January 26, 2019

descanso art, 1.20
At the Descanso Garden, looking for fresh growth, 1/19/19 (mixed media on water color paper)

The week leading up to my painting at the Descanso Garden last Saturday was very rainy in LA. By Friday, the days of rainy weather had finally ceased and if you had been in downtown during all that constant wetness, you would have welcomed that particular rainless overcast sky day. You would no longer be looking down at the water streaming around your rain boots and down the streets, but rather looking up at the beautiful trees all around you. You also wouldn’t have had to look past and dodge an endless sea of umbrellas, but rather enjoy the greening up of the shrubbery and other plantings at eye level. It’s funny, but a sense of “green all around” can be felt in southern CA just after the rain. You really notice it. But you know it won’t last long when the winter/early spring rain ends and the daytime temperatures are in the 60s and 70s. And if you had been walking around for what seemed like weeks and weeks in the punishing rain, you may have wanted to catch the brief glimpse of the greening of Los Angeles County.

So, when the sun tried to come from behind the clouds on Friday, I decided I would go to the Descanso Garden the next day, Saturday. I knew I wanted to look for bright green new growth leaves as well as shiny sparkling leaves that had been washed clean of a layer of dull dirt. And this is what you see represented here—lots of bright dots of light reflecting off new clean growth. It was overcast again last Saturday, but that was fine with me as I could sit on a bench that was not near any shade in the rose garden. It is not a common place for me to have often considered as that particular bench is out in the open with no nearby shade cover. As the springtime temperatures go up it will get too warm to sit there. And as you can see the sky was not my cerulean blue, but a bright shade of cream. I felt like I was in heaven.

Now it may seem that the final story here is not about the bright and sparkling “new growth” on trees. You may have noticed the reference I made to slogging around in the rain in downtown LA, and you may have guessed that somehow the rain factors more into this week’s CA tale. You would be right. The story for a particular week in one California girl’s life in mid January 2019 in LA ends in a garden, but begins with some very rainy and stressful days in downtown. Here’s the rest of the story. When I initially planned this week’s post I had hoped I could be clever and write a kind short story, where there is an unexpected ending, like it was all a dream, or he bought her a comb for her hair and she bought him a pocket watch chain or the guy you thought was human was really a robot. In the opening paragraph I had planned to weave in the unhappy “contract” story of teachers in the second largest school district in the country. Through the guise of treetops, tall buildings and punishing rain you would learn of the work stoppage, or strike, that occurred for an extended week starting January 14 through the 22nd for LAUSD teachers. I realized I was probably not a clever enough writer to create a really good short story about the roughly 30,000 people that hung out at various rallies in the rain in downtown LA during that time. I’m not sure I could have pulled off a great “twist ending” for my story where you would learn that I was part of that group, and I was part of the strike in the rain. I have photos of me down there and on the daily picket lines to prove it, as well as a photo of a clothesline with roughly 30 pairs of socks/tights I went through in four days of the damp and outright wet weather.

So, maybe the real story here isn’t the Good, the Bad and the Ugly (e.g. the momentary greenness, the strike, and the rain soaked people in red ponchos). I was looking for something bright and new by Saturday. Maybe I needed to be reminded that spring would in fact come, whatever we silly Californians do at any given time. Maybe the question is, how far would you go for something you believe in? What do you do when things get hard? Or where do you look for hope? You’ll never know, I guess, until it presents itself. But take heart, I’m here to tell you that you can do anything, even in the rain.

More about rain water in LA

I was raised in northern California and have only been down here a couple of years. When I first experienced my first LA rainstorm I was fascinated and actually horrified that a lot of the water seemed to just run down the street and then out to the ocean. I knew LA was considered a kind of desert and I wondered why rainwater wasn’t being captured in dams, wells or holding tanks. You know, save it for a rainy day, or maybe more like save it for a drought day. Not sure why this wasted run off occurs, but I think it might have something to do with a historic flood they had in 1938. Here’s what happened. A massive flood was triggered in the SoCal counties of Los Angeles, Orange and Riverside as a result of two huge Pacific storms. It seems that the resultant flood was one of the costliest natural disasters in LA history in terms of dollars and cents and loss of life—over 100 people died. So then, the US Army Corp of Engineers, with some other agencies, determined that local streams/rivers needed to be controlled and channeled away from populated areas. They built huge concrete waterways, flood control dams and debris basins, with the sole intent of taking potential excess water to the ocean. Notice, I didn’t say that they thought to save the water in any way. And so, I think no one has changed that paradigm and and down here rainwater runs away to the sea. This has not gone unnoticed by most of my Northern California brethren because present day LA gets a lot of its water from the snow pack of the Sierra. Yes folks, lots of water is sent down here in huge aqueducts without the SoCal folks trying to save any water that falls around town. But, as you may have guessed, there are more than a few Northern California residents that aren’t particularly happy about sharing something that SoCal might be able to get for themselves. But that’s another CA story that can be told another time. I don’t want to talk about the rain anymore. Stay tuned for drier days.

January 19, 2019

oak in birch panel
Hay bales under an oak in Paso Robles, off Highway 46 (oil on birch panel, 2 of 2)

I have frequently painted and written about the beautiful oak trees we have here in the golden state of California. And this great mature oak, with glowing golden hay bales, was a perfect specimen to paint. The companion left birch panel does not feature one majestic oak, but rather golden hay bales in the foreground that lead to a sloping hillside of oaks in the background. For that August 2017 post I focused on the purpose of under painting, and how it can be used to enhance the final colors that are carefully and strategically layered on top. I think it gives the final work a very romantic feel, and I quite like the affect.

For this piece of art, and the story that goes with it, I am focusing on the front and center subject matter—the lone oak tree. When I came upon this bucolic scene, I knew the oak deserved a place all its own. I remember thinking that I loved that the farmer who planted the hay had left the tree there. Maybe he or she thought it a great place to get out of the sun and sit up against the giant trunk to eat lunch on a hot day. When adding the top layer of tree texture I emphasized the leaves, branches and trunk with individual pigment-laden brush strokes. And because the hard birch surface does not absorb the paint, as it would with a stretched canvas surface, the thick blobs of pigment actually adds a real three-dimensional quality to all parts of the tree. I quite like that affect. When I spotted the oak diptych on my wall the other day, I knew I wanted to write about some of my many ramblings and sightings of such amazing trees. So, this week’s featured oak will be a jumping off point for my many California rambles on roads and hills, looking for single specimen trees, clumps and rows of trees, as well as drifts and masses on whole hillsides.

I often go rambling through the various neighborhoods and country sides I live in, looking at the sky and the trees. When my son was little I would stop and take a photo of a tree, or a landscape full of trees. Then I would paint it later when he was asleep or otherwise occupied. Lately I have been rambling through various neighborhoods on foot. I don’t just look for oaks, a truly favorite of mine, but I look at all kinds of trees. I like to notice singular redwoods, oaks, eucalyptus and palms. But I am also interested in the general arrangement of layers and clumps of trees—some intentionally planted and some just there because of some natural force. If you walk in California neighborhoods with houses from the 40s, 50s and 60s you will often see row upon row of houses that have the same tree planted in front. There was a time that builders planted a tree in front of each new house. So, by now, there are some older neighborhoods with glorious single trees out by the curb. Unfortunately, for some varieties that were planted have roots that have buckled the concrete sidewalks beside them. That happened to my aunt and uncle’s house in Long Beach. Their house was built in the 1920s and their front sidewalk has had to be replaced several times because of the roots of the jacaranda that was planted in the 30s. FYI—the jacaranda is actually a very common SoCal tree and it has lovely purple blossoms in the spring. Google it and you will see.

In a previous post I described rows of palm trees, planted in the 1930s, which can be found on either side of several streets in Glendale. Another nearby area with lots of mature trees is a neighborhood of craftsman style houses in Pasadena. It’s called Bungalow Heaven, and most of those houses have oak trees on their lots, with many of them out front. It is quite lovely to look up those blocks and see rows of such stately trees. It is also not uncommon to see a huge oak in the courtyard of a Spanish Revival house in the Glendale hills. That usually means the house was built around the tree. It’s crazy to imagine that a tree would be so integral to the design and placement of house, right?

Driving along 101 you would not be able to help seeing rows and clumps of mature trees at the edge of cultivated fields. Sometimes it looks like there had once been a house at the end of the row of trees, but no more. It actually makes me kind of sad to think that there is no one there to enjoy the shade and beauty. There’s also a stretch of the 101 where huge eucalyptus trees have been planted as wind breaks along the road and between the various fields. Several years ago the trees got some kind of blight and started dying. However, soon those huge trees started sending up new growth and are still there—kind of lumpy and forever changed, but still there. Actually, I often think the trees I see are way more interesting than the nearby houses. This puts me in mind of a book I have been reading that has a section in a chapter called “Time, Order and the Garden.” It’s kind of a geeky, yet wonderful, gardening book called, “Life in the Garden,” by Penelope Lively. In the TOG section she speaks so lovingly about trees it almost comes across as prose. She writes that we count on them to help us pass the time in meaningful ways, rather than keeping track of time passing with a building or structure. I mean, can you tell how old a house is by counting its rings? And the philosophical thought experiment, “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” only make sense if you are talking about a tree, rather than a house or castle. Right?

Rockhaven Oaks

Some of my recent neighborhood ramblings on my way to Montrose have taken me past a square block of old houses and glorious mature old oak trees. It’s called Rockhaven. I took a tour of the place several months ago now and learned that it had been a home for women with mental illness. It was started in 1923 and was developed as a place for women to be treated in a dignified way in a homelike setting. In it’s heyday it even had a proper gardener that transformed it into a beautiful haven, with the lovely oak trees all around. Marilyn Monroe’s mother lived there in the late 50s and early 60s and was actually living there when Ms. Monroe died in 1962. Billie Burke, Glinda the good witch in the Wizard of Oz, also lived there for a time. (Google it to learn more.) Today, all of the houses, save one bungalow, are in varying states of disrepair. But the oaks still stand tall all around. This house is occupied by two people, one of them an avid gardener. They are now the caretakers of this property and have a small and ever expanding garden around their house and trees. Every time I walk past the place I look to see if anyone has repaired any of the roofs on the houses scattered around. It’s sad to see that nothing is being done to resurrect those houses. But I think it would truly be sad if the oaks were not still hanging around, keeping track of the seasons of sun and rain that pass over the sky above them year after year.

January 12, 2019

degas dancer1, 30%degas dancers2, 30%

Last Friday evening I met one of my sketching groups at the Norton Simon. It was pretty dark and cool at 5 pm in Pasadena. If you are from the Midwest you will probably scoff at my saying that it gets cold in SoCal in winter. I was thinking about my “made up” fragility as I went directly through the front door, then the back door and out to the back garden to see if I would persist. I decided I would at least take a turn around that garden, around the Monet inspired pond and past all the beautiful sculptures. Actually I have done some fun sketches as the sun is going down back there and thought just maybe…Nah ah! It was just too darn cold for me. And for some reason they had blocked off the grass area on one whole side of the pond. I often like to sit there. What was that about? I did see one sketching friend sitting on a large boulder at the farthest end of the pond. He looked pretty settled in there. But I just kept walking round, past the fun café playing favorite jazz, back to the back garden door and then into the warm building. I wasn’t really sure what to do, as this was uncharted territory for me. And because of the cooler weather most everyone else was inside too. Darn! So, I ventured into the salon with the more contemporary art and decided to look around. In the past, I have found myself in this part of the museum (when’s it’s been too hot to be in the garden) and drawn some of the Degas bronze dancer sculptures you see here and thought I might look at them again. I plopped down on a bench near the first dancer, the one you see here dancing all alone. As I started to take out my pencils and pens I looked over my shoulder and saw three more Degas dancers in a clump. Then I turned around the other direction and saw the third grouping of Degas dancers. So, with my newfound “non-garden” lethargy I decided I would sit on this one bench and swing myself around and sketch all three. (I also did a sketch of Degas “balking” horse sculpture. I wasn’t even sure what it meant if a horse “balked.” Those of you who are more familiar with horseback riding may already know what that means. So, I looked it up on my phone. I guess it’s when a horse all of a sudden decides “nah ah” and he or she tries to stop moving. Actually, I didn’t post that sketch here because I thought it looked more like a balking dog-horse. Not really sure if I’m to blame for the dog head outcome. It seems that Degas forgot to put ears on his horse, so in fact it kind of looks like a dog’s head on a horse’s body. Google it and I think you will see what I mean. Woof!)

In a recent post (November 17, 2018) I described a very officious museum guard that I had encountered outside in the sculpture garden in front of the Norton Simon. It seems that the guard brethren on the inside of the museum are just as persistent and annoying as those on the outside. After I finally got settled on one end of my bench to do the first sketch I thought I saw a rather nervous looking guard whiz past me several times. I was busy with my sketch and thought maybe I was just being paranoid. But after what I decided was his 10th flyby, he stopped in front of the Degas dancer I was sketching and asked if the tiny flaccid canvas bag on the floor at my feet was mine. I told him it belonged to me and he scooted past—never showing his face again in my direction for the rest of the evening. What is it with these guards and poor artists sitting at benches? The last time my bag of art materials and I were accosted here I imagined that I would get back at the guard by unleashing some live bats I just happened to have in my backpack inside the museum. This time, because my bag was quite a bit smaller, I imagined I had a couple dozen ping-pong balls in there. And at any given moment I would wave the bag about, flinging ping-pong balls willy-nilly throughout the room. And I could just picture all these little white balls bouncing merrily off the walls, paintings and sculptures, and on the polished hardwood floors. But alas, I would not be able to provide any additional evening entertainment for anyone as I had left my ping-pong balls at home. I did, however, have a sheet of bubble wrap in my bag. I guess I could have snapped and popped that at will, but it was so noisy in the room, no one would have noticed. Oh darn.

degas dancers3, 30%

Putting ideas, or even people, into context

So, all of these seemingly random events and subsequent thoughts got me to thinking about how I felt like a fish out of water that night. And that made me wonder if I was somehow out of my element, or out of my personal outdoor garden context. Why was I imagining myself wreaking havoc inside…again? Maybe the guards I ran into sensed that I was out of context and not where I was supposed to be. This all seemed way too serious after my imagined ping-pong incident. That got me wondering if I was using the phrase “in context” in a truly meaningful way. I looked it up in the Google dictionary and it says “in context” means “considered together with the surrounding words or circumstances.” Maybe I was just a “balking artist” and I should just be happy that the museum guard had left me alone so I could finish sketching all my dancers. I decided that was the best way to go. When I finished one sketch, I swiveled myself around the bench to the next set of dancers, and so on. At 6:30, I packed up my bag and gathered with my fellow artists for our throw down. It was at that time that realized I was certainly in a favorite artist’s context. Maybe we are all a little more comfortable and a little less stressed when we feel like we belong in our surroundings or circumstances. What about you? What is your personal favorite context?

I swear this is the last story of the guards at the Norton Simon:

A sketching friend told me that the museum guards at the Norton Simon used to be way worse. She added a pretty funny story about Norton Simon, the man. I guess Mr. Simon was pretty autocratic, with definite ideas of what the art museum should look like and how it was to be run. And it seems that Norton Simon didn’t really care if anyone actually visited the museum, so he had lots of rules for the people who actually wanted to see the art. But that’s not all. My friend added that it is rumored that on his deathbed he told his wife (Academy Award winning actress, Jennifer Jones), that now she could finally have her café.


January 5, 2019

henry at the descanso
Outdoor Exhibit at Sturt Haaga Gallery at the Descanso Garden, 12/30/18 (ink and black colored pencil on mixed media paper)

I found myself at the Descanso Garden once again a couple days before New Year’s Day. No real surprise there! My son and I wandered about and then looked at the exhibit they have at the Sturt Haaga Gallery. It was a cool afternoon, so I did this one at home later from a photo I took. My hands were just too cold, even with fingerless gloves, to control the pen and pencil plein air. We later returned to the garden on New Year’s Eve to take in the Enchanted Forest light display. It’s funny, but I wander around that place so often it feels like it’s my garden and that often takes me to a place where I wonder why there are so many people in my yard.

The Sturt Haaga Gallery is tiny and sometimes their display doesn’t interest me in the least and I can slip through there, having looked at everything, in under 5 minutes. In fact, there have been times I have lingered at one or two displays, reading the artist’s title/description, just to keep from leaving in under a minute. But I never miss the opportunity to check out what is in there, just in case something catches my eye or my imagination. I like that the gallery’s mission is to educate and it “seeks to illuminate the intersection between contemporary arts and the sciences that are represented by the garden.” The display they have now is called La Reina de Los Angeles and artist displays related to art and science can be found inside the actual gallery building as well as all over the garden. I have actually popped into the gallery several times to look at one particular installation. (I will describe that piece later on…) I think I forgot to mention that La Reina de Los Angeles is all about water and waterways in our sometimes-parched landscape and it will be at the Sturt Haaga Gallery until January 13. According to the volunteer docent I chatted with on Thursday, after the 13th it will close for a month while the next exhibit is set up. She didn’t know the theme of the upcoming gallery exhibit.

What you are looking at here is part of the La Reina de Los Angeles “outdoor” exhibit and features some pieces of an old aqueduct called the Zanja Madre. In reading the description of the three aqueduct fragments displayed there, it seems that a brick and mortar aqueduct was used to bring water to the tiny town of El Pueblo de Los Angeles from 1781 to 1904. (Crazy to imagine LA being very tiny.) But I guess remnants of the aqueduct were unexpectedly dug up in Chinatown in 2014 and someone decided to save, and preserve, as much of it as they could. Considering the gallery’s mission statement is a blending of art with science, I am not sure if such a structure should be considered art. I get the science angle, but wonder if it’s more archeology and these are artifacts and not art. (If you can get over there before the exhibit closes you can decide for yourself their artistic value.)

Another outdoor artistic installation I have rather enjoyed involves some music that you can hear outside the gallery. An experimental artist, who is also a violinist, created the sounds/music you can experience there right now. It seems that he stood in the LA River, under the Glendale-Hyperion Bridge, capturing ambient sounds of the waterway. Then he added his “original” violin music as well as some “sonic effects.” The first time I heard the music I was on the hill behind the gallery. I thought a concert was underway on the grassy lawn area down below me. But I soon discovered a couple speakers in the rooftop garden of the gallery and realized the music/sounds were coming from there. I actually think it’s rather dark and strange, but cool sounding. I think that stems from my general love of the melancholy and such sounds make me feel so sad, but in such a lovely way.

Of all the various exhibits that are part of La Reina de Los Angeles I have described here two of the three parts that I have enjoyed most. I have one more to tell you about, and it is inside the building. It’s called Blue McRight and it is a 12 by 8 by 1.5 foot bookcase that vertically fills most of a wall in one room. In the wooden bookshelves are used books, vintage bronze faucets and sprinklers, and black rubber hoses. Some of the faucets have been attached to a couple books and some of those faucets are connected to hoses that have been attached to sprinklers on the floor in front of the bookcase crammed with books. It’s clear, upon entering the space that it’s a bookshelf completely filled with books. But if you look closer at all the books you will notice that all the book spines are black, white or cream colored, as well as various shades of sea green and blue. And if you get even closer you will notice that all book titles are related to water/ice, rivers, ocean and/or river/ocean creatures, boats etc. It seems to have something “water related” for everyone here. The afternoon my son and I were there we even noticed some guy taking books off the shelf to look at them. We were both in shock at his art effrontery. Did he think he was in a lending library? His library card should definitely be revoked! Where is a volunteer gallery docent, or reference librarian, when you need one?

So, I have carefully described three parts of the exhibit that I personally enjoyed. But several of the artist installations that contributed to La Reina de Los Angeles were just not my cup of tea. So, I thought the bigger story here was really that it is OK if you don’t like everything you see at an art gallery. In fact, it’s OK to not like anything you see. But I think it’s important to try to look at everything before you make that decision. Even though we, as artists, are extremely diverse, I think that kind of thought process is very common among my artist brethren. We try to look at someone else’s work with an open mind, ready to like any or all parts of what we see. And if we see nothing to our liking, we still walk away with an appreciation of what the artist was trying to convey in his or her work.

Of course I got to thinking more about artists and how diverse we are. In fact, we might be the most diverse single group of people on the planet. Diversity seems to be in the news a lot these days, as though some people are afraid of others that seem too diverse, too different from themselves. It seems that some want us to be more alike, so we won’t seem so dangerous or scary. But I think there is a “diversity” lesson for all of us to be learned from artists. And I think the best way to describe what I mean is the fact that even though I wasn’t drawn to all of the exhibits at the Sturt Haaga Gallery right now, I am thankful for all the people who participated.

Here is an example of a group of random artists interacting. Last evening one of my sketching groups met at the Norton Simon to sketch. It is typical for this group to start showing up at 5. Our little groups of one or two people begin sketching what interests us the minute we enter the place. Some go outside to paint in the garden, some head for a favorite painting or painter, some go downstairs to the Asian sculpture room and some check out the exhibit room that changes periodically. Last night I found myself doing pencil and ink sketches of a number of small Degas bronzes for the first part of the evening. As usual, by 6:30 we meet in the main lobby to share what we have drawn/painted. Then as a group we do something together and meet back in the lobby at 7:30 for a “throw down.” I have described a “throw down” in a previous blog, but will describe it here again. It’s when we each pick something that we think was particularly satisfying or successful and place in on a bench. Then we talk about what we did and share the materials we used. This might seem like an easy thing to do, but it’s really not. You put yourself in a very vulnerable place, like maybe you are thinking that what you have created isn’t that great, or you wish your art looked like someone who has more experience. And oh yes, there are always a couple “ringers” in our get togethers and it’s hard not to compare your amateur work with someone who gets paid regularly for his or her artwork. But this is where our diversity shines through and instead of people being smug and telling you why they are better and you are worse, we all look around together and pat each other on the back—the beginners, intermediates and the advanced artists. People make comments about everyone’s piece, saying things like I love your composition; I like the way you worked so loosely, or your layering of shades of green on the trees was great. Finally, after we have gone around and shared our work we stand together and take a group photo of all of us holding up our work. Wow! Those moments are so powerful, right? And maybe we were all expected to paint the same thing or do a piece of a whole, then put them together. That kind of group activity never seems to work out either because someone may want to paint the sculpture of an elephant he or she passed by and not the winged creature from 3rd century Pakistan. And that’s always OK and appreciated. As artists we are the textbook definition of diverse, but somehow we know it’s important to hang together on some level. And we appreciate each and everyone’s artistic spirit and the right to express it however we please. And I love knowing that there are artists out there that I will never meet or understand, but am thrilled to know they are out there…somewhere…creating art, just like me. No more to be said.