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.

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.

Hot Mess, Cool Brain

In the end, it’s the not just the content of the racing thoughts that drive people to a swallow that bottle of pills – I think it’s a  desperate to escape the noise inside your brain. I realized that a few weeks ago as I got out of bed just past midnight and padded to my office.

I’d been lying in bed tossing and turning over a health insurance question I knew I couldn’t solve that night. It was a vital one, affecting my ability to get and continue treatment for my and my sons chronic illnesses, but it was still a problem that had no midnight solutions. 

No matter how many times I rolled over to a different side to try to reframe the question, it wouldn’t be solved that night or in the middle of any night.

That’s what I told myself when I’d tried to go to bed an hour and a half earlier, and after 90 minutes of mentally calculating budgets and consequences, it was still true. Knowing it was true, however, didn’t stop the thought racing through my brain. I knew some of this is anxiety from the shooting in Texas and multiple threats against schools here in Vermont during the same week. 

I also know that is what mania feels like. Sometimes you get the fun mania – – you feel all powerful and try to take on as much of the world as you can before the inevitable crash. Other times — most of the time during one of many sleepless nights – you just can’t stop thinking about anything and everything. 

I see this in my students sometimes. An unnamed but very real trauma may completely derail any attempt to sit at a desk and learn. When they are vocalized, internal monologues escape at a fast and furious pace as these kids who have already seen too much try to process and suppress the memory of whatever has happened between school days. 

When I see it in my kids, I instinctively turn to art — not the meditation that comes from drawing, but the expression and venting that comes with color. The irony is, that as my own head had become crowded with worries over the last few months of school, I didn’t automatically return to art to quiet my own thoughts.

That night, battered by real worries I couldn’t resolve in the dark on a weekend and feeling steel bands of stress tighten around my chest, however, I finally hopped out of bed and went to my office, put on some music and started to paint. I didn’t know what I would paint and I didn’t care. The result at the end of a 45 minute session was a hot mess but a cool brain that, for a few critical moments, managed to escape the noise inside.

The Opposite of Sick

I tested positive for Covid on Monday which wasn’t a huge deal (we’re all vaxxed and boosted, the symptoms are mild) but it was hugely inconvenient — until the break it enforced helped me find a needed change to disturb this winter’s rest.

Ordinarily, getting an extra week off right before spring break would have been lovely, but Constant vertigo is a fog. It’s an exhausting, involuntary hangover that turns a successful trip from my desk to the copier or kitchen to couch into an Olympic event. Almost daily Ménière’s attacks have sent me home so often that the word “disability” has been floated by doctors more times than I care to count.

The fog also clouds my identity. I feel like less of a mother, less of a teacher, and nothing like an artist. It was started to convince me that art was just a phase of my life that’s over.

A few weeks ago, my sister who had recently moved into a new house, texted looking for matches for framed photos I’d done a decade ago when I was still shooting weddings and portraits. I’d pooh-poohed my photos for a few years as I started drawing again. As I scanned dusty archives for a mate for this rose or that apple blossom, however, I remembered how much I enjoyed making them.

Yesterday, as I sat in the cool spring sun, the cats meditated on the chickadees swarming the budding lilacs. The dog lazed on the grass, occasionally lifting her head when she sensed a deer in the pasture beyond our woods. The spring sun warmed the wind and, for once, the rocking in my head made me feel closer with the rhythm around me.

I got up for a walk around the house, stopping to chat with the cats and dog who followed close behind. I examined branches, looking for incoming blossoms and studied the muddy mess that is my veggie garden after winter. My phone came out of my pocket and, almost mindlessly, I started to snap as I ambled, merging with the buds and even the puddles.

When my head started spinning last November, I felt myself detaching from work and life and, I thought, from art. But, as I snapped a branch or a racing kitty, I realized I can’t disconnect from art. Some people use art to comment on the world. Art helps me connect with it. It often helps me when I don’t expect but need it the most.

People talk about addiction as an illness, and it is, but a wise person in one of my classes once said that the opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety, it’s connection. I think that’s true with illness as well — the opposite of sickness isn’t a perfectly functioning body, it’s a life that’s still connected. Yesterday, for me, art — even in the form of blurry photos – was the opposite of my disease.

Mental Gallery

There is a painting of a sunlit stand of trees in the permanent wing of the Clark Art Museum in Williamstown, MA, And I have to stop every time we visit so I can feel its heat.

It’s bright and sunny here, but the light is cool, and I keep going back to my mental gallery for warmth.

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