New Rule

The alarm is set for 8 o’clock. It’s just past midnight, and I am staring at the ceiling, my eyes glued wide open. For once, neither I nor the ceiling or spinning, but nobody has managed to get the gremlins in my head to stand down.

The last few weeks have been defined by bouts of Ménière’s-related vertigo that have forced me to use a wheelchair to keep from falling down at work and to depend on other people to get me from point a to point B. At home this translates into far too much time spent on the couch watching reruns while mindlessly doom scrolling through text and images that I’m far too nauseous to absorb beyond a headline here or there.

When the fog clears, I try to paint – especially when the gremlin are keeping sleep away. Sitting and scrolling are becoming far too habitual, however.

This morning – it’s morning now –– I’m out of thinner for my paint. I’m desperate so I get up and fill the tub, grab the first book I see in my office and sink into the bubbles.

It’s not a novel. It’s a book about the history of English which turns out to be great. I expect to be engaged, entertained, and sooth, when I read fiction, but I’m surprised how relaxing it is to learn something new at two in the morning. I’m having the age old problem of not being able to put the book down, but it’s a different sensation from scrolling through toxic pages of social media posts.

Scrolling is turns my body into a clenched fist.

Each turned page, however, slows my heart rate. Each new factoid relaxes another muscle.

The book may keep me up all night, but I’m not worried about being worn out in the morning. The clarity that comes only from calm has helped me make a new rule. The next time anxiety tempts me to pick up the phone and scroll, I’ll grab a book instead.

Feathers

Sometimes my drawer full of failed inner ear fixes looks like I’m opening my own pharmacy. I’ve been trying to figure out what changes are effects or merely side effects and starting to feel like Gertrude Mcfuzz, waiting for one of the little magic seeds to sprout one or even two little feathers of hope.

And if that hope can sprout in the right place, that’d be awesome too.

Clarity in Chaos and a Shameless Plug

I’ve been holding back on sharing too much of my newer work. It is much more abstract than I’ve ever done. I am completely prepared for the reality that people who liked my old stuff, may not like the new stuff, but a mentor’s advice to keep the thoughts of any potential audience out of my head while I’m working — to just create art, for art sake with no thought of sales or like – has been driving my work lately.

It has been a really good experience, helping me find my voice, and integrate my other self — the teacher – more and more into my art.

For the last four winters that other self has dominated my life, sometimes crowding out painting, and even making me question my life as a painter. This fall, however, has been different. This fall, adopting a daily discipline of painting, even when I don’t feel “in the mood,” creating even when the demands of school seem to push everything else aside, has helped me see that teaching and painting don’t have to be two sides of my personality. They can be overlapping facets.

Teaching, like painting abstractly, can seem chaotic. There’s a lesson planning, the paperwork, the communications with parents, and, of course, meetings. And, if you love it, if you really love it, there’s the learning.

The deeper you get into learning about all the things that can derail a kids future – – and I see a lot of that as a special educator – the more invest if you become in learning about the best ways to get them back on the tracks that give them their best futures. For me, I was led to countless courses and webinars and graduate work, and it has led to thinking about where I want this blog to go.

As I embark on another course load and a research project looking at the disparate resources for students who struggle with dyscalculia (a math, learning disability), I’m realizing I can’t not write about education. And I can’t not right about art.

One gives my life purpose; the other gives it perspective, and I’m not always certain which does which.

If, like me, you are passionate about education and making sure every kid can read, or if you can’t stand the new art, feel free to vent in the comments. And, if you have enjoyed and keep enjoying the posts and art (good, bad, and hilariously ugly), please consider making a small donation using the link you’ll see in the sidebar of any post. 100% of any donations will go to funding curricula, and supplies in my classroom.

Original art will be on my website (www.Rachelbarlow.com) and 25% of sales will also go towards fundraising for my classroom and

Weird things

So I realize there’s this one–OK not only one – weird thing I do when I paint lately.

I’m trying to get more into working in abstraction, and to “get in the mood“ for whatever try emotion I’m trying to conjure up, I have a playlist of songs. I’ve always listened to music while I paint, and I usually dance a little (much to the mortification of my kids).

Lately, however, I listen to Zepplin when I’m in one kind of mood, The Doors when I’m in another kind of mood, Beethoven for another mood. This week in Vermont, everything is about fall color. Two days of near frost temps have turbo, charged the colors, and I took a little detour from abstract backed who painting some of the countryside.

Cue a little Vivaldi. I hadn’t listened to it in a while, but Zubin Mata‘s performance with the Israeli Philharmonic is still astounding 29 years after it was released. The best part, when you’re painting, is that after every few interludes, Itzhak Perlman‘s violin is so fiery that the studio audience explodes with applause. And, you are really into your painting, at that point, you can almost kid yourself into thinking that the applause is for you. Almost.

Little Piggies

While I’m working on art for art’s sake, by limiting myself to one art/craft fair for the summer. The unintended consequence of making art and not selling it is that you accumulate a fair amount of it, And not all of my little piggies, as I’m calling them, won’t end up going to market, and not all of my little piggies, as I’m calling them, will end up going to market.

I’ve been very good about not trashing canvases I don’t like. Almost every piece I make might get painted over when I go back to inspect it after a few days away, but I’ve had a watchdog protecting the proof of my “progress .”

Thing2 is taking on the role of taste maker and under 30 art critic in our house. As a musician, he is, naturally, willing to comment on other forms of art. he’s always, for sentimental reason, also been protective of any art that mommy makes. If he senses a piece might go into the trash or get painted over, he has a history of asking for it or even spiriting it into his black hole of a room.

Someday , he’ll either be Sitting on a small fortune of art or have a nice pile of fire starters. In the meantime, it’s nice to have at least one serious collector of my work in between the increasingly infrequent fire sales.

Discovery

In the months since we visited the Turner exhibit at the Boston MFA, my art practice has undergone a revolution.

Turner’s sketchbooks and studies in watercolor and oil pointed the way to constant, blissfully imperfect practice. Another exhibit and then a new mentor confirmed that, even in a modern era when we are saturated with expression in all forms, for the artist, practice still makes progress.

The result has been nonstop but also the transformation of my sketchbook from the collection of drawing exercises to a journal of my life and our summer role in 1-2 minute sketches.

#LedZeppelin2 live

The pages are filled with concerts with family, swimming kids, and views of America seen at 70 miles an hour. In the drawings connect me with people and events in a ways that photos simply can’t because they demand that the drawer be fully present. 

Sometimes drawings find their way onto canvas, and I am discovering that being present for an event like a sunset burns the colors more accurately into my brain than simply recording them through an electronic rectangle that often gets it wrong.

Sunsets

There are times when, wanting to stay connected to my family, I’ve ignore the inch to retreat to my studio to work. This summer of discovery, however, has made clear that making the time to practice — pursuing progress at every opportunity- only makes the connections with life stronger.

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.