Week 46: Thanksgiving

I normally steer clear of symbolic images from popular culture, preferring instead to stay safely wrapped in my own obscure personal iconography. I like my comfortable world of diminutive landscapes, little trees, tiny animals, and falling leaves. I like making small-scale pictures with places to wander and stories to tell. But there is a time and place for creating a bolder, singular statement. I genuinely love holiday traditions, so I decided to take on the challenge of the iconic Thanksgiving turkey. (Christmas Trees, you are next!) I could hear the groans of my inner critic, screaming “Don’t do it! It will be trite! It will be a cliché! It is impossible to pull off!” Smiling to myself, I continued on. Using a combination of collage papers, charcoal, ink pen, colored India Inks, and acrylic paint, I reveled in the rich textures and colors of turkey feathers. I enjoyed each sweep of the charcoal, every small stroke of the pen, the fervent flow of colorful ink, and the tactile release of each blob of paint. I felt gratitude for the opportunity to sit here in my studio and create, choosing curiosity over fear. When I was almost finished decorating every feather, I discovered that my turkey had a message for me. It came first in a whisper, and then in a loud, warbling, joyful voice. So I scribbled this message on a piece of paper and glued it right onto the collage: “Be thankful for your Colorful Life.”

Thanksgiving, acrylic collage, 12 x 12

Detail, Thanksgiving

Detail, Thanksgiving

Detail, Thanksgiving

Week 43: Walk in the Woods

Detail, Walk in the Woods

Autumn in Virginia is a glorious time to walk in the woods. Walnut Creek Park is our favorite place to go hiking. Just south of town, and less than a half hour’s drive from our house, it is a nearby place that feels a world away. There is a beautiful lake for canoeing or fishing, and miles of wooded trails for hiking or mountain biking. My husband and I started going there together soon after we met. We would always bring our two Labradors, Toby and Maya, who loved running the trails as much as we did. Now 14 years later, we come with our Labradoodle, Holly, and our young son, Max. Life has changed a lot in this time, but Walnut Creek remains the same special place.

We also enjoy bringing visiting family and friends to Walnut Creek. My father-in-law, Papa Deak, and his partner, Papa Paul, were here visiting from California, and it was a perfect “Autumn in Virginia” kind of day to share with them.  The colors were just past their peak, but plenty of reds, oranges and golds still clung to the treetops, and a soft layer of dry leaves covered the paths. The air was cool, the sun was warm, and each step forward brought a gentle crunch through fallen leaves. There is a stillness to the woods that quiets the chatter of my mind, making room for a more essential understanding that emerges in its place: as we move through the colorful canopies of changing light, we are no longer separate from nature, or from each other, but merely different incarnations of one life, one love. Holly romps through the leaves, my boy laughs, I hear the click of Papa’s camera, a bird sings, three generations walk together, all different but the same.

Red Foliage Textures

For the Autumn collages, I began experimenting with different ways to create textures and patterns to represent the colorful foliage. I first tried this a few weeks ago in the Sunday Drive collage. Using charcoal and colored India inks, I filled up sheets of paper with leaf patterns that were then used to cut out shapes of tree canopies and individual leaves. I tried out different color combinations, as well as small and large scale patterns to develop a sense of distance and space. Once I had a good variety of pattern sheets to choose from, I was able to assemble the tree imagery in combination with the other small drawings and painted motifs. In this week’s work, I included a small illustration of my family ahead on the trail, my boy in a familiar gesture with his Dad, Holly following close behind.

We had a wonderful visit with Papa Deak and Papa Paul. They have always expressed an interest in my artwork, and continually offer their support and encouragement as I move along my creative path. They have also taken the time to read every single post of my blog and respond to each in the comments section. I am so appreciative of this! It was a lot of fun to show them the collages in person for the first time, after sharing them on the computer screen all year. I feel very blessed to have such loving and supportive people in my family. Thank you Papa Deak and Papa Paul!

Walk in the Woods, acrylic collage, 12 x 12

Detail, Walk in the Woods

Detail, Walk in the Woods

Detail, Walk in the Woods

Detail, Walk in the Woods

Week 40: Wild Geese

Every Autumn I hear the musical honking of the wild geese, as they pass through Virginia on their way south for the winter. The sound always stirs something in me, like the changing golden light of shorter days and the burnt orange and red of falling leaves in October. The call of the geese weaves itself seamlessly into the fabric of Fall, my favorite time of year. The sound brings back memories from my childhood, when my father taught me to observe and listen to the natural world. We teased apart the honks and warbles of waterfowl and shore birds, and looked for the identifying white patch on the face of the Canada Goose. Our family liked to visit a nature preserve on the eastern shore of Maryland, Blackwater Refuge, where we climbed the observation tower to look out over the ochre landscape of cattails and marsh grasses, the wild geese calling to each other, flying in their characteristic “V” formation. My young mind thrilled at this sight. “How do they choose the leader? How do they know which direction to fly? How far is their journey?”

Thirty something years later, I hear the sound of the geese flying overhead, and remember that feeling of wonder and curiosity. Our neighborhood sits up high on a ridge, a small network of quiet tree-lined streets, cul-de-sacs, and well-tended lawns.  There is a spot where the entry road climbs the steep hill to our houses, cutting open a clearing that reveals a long view to a wilder place. There are layers of open field, farm, and woodland, the Rivanna River winding its way in between. As the leaves fall, we can see a widening band of the distant Blue Ridge Mountains. The Canada Geese congregate in the field at the bottom of our hill. Sometimes I see their tiny black shapes rising up in a graceful “V” through the clearing, other times they fly directly over our rooftops, calling loudly. I think of my son, who is inside playing on his iPad, and I remind myself, “Teach him to listen for the wild geese. Don’t forget.”

Wild Geese, acrylic collage 12 x 12

Detail, Wild Geese

Detail, Wild Geese

Detail, Wild Geese

Detail, Wild Geese

Detail, Wild Geese

Week 32: California Trip Part III

Climbing the Drum Bridge

I could not resist doing a collage about the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco. It is a magical place with the potential to explore all the themes that I am continually drawn to in my artwork: imaginary landscapes, rich layers and textures, story-telling and narrative, journey and discovery, and the intersection of human artifice with the natural world. As you wander the garden, a series of carefully composed vignettes open before you. Sometimes a view through the trees offers a glimpse of what lies ahead. Other times you reach an elevation and are invited to look back over where you have come. A myriad of visual surprises draws you along the stone paths: sculpted evergreens contrast with feathery maples left to their natural habit, and colorful koi dart through the shimmering ponds while lily pads float serenely on the surface. Fanciful bridges and brightly painted buildings punctuate the natural landscape, while birds and butterflies accompany visitors on their journey.

Our favorite element in the garden is the Drum Bridge. When seen from a distance, its dramatic arch is pleasingly picturesque. As you approach, the scale of it comes into focus, and you see that this is not a bridge for strolling over. It must be climbed– more like a ladder than a bridge! We all had fun scrambling up the steep incline to the top of the arch, where we were rewarded with a fantastic view, looking back over the gardens. Maybe I can try to approach other obstacles in life just like the Drum Bridge: welcoming challenges with an attitude of play, humor, and curiosity.

Japanese Tea Garden, 12 x 12, acrylic collage

Detail, Tea Garden with stone path

Detail, Tea Garden with koi pond

Detail, Tea Garden with pond

Detail, Tea Garden with Buddha

Detail, Tea Garden with Drum Bridge

Detail, Tea Garden with bird

41 Candles

I just celebrated my 41st birthday. I’m so glad I was born. Here are 41 things I am thankful for in my life:

  1. The opportunity to be the Mom of the greatest little boy I could ever imagine.
  2. My husband and soul mate who continues to blow my mind.
  3. My very loving and supportive extended family who have freely offered their unconditional love.
  4. The foundation of a happy childhood with super hero parents, and the memories of that time that never leave me.
  5. My dear friends who never miss a beat, no matter how long it has been since we caught up.
  6. My teachers and mentors who pointed me on the path to my best work.
  7. Our happy shaggy labradoodle, Holly.
  8. Our sly little lady-like cat, Olivia.
  9. A house that feels like a home.
  10. A backyard full of flowers, vegetables, herbs, shrubs, and trees that inspire me daily.
  11. A safe neighborhood full of friendly people where my kid can ride his bike and play outside with other children.
  12. Access to clean water and plenty to eat.
  13. Access to fresh, local, natural and organic food.
  14. My education. 
  15. Novels, Cookbooks, Art Books, and The New Yorker.
  16. My studio space with a view of the woods.
  17. My Mac with the gigantic screen, and my Wacom drawing tablet.
  18. The opportunity to pursue my creative ideas.
  19. My Vitamix and the discovery of the Green Smoothie.
  20. Learning to keep my body healthy and strong.
  21. The internet, where I can find an answer to any question, at any time.
  22. My iPhone, where I can find an answer to any question, at any time, no matter where I might be.
  23. A steady supply of sketchbooks and Uni-ball Vision ink pens.
  24. The success of my family’s restaurant business and all those who have contributed to it, including our amazing partners who have remained our best friends.
  25. Yoga and long walks.
  26. The ability to work from home part-time for my day-job, so there is still time for my art and my family.
  27. The opportunity to work for a business with a respectful, fun, and supportive company culture, and the highest quality standards.
  28. Awesome co-workers.
  29. All the people in the art and design world who are generous with their knowledge and are willing to share their journeys and experience in the industry.
  30. All the people in the blog-o-sphere who are sharing their personal stories.
  31. My art-escapes to Whidbey Island and the fairy godmother who invited me there.
  32. When I can hear the Universe whispering “Yes, you can.”
  33. When inspiration strikes and I have the courage to act on it.
  34. When inspiration does not come and I have the courage to keep working anyway.
  35. Discovering the power of taking the next small step.
  36. Learning to trust myself and knowing I am capable of more than I once believed.
  37. Music.
  38. Colors.
  39. Rain, Sun, Clouds, Wind, Landscapes, Oceans and all the fascinating creatures of the natural world.  
  40. Lemon, Olive Oil, Herbs, Garlic, Sea Salt, and seasonal produce. And chocolate.
  41. All those who have touched my life, in ways big or small, bringing joy, wonder, and new discoveries about the world that we share.

Business and Pleasure

Olive Oil Doodle

I’m back from my business trip to the Fancy Food Show, a trade show held each year for the specialty food industry.  The company that I work for distributes beautiful products in a broad range of categories: artisan cheeses, charcuterie, olives and antipasti, chocolate, bread, meat and seafood. One of my very favorite product groups is the olive oils. We feature olive oils from Greece, Spain, Italy, and the south of France, and each has its own unique landscape, culture, and people behind it. One of the best things about the show is the opportunity to meet the producers and hear their stories, in addition to tasting their products. Flavors and images overlap in my mind: some real, some imagined.  Having once visited the Arbequina olive groves of northern Spain, my memory of the majestic thousand-year-old trees overlays the warm buttery oil on my tongue. Others are new to me and my imagination takes over as I conjure the silvery leaves sparkling in long rows, soaking up the Mediterranean sun.

In my olive oil doodles, I was very interested in the shapes of the bottles, which are concrete, observable objects. (I couldn’t resist including a few Balsamic Vinegar bottles in the sketch too!) But I was also exploring the story of the landscapes, trees and fruit behind each bottle, stemming from both memory and imagination.  One more important point about this post: I am using my art to make friends with my day-job. While it’s true that I do enjoy my work, my day-job has often been cast in my mind as the enemy of art, taking up my precious creative time with the frustrating necessity of earning a paycheck. But in the spirit of My Suburban Life, I am making the choice to stop fighting against what is. Yes, I am still pursuing my dream of one day making a living as an artist and designer, but for now, quitting my job is not a reality. So why not stop complaining about it and appreciate what it gives me? Health Insurance, a good paycheck, relationships with wonderful co-workers and vendors, an education in fascinating artisan foodstuffs, inspiration for both my kitchen and my sketchbook, and a taste of delicious olive oils…

Olive Oil Doodle 2

Roses

Shrub Roses in May bloom

My roses are in bloom!  I planted these hearty shrub roses along our front walk about four years ago. They require almost no special care, and provide months of enjoyment, blooming throughout the Spring and Summer and even into the Fall.  At the height of the summer heat, the blooms take a break, then come back again in a fiery flush when the weather cools a bit. In milder years we have had flowers up until Thanksgiving. They require no pruning to flourish, although they grow so vigorously I need to cut them back several times throughout the season to prevent them from closing off the path to the front door! It has been warm and a bit humid the last couple days, which tends to amplify their lovely fragrance. When I come home from a walk, I like to just pause on the path before entering the house, inhale the perfumed air, and look closely at the intricate magenta petals. In these moments, there are no deadlines, no pressing tasks. There are no past regrets, or doubts about the future. Just the blaze of the roses and me. This is the elusive place I sometimes reach when I am drawing or painting, centered in the spacious awareness of the present moment. Sometimes the distractions and anxieties of life seem to barricade me from this place, but then I remember to just open my eyes. Wherever I may be, it is as close as my own front door.

Week 12: Be Here Now

We had a hard rain last night.  This morning I anxiously walked up the street to see the cherry trees again and knew what I would find: all the petals had fallen. And so it ends, at least until next year.  My father once told me that the one thing you can always count on in life is change. Time rolls onward, and there is always something slipping away, while something else takes its place.  I only had one week to enjoy the cherry blossoms, but I walked under them twice a day, photographed them, drew the clustered trees and the individual flowers, scanned the drawings into my Mac to create a floral pattern design, and finally painted them today.  This year I did more than notice them in passing. So now I will let them go, knowing there are Dogwoods to look forward to…

This week I really wanted to paint, so I mixed up some juicy pinks, reds and oranges. I was also inspired by the fresh Spring green that is coming out everywhere in the neighborhood, on lawns and in the new leaves. I did a simple landscape painting of the cherry tree-lined street, then added collage elements into the blooming canopy.  I was most interested in the billowing texture of the flowery boughs, and how the shapes of the trees frame the pieces of street and lawn behind them.  While the trees are painted thickly with heavy gel medium, the background is painted very thinly, collapsing the distance into flat shapes that fit in and around the trees like a jigsaw puzzle.

Cherry Trees, acrylic collage, 12 x 12

I also took on the Rainbow Challenge from my last post. I wrote, “Why is it that the representation of a rainbow has become such a cliché, synonymous with Care Bears, unicorns and everything trite?  When seen in real life, there is nothing more grand, more magical, more intensely pure.  Would it even be possible to put a rainbow in my artwork without being either ironic, sarcastic, comical, or naive? I might try that.”

Since I did, in fact, see a real rainbow in the neighborhood this week, I felt I had full rights to include it in the painting. Does it look silly or trite, or ruin the whole piece? I am smiling and thinking to myself, “Does it matter?”  All things are transient: the cherry blossoms, the rainbow, this painting, my life. Rather than worry about embarrassment, or anticipate the end, let me just be here now.

Transience

Two things happened this week that got me thinking about transience.  Early one morning as I was taking my dog Holly out, I was stunned to see a rainbow arching over the end of our cul-de-sac! (I can’t even remember the last time I saw a rainbow in real life.) A light misty rain was in the air, barely perceptible, and the morning sunlight was just starting to stream out from under a heavy bank of clouds.  I was so excited, I ran inside and yelled for my son to come out and see it before it disappeared. I must have sounded hysterical because I startled him in the middle of a spoonful of cereal and for a second he thought something was wrong. He quickly joined me outside in his bare feet and we took a few minutes to marvel at the rainbow before rushing back inside to get ready for school. By the time we came back out to jump in the car, it was gone. Why is it that the representation of a rainbow has become such a cliche, synonymous with Care Bears, unicorns and everything trite?  When seen in real life, there is nothing more grand, more magical, more intensely pure.  Would it even be possible to put a rainbow in my artwork without being either ironic, sarcastic, comical, or naive? I might try that.

The second transient thing that has overwhelmed me this week is the flowering trees in my neighborhood. Whoever planned the landscaping here had a wonderful idea: each street has a different type of spring-blooming tree lining the sidewalks, and they each bloom in succession.  It begins with the pinky purple cherries on the court up the street in mid-March, which I painted two weeks ago. Now it is time for the pale pink and white cherries. Next the deep red-pink cherries on our street will begin to open. I have been walking Holly twice a day up to this spot to enjoy these wondrous blooms. The flowers were very crisp and white when they first came out about a week ago, then slowly became fuller and more billowy, developing a hazy pale pink cast. I was curious about this and looked very closely at the individual flowers to see that there is now a deep pink splash in the very center, while the outer petals are nearly white. I noticed how different they are from the Bradford pears, which have a more greenish white color, due to their yellow green centers. In fact, the pear trees are almost done flowering and the fresh green leaves are beginning to take over. Soon the cherries will also be ending their once a year show.

My human nature wants to hold on to these things, grasping to keep something that is inevitably slipping away. The rainbow and the cherry trees bring up all these emotions for me: the fear of losing something (or someone), the anxiety of not having enough time, the desperation to own it and keep it safe, the disquietude of forgetting. This is part of the reason we take photos and make images: to hold on, to freeze something in time, to tell our stories before they fade away… before we fade away. Can I let go of all this? Can I simply enjoy each moment, knowing that the impermanence is what makes it so special? Can my artwork celebrate each moment, or recall the past, without holding on so tightly? Or does the act of making the image somehow set it free, allowing me to move on? Can I put down the heavy suitcase of the past and carry my memories with a light hand, like a bouquet of helium balloons tied to my finger?

End of March, ink and colored pencil

Week 11: A Time for Everything

I collected some bits of inspiration while we were cleaning up the yard this week. While raking out the beds, I picked out some interesting shapes of Fall leaves, then saved a few of the long dry curling reeds from trimming the ornamental grasses. I noticed some cute little pods when pruning the crape myrtles. While snipping away at the wild branches of butterfly bush, I saw the silvery new growth mingling with last year’s dried flowers, browned and crumbling, but still with a hint of purple.  As I hauled away the bags of the crinkling crunchy dead leaves and trimmings, new growth was bursting out all around: blooming Cherries, Camelia, Bradford Pear, and Daffodils. I puts bits of all these things, the old and the new, on the same plate, and took it down to the studio to draw and observe.  The beautiful fresh Camelia blossom nestles with the dry old oak leaf.  Each has its place in its own time.

This week I challenged myself to clear out some old ideas along with the old leaves. One of my most limiting old beliefs is “There is not enough time for all my creative projects.” It’s true that I am attempting a lot. Along with writing this blog and making my weekly collage, I am also designing patterns and illustrations on my Mac in a serious effort to launch a second career in surface design. Sometimes it all seems a little crazy, as I struggle to balance my creative ambitions with work, family time and the everyday necessities of life. There are days when it all seems impossible. But I am trying out a new belief: “There is always enough time and a time for everything.” I decide what I am going to work on, and stop worrying about all the other stuff while I am focusing on the current task. Then I take a break and work on something else, allowing myself to be fully present for the next activity. I managed to have a pretty great weekend using this approach. I enjoyed working outside in the yard.  I devoted a lot of time to my design project since I had some new ideas I was excited about. I spent a long time drawing and less time painting this week. I made pancakes for my family Sunday morning and lingered around the table instead of rushing down to the studio first thing in the morning. It is 9:30 pm Sunday night, but I finished my collage.  I’m not entirely happy with the colors, but I’ll put it aside for now and look at it again tomorrow. I’m starting to see there is a way to live a full life while not feeling frantic all the time. Let go of the drama and let it unfold.

There is Always Enough Time and a Time for Everything