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!

February 24, 2018

Family Day, Porter College, UCSC, 2/10/18 (watercolor on watercolor paper)

I went to my son’s college Family Day. We started the morning off with pastries and coffee, and then were treated to panels of students who presented various projects they were passionate about. One group shared pieces of art that told of the physical and mental abuses of women, another shared a You Tube project they had done related to the myths and truths of being biracial and another created posters of popular Hollywood movies with the casts changed to more appropriately include people of color. I was so impressed with the courage and commitment these students have. And I have told my son that previous generations had made such a mess of things and it’s up to them to save us from ourselves. I have such hope!

Then we, the parents, heard about the issues of off campus housing in Santa Cruz and why it was so expensive to live there. (No surprise that people working in Silcon Valley come over the hill to Santa Cruz to live, leaving no affordable housing for anyone else.) Finally, we were treated to a group of a cappella singers and then lunch. And of course we were in Santa Cruz and that meant our meal (e.g. utensils, plates and left over food) was compostable. Gotta love that too! My son was too busy with his studies to join me for the morning’s events, but he did join me for lunch. Then he went back to studying and I did this piece just a few steps from his dorm room. Such a lovely day, by the way.

Sitting on my bubble wrap in the dirt and leaves, looking at this view, got me thinking about the sometimes-glaring differences between northern and southern California. And if you are looking for such differences just at the coastline from Santa Cruz to below Santa Barbara it’s just the tip of the “difference” iceberg. (No icebergs here, but the Pacific Ocean is pretty cold and most would need a wetsuit to spend any time in that frigid water, even in San Diego.) To the untrained eye you just see the trees with a big sky that blurs into ocean way off in the distance. Could be anywhere along the California coast, right? Well, that’s because what you can’t see has always been the real story in California. How do I put into words what I am trying to describe? OK, first, those trees you see in the foreground are huge conifers, and there are groves of giant redwoods just behind me and out of this line of site. This is no SoCal or central coast scene. In fact you wouldn’t see these trees once you got south of Monterey. They have these really cool trees called Monterey Pine or Monterey Cypress there. Look them up on Google, you won’t be disappointed. Of course Big Sur has some mighty redwoods, but that part of California’s coast is not as subtle as Santa Cruz. It’s wild and windy there. When my son was little we dared to run around in the screaming rain and wind at a beach near Big Sur. When we were completely soaked and hoarse from yelling, we found a public restroom nearby and changed into our jammies. I put our wet clothes in a bag and we drove home.

By the time you get down to Hearst Castle (Central California coast) there really aren’t many trees to speak of near the ocean, except maybe an occasional grove of eucalyptus (non-native to California). But in winter that area is tossed and blown around until there are huge piles of detritus on the narrow strips of sand below Cambria’s amazing bluffs. And once you get to Santa Barbara, and further south for that matter, many of the trees you will see along the coast are palm trees (only one is native—California Fan Palm). And I am obsessed with palm trees!

Every area of California is different with different attractions for all. Our coastline is often foggy, so, it isn’t always sunny in California. But lots of people come here looking for a kind of intangible sunny weather that they hope will lead to some kind of “California Dreamin” (Beachboys song, right?) lifestyle. I think the most energetic come to California for the technology in Silicon Valley (northern CA). But now there is a high tech area in Santa Monica (SoCal) and it is called Silcon Beach. Some come to experience the wine country. That used to be exclusively in the northern Napa Valley, but now wineries can be found in the inland areas of Napa on down to Los Angeles in cities/towns like Lodi, Paso Robles, Templeton, Santa Maria, Simi Valley and Temecula—to name only a few. Funny that the people who dream of the creative world of movies and entertainment still need to come to LA. That’s one thing that hasn’t changed.

So, I am at the point in this story where there is way more to tell about the differences and similarities of the people and regions in this huge state. And I didn’t really know how to end this without going on and on. So, I will leave us at the beach for now.

I guess I’m not done. I just can’t seem to stop. OK, here’s a question and answer that people want to know about those of us who live in southern California. “Who in their right mind would live in LA? I mean, how do you put up with all that traffic?” I’ll tell you the slice of a story that should begin to answer that. I remember a perfect southern CA evening where we watched the sunset at a friend’s house at the top of Mount Washington. They had a huge window that overlooked a canyon and out to a thin silver ribbon that was the Pacific Ocean. From that window, we watched the sunset over the Pacific Ocean while the twinkling lights of planes landed at LAX. And oh yeah, I think we were drinking a particularly lovely Napa Valley Cab while eating guacamole made from CA avocados. You get it, right?

February 17, 2018

Forest Lawn
Forest Lawn, Glendale, January 2018 (mixed media)

On January 27 a couple sketching groups from LA participated in WW SketchCrawl 58. I’m not sure I know exactly what there is to know about a Sketch Crawl, but suffice it to say, it’s a kind of worldwide sketching and painting group experience. And I guess it’s sort of an exclusive club of urban sketchers from every continent (except Antarctica I believe) that posts what each group creates on a predetermined day. But unless you have gotten permission to join the group, you can’t see what we do on Facebook. I think it’s kind of funny that a bunch of crazy artists thought to put together such a cohesive continuous event. It’s a lot like herding cats. So, you are lucky to see what I did on that SketchCrawl 58 day, even though I didn’t post it on the LA Urban Sketching website. Of course there are no rules! I should add that our Urban Sketching gang was joined by some other wonderful artists through a “Meetup” group.

I love the gang we have cobbled together, and don’t get me wrong, anyone who wants to join us can come along. But our little (I guess it’s not really so little) Urban Sketcher/Meet Up group decided to go to Forest Lawn in Glendale to sketch and paint on the 27th. Oh, and I forgot to mention that usually at one of these gatherings we also take a photo of all of us holding up our art and that gets posted too.

Back to Forest Lawn…You may or may not know it, but Forest Lawn is a kind of conglomerate cemetery and you can be buried in Glendale (where we were), Arcadia, City of Industry, Covina Hills, Cypress, Hollywood Hills, Long Beach, Cathedral City, Coachella or Indio. Many of LA’s rich and famous were buried at Forest Lawn in Glendale. (It also has the dubious distinction of being where my parents got married—at The Little Church of the Flowers.) It was my first visit and I had planned to paint The Little Church of the Flowers. But if you read the caption, you will see that that is not what happened. I liked the idea that the “story of me” started in that little church in Forest Lawn. But I guess the really big story about this place is the fact that people like Clark Gable, Elizabeth Taylor and Michael Jackson (to name only a few famous people) were buried there.

The place is huge and when I first turned into the property, I drove around and around, until I finally got to the top along with the 10 to 15 others who had dared to paint at Forest Lawn. The group had decided to meet in front of The Hall of Crucifixion-Resurrection and museum. After we determined what time we would all get back together to share what we had created, we milled around a bit and each found a spot to paint. It was at this point I realized there wouldn’t be time to find the church where my parents had been married. But no worries. I made a mental note to come back another afternoon to do that. I found a nice place in the sun across from the Church of the Recessional. We had been instructed not to get too close to the church as there were continuous services going on there all day. And I guess it wouldn’t have been a good idea to roam the burial markers looking to practice figure drawing while a family placed flowers at Great Aunt Myrtle’s headstone. Across the street from this church were great mounds of chipped trees and shrubs (mulch). So, I laid out my bubble wrap and sweatshirt and settled down to sketch and paint this church. But there were lots of places to go all around that mountaintop. When we later had our “through down” (placed our work on the steps in front of the Hall) I noticed 3 or 4 others who chose to paint the Church of the Recessional. But some painted the many statues that were all around The Hall of Crucifixion-Resurrection and museum, and some painted the exterior of The Hall. I didn’t see it, but I understand there is a “Last Supper” window inside that should not be missed. There is also a giant 195 foot long by 45 foot high Crucifixion painting that was originally painted in 1904 for an exposition in St Louis, and it finally found its final resting place in the Hall in 1951. And if you looked over a wall on one side of the Hall, there was an amazing view of the city of Glendale below. I thought of trying to paint that scene, but it was too overwhelming, and I am glad I chose to do this piece instead.

I guess it’s common for people to come to Forest Lawn and look for famous people who have been buried there. If you look up Forest Lawn on the Internet you can find a page that lists such famous people in alphabetical order. I was kind of intrigued with Michael Jackson’s final resting place and thought I might look for it some day. There is, however, a kind of note on their website that says we, the public, are not really invited to do so as there is special security to keep non-family members away. Not even sure what that might look like.

I guess the question might be, whose grave would you be interested in seeing? How close can we get to something so personal without it being intrusive or kind of creepy? And how do we show respect and reverence without being like a member of the paparazzi? Or is visiting a famous person’s grave the ultimate fan club event? I am looking forward to going back there to find and sketch The Little Church of the Flowers. I guess I am the self-appointed official historian of June and Gene’s fan club.


February 10, 2018

Adelaida, 1997 (oil on canvas)

We lived in Paso Robles for 7 years and my son went from age 1 to almost 8 during that time. I wasn’t able to sit in the weeds and paint the beautiful mountains, safflower fields and wine grapes around me, so I took photos of what I saw for a later time. I had an old camera in the car and every chance I got I pulled over to the side of the road and took pictures. This view was such a surprise and I will never forget the afternoon I came upon it. I was on my way to a writer friend’s house and she lived in Adelaida (Adelaida Winery to be exact) and didn’t have my son with me. I had never been to the winery before, but knew I was getting close based on the directions I had been given. I came around a corner and there it was—like a soft focus dream of mountain beauty that included a far off sliver-blue lake. I pulled over onto the shoulder of the road and lingered there for quite a while. And I took lots of pictures. Later, when I had time, I stretched a canvas and captured this scene, but it isn’t the painting you see here. That original piece hung on the wall a couple years I think. But there was something I didn’t like about the way I had rendered the foreground. So, I eventually put it back on my easel, covered it with gesso and started again. I like this version better. (Of course it doesn’t really matter if I do or not, the other one has been completely obliterated.)

You might think this story is going to be about repainting, touching up or just putting a painting away for good. But you would be wrong. This story actually has to do with the view and similar mountain scenes from all over San Luis Obispo County that I cobbled together to make a complete 360-degree mural for my son’s Paso Robles bedroom.

And this all started with two completely separate events that seemed to happen simultaneously. The first event was my visit to an upscale furniture store in the Stanford Shopping Center. They sold one of a kind pieces of furniture that was very colorful and quirky—a perfect combination for me. In one of the back rooms was a lovely long narrow mural that ran along the top of the wall and the ceiling for about 15 feet. The art was a bucolic scene of mountains, trees, with an occasional building. I was enchanted with this idea and thought such a scene would be a lovely bit of sophisticated art that would wrap around my son’s bedroom, giving him something peaceful and calm to look at as he went to sleep at night. This got me thinking then and for weeks after that. But what specific mountain scenes would I paint?

The second event that lead to the mural came while I was parking my car on the rooftop parking structure on Marsh Street across from the movie theater (which is one the tallest buildings in downtown San Luis Obispo). As I got out of the car and headed for the stairs I noticed a pretty spectacular 360-degree view of the nearby SLO mountains. I thought, OMG, I could put some of these mountains, and trees, in my mural. So, I thought back on the mountains I had photographed and realized I could invent a 360-degree panorama of my favorites. When I got home that very afternoon I laid out all my photos into one long landscape that looped back around to the beginning.

I was very excited with this idea. And a couple of days later I got a pencil, ruler and my photos (that I had taped together), moved a few items out of the way in my son’s room and set up a ladder. Before I made even one mark on the wall, I decided that it was going to take forever to finish—up and down the ladder, and up and down the ladder dragging a drop cloth behind me. I didn’t have time to commit to this lengthy process. But did I give up? No! Now I imagined some kind of wallpaper border, 18 inches or so deep, that wrapped around his room. I went to a paint store in San Luis Obispo and found blank wallpaper paper. It seemed sturdy enough to accept acrylics and I could pre-cut 4 pieces—each one 18 inches deep and the length of each wall. I also liked the idea because I knew I wouldn’t be in this house forever so that when we moved, I could take them down, roll them up and that would be that. (Of course I hadn’t really worked out how I was going to attach the long narrow panels to the wall yet. Maybe you are getting the sense that there would be some complications when that part came around…) Actually I finished each panel pretty quickly (one of the panels had this view) and I was soon ready to hang all of them up. My original idea was to have some kind of narrow framing trim that I would nail to the top part of the mural, with a similar piece of trim at the bottom. Then it would look like the mural had been framed all the way around his room. This was getting more and more complicated. I decided just to tack it up around the room. And once it was done I thought it looked really cool. My son had so many of my favorite “mountain views” including this one (Adelaida), Madonna Mountain, Heart Mountain and all the mountains on both the north and south sides of Highway 46 on the way to Cambria.

Fast forward to moving day and me taking these pieces down. That actually was fine, except the pushpins I had used to put them on the walls had left noticeable holes in the paper. But I wasn’t worried, I thought I could put them up again on the walls in his new bedroom and I would just match the holes. But in my usual style, I didn’t even try to do that and got the great idea to attach each panel to some kind of backing and then hang these more stable pieces to the wall. I got 4 particleboard panels, painted them and then nailed each panel to the boards through the old paper holes. There was to be a further complication to the mural reapplication as my son’s new bedroom was in the attic room, which meant the walls were at a crazy angle and it wasn’t going to be as easy to hang them as before. The idea worked, but OMG each piece was heavy. It took two people to hold up each panel while I secured them with special hooks I had found at the hardware store. We only hung up 3 of the 4 because 4 didn’t fit in his new room. So, I had a left over panel that I put in my studio. And when we moved again, I left the three for the new owner and took the left over one with us. That was just fine with me!

Oh my, did I learn something about murals. If you think you want to do make one, just paint it right on the wall. Trying to figure out how to move it is just not worth the time and effort, in my opinion. And actually it’s a good idea to leave it where you first dreamed it up because it will never look as good (or fit in a different wall space) somewhere else anyway.

The other day my son asked me what had happened to the Madonna Mountain that had been in his room when he was a little boy. (I think he forgot that we had to leave it behind.) Thank goodness I had taken photos of the finished panels. And guess what? I got inspired to do another mural of Madonna Mountain. But this time I’m painting it on a couple windows in a back room of my house (no ladder thank you very much). I’ve never painted on glass before and it’s kind of a cool surface. I discovered that the acrylic paint dried more evenly when the weather was a bit cooler and the glass was not in the afternoon sun. And when I leave this house I can either leave Madonna Mountain right there or scrape it off with a razor blade. Oh, how I have become so “devil may care” with my artwork. It’s such a relief to not take myself so seriously don’t you think?

More about Madonna Mountain

If you are wondering about Madonna Mountain I can tell you a little about it. No, it has nothing to do with Jesus, nor does it have to do with Madonna the singer. A local San Luis Obispo businessman, Alex Madonna, owned the mountain and surrounding property and named it Madonna Mountain. You can still see the large letter M near the mountain peak when you drive south on 101. He built the Madonna Inn in 1958. The original structure burned down and it was rebuilt in 1966. At that time some theme bedrooms (now considered kitschy) were added. And his wife, Phyllis, who had helped with decorating, had a number of things in and around the inn painted a very specific shade of pink (a color that is now called unique). I think the coolest item that he had at his motel was the downstairs waterfall urinal in the men’s room. When my brothers and I went to visit family in LA we sometimes stopped at the Madonna Inn. I was always a bit envious that I was not allowed to see inside this particular men’s room. And of course my brothers made it sound unbelievable and were always going to be my lookouts so I could peek in. That wasn’t going to happen, as I didn’t trust them. I have since seen pictures and it looks like a stone enclosure that when someone activates a light sensor in the wall, a waterfall pours down the back of the rock urinal. Seems a bit unsanitary to me now, but it certainly was the stuff of legends when we were kids.


Sorry I missed posting this on Saturday. I was at a Porter-Kriesge “family day” event for my son at UCSC.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

February 3, 2018


some camelias
Oak Woodland and camellias, January 2018 (mixed media)

Back to painting in my beloved Descanso Garden—so predictable, I know. This time I wandered to the left of the entrance instead of to the right. And I found myself at a bench just below the Boddy House overlooking some magnificent oaks. Most often if you see such an oak cluster it’s called an Oak Woodland—a habitat that is native to CA. As I was finishing up I noticed a jumble of bright red dots that had appeared as if by magic (as the light had changed) just under the branches of the trees. They are camellia blossoms. Now I knew the camellias were there, I just didn’t know they were already blooming and hadn’t really thought I would be adding them here. I was primarily interested in the oaks and trail outline of the dark green clivia foliage. Mr. E. Manchester Boddy (the original owner of the house on the hill) under planted much of the Descanso Garden’s oak woodland forest with camellias in the late 30’s to early 50’s. (If you are interested, there is a rather fascinating story about his connection to local Japanese American nursery owners before and after Pearl Harbor. Look for it on the Descanso Garden website.) Mr. Boddy was an amateur horticulturalist and he dreamed of having a flower business on his property. He planted the camellias under the cool oak canopy and created a year round water supply for his crop. He chose to sell the property before an actual business was realized, but I have to admire his dream of such beauty.

While some have dreams of looking down for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, others have dreams of looking up for the double rainbow or maybe even pink and red camellia flowers. I am a double “rainbow” dreamer and so was my father. When he was in high school at Long Beach Poly High he discovered he was good at math and science and dreamed of becoming an engineer. That was quite a dream for a 16 year old whose father was an alcoholic and never wasted an opportunity to belittle him all his young life. But once the Atom Bomb was developed and used, my dad’s course was set. He used to say that his high school physics teacher had said to the boys in his class (yes, it was all boys), “We need you boys!” So, my dad went into the army to get the GI bill and settled on UCLA where he got a degree in physics. He was the dreamer that was the first college graduate on that side of my family. In the bargain he met my mom and they almost immediately began our family.

My dad said his first engineering job was at a place called Convair in San Diego, and his first real assignment was to build some shelves. My dad’s carpentry skills were never the stuff of dreams, so they soon gave him some real engineering to do, thankfully. But the late 50’s in Mountain View and Palo Alto had started to become known as the place to be (the stuff of the double rainbow for dreamers like my dad) if you were an electrical engineer. Electrical engineers and physicists, from all over the country and the world, seemed to hear the drumbeats calling them to this very special place. Maybe those first luring rhythms came from William Hewlett and David Packard’s garage. I don’t know, but it was a force of nature that I was not old enough to appreciate at the time. Only now, with the legacy of Silicon Valley firmly part of my history and the history of the world, can I fully understand what was happening.

Soon our young family left San Diego and headed for Mountain View. The first place my dad worked was for a company called Western Microwave. There he met the first of many other engineers who dreamed of working for companies where making cool circuits strapped to silicon chips that were getting smaller and smaller seemed to be the stuff of what they had all been dreaming about. I don’t know where I first heard the term semiconductor, but that was the beginning of Silcon Valley. We lived in Santa Clara and some of the other Western Microwave engineers lived near us. They formed a carpool of 4. Each took a week to drive the other guys to work 5 days a week. Every fourth week my dad (who was 6 feet tall) and his three commuters, would somehow fit into our family 2-door Volkswagen Beetle and drive off to work. I never saw any of this, but I remember my mom saying that the other wives loved to see their full-grown husbands squeeze in and out of that car on the days my dad drove.

After a few years my dad went to work for Fairchild Semiconductor. This is where he worked for Robert Noyce, the guy who later founded Intel. My dad would describe those years as heady times for those lucky R and D (Research and Development) engineers like him. He was gone by 7 in the morning and got home 6ish. Most evenings he sat in our living room, smoking a pipe while reading IEEE journals or researching the stock market. And it was not uncommon for him to go into work on weekends. He was so happy then. I remember him coming into the kitchen many evenings, grabbing my mom at the waist, and with a grand dip he would kiss her right there in front of us, with a hot meatloaf sitting on the kitchen counter.

Several years after working for Fairchild, my dad started a microwave business with a tech friend. They called the business MG Microwave, which stood for Merle and Gene (my dad). That lasted about a year and my dad was back at Fairchild. He got a couple patents for Fairchild and was offered a job by Noyce, as he and Gordon Moore were starting Intel. My dad turned it down because he knew his position there would be in “management” and he wasn’t interested in that because he still wanted to continue as a design engineer. (I don’t think my mom ever forgave him for that one!) I also think my dad wasn’t that interested in computers. Crazy huh? He had been trained to build things on a workbench in a lab. He didn’t want to write code for a computer program. After Fairchild my dad went to California Microwave (CMI). Most of the work he did there was with telecommunications for the phone company–“ma Bell” and all the “baby Bells”. By now it’s the mid 80’s and my dad is done. Lots of tech companies had stopped their R and D divisions and were hiring MBA’s to focus only at the “bottom line.” Dad would complain that everyone had hired too many “bean counters” and it just wasn’t very fun anymore. He wondered who was going to develop a better “mousetrap” when all the research money was drying up. He hadn’t noticed that the next version of “mousetraps” was already taking hold of Silcon Valley. But he wasn’t interested in personal computers.

I suspect it was getting harder and harder for him to dream of looking for the double rainbow, when all about him the “bean counters” were only interested in the pots of gold held firmly to the ground. So, at age 52 he and my mom left Silcon Valley and moved to Grass Valley, to tend their rentals. Don’t get me wrong, my dad dreamed of finding gold like everyone else. In fact, before retiring he had been working on a circuit that he was sure could detect gold a couple feet or so down in the ground. Once he got to Grass Valley he and my youngest brother, who later became an electrical engineer, worked on a scheme to look for gold on my family’s property in Grass Valley. It seems they had somehow attached this detector to my dad’s truck and had planned to drive it all over the gravel roads on the 10 acres, looking for gold. (There had been a small working gold mine on the property.) I guess my brother would drive around very slowly while my dad sat in the passengers seat trying to make the device work. I don’t think they ever found anything. Once a dreamer, always a dreamer, I guess.

Last word on “Dreamers”

Right now there is a lot of talk about so called “Obama’s Dreamers” and whether they should be allowed to stay in the US, or be made to go back to the country where they were born. But a lot of those young people have now been educated here and probably dream of staying. It makes me wonder why we would want to send them away, when this country was founded by dreamers of all kinds, even first generation college dreamers like my dad. I mean, maybe one of these dreamers will come up with Silcon Valley’s best “mousetrap” ever! And you never really know what kind of wonders will come from future dreamers. My son was born in Palo Alto in the mid 1990s in the Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital. Yup! Money for that “state of the art” hospital was donated by David and Lucile Packard (of HP fame). And that’s a very real thing that’s a dream come true for so many children and their families.

January 27, 2018

LA skyline
LA Skyline, 1/2/2018 (watercolor and Inktense pencil)

So, I thought I would be clever and go to the Griffith Observatory in Griffith Park the day after the first. I had never been there before and thought there might be some kind of amazing view on that hill outside the observatory. I arrived just before noon, as the website said it opened at that time. Driving up to the entrance of Griffith Park a sign said the parking lot was already full. What? And as I got closer to the Greek Theater I could see that the area was mobbed with people and cars and I was going to have to park way down the hill. So, I was disgruntled, but determined to get up to the Observatory to paint. The shuttle to the top had way too many people waiting to get on board. So, I started to walk up the hill and realized I was mad and every step I took was making me madder. (Don’t worry, I’m going to get to this spot pretty soon…) I turned around and started to head back to my car, not sure what I was going to do. To my left I noticed a rather steep hill, with very few people there. I pushed forward and headed up the hill. The trail was a kind of switchback and there were only a few people walking along, so I kept going. But I was still mad that I wouldn’t be going to Griffith Observatory. I started to wonder if just too many people had seen “La La Land” and wanted to explore all the LA sites that were shown in the movie.

I finally came around a corner on the trail and I saw this view. It’s not the vantage point I wanted to paint from, but it would have to do as it was getting warm and I didn’t want to drink too much of the water I had brought. I wanted to have it on hand for my watercolors. I rolled out my bubble wrap and sweatshirt in the powdery dirt and set up my paints next to a public trashcan. And I am still pissed off because I could see the Observatory way up on the hill to my right. So, I vowed not to look that way or at any of the people (the “general” source of my anger) hiking behind me. I did my sketch, mixed my colors and started to paint. Actually, I finally got into it and tried to make some nice contrasts between the marshmallow like sky and skyline behind the cooler greens and white spaces for the houses in the foreground. Occasionally I got distracted with the sound of people talking as they hiked on the trail behind me. I wondered if someone’s dog was going to come along and try to drink my dirty paint water. I heard a couple stop for a moment and they announced that I must be a real painter. I took that as a compliment, but wasn’t quite sure what they meant. Was it because I was sitting in the dirt next to a trashcan? Like I was really into it and hadn’t noticed the flies? And then of course there were a couple guys talking about typical LA industry stuff (as if on cue from “La La Land”). One of them was telling the other that he had recently gotten sober and was thrilled to have gotten a part on a very successful FX TV show. By the time I had gotten all my “mad” out I had finished this piece and was eating my peanut butter sandwich. Now, I could turn around and face the people on the trail that had made me angry for just being there. I let the paint dry, which didn’t take long as it had gotten warm, and I went home.

After I finish a piece I have a habit of placing it on my worktable that I walk past frequently. As I breeze by I look at it–scrutinizing it. I decide which section looks best, and then finally decide if it works as a whole. It’s not that I am looking to see if I need to frame it for display. I just briefly critique what I see and then move along. Sometimes an idea for a story pops into my brain, and sometimes not. I had no intention of posting this version of the “LA Skyline” until I realized how funny (and somehow LA) it really was. I mean, the LA skyline didn’t have any “stand out” buildings from where I was sitting. And it all looked rather squishy and soft, like the thick air in the sky was pushing down on the horizon. Maybe the sun had begun to melt the air and the buildings or maybe it was all just a mirage, or “make believe.” I don’t know. But it got me thinking that maybe my angry eyes or mind somehow influenced my final view. And somehow I decided that this is what a venting artist can create when there is more of a negative story behind the art.

Some artists want to share anger, outrage, negative social commentary in their work. It’s really meant to be controversial, not necessarily realistic, predictable or pretty. Over the years I have admired various controversial street artists. Keith Haring and Banksy come to mind. I think I love that these guys took chances to create unlawful art—seemed so daring and a great way to share art that depicts an important story or idea.

That reminds me of an artist I got to know in San Francisco back in the late 80’s. She definitely had some things that made her mad and she wanted to share her outrage in her art. I’m sorry to say that I don’t remember her name, but she used to swim in the SF Bay and was in charge of volunteers (like me) who were helping to create an exhibit for the Academy of Sciences. It was called “Life Through Time.” We made plaster casts of bats, painted bug bites on fabricated gingko leaves and air brushed huge redwood branches that had been numbered, preserved in glycerin and air dried. (I also remember a couple funny guys that did most of the diorama paintings. They would come in, turn on their music and paint beautiful background scenes of dinosaurs, all the while talking about random things non-stop.) OK, back to the artist I was describing…she was incensed with people trapping animals and killing them for their fur. She had put together an art installation that included a fur coat made from teddy bear hides. And she had staged a scene of teddy bears trapped in bear traps with gruesome blood red paint that had been dribbled about for a rather horrible, but effective, message. She had used her “mad” to make a statement about her outrage over people killing animals for their fur and/or skin. (I seem to remember her making different styles of shoes with teddy bear skins as well.)

Of course I loved getting to know this artist and I really loved the work we all did together to make that exhibit. (It was removed some years ago, when the Academy was remodeled. It makes me sad to think the diorama backgrounds are now gone. And I wondered what happened to the amazing ginkgo tree we made. I think I still have a plaster bat fossil in a box somewhere…) Part of the joy of working on that project was the ride into the park. We lived in the East Bay at the time and I took public transportation into San Francisco to work on it. I rode BART under the Bay to Market Street, then transferred to Muni (the N-Judah line), got off at Ninth and Irving, walked north on Ninth into the park and then finally on to the Academy. In the tunnel, just before the UCSF Hospital were some amazing “Keith Haring like” figures that had been painted on the walls. Every time I went through there I would notice a new bit of detail or shading added to the figures that seemed to be running and floating in the ever-expanding scenes. So fantastic that this must have been done by some kind of unimaginable light source, after the trains stopped running at night when no one was around. The N Judah didn’t go very quickly through the tunnel, so there was plenty of time to look at everything by “train light.” Thinking back on it now, I envy the space and the solitude the artists had to share their messages. Must have been pretty exciting to run around inside there too. The last time I went through the tunnel all of that art was gone. Now the walls are covered with graffiti art made up of mostly words. That drives me crazy because the letters don’t make any sense to me. They don’t really spell anything! Makes me a little mad. I wonder what I will paint the next time I get mad?

Diego Rivera murals (frescos) in San Francisco

I’ve always enjoyed Diego Rivera’s murals. He was definitely an artist who was known for painting controversial scenes. So if you find yourself in San Francisco, go check them out.

  1. Allegory of California, 1931

Grand stairwell of The City Club on Sansome Street

This spot is not open to the public very often, so you need to check when and if it’s open when you are there.

2. The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City, 1931

Diego Rivera Gallery inside the San Francisco Art Institute

3. Pan American Unity, painted in 1940 and installed in 1961

Diego Rivera Theater on the campus of the City College of San Francisco

Oh yeah, there are some pretty amazing murals inside Coit Tower too…

January 20, 2018

San Juan C
Mission San Juan Capistrano, 1/6/18 (watercolor, watercolor crayons)

Urban sketchers from Los Angeles, San Clemente and San Diego met the first Saturday of this year to sketch and paint at the mission in San Juan Capistrano. Hard to believe it, but I had never been there before. I’d been to the missions in San Jose, Santa Clara, Carmel (Mission San Carlos Borromeo del río Carmelo), San Juan Bautista, San Miguel, San Luis Obispo, and Santa Barbara. Once I got to the San Juan Capistrano mission I circumnavigated the outside of the building—very impressed with the details of the old architecture. I came across one interesting wall that was not part of the original structure. It had been fabricated with some kind of man made material and it had several nesting sites for birds around the top—more about that in a bit. Then I wandered into the huge inner courtyard. There were almost too many amazing vistas (Spanish word—more about the Spanish connection later…) as I contemplated a subject for a watercolor. So, I found a random stone bench in the shade, sat down and set up my paints. Then I went to work making the colors and details of the bougainvillea and prickly pear cactus you see here “sing in the foreground” with the pink walls and terra cotta roof of the mission as the supporting players. It was a typical winter day, around 70 degrees (This is California, so don’t hate me…) with a hazy white cloudy sky. Perfect in every way!

As a kid growing up in California we learned in school that the Spanish Empire wanted to colonize California and they had built 21 missions here from 1769 to 1833. These “churches” went from San Diego to San Francisco. (Actually, Spain’s desire to colonize both North and South America started with Columbus in 1492. Just sayin’.) As I was raised in Silcon Valley, we took field trips to our nearest missions—Santa Clara and San Jose. It seemed to me we learned the following about our California missions: they were the oldest structures in California, it was important to where each one was and what it looked like, Native Americans seemed to be hanging around each mission and of course there was Father Junipero Serra. Father Serra was a Catholic Franciscan friar who was credited for founding/building the first nine structures, as well as one church in what’s now Baja California (Mexico). Other Franciscan friars completed the other 12. At the time he seemed to me to be of a kind of mythic, larger than life, “father” figure. I’m not Catholic, so calling someone “Father So and So” was kind of puzzling to me. There were pictures of him in our school books—with his heavy brown cassock, huge cross hanging from his neck, and a bald head with a tiny fringe of bangs. He was never depicted smiling and he really didn’t look like he could have been anyone’s father. But I pictured Father Serra as the one who took care of the Native Americans and literally built those first missions. So that meant that Mission San Juan Capsitrano, where I was sitting, was one of his creations. (In school we had heard of San Juan Capistrano because it was very famous. Every winter masses of cliff swallows migrated from Argentina to build mud nests in the roofline of that old mission.) But of course Father Serra didn’t actually build anything. He just had his Native American Catholic converts do the heavy lifting. And from what I have read about him since I was in school, he was not much of a “father” figure to the Native Americans in his subjugated California flock. So, I guess because I went to a secular public school we didn’t dwell much on why Catholic Spain went to such trouble building churches to spread Catholicism in the new world, and in turn convert the heathen Native American Californians into Catholic Spanish subjects.

As I said we learned that these were the oldest permanent structures in our state. And they are truly the oldest. However, we weren’t taught that Native Americans had been living in these same areas for countless generations without needing permanent structures to do so. And maybe these indigenous people weren’t exactly happy about being forced to become Catholics and build Spanish churches on land that wasn’t really owned by anyone, certainly not the Spanish. Spain rained king in California for a long time. However, Spain’s hold on their huge Spanish Empire began to crumble in California in 1848, when gold was discovered near Sacramento. And when California became a state in the US in 1850 Spain’s plan to colonize California finally came to an end. (If you look at a map of the western United States before 1850 you can see how huge the Spanish Empire was at the time.) There are so many cities and streets named from that early Spanish occupation of California. Names like: Los Angeles, Santa Clara, Junipero Blvd., Sepulveda Blvd, Los Alamitos, El Camino and so on and so on.

So, looking around at this beautiful building I am left to wonder what I am really looking at. I mean, I learned in school that each California missions was made with great timbers and hundreds and hundreds of stacked adobe bricks. (I’m sure the original timbers had to be replaced. Termite infestations are common in wooden structures here and can eventually bring down the mightiest buildings. And oh yeah, earthquakes can also be a problem for California’s oldest structures.). And we are no longer under Spanish rule, and this church (nor any of the others for that matter) will necessarily convert someone to Catholicism against his or her will. Seemed a kind of simple, but punitive, rule of law back then. Spain welcomed you to live here, as long as you went to their church and gave them your immortal soul. Simple, but very restricting I think. Now we have laws that describe who is allowed to come into the United States via California or Texas and who is not. And our current politicians and lawmakers can’t seem to figure this out, without it feeling so very punitive to some who wish to come here and stay. In fact, I think it would be easier to come to California if you were a cliff swallow and could fly in every spring. Of course that would mean your journey would have started in Argentina and you would have flown thousands of miles to get here. But that’s not all, in 6 months you would make the same journey in reverse, back to Argentina. Yikes! But at least people would be glad to see you come and sorry to see you go. There’s even a song about the birds comings and goings and it’s called “When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano.” And there is actually a pretty good rendition of this song as sung by The Inkspots. Check it out on Youtube.

Last word on Mission San Juan Capistrano:

It seems that the large numbers of cliff swallows haven’t been returning to Capistrano in recent years. Scientists have installed swallow walls on the outside of the original mission. I saw one when I was there with my sketching friends. It’s a freestanding wall of plaster with a “mission like” arch at the top. And all around the rim of this arch are pre-fab swallow houses for the birds to nest in. It also appears that in the early spring, the sounds of swallows are played over some kind of speaker system all throughout the mission. Bet it sounds kind of cool. I hope this helps them come back to Capistrano. Gotta love California! It’s for the birds!

January 13, 2018

Native Peony
Western Peony, Paso Robles, Feb 2003 (watercolor, colored pencil on illustration board)

Hard to believe it’s been almost 15 years since I saw this flower. I was traipsing around the oak studded hills of a friend’s winery near Vineyard Road and Highway 46. They had just completed their first tasting room and a few of the old wooden cattle structures from the previous owner were still standing. The winery is now triple the size and the corral is gone. And they have a new entrance with a gate and you need an appointment to be allowed on the premises. Gone are the days when I could pull up to there, unannounced, hang my art in their tasting room and wander the hills with their winery dog, Bear Dog.

I remember the day I came across this small patch of native paeonias. I was shocked that there was even such a thing, blooming its little heart out with no one but me and the dog there to notice. I think Bear Dog was surprised too. (Have your ever noticed that dogs can mirror your feelings at just the right moment? Of course their souls are so generous, they don’t care about what we do, just as long as we include them in our little lives…) I thought my eyes had played a trick on me as I looked at the amazing jewel-like red against almost chartreuse leaves and stems. I don’t know if you are familiar with peonies, but sometimes the flower is so heavy with petals and other flower parts it can hang completely upside down from the shear flower weight on a slim stem. And this native flower was no exception. At that time my son was still in elementary school and I had to take lots of pictures for a later time when I could paint anything I’d found on my walks. No plein air moments back then. Bear Dog soon got bored of my rapt attention to a half a dozen plants that didn’t smell like anything interesting. He continued on his journey, leaving me alone with my discovery. It felt like I was the only one to have ever seen such a thing and maybe I could even be allowed to come up with a common name like “Ruby Red” or “Ruby Jewel.” Maybe no one would believe that I discovered something that had never been seen before. But who did I think I was? I was just One California Girl. Who was I trying to impress? My only companion for my hike through the weeds that day had already run off somewhere else. Since it was February it would be too early for shiny red poison oak leaves to be out yet. So, I didn’t have to worry about Bear Dog running through the poison oak, and then coming back for a scratch behind the ears.

I didn’t know it at the time, but such wanderings in the Paso Robles, Templeton and Atascadero hills would come to an end with people building houses and putting up fences. In the late 80s and early 90s my then husband’s Aunt Ruth took me to many special places to see random patches, and sometimes huge fields, of wildflowers like poppies, lupines, Chinese houses, fairy lanterns, larkspur, baby blue eyes, gold fields, tidy tips and shooting star in those areas. She took me on drives down narrow back roads in Atascadero to see masses of tiny violet and white colored lupines. On many of our drives or walks she pointed out long “strap-like” leaves that would soon be white ball-shaped flowers called fairy lanterns. I did an oil painting of a narrow road flanked by a hillside of those lupines as well as several watercolor and colored pencil botanicals of single fairy lanterns and Mariposa lilies. Once we stopped by the side of the road on Highway 41 (that goes from Atascadero to Morro Bay) to see a meadow of shin-deep dark purple larkspur. Aunt Ruth also took me to a hillside of wildflowers near her daughter’s house (off Highway 41) that had every imaginable wildflower. (I did an acrylic painting of that view and will post it one of these days, with a story that I haven’t yet imagined.) Five or six houses with fences between each one is now in that spot. And even though her nephew and I got divorced, Aunt Ruth and I are still friends, friends who love wildflowers and are still on the look out for them. When my son was a baby, late 1995 I think, Aunt Ruth took me and my son, my aunt and mom to Shell Creek Road. That year the wildflower colors of yellow, purple, orange and pink were so bright it almost hurt my eyes to look at them. Years later I took a son and a friend and her two kids to see the show. They all had attacks of hay fever and we left early because everyone, except my son and I, was sneezing. Aunt Ruth used to say that one person’s wildflower garden was another person’s patch of weeds. Oh well.

Aunt Ruth’s mom, my son’s great grandma Mary, also loved wildflowers. When Mary got too old to drive Aunt Ruth would take her out to Adelaida, where Ruth and her sisters and brothers had been born, to look for shooting star. (Great grandma Mary had been born in Klau, California.) I never went with them, but Aunt Ruth told me her mother looked forward every spring to going back to their old family home and orchards to look for the first flowers of spring. And that was the shooting star. Google it. They are pretty little flowers that come in a variety of colors and can be found in the hills of Adelaida. There are remnants of the almond (pronounced a-mond by the old farmers) and walnut trees that those early German settlers planted there, but much of that area is now covered with vineyards. Great Grandma Mary, Aunt Ruth and I loved such excursions and flowers. They didn’t look much like weeds to us! Don’t get me wrong, I like vineyards and have painted quite a few in the area. But patches of shooting star are so fun to watch for because they come and go so quickly. I love that kind of ephemeral beauty.

When my son and I lived in Paso Robles we had friends way out on the east side, near Geneseo Road. We went to their house one windy day and my friend had staked the strings of 2 or 3 kites into the ground in her back yard. The kites were high in the sky, whipping back and forth against the blue. And behind this rather cool scene were amazing golden fields as far as the eye could see. My son and my friend’s kids would traipse way out into those golden fields. (Wish I had thought to take a picture.) Now vineyards cover those same fields, and a couple houses are also part of that previously simple and windblown landscape.

The landscape of Paso Robles, Templeton, and Atascadero (and California for that matter), has really changed over the years. And I have other stories to tell about our changing landscape, but that is for a future California story or two. So, do I have any final words? Am I sad that so many fields of flowers are gone—covered with houses, roads and vineyards? And I would say, maybe. But I’ve always loved the symmetry of vineyards, and the beauty of the bright green leaves as they come alive in the spring, the plump bunches of dark purple grapes on dark green leafy vines, finishing with gorgeous fall-colored leaves. I have done many paintings of vineyards at different times of the year in Paso Robles and will always love that. Maybe what I really miss is that I need permission to traipse around a hillside, discovering miraculous patches of wildflowers with a winery dog. Not many surprises when you walk around a vineyard, and besides you need permission or an appointment to do that now. Otherwise someone might yell at you or chase you away. Maybe what I really miss is Great Grandma Mary, Bear Dog and watching my young son traipse through those golden fields with his young friends as colorful kites snaps in the air in the endless blue sky above them. Ah me.