Flashlight tag is one of the great joys of summer for the neighborhood kids. Just last weekend, my son hosted a sleep-over with six of his buddies. As soon as the sun went down, flashlight tag was the game of choice! This week I had fun creating a collage that aims to capture the thrill of being a kid let loose on a warm summer evening, sneaking around in the dark, running and hiding, laughing and hollering. The result has a bit of a madcap Scooby-Doo-mystery vibe that I find very amusing.
This week I had a lot of fun sketching my 8-year-old son and his teammates at lacrosse practice. To provide some more versatility, I scanned the drawings and vectorized them in Illustrator. I could then scale them up and down, flip or reflect the images, and move them around to fill the page. When I had a good variety of figures in different sizes, I printed them out onto various natural fiber collage papers. I saved the digital file to be manipulated later for pattern design applications.
Next I prepared a painted ground for the collage, using colors inspired by the playing fields: the bright spring greens and yellows of new grass, the red-brown of the Virginia clay, and the deep green of the established turf. I let the color push and pull the space around to create a place for the figures to play. I used fluid acrylics and kept it loose and playful. Observing kids is always a great reminder to just have fun and be in the moment, no matter what you are doing.
Once the ground was dry, I began playing with the placement of figures. I like to tear the collage elements rather than using scissors, to create more organic and interesting shapes. I also chose to use two different colored papers this time. This brilliant orange paper is similar to the color I always use as an underpainting on the panels. Often you will see this orange underpainting showing through the paint layers as a warm glow.
In the final composition, I added jersey numbers. To keep the piece more personal, I actually went up to my son’s closet and pulled out all his old jerseys from the last three seasons of football and lacrosse (First through Third Grade), and used the numbers he had actually worn. I could still hear myself cheering for him, “Go Number 9!”
Here is a detail that shows the loosely painted surface with its drips and smears, the ragged edges of the torn paper, sketches of players and numbers, plus the diagram of the playing field articulated by ink lines drawn right onto the panel.
After working through the handmade collage, I switched gears and got back on the computer. In Illustrator, I cleaned up the sketchy figures just slightly to make them a bit more legible and simplified, while still retaining the hand-drawn feel. I then added some red jerseys, more numbers, and played with the size and scale of the motifs. If I were to develop this further (which I plan to do!), I might experiment with a wider color palette and more depth and layers to the background. Here is the start of a pattern design that might be great for bedding in my kid’s room or maybe boy’s pajamas!
Dogwoods are so important in my town that we have an annual Dogwood Festival, Dogwood Parade, Dogwood Pageant and Dogwood Ball. A stylized illustration of the unmistakable four-petaled dogwood flower graces the new public signage announcing the city limits and promoting the historic downtown and local sites. We all anticipate this most beautiful time of the year when the purple redbuds are still blooming, the azaleas are flashing their fiery magenta, and the pink and white dogwoods majestically unfold in our yards, our neighborhoods, in strip malls, at schools, and all over the downtown area. You may ask if all this dogwood over-kill eventually detracts from their appeal, but at least for me, the answer is a definitive “No!” I can’t get enough of these trees. I will drive out of my way to cruise through the neighborhoods and streets that have the best displays. We planted three in our backyard along the edge of the woods last Fall, and anxiously checked the bud formation at the end of winter, waiting for those beautiful blooms to begin. Do I prefer the white or the pink varieties? We planted the classic white ones, but I really can’t decide.
There is something special about a tree that becomes a symbol for a whole community. It is one thing that bring us together, that we can all agree on. Finally, a unifying tradition that is not political or controversial. Who can object to beautiful, long-lived, blooming trees all over your town? (While I don’t follow the Dogwood Pageant or attend the Dogwood Ball, I fully appreciate the numerous public plantings.) I enjoy this communal love of the dogwood, but I also have more personal ties to this tree. The house I grew up in had a white dogwood centered in the front yard. My mother loved this tree and taught me to notice it when I was a child. I looked forward to the dogwood blooming as if it were Christmas in April. It’s arrival was like turning a corner in the year, heading toward warmer days, playing outside, the Spring art shows, the May and June birthday parties for my sister and I, the family picnics, and then summer vacation. These memories still stir something in me when I see the dogwoods begin their annual show.
My mother’s birthday is coming up on March 4th. She has been gone for 20 years. I was a college student and she was only 50 when cancer took her from us. After her death, it was easier for me to worry about my Dad and my sister than to face my own grief. I spent years denying my anger and sadness over this loss, feeling alternately foolish and brave. It took years of slowly rolling back the curtain on myself to feel those feelings and realize they would not break me. My mom would not let that happen. The one thing that saved me was the knowledge that my mother would want me to find peace and happiness again, however impossible that seemed in her absence. It wasn’t until I became a mother myself that I was finally able to approach understanding how much she loved me, and how much I loved her. Eventually I learned how to feel that love again when I remember my Mom, and allow it to lead the way past the sadness.
As a ballerina and beauty queen in her youth, she was a hard act to follow. My Grandmother relished pulling out the scrapbooks and recounting her achievements: Homecoming Queen, Harvest Bowl Princess, May Queen, Miss Roanoke College, and Sweetheart of Sigma Chi… My Mom was always quick to modestly remark that her popularity was simply a result of her having many friends, in many different groups, and her belief in the importance of being nice to everyone and taking an interest in all kinds of people. (Sub title: Not just the beautiful and popular ones.) My mother was a very humble, kind and sincere person, and it was these qualities that I aspired to more than the superficial standards I could never live up to. A beautiful and joyful woman, my mother was known for her distinctive laugh that could be heard ringing through our home at any moment. While I did not wind up with the Grace Kelly looks, I did inherit that laugh, whether genetic or learned, and it is one way I can remember her every day.
My Mom had a way of showing a complete and total interest in me as a developing person. Having worked as an elementary school teacher before I was born, she had a natural way with children and an ability to inspire learning. There was that indescribable motherly love that seemed to emanate from her effortlessly, but there was also a conscious mission to her mothering. She was devoted to showing me a wide variety of delightful things in the world, and then was right there to share and listen to my every response. We reflected back each other’s joy and enthusiasm, like two shiny mirrors, laughing the same laugh.
As a very small child, I remember her taking my sister and I to the Enchanted Forest, a storybook and nursery rhyme themed amusement park where you could climb into a whale’s mouth, visit the Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe, or ride in a pumpkin to Cinderella’s Castle. She loved reading to me, so it was especially fun to visit the Enchanted Forest where those same stories and poems would come to life. Sometimes she liked to surprise us with a mystery outing. We wouldn’t know where we were going until we got there. I soon learned to anticipate a trip to the movie theater if she brought along my cardigan on a warm day. She didn’t want me to get chilly in the theater while watching Bambi or Fantasia, and I can still feel her leaning in to pull the sweater around me and button the top button.
She cared for me with so many of those loving details, whether it was a special event or a regular day. For our birthdays, my sister and I would always get a homespun outdoor celebration. Mom would set the patio picnic table with a red and blue checkered tablecloth and a homemade birthday cake. We would invite our friends and gather around in our party dresses for games and scavenger hunts in the shade of the poplar trees, surrounded by blooming azaleas and rhododendrons. Home cooked family dinners each night were a part of our normal routine. From upstairs I could smell the pork chops browning in the pan, served with my favorite applesauce on the side. Mom always made a salad in a wooden bowl to accompany our meal, and placed the thinly sliced radishes that my father liked so much on a separate small plate so I wouldn’t have to pick them out. She knew how to make everyone happy.
She took me regularly to the Baltimore Museum of Art where we marveled together at Degas’ dancers, the Impressionist paintings bursting with color, and Rodin’s larger than life sculpture, The Thinker. We drove downtown to the Walter’s Art Gallery and explored the hushed rooms of medieval tapestries and suits of armor. At the Cylburn Arboretum we wandered the gardens and studied the pressed leaves and startling stuffed squirrels in the Nature Museum. As I grew up and began focusing on my own interests, she would encourage me in every way she knew how. Anything I was interested in, she would learn about and be interested in too. She sent me to the best places for art lessons, violin lessons, music camp, field hockey and lacrosse camps…she never pushed me to do too much, just supported me in however much I wanted to take on. When I came home with straight A’s every semester throughout high school, she told me it would be OK if I got a B sometimes. It was an amazing balancing act as a mother– to cheer me on as fast and as far as I could go, while at the same time letting me know it was OK to stop and rest, keeping me secure in the fact that I would always be loved for who I was and not what I achieved.
As a moody teenager, I remember the solid background of her support that I knew was always there behind my emotional zigzags. In high school, I told her I wanted to be an artist… an unconventional choice for someone in our family. I remember trying to explain to her that this was more than a hobby to me, that it was my life’s work, what I needed to do, what I had to do. She took in my words with so much love and patience, seeing through my teen angst into the core of my fragile young being. She did not dismiss my melodramatic rant, or hope it was a passing phase. Mom just listened, and incredibly, she believed me and understood.
When I was small, I used to love it when she would put on her Andy Williams record, and we would listen to Up, Up and Away. We would take the kitchen stools, turn them upside down, climb inside them, and pretend we were in hot air balloon baskets, flying up, up and away. I can still hear the lyrics of the song in my head:
If you’ll hold my hand we’ll chase your dream across the sky
For we can fly, we can fly
Up, up and away
My beautiful, my beautiful balloon
Mom, I’m still chasing my dreams across the sky. Thank you for showing me the way.
This week’s collage is inspired by the joys of reading to my son at bedtime. I wanted to visually capture the experience we share of being swept away by the story, allowing the dim light of the room to blend the real and imagined. We pile into the bed with the cat and the stuffed animals, open the big book and begin our adventure. We have been reading D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths, with its heroic deeds and enchanting illustrations. The tale of Jason and the Argonauts was one of our favorite stories. The great ship Argo, filled with heroes, sets sail on a quest for the Golden Fleece. As the sheets and blankets melt into a vast ocean, we find ourselves heading out to sea, charting a new course.
The sailing ship has been an ongoing motif in my work, a kind of avatar for the Self, forging ahead through rough waters, sailing out to the horizon in search of adventure, or returning home to be anchored in the safe harbor. My red boat has the capacity to explore many different ways of being in the world, navigating between solitude and community, surrender and ambition, safety and risk. In both making art and reading books, we allow for the opportunity to explore the world outside our own experience. The collage I made this week is a strange mix: it seeks to both replicate a very real, intimate experience in my every day life, while folding it into the fantastical unknown. I was intent on capturing the specific details of my son’s favorite toys, grounding the scene in reality, while at the same time juxtaposing these familiar characters with the romance of the book illustrations and the possibility of an imaginary adventure all our own. As a final addition, I collaged a tiny secret doorway in the upper right hand corner. Maybe it is simply the bedroom door, the door back to reality. Or maybe it is a door that leads to yet another imaginary world. I whisper to my son, “Be open to all possibilities.”
While I admit there are some evenings when our 8-year-old son and I fall into an exhausted sleep on the couch in front of the TV, most nights we prepare for our special ritual of Story Time. We “jammy up,” brush our teeth, and climb the ladder up into our boy’s cozy loft bed. Stuffed animals surround us on all sides, and Olivia, our cat, disappears among the audience of fury friends. We turn on the reading lamp, snuggle down into the waves of Pirate sheets or polar bear themed flannel, wrap ourselves up in the warm blankets, and settle in for Story Time. This ritual has been a part of our routine since my son was a baby. We worked our way through board books and picture books, from Elmer to Dr. Seuss. Then we moved on to beginning readers and chapter books, from The Magic Treehouse to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. My husband also enthusiastically participates, having unearthed favorites from his own childhood, like the incredible Phantom Tollbooth. I am so grateful to have passed on the love of reading to my son, who now greedily devours a 350 page Percy Jackson book within a week or two. But even though he regularly reads novels silently to himself, there is still a wonderful enjoyment in sharing a story read aloud, preferably one with fantastic pictures.
We are currently making our way through D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths. I am particularly thrilled that my son has enjoyed this book so much since it was one of my dearest favorites from my own childhood. I didn’t own the book, but would check it out of the public library again and again. I love both the stories and the illustrations, which include detailed maps, dynamic adventure scenes, and family trees of the Greek Gods and Heroes. As we continue through the stories, I am remembering long forgotten favorite episodes, (“Spring comes when Persephone returns from Hades!”) while my son recognizes monsters from the contemporary Percy Jackson books (“I know this one! Percy fought the Calydonian Boar!”) We just finished the dramatic tale of Jason and the Argonauts on their quest for the Golden Fleece. As the Sand Man creeps into the room and sleep overtakes us, I imagine boarding the great ship Argo with its magnificent sail and setting off on our own adventures…
My father is coming to visit this week. We call him “Dada Bob.” He lives about three hours to the north, so we enjoy his visits often. When my son was two years old and first beginning to stretch his linguistic powers, we coached our little tot in forming the words “Grandaddy Bob.” With his characteristic cleverness and brevity, he replaced that cumbersome moniker with simply “Dada Bob,” and it stuck.
There are so many things I want to say about Dada Bob. Watching him be a grandparent to my son continually bursts open my heart with the memories of him as a father. When I was a child I thought my Dad was the kindest, smartest, most cheerful, most generous, most knowledgable, most responsible, most trustworthy, most brilliant person I had ever met. My mother agreed. She used to point out to my sister and I how lucky we were that my father always came home after work in a good mood. (I was shocked to learn that some Dads didn’t come home from work cheerful, and some didn’t even come home after work.) For many kids, those illusions about our parents slowly fade as we grow up. Not for me. As I got to know him as an adult, they only became more true.
One of my favorite quintessential Dada Bob moments happened several years ago when my son was maybe four years old. Dada Bob was visiting and had gotten up early as usual. He had brought a small wooden airplane that he was looking forward to flying with our boy. As we all began to stir from our beds upstairs, I heard my Dad calling to his grandson from the stairwell, “Come on Max! It’s a great day! Let’s play!” Next were the sounds of excited little feet padding down the stairs, the feet of a boy who knew he was loved. He was learning that there was always someone who wanted to spend time with him and that each day brought wondrous new things to learn. I recognized this because it is exactly how my Dad had always made me feel, and still does.
When I was very small, I would sit on my Dad’s lap in his gold easy chair every night after the family dinner and watch “The Andy Griffith Show,” or “Wild Kingdom.” As I got older, he taught me about native birds and animals, and I drew and labeled them in a special notebook: Pintail, Canvasback, Wood Duck, Muskrat. We would get up early while my Mom and sister where still asleep and sneak off to go fishing together. He taught me how to watch the bobber and hook a catfish in a pond, how to cast for bluefish in the bay, and how to hold a live crab without getting pinched. In the kitchen I watched him cook, slicing the ripe tomatoes, stirring the zucchini and onions on the stove, cleaning the soft shell crabs, marinating the fish for the grill. I learned the simple joy of a fresh fig or a ripe peach picked just for me from a branch above my head. He built me a treehouse and I learned to love the leaves, the sky, and the far-reaching landscape.
He helped me with my math and science homework and showed me how to break down a word problem into neat mathematical phrases. He wrote out the times tables on a sheet of yellow graph paper in his blocky engineer’s handwriting, and we studied it together until I knew every one. I learned to love reading by his example, watching the piles of books accumulate beside his easy chair and overflow his nightstand. He threw the lacrosse ball with me in the front yard, me with my modern plastic stick, and he with his old wooden one from college. I started painting in high school and he gave me his old paint box and showed me how to carefully clean a brush by swishing it on a piece of brown soap, then re-shaping the bristles. He sent me off to a great university to study Architecture and paid the bill. When my mother got sick and died in my third year of college, he stretched himself to become both mother and father. We struggled together against the heavy cloud of sadness that was left in my mother’s absence. I admitted I did not want to be an architect and told him I wanted to be an artist. He paid for another year of college so I could double major. I got a scholarship to grad school and earned my MFA. He helped me move to New York, carrying all my heavy boxes of art books up the stairs to my new apartment. He helped me move back to Virginia (twice), carrying all the heavy boxes of art books again. I fell in love and got engaged. He walked me down the aisle and gave me away, but I am still his and he is still mine.