Timeout for Art: Surprise

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Some paintings come together easily; others take a long, long time. This piece, “Home of Language,” has been “in progress” for at least five years.

It has been through several incarnations in that time. It started as a painting, then became a painting with collage elements. I’ve added coats of paint, layers of glazes, and more collage elements. I’ve scraped and sanded the surface.

In between changes, it has spent months hanging on walls, sometimes in the studio, sometimes in my living space for a different perspective. I have studied it at length. What did it need? What to do next? Was it worth saving? The answers changed, based on the day, my mood, and the quality of light. Always, it held my interest enough to keep me from giving up on it.

Now and then, I’d hide the work. Sometimes it helps to forget about a piece for a while, so that I can see it with fresh eyes again. So, with its face to the wall, it would join other primed or painted surfaces, waiting.

Last winter, I took another look at it. Hmmm…it still intrigued me. Using an electric palm sander, I “excavated” selectively through layers of paint, revealing some old elements. I worked in some stains and added glazes. I studied it some more. Finally, a coat of varnish signaled a finishing point.

Still, when planning which pieces I’d prepare to send to the gallery this year, I debated about whether I was ready to send this out into the world. In a moment of wild abandon, I ordered a frame for it. Last week, I spent some time assembling frames.

Sometimes, the frame puts just enough distance between me and the efforts and doubts I have invested in the work, that I can finally see it clearly. Oh, hey…did I do this? This is done! It does work! When that happens, that’s the best surprise!

Gratitude

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Ah, gratitude. I’ve written about this before. Often, and – I think – recently. So recently, that I’ve wondered if I should bypass this word, this time. But, I just recently finished my A to Z blog-writing challenge, and returned to my long list based on the Table of Contents in David Whyte’s book, Consolations. It’s too early to start changing the plan. So, gratitude.

I have, finally, thoroughly embraced a daily gratitude practice. I write, every single day, a list of things that I am thankful for. The habit alone makes me happy. I have, for most of my life, traveled through my days by the seat of my pants, ad-libbing everything from waking and sleeping times to whether the dishes would get done, or pile up in the sink. I’ve lately embraced habit as a way to make life easier.

I used to smoke. When I decided to quit that habit, about twenty or so years ago, it was really hard. In addition to the addiction, which is real, I had the habit of smoking, Now that I am a non-smoker, I don’t wonder, after a big meal or when I pick up the telephone, whether I should light a cigarette or not. It doesn’t even cross my mind. My life is easier as a non-smoker for many reasons, but one important one is that I don’t have those decisions to make all through the day.

Because I was giving up rather than adding a habit, it didn’t occur to me right away just how much habits make life easier. We all have daily habits that are such a natural part of our lives that we don’t even think about them. Forming a habit takes time. Some studies say two weeks; others suggest thirty days or even longer. Once it’s there, though, it comes easily. With this awareness, I’ve incorporated quite a few new and helpful habits into my life in recent years. I’m proud of every one of them.

So, writing down things that I’m thankful for is a good thing, all on its own. I know it would please my mother, and it adds another bit of discipline into my disorganized life. Beyond that, the gratitude habit has opened my eyes. It would be easy to write a simple, rote list of blessings in my life: my family, a roof over my head, and food to eat are always things I’m grateful for. Repetitive, but true. Since I try to write sincerely about things that please me, I am more observant, and more aware.

When I’m forced out of bed at two in the morning to let a dog outside, and the moon is bright, or the sky is full of stars, I think, “thank you,” and the next day, “last night’s bright moon,” or “that beautiful sky full of stars” will show up in my gratitude-writing. If it rains when we need rain, or the sunshine raises my spirits, I take note. A phone call or a message from a loved one will surely make the list. I’ve become more appreciative of the small pleasures in my life, as I pay more attention to them. Gratitude is a habit. A simple, eye-opening, life-enhancing, happiness-inducing habit. I highly recommend it!

Timeout for Art: Zig-Zag

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When putting collages together, I have a few “tools” that find their way regularly into my work. Of course, I consider balance within the composition and the colors used. I like the mix of organic and geometric shapes, torn edges and straight edges, man-made and machine-made elements. While some sections remain very clean and crisp, I also appreciate the added dimension contributed by smudging an area.

Placement of colors and shapes works to guide the viewer around the surface. Some elements encourage the eyes to move from one area to another. Some areas invite closer inspection, or give the eyes a place to rest; others shout, “look at me!”

I balance large blocks of color with smaller details. Often, I use portions of my own painted papers, juxtaposed with bits of manufactured pattern or lettering. I often use strips of paper, marching in a row, to ease transitions from one area to another.

Zig-zags function in a similar way, and also act like arrows, pointing the way back from the edge. It’s a good thing! If zig-zags weren’t so useful to me, in assembling collages, I might have been hard pressed to come up with an art topic for the letter Z!

Giving

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I enjoy giving much more than receiving.

I think that’s how most people are. Giving opens my heart; receiving intimidates me.

I can hand out compliments all day. I try, in every single interaction, to find something honestly positive to say. I’m good at it. When I’m given a compliment, however, I freeze. My first instinct is to deny it. No, I don’t look nice, I’m not that talented, and I’m not so smart. I worry that the compliment-giver is just being patronizing, that their words aren’t sincere, or that they are speaking out of pity. I have to force myself to accept their words, and to voice a simple “Thank you.” The same dichotomy is present in gift-giving and gift receiving

In The Mirror Has Two Faces, Barbra Streisand says, “I want someone to know me…to really know me!” Choosing thoughtful gifts for others based on their interests is a way to show them that they are known, and understood. It can be as simple as remembering a favorite color or a hobby.

Shared interests make giving even more fun. My daughter Kate and I are both avid readers, and we often share similar taste in reading material. Lately, we’ve both been working to expand our knowledge and awareness about race relations in this country. We have lively discussions about books we’ve found, and give each other suggestions about what to read next. She told me about The New Jim Crow; I sent her a copy of Caste.

Even when I limit myself to buying books as gifts (because shopping for and shipping out other things can be hard to do from this location, and because I love getting books as gifts, so I assume everyone else feels that way, too!), I work hard to match the book to the recipient. I know that both of my daughters share an appreciation for the works of Stephen King, and that my grandson Michael always appreciates a book about Beaver Island. It’s more of a struggle to find the “perfect” book for my other grandchildren, but I’m always up for the challenge.

Gifts that are given to me are, first of all, just too much. Too generous. Either too big and too expensive, or too many small, thoughtful things. They are so thoughtful! So timely! Immediately, I feel shame that I have not met the gift-giving standard. Did I even send a card? What measly or cheap gift did I give, to now be receiving this wondrous thing? What did I ever do to deserve such kindness?

Of course, if I voice these doubts and concerns out loud, I am generally reassured with compliments…which are equally difficult to accept. Receiving is just plain hard. Giving, on the other hand, is easy!

Zodiac

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When I’m trying to come up with a topic for a particular letter, I often read the dictionary. It’s not such a big deal; sometimes I read the dictionary for no reason at all. When Z is the letter, though, Webster’s is not as helpful as you’d think. Instead, I went to good old Google. I typed Z into the search line, and chose zodiac as my subject. Over “zillow,” “zoom” and “zappos,” I might add.

Since I was already in a search engine, and figuring I’d might as well get a little help, I clicked on the link for zodiac. I read a brief overview of the zodiac, then clicked on my own sign, to see what it had to say. Well, because I couldn’t possibly summarize it better than they did, or perhaps just because I’ve gotten lazy here at the end of the alphabet, I decided to just copy their information. So, according to astrology-zodiac-signs.com, this is typical Virgo:

Strengths: Loyal, analytical, kind, hardworking, practical

Weaknesses: Shyness, worry, overly critical of self and others, all work and no play

Virgo likes: Animals, healthy food, books, nature, cleanliness

Virgo dislikes: Rudeness, asking for help, taking center stage

“Virgos are always paying attention to the smallest details and their deep sense of humanity makes them one of the most careful signs of the zodiac. Their methodical approach to life ensures that nothing is left to chance, and although they are often tender, their heart might be closed for the outer world. This is a sign often misunderstood, not because they lack the ability to express, but because they won’t accept their feelings as valid, true, or even relevant when opposed to reason. The symbolism behind the name speaks well of their nature, born with a feeling they are experiencing everything for the first time.

Virgo is an Earth sign, fitting perfectly between Taurus and Capricorn. This will lead to a strong character, but one that prefers conservative, well-organized things and a lot of practicality in their everyday life. These individuals have an organized life, and even when they let go to chaos, their goals and dreams still have strictly defined borders in their mind. Constantly worried that they missed a detail that will be impossible to fix, they can get stuck in details, becoming overly critical and concerned about matters that nobody else seems to care much about.

Since Mercury is the ruling planet of this sign, its representatives have a well-developed sense of speech and writing, as well as all other forms of communication. Many Virgos may choose to pursue a career as writers, journalists, and typists, but their need to serve others makes them feel good as caregivers, on a clear mission to help.

Virgo – the Disappointed Goddess Seeking goodness in humankind is the story of Virgo, and disappointment seems to be inevitable from their point of view. The first time they came from their cloud and jumped onto planet Earth, it felt like their mission is to use their existence for good, discovering ways of justice and purity in other people. Once they fail to find it too many times, Virgos will pull away, get lost, turn to substance abuse, or simply separate from other people to sit on the bench, criticize and judge.”

I think it’s pretty accurate! So, that’s my zodiac post, and this wraps up this month-long A to Z challenge!

Timeout for Art: Yellow

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Touch Point

“Yellow is one of the most ambiguous colors,” according to Dr. Betty Edwards in her book, Color. She goes on to explain that it is ‘the color of sunlight, gold and happiness, of intellect and enlightenment, but also the color of envy, disgrace, deceit, betrayal, and cowardice.”

In his book, The Primary Colors, Alexander Theroux says, “So few colors give the viewer such a feeling of ambivalence or leave in one such powerful, viscerally enforced connotations and contradictions. Desire and renunciation. Dreams and decadence. Shining light and shallowness. Gold here. Grief there.”

We see yellow in sunshine and bright flowers. Yellow is the color of gold. It is said that Judas wore a yellow cloak when he betrayed Jesus with a kiss. In Islam, golden yellow is the color of wisdom. In the Chinese Ch’ing dynasty, only the emperor was allowed to wear yellow. In Jungian psychology, yellow symbolizes the flash of insight called intuition. Yellow turns up in all of its symbolic splendor in L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and in the Beatles’ animated film, Yellow Submarine.

Yellow is not my favorite color, but I use it frequently as a bright point of contrast to darker, moodier tones.

X is STILL a Verb!

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X is a hard letter.

A hard letter, in the middle of a difficult week.

Looking backward for inspiration, I found the blog that I wrote two years ago, while doing this same A to Z challenge. “X is a Verb” was my title.

I posted some photos of my lists. I make lists all the time, for just about everything. Here’s a list, just as one more example, of some of the things that I put on lists:

  • daily, weekly and monthly chores
  • plans
  • aspirations
  • groceries to buy
  • letters to write
  • bills to pay
  • meal plans
  • future art projects
  • current art projects
  • artists that I admire
  • garden plans
  • home improvement projects
  • outdoor projects
  • exercise programs
  • things I accomplish at work
  • books I’ve read
  • books I want to read
  • authors that I like
  • special dates to remember

…and on, and on.

When I complete items on any list, I put an X beside it, making it “done.” I call it “X-ing things off.” That’s where the letter becomes an action word. Other people, I have noticed, cross items off. I gasp at the thought! I like to see what I’ve accomplished! I would never put a line through it, obliterating my achievement! That’s what the X is for!

What In the World??

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What is going on? Where are the stars and planets? It seems, according to my life, that something must certainly be out of whack. What in the world?

Usually, my life rolls along on a pretty even keel. I have good days and bad days in a fair balance, in between the majority of days that are just routine. Which is fine with me.

The last couple of days, though, have brought a string of unfortunate events, one on top of another.

First, the weather. Is it wanting to be spring…or fall? Rain turns to snow, then, along with cold weather and whipping winds, it turns back to rain. The weather affects my ability to get a good walk in, which makes it harder to get rid of a sour mood.

It seems like I often come home from work with a poor frame of mind. I get so tired of all the machinations of just getting through a day. But, I’d need much more room than I have here, to do my grumbling about that!

Yesterday, my bathroom ceiling developed a serious leak. Water dripped into the bathtub for hours, as the rain came down outside. The drywall on the ceiling sagged, and felt spongy. Where is that water coming from? My bathroom is on the first floor of a story-and-a-half house, with an inaccessible space above it. The roof is a 12-12 pitch; there is no plumbing up there. It wasn’t raining that hard!

Then, while I was cooking dinner, the panel of indicator lights on the back of the stove started going crazy. There was a humming sound coming from it as the clock flashed on and off, with numbers on display that made no sense. The indicator lights for “Bake,” “Broil,” and “Clean” flashed on and off, too. After several minutes of that, it all went dark. I have no oven, until I get it fixed.

Today, for the first time this month, I didn’t have a blog written ahead. No problem, I was up early enough to write. I had it started, even. The title was “Waking Up.” Then, in helping Blackie Chan get down from the bed, I wrenched my back. Blackie Chan is my smallest, lightest dog! I’ve made that maneuver hundreds of times before. Today, I put my back out! So, the rest of the morning was spent alternating hot compresses and ice packs, so that I could go to work.

And, once again, work was a strain of swallowing my pride, accepting my station, and just continuing to do my job. By the time I got home, the rain was pouring down (and still dripping enthusiastically into the bathtub inside, as well), and the temperature had dropped. No walk. I’d make a nice dinner.

No oven.

Okay. Dinner would be leftovers warmed-up on top of the stove. I decided to treat myself to dessert. I had a box of no-bake cheesecake, and all of the ingredients I needed to put it together. With the crust nicely formed and chilling in the refrigerator, I mixed up the filling. Nice and thick. I pulled the beaters out of the bowl. Then, in a moment of idiocy, I pushed the button that I thought (because that’s how it was on my old mixer) would release the beaters. On this new mixer (that I’ve had, and used, for at least five years, mind you) that button is the “burst of power.” Pushing it sent the beaters madly spinning, coating everything with sweet filling. From the floor to the coffee pot to the entire stove top to the overhead cabinets to last night’s dishes still in the drainer, everything is spattered.

What else could possibly go wrong? What in the world?

Vaccine

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“I got my first one!”

“Have you gotten your vaccination?”

“You’re going to get vaccinated, aren’t you?”

“Which vaccine did you get?”

“We’re all vaccinated up.”

Never in my lifetime, until now, has there been such a preponderance of talk about vaccines, and vaccination status.

As a young child, I knew what vaccinations were. I grew up in a time when death or disfigurement from childhood diseases was a real fear. Though I hated getting shots, and would run to close myself in the bathroom to hide when Doctor McBride came to the house, I knew they were for my own good. I watched the progress of the blister caused by the Small Pox vaccine, and was proud of the scar it left behind.

When the polio vaccine came out, the doctor handed the paper cups, each holding a sugar cube that held the vaccine dose, to my mother, so that she could do the honors. “This won’t hurt,” she told her three or four children gathered around, “It tastes sweet!” And each of us put the cube on our tongue, and let it dissolve there, as my mother nodded approval, and the doctor and my father grinned.

Of course, at the time, I didn’t realize how important that moment was. I didn’t think of it much at all. Even later when I went to school, always with one or two children who, it was pointed out, “had polio when they were little.” It was just normal life, that there were children who limped and wore braces on their legs, or who had a withered arm, or who were wheelchair bound, because they’d had polio. Even in high school, when we learned about the polio wards, and iron lungs, and the devastation the disease had wrought, I didn’t think much about it.

It was only much later, when I had my own children, that I realized the importance of that event. When I knew, first-hand, the overpowering urge to keep my children safe, and the constant, underlying fear that something beyond my control could happen to them, I understood the smiles and nods that accompanied the dispensing of those sugar cubes. During that time in my life, vaccination talk was a thing: appointments had to be scheduled, paperwork filled out, and boosters given on time. Still, they were small asides, not major conversations.

When my children were getting their vaccines, for Measles, Mumps, Rubella, and other childhood diseases, Small Pox vaccines were no longer given. The danger – which was miniscule – of dying from side effects of the vaccine was greater than the danger of contracting the disease! That’s how successful it was! So, when the controversial possibility that vaccines contributed to autism started making the news, I was unwavering in my position.

I felt then, as I do now, that the benefits of getting vaccinated far outweigh the risks. So, now that Covid-19 has made vaccination a major talking point, I’m happy to join the crowds in announcing: I got my first vaccination; mine was the Pfizer vaccine; I’m scheduled for my second; side effects were minor; and it’s a big relief!

Usurp

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Usurp is a verb meaning to take power or control of something by force, or without the right to do so. It’s one of those vaguely old-fashioned words that I never use, but recognize when I read it in a sentence. I looked up the definition to make sure I had it right, having only previously gleaned its meaning from the context I found it in. I don’t think I’ve ever had occasion to use the word. I’m pretty sure I’ve never said it out loud. Still, its pronunciation – yoo-serp – is exactly how I expected it would be.

That’s unlike some words that I’ve learned through reading, where my idea of how a word should be spoken is wildly different from the correct sound of it. The trouble with that is that I get in the habit of thinking of it in one way. Even after I know better, I have to do the translation in my head. “Erbs,” I think to myself, “oh, they are talking about herbs.” Even though I am wise enough, now, to know better than to pronounce the H, I still privately think of the word that way. And I get a little satisfaction from hearing Martha Stewart boldly say “herbs,” as if she has a backup group of guys, all named Herbert, waiting just off stage.

Anyway, having gone through and rejected several dozen UN words (from UN-appreciated to UN-witting, all seemed a little negative), I had pretty much decided that my “U” topic would be uniforms. Which I could manage a few paragraphs about, though, as topics go, it was not overly exciting. Then, “usurp” came to me in the middle of the night.

It was two o’clock in the morning, actually, when I woke up to notice that Rosa Parks, who usually sleeps beside me, had taken over my pillow. She was sprawled out on it just as she often is in the middle of the day when she has that space all to herself. Not at night, when my head is resting there. “What the hell,” I thought, and nudged her off. Rather than settling back in to her usual spot, she walked along the edge of the bed all the way to my feet, jumped down to the floor, and went to the door.

When I got up to let the little dog outside, I noticed that her regular spot in the bed was occupied. Sometime in the night, Blackie Chan had moved from his position behind my knees right up to shoulder level where Rosa Parks usually sleeps. Hmmm….curious. When Rosa Parks came back in, I went back to bed. That’s when I got a clearer picture of what was going on.

Each time that Rosa Parks made a move to get back up on the bed, sweet little Blackie Chan let out a long, vicious-sounding growl. “What is this?” I asked, and he gave me a little tail-wag, a tiny smile, and an offer to show me his belly. Rosa Parks ventured one paw on the bed, and Blackie Chan’s growl came back. “It’s okay,” I told the snarling boy; he quieted until his sister tried to get up again. “It’s okay,” I told Rosa Parks, but she kept her eye on her brother, and didn’t take the chance. This went on for awhile.

Finally, I got up and lifted Rosa Parks onto the bed. I gave her a position on the other side of me, with my body separating the two sparring siblings. They both went back to sleep. By that time, I was wide awake. Thinking. Rosa Parks usurped the position on my pillow that was usually reserved for my head…because Blackie Chan had usurped her position on the bed. Who could sleep with all of that power-grabbing going on? Too much usurpation!