October 28, 2017

Yuba Trail
Buttermilk Trail along the South Yuba (watercolor and colored pencil on Cold press illo board)

Visited my son at UC Santa Cruz for the first time this weekend. But the motel I stayed at had WIFI that didn’t seem to be working. So, here is my week’s offering. (Go Banana Slugs!)

This week’s blog is going to seem a little wimpy compared to last week’s entry. But I need a break from reality right now and could use a reminder of a favorite California place, a favorite flower (lupine) and a very favorite children’s picture book—Miss Rumphius (aka the Lupine Lady), story and pictures by Barbara Cooney. I am trying to look past all the serious news of late and maybe focus on something that might make the world seem more beautiful.

So, let’s start with a virtual trip to this place at a cooler time of the year. This is the Buttermilk Bend Trail along the South Fork of the Yuba River and I did the landscape about 15 springs ago. My son and I walked along the trail and looked down the hillside at these lupines and poppies. I think this was the hike we also saw a baby rattlesnake slithering along the same trail beside us. Anyway, the Yuba is pretty awesome and runs year round. Most of this water is run off from the snow pack in the Sierra, and yes, it is cold year round. It looks pretty peaceful from up above on the trail, but don’t be fooled. In the spring it can run fast and every year people drown in the river because they underestimate the swift moving water and overestimate their ability to swim or paddle around in it. (Uh-oh, got too serious…You can catch a glimpse of the opal blue river in the upper left corner of this piece.)

Now, on to the lupines. How hard could it be to grow them? For me it has never been easy, as I have had limited success planting them. I think it’s because I tend to over think the whole process and then once a few pop up I tend to over tend them. At the end of one summer I made a plan to have lots and lots of lupines. I mixed a couple pounds of seed with a couple pounds of soil and then I just spread the mixture evenly in a weed free patch of dirt. There wasn’t a huge display, but some did manage to pop out of the ground and bloom. However, none of them reseeded. I didn’t have any luck transplanting small lupine seedlings I found by the side of the road either. An editor at “Southern Living” told me once planted, a lupine seed immediately sends down a long taproot. For the plant to survive and grow that root must find just the right conditions in the soil and then it will send up the top part of the plant that will hopefully become a thin and pointy “sun-seeking” green stem. Then the leaves appear and finally a flower. I am reading the book Lab Girl and in it, Hope Jahren (the author) says that the odds are a million to one that a seed will succeed and become a viable plant. So, it’s kind of amazing to me that these sturdy little flags of blue, purple, pink, yellow and white are found all over the US. According to the New England Historical Society there was a woman named Hilda Edwards (aka Hilda Lupina or the Lupine Lady) who, in the first part of the 20th century, planted lupine seeds that she had brought from her native England to the coast of Maine. Those very lupines not only grew, but also thrived there. And that particular variety isn’t even native to the area. To add insult to my inability to plant a few lupines in my garden, this “Lupine Lady” did her planting in secret. It appears she would put lupine seeds in her pockets and toss them by the side of road, when no one was looking as she walked to the post office. Well, someone must have seen her, I guess…

Barbara Cooney took this real live person and fashioned her own “Lupine Lady” in her picture book Miss Rumphius. But the overall theme of the story is more than just a bunch of pretty purple flowers blanketing some of the hillsides of Maine. Miss Rumphius had a three-part goal that included traveling the world, living by the sea and doing something to make the world more beautiful. And Miss Rumphius did this by planting lupine seeds all along the hills and dales of coastal Maine.

I was fortunate enough me meet a true life California Lupine Lady in the early 1990’s. At the time she was a professor of Natural History at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. And she had gotten a grant to come to the botany department of the Academy of Sciences during the summer months. Her job was to try to identify the stacks and stacks of California lupines that had been preserved, collected and stored in the herbarium over time. I brought her a copy of Miss Rumphius one day. She thought Ms. Cooney’s art and story were as wonderful as I.

So, apparently I will not be known as the California Lupine Lady. But I think I will try to make California seem more beautiful and memorable, one painting and story at a time.

Note regarding the Texas Lupine Lady: Ladybird Johnson, Lyndon Johnson’s wife, was quite an advocate of planting blue bonnets (a perky deep indigo and white lupine) in her native Texas. Look up the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, Texas. It is part of the University of Texas botanical garden that seeks to promote conservation of native plants in designed and natural landscapes. Making the world in Texas seem more beautiful!

Oh, and go Dodger BLUE!!

October 21, 2017

sketch of mom's house
Spanish revival stucco house in Glendale, 10/14/17 (pen and ink on smooth surface drawing paper)

OK, so this is the first post that I had a story in mind before I had actually done the art for it. The house I have sketched here is not particularly significant to me except it looks very similar to the house my mom lived in as a girl on South Fetterly Avenue, Los Angeles. My grandfather built the house in the late 20s and my mom and her family lived there until the mid 1940s. I never actually saw this house, but there were a number of pictures taken of it. Sadly, one of my brothers said it had been torn down, so all we now have are pictures.

I have been thinking a lot about this house and one particular event that occurred in my mother’s life when she lived there. Telling this particular story is important. I hope I get it right.

Mom often told us that in her particular California neighborhood they were the only non-Spanish speaking white family for many blocks in all directions. Hispanic families inhabited the houses to her right, left and every other house you could see up and down the block. And one of the houses next door to them (don’t know if she ever said on the right or the left side) there was a family that consisted of a grandfather, his granddaughter and grandson, and one other boy that the grandfather had adopted as his son. He had found this baby boy in a small box at the dump. He brought the infant home and raised him along side his own grandchildren. Mom had shown us a black and white photo of the granddaughter—she was absolutely lovely. My mom often spoke of her as her only friend growing up there. If fact she said that the granddaughter had told her that she hidden a razor blade in her hair (pompadour), as a kind of weapon that could be pulled out should anyone want to hurt her. She told mom that she would come to her rescue with that razor blade if she ever needed that kind of help. Mom added that her friend’s brothers kept knives in their boots, in case they were attacked. I guess they would come to mom’s rescue as well, if she needed it.

So, the story really begins one afternoon when my mom and her friend were around 14 or 15 years old. (It was sometime right after this that my grandfather pulled up stakes and moved his family to Mariposa.) Anyway, I guess a rather large and impressive car, with a chauffeur, came to pick up mom’s friend. He was to take her to the house of a very famous movie star who had been a swashbuckling sensation in a bunch movies in the late thirties and early 40s. Mom said this car’s appearance to that house on South Fetterly Avenue was a somewhat regular occurrence. But this particular time my mom was invited along. It always seemed a bit strange to me that mom went with her. She had said that her mom (my grandmother) was very protective of her children. So, my mom must have just gone along and never told my grandma about it. Once they got to the movie stars house mom’s friend took her on a tour of the downstairs, but mom never got a glimpse of the famous man who lived there. She said that the house was just like you would imagine—huge and impressive, but with giant mirrors everywhere. And this is where the story gets even more interesting. I guess mom’s friend was the movie star’s date and my mom was supposed to be the chauffeur’s date. As you may have already guessed, mom’s underage young and beautiful neighbor was actually a mistress of the famous movie star. And as you might imagine, this is when things could have gone terribly wrong for my mother. But I guess mom said, “No thank you” to the chauffeur’s unwanted attention and he drove her home—nothing happened. However, mom’s friend didn’t leave with her. Instead, she disappeared upstairs and reappeared on South Fetterly Avenue sometime in the night.

Of course there is so much wrong with this story for mom’s lovely young neighbor, but I am so thankful that the chauffeur did the right thing for my mom. And whenever I think back on this story I am left with so many questions, like is there really such a thing as consensual sex between a 14 or 15-year old girl and a man twice her age. I wonder if he was married at the time, or between wives…? (Of course in today’s world that would be statutory rape, but only if someone reported it and then someone pressed charges.) Where was the girl’s kindly grandfather, the one who had taken a baby from the dump to raise as his? I am certain he knew what was going on with his granddaughter. Why didn’t he stop it? Why didn’t one of her brothers step up? They always seemed so brave, with knives in their boots and all. And of course, what was my mother thinking? Why did she get into that car? Why did her friend invite her along in the first place? Does a friend do that? Was my mom really that naïve? There are so many questions that will never be answered.

But the bottom line for me is that when my mom said no to a man’s advances he listened and stopped. If I imagine the worst that could have happened that day, my mom may have had to deal with an unimaginable early life trauma (like rape) that may have affected her for the rest of her life. And for that, my family is grateful.

However, none of this kind of potential or real sexual exploitation was OK then, nor should it be tolerated now. With all the recent news about women being sexually harassed or assaulted by men in Hollywood or by men of power this story seems particularly important to share today. And I think it important to continue to stand up and say such behavior is and was never OK, even if you are famous or powerful.

So, I am standing up today as a woman who has been sexually harassed and assaulted. This conversation is not over. #MeToo

October 14, 2017

harvest moon
Norton Simon back garden at twilight, 10/6/17 (Derwent colored pencils and watersoluable marker on smooth surface drawing paper)

Fast and Loose, or How to Draw the Harvest Moon at Twilight

If you’ve looked at much of my art on this blog, you can see part of an artist’s lifetime of the right brain struggling with the left. Looking back at my pre-21st century work my left-brain self was absolutely in love with rendering the details of a plant or a bug part that could only be seen with a powerful scope. I was in awe of the artists (medical illustrators and scientific illustrators) that were in command of media like colored pencil, pen and ink and watercolor. In the late 80’s I was totally captivated with an artist named Barbara Adair. She had learned to command colored pencil to do her bidding when rendering the natural world of plants. I Googled her a couple days ago and found an amazing poster she did for the East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD). Go to museumcollections.org and do a search for her name. A poster of a lovely Fritillaria (don’t know if it has a more common sounding name) should come up. And if you roll the cursor across the piece you will see the seamless smooth perfection that I am talking about. Oh how I strived to create such luxurious, velvety and exacting color.

Remembering Barbara Adair made me think of another master natural science artist who used a more mixed media approach for her fabulously real looking artwork. Her name is Lynnette Cook and in the late 80’s early 90’s she was one of the artists at the Morrison Planetarium at the Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park. Her real and unreal renderings of space are out of this world (no pun intended). And during this same time period she also did art for magazines and posters. Of course I was more than captivated that I too could be hired by a random publication to create such art, but that was not to be. Google her and you will be treated to examples of her amazing art.

During this time I was experimenting with the scientific wonder of life and all its infinitesimally small details. Taking classes at the Academy and working for various natural science scientists gave me endless pleasure. But of course there might have been a hidden danger with that kind of work. (Well, it might not have been a real danger, but I may have been in danger of totally boring friends and family with my endless stories of what I did all day. Like there was the one time that I sneezed and almost blew some very tiny Melastome seeds onto the floor…) There might have been some lurking OSHA violations with this kind of painstaking work as well. I was still married in the early 90s and I distinctly remember my then husband saying something like, “They should be paying you more than 10 dollars an hour if you are going to go blind drawing the tiny hairs that can only be found on wasp genitalia.” Enough said.

So, after that I moved on. (Don’t worry; I’ll get to this art in the next paragraph…) I didn’t go blind, but I did get a divorce. I started stretching canvases again, got a pretty good-sized easel and did a fair number of landscapes with acrylics and then oil. And all the while the right side of my brain was speaking up, encouraging me to speed things along and not worry about the small details. There was something to be said for turning on Miles Davis, Pat Metheny or Winton Marsalis and painting more quickly, and fast and loose.

Finally, I am up to the present, where my right brain has completely subdued the left and I have taken to creating “deconstructed” landscapes like this one. And this colored pencil piece was done in about 15 minutes, as the light was leaving the sky and I was racing to capture a moment. And I couldn’t believe my luck. There was music playing in the back garden at the Norton Simon that night—selections of Miles Davis’s “Kind of Blue” could be heard throughout the garden. And even if I had wanted the moment to last a little bit longer it didn’t matter because like it or not, the light would be fading to black and I would be done. And I chose colored pencils because it also seemed tailor made for a right brain manic scribble to music, with no time to mix colors or “chat” with my perfect “blues” in the paint box. Oh, and the huge yellow harvest moon I tucked up in the right corner didn’t really exist in that spot at that moment. I added it because you get to do that in your own art when your right brain is in command, with no explanation necessary.

So, what comes next? Will my art become more and more abstract? I was pondering this as the evening light was completely gone and my eyes wandered over to the water lily pond illuminated by outdoor lights. It made me think of Monet’s Water Lilies. He went to a great deal of trouble to put in the lily pond at Giverny. And he painted many amazing waterscapes (some 250 oil paintings) while gazing over that water. In fact, he pretty much dedicated the last part of his “painting” life, starting in 1912 till his death in 1926, painting his beloved water lilies and dealing with his failing vision (due to worsening cataracts). From what I read critics didn’t care much for his later work and pretty much ignored these paintings. It wasn’t until the 1950’s that they were found again and deemed not only note worthy, but ground breaking abstract art. Maybe I am destined to continue down the deconstructed landscape trail, much like Monet and his abstract Water Lilies. I realize I have just compared my art to the great Claude Monet (the Father of Impression), but I like that that gives me something to shoot for. Think I’ll try my hand at the water lilies in the back garden of the Norton Simon Museum, with plans to visit Monet’s actual water lilies at Giverny someday.

October 7, 2017

Sanchezia parvibracteata (common name Sanchezia), 1991 (pen and ink on Bristol board)

In the late 80s and early 90s I worked as a botanical and entomological illustrator at the Academy of Sciences. This pen and ink is an example of how plants being studied are typically drawn. In the center is the “habit” of the plant (what it looks like with all it’s parts attached in their proper place) and surrounding the “habit” are various plant parts (sometimes rendered as though it has been sliced open to show what’s inside). Such illustrations are also traditionally drawn in black and white as they are printed in a black and white monograph that is shared with other scientists, or in this case other botanists. I suspect there are only a couple hundred people in the world who actually see these published works, and printing in black and white is substantially cheaper than color. Sorry this photo of a copy isn’t so great, but the original went to the botanist and the crispness of the line looks kind of blurry.

I loved the many hours I spent making these drawings in the quiet of the various artist’s rooms at the Academy. And I loved the time I spent with the various scientists there, especially the people in the botany department. It was clear that everyone loved their work and they often had lunch together during the week. Thinking back it’s fun to remember a couple of particularly wonderful lunchtime conversations when Tom (John Thomas Howell) was there. He had been Alice Eastwood’s assistant at the Academy, starting in 1929, and had assisted Ms. Eastwood until she retired in 1949. Tom finally retired in the 1960’s. That meant he had been coming to the Academy probably close to 30 years, post retirement. Like I said, these were people who loved what they did—very inspiring!

Who was Alice Eastwood?

Alice Eastwood was an early California botanist (not a native Californian) who was credited with building the botanical collection of the Academy of Science’s Herbarium starting in 1891. One lunchtime Tom (native Californian, born in Merced in 1903) told the story of how Alice Eastwood single-handedly saved the plant collection of the Academy (then down on Market Street) after the 1906 earthquake. As much of San Francisco was on fire after the quake, the Academy building looked like it was going to burn down too. Tom said Ms. Eastwood placed a ladder up to an upper story window and crawled inside. Bringing the hem of her apron (yes, ladies of the day wore aprons) to her waist, she created a kind of large cloth envelope to carry the stacks of prepared plants from the Herbarium. Holding the bulging apron closed with one hand she carefully hung on to the ladder with the other and climbed down to the street below. She placed the items in a safe, but temporary spot, and went back up the ladder for another load. Tom said she did this over and over again until the entire collection was removed from the building, and then the whole collection was taken to a safe place. To this day, I can picture a very headstrong woman (wearing a long skirt with a starched white apron full of dried bits of plants attached to card backing) going up and down, and in and out. That must have been quite a sight to see, with what must have seemed like the whole world on fire all around you.

More about Tom

Our lunch conversations were quite a bit livelier when Tom felt well enough to come in and work (yes, work) on some of his “Flora of California” studies. His particular specialty was Eriogonum (common name buckwheat). Even though he had retired so many years earlier, he still had an office and was Emeritus Curator of botany and a Fellow at the Academy. He told so many stories of early plant collecting in California and how the truly gifted botanists collected plants that were a bit further away from the train tracks (yes, the only way to get to many places in the now “road covered” California was by train, horseback or by foot). According to him it was only the bravest of botanists who would traipse around the hills and dales of California like John Muir. He also told a story of Peter H. Raven, a world-renowned botanist who headed the Missouri Botanical Garden (world-class center for botanical research and education). He thought it a very funny comment that he once told Peter, when he was a young undergraduate, that he would never amount to anything because Peter had terrible handwriting. That really seemed to amuse the almost 90-year-old Tom.

I remember another particular lunchtime encounter with Tom when the hills of Oakland were burning out of control (October 1991). We were all sitting around at lunch, talking about the fire and who was worried most about his or her house, or if we knew of someone who had either lost their house or was about to be evacuated. There was one woman who said her house was pretty close to the flames and she was kind of waiting for the “mandatory evacuation” call from the fire department. She said that she was ready to leave at a moment’s notice as she had all her shoes in the car. (Of course no one let her stop there.) She added that her shoes were ready to be evacuated because it was very tricky for her to find shoes that fit her foot comfortably and she didn’t want to lose a single one. That got a few smiles from the group. Of course Tom had something to add. He said he remembered a particular fire where he had to make just such a choice, but he didn’t have a car and the fire he remembered was the Berkeley fire of 1923. Tom was an undergrad at UC Berkeley at the time and the city just north of the campus, where he lived, was on fire. He recounted that he was dragging his trunk, full of as many earthly possessions as would fit, down the stairs of his multi-story flat. He said one of his roommates was yelling at him because he was leaving great marks and grooves on the hardwood floor. Tom said he took no notice and continued dragging the trunk down the stairs and out the door to safety. It seems that particular building, along with almost 600 other houses in north Berkeley, burned down in that fire. So, who cared about some marks on the floor? Right? And of course that story amused Tom as well as the rest of the nervous botany department staff who were a little on edge about the current fire burning out of control in their neighborhood.

By the early 1990’s Tom’s health had deteriorated and he came the Academy less often. In May 1994 he passed away. It was fun to look him up on Google. There he was in glorious black and white, ready to tell us yet another story. I don’t know how many of the scientists I met at the Academy are still there department. I know the entomologist I’d worked for retired. But I noticed the two botanists I had previously worked for are still there. Makes me wonder if either of them have retired, but still have an office in the building. Maybe they still come in and continue their studies of the plants they are so passionate about. I hope so.

Note about natural disasters in California: We struggle with earthquakes, fires, and all too frequent floods brought on by the occasional deluge that races through burned out canyons. And whatever the weather in any given year, you can always count on mudslides and road closures on Highway 1 just around Big Sur—one of my favorite places on the planet. But don’t tell anyone it is my favorite, people will want to come here.