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 39: Fishing

Fishing with my Dad, circa 1980

Fishing is a tradition in my family. I grew up fishing with my father on the Chesapeake Bay and the Little Choptank River. I liked to sit on the bow of our boat, watching the sun’s quivering reflections on the waves, as we sped out across the water to where the river meets the bay. The open bay was so vast and beautiful, like the boundless presence of my father’s love. We spent many happy hours together on the water, side by side in our own world, casting for bluefish.

Another favorite fishing spot was in Georgia, where we would often spend a few weeks in the summer visiting my father’s relatives. The best part of the trip, for me, was fishing for catfish around a big pond with my Dad on his family’s farm. I loved to hear stories about his fishing adventures in the creeks and ponds of his own childhood. I was proud that I could absorb everything he taught me about fishing and I was never squeamish about holding up my little fish for the camera!

My boy on a fishing trip with his Grandfather

I loved mastering the flick of the wrist that sent the line flying out over the water. I loved the anticipation of patiently watching the bobber for any signs of a bite. I loved the thrill of reeling in a good catch, even if we tossed it back. Most of all, I loved being outdoors and spending time with my Dad. Now my father takes my son, Max, fishing, and I think Max loves it for all the same reasons.

This collage is a tribute to fishing, but it is not only about the catching of fish. It is about the special experience of being quietly absorbed in the rhythms of the natural world, and the connection to the loved ones with whom you share that experience. I included a treehouse in the final piece, which has been a recurring motif in my work, symbolizing childhood, sanctuary, and the possibilities of the imagination. In the quiet hours spent around a pond, love grows, ideas are born, and you just might reel in the big one.

Fishing, acrylic collage, 12 x 12

Detail, Fishing

Detail, Fishing

Detail, Fishing

Detail, Fishing

Week 28: Eat Local

Paper elements ready for collaging.

This week’s collage is inspired by our local farmers market. We spent a delightful Saturday morning there browsing the stalls and feasting our eyes on all the different colored tomatoes that are now in season. My father taught me to love tomatoes, and I have great memories of the big juicy specimens we would buy at a roadside stand on the way to our beach house in the summertimes of my childhood. We always enjoyed them simply prepared, just sliced out on a platter with salt, pepper, a sprinkle of fresh herbs and maybe a drizzle of olive oil. My family had such reverence for peak season tomatoes that they could almost be considered the main course, but were usually accompanied by corn on the cob, zucchini and onions, and the fish or crabs that we had caught that day on the Little Choptank River. The taste of a good tomato will always remind me of those happy summer days.

Farmers Market drawings

My process for this collage involved some new ideas and inverted techniques. Normally I draw by hand with ink pens on paper, then scan the drawings into my Mac, and manipulate them in Illustrator. I may re-size the drawings, and multiply the images. The drawings are then printed out onto collage papers with an ink jet printer, torn by hand, and collaged onto a panel in combination with acrylic paint and additional hand-drawn pieces.  This week I scanned only one drawing (the cluster of cherry tomatoes.)  The rest of the tomatoes and the market stalls were all drawn directly into the Mac using my Wacom pen tablet.  It is a little odd to say these are not “hand-drawn,” as I drew them with my hand, while holding a pen… the only difference being that the drawing first shows up on a computer screen instead of on a piece of paper.  I also colored the tomatoes using the pen tablet and digital tools in Illustrator.  The images were then printed out, torn by hand, and collaged onto a panel with acrylic paint. If you looks closely at the market stall drawings, you will see that there are only a few unique drawings. The rest are simply re-sized or reversed versions. When collaged together on the panel and individually colored, you get the impression of a large and varied market scene.

Farmers Market, acrylic collage, 12 x 12

Detail, Farmers Market

Detail, Farmers Market

Detail, Farmers Market

Detail, Farmers Market

Week 17: Backyard

Collage in process

My usual approach to landscape painting is to create unpopulated scenes, where the viewer may be coaxed to insert him or herself into the experience of the landscape. But last week I had so much fun drawing the Lacrosse Kids that I decided to continue experimenting with combining figures and landscape imagery. While I took plenty of figure drawing classes back in my art school days, I have not included figures in my own work for many years, so this is some new territory. Watching my husband patiently teaching our young son how to garden in the backyard, I was inspired to include them in this week’s collage.  I wanted to capture both my relationship to the place, as well as my relationship to the figures, imbuing each small drawing with a sense of careful attention, whether plant or person. There is an interesting balancing act of tenderness and objectivity when dealing with such dearly loved subjects!

We have created a special place in our backyard, and it is even more special now that my son is contributing to its on-going development. There was a steep slope in the back when we moved here, and over the last several years we have improved the backyard with retaining walls and multi-level garden terraces. Once the last phase of hardscape was completed last summer, we were able to really enjoy the fun part of shaping the space with beautiful trees, shrubs, and flowers. We have put a lot of creativity and love into this place, so of course I have been wanting to paint it.

Here is the finished collage, followed by some close-up images of my favorite details. I allowed most of the ink drawings to visually float on the surface of the collage, rather than embedding them in layers of paint. I wanted to retain the simple and spontaneous character of the ink line, which I think best expresses the subject matter. My approach to the figures is influenced by E.H. Shepard’s illustrations of Christopher Robin in Winnie the Pooh, a favorite of mine since childhood.

Father and Son in the Garden, acrylic collage, 12 x 12

Detail of Patio, Father and Son in the Garden

Detail of the Black Gum, Father and Son in the Garden

Detail of Max, Father and Son in the Garden

Father and Son in the Garden

Father and Son

This Spring my husband has been teaching my son how to garden. My husband and I have been actively landscaping together for many years and now it is great fun to get our son involved. For us, landscaping is like painting in 3D: it is an opportunity to create a new and imagined world, making creative decisions about the colors, textures, forms and the flow of space in our own way. We put a lot of love into our little patch of suburbia. This of course is one of the big draws of suburban life: the ability to have space around you that you can mold as you wish and call your own.

Junior Gardener

I love to watch father and son working together as my husband patiently teaches our boy how to add compost to the hole, loosen the root ball of the plant, make sure it is centered and upright, and carefully tamp the soil around it. Our son gets paid $5 an hour for gardening, which certainly helped spark his interest in this activity. (There are requests for shopping outings to the toy section of Target almost immediately after job completion.) But even so, he gardens with enthusiasm, great care, and no complaining. I am glad we are teaching him to respect, nurture and care for living things and the environment around him. And as he grows, his garden will grow with him, evolving and expanding over time. Gardening is a lot about patience and delayed gratification, a concept that is sometimes challenging for children, but a skill that will serve him well in suburbia and beyond.

Working down the line of a new border bed.

I remember my early exposure to garden work as a child, while visiting my Great-Aunt Ruby in Georgia. She and my uncle had an ambitious plot of summer vegetables, fig trees, pecans and peaches. I was fascinated by the long rows of corn that had grown above my head, the prickly looking okra plants, and the pungent smell of wet earth and tomato plants in the hot summer sun. I felt as if I had been let in on a wonderful secret that only grown-ups knew: that potatoes actually grow under the ground and corn is encased in silky husks; that food is not born in freezer bags and it does not spontaneously spring up in supermarkets.  I look forward to putting in our vegetable garden this year with our son’s help, and sharing more of these revelations. Today he was pulling weeds to prepare the vegetable plot and was surprised to pull up some carrots and beets that must have self-seeded from last year’s crop!  Fresh baby carrots for Max tonight! Maybe he will even try the beets…

Max in the Garden, ink on paper and collage

Week 4: Collage for My Father

My studio table and the collage in process.

Time folds back on itself. This collage celebrates the memories of my Dad when I was a child, while honoring him now as a father and grandfather in the present.  I have explored the symbol of my old treehouse in previous works, and brought it back here.  My Dad built this treehouse for me at our weekend home on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.  It was here that we spent many hours together on the Choptank River- fishing, crabbing, and watching the birds. The treehouse was a place of reverie, a place I would go by myself.  I enjoyed being alone, but never felt lonely.  I filled the branches of the tree with a tossed assortment of the things my father and I loved and shared: fresh figs, a ripe peach, sliced tomatoes, fishing, boating, blue crabs, waterfowl, lacrosse, physics, art, and piles of books.

 

It was great fun to work on this collage while my Dad was here visiting.  It is too easy to forget to let the ones we love know how much we appreciate them.  I wanted to pour a lifetime of love and gratitude for my father into this 12 ” x 12″ panel, and then share it with him in person.  While I was intent on getting enough studio time this weekend to finish the project, I reminded myself to balance that impulse with just spending time with Dad in the present.  That is the whole point after all– each of those special memories happened in the present moment, and more are constantly unfolding if we can only pay attention.  We spent an afternoon together downtown, had lunch at Orzo and went to see my show at Chroma Projects.  We went to my son’s basketball game, and sat outside on an unseasonably warm afternoon to watch him throw the football with his Dad, cheering him on with each spectacular catch. We cooked some great meals and had long conversations around the table.  I feel so connected to my Dad, and feel peace in the thought that there are no things left unsaid.

Dada Bob Comes to Visit: An Ode to My Father

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.