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Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

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 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 their intended 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, 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 openly practiced in 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 small church proscription traditions and their potential for negative consequences. I saw the traditional power of religion was 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.

In my public elementary school, once a week we received 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, I was expelled from the classroom and made to 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.

This dynamic of proscription, inclusion and exclusion brought about largely by religious traditions played out in small villages and in big cities. Church groups maintained their traditional identities through hair styles and clothes worn, especially women. As a child, I saw women who were required to cover their hair with specific kinds of scarves, hats, and white bonnets as a way of identifying their religious sect. Some covered their heads 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 not allowed. In some cases, for women, their were proscriptions for wearing lipstick or makeup, smoking in public, publically smiling as they might be associated with “loose” women, no playing cards in public, and the list went on. 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 opened 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 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.

Aren’t the traps associated with moral drift more likely to be from participating in immoral acts that may or may not be associated with any particular religion, race, ethnicity or social class? In my mind, narcissim, consumerism and moral drift are reflections of old-fashioned, traditional, human greed put to purpose and strengthened through the lust for power. This hunger for power is also humanocentric, denying all other aspects of importance beyond human life.

If it is true that millions are looking for something else, 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 participating in education through scientific observation and mathematial reasoning and philisophical 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 the lives of plants, all 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 earth 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.

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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?

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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.

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We form a book club of two. She lives in NYC. I live in Portland, Oregon. The distances between us are magnified by the pandemic. We did not see each other this past year, as travel is severely limited by the ongoing global pandemic. We decided to share readings about pandemics of times past while staying in touch via the internet and phone. Each of us brought books and articles to the table and our first reading list looks like this.

The Great Influenza, by John Barry; The Plague, by Camus; Year of Wonders by Geraldine Books; Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter.

The books we choose tell stories of pandemics occurring in the last 400 years. We read of plagues and pandemics between the years 1660 and 1918, seeking to understand the one in 2020. The stories we read might just as well have been written about the plague we confront today. Reading them is proving cathartic. It is somehow reassuring to learn of other pandemics, of plagues past, and how lives were lost. Yet eventually, the incidence of illnesses and deaths subsided and things went back to normal. That is, if you can call enormous loss and experience with paralyzing fear, normal.

Previous plagues did not subside without stress, tragedy, conflict, pubic protest, political in-fighting, devastating illness and untimely death, family upheaval, lonely migration treks, escape attempts and economic loss.

It is clear from these stories that there are ways to prevent or reduce the numbers of deaths and illness even under the direst of circumstances. But it requires community cohesion, respect for the rights of others and acknowledgement of one’s community and family responsibilities.

During one of our discussions, I asked her, “Did you ever study the history of any pandemic while you were in high school or college?.”

She said, “No I did not.” I agreed with her that I did not either.

We both remembered references being made by teachers to a “plague” of some time or place, but what was missing was an historical description or analysis of what happened. We remember no required readings in our coursework of historical or fictional accounts about pandemics. Perhaps there were some readings and we did not take note of it, figuring such horrible experiences were all behind us?

Thus, it would seem that when our global pandemic was officially announced on March 11, 2020, we were not prepared. One would have thought that it was the first pandemic humans had ever experienced.

“It is happening over there, not over here.”

“It is their fault.”

“It will never get to us.”

“It will be brief”

“It will take a while”.

“It looks like it is increasing but it really isn’t.”

“It will be resolve quickly by medical technology.”

“It cannot be managed unless we all participate in this together”

“Data are being repressed”.

“Do you know anyone who has had it?”

“Do you know anyone who died from it?

“No need to change our behavior.”

“Our rights are being taken away.”

“Our responsibilities are too many.”

“I am so sorry for your loss.”

“Glad that you are feeling better.”

“Will it ever end?”

“It feels like it is coming to an end, but how can I be sure?”

“We have a vaccination, now.

“When will I get it?”

“For how long must wear masks and stay socially isolated?”

As time marches on, the seriousness of what is happening cannot be ignored.

What can we learn from reading books about pandemics? I would say, just about everything. Through books and book discussions we can start to come to grips with what happened. Reading these stories offers a better understanding of how we might cope. It offers a way to imagine our future during these bleak hopeless times. It suggests the healing process that we must go through when the pandemic subsides.

Below is a Poem from the Irish Times sent to me by a friend of mine.

When, by John O’Donnell

And when this ends we will emerge, shyly

and then all at once, dazed, longhaired as we embrace

loved ones the shadow spared, and weep for those

it gathered in its shroud. A kind of rapture, this longed-for

laying on of hands, high cries as we nuzzle, leaning in

to kiss, and whisper that now things will be different,

although a time will come when we’ll forget

the curve’s approaching wave, the hiss and sigh

of ventilators, the crowded, makeshift morgues;

a time when we may even miss the old-world

arm’s-length courtesy, small kindnesses left on doorsteps,

the drifting, idle days, and nights when we flung open

all the windows to arias in the darkness, our voices

reaching out, holding each other till this passes.

When, by John O’Donnell

It isn’t over yet, the pandemic still rages in parts of the world. Many of us have only shyly begun to return to our former selves. 

Or at least what we think is our former selves.  

I  wonder, once this global pandemic subsides even further, what will we remember?

Photo taken during “Stay at Home” measures, November 2020.

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Landscapes we paint, no matter how big or small, are wondrous moments witnessed through our abstraction.

When thought of this way, there is nothing real about a landscape, other than the fact that light is shifting, objects are reflecting and atmosphere hovering, and we experience constant movement of ideas and thought, while traveling through these variable, natural compositions.

Nature is for painters, our most wild and beautiful challenge. Lucky for us, nature is everything, and we have many opportunities to paint, to write, or simply observe its amazing show.

There is no right or wrong painting or poem as all abstractions are personal.

Knowing this, brings freedom of our own thoughts and choices of shifting moments we remember.

Watercolor

Oils

Oil

Watercolor

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These are my notes for paintings that I am working on in an art course on The Value of Design taught by Michael Orwick through the Oregon Society of Artists

I started this fourth week by finishing off a painting of the Oregon mountains, using a tonalist style. I liked working on tonalism and decided to continue using this style for our next assignment.

Our goal is that by the end of the fourth week of this class to complete a painting while going through all of the steps we have learned thus far.

For this assignment, I choose a landscape photo that I had taken while in Afghanistan for my next painting.

In May 2003, I led a United Nations statistical mission to Afghanistan in order to review a proposal for a census program for the war-torn country. Our team worked on this project for several weeks. The team was comprised of national statisticians from a number of countries, staying in a relatively secure location, but still very aware that we were in areas where heavy fighting occurs. It was a complicated mission, with difficult decisions, yet we could not but look up from our work and around at the ancient beauty of this city, this country, gateway to Europe and Asia. Kabul is a city of many languages, many ethnic groups, many years of sophisticated history.

It is worth noting that the earliest example of an oil painting was found in Afghanistan in caves near the ancient Buddhas that were recently destroyed by the Taliban. Scientists confirmed that some of the paintings were completed in as early as the fifth century, long before any other civilizations used oils for painting. The art history of Afghanistan is long and fascinating.

Looking up into the foothills surrounding Kabul, I cannot tell where the housing stops, and the hills begin. The soft tonal colors of the boulders up on the foothills mix with the angular shapes of homes. Higher homes have been hastily built as safe havens from street fighting occurring below. They are built at times without the privilege of electricity or septics, some with only walls up, windows and doors still hollowed out. Homes, to hide in, to tuck away in, as war and street-fighting have torn at this nation.

Our class has been discussing the art of tonalism, and since I wanted to paint a landscape, I decided to try working on a picture of an Afghani settlement in the foothills of Kabul. The soft pastels that of Afghanistan’s hills and valleys are often dotted with the bright blues of women’s robes (burkahs) as the women often wear them when walking outdoors in public. Soft greens of trees and fields are seen in the valleys of the Hindu Kush Mountains, often cut by a moving mountain stream flowing through. If one sees soft beige, slight pinks and purples, the observer is probably looking slightly upward at the foothills and the homes made out of a combination of handmade bricks, soft grey-brown mud, and some cement often sheltered by grey and purple foothills. The shockingly high mountains are differentiated mainly through varying shades of white snow, which I was not going to depict in this painting.

In a previous blog where I sketched out my plan, I decided to name this painting “Upwards”. I chose that title because upwards seemed to be where everybody was going. I thought I should photograph the two distinct kinds of urban settlements we mainly saw. There were those that were settled into the valley, and those headed “upwards”. We needed to learn as much as we could about Afghani settlements, as census-taking, world-wide, still includes the ancient science and art of counting and recording characteristics of every household and individual in a country.

I started with a copy of the uncut, unedited photo that I used for my inspiration for the painting, I do not plan to follow the photo in its entirety, but wish to use it as a reminder of how I felt at the time. My husband Joseph and I had lived in parts of south and western Asia for a number of years, and this place felt familiar, and welcoming to me. It is an amazing amalgam of a number of nearby cultures from the ancient lands of Persia to the Bay of Bengal.

In the process of deciding what aspect of these settlements to paint, I played around with photo cropping and sketching in order to see the big shapes and values better. I also hoped to highlight an Afghani woman walking with a child, her bright blue burkah flowing around her. It is always such a contrast with the softer colors of the streets.

Had I chosen to paint the entire photo, I would have used a diamond shape as my big shape, as seen in the slide show above. But instead, I placed the woman and the little boy off to the side, letting the light come to them. This made the larger shape of the painting more like a Z.

The spilled water on the road was a challenge and I wondered how to include it pouring down the open gutters and into the street, leaving reflections of nearby buildings, rather than the usual flowing rivers that slip through natural landscape paintings.

I started by sketching a variety of scenes, from a simple notan to short sketches of what I hoped to paint. From these sketches, I began to see a clear pattern of shadows highlighting hill homes and big boulders that cover the sides of the hills. I feel that it is important to simply this picture while still keeping the feeling of what it was like to be there.

At some level, I liked it so much I didn’t feel like adding any more paint. But, given that this is a learning device, once it was dry, I proceeded to the next step of adding oil colors over the sketch. I am hoping also, to keep the wood grain of my birch wood canvas showing in the painting, when it is useful to the scene.

Using the method we had earlier learned of placing transparent paint onto the canvas and then using rags or paper towels to remove some of the paint to leave big shapes and values, I ended up this this sketch for my intended oil painting.

“Upwards” oil painting,

This is as far as I got with the idea this week. No doubt, I will work on it some more after it is completely dry. I am interested in trying out various glazings, perhaps an earth red and a mixed blue-grey, to soften some of the bright pink hues of the foothills.

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Home is by definition the place of our hearth and shelter. It may be as simple as a tent, or as complicated as a 20 story building, but it is still home when it offers hearth and shelter.

Since the pandemic was declared, home is a larger place than just where we stock our supplies and conduct our activities of daily living. We also go to work, to play, or to school while at home, express our joys, share our sorrows and declare our dreams at home.

Home is our atmosphere, our existence, our nook for survival. It is our island of safety and hope.

Home is where we express our despair and agonize over the future. Home is all that we have, if we are lucky, until the world learns how to manage the global pandemic.

May we never lose our homes. For those who have, my heartfelt sympathies. We must work to get them back for you.

I express my appreciation for home by painting a variety of perspectives on our little bungalow to which we recently moved, while depicting the change that we have gone through as we increasingly realize that home is the center of our universe.

We are world travelers and for us to circumlocate to such a small area as home and consider it our major place of stay, is quite a change. But adapt we must, and adapt we are. One way that I am adapting to this smaller area, is through art.

Festival House, acrylic

Perhaps it appears silly to see a tiny home drawn with Roman Columns constructed out of colorful marble, looking garish and far removed from reality. But this painting reflects for me, the home as the holiday, the celebration, the festive tradition.

Home as Safe Haven, acrylic

Home is where we hide when it is dangerous outside. It is the cool blue in the chaos of reds and yellows.

Looking through a microscope changes ones perspective on what one sees in a cell. Focusing on one’s home does something similar. It was always there for us to discover and the pandemic is increasing our attention to it.

I plan to paint many more pictures of home in these upcoming months, while looking at it anew, as through a microscope.

Evening Perspective, acrylic

Thank you home, for offering such a safe haven for so many of us during a time of panic and dread.

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Recently, I participated in an excellent online art workshop designed and led by Ruth Armitage called Land Lines. It was a “three-day exploration of personal mark making inspired by the landscape”. The workshop offered an opportunity to experiment with using a variety of marks and lines in new ways. For the duration of the workshop, I decided to focus on my backyard garden as the art topic.

I brought my own piece of landscape art of my backyard garden to the workshop, figuring that I could use it for comparative purposes.

Backyard, oil painting

In the workshop, I tried to get a better grasp of Ruth’s techniques and perspective regarding the use of lines and marks in art, as she is a well-known artist of abstract paintings. When we received our workshop painting assignments, I chose to continue painting this same scene of my backyard garden, more abstractly, using as many aspects of Ruth’s workshop techniques as possible.

After a number of presentations and short tasks, Ruth asked us to paint, relatively quickly, several paintings using varied lines and marks. For her workshop assignment, I submitted three of the assigned paintings for review, all inspired by my garden backyard scene. The three pieces are shown below.

Painting 1, Garden Sanctuary, ink, acrylic, watercolors.
Painting 2, Winter Garden II, mixed media
Painting 3, Garden Springs, watercolor and ink

You may ask, “What happened?”

These are very different from the oil painting I carried in to the workshop depicting this same garden area. Let me explain.

The entire purpose of this exercise was to reach out into new territory. So I did.

Ruth’s focus on marks and lines at first sounded simple. But in fact, it was very challenging, and often left me wondering, what exactly is a land line? When is a mark or a line not a land line? Do lines or marks have multiple meanings in the same art project? Why do I need them at all? What if I just avoid marks and lines and work in smudges or color? What about texture? How do marks, lines, texture and color work together and when are they failures to communicate?

At times, this resulted in me being more puzzled than I was before I started. Taking a workshop can be a humbling experience. It is true of every excellent course or workshop that I have ever taken, that I leave knowing much less than when I arrived.

For her assignment, I started to describe the garden scene by using bold geometric lines using a large yellow Y shapes of sunlight to divide the chairs and table from plant life. I viewed these landscaping lines as compositional

Then I decided to add marks and lines into the painting to depict plant life, over the larger composition of light streams that I had used to shape the painting. At this point in the workshop, I started to lean on lines and marks, along with color, to express how the garden varied.

At this point, I took time out to paint a watercolor version of how the garden looked from a plant’s perspective which turned out whimsical and just plain fun. Without realizing it, I had also changed my perspective on what I was doing from the original oil landscape painting to imagining other perspectives.

This watercolor sketch that I did is painted from the perspective of looking at a plant almost from the position of the ground.

Garden Plant, watercolor

After that, I made a more complicated sketch of trees, plants, table and chair. Not particularly happy with the end result, I decided to cut it up into pieces and see how it would look in a collage. Now that was brave! But it was also a reminder to not get too serious when trying to learn something new. From that experience, I decided that I was busy making lines. However, I needed more work on the meaning of lines.


Collage made from cut up pieces of my painting

At that point, I moved to imagining my little garden as a sheltered place bordered by fences, and edged with wild flowers, tiny branches and bushes. I felt the presence of the streets surrounding our fenced in garden. I thought of the garden surrounded by city streets and at one time covered with spring snow. Hence the painting titled Winter Garden.

I moved to viewing the garden from the perspective of our bungalow home, and considered the way in which the sky and the land related to early spring. See the painting, Garden Spring.

At that point, I decided to paint the garden as an oval sanctuary, or an icon.

Pink over brush of icon

Frustrated, I brushed in a larger set of compositional lines by adding a large pink shape over the garden. It was a personal statement on my part, saying that I needed a more stable place to describe the inner sanctuary aspect of my garden.

Then, I decided, over the same painting, to bring color, texture and line into the iconic inner sanctuary of the garden using the color blue and adding marks to show the garden’s intricacy. The painting ended up being simple in line, highly textured, using acrylic, water color and ink. See the painting, Garden Sanctuary.

My conclusion is that there are many more ways to depict a little backyard garden, and many more paintings to go.

It turned out that Ruth’s assignment to paint three or four paintings simultaneously while considering lines, marks and landscapes was very helpful, reducing the need for perfection and enhancing the need for experimentation.

Art, for me, is a continual process of learning, sketching, and imagining new ways to relate to my surroundings. Having painted a place, I feel much more intimately attached and familiar with it. Seeing it through multiple perspectives via this workshop has only strengthened my attachment to it. Added to this enjoyable process of painting my backyard garden, was the additional pleasure of learning new approaches and techniques of abstract art while doing it.

With respect to the workshop being conducted via the internet, I am grateful that Ruth and other artists continue to go forward with art workshops using the internet while under the current conditions of a pandemic where we are all under stay at home measures and social distancing. Under these new conditions, I found certain aspects of an online workshop very enjoyable. First, there was no commute. Second, I could walk away from the workshop and come back and continue at my own pace without interrupting anyone else. Third, there was time for thought. I was less hurried. I was also less self-conscious because if I did’t like what I was doing, I could pitch it and do it over, sight unseen.

There are some obvious disadvantages, as well to an online workshop. First, it required a quiet place in my home, without distraction, so as to not be interrupted by our regular activities of daily living. Second, I lost the opportunity to meet new artists. Third, we used text messages to speak with each other, thus losing the spontaneity of facial expressions, gestures and voice.

A Zoom meeting at the end helpfully brought us together for review of our work and allowed a more interactive discussion of each artist’s work with the instructor, while allowing other artists to observe.

Trying to use other artist’s perspective and techniques may feel awkward at first, but it leads to new understandings and broader perspectives on what is possible. I will be drawing and sketching for months to come, and no doubt will refer back to this workshop on lines, marks and landscaping, many times over.

Coincidentally, I got a Mother’s Day package in the mail a few days ago from my children and when I opened it up, it was a beautiful book, The Human Planet, Earth at the Dawn of the Anthropocene. The book highlights over 30 years of aerial photography across seven continents, completed by George Steinmetz, exploring the human imprint on climate and the natural world, with explanatory text provided by Andrew Revkin. The arrival of this book could not have been more timely. The landscape is both photographically real and artistically abstract, offering many opportunities for imagining new ways to paint landscapes from an aerial point of view, with lines.

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Staying for many winters on a small and beautiful island of the Bahamas has taught me respect for water, energy and food supply lines. When the boats come in, we have groceries. When it rains, we have clean drinking water. When diesel oil arrives in ships, we generate electricity. When the sun rises, we see that it is our greatest source of energy, along with the tides and winds. Our agricultural lands are limited and our water for drinking is shallow. We view our great tradition of catching fish and crawfish to eat is a glorious luxury as our schools of fishes diminish.

We live in two places. In the spring, we return to our home where we are on another island of sorts, called North America. Although geographers would refer to it as a continent, I have come to see that we all live on islands. There are small ones, big ones, even some called continents. But they are still islands to me. They all defined by finite natural resources, limited water and food supplies. Our islands, all of them, confront the wild forces of nature, be they drought, storms, earthquakes, or pandemics.

We are students of islands.

On our little island in the Atlantic, when the wind blows, we feel our vulnerability as the waves roll wildly on to our beaches, sometimes ripping cliffs and taking them back into the ocean. When we step out at night and look up into the unlit sky, the stars and the moon literally hover over us. They are right there, smothering us with soft glow of light and opening up our world to the real possibility of imagining infinity.

Nature’s forces are abundant and everywhere, although often out of our reach.

On our huge island, or continent of North America, we do not necessarily sense this intimacy with the ocean the same way we do when we stand on a hill on our small island of the Abacos in the Bahamas and see the Atlantic Ocean in both directions, east and west. However, we feel the power and presence of the ocean as we wander along the beaches of the Pacific.

Yes, North America is in actuality, a well-defined body of shifting land surrounded by a shifting massive body of water, although its boundaries east and west cannot be seen simultaneously when standing on a hill, like we do in Abaco. If we were standing on the moon and look down on the planet Earth, however, we might see the east and waters of the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans surrounding North America. We would also see that the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans are one body of water, not two.

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Our islands are on a single planet. Now, that is a different matter. The planet Earth is surrounded by other things than water, holding even more possibilities of massive immensity. This whole act of thinking about who we are and what island we are on is a humbling experience.

On all our islands, we are impacted by the immediate danger of pollution from other places, as well as our own, as the plastic and detritus roll in onto our beaches and creep into our water and air. We see that abrupt shortages limit what people eat, and determine the time they must spend searching for food. We may not see it so clearly, until something like a global pandemic comes along, or droughts, or other big shows of nature that bring it to our attention very clearly, that things might change in a minute and our life lines are fragile.

Knowing this makes me appreciate my life even more. I am surprised and awed by the fact that I even exist, midst all the other options available. These chemicals and cells comprising me could instead be part of an apple tree, or buried in sands, or drifting in a large body of water.

I could have died before I was a year old. I might survive as a person for twenty more years.

Right now, I am living on an island, as is everybody else.

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The Author as a Child

It started out as an attempt to write my life story and has instead become a fictional novel about the end of the world. Writing my memoirs has turned out to be a journey, first in truth telling, then into fiction, and finally into the unknown.

Writing my memoirs seemed like a simple and rewarding task. I believed that I had the proper writing skills although it was not really the same kind of writing to which I was accustomed. Up to this point, my published writings were scientific, written with objectivity and largely data-driven. The subjects in my studies were anonymous; my memoirs would be deeply personal. I was writing about my family and me, in the first person, in a highly subjective manner.

Yes, I figured it wouldn’t be that hard to write my memoirs. It was after all, it is still a writing assignment. In fact, it sounded pretty simple and far less data-driven than what I usually did. It sounded like fun, an adventure of sorts. It seemed like just the type of thing I wanted to do to celebrate my retirement. I was looking forward to being free of objective methodology, constricting datasets and footnotes, and to write more freely.

A memoir seemed in order. But in fact, the struggle to put down my life story on paper has continued to plague me for a number of years. In the process, I have learned to blog, write poems, tell stories, make illustrations, sketch doodles and work in other art forms such as watercolor and oils , even basket weaving. But my memoirs are still not yet fully written.

I continue to work on them, from time to time, and will probably continue to work on them for as long as I can, primarily because it is too enjoyable and rewarding to ever stop writing them.

When I first started writing my memoirs I had just retired from decades of research and travel with most of my career spent working on survey research in the social and economic and environmental sciences. While doing so, I wrote and published on a regular basis.

Working in international statistics for the United Nations was very exciting. I traveled to numerous countries in many regions of the world while collaborating with the statistical offices of governments. In the process, I took on tasks and followed trails that few have ever taken. My work in demography and statistics was exciting, personally rewarding and humbling. There was so much to do, and so little time. Although my readers were highly specialized and my audience limited, I loved working with these incredibly interesting teams of statisticians on problems of survey research methods and was deeply engaged in the work. Those decades of working and traveling in numerous countries, while married to a great guy and together bringing up three wonderful children, could not have been more complicated or rewarding..

Upon retiring from the UN, I considered my next steps. Without knowing what to do for certain, I decided to start looking at the world from a completely different perspective. I decided not to take an emeritus role in my field, but to reach out to new subjects instead, to find a different voice.

One thing I had wanted to do since I was a young woman, was more personal writing. At my retirement party, my now adult children gave me a book on how to write a memoir, and a blank book to go with it. They were great gifts, encouraging me to start writing about some of the many things I had experienced over the years.

I started writing my thoughts about my childhood, only to discover that the deeply personal nature of the task prohibited me from going forward and posting it up for others to read. I thought about all the other people, mainly family and friends, who might be affected by my making their lives public along with mine, and decided to take another approach.

I started over, this time by writing fiction. I decided that precision of history was not what I wanted to write. Rather, observations about life were becoming more important than complete objectivity in telling my personal story. It made more sense to let fictional characters do the talking.

I am finding writing to be so powerful of a tool when using fictional characters, where one may explore new areas and experiences. Moving to fiction actually frees me up to say what I want more readily.

Writing in fiction leads me into thinking about so many things while pondering directions to take. For example, should the story be written from the perspective of one person? Or should I let a multitude of characters speak for themselves? How would this affect the story?

Why am I writing this fictional book?

I am still trying to address that question. Do my ideas flow, is my text clear? Are my main characters evolving, is the plot thickening?

About that plot.

My first fictional book has stubbornly stayed on telling my main character’s story about her survival after an apocalyptic event. Her story reverts back to her childhood through her thoughts about the times when she begins to realize that numerous species of flora and fauna are disappearing, and the destruction of clean waters and air are happening, right in front of her eyes.

Now, back to the plot.

What is the plot, if my main character is the last person on earth? How complicated can the story get? Does this mean that there is no plot, but futility?

Oh yes, I do have a plot. I’m still struggling with it, but think that a book focusing on these last days of human existence on the planet earth remains a worthy task. My main character is free to say what she wants. After all, it appears that most others are already gone, disappearing in the extinction process. There is no one is left to be hurt or insulted.

Perhaps it is because my main character is telling her story, I am free to listen to her and to see the world through her eyes in all its beauty and complexity. Through her actions, I experience the shock and fragility of being an almost extinct animal.

Through my main character’s wonderful descriptions of loss, a love of life and all its abundance emerges. Through her descriptions of the remaining environment as it begins to evolve into some sort of healing process, and her joy of discovering the beauty of what remains, leaves me hopeful for life on the planet, even if humans are no longer a part of it.

My main character’s ability to weave her own memoirs into the telling of her story, brings me freedom, as a writer, to consider the joys, tragedies and hilarity of my own life.

Plot, characters, text, wording, illustration. I love the potential of them all and hope for them to stay with me on this journey to the end of human existence on our planet, plainly seen through the eyes of my fictitious characters.

You may be wondering at this point, what does this have to do with writing memoirs?

The old adage, “It ain’t over ’til it’s over,” rings true. I am not yet ready to write the last chapter of my memoirs, nor can I. Because I am still here, alive and changing.

Fiction is offering me many more possibilities to express my thoughts, as long as there are some people alive to read it. Without interested readers, what will remain will be simply small etches in the sands of time.

It is my hope that we people will continue to exist in some sort of form, for hundreds of thousands of years into the future. Perhaps we won’t, given the slippery slope we are now on.

But I think it is worth wondering what the world would be like if we were almost extinct, if we became as rare as some other species have recently become.

In the story that I am writing, I focus on the days when most everybody disappears on earth, but for a few struggling characters. Fiction offers this opportunity.

Then I ask, what if I actually knew this one character intimately and could write about her while she and her partner confront the end of human existence on the planet earth?

What would I learn from telling her story? I am about to find out.

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