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The Flight, Watercolor and Ink

This watercolor painting, The Flight, was completed as a two-step maneuver. First, I laid out the background to the painting as wet-on-wet watercolors, so that the ocean, beach sand and light would move back and forth as a series of reflections. Once dried, I superimposed the birds in flight, using a combination of watercolor and ink.

In my earlier attempts to paint these birds, I figured out their positions and got them arranged and interacting with the water in useful ways, but still felt that there was more to do than simply positioning. Somehow, the division between birds and water held and I wanted them to be more intertwined. I wanted the birds to be in transition to flight and to represent this by mixing the various approaches to water, the concept of time, the colors of reflections, making it more chaotic. This time, I feel that I got the movement back into the painting as I had initially wanted.

Using this same technique of wet-on-wet followed by ink, I also painted the birds in a more regal way, as they stand, pre-positioned in the water for flight, but not yet moving. The colors of the background are less agitated with reds, and the birds are positioned more stably in the water.

What did I learn from this exercise? I learned that it takes patience to incorporate new techniques into paintings.

I feel that I am finally back on track for painting with my natural style, but with the privilege of understanding some new techniques recently learned from exchanges with other painters. Taking lessons and studying under other painters both digs up new ideas, and also dredges up old habits, allowing these new ideas and old habits to interact, creating new opportunities, but also feelings of frustration.

I am happy to continue working across these two major zones of learning and intuition with new paintings, and am thankful for the lessons learned.

Haystack Reflections, water color, 8″ by 11″

Water color of a monstrous rock that juts out along the Oregon Coast, near Cannon Beach, a popular place for photographs.

Haystack Rock monumentally interrupts the horizon while proving irresistible to soaring birds and crashing waves. It is an awesome place.

The number of reflections that play off of it feel infinite, whether it is bathed in sunshine or covered by fog.

Haystack Rock, personal photo

Hopeful Thoughts

Hopeful Thoughts

This week we lost a dear friend

who will be remembered in our thoughts,

while mingling with the past,

of days long ago,

when our children were young

and our futures unknown.

A dear friend missed, held quietly in our hearts and minds,

as a bright and hopeful thought

of loyalty, honesty, humor and love.

The Past

This painting of the birds went through a number of transitions.  Each painting that I did on the way, holds personal meaning for me.

I like to paint something using different perspectives, over a period of time. Depending upon my mood and what medium I am using, a painting may be completed in a few minutes.  At other times, it may result in a long and more “drawn out” relationship with the subject that has many layers and glazes of paint.  

In this water color and ink painting shown immediately below, my relationship with these birds started out in a rather carefree manner.  It was a small painting, only 4″ x 6″, and I wanted it to be an inspiration for a larger painting on the same subject.  I did this watercolor and ink in a matter of a few minutes.

The Birds (Watercolor and ink)

What is it about this tiny watercolor painting that feels so big and bold?  It is actually a very small painting, but I feel that it has the sense of being large. I like the way that the reflections and shadows of the birds dance around in the swirling sand and water. The birds’ dark shadows disrupt the soft  blue, reflective water as ocean waves press and pull the birds inward and outward, while they scurry around and search for food.

When I paint them again, this time in mostly transparent oils, using a much larger canvas, the mood changes.  The birds become steadier, and more firmly geometrically situated, implying a kind of calligraphy on the canvas.

(Oil)

If I had all the canvas and space in the world, I would not continually paint over what I have painted, but would keep each stage as a chapter of a “book painting”.

(Oil)

Moving from moody and earth toned, I start adding brighter oil colors to the proposed calligraphy of birds.

As this process progresses, the version of the painting becomes less calligraphic, but instead allows each bird and wave to be individually reflected upon.

In the end, I chose to leave the final painting lighter, softer, and less moody than how I started, mainly by smoothing out the ocean water’s movements and lightening it up through a series of tonal washers, or glazes. In the finished painting, the beach was a softer, lighter color of browns than the dark brown birds with their white bellies, offering some contrast between them, but not creating strong calligraphic marks as I initially had. Here is the result.

The Birds (Oil)

This dialogue between the birds and me has been prolonged through quiet moments of shifting dispositions and is now turning into several months of visitation. Our conversation is so interesting that I am sure we could continue this dialogue for several months more. However, I am getting restless.

It is now time to move on, to try new ways of thinking with paint.

What did I learn from this painting? I learned that the quick movements of inspiration are hard to keep. But perhaps they are not for keeping. What they do instead, is attract the painter to the idea of the painting. One might stop there. Or one may press forward and consider the depth of the attraction, sometimes realizing that at the end of the painting, there is a relationship over time rather than a single result.

My painting are already abstract, but I hope to play with abstraction even more. The aim is to keep the thought, without committing completely to the shapes, of reality.

Afghani Girl, oil painting by Mary Chamie

A young Afghani girl, perhaps 10 years old, tries to see the group of foreigners who are traveling through her village. The walking paths between the rural homes are small which does not allow her to get close enough to see what is happening. Other curious onlookers, who also want to see, crowd around the team leaving the young girl on the periphery.

I was leading a United Nations team of international demographers and statisticians, visiting Afghanistan on a potential census assessment, when the frustrated and curious little girl caught my eye.

I noticed her as we were walking a very narrow path when she ran through a back alley and moments later appeared on the roof of a low building next to us. As our team moved forward to visit homes, she kept showing up on the next straw roof. I saw that she was jumping from roof to roof in order to keep up with us. The distance between homes was not far, but she was still brave to be doing so. I was amused by her persistence and quickly photographed her while she knelt down on the roof to watch us. She gave me a shy, satisfied smile, knowing that from her position she could see everything.

Here I am with Kabul, Afghanistan in the background. Photo from census mission, 2003

Since then, I have wondered many times what has happened to her. It was 2003 and she must have been about 10 years old. Now, if she has survived, she is close to 30. Time has marched on, but things are still not easy for the people of Afghanistan. I often wonder, where is she now and how has she fared? Women have recently been ordered by the Taliban, the current government, to cover their faces once again. She is likely wearing the burqa, or bright blue robe that is worn over a woman’s face and body when she is outside of the home, or in the presence of strangers.

When I paint such memories, I am not sure whether to call them paintings, or portraits, or illustrated short stories. But whatever they are, they are often about children whom I care about and wish that I had a better way to keep track of. These children, like the clouds that float by after a heavy rain, or like quick creek waters in the spring that noisily rush by, come and go so quickly, yet they leave lasting effects on the mind. Painting this Afghani girl portrait brings her back to life. I see her wonderful smile again. I remember the palette of her life colors.

Children at Work

Yes, there is artistic beauty in the faces of these rural Afghani children, in their soft beige clothing, adding interest to the modest brown environments in which they live, the mud huts, the clay homes, the straw roofs. The sky above shoots light streams through the nearby foothills of the mountains adding reflective color which further contributes interest to the even-toned homes and softness of people’s clothing and faces, especially at sunrise and sunset.

Below is a combination of photos taken during that 2003 United Nations mission showing the palette that I chose for my painting of this Afghani girl. It is a palette largely of soft browns composed from earth reds and marine blues, with the added bright blues of a woman’s robe.

Palette chosen for this painting

So, here she is, my little girl, this high achiever, who was curious, interested and ready to learn, and certainly very motivated to see what was going on in her unusually disrupted rural village by these teams of foreigners.

I exaggerated the color of the sky to juxtapose it more seriously against the girl’s soft earth reds and browns by mixing marine blue and bright cobalt, to highlight the feeling that one has when one sees the enormous contrast between the color of the sky above and the foothills, the mudded homes and the brown-toned clothing of many people walking the streets.

In this particular painting, I use this improbable blue color to suggest her possible future as a woman tucked under a blue robe, face covered, rather than as she is seen in the portrait, young and free and covered by the bright blue sky.

Photo from United Nations census mission, 2003

For the first part of this blog on painting some of the children I have seen, go to https://marysgardens.blog/2021/05/25/painting-children-on-the-edge/

My home in 1956

I wish to comment on a really wonderful article written by David Brooks that reviewed how American Christians, expecially evangelicals, have responded to “three big issues that have profoundly divided them: the white evangelical embrace of Donald Trump, sex abuse scandals in evangelical churches and parachurch organizations, and attitudes about race relations, especially after the killing of George Floyd.” David Brooks, NYT

Having read his thoughtful article, asked myself this question. Is it legitimate, as Brooks was suggesting , to blame much of the current stress in our society to the failures of modernity?

Below is David Brook’s quote that provoked me to thinking about this.

Finally, Karen Swallow Prior said something that rings in my ears: “Modernity has peaked.” The age of the autonomous individual, the age of the narcissistic self, the age of consumerism and moral drift has left us with bitterness and division, a surging mental health crisis and people just being nasty to one another. Millions are looking for something else, some system of belief that is communal, that gives life transcendent meaning.

David Brooks, NYT,

To contrast the quote from Brooks, I offer a second provocative quote from years ago, and one that changed my life along with many others.

“Today we are engaged in a final, all-out battle between communistic atheism and Christianity. The modern champions of communism have selected this as the time. And, ladies and gentlemen, the chips are down – they are truly down.”

Joseph. R. McCarthy, Lincoln’s birthday address to the Women’s Republican Club of Wheeling, West Virginia, February 9, 1950

When I was ten years old, my family fled a small village in rural Ohio after my father was threatened with a lynching. I remember the men coming to our door at night, threatening him. It was described many years later in a tiny little church bulletin that I found on line while digging up my past and trying to understand what really happened. For several years, my father had been the pastor of this little church. We fled the small village, leaving all behind but for a few things that we could take with us in our brown paper grocery bags that we hurriedly packed.

It was 1956 and feelings were still politically hot in our country. Although the power of Joseph McCarthy’s false accusations in the Senate had begun to fade, there still was a strongly held belief among many Americans based on McCarthy’s political charges, that there was an infiltration of communists, socialists, atheists and civil rights activists ruining our God-loving American church way of life.

I am not really certain which of these activities our little community thought my father was involved in. Perhaps all four? But in any case, it resulted in my mother, father, brother, two sisters and the family dog having to escape this small village and live in a used school bus in which we rambled the roads from central Ohio to northern Michigan for a number of months until my father found another job and our family could get our feet back on the ground again. From our point of view, my father’s transgression was that as a soldier returning home from WWII, having been in the Asia-Pacific region for almost 10 years, he was out of tune with local attitudes and practices and thought that his small community of constituents would be open to thinking about the importance of “turning the other cheek”, pacifism, racial equality, equal opportunity and civil rights as part of Jesus’ teaching. My father clearly erred.

As a result of our exclusion, this old school bus became our sole home and form of transportation, it was everything to us. Unfortunately, it had no running water, toilet facilities, closet space or communications technology such as radio, television or phone. Most of the school bus seats, but for the first two rows, were removed leaving sufficient footage for us to put down our sleeping bags. Since we had no car, we children had a choice between standing on the road and playing under trees while waiting for our parents to drive the bus to the grocery store and come back to pick us up, or we rode the bus to the grocery store with them, while hauling everything that we owned with us, on the bus.

We felt that we were an item. Our father talked us into believing that we were on an adventure, looking for an exciting new place to live while roughing it in parts of Ohio and Michigan county and state parks. Often we stopped at the side of the road and spent the night at roadside picnic stops. This went on for a number of months.

Neither of my parents had a job. So, in today’s terminology I guess we would be described as “homeless” or at least “houseless” and our parents were certainly unemployed. That year I learned to pick cherries, filling big wooden crates called lugs, along with the rest of my family in partnership with Spanish speaking migrants, to bring money for groceries. We ate a lot of bologna sandwiches with slices of American cheese on white Wonder bread while standing outside next to our bus, as we had no table. Our hands were our usual plates. Our fingers were our forks. We had a small kerosene stove that we carried with us for heating up water for oatmeal. We ate oatmeal and drank from old navy tins. We had little money, and therefore stopped often to keep from using too much gasoline while our father was driving the bus.

However, frustrating and lonely the experience might have been, it was also an eye opener. My family felt the powerful sting of what we now often call the “religious right”, and its list of proscriptions, intruding on my family’s ability to survive. In their eyes, my father’s support of racial equality and religious freedom were threatening, so threatening that we were expelled from our community.

He avoided being lynched through fleeing, but interestingly, we have never as a family ever discussed what happened to us that year. It was an incident without an explanation. It was a huge block in the road that we slowly maneuvered around while experiencing some hardship, never to mention it again. There must have been some shame for my parents associated with what happened as we never spoke of it, or even referred to it. But the threat of a lynching of our father that we experienced, the rejection and injury, and the silence that followed, shaped my life forever.

I realized, even as a child, that other people’s traditional religious beliefs were being involuntarily imposed upon us. Our expulsion was a result of Christian traditionalism telling us explicitly how to behave and that if we did not follow their instructions, we would be in danger. This same religious traditionalism wanted women to be guided by their husbands, to wear traditional clothing and hairstyles such as braids and bonnets, to reflect modesty. Women were expected to not show their bare legs or arms in public and they often wore longer dresses with long sleeves that covered their arms as a show of modesty. In our small community, men sat separately and first at community potlucks, while they waited for the women to serve them their food and drinks.

There were other important distinctions in the traditions of these local religious institutions that I observed as a child. The churches for white people in our communities were separated from churches for people who were referred to as “coloreds”. The term “colored” covered a lot of ground including people of African origin, people of Asian origin, people from specific parts of Eastern Europe and often referred to as Roma or gypsies, and people whose origins were from South America and the Carribbean. In northern Michigan, where our family visited in the summer, there were separate but “similar” churches for whites and Indian tribes. In any case, as a child growing up in the various comunities of Ohio and Michigan, I was struck with the fact that there was not one universal church for an entire community, without distinction to ethnic or racial background, or sex of person. Racial and ethnic segregation and strict differences between men and women were upheld by many churches, when I was a little girl.

As a pastor’s child, I was told by other children who were being brought up Baptist, or Catholic, that they were sorry that I could not go to heaven. They were sure that I was going to hell unless I converted to their beliefs. This is what they were being taught at that time. It was not enough to be Christian, one had to be the right kind of Christian. I wondered back then, was there a Methodist heaven, and a Baptist heaven, and a Catholic heaven? Was there only one hell where everybody else was dumped? Was it possible that a protestant could be in a Protestant heaven and at the same time in a Catholic hell? I wondered, what if no one ever introduced someone to the church, and they never heard the words of the Bible, did they go to hell too? Was that considered just? Was that fair?

My childhood did not suffer from so-called “modernity”, but from the lack of it. I confronted at a very young age, the power of traditional church proscriptions and their potential for negative consequences. I saw the traditional power of religion being used to keep people out. Traditional power was used to expel people from the church for being different, for appreciating differences, or for embracing a dialogue covering a wider range of ideas than those that were recommended by the church.

In my public elementary school, weekly, we received Christian bible school lessons. There was no separation between church and state in this little town. When my parents protested that religous teaching did not belong in the public school as all children should be welcome there, regardless of their religious beliefs, the response of the school was to expel me from the classroom and make me sit in the hall during the children’s bible school study period. I was punished and excluded because of my parents’ opinions about the separation of church and state and rights to religious freedom.

These dynamics of proscription, inclusion and exclusion that were playing out in small villages and in big cities were based on religious traditions. Church groups maintained their traditional identities and differentiated themselves through hair styles and clothing, especially women. As a child, I witnessed women who were required to cover their hair with specific kinds of scarves, hats, and white bonnets as a way of identifying their particular religious sect. Some covered their heads completely, so that no hair showed at all. In some cases, they wore long sleeved dresses. Bare arms in church were proscribed for women. Dresses were mandatory, but without knees showing. Dress pants were forbidden. In some cases, for women, there were proscriptions for wearing lipstick or makeup, playing cards, smoking in public, smiling in public, as a way of avoiding being associated with “loose” women. Not only were women dressed uniquely so as to be identified correctly, so was the church leadership. Among some groups, as a way of recognizing the religious sect, religious leaders wore long flowing robes of specific colors, special collars, scarves and patterns in order to be identified as leaders of a specific Christian sect or group.

My question is, why must we blame modernity for this fix we are in? Were we actually better off without it? What is modernity, anyway? Must it take the entire blame? Modernity, as I understand it is reflected in when we shifted from a predominately agricultural society to an industrial one, eventually recognizing a broader range of social and economic classes that reach beyond solely religious and/or ethnic identity and which open economies to some aspects of capitalism. This shift to “modernity” made way for people to be recognized according to such characteristics as occupation, economic status, and educational attainment, in addition to religious affiliation or ethnic identity. It also made way for people to be more socially and economically mobile.

I find it difficult to believe that modernity, as suggested by David Brooks and stated by Karen Prior, is the cause of our current moral drift and surging mental health crisis. Perhaps we have taken modernity too seriously and given it greater credence than it should rightfully have.

If it is true that people are suffering from moral drift, as David Brooks suggest, and that they are looking for some system of belief that is communal, that gives life transcendent meaning, then why not walk away from proscriptive tribalism and religious proscription, and uncontrolled narcissistic consumerism and head instead toward education, through the principles of scientific observation and mathematical reasoning and philosophical dialogue, when seeking a larger truth?

To better understand the concept of a communal belief system which many of us now desire, we might look to other cultures for ideas. For example, in the earlier practices of the native tribes who lived and worked in the Americas, many tribes were taught to respect all aspects of life including those of plants and animals including humans, and to be respectful to air, water, land and sky. The early American tribes did not embrace humanocentricism but instead, embraced a broader respect for the community of all life forms across many earths and even the universe.

Perhaps we should explore our potential for living in a post-humanocentric society, allowing room for consideration to the environment.

I would like to see narcissim, consumerism and moral drift brought under control through a communal system of public education, available to all. I believe in thoughts and ideas being respectfully shared through books, libraries, schools, universities and public media. I believe in the importance of learning how to objectively conceive of, measure and test ideas and hypotheses while offering multiple ways to present the results using respectful and objective public dialogue educating and informing us about the results. These educational activities should encourage improved questions, broader discussion and respectful comparisons of life’s many options.

Then, perhaps, we may seek and share more meaningfully, life’s transcendency.

In the last six months, I have painted the same canvas numerous times, to reflect on my feelings during this Global Pandemic. It is an old, used canvas that I purchased at Goodwill for a couple of dollars. In the beginning, I painted the entire canvas white with Gesso and then began to use my oils to describe how I feel.

It all started with a celebratory painting filled with color and exploding with light, when things were looking good, the first major surge of COVID illness subsiding,  people standing in long lines to get vaccinated, distances softening and it looked as though the pandemic was coming to a conclusion….but

Early Sunrise

It followed with a shift in color and emphasis based on the fact that there was a significant portion of the population refusing to be vaccinated even when vaccines were offered for free. Ironically, there are numerous individuals in other places eager to be vaccinated, without any access to vaccinations at all. The blues began settling in.

The Blues

Pausing with bright colors to consider whether the fog will ever lift, whether we will ever make it to the other side of this global pandemic, whether it might be better to soften colors and expectations even further.

Fog Settles In

Gliding softly into sadness about what would happens next, darker blues, softer light, yet still appreciating the silence of ever shifting remoteness.

Night of Darkness

Stuck in gloom as reality hits hard, floating in dark waters, far away from realizing the end of the pandemic. Many more lives are unnecessarily lost, years of schooling missed, food sources cut short, distribution systems weakened, life expectancies shortened, quality of living amended again, even farther, bending to the severe isolation and rapid surge of hospitalizations and deaths, mostly of the unvaccinated, during the pandemic.

Doomed

Hope is lost, the painting reflects on shapeless darkness. In some ways, this particular painting was very satisfying, as I lost myself in the darkness covering the entire canvas in dark blacks, reds and blues.

Then, the painting returns to shape and form, but this time, without much sentimentality. This time, it is based on the assumption that life is short, and that today is all there is.

My conclusion? Any painting we may do about this pandemic is true to life, each varied color and mood may be augmented for differential emphasis on our interpretation as to how things are going.

Not a Chance, But Life is Short

These are my ups and downs of painting during a global pandemic.

I hope that you enjoyed this reading these short notes on painting my way through pandemic blues and may consider sharing your own experiences on this notably historical event as well.

We may no longer write long paper letters, but we do know how to blog our way through tough times.

What’s your story?

A big part of the enjoyment of art for me, is playing with ideas.

Front yard in moonlight, Abaco, personal photo
Edited version, more focused on light

Interpreted scene, oils
Interpreted scene, ink
Interpreted scene, Water color
Personal Photo of our front yard, Abacos

Do I go forward with an oil painting of this, with more vivid colors?

Or should I play with something even more abstract?

What will be gained from taking this to a different concept of artistic thought?

Will anything be learned about its value as a setting?

If I do take such a leap, how can I add to the idea of luminescence?

What is it that lures artists to repeat paintings, differently?

Perhaps life, itself?

Me TOO!

Personal Drawing and Story of my Grand Daughter

Me TOO!

I went to the Park
And a little boy was at the park
When I did something
All he said was “Me too”.
“Me too.” And that’s what
I do to my brother.

This is a poem and a drawing of my grand daughter, inspired by the idea that we should save stories of our childhood that have great meaning to us so that we will have stories to tell to our future children so that they may laugh and learn from them.  She had just experienced, for the first time, what it is like to have a younger child around who wants to do all the things that the older child is doing, while the littler one incessantly shouts  out,  “Me too!”  She whispered to me, “I can’t go up the big slide because if I do, that little boy tries to follow me and I don’t want him to get hurt.”  

She smiled and then added, “I do that to my brother, too. “It had never occurred to her before, to consider how her bigger brother felt about being trailed by a frustrated smaller child who wants to do everything that he does.

We both laughed at the discovery.  I hugged her and said, “Why don’t you write a story about it?”

Winter Bridge

Winter Bridge, Oil Painting, 12″ x 16″ birchwood canvas

Here she is, my winter bridge painting. She has gone through a number of transitions, on her way to becoming. Now that she is here, I cannot imagine how she looked before.

I wanted the sky and water to mingle and reflect in this painting.. And I wished the Winter Bridge painting would highlight the Willamette River’s natural beauty while staying real to the sight of industrial pressures that such city rivers also bear.

I hope the viewer enjoys the sky, soft background hills the river flow and water reflections. I also hope the viewer considers the port side, the big buildings, the ominous boats that cover up the natural ridge of this beautiful river, dominating a once pristine cove.

May we never forget how this river flows so naturally under the bridge, the left bank tucked into trees and soft sky. And may we also remain concerned when we see that it flows on the other side, past the industrial messes we make.