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 38: Holly’s Escape

Our corner of suburbia is perched on a high hill overlooking woods, farmland, grassy expanses, and a distant sliver of the Blue Ridge Mountains. On my daily walk with our dog, Holly, we enjoy this view from the safe confines of our quiet cul-de-sacs and “no-thru” streets. Despite the fact that we are only five minutes away from Target, Wal-Mart, and Lowes, the drive home might leave one with a pleasant, if perhaps fleeting, feeling of a pastoral escape. The half mile section of country road that connects our neighborhood to the main highway may present a deer crossing, a glimpse of the Rivanna River through the woods, or an open field with a pond. I experience these things from inside a moving car, and depending on the day, they may quickly bounce off my consciousness like a commercial on the television, or slowly seep in like a long, beautiful poem.

One day the front door was left ajar as children ran in and out of the house, and Holly escaped. This is normally no cause for alarm. She will sprint a few laps around the adjacent yards, then come running back to me as soon as I can say, “Come get your treat!” But on this day, Holly had bigger plans. Maybe it was the band of six little boys chasing her down the street and over the hill. Or maybe she just kept running and running and it felt so good she didn’t want to stop. She ran past the last house on the cul-de-sac, through their big back yard, all the way down the high hill to the road, crossed a treacherous stretch of traffic, scooted under a fence, and burst onto the open field and out to the pond. Our boy ran home crying to me, “Holly crossed the big road!” In a moment of panic, my husband and I grabbed the leash, jumped into the car, and drove down the hill, crossed the road, and pulled up along the fence in front of the field. There she was, sniffing around the pond, happy and free.  I was so glad to see her alive, I forgot how mad I was. Part of me even envied her a bit… what was it like to run beyond the familiar boundaries of your world, and feel the exhilaration of escape?

Holly’s Escape, acrylic collage, 12 x 12

Detail, Holly sleeping

Detail, Map of the Suburbs

Detail, Holly’s Escape

Detail, Holly’s Escape

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

The Morning Walk

Holly: Zen Labradoodle

The Morning Walk is a daily ritual of My Suburban Life.  It may appear that I am just walking my dog, Holly, but the walk is for my benefit as well as hers. Although she is always with me, it is a time when I feel alone with my thoughts. It is my time to worry, complain, plan, and dream. Sometimes I may mull over a difficulty, other times I will reflect on what is good, or plan for what is possible.  It was during one of these walks that the whole idea for this project kept bumping up against my thoughts.  I resisted it for months, but then decided that I either had to stop walking the dog (not an option) or surrender to the idea.

I usually allow my mind to wander through its habitual patterns of re-playing the past or worrying about the future. Sometimes an idea or solution will rise to the top and I take this little gift home and into my day. But I learned that sometimes it is important to let go of the inner dialog, and just experience the walk for what it is– a sensory delight of fresh air, sights, smells and sounds.  It was Holly who taught me this. On work days, I am in somewhat of a hurry, needing to get the walk over with so I can go on to the day’s tasks. My mind churns ahead to my To Do List, and replays the detailed litany of things not to forget. I walk briskly and with an intention on the finish line.

Then Holly stops. I tug on the leash and she does not move.  She is transfixed, staring silently into a grove of trees. Annoyed, I tug again. Finally, I give up and stop to see what she is looking at. The incessant conversation in my head quiets, and suddenly I hear the birds. They are so loud I can’t believe I didn’t notice them before. I peer into the woods and see the subtle movements of the dry leaves in the wind, the sudden flicker of a squirrel’s tail, the patchwork of dark and light shapes among the branches. I smell the dead leaves and the cold air. I notice my breath and the weight of my limbs and remember that I am alive. We walk home and I am grateful for the walk, for Holly, for my life.