Week 35: Small Wonders

The Amazing Spider Web

We have been observing some interesting happenings in the neighborhood. Spider webs the size of tractor tires are strung up between trees and lamp posts, with threads that sometimes stretch all the way across the driveway. In the morning, tiny beads of dew cling and shimmer on their silky nets. Large white-capped mushrooms spring up in the lawn overnight. The flower beds continually re-seed themselves, and not always where you might expect. Weeds sprout after every rain, as the damp late summer slips into cooler evenings and shorter days. Reinvention and change is all around us, every day. This collage is about nature’s big and little surprises, reminding me that anything can happen. Yes, I know there are scientific explanations, but let’s allow a little wonder in our lives.

The process for this piece was very loose and intuitive. I wasn’t even sure what it was about until half way through. This was a departure since I normally verbalize a clear theme to myself before beginning. I was pressed for time, and I had a kind of brain-freeze of ideas. First there was panic, then I just started making something. I let go of words, and allowed the images to pop up like mushrooms on the page. Then I remembered the actual mushrooms in the lawn, then the spider webs, and soon the seeds of creativity became unstuck, growing like weeds. I’m interested in how words can limit or expand the creative process. Do words pre-empt the unconscious mind that deals best with images? Are words best used after the artwork is finished or underway? But what about illustration, where words are needed to define the purpose of the image? Does the image have the power to take us beyond the words, to deeper understanding? What do you think?

Small Wonders

Detail, Small Wonders

Detail, Small Wonders

Detail, Small Wonders

Detail, Small Wonders

Detail, Small Wonders

Week 33: California Trip Part IV

Up a long winding mountain road above Santa Cruz, and into the forest of redwoods and manzanita, there is a special gathering place for our family: Grandma’s House. Set into a hillside that slopes down to the ancient forest, the house feels inseparable from the land, welcoming the filtered sunlight, fresh air, and quiet presence of the towering trees. Multi-level decks and garden terraces look out into the woods, where some mornings you can watch the fog soften the peaks of the evergreens and roll its billowy blanket across the landscape. There is a blueberry bush loaded with fruit, and beds overflowing with rosemary, thyme, and roses. I delighted in the cool and peaceful mornings here, when we would take our hot coffee mugs outside to the terraces, pick some blueberries for breakfast (with a pinch of rosemary!) and enjoy the view and conversation with a house full of loved ones.

Our time at Grandma’s house was bittersweet on this visit, as we were not sure when we would return to this special place. Grandma is renting the house and moving to Virginia to be with us! We are so excited about this wonderful change for her and our family. We will miss our California retreat, but we hope to one day spend time together there again. In the meantime, we await Grandma’s move in a couple of weeks!

In creating the collage, it was most important for me to capture the atmosphere and sense of place that I feel here.  I chose to leave figures out of the composition, instead suggesting a human presence with the coffee mugs, chairs, and bowl of just-picked blueberries. In this way, the viewer is freer to project oneself into the picture and imagine the special places that they too may share with their families. The foreground plants are cut paper drawings made with pencil, charcoal, India Inks and acrylic paint. The roses are paper cut-outs from one of my digital pattern designs. The trees in the background are painted with acrylics, then collaged over with a wispy transparent paper to create the effect of drifting fog.

Grandma’s House, acrylic collage, 12 x 12

Detail, Blueberry Bush

Detail, Blueberries for Breakfast

Detail, Garden Path

Detail, Forest and Fog

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

Week 31: California Trip Part II

California Coast near Big Sur

One of the highlights of our trip was the day we drove down Highway 1 from Santa Cruz to Big Sur. After miles of gleaming green lettuce and artichoke fields, we stopped in the little town of Carmel by the Sea. It was a cool day with a light misty fog. We warmed ourselves with a mid-morning treat of hot coffee and chocolate-dipped biscotti, then strolled the quaint town, admiring the stone walls, unique bungalows, and enchanting cottage gardens. When we got to the beach, we kicked off our shoes, rolled up our pants, and waded into the surf. This was only the second day of our vacation, and we were just so happy to be together- me, my husband, and our boy- with no distractions, just time to play, explore, and focus on each other. It was a bit too chilly for swimming, but that didn’t stop us from tempting the waves, wading in as far as we dared, then running and laughing back up the beach with the ocean splashing at our heels.

We continued down the winding coast to Big Sur, mountains rising up to our left, and rocky cliffs crashing down to the ocean on our right. The landscape is magical, decorated by creeping succulents in green, yellow, and red. The plants seem so beautifully alien and mysterious compared to the familiar flora back East. Cypress trees stand at the edge of the cliffs, leaning inland like gesturing figures, shaped by the wind. We stopped for an excellent lunch at Nepenthe and some shopping at the eclectic gift shop, The Phoenix. It was great fun and a little surreal to be making this trip again with our almost-nine-year-old boy. The first time Ken and I drove down to Big Sur together was in December of 1999, long before Max was born, on the trip when we got engaged. So much has happened in our lives since then. We still have the lyrical wind chime that we bought at The Phoenix all those years ago, and decided to purchase another one, with a new set of tones. On the way home, we stopped along the road to look out over the strange meadows, the ever-changing shapes of tidal pools, the craggy cliffs and jagged rocks, and the infinite blue of the Pacific. We are 3000 miles from our suburbia, yet we are here together, and so we are home.

Big Sur Road Trip, 12 x 12, acrylic collage

Detail, Succulent Meadow

Detail, Map

Detail, Highway 1

Detail, Cliffs along Highway 1, Big Sur

Detail, Cliff House

Week 26: Made in the Shade

Drawing with ink, oil pastel, and charcoal

Seeking relief from the 100 degree temperatures outside, I made a collage this week about shady places around the yard.  Our sun-soaked patio is hot enough to burn your feet, but there are small pools of shade to be found beneath the trees and tall shrubs. The arching stems of the red twigged dogwoods create a shady cave-like retreat, where we discovered a turtle had taken up residence. My aim was to contrast these areas of light and shadow and capture the sense of place of our backyard in the heat of the summer.

Detail of foliage: pencil, charcoal, and india inks

I decided to shake up my process a bit this week and experiment with some different materials. I embellished my usual ink pen drawings with colored india inks as well as oil pastels. I allowed the drawings to remain open, loose and sketchier than usual, just right for a lazy summer afternoon. I also worked out the shady shrubbery with pencil and charcoal, adding watered-down india inks on top for color. I enjoyed the broader strokes and messier outcome of the charcoal drawings, which seemed to work well for this type of subject matter.

Placing torn charcoal and ink drawings onto the panel

Next I tore out sections of the drawings and began placing them on the 12 x 12 panel, which had been prepared with a background of acrylic paints. As I built the collage, additional layers of paper and paint were added, including tiny portraits of my dog Holly and the turtle. The perspective changes across the panel from a bird’s-eye view at the top, to a more intimate view inside the turtle home at the bottom. The final piece depicts our small corner of the world, in the hot sun and the cool shade.

Made in the Shade, acrylic collage, 12 x 12

Detail, Sun-drenched Patio

Detail, Holly rests in the shade of the maple tree.

Detail, foliage

Detail, Turtle

Heat Wave

Patio on a Very Hot Day

It’s hot here in the Virginia suburbs. Crazy hot. Temperatures have been close to 100 degrees all week. Add to that our characteristic sticky humidity and you get some pretty unpleasant outdoor conditions. Not wanting to be stuck inside all day, Holly and I get up early to do a long morning walk in the coolest part of the day. Even at 7 am, the air is muggy and you can feel the heat pressing down, beginning its upward momentum. In the afternoon, when we are thoroughly chilled down by the air conditioning, we take a short walk around the yard, checking on the parched plants and looking for shady spots to pause. The sun feels nice on my shoulders for a few minutes at a time, but not for long.

Holly finds a shady spot.

The yard is quiet in the heat of the day. The patio is too hot for bare feet, and the container plants are thirsty. Even the sun-loving lizards who like to bask on the stones are nowhere to be found. The birds that were so active this morning have retreated to the treetops. The only movement is the soft whirr of the bees and butterflies over the drying flower heads. There is no breeze. But the maple tree casts a wide shadow on the grass, and the red twig dogwoods create a cool cave beneath their arching branches. We peeked under there once and found a content little box turtle. A ribbon of deep shade runs along the edge of the woods, widening as the day goes on.

Under the Red Twig Dogwoods- a nice spot for a turtle.

My drawings this week are about heat and cool, sun and shade. I like observing the changing light and the shifting shadows around the garden. I like discovering the secret shady places around the yard where animals might find a respite from the heat. We have our wide-brimmed hats and sunbrellas while they have their own leafy canopies and cool enclosures. I feel a solidarity with the turtle, as he finds his shade and I find mine.

Week 24: Olive Oil Landscape

Olive Oil and Olive Tree drawings ready for collaging

This week I began integrating imagery from my day job into my artwork. I have had a tendency to keep my job very separate from my studio work, but the spirit of this whole project leans on the idea that embracing all of who you are is a good thing. I work for a great company that sells specialty food, olive oils being one of my favorite categories. It is no accident that I wound up working in the food business. I have always loved to cook and have a long history of endeavors in the food biz, from freelance catering while working on my MFA, to making cheese on a sheep farm, to a stint at Whole Foods, then finally moving up into distribution.  Artists need to make a living, and this career has been good to me. It is part of who I am. I work from home now three days a week and have time for my family and my art. There are times when the job seems to take over… like last weekend when I spent 4 days working a trade show instead of making a collage… but I am learning to recognize that my job gives me much more than it takes.

Panel painted as an earthy landscape, ready for collage elements

I began with a sketchbook page of olive oil bottles and olive groves. The bottles were drawn mostly from life, while the landscape elements were invented or pulled from memories of my trip to Spain a few years ago. The drawings were scanned, repeated and re-sized in Illustrator, then printed out on collage papers.  Next I prepared a panel with earthy landscape colors, going for a Mediterranean atmosphere. Red clay, olive greens, and silvery blue grays.

Olive branch sketches

The collage is a montage of both the olive oils and the landscapes from which they came. I was interested in the various unique shapes of the bottles and tins, as well as the textures and patterns in the landscape elements.  I am thinking about using the drawings in a surface design collection for kitchen towels, aprons, napkins, tableware, etc. Here is the final piece followed by details.

Olive Oil Landscape, acrylic collage, 12 x 12

Detail, Olive Oil Landscape

Detail, Olive Oil Landscape

Detail, Olive Oil Landscape

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


A good sniffing spot

Holly walks beside me, the dangling leash a mere formality between us. We make our way along the usual route, occasionally stopping to watch a bird, finding comfort in our synchronized daily habit.  Suddenly the leash goes taut. Holly jerks me out of my daydream. A white-tailed rabbit hip-hops in a zig-zag pattern across the neighbor’s lawn.  An orange cat pounces after it. A little white dog lets out an affirmative yap and joins the parade.  Muffled barks come from the house down the street, as a wet nose presses against the glass pane beside the front door.  Holly and I observe the commotion. She looks at me as if to ask if she can join in the fun. But the leash stays on and we continue our walk. She stops to sniff a patch of grass with great interest. I remember reading once that for dogs, smells are like messages written in invisible ink. They may understand who left the message and how long ago, judging time and distances in way that is alien to us humans. But what does it say? She continues rifling nose first through the grass, inhaling the information, much like the way I approach the New Yorker when it comes in the mail. Wordless smells, tell me all your secrets…

Holly surveys the neighborhood from the hilltop, a galaxy of smells.

Week 20: The Blue Egg

Robin’s nest in the cherry tree, moments after Mother Bird flew away.

This collage is about hope and possibility– inspired by the robins nesting in my neighborhood, but driven by my feelings about home, motherhood and personal aspirations. I look at the tiny blue egg and it holds all the dreams and possibilities for my own child. My son is my only egg. He hatched into a wonderful boy. Ten more years before he leaves the nest. My task is to love and appreciate every detail of every age, be there for him in every moment, while letting go a little more each year as it passes.

I look at the egg again and it holds all the dreams and possibilities for me and my creative work. Can I hatch my plan to build a full-time creative career? The egg is so fragile. Can I tend to my nest like the mother robin: weaving a miracle out of twigs, lovingly guarding my most precious possession, hatching a dream, pushing it out of the nest, having the faith that it will fly?

Wave Pattern

I began this collage with paper eggs. I decided to use a wave pattern that I designed about a year ago. The wave motif has been an important theme in my paintings for several years, suggesting creative momentum. The meditative quality of the ocean’s powerful and continuous rhythm became a metaphor for creative flow and the practice of art-making.  (Take a look at the Momentum Series on my website to see more of this work.) It felt appropriate to use this pattern for the egg, adding two different layers of meaning. First, it seems to fit the spirit of my young boy- joyful, dynamic, and immersed in the flow of childhood. Secondly, it is a remnant of my early efforts to transition from drawing and painting to learning Illustrator and digital pattern design, as I began to find a new rhythm in my work, and formulate my goal to build a creative career. I saw this collage as an opportunity for me to bring together drawing, painting and pattern in one piece. Ultimately, that is the goal in the life of my work: to integrate my different modes of art and design in a way that can support me financially and fulfill me creatively.

Paper Eggs with Wave Pattern

In the final piece, I chose to include just one egg, centered in a scribbly nest, balanced in the crook of a tree branch, sheltered by leaves. Here is the final work with some close-up images of the details.

Nest, acrylic collage, 12 x 12

Nest Detail

Nest Detail

Nest, Detail with Bird