March 17, 2018

Spring 2017 Descanso
Sycamore Trees, Descanso Garden, March 10, 2017 (watercolor and Inktense pencil on watercolor paper)

Hard to believe, but I did this watercolor almost exactly one year ago. And you could smell spring coming then as now. I love the leaves that are just coming up around my neighborhood trees, much like the wonderful green spikes in the ground around last year’s spring sycamores. I remember going to the garden and seeing the leaves of such annuals that seemed to have appeared as if by magic, adding bright balls of yellow and red on the ends of bright light green anemone stems. Spring is such a brief season here in SoCal, and I like to really accentuate the affect our seasonal water has on everything in our landscape in my art. That’s why I made the sky such a luscious watery blue, and why I added the stripes of cerulean next to the vertical leaves of daffodils and tulips that surround these trees. (They can be found at the edge of the rose garden at the Descanso.) And if you really want those saturated spring colors to pop in a painting, put them near different shades of grey—like the bark of the trees. You should also know that behind this vignette, sharp green weeds had also blanketed the hills behind the garden. Every spring the hills near my house add a welcome softness to our landscape, giving a real three-dimensional quality to our normally monotone graham cracker brown hills. The velvety green is especially nice on the rolling slopes I go past on my way to work every morning. They were recently ravaged by fire and have been looking more like a lunar landscape with “Dali-like” black outlines of trees popping up every so often. I noticed on my way home yesterday that a number of those dark skeletons have some bushy bits of green at the base—like a green phoenix rising from the ashes I think.

For those of you still in the grips of winter, all I have to say is that spring is really on its way, even for you. I know it may not seem like it could possibly be true, but the calendar says spring starts next week—March 20 to be exact. And you know in your heart it’s not wrong, it’s just delayed. There’s a wonderful passage in the book The Secret Garden (by Frances Hodgson Burnett, first published in 1911) that will make you believe for certain that it is so. You may not see anything new green and growing, but under the ground the unseen is happening nonetheless. I’ll try to paraphrase the idea of spring coming before you can actually see it through the eyes of Mr. Weatherstaff, the main gardener in the book. The story takes place on a large estate on a moor in Yorkshire, England. Ben Weatherstaff describes the coming of spring to Mary, a little girl recently orphaned. She had been living in a hot and humid area in India, but was now living at her uncle’s house known as Misselthwaite Manor. The author, Ms. Burnett, was amazing at capturing the Yorkshire dialect in her writing, but it can make reading that kind of dialog a bit tricky. But here goes… “Springtime’s comin’,” he said. “Cannot tha’ smell it?” Then he goes on to tell Mary that the earth is fresh and damp in spring, and “…in good humor makin’ ready to grow things.” He tells her that the earth is “dull” in the winter with nothing to do and that plants start waking up with the new warmth of the springtime sun. And the last part, which is my favorite, he describes the different bulbs that will soon be visible “…bits of green spikes…” And he lists crocuses, snowdrops and “daffydowndillys,” which are daffodils, or narcissus. What a great word. And the way Ms. Burnett describes the greenness of pre-1911 Yorkshire in early spring you can almost feel the heaviness of oxygen that a great number of plants are about to produce, like these moors are on photosynthesis steroids or something. And you can just imagine that avid gardeners, like Ben Weatherstaff, have been waiting for just this moment. Today the English are still known as notoriously mad about gardening. That has actually always seemed kind of crazy to me as the countries of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland are at the same latitude as Newfoundland, so it’s pretty far north and usually sunless and wet. I mean, without the sun how do green plants grow in such profusion? It doesn’t seem like it should be a climate for elaborate gardens. But that doesn’t stop the people who live there from digging in the dirt and having amazing and beautiful gardens. I have distant ancestors that came from these very places. And I have to say that every year, when our spring rains are finally here, I am avidly planning which beds will need weeding and what flowers and/or vegetables with need planting. For a number of years I would get seed catalogs in winter and I would pour over the magazines as though I would be curing cancer with the plantings I had planned to make thrive and provide color or food. And of course there was all the compost I had made and where I would be amending the soil. For those of you who are too distant from your farming gene, I apologize and will stop here.

Last post for winter 2018 and Happy St Patrick’s Day!

You may or may not already know this, but the Irish don’t actually celebrate such a day. I remember learning once why Americans took up the “green” mantle, but I have forgotten. I mean St. Patrick wasn’t actually Irish and he didn’t drive away all of the snakes in Ireland. There never were any snakes in Ireland to drive away. (I remembered that part.) And then there is the fact that there a whole bunch of Protestants in Northern Ireland and they would never consider celebrating some Papist catholic saint. Those shanty Irish Protestants are my ancestors. My mother’s family thought to celebrate July 12, in support of William of Orange, a kind of patron saint of the non-Catholic Irish folk.

The thought of getting pinched on St. Patrick’s Day always annoyed me and I tried to permanently ward that possible assault by reminding people my eyes were green all the time, for real. So as long as I wasn’t asleep (and my eyes were closed), pinching me should not be allowed. But as kids I wasn’t sure anyone was actually looking at my eyes, so I usually wore some kind of green clothing to school to avoid the whole thing. Saying that I had green eyes was probably up there with telling classmates that you were actually wearing green underwear. That always seemed like a dicey gambit, as someone would then insist to see if you were telling the truth. And I’m guessing having green eyes somehow wouldn’t count anyway.

My mother used to tell a story about her mother that always gave me a real sense of her Irishness, but I always suspected some of what she said was a bit of blarney. (Mom said that her mother used to call daffodils daffydowndillys. Gotta love that word!) During the Depression I guess my grandmother would go into a green grocer in Los Angeles to buy produce for the family. Mom said that the owner was Irish and Catholic. So I guess there were some occasions my grandmother would have orange paper (from William of Orange fame) in her purse and with great fanfare she would cover those Irish Catholic green apples with the paper. And I guess once this little 4 foot 11 woman started doing that, the green grocer had green paper ready to cover the Northern Ireland Protestant oranges for when she came in the store. Hard to know what to think or believe. I mean, where did she get orange paper? I never met my maternal grandma, but it’s hard to imagine this little tiny lady sort of leaping up towards the boxes of pippins with sheets and sheets of orange paper. This kind of activity seems playful enough. But when I was growing up the trouble between the different parts of Ireland was anything be playful. My brother said he wasn’t going to admit that he was of Irish descent until they straightened out. Not sure if The Troubles are really over, but the bombings and shootings we heard about when I was a kid seem to have subsided. Eirinn go Brach

March 10, 2018

Peachy Canyon go
Peachy Canyon, Paso Robles (acrylic on wallpaper)

At the time I did this piece I was experimenting with landscape panels. I attached this 18 inch by 6 foot panel on to a board and then had it framed. I had a pretty amazing framer in Paso Robles during this time and she very cleverly worked out how to do it. But it was way too complicated to do that again, so this panel was the last one I did. I included a sampling of the framing above and below the art. Not sure this photo does any of that justice, but here it is anyway.

Peachy Canyon Winery is on the corner of Highway 46 and Bethel Road. I have done several other paintings of the vineyards on both sides of the road. But when I did this one, it was the little old white house on the property (from Paso’s earlier farming days) that caught my eye. I’ve always thought it would be great fun to live there. I enjoyed the idea that it was tucked away from view, but if you lived there you probably would have a great view of the vineyards from all sides. I haven’t been by that winery in a while, so the little white house may not even be there anymore. Most of the wineries in the area have become very fancy and such a humble little building probably doesn’t meet with the approval of the more sophisticated wine tasters that the area now attracts. Too bad!

One Californian Dreamin’

I often dream of houses. No, I really do dream of houses. And I wish I had the nerve to try and paint one of those houses from my dreamy memory. But I haven’t tried it yet. I just don’t think I could capture what my brain conjures up in the night as a single frame because dreams are actually movies, right? And oh my dream homes seem so real. I just don’t think I could do any of my “made up” houses justice. And as I am writing this now I wonder if I can actually do them justice trying to describe them in words. But I desperately want to imagine these houses in the daylight, so I’ll try. If you think the description of someone’s dreams of houses seems a bit of a yawn, you should definitely stop here.

I’m not a dream interpreter, but what does it mean to consistently dream of houses from both the inside and out? I mean, I have even had dreams of houses that were haunted, and sometimes I don’t go inside. But sometimes I just barge right in and check it out—even though I have to navigate a moving or undulating door handle. I don’t often have “repeat house” dreams except I’ve conjured up many homes that are high up on cliffs overlooking spectacular views of the ocean. But there is one house I have dreamed of so often that I can describe it pretty vividly. It always starts with a beautiful summer day and all around me is tall golden grass. I walk up to a small bridge and there on my right is a large red painted barn with white trim. I stop and look at it for a moment, noticing the crossed white boards on the barn door. Then my eyes look straight ahead to a tiny white clabbered house just in front of me. It’s not unlike the small farmhouse on this panel. In my dream the house is in deep shade with two huge trees on either side of it. I know the house is painted white, but the trees make it look a pale shade of green. Funny, in this dream I walk right up the steps of the small front porch, but don’t actually go inside.

Once I dreamt of a tall wooden house, in deep shade, with huge gardens all around. And as I walk all around, looking at the garden, I know this doesn’t make sense, as a garden can’t really grow much in such deep shade. But this is my dream and I love the coolness of the place and walking all around–occasionally looking up at what turn’s out to be a two-story Victorian that is tilting ever so slightly to one side. For another dream I am in deep shade again and my single story house is made of a kind of rosy shade of wood, like madrone I think. But what makes this house and dream so “jaw droppingly” perfect for me is that I walk out the back door of the kitchen and down into a valley of rigidly symmetrical forest of leafless, medium-sized deciduous trees. There are orange and golden fall leaves on the ground and I walk on and on into my forest, so very pleased with the order and beauty of my countless trees.

Sometimes my dream house dreams take place inside the house. I have such a vivid memory of me inside a huge floor to ceiling glass box that is my living room. The room is filled with afternoon light. And there is a piano and comfortable couch in the center of the room with lots and lots of books on shelves down low, so as not to block my view of the outside. And what a view it is—a huge expanse of green lawn that comes right to the glass. The velvety carpet of green is surrounded by an impenetrable wall of dark green layers of shrubs and taller trees, like no one can get onto the lawn and into this perfect light-filled box of books and music. And of course I am sitting on the couch in this amazing light, reading a novel of great interest.

In another interior dream house, I am in the center of a warm and dark living room. All around me are small indoor ponds and rivers. There is very soft lighting in this room and I sit on low comfortable furniture looking out the windows and listening to the sounds of the moving water. But in this cocoon room I don’t look out through floor to ceiling windows, but rather tall narrow windows all around the room. Outside these windows are narrow pathways that weave in and out of wooden fencing and bamboo.

Another dream interior that I can share with you starts in a bright kitchen. But the kitchen is like no other, and the room is a kind obstacle course where I must crawl over and under boxes to get to the center of the room. And somehow the tiny room expands as I move through it, and a table appears off to the side and all you would ever need to create an amazing meal is on the counters and in the cupboards around the perimeter of the room. It never occurs to me that this room is somehow magic, it’s just that I decided that all that space must have been there all the time.

And if I could have a favorite dream house movie I have seen in my head…here it is. When I was pregnant with my son I had an amazing dream that ended with me stepping up off a low wall to then fly through the air down the center of a house-lined street at sunset. Before I knew it, my two children fly up, each one taking my hand. Together, we whiz through the air, down the street. My child on the right says, “Dad, you need to get home soon. Mom has somehow killed all the plants in the house.” And we all start laughing. By now, the sun has gone down and we are hovering in front of our mid-century modern house. We stare into the “lamp-lit” living room with floor to ceiling windows and cool furniture—Eames lounge chairs, a glass chandelier and futuristic clock on the mantel. But what I remember seeing so vividly at this point are the 5 or 6 indoor plants with black leaves and a woman wandering around the room, obviously upset with the dead plants. She finally looks up and sees her family outside the window. She smiles faintly and we all wave. So, of course this is when I wake up and realize I have a big smile on my face. And my “dream” movie ends…

So, daylight savings starts tonight. I hate this time change–I feel like I am somehow cheated out of my dreaming time.

March 3, 2018

Cad Red and vineyards
Paso Robles Vineyard, spring 2003 (oil on 26″ by 34″ canvas)

This Paso Robles landscape hangs on a wall in my house. I walk by it several times a day and love to remember what I was thinking when I decided to paint it. It was definitely springtime, and I realize it isn’t quite spring yet again, but the colors remind me of the coming spring. But why I chose those colors and my overall treatment/technique for the sky, vineyards and oaks, and weeds that were growing in the foreground really had nothing to do with the season. There was kind of a “back story” in my head as I tackled each of those sections. I tried not to over think any of it and I think it came out kind of a nice mood piece that captured a moment of the ever-changing landscape of any place in California. 

So, starting at the top, I can speak about the Paso Robles sky. It often has this kind of hazy color palette. Not sure why. When I was a young girl, and I hung around this area, the sky was deep blue and the air was pretty dry. Back in the 80s, when people started planting (and irrigating) grapes, over time it seemed like the weather gradually got more humid. Makes me wonder if all that irrigation may have put more moisture in the air. About that same time I really started noticing the many vapor trails of big jets that crisscrossed the sky at 30,000 feet, going from LAX to SFO and back again all day long. Maybe that added to the haze as well. I also know of people who have lived in the area for several generations and recently some of them have turned up with seasonal allergies and even asthma. Such attacks of sneezing and difficulty breathing wasn’t the case back when this was just oak trees and golden rolling hills. I have no facts to support any of this, but it does make me wonder. But I have done so many landscapes of this area and it was just what the sky looked like that day. And it was fun to layer and swirl the mist above the vineyards imagining so many jets going off to places unknown, or just to LA.

Now onto the middle ground and why I painted the vineyards this way. There are acres and acres, or what seem like miles and miles, of grapes on both sides of 101 around here now. I tried to somehow give the viewer the feeling that we were speeding past the countless plants, as the green branches moved faster and faster to the left–squishing them down to a curved thin line right off the canvas and into the distance. I had tried this curved technique of vineyards in another landscape, only in that one I added a road next to the vineyard to speed along. For this one, I imagined I was in a car and the road was under me and not visible. I intentionally wanted the oaks to look stiff and still, as they had been for the 100 years or more. I am not sure, but the road probably wasn’t paved back then and you couldn’t travel very fast. From the pictures I have seen of the area it was mostly farmland and people would have traveled that road on horseback or in a wagon pulled by some kind of beast of burden. And there were definitely only farmers here back then, no vintners.

Finally, there are the inevitable weeds that grow in the front of vineyards as well as down the rows of plants. Remember this is all irrigated now and weeds grow there too, and they will stay there until the viticulturist instructs the workers to plow them under. Now, they might seem kind of humdrum to you and maybe I should have left them out. But I didn’t! Instead I decided to accentuate them in kind of vertical green stripes. It was here I remember getting very interested in the colors I would choose and created a great shade of pink-red with my cadmium red lined up next to sap green. I have done several pieces where I celebrate weeds and try to draw attention to the usually mundane parts of a landscape. I remember taking that same pink color and placing it next to the gold of the hills next to the oaks. And I even interjected that same red in the foliage of one of the middle ground trees.

And that pop of color has stood the test of time for me because I like it now as much as I did then. I have since done a number of landscapes with this color combination. I did a small 8 by 10 oil on a birch panel of pinkish vetch with oaks off in the distance. Vetch is a kind of weedy legume that seems to bloom after the lupines are done. However, that foreground was not marked with vertical lines, but dotted with a lovely cadmium pink. I loved the way that turned out and maybe I’ll post that some time with a story about what we can look forward to when we ask ourselves about the changes in our individual lives and “what comes next.” That could be going from one job or profession to another, what kind of car we may drive in the future or whether or not we will do something to our bodies when things start to get a bit saggy.

As for the California I’ve shown here I guess change is a hazy sky, countless rows of vineyards and the inevitable (and usually unwelcome) non-native weeds that pop up out of the ground because they were invited to do so with some extra water. So, this got me thinking about what to do or think about such changes—as though I can rip out all the vineyards, roll out a huge sponge to soak up all that water and somehow wring it out over the ground. Do I want to go back to a landscape of blue skies against the golden hills with clusters of coast live oak trees? Do the changes you see here bother me and make me mad? I’m not sure this is actually the question I should be asking. I guess the question is more like what will I do if I see something that bothers me? Will I just get mad and make everyone around me miserable with complaining about how it should look or how it should be? Or should I just get on with it?

I just finished reading the book, A Man Called Ove, by Fredrik Backman. I think the main character in the story, Ove, is a great example of a person who sees problems and problematic people where ever he looks. But he likes to fix things and somehow manages to help his “inept” neighbor drain her radiator, teaches the annoying pregnant lady across the street to drive a stick shift, and shows a young man with a bad haircut how to fix a bicycle. Ove is often seen in the story heading to his garage to find a piece of equipment or to get his toolbox. I like to imagine that we all probably have some kind of toolbox that we can reach into and find something to help us all just get on with it. Some toolboxes might have birdseed to feed neighborhood birds, or a hot cup of coffee and a piece of pumpkin bread for a homeless person outside Starbucks, or a garden rake that could be used to rake leaves in a neighbor’s yard. I keep cadmium red, sap green, new Gamboge, cobalt blue and cerulean pigments in my toolbox. I might need to paint a changing sky, a vineyard or an oak tree set against some golden rolling hills at any given time. And what about the weeds? Who else is going to paint the weeds?

So, what would be in your toolbox?

A further note about the rows of weeds that just naturally come with the CA vineyards: “Hip-high” bright yellow mustard (non-CA native) weeds can be found growing down the center of the rows of grape plants in the Napa Valley. That mass of bright yellow blossoms with lacy green foliage can be absolutely stunning. There have been times I have seen the contrast of light cadmium yellow flowers next to the wet black stumps of rootstock after a rain that would take your breath away. One grower I know said she and her husband had seriously considered planting specific grains (a kind of weed) between the rows. This was during a time when the price of wine grapes had dipped a bit and they were looking for ways to supplement their primary cash crop. They thought they might harvest the grain and make beer to try and make some kind of profit. And it’s not like they were going to stop watering their grapes, so why not water the weeds in between. With pot now legal here, I wonder if anyone will be planting pot in the spaces between the grapes? Now, that’s a party. And you may or may not have guessed, we know how to party here in California!