Weeks 50 & 51: Christmas Tree

Sled ornament from my childhood.

Sled ornament from my childhood.

Every year I look forward to unpacking the Christmas ornaments and decorating the tree. My family likes to pick out a large fir that goes from floor to ceiling and festively commands the room. As I place each ornament on the tree, it whispers a story to me. Some ornaments are thirty something years old and come from my childhood, while others are even older and belonged to my parents. The newer ones remind me of our newlywed years, or when my son was a baby. Each one represents a time and place that is conjured up again every Christmas. The tree becomes a shimmering display of memories that dangle amidst the evergreen boughs and twinkle lights.

Christmas Tree, acrylic collage, 12 x 24 in

Christmas Tree, acrylic collage, 12 x 24 inches

I enjoy the Christmas tree so much that I decided to dedicate two collage panels to this subject, displayed vertically one on top of the other. The ornaments in the collages were drawn from observation of our actual ornaments. A few were refurbished or re-created in the drawings to honor those favorites that were lost or broken. Most are from my childhood. There is a little white elephant who once lived inside a clear globe. One year the glass broke, while the elephant survived. Here I placed him back inside his protective bubble. There is a tiny snowman, a mouse on a red chair, a bird house, a cuckoo clock, and sparkly silver birds. There are red wooden sleds with the childhood nicknames of my sister and I carefully painted in white lettering, with a holiday greeting and the year 1980. I was nine, and Vicki was eleven. There is a gnome hiding amongst evergreens in a glass mushroom, a flat wooden soldier, and a beautiful Japanese Girl with a satiny red dress and silky tassels.

Detail, Christmas Tree II

Detail, Christmas Tree

My childhood favorite was a plastic Humpty Dumpty, dapperly dressed and sitting on a brick wall, grinning gaily, his hands in the air. While he might seem somewhat incongruous amongst the more traditionally themed Christmas ornaments, for me, it was Humpty who best expressed the joy of the season.

My mother had a special silver globe with a ballet dancer inside, and faceted mirrors that reflected the ruffles of the tiny tutu.

Detail, Christmas Tree II

Detail, Christmas Tree

Sadly, this treasured ornament was lost in a move, and I’m still not sure what happened to it. In the collage, I was able to bring it back. Another lost ornament was my husband’s childhood favorite, a stout little Viking man with a shield and sword. We don’t know what fate befell him. He too makes a come-back in the collage. Since he was lost before my husband and I met, I never saw the Viking, so my drawing is based entirely on Ken’s descriptions and my own imaginative conjecture.

Detail, Christmas Tree II

Detail, Christmas Tree

When we were first married, a dear family friend gave us a beautiful set of painted glass ornaments that included characters from The Nutcracker and other Christmas stories. These became very special to us. We had gone to see The Nutcracker performed by the San Francisco Ballet on Christmas Eve of 1999, the day before my husband proposed to me. I remember that experience each time I hang Clara, the Nutcracker, and the Mouse King on the tree. Another favorite from this same ornament set is a kindly Santa Claus wearing an elegant red cape and holding an evergreen garland. He’s one of the larger ornaments and always gets a prominent place on the front of the tree.

I asked my nine-year old son to pick out his favorite ornament so I could include it in the collage. He chose the bendable beaded candy canes which are fun and flexible, easy to hang, and impossible to break. A wonderful choice! He can enjoy these for many years to come.

The practice of drawing the ornaments was very painstaking. I fell deep into the process of observing every detail, noticing both the perfection and the flaws, the sparkly sheen and the dulling of age. Some are quite fragile, or near falling apart. Some will break one day in the future. Creating the collage was a way for me to preserve the ornaments and the halo of memory that surrounds each one. At the same time, there is something about loving them fully and completely through the process of drawing that will allow me to let go when the time comes.

Christmas Tree (top panel), acrylic collage 12 x 12 in

Christmas Tree (top panel), acrylic collage 12 x 12 in

Christmas Tree (bottom panel), acrylic collage, 12 x 12 in

Christmas Tree (bottom panel), acrylic collage, 12 x 12 in

Detail, Christmas Tree I

Detail, Christmas Tree

Detail, Christmas Tree I

Detail, Christmas Tree

Detail, Christmas Tree I

Detail, Christmas Tree

Detail, Christmas Tree I

Detail, Christmas Tree

Detail, Christmas Tree II

Detail, Christmas Tree

Detail, Christmas Tree II

Detail, Christmas Tree

Detail, Christmas Tree II

Detail, Christmas Tree

Week 49: Balloon Ride

I surprised my husband with a hot air balloon ride for his 40th Birthday. The wind was perfect that day. While we rose out of a field in the middle of town amongst strip malls and subdivisions, we floated across the highway to the Northwest, and soon found ourselves hovering above woods, farmland, and the Rivanna River, with the Blue Ridge Mountains anchoring the Western horizon. The colorful autumn leaves had fallen, but the winter landscape had a magic all its own. The bare deciduous branches appeared white and lacy from above, transparent screens that revealed layers of fields and forest floor. The dense stands of evergreens framed the open spaces of pasture, and the river carved its way through the landscape, reflecting a clear blue sky.

The balloon ride felt like a big adventure when we first took off, but once air-born, the adrenalin subsided and there was simply peace, quiet, beauty, and the love between two people. The whoosh of the gas flame was the only sound. The world appeared as a miniature train garden, every piece arranged just so. I loved the winter palette of ochres, blue-grays, and deep greens, displayed in so many different textures. When I began working on the collage, I was enthralled with the task of drawing the tiny details I observed in the landscape, while at the same time trying to capture the whole experience of floating above the panorama. I combined small drawings of trees and farms with broader painted areas of river and landscape. Drawing and painting, line and color, detail and whole, all come together here with wonder and joy.

Balloon Ride, acrylic collage, 12 x 12 in.

Balloon Ride, acrylic collage, 12 x 12 in.

Detail, Balloon Ride

Detail, Balloon Ride

Detail, Balloon Ride

Detail, Balloon Ride

Detail, Balloon Ride

Detail, Balloon Ride

Detail, Balloon Ride

Detail, Balloon Ride

Detail, Balloon Ride

Detail, Balloon Ride

Week 48: Flu Season

It’s Flu Season and the bugs finally caught up to my husband and I last week. (Yes, next year I will get my flu shot.) We spent five days groaning together on the sofa with body aches, stuffy noses and hacking coughs. Despite the discomfort of being sick, we did enjoy the extra time together. We watched so many movies we had trouble recalling what we had seen in our DayQuil-induced delirium. This was not exactly a fun week, but I admit it was nice having an excuse to stop frantically rushing around with holiday preparations. As I laid on the sofa under my favorite blanket, achy and miserable, watching the twinkle lights on the mantle and the fire flickering in the fireplace, my pains subsided just enough so that I could appreciate the beautiful silence and peace of just being allowed to rest. It’s too bad I have to get sick to justify such moments to myself.

For the collage, I imagined the flu virus floating around in the air above our heads as my husband and I snuggled down into our bed with our aches and pains and remedies at our sides. As I was drawing the bugs, they became more and more ornamental, suggesting a perverse version of the holiday verse, “while visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads.” I had a good chuckle over that connection, which was probably an effective strategy in combatting the illness. After all, laughter is the best medicine.

Flu Season, acrylic collage, 12 x 12

Flu Season, acrylic collage, 12 x 12

Detail, Flu Season

Detail, Flu Season

Detail, Flu Season

Detail, Flu Season

Detail, Flu Season

Detail, Flu Season

Detail, Flu Season

Detail, Flu Season

Week 8: Winters Past and Present

While this project began with the intention of embracing the present moment, I have found that confronting the here and now often pulls me back into the past. Understanding who I am today has a lot to do with where I came from, how I got here, and what I learned and came to value along the way.  Watching my son rejoice in the snow brought back so many memories of my own childhood: the big slope in the front yard, my old wooden sled, and building a snowman in the shape of Winnie the Pooh with my father.  For this week’s collage, I created a montage of two places– the home I live in now, and the childhood home of my past, coexisting in the same space as they often do in my consciousness. Here is the collection of small drawings I began to work with:

I take extreme delight in recalling the specific details of my childhood: the snow sliding down the slate shingles of the cottage roof, the soaring poplar trees in the yard, the feel of the wooden sled and the crisp sound of the runners in the snow.  It was a time in my life when everything made sense, there was no uncertainty, and all I knew was wholeness and love. There is a slippery slope to this reverie, and the fear of falling down the rabbit hole of nostalgia with all its mixed emotions… clinging too hard, wanting so desperately to remember something that was once perfect, then prying loose the fingers to let go. If there could possibly be a disadvantage to having an idyllic childhood, it would be the difficulty of growing up and letting it go.  One of my biggest challenges as an adult has been learning to balance that yearning for security and safety with the rewards of facing uncertainty and mustering the courage to take risks. Here is the finished piece:

Winters Past and Present, 12 x 12, acrylic collage

I love drawing with fine tip ink pens, the way this medium allows me to dig into every corner of a memory, or explore the finest details of a subject observed. At the same time, I love painting loosely with thick paint and sticky gel mediums, smoothing and scraping the snow down the hill, or layering the light into the trees. Acrylic collage allows me to combine these two modes of working.  I enjoyed juxtaposing my old wooden sled with my son’s contemporary snowboard. Two parallel universes?  I hope my son will one day look back on his own childhood with the same fondness I have for mine, while at the same time having the strength and courage to say goodbye, and live fully and joyfully in the present.

Detail, Winters Past and Present

Snow Day

We woke up Monday morning to a wonderland of snow.  The sun was sparkling and the trees were frosted in white. My son rolled out of bed at 8 AM, pulled on his snow pants and ran out the door to play.  I clicked on Holly’s leash, grabbed the camera and soon followed him.  There was no giddy anticipation of school closing because of the snow since there was already a scheduled holiday for President’s Day. Nonetheless, the thrill remained. I still had to go to work, but I work from home, and there was time for a short walk. It was the perfect snow: the roads were mostly clear but there was just enough for sledding, snowballs, snowmen, and some winter cheer.

The quiet stillness of the morning soon gave way to the sounds of neighborhood children romping and hollering in the snow. There was snowboarding, giant snowballs, and an impressive igloo smartly constructed in the deep shade along the side of a house to prevent premature melting. My son Max and his buddies played outside the entire day, with just a few short breaks for lunch and hot chocolate.  While we have experienced some inconvenient blizzards over the years, we usually only get a few light snow days each winter, so it always feels special.  While enjoying the beauty of the snow and the sounds of children playing, I indulged in a few fond memories of winters past:

Max's First Snow Man, 2006, Age 2

Me and My Snow Bear, 1978, Age 6

Winters Past and Present, ink on paper, 2012

Week 6: The Woods with Secret Doorways

This week’s collage explores the idea of art-making as a doorway to the Self.  I have had this experience whether working with imaginary subjects, or responding to the observed world.  Working from one’s imagination, perhaps that door opens more readily.  But it is almost more wondrous and surprising when suddenly an observed subject opens up to be a reflection of your own core being.  It happens when an art-making experience allows you to contact a part of yourself that is new to you, or feels new again. It can manifest itself in the way you see color, or recognize a particular detail, or understand the way shapes fold and fit together like scattered puzzle pieces that miraculously become whole. It can happen when you simply notice something in the world that becomes special to you, and you then translate it in your own way.

The woods behind my house continually draw me in as a place of visual intrigue and mystery. As I notice each individual branch, leaf, or fragment of light, it is as if a tiny door opens to a new revelation. If I walk through that door, what will I find? What new world awaits and what can I become there? Anything is possible.

The Woods with Secret Doorways, 12 x 12, acrylic and paper on panel

The Woods

In my many years of drawing and painting from observation, I have learned that any object or view has a secret mirrored surface.  You are closely observing the object but then suddenly you find that you are looking at yourself.  You look out at the world, then down at the page, and even the simplest of sketches has the potential to reveal volumes about who you are and how you see.  All that is required is your attention and presence in the moment.

The woods behind my house continually take on this kind of sheen.  They are the background of my daily life, framed in large windows, on view from the kitchen, displayed in my studio, by the table where we eat, behind the sofa in the family room, bigger and better than the giant television that sometimes seems to dominate the room.  The light is beautiful and in a slow steady state of change.

Finding the Path, oil on panel, 2008

Sometimes I notice the woods briefly on a busy day, as if blurred outside the window of a car. Other times I sit and quietly watch the unfolding shapes of shadows and branches.  The best view of the woods is from our deck, which has the feeling of a lofty treehouse. The backyard slopes sharply down the hill to the roots while the deck floats high above, level with the treetops.  In the morning, the house casts a shadow over the lower half of the silvery gray trunks, while the upper branches are painted with a glorious golden light.

I created a series of paintings about the woods in 2008.  Some of these paintings are now on view at Chroma Projects through the end of February. This series was a turning point for me, a turning inward.  Once focused on observing and painting this view, I began to see less of the outside world and more of the reflection of my own inner landscape.

Weeping Landscape, oil on panel, 2008

The woods became a place of quiet contemplation, where the observed world slowly fell away, and new doors opened into imaginary worlds. My husband likened this experience to that of the children in a C. S. Lewis novel: Peering deeply into the woods, I brushed past the leafy branches like mink coats in the magic wardrobe, emerging on the other side to discover strange new places in the world of my work. The Woods Series was followed by the Momentum Series which depicted an imaginary place that fully broke with the observed world.

Over the years my work has shifted back and forth between observed landscapes and imaginary worlds, but on some level they are all the same place.  The woods are a special gateway for me, a door for coming home to myself again and again.

The Woods with Secret Doorways, 2/9/2012

Week 5: Life Soup is Sour, Bitter, Salty, and Sweet

One of my very favorite teachers, Stanley Lewis, once said something that I have been mulling over for almost twenty years: Sometimes The Ego will try to block you from being the artist that you truly are. Maybe the work that is itching to be expressed is not the work you hoped or imagined you would make. You need to find the courage to be yourself.

Or do we invent ourselves as we go along, simply making choices with our minds and our will? More often I feel like the choices are already made for me. (Where?? Beneath the ego as Stanley said, somewhere deep in my brain or in my spirit?) And then it becomes my imperative task to manifest those choices, however embarrassing, however at odds with my ego. Is it even necessary to like my own work? When I am in the flow of creating, I may love my work or struggle with it, but there is always a kind of urgency that feels good when I get it down. When the work is resolved, I may or may not love it, but there is satisfaction, like solving a riddle.  It seems more important to just get it made, then other people can decide if they like it or not. This is a new way of being with my work: learning to balance the intellect with a different kind of understanding that involves an inner listening, intuition, and self-acceptance.

Another influential teacher, Charlie Hewitt, told me to allow yourself to be corny, to do what is natural and even funny.  During one of his lectures about his own work, I was scribbling down notes in my sketchbook and drew an emphatic arrow next to this sentence: “Have faith in your own feelings and rhythms. They will take you to who you are.”  He told me that the goal of art-making was not necessarily to make every work successful, but to be capable of seeing the world better.  If I am going to make 52 new works this year, they may not all be successful, but they can most certainly help me to better see my world.

I was expecting an artwork about making soup to be lighthearted and breezy, but as all these difficult questions started bubbling up, it quickly became a rather thick stew.  Bean Soup is easy and fun. Life Soup is more complicated.  Ingredients: work, play, art, food, family, iPhones, drawing, Lego pieces, painting, books, relationships, writing, computers, music, sounds, sports, pets, neighborhoods, schools, politics, loving kindness and self-criticism, and on and on.  Many of these flavors don’t meld together well and the textures are weird.  But, it is also strangely delicious to me.

This week’s collage started with filling up the red pot with all the ingredients of Life Soup, drawn on torn bits of paper and glued onto the panel with heavy acrylic medium. Then I poured Golden Self Leveling Gel over the surface in a thick layer, floating some loose paint on the top while it was still wet.  The gel is opaque when wet, but dries to a clear glassy finish. The collage elements are then embedded underneath the gel layer, visually pushed into a deeper space.

Life Soup with wet Self-Leveling Gel

I’m not sure why this piece turned into such a quagmire.  Maybe the initial thrill of starting this year-long project finally gave way to the inevitable realization that sometimes it might be really hard.  I was very busy this week, pulled in different directions, and feeling overwhelmed.  When I first conceived of the image of the soup pot, I thought it would be a quick and enjoyable piece. I wanted an easy one this week.

Life Soup with dry Self-Leveling Gel

Instead, I spent hours and hours in the studio, arranging and re-arranging, adding paint and wiping out, and so many insecurities floated up from the brew. I am thankful for Stanley and Charlie, and grateful that I took all those copious notes in my old sketchbooks so I would have those words to turn to when I needed them again.  I am finding the courage to be myself, to have faith in my own feelings and rhythms. The final work:

Life Soup

Making Soup

While my husband comes up with gourmet dinners several nights throughout the week, almost every weekend we roast a simple meal of organic chicken with potatoes and vegetables for our family supper.  I decided to make soup with the remains of Sunday’s carved bird.  On Monday afternoon I simmered the chicken with onions, celery, fennel, carrots and ginger for three hours to make a rich stock.

Starting the stock.

Sage, Thyme, Rosemary and Kale

By Monday night the stock was strained and put away in the fridge to await its full expression. On Tuesday I soaked some dried cannellini beans all afternoon and overnight. On Wednesday I built the soup in my favorite pot: caramelized onions, carrots, celery, white beans, the homemade stock, and handfuls of that bumpy blue-green Tuscan kale. The vitamins are almost jumping off of that stuff!  I finished the soup with winter herbs from my garden: purple and green variegated sage, thyme, and rosemary. We added some fresh Italian chicken sausage with fennel to complete the meal.

My approach to making the soup led me to contemplate my approach to the creative process in art and in life:  Start with an idea that inspires you– warm soup on a winter’s day. Utilize what you already have– Don’t waste that leftover chicken and all the flavor it is waiting to impart!  Strive for a balance of the things that nourish you– lots of vegetables, a little protein, a lot of flavor.  Make it colorful– orange carrots, green kale, purple sage, red pot.  

Building the Soup

Maintain some discipline– remember to soak the beans ahead of time, and give the onions enough time to slowly caramelize.  Try combining the things you truly love in your own way– you don’t always need a recipe.  Be flexible and responsive to the unexpected– those beans took about two hours longer to cook than I had planned! Share with others– Husband  enjoyed his whole bowl.

Love in a Bowl

Respect different points of view– Our boy does not like beans or kale, but chicken sausage is pretty good.  Improvise– tomorrow I think I will warm up some soup for lunch and add grated pecorino… Think towards the future while valuing what is learned and experienced in each necessary step along the way.

Life Soup

Week 3: The Snowy Walk

This weekend brought a wintry surprise to the neighborhood landscape.

Glittering ice coated all the trees and a light snow fell. Just enough to create some winter beauty without the hazardous road conditions.  It made for a chilly but beautiful morning walk with Holly. I was very excited for the opportunity to include snow in this week’s collage. I envisioned the collage as a kind of pictorial map of our walking route. I wanted to include a bird’s eye view of the neighborhood, while also offering a more intimate view of our experience together when we stop at her favorite spot, listen to the birds, allow the world to fall away, and watch the woods come alive in the unfolding present. Here is the completed piece:

I was so enthralled with painting the snowy landscape, that I chose to use fewer collage elements this week.  The trees and landscape are all painted with acrylic paint and gel mediums.  I experimented with thick layers of gel, then scraped into the paint with stiff brushes, creating an engraved “drawing” in paint. The houses were again created by using my son’s Lego piece as a stamp.  I used collage elements to populate the landscape with birds and woodland creatures. Many small drawings of mice, squirrels, deer, birds and owls were tucked in among the trees and branches. I also included Holly and myself in the form of a tiny ink drawing that was cut out with a blade and glued onto our special place on the map. Here is a detail of my favorite part:

Sneak preview of Week 4: A special visitor is coming…!