be hard-pressed to come up with a single example; they all seem so trivial. But I remember times when I could have easily been kind, but I was curt or short-tempered instead. As a parent, a sister, a daughter, a friend, I have fallen short. Why did I not listen better, show more appreciation, hug longer? It makes me cringe to think of so many incidents that I should have handled differently. Better. In some cases, the people are still here, so I can hope to turn it around, make up for it in some way. Too many are gone. When they visit my dreams, I try to do better.

Timeout for Art: Surface

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Collage is always concerned with surface. By its nature, the process creates a low-relief sculpture on the picture plain. Sometimes it’s just a side effect of the additive operation, not vital to the image created. Other times, it is part of the design, and necessary to the work of art. I like both. When observed from a distance, the colors, composition and overall design should be strong. Textures add another element of interest when you move in closer.

I’ve been exploring this idea quite a bit over the past several months: changing a composition by adding extreme, graphic textures, then attempting to incorporate them into the whole. It has been a not-always-successful challenge. Too much variation in the surface can be a distraction, especially when it’s not balanced. Or, I’ve found, when it is introduced via a prominent visual element like a woven grid. I like working through a problem though, and I love a lively surface, so it has been an enjoyable journey.