Crane Woman is the result of living on the tundra in Western Alaska, where we listened to the returning of cranes in the spring. Their voices reminded me of the sound of old women talking, and, over the years, a story slowly emerged of an old woman who had gone away from the village during a time of starvation. She takes with her a bundle of tule grass to weave until she falls asleep. As she begins to weave, Crane approaches her and asks for help. Winter is coming early and the young cranes are not strong enough to make their journey south. The next morning the old woman takes her grass to the river and talks to Crane about the coming spring, and as the young cranes listen she slowly weaves them into a basket to keep them safe with her in the hut through the winter. All winter she sings to them and in the spring, when Crane returns with her flock, the basket is unwoven and the young cranes fly free.
On Instagram yesterday I stumbled on my painting of Crane Woman. The art was posted by Laura Medha with reference to the work of 'The Thirteen Original Clan Mothers,' and their guidance to help us as we interact with everything that composes our world. The post was a brief period of feeling grounded for me...a feeling hard to come by lately. It renewed my fondness for the painting but also made me realize that many things in our lives come together at different points in our lives. I had just finished reading BRAIDING SWEETGRASS by Robin Wall Kimmerar. It was the book I read myself to sleep with at the end of tense political and covid days. Her book grounded me in the same way. The book grounded me each night, reconnecting me to the larger, more supportive world of nature. Robin's writing renewed my sense of belonging to a world that connects itself in a healthier, more nurturing way than the human world often does. But that world and its stories needs our stewardship. As Crane Woman sits weaving, I ask that she use the wisdom of elders to create a basket of protection for all of nature, to weave the strong but humble tule grass tightly around all of us, to let us see ourselves tied to the circular pattern of nature.
This has been a year of turmoil in our society, of people frustrated with the plight of other people, of coming face to face with our own desire to reach for a higher place of understanding and compassion for others while feeling divided. I often turn to books to try to understand my feelings. Reading myself in another person's story is often like seeing myself better in a mirror, the for better or worse of 'oh, that's who I really am,' and 'this is where i fit in', or 'these are the people I am connected to'.
I have felt a deep connection to this year's books, THE MORNING THE SUN WENT DOWN, by Darryl Wilson, THERE, THERE by Tommy Orange, CANYON DREAMS by Michael Powell, and then felt a much needed affirmation to do what I am excited by...my art and writing... in THE MOMENT OF LIFT by Melinda Gates.
Her book is about improving societies by improving women's lives, by looking at old rules and customs we have accepted as social mores, rules that tie people down. The book holds stories of the reasons we resist change and the ability we have to create change, to pull others into a a world of better choices and better health, both physical and mental, into a world where we are not afraid to reach up to the next person who may help us fly with our own ideas and dreams. It is also a trust that we will reach down to pull the next person into a better situation with us.
That 'moment of lift' she writes about happens when we have the exhilaration of transcending social or physical limitations ( a lack of wings on my part) and reach out to the act that gives us the feeling of reaching our full potential. For an artist and a writer, it is important to remember that feeling, to mark when we feel it and to do more that allows that full energy to come from us, to not question that sharing our thoughts and stories is the thing we are supposed to be doing with our time.
Periodically, books like Melinda's come along and make me wonder if I should be doing more volunteering, more donating, more of something to help those who are not as fortunate. While the answer is of course, yes, after some soul searching about what my purpose may be, I realized that my moment of lift comes when i create art and stories. it is the feeling I get when i hear the red-winged blackbirds calling in the wetlands around us while I am painting. While my body may not fly, their music fills me with energy and takes me to a higher place while I am painting outdoors. It is a feeling I can bring back into the studio to share.
I would love to hear your thoughts about Melinda Gates' book and also your experiences with your moments of lift.
I am so thankful that I can express my thoughts with images and words. The past two years have been years of other peoples’ words filling my head as they talk of politics. While I need to stay aware and active in the health of our country these social media blitzes have made it hard to hear my own voice.
I have always needed a place to go where I can hear my real self, that wiser, more innocent voice I hold inside. Sometimes an image, more than words holds the feeling of peacefulness and patience I am waiting for. From this need has come a continuing series of paintings of women who are listening. The piece above was the first and is called LISTENING FOR ADVICE. Creating art allows me to let myself think and to hear my own thoughts instead of the thoughts that bubble up in an effort to accept the voice of a larger, more vocal group.
I showed the first three pieces in the listening series a year ago. I felt good when I looked at them, but wondered, as artists do, if others would connect to what I felt inside. They all sold with orders for prints and continue to sell. But the real gift has been meeting the people they speak to, and finding a universal need we share, a need to honor our own thoughts and our own visions and to wait until they are clear to us. The voice may come inside our outside of a church, in the forest or marsh, or in the foliage of the jungle. But these paintings are really a reminder to my own self, a reminder that what I really believe is audible if I will be still and alone long enough to listen.
I enjoyed sharing my materials and folk art images and stories with AWS, Artists of Western Sonoma County, last week. The image above has been finished in the studio. I demoed the difference between a 9x12 image done in acrylic and done again, larger (16x20), in pastel. Like painters of all mediums, pastel painters have a wide variety of materials, both in brands and textures as well as quality to choose from. I brought a materials list for hand-outs but ran out and promised I would post the list on my web-site. This list is a list of my favorites and why, not the list that everyone should go by. They are what feel right to me and allow me to create the worlds I enjoy sharing.
I try to shop locally but a reliable on-line source is DAKOTA PASTELS
Color Spectrum…for plein air field work. Water and solvent tolerant for textures and layers, but not as accepting of as many layers as some of the higher price papers.
Pastel Board…for plein air and studio work. Great for building up textures, painting over old pastel paintings, adding brushstrokes to the texture, and leaving ridges to catch the layers of light. Once the texturing has taken place, Pastelboard needs high quality Terry Ludwig, Blue Earth for layers that are the most satisfying.
Wallis Paper… for the way I work, this was my favorite. Difficult to get now.
Pastel Premier…closest thing to Wallis I have used. Other Wallis fans that like putting paint under pastel or solvent with their pastel have gone to UART.
PASTELS IN MY COLLECTION
Hard: Good for, but not limited to,underpainting and for chiseling into trees and bushes, and making distinctive strokes
Alpha Color (a ‘low quality’ but very effective pastel, often used in schools)
Soft: Terry Ludwig: most versative for underpainting and painting over multiple layers. Great for turning on side as well and end and dragging across paper. Often used for my underpaintings
Schmincke: soft, buttery, creamy and covers other layers well. Often not rolled perfectly so not as good for using on their sides
Unison: one of my favorites, esp for darks, but not as adaptable to multiple layers on Pastelboard as Terry Ludwig or Schminke or Blue Earth
Blue Earth: My all time favorite for atmosphere and dragging over mulptiple layers on board. Too expensive for me to use as underpainting.
Diane Towsend Terrage: they include their own grit so can go over anything, with one cautionary note…I used them for underpainting and they fall like dust to the floor. The darker colors are spectacular. Great for light spots in the sky and scrubbing away softer layers.
Fox has been wanting to reappear in one of my paintings, this time in celebration of a supportive community, good health, and friends. No better way than dancing with his his own friends, was my initial thought.
How quickly I realized Raven had been left out. Raven seems to have a way of thinking every show is his.
So, I made space for Raven at the bottom. All he did was watch while his friends danced. He also felt that a good dance should take place in the moonlight or in a void. So I put the moon in and that is when Ptarmigan had to fly by to balance things out.
Fox decided he needed to open his eyes a bit and pay attention to Raven. Owl was a little wary of the dance, trying to keep watch over two tricksters. But for the rest sheer fun and for me, I could start creating the world of color they would be in. I love layering pastels into a glowing background. Raven was feeling rather plain and began to complain.
Or, on a sandbar, I thought. With the Ocean. Raven's voice was loud and clear, "I want some of that red you gave Fox", he demanded. So I let him snatch a piece of red hair from Fox. Fox's eyes glared with highlights. I was getting frustrated. Time to pay attention to the other characters,strengthen their colors, add some highlights. And clean up my act...or the painting. Maybe Raven didn't stand out. He got a big lost without any of the red from Fox.
So, Raven was given some red and the void was deepened. Come on Raven, you have driven the artist crazy on this one, but I have to admit you have a nice red glow to your tail, and Owl approves, although he is still doing his balancing act. Now all we need is a better photo. And a word for Raven...I have to admit, your constant chatter made a better painting.
I, CLAUDE MONET
I was lucky to have time to catch a showing of I, Claude Monet at the Rialto Theater. It was felt deeply on many levels. We had been to France in September sat in the middle of Money's waterlily panels at the Musee de l-Orangerie and caught an unexpected show of Early Impressionism the same day. Then we stayed for ten days in Saint Remy and visited Arles which brought to life Van Gogh's work. My knowledge of art history is growing enough that I am familiar with the disdain the Impressionists felt as they left a more realistic representation behind in search of the emotion of their art...renderings of a landscape and peoples unposed and previously unrecognized as important.
I, Claude Monet was produced by pairing his art with readings of portions of letters written through his life. He and many of his fellow artists suffered from depression, as well as the ordinary highs and lows of being an artist. But what struck me was how his unending question to capture light drove him through life. It drove him through criticism, comparison, debt and success. It was his companion, his obsession. And still at the end he was left with the feeling that he had not quite lived up to his own idea of a successful artist. Perhaps that is the inner feeling of artists in general.
Seeing his work on a large screen was in many ways more amazing than seeing it in person. Enlarging his strokes of juxtaposed colors let us see the threads of color that weave an image into its background. It also lets us examine the same image in different atmospheres caused by time of day, weather and the moods of Monet himself. His paintings up close are an invitation to investigate the many appearances one garden, one arched rock, one cathedral can take on. Even though my work is more graphic, I am always looking for clues from his work and Van Gogh's work, and the movie let us see how strokes of the same color, differing only in warmth or contrast with the stroke next to them, let an image emerge from the background as they share the same light.
HOLIDAYS! They are here, along with the joy of family, unabashedly wonderful food and friends. It is also the season when I watch all of my worlds either come together in a dance or collide with each other to see how much attention they can get. And this year there is politics as well.
For many reasons when we lived in Alaska it was easier to give each season, each project its due time. Maybe it was because I was younger and had more energy. Maybe it was because we were limited by seasons and no stores and not as much sensory input in those earlier years.
What I really think, though, is that we did not think we could be in charge of so many things. We lived in a land that was big and no matter how important we thought we were, the land taught us that we were a small part of the strata of that environment. Feeling small and not trying to be in charge of everything, while we ask, "What is our place?" can be freeing.
We all exist in a place where the environment has made room for us and it is important to keep our band of influence small, to protect and not interrupt the natural flow of nature, to narrow our influence when needed. And in that band of influece comes our history, our dances, our storytelling.
My blogs are never political, but my thoughts about nature are. When you live in a remote area you realize how unimportant uninhabited, rural areas can seem. We tend to forget that they are the breathing space for the earth.
I am proud of the strength people have shown in the Dakotas, the coming together and realizing that when the infuence of man on nature and water is too large, when the strata inhabited does not take its proper pacing in the dance, it can affect all men.
A few months ago my six year old granddaughter was not feeling well, so we got out her box of rocks that she had collected and built a spectrum. I was amazed that after I set the blue rock in the middle she could go through her collection and find a place for each of her rocks, even the 'grey' ones. Were they really grey or was there some green in them...which place did they land on the spectrum? I was amazed by how accurately she placed them. I may have helped her twice during the whole chain. Which goes to show that our eyes really can detect the colors in grey, the difference between skies with a hint of green in them and skies with a hint of purple as the climb over our heads and become warmer or as the shadow of a cloud.
After she built her spectrum we chose the ones that stood out the most if we closed our eyes and opened them. Which ones did we see first? Our first lesson in warm and cool colors. It was a concept I did not understand even after years of illustration, until I started painting outdoors. I would look at the illustrations I loved and not understand why the whole scene worked for me...how the trees receded in the distance, etc. I know my granddaughter has a grip on something already that took me over 50 years to learn. And I will never look at a small rock the same way again.
Now I just need to do the same thing with my neighbors collection of beach glass.
Recently, I was given a wonderful gift by fellow artist. The gift was a book called BIG MAGIC by Elizabeth Gilbert. I have read her work before and always am invigorated by her reassurance that art is a gift, not an obligation to succeed. But in BIG MAGIC she put a feeling into words for me. It explains why so many of us persist in our creations, whether they are in art or other arenas. "Best of all," she writes, "at the end of your creative adventure, you have a souvenir-something that you made, something to remind you forever of your brief but transformative encounter with inspiration."
I laughed when I read her words because all of my art, writing or painting, has been an attempt to create a souvenir from some journey I have been on. These words also encourage me to create more souvenirs, whether they are from people I have met, places I have been or my own internal travels.
The painting above sat unfinished for a while. It was from a photograph I took when a man came through our town and transformed my way of thinking of how landowners (we have three acres) use their land. In his view it was a waste for people to sit on land and not garden, raise animals, produce food, etc. We were doing all of that, but had never thought of it very deeply. I could write a book about him (actually I did try to do that with a friend). We spent days listening to him as he parked his gypsy wagons with his mules, donkeys, chickens and goats along the roadside and pastures, and shared his philosophy with us and others. I have been getting pictures of our time with him out and studying them during the last year because I am hoping to create another souvenir of our encounter.
Sometimes it is hard to persist on a painting or a project, but thinking of them as souvenirs - a physical memory to put in life's scrapbook is great incentive.
Thank you for the book, Molly.
If you would like to read earlier installments of Painting The Sky, you can find them here.