Get Your Head in the Clouds

I love my job. I love doing the research to become more effective at my job teaching kids with disabilities how to access their gifts. It’s easy, however, to get absorbed by the work, Barely noticing when your feet turn to clay and your head turns to Jell-O (which is just as susceptible to gravity).

I painted the headless statue a few years ago at a friends’ farm during an open house they were hosting to celebrate rural and creative life. There were a dozen morbid reasons the robed figure could’ve lost his or her head, but, as I sat staring out at the mountains that rise up along the border between Vermont and New York, I felt a connection two it that generated a happier explanation for the decapitation.

Whenever I stare out of the mountains, I feel my spirit lifting into the clouds as I try to become one with nature. I never succeed at the merger, but the attempt always brings an unparalleled feeling of peace, followed by a burst of creativity. Whenever I see that statue, and one of my paintings or in real life, I like to think that the figure simply got lost in the clouds, and the feet of clay just got left behind.

I’m on April break this week, and I’ve spent most of it focusing on the things that keep my feet covered with clay. I’ve budgeted. I’ve done some windowshopping. I’ve done some research for my upcoming thesis. And I have bought into guilt for not getting in touch with creativity during this brief bit of downtime.

One of the things I do love about my job is that every day demands intense creativity. I know, however, if I don’t get my head back up in the clouds at least for a little bit this week, that well, while never running completely dry, will become tepid.

So today, instead of working on the feet of clay stuff like cleaning my office that looks less and less like a studio every day, I’m spending a little time giving into wanderlust with my watercolors in my bag. There are times when you really need to get your head back in the clouds.

It’s Not Them

Winter at Heart

Even shielded from news most of the day because of the internet ban at work, it’s impossible to avoid all awareness of an earth-turned-inferno and humanity’s own seeming desire to immolate itself in war. Sometimes it’s hard not to wonder, “What’s the point?”

But the minute I start asking that question, I know it’s not the news. It’s me.

Hammering out a few words each day has seemed to be a Herculean task, and, until last night, I hadn’t touched a canvas in months. I know that, even though in some cases, things really are that bad for some of the world, right now, depression is warping the lens of my mind’s eye.

Sometimes depression is like seeing through a fog, but there are times when it is like living with a lens stopped down to the smallest aperture. It throws everything into sharp, extreme focus. There are no soft edges. There is no cropping out ugly details that make the world seem like an overflowing landfill that hardly needs anymore pointless paintings or posts.

And I know it’s not the world, it’s me – at the moment.

I like to think the depression isn’t who I am, but it’s been with me, off and on, since I could crawl. It’s at least as much a part of me as being near-sighted, and there are even times I’m glad for the hyper focus (this isn’t one of them).

I was driving home tonight, still struggling for what to paint or draw. I knew my head needs me to but couldn’t reconcile my need with the resources it would use, the waste it might generate, or the pointlessness of making anything.

Usually Facebook is the opposite of an anti-depressant, so it was against my better judgement (already shaky this week) that I launched it on my phone when I got home and sat down to decompress. The first photo that hit my feed, however, was a screenshot of a September tweet from Dan Rather that went like this:

“Somewhere, amid the darkness, a painter measures a canvas, a poets tests a line aloud, a songwriter brings a melody into tune. Art inspires, provokes thought, reflects beauty and pain. I seek it out even more in these times. And, in doing so, I find hope in the human spirit.”

It was one answer to a question I ask all the time – especially when my focus is sharp but corrupted .

Is art selfish?

I know art is therapy – a softening of the lens. When continents really are on fire, when children are living in prisons and adults are making more misery from war, however, I hope for it to be a light in the darkness. For tonight, the hope is enough to let some softness into my view.

Poem – Stopping Down

I stopped all the way down

And now my field is deep,

Focused and sharp,

Too treacherous to roam.

Everybody’s a Critic

Paw Print at Dawn by Jim-Bob Barlow

I was trying to paint last night but Jim-Bob, our orange tabby making a life as a reformed barn cat, decided my time could be better spent. He hopped up on my lap and then crawled up to my neck for insistent snuggle.

“No, kitty,” I said after giving a few scratches and setting them down on the floor.

“I have needs,“ he seemed to purr at me or as he jumped up between the brush bucket and the fish tank, worming his way back onto my lap. He put a paw on the painting table, and I set him down again.

 Katie-the-wonder-dog barked at the door to let me know she was ready to come in, and I pushed the table away from me and padded out to the mudroom to let her in. Jim-Bob, curiously, did not follow, and I should’ve known something was up.

When Katie and I got back to my studio/office, Bob trotted out past us with a swish of his tail, leaving behind only a paw print of disapproval on the still wet painting.

Thing2 has just fallen asleep in the room across the hall so I kept my curses quiet, swearing that was the last that cat would ever see of the inside of my studio. He knew better, however, waiting less than five minutes to nudge open the door with a butt of his head. And as a sucker with a severe case of Stockholm syndrome, when he threaded himself between my legs, I put down my brush and decided to tackle his boundary issues another night.

Some nights in the studio are as much about processing as they are about product.  

Buried


“How are YOU doing,” they asked.

The right word escaped me then but has found me tonight as I listen to each inflection of Thing1’s fevered breath, afraid to sleep in case he spikes again, cataloging the drugs and doses he’s on incase we need to head to the hospital for the umpteenth time this snow-inundated winter, and feeling completely frustrated at not being able to do the one thing every mother is supposed to be able to do for her children — make them better. 
And, for the first time in weeks, mostly because I’m way beyond the “if i didn’t laugh I’d cry” stage of the winter and because I don’t have time to cry and can’t think to write or draw, I picked up a brush and started to paint, and the word found me.

Somehow we will dig out of this endless winter, but right now, I realized that the word I’d been looking for was “buried”, and it had nothing to do with the snow.

A Room with a View


Thing1 and I spent most of the day at Dartmouth- Hitchcock looking out the window of his room toward the great foggy north known as New Hampshire. The mountains disappeared and re-emerged from the clouds that has to around us all day, and they set the perfect view for our mood.
Thing1’s Ulcerative Colitis required him to be admitted to the hospital for treatment of a severe acute episode last night. The disease has escalated, and when we leave tomorrow, it will be with the knowledge that we need to decide between several long-term treatment options, each of which carry serious risks.

My gentle giant hasn’t shed any tears or wallowed in self-pity since his diagnosis a year and a half ago, but I could tell that the relapse and the treatment options presented had deflated his morale quite a bit. 

 Pep talks and platitudes are wasted on Thing1, so I steered the conversation back to his favorite topic – cars – until he was ready to talk about options. I worked my online day job while nurses came in and out with more medications and fluids, and the gray foggy day seemed to flow through the plate glass window.

Late in the day, the sound of a snow plow in the parking lot 5 floors below pulled our attention back to our view.

“The mountains are too populated,” said T1, “but they are beautiful.”

When the mountains disappeared into the night, I was able to do my own research into T1’s options. Number crunching and phone calls to experts made us more optimistic, and a chance conversation with a nurse with the same disease helped T1 marshal his morale.  

Tomorrow is supposed to be cold but sunny, and the view should get better as things become clearer.

Something to Do


For the first Saturday and as many Saturdays as I can remember, I didn’t have a class or a fair, Thing1 didn’t have a job, and the Big Guy wasn’t working. 

We have plenty to do. The yard has been professionally neglected all summer, but still with everybody in the family home for once, we felt like we should look for something to do. 

Something fun.

That’s how we found ourselves driving through The rolling hills of Washington County, New York. Thing1’s driving did nothing for my painting skills, but it did wonders for my creative spark. 

Suddenly I can’t wait to get back in the studio.

Make Me Smile

We decided to reconnect our granola, earth-sheltered house to the grid before the first snow fell last November, and, after years of watching every watt, we indulged. 

We used an electric dryer over the winter and  renewed a relationship with our crock pot. I even adopted a school of tetras and a guppy, setting them up  in style with a few plants and a little stone thinker girl.

I added a Plecostomus, also known as a Suckermouth Catfish — technically a bottom feeder — to control  algae.  He was a little shy at first, so I named him Herman the Hermit, resisting the urge to name him after some politician.

Soon, I caught him whispering in thinker girl’s ear, and her smile seemed to grow (he must have been telling her how well he’d clean the tank because he did). Her beaded hat gleams, which made me realize most politician are not bottom feeders.  Bottom feeders performs a useful service, after all.
 
And, anyway, how many politicians would think to make a woman smile by cleaning up without being asked?

Perfectly Still

A few months ago, wanting to improve my paintings and realize a dream I’d had since high school, I began looking for an affordable art school.  I wanted to improve my drawings, learn more about techniques and be in a community of other emerging artists. 

If you’ve ever looked for  art schools, however, you’ll know what I mean when I say that the word ‘affordable’ is REALLY subjective, and, realizing that getting a BFA or MFA would require mortgaging all my vital organs to pay for it, began designing my own MFA in illustration.  I looked at the curricula for a number of schools and set about finding inexpensive workshops that paralleled them as closely as possible, settling on an online classical drawing course.

The first part of the course focused on breaking bad habits — holding the pencil wrong, starting with the wrong subjects — and starting new, good habits. Ironically, the affordable drawing course had a fairly pricey equipment list. Wanting to follow it as closely as possible, however, I went online an ordered everything except the $250 easel. And then I waited.

And I waited.

I waited for the stuff to arrive. I waited for the next lessons on using it properly. 

And I didn’t draw a thing. 

Not a cartoon.

Not a single still life or even an recklessly abandoned landscape.  Even my book layout slowed to a crawl.

My art — and with it — my blog was perfectly still.

A friend pointed it out to me: “Your blog is static. You’re only posting every few weeks.”  And I wanted to add that the posts were uninspired because I was uninspired.  I began telling myself the posts were so infrequent because it took too long to illustrate them the way I wanted.

Then a friend invited me to test out a watercolor tutorial she had developed for an educational website.  The video turned out to be a fun review of basic skills, but what stuck with me was a phrase she kept repeating: “Be gentle with yourself.”

I  look at other tutorials on the site and noticed that, other tutors — most of them working illustrators that I want to be — all ambassadors of the “Be Gentle With Yourself” philosophy.  They were also doing was something I wasn’t anymore. 

They were drawing everyday.

My favorite video was a short segment called the “Three Minute Sketching Challenge.”  Inspired the Hundred Days of Sketching project, it advocated timed drawings that guaranteed an imperfect result.  It also guaranteed, however, that there would be a result.

I turned to my fish tank and set the timer. My guppy, Oscar seemed to know he was being drawn because he chose those exact three minutes to do his daily race around the fake bonzai plant, but three minutes later I had a fishy doodle.

Four minutes after that, it was colored in.

Five minutes later, I dropped the ‘serious’ drawing class and subscribed to the way cheaper site .

I did a few dozen timed doodles, cursing when the alarm clock announced it was time for my day job.

Nothing I’ve produced in the last few days is remotely serious. It’s miles away from perfect. I may chase perfect and sign up for a ‘serious’ art class again someday, but, for now, I’m too busy drawing.

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Chasing Frogs

It’s just barely past witching hour, and I’ve been chasing on paper one of those Lake Michigan days when it’s too rough to swim past your knees and too wild to stay cooped up inside away from the beach.

This is my favorite so far, but I’m still not sure if it’s a frog or a prince. But there’s a few hours before the sun come up, so I still have time to kiss a few more toads. And the hunt is a satisfying as the catch.