Where Paintings Go to Die

I knew the lighthouse would be the most difficult thing to paint. I usually take only palette knives when I do plein air, and my hand has been shaking for the last few months because of my Ménière’s.

Still, the beach and dune and lighthouse in Southhaven Michigan are almost obligatory subjects, and I knew, if I didn’t at least attempt to paint them, I would have them nagging at me for the rest of the week as I tried to capture other scenes around southwestern Michigan. So I got out of the house early in the morning and set up my easel in a shady spot with a good vantage point, determined not to let any inner critics make the scene more challenging than it would be.

I like painting mountains and fields. I know them, and I can focus on the feeling and not the fundamentals. Painting the lake should be easy (I’ve been here every year since I was a fetus). I haven’t, however, practiced enough with that spot where the water meets the sand on a calm day or the crash of the waves. Seeing was going to be a challenge without perfectionism getting in the way.

The sky and horizon went in pretty easily. I’d done a rough sketch of where the lighthouse and trees in the foreground should go. Even the blues of the lake seemed to be dropping in pretty easily.

Then came the time to draw the rigid lines of the pier that connects the lighthouse to the shore. I’d loaded my palette knife with dark gray to scratch a thin dark line across the middle of the lake when a woman asked if she could take a peek. I always say yes to be friendly even if I’m not happy with the work and don’t want someone to see it. We chatted about where we were from and our connections to South Haven.

“I’ve always wanted to paint,“ she said, “but I’m not really an artist.“

“Everyone’s an artist,“ I said. “You should paint it.“

She mentioned having gone to paint and sips and how frustrated she’d been worrying over details and the painting that weren’t turning out the way she wanted. I said I liked the paint and sip idea because it got people to create.

“But,” I said, “perfectionism is where paintings go to die.“ I was saying it as much for myself as for her, as I knew the lighthouse would begin as soon as our conversation ended.

We chatted for a few more minutes and then she let me get back to my painting and, using my wrist to balance, I started to drop in the pier. The line was mercifully straight, but now it was time to drop in a tiny red, vertical dash to represent the lighthouse.

My hand shook as I tried to pop the tiny red line in, and I ended up with a little squiggle. I scraped out that part of the lake put it back in, put in the line for the pier and tried the lighthouse again.

It still wasn’t right.

Scrape. Paint. Scrape. Paint.

I finally decided that the next iteration of pier and lighthouse would be the last. I popped them in and put the painting in the back of the car, went home, and scraped the canvas clean.

Later that day I was reading about the painter Elaine de Kooning and her husband and artist Willem de Kooning. Bill had a habit of scraping paintings with he disliked, much to the dismay of his wife who often loved the destroyed pieces.

I realized that, however bad I thought the painting was (and it really was), scraping the canvas was the extreme end of letting nitpicking and perfectionism kill the work.

This morning I returned to the same spot, determined to let the mood of the morning guide the work. Almost as if some creative collective was ensuring the lesson was learned, I easily found a shady spot to park and set up. Another couples set up their chairs to read in the shade and listen to the waves. I’d forgotten my iPod, but, as soon as I had my colors arranged on the palette, a pair of folk musicians started playing nearby.

This time the pieces came together easily. I loaded the knife and the pier appeared as I slid the edge on the canvas. The lighthouse was far from perfect, but, at the end of the season, there was only one incarnation as the imperfect but finished painting got packed to go home.

Re-creation

I’ve recently started a painting mentorship with the aim of finding and clarifying my voice and improving my technique.

The first few weeks have focused on killing my inner critic (for the moment) and painting with “reckless abandon.” They also came with a recommendation to temporary stop selling work (aside from a fair in September) to discourage the temptation of painting or an imagined “audience“ rather than just painting.

When Thing2 dragged us to see Maverick earlier this summer, I ridiculed Tom Cruise’s oft repeated mantra of “don’t think, just do.” The advice to a younger pilot seemed to be a larger philosophy discouraging critical thought.

As I drove into early exercises, however, I giggled as I co-opted and adapted the motto to “Don’t Think, Just Paint.”

One result was a collection of paintings too numerous to post, let alone hang in my office/studio. Another one was a reignited compulsion to draw anything, anytime, everywhere. The main result, however, was a vacation from my own head and the endless inner debate about what or even if to paint.

Critical analysis will happen down the road, but part of vacation — of re-creation — is disconnecting from doubt and engaging with life with reckless abandon.

Where the Taconics Meet the Greens

12 x 12, oil on canvas

I see this particular view every time we come back from and the Equinox that I have to go back to again and again because I can’t get them out of my head and they never the same two days in a row. This is another one of those spots.

The difference is I have to remember this one because there’s no good place to park and draw or take pictures, so, each time we round this particular corner at the crest of this foothill in the Taconics, I try to commit another part of this view to memory.

Don’t Think, Just do

The assignment was to put the intellect on hold for a whopping 10 minutes and just paint from the heart. Disconnect the critical and turbocharge the emotional.

I’ve done it several times tonight, and even been happy with the results once or even twice. But as soon as that timer goes off, as soon as I step back to inspect, the intellect — the critic – sees a spot that could be just a bit better and moves in with a finger or knife or brush and turns any sparkle to mud.

Wages of Salt

Back in December, I made a deal with Thing1 that I would quit drinking Diet Coke. We were both worried about some new habits he’d picked up at college and decided to conquer our separate vices in solidarity. The bargain worked out well for both of us, but, when I slipped in the middle of June, I discovered that crushing guilt wasn’t the only price I would pay for not upholding my side of the deal.

When I was first diagnosed with Meniere’s Disease (MD) back in January, I’d been “clean and sober for a couple weeks. My ENT’s eyes widened when, responding to to his query about my caffeine consumption, I revealed a lifetime commitment to keeping Diet Coke stock prices stable. He confirmed Dr. Thing1’s prognosis – Diet Coke was not a health food – and noted that, in addition to needing a few weeks for the caffeine to leave my system, the 40 mg of sodium per can might have been aggravating my vertigo.

So for four months I stayed on the wagon. I told myself it was for the Meniere’s but knew the discipline was entirely due to my pact with Thing1. I occasionally counted sodium until April, when, after months of disabling vertigo, my ENT that I might actually need to go on disability. Neither of us was ready to throw in the towel just yet, however, so he referred me to Mass Eye and Ear in Boston.

Thing2 was elated for a trip to Boston — his stomach knows no limits – and, as the self-appointed referee of my pact with Thing1, even allowed that a single Diet Coke would be permitted with our first meal.

That was the first slip and should have been the last.

The visit to Mass Eye and Ear was scary (no taking the T alone, no driving, no running) but resulted in specific guidelines for diet that might give me back my life. He gave me a new medication and a firm number for daily sodium, along with guideposts for avoiding hidden salt.

I’m always stronger when I have a checklist to get through things and, for the next 5 weeks, using my calorie counter app, monitored every bit sodium in every bit of food and drink. It was much more strict than anything I had done before. I was proud of developing a shred of discipline, and knew I owed it to my pact with my first born.

Then came the text from Thing1.

I was getting a haircut and almost ignored the ding.

<<I’m having chest pains>>

Chest pains can be many things, but Thing1’s chronic illness has taught us never to take chances. We texted back and forth as the stylist cleaned up my neck, and, by the time I was paying, I had an iron-clad promise from him that he was going to the emergency room in Boston where he’s working.

I texted a doctor in the family to get reassurances that this was nothing, but as I started home, anxiety gripped my chest and stomach. We’re in Vermont. I knew he had to handle this on his own until we could get there. All there was to do was worry.

I knew I had to keep on with my itinerary as we waited for news, but, as the worry metastasized, I found myself turning to my old standby psychotropics — food and Diet Coke. I turned into the drive-through, knowing this sin was worse because Thing1 was sick. When the salt and soda were gone, the worry was still there, but it had shame as a companion.

We got down to see Thing1 the next day. His meds had triggered pancreatitis, and he would be in for a few days. When we knew he was okay, I admitted what I’d done. The guilt still ate at me, but what I hadn’t anticipated was how giving into one habit triggered another downfall and penance.

For our first day in Boston, I managed to stick to counting milligrams, but soon began rationalizing sampling this dish or that. My prescription did its job keeping vertigo at bay valiantly for a day or two, but, but by the fourth day of sinning with sodium, the sidewalks started to move beneath my feet, and the ocean began to roar in my head again.

I knew guilt was one the wages of salt and soda, but that “sin” was also a powerful reminder of what it felt like to have my life literally spinning out of control.

I’m back on the wagon again, but fear and even guilt didn’t get me back to the straight and narrow. Love did, and it’s what I know I need to focus on when the next crisis hits.

Showing Up

Harry Rich has been showing up at his studio (every day) for 71 years,” read the first line of the article, reprinted from a 2021 issue of Art New England Magazine that I’d picked up at the gallery entrance.

I browsed through the rooms of the gallery, having the same reaction I always have with wonderful art. The world and its chaos faded away, and, for a few moments, there was only peace and color and light. By the end of our visit, however, there was something else just as wonderful and completely unexpected.

I’ve known Harry Rich for many years. I’ve been friends with his wife, Mallory, also an artist. Visiting their house and viewing her expressive landscapes on one wall and his large square, colorful abstracts on the living room walls is like discovering a secret world. Seeing his luminous paintings in a gallery, however, was like getting free admission to an art museum in a major city. 

This gallery is not in a major city. It is in Arlington, Vermont at a community center called the Arlington Commons. Housed in a former Catholic church and rectory, the Commons is new community gathering place and gallery space.  

Last night, this town of 2500 had a new pizza place open (a major event), and, as the Big Guy and I headed over to sample the vittles, we passed the new community center and a sign announcing Harry’s art show. We knew an after dinner visit was mandatory to complete the perfect date night. By the time we got to the art show, a quorum of friends and neighbors had had the same idea.

As we walked to the entrance, we waved at people we haven’t seen outside of Facebook since before Covid. For reasons passing understanding, I was suddenly shy about seeing people I’ve known for 20 years or more. I wasn’t sure what to say or for the first few minutes, but just asking how people were or about their kids, opened the floodgates. We mingled through the crowd of 30 or so people, and I felt like I was returning to something. The looks on the faces of other guests suggested at least a few people felt the same way.

We finally walked into the gallery with 45 minutes to spare before the opening was over. We spent a good part of the time wandering through the space, sometimes talking stopping to talk to a friend or neighbor. I read through Harry’s unofficial bio several times as I took in the paintings.  

In his interview with Art New England, he spoke of himself as a poet as much as a painter, and his  description was perfect. It leaves out a few things, however. I read the line about showing up, absorbing the implications as each new painting opened gateways into Harry’s imagination. 

At the end of the walk-through, I returned to the entrance where Harry and Mallory were talking with other guests. The Big Guy and I gushed over his paintings as the four of us caught up for a few minutes. I told Harry how much I loved the insight into his work the article provided. I loved learning about him “showing up“ and continuing to paint even when he thought “the paint had won.“ 

I thought of the times I’ve hung up my apron when I couldn’t solve a problem in a painting, swearing to the sky that I forgotten everything I know. As if our minds were meeting, Mallory voiced the same sentiment. 

Harry overheard that part of our conversation and looked at his wife and then at me and the Big Guy. With a mischievous look in his eye said, “That’s bullshit.”

He wasn’t telling anybody how talented they were, he was telling any artist who was listening to get off their butts and get to work. He was telling us all to show up. He had given us the gift of his creativity, reconnecting his community with each other and, in several cases, connecting people with art in a completely new way. 

I’ve been guilty of not showing up for so many things over this last year. I haven’t reported to my studio with any consistency. I’ve been reluctant to rejoin community even as Covid restrictions recede.

Last night as we finished reconnecting, we both decided that we would be back for future get togethers. Harry’s work had been a tangible reminder that we need show up regularly for the little bit vital things in our lives and our community. After all, showing up did more than produce a few rooms full of his paintings. It made him a master. It made him an inspiration.


Harry Rich: “The Vermont Years, So Far…” exhibit

is on view until September 6, 2022

The Arlington Common hours are

Thursdays 5-7 & Saturdays 10-3

3938 Historic RTE 7A , Arlington, VT 05250

Who are You?

When school ended, I thought I would be abuzz with creativity. I was expecting a summer of discovery after a winter and spring spent coming to terms with my own chronic illness. What started to happen was a buzz of mindless activity.

It was as if I was afraid to be still with my own thoughts — afraid of the answer to a question that was evermore on my mind.

“What if I’m not actually an artist?”

We had planned an overseas trip for last week and this to see family and sightsee. Thing1’s chronic illness had other ideas, so I took my sketchbooks and watercolors to Boston (where he’s working all summer) so we could visit our firstborn in the hospital.

The change in plans was disappointing at first (once we knew Thing1 would be okay), but if chronic illness has taught all of us anything, it’s how to find the silver lining in any situation. Thing1 got his release papers after two days, and the four of us had an mini-staycation so he could reintroduce us to our old stomping grounds.

Having lived there as newlyweds, the Big Guy and I have seen our share of sights, and, except for wanting to see a Turner exhibit, we were happy to walk around our favorite haunts. Thing1 and Thing2 made it clear that, no matter how air conditioned it was, they would not be going inside any museum while there was still street food to be sampled, so, on the last day, we turned Thing2 over to his brother and went, child-free for the first time in 22 years, to the Museum of Fine Arts.

The Turner exhibit was going until July 10, giving us one more silver lining for the week. Joseph Mallord William Turner has been one of my favorite artists for decades, and, while we had been to a few exhibits focused on his work, nothing prepared us for this one. Boasting room after room of watercolors, drawings, and, of course, oils, the exhibit focused on Turner’s artistic and philosophical evolution against the backdrop of the Napoleonic wars, the end of the British slave trade, and the beginning of the industrial revolution.

His masterworks were awe-inspiring, but about halfway through the second room, I stumbled on to something much more humble that, for several hours, quieted all the toxic questions in my head. In a glass case by a doorway sat a 4″ x 5″ dog-eared sketchbook next to a faded pencil and gray-wash drawing. The sketchbook was laid open so that the viewer could see several entries.

Studying them was like walking through a forest for the first time.

The first sketch looked as if Turner had been sitting near a soldier — it was a quickly drawn impression of some detail of the uniform. It was by no means perfect. The next drawing appeared to be inside a tavern of some sort. It, too, was perfectly imperfect. It was never intended to be a masterpiece or even part of one.

It was Turner bearing witness to life around him. Good or bad wasn’t part of the equation in any of these sketches. There was no questioning of who he was, there was only doing work he was driven to do.

So much of the noise in my own head is created by the question of “is it good?” I worry about the better artist at the next table seeing my inferior work. The irony is that when my own students worry if their writing or art is good, I make sure they know that creating, working — good or bad – is what helps them grow.

As we moved from gallery to gallery, I began to see more of the same theme in his masterpieces, as well as his sketches and “practice” watercolors. Even in his most celebrated work, different elements highlighted Turner’s strengths and minimized any “weaknesses.” It finally occurred to me more than once that the only thing that would have kept him from being an artist would have been if he had worried about the artist or creator at the next table in that tavern and let that sketchbook stay empty.