September 15, 2018

Mountain, view three
Norton Simon, Back garden, Aristide Maillol Mountain, 1937—Speed sketching #1 on September 8, 2018 (ink and graphite on Canson Mixed Media paper)

As promised in last week’s blog, I have posted a couple pieces of art from my “speed sketching” excursion to the Norton Simon on Friday, 9/7/18. This one is the third, and probably final, sketch of the Mountain (at least until spring…when the pair of geese come back to nest near her…). I was so excited to have captured her from three different vantage points, But I think if I tried a 4th twenty minute view of the Mountain just now I might become bored of her. And that would be a crime!

Don’t know if you have ever taken figure drawing, but doing quick sketches of models are very common. (Of course the Mountain is a pretty static model, not striking any other pose than you see here.) I remember such challenges in a number of my figure drawing classes, where we were to quickly sketch our model as she, or he, changed positions. And they would make those changes every 60 seconds or so with all of us in class hurrying to catch the essence or the “line” of their body in that very short time. I seem to remember that one teacher had us do 5 second sketches as well. This same teacher also asked us to look carefully at our model, then we were to close our eyes and “speed sketch” what we had pictured with only our two hands and a grease pencil. (Some used charcoal. That was always such a smeared black mess for me even with my eyes open. I never tried it in the dark.)

Norton Simon4
Speed sketching at the Norton Simon #3 on September 8, 2018 (ink and graphite on Canson Mixed Media paper)

It’s funny, but by the time I got to the last 20-minute “speed sketch” (shown above), it seemed like I had all the time in the world to complete it. Later, I mentioned that to one of the other sketchers and she said the same thing. We decided we were in such a huge hurry that we made sure to capture the essence of our landscape within the first couple minutes. Then we languished a little while adding more details, trying not to over do it or take away from our initial, and important, quick lines and curves.

The sun was pretty low in the sky by this time and some of the lights in the garden were coming on. In fact, my focal point sculpture to the left of the tree was actually disappearing into the fence in the background, even with the bit of golden light that was reflecting off the polished surface. And I have to say that I stopped that sketch way before the 20 minute gong went off (Yes, our leader had a gong sound that came from her phone when time was up…). And I sat in the damp grass, on my sheet of bubble wrap, and enjoyed the amazing, almost-fall pink light that was filling the sky above the trees. It was wonderful.

Norton Simon4+color
Speed sketching at the Norton Simon #3 (mixed media on Canson Mixed Media paper)

Finally, we come to the final piece. It actually started as the sketch above it, only with added watercolor. (I added the color the next day while looking at a photograph I had taken of my chosen vignette.) I didn’t hurry for the painting part of this one. I chose a favorite piece of music (Letters Home by Pat Metheny) and started to mix my pots of color. I must say that I spent more time than I would have liked working with this paper. I had never applied watercolor to it and it kind of allowed unwanted vertical rivers of color to run down the page. So, I had to move the paper up and down and side-to-side, encouraging the pigment to spread out and not make unwanted puddle stripes. I think the paper is too thin for such a wet media. But I discovered that I liked how the vertical stripes ran down through the dark shrub to the right. It so wonderfully mimicked the vertical stripes of the fence behind it. And actually I think that intentional striping of the fence was enhanced with my use of Inktense pencils—not so sloppy and wet. Anyway, my evening of speed sketching came to an end with a finished watercolor the next day. (It took me about 40 minutes to do this one, not counting the time I spent waving the paper around to keep the paint from pooling in an undesired way.)

So, all this speediness got me thinking about other things in our lives we do with great speed. And that got me thinking about the things we do with great speed that really should be slowed down and not done too quickly at all. I made an anecdotal list of things that should never be done too quickly and/or too slowly. Once you see where I’m going with this, you may have your own “top ten” list of things that should not be sped up or slowed down. Here goes:

10. As I commute to work every day on a major freeway in Los Angeles, I see many people driving way too fast—way past the speed limit. I listen to the radio as I am on the look out for such speedy drivers. And it seems that each morning and afternoon I hear traffic reports that have at least 1 or 2 crashes, and it often relates to the carpool lane. I once got a ticket for incorrectly merging into the carpool lane and I learned why there are so many crashes. One, people are going way to fast. Two, they don’t use their turn signal when changing lanes. I don’t know about you, but I never travel with my crystal ball. So I cannot predict who is going to be moving into a lane of speeding cars at the exact moment as someone else. And every now and then I see someone looking in their rear view mirror applying lip liner or mascara as they are heading down the road. That is definitely something that should not be put on with great speed as you are speeding down the freeway.

9. Sitting in a dentist chair has never been a favorite for me. So, I am happiest if she or he is quick. My dad used to talk about his favorite dentist because he said his hands were in his mouth for a very short time. He liked that.

8. I guess you want to take off a band aid pretty quickly. Grabbing it and slowly tugging at can be excruciating.

7. Oh, and be sure to pick the paint color for your bedroom carefully. Choosing something like that on a whim and trying to live with a bad color choice would give me.

6. This is a funny one, and really a personal choice I guess. I have never been a fan of wearing much make up. But I have known women who take upwards of an hour to do their hair and put on make up every day of the week. That’s just way too much time for me. I mean, what if you spend all that time, walk out the door and get hit by a bus. You don’t know when your time will be up–don’t waste it putting on gobs of lip-liner or mascara.

5. Speaking of massages, facials and tattoos…I think all of these should be done slowly.

4. Not quite sure why my list has so many personal grooming items on it, but I’ll keep going. I don’t want to take a speedy bath, but a quick shower is OK.

3. I guess I’m all in favor of quick meal preparations, but food should not be consumed at a break neck pace. When I lived in San Francisco I had a boyfriend who loved cherry pie. I once made him such a pie. When I placed a large slice in front of him he smiled, picked up his fork and began eating. He did not look at me, or speak to me, but instead he shoveled huge piece after huge piece into his mouth. I don’t remember if he chewed it, and it seemed to just slide down his throat like an anaconda eating one mouse after another. And when he was finished, having almost licked the plate clean, he was panting. Yes, I don’t think he took a single breath throughout this 40-second event. I was horrified. Slow down! If your girlfriend spent the better part of an afternoon making you a pie, at least have a conversation while eating it. I never made him a pie again. He seemed confused when I told him that was his first and last one from me. He reminded me that he did say thank-you. He had forgotten that he had said thank you as he produced a huge belch.

2. Oh, and when I’m reading for pleasure; I rarely want a quick read. If I am really enjoying my book then I don’t want it to end. I have been known to stop mid sentence and put the book away for the day. This is so I have to reread parts, when I pick it up again the next day. I want that to last and last.

1. Finally, I call this one the melancholy of finishing a dish of coffee ice cream. Never gobble down two scoops of coffee ice cream. Aside from getting a major brain freeze from eating something cold too fast, you must savor each bite. My dad used to talk of the “melancholy nature” of eating such a bowl of ice cream. He described it this way–You take your time to let in melt a little. Don’t mux it. That means you are not to stir it with your spoon. (Actually my dad was wrong about this one. I turns out your taste buds can’t really register flavors at low temperatures. So, you should mux it so it will warm up to a proper temperature that you can really taste and appreciate. This is another way to slow the actual eating process before it melts completely and you are left with liquid cream, milk, sugar and coffee in the bowl.) Take small bites, eating each dollop slowly. And when it comes to the penultimate bite, it is really quite a sad moment as you scrape and scrape the last little bit of this amazing melted confection at the bottom of the bowl, trying to make it last just a little longer…

So, what’s on your list?

 

 

September 8, 2018

statue
Norton Simon, Back garden, Aristide Maillol Mountain, 1937—View 1, August, 3, 2018 (ink and graphite on multimedia paper)

I did both of these sketches the other afternoon at the Norton Simon Museum. I think I have mentioned in previous posts that this Pasadena museum is free the first Friday of the month from 5 pm to 8 (closing). One of my sketching groups takes advantage of this “Friday Freeness” and we meet there regularly once a month. And as I have said before, I usually head straight for the back garden and look for a spot to roll out my bubble wrap. For that evening of sketching I first sat on some grass and discovered this lovely lady. I must say that I am often inspired to draw the sculptures next to the Monet inspired pond and it was a pleasure to get to know her up close a personal next to a calm pond dotted with lily pads and ducks. I must also say, that when drawing such sculptures I often impose a slightly different face with a decidedly animated expression. And that is definitely the case with “Ms Mountain.”

statue and ducks
Norton Simon, Back garden, Aristide Maillol Mountain, 1937—View 2, August, 3, 2018 (ink and graphite on multimedia paper)

Around 6:30 we usually meet inside the museum, just inside the garden, and share what we did the first hour. (Some don’t actually get to the museum until then as they are getting off work and dealing with awful Friday afternoon LA traffic. I have to admit that sometimes LA traffic is just too awful to even imagine, let alone be part of it.) That evening, our group leader didn’t really have an idea of what we could do together, so she sent us off to draw, paint or sketch what was pleasing to our eye. What you see here is my second hour sketch. And guess what? I walked around the pond to the other side of the “Mountain” and discovered another view that seemed to be calling me. I rolled out my bubble wrap and sketched her from another point of view. And as I was thinking of what I wanted to write about this week, I imagined something kind of glib, like “If a picture is worth a 1000 words, then two pictures much surely be worth 2000.” And then I would just end the blog abruptly, like there just wasn’t anything else to say. (You may have realized that one California girl is never lacking with things to say and I gave up on that idea right away.) So, then I got inspired with the idea that I had drawn the same sculpture from two very different vantage points and the theme could be something like, “it depends on how you look at it.” I further egged myself on with the notion of “it depends on how you look at it” when I included the man across the pond in the first sketch. I decided he might be a voyeur, of the nice variety of course. Maybe he was looking at the “Mountain” or maybe he was looking at me looking at the “Mountain.” I guess “it depends on how you look at.” Either way, I decided that the next time I was in this garden I would do a sketch of her from his side of the pond, from his point of view. (He was wearing sunglasses and it was hard to tell where he was looking. I also think he was looking at his phone most of the time, so I guess that’s my answer…)

So, last night we went to the Norton Simon again. Our fearless leader’s directions for the evening’s sketching was some “speed sketching” in the back garden. Together we walked to a part of the garden and had 20 minutes to sketch a vignette from that location. Our leader suggested that we make the sketch as thought we were going to add watercolor later. It was a worthy challenge for all of us. Maybe it was serendipity, maybe not. But the first area she led us to looked out in the direction of Ms. “Mountain,” but from my “voyeur’s” point of view. So, I was immediately and happily drawing her again, and could see what my maybe he saw, or not. Then when the timer went off, we moved to another part of the garden and sketched again for 20 minutes. (A strolling garden voyeur watched me sketch in this second location for a while and asked me if doing this kind of “speed sketching” was anything like “speed dating.” I told him it was similar, except I didn’t get indigestion after I finished a quick sketch.) Then we moved to a third location and our leader set the timer again. I was in heaven—it was a beautiful southern California evening and I was in a favorite place.

I will post the sketch I did of last night’s “Mountain} in my next blog, along my last sketch of the evening. (I hope to have time to add some watercolor…)

So, until next time…

More about “it depends on how you look at it:”

When my son was young we read a number of wonderful children’s books together. And a very favorite series we devoured as each one was published, was Lemony Snicket’s “A Series of Unfortunate Events.” If you have children, I hope you think to share any, or all, of these books with them. But even if you don’t have children, I recommend ALL of them for your reading pleasure. I have recently been re-reading the last in the series—The End, and the phrase “it depends on how you look at it,” appears frequently in it. Lemony Snicket, aka Daniel Handler, uses words and repeated phrases in his books to great affect. He even frequently defines words for the reader for emphasis when the main characters Violet, Klaus and Sunny are faced with their many difficult situations and people—with their most notable difficult person named Count Olaf. So, for this final “Unfortunate Event,” Mr. Snicket has many castaways (including Violet, Klaus and Sunny) who have washed up on a distant coastal shelf, repeating this apt phrase. There are too many examples of his use of this phrase to describe here, but I will leave you with one that I think very apt. When asked by the “facilitator” of the island (Ishmael, “Call me Ish”) they found themselves on, the children are told that kindness above all else is important to everyone there. So, when asked if there was a “story” they would like to tell him about their adventures prior to being washed up on the sand, Violet had to reflect on what her answer might be. She thought of all their intentions to be good and kind, but reminded herself that they had done some rather awful things in the name of trying to be good and kind. So, her final answer to his question was, “it depends on how you look at it.”

 

September 1, 2018

Bonny Doon
Bonny Doon Vineyard, Highway 46 west, October 2006 (8″ x 14″ oil on canvas)

This is probably my tiniest landscape to date. It was next door to a wonderful herb garden business in Paso Robles called Sycamore Herb Farm. These are some of the grapes that go into wines with the Bonny Doon label. I remember being interested in this vineyard as an agriculture spot with special needs because it’s on a pretty steep slope, and I often wondered about tending and picking wine grapes on a slant. Walking across the mountain rows is probably OK, but how do the workers get trucks and all other large moving vehicles up and down around there? I have never been around when they pick the grapes, so I guess I can only imagine the extra effort it takes. And I have never tasted Bonny Doon wines, so I hope the extra sweat adds positive notes to the wine’s flavor. This probably sounds kind of crazy to say, but if you have ever been to a California winery you might hear someone say something like that. For example, I remember a vintner at a Los Olivos winery and tasting room say that wine made from their grapes near a field of mustard had hints of a pepper taste, and such a flavor came directly from these weeds. And I think I remember this same vintner saying that one of their wines had a hint of asphalt because a nearby road was installed while those grapes were on the vine. I remember thinking; didn’t you guys wash the grapes before you made this stuff? Or is it more organic to leave the dirt? Remember, this is California, and as I have already said, such crazy talk is not really all that crazy around here. Oh, I do hope they at least washed their hands before they crushed the grapes…

Anyway, when I imagined what I would write to go with this “little jewel” I was sure that other painters had been famous for painting small works of art with similar lovely tiny bits of detail. Not that I am in the same category of painter as Leonardo da Vinci, but in a previous post I referenced his Mona Lisa as such a lovely little jewel of art. And if you look closely you will see just a hint of an idealized landscape behind that mysterious woman with the inscrutable smile. I thought I could do a little research and come up with other painters who had done such little pieces of art heaven. I was sure I had remembered that many of Georgia O’Keeffe’s famous surreal close-ups of flowers were pretty small. But I couldn’t find any information about the dimensions of her art on the Internet, so I can’t be certain any of those paintings are particularly diminutive. The only way I could even get a sense of the general size of her paintings was to see photos of people in a museum or gallery standing next to them. Hmm…

So, I got frustrated with this dead end story and gave up on the “little jewel” theme for this post and looked once again at the Bonny Doon vineyard for inspiration. (Oh, and if you go to Paso Robles, you will not be able to taste the wine made from these grapes as the winery and tasting room is in Davenport, on Highway 1 near Santa Cruz.) So, once I got my head back into the subject of this little landscape I remembered that you once could taste the wine right next door, at Sycamore Herb Farm. Never forget the importance of looking next door or across the street for an herb farm, a wine tasting room, a neighbor or just some inspiration. This is some pretty basic stuff, but I think it’s somehow forgotten all too often.

I have heard that people outside of California think we aren’t friendly. Well, I can’t speak for others, but I have been knowns to embarrass my son because I chat with everyone as I move about my life. For example, I enjoy visiting with the butcher and cashiers at the grocery store. And I frequently start up conversations with random people standing next to me who are looking at produce at the market. I might say something like, “These tomatoes don’t seem to really be red, do they?” and “They put out these overpriced heirloom tomatoes just to tease me. I am so desperate to taste a real tomato they think I will pay the price.” Or, “Why don’t these peaches smell like peaches? Shouldn’t they smell like summer? They are as hard as bullets…” (Maybe my son is right…)

So, I frequently make contact with the neighbors who walk past my house. There are a couple of older ladies who cruise by pushing their walkers either up or down my little hill (sans sidewalk). I am not sure if they are hard of hearing, have forgotten to wear their hearing aids or don’t speak English, but we never exchange words. However, they always slow down as they go past to see what’s blooming in my garden and give me a great big smile. I wave and smile back as I water or tend my flowers or birds.

Notice I didn’t say I tend the squirrels that also come to eat sunflower seeds at the bottom of the bird feeder. There is a story about squirrels that can best be told through the eyes of a neighbor who stopped to chat the other day as she was walking her dog. She asked what had happened to my huge five-foot high patch of sunflowers that during her frequent walks had watched me start from seed. I explained to her that the squirrels that scoot around my pepper tree were not satisfied with the sunflower seeds on the ground, but thought it good sport to leap onto the flowers and rip off the flower heads. I added to my story by saying that at first I thought it was some crazed raccoon that was coming in the night, knocking down the flower stems and eating the seeds and flowers—leaving a huge mess. But one morning, I saw two familiar squirrels jumping and smashing down the flowers. That was it. A couple days later I cut huge bouquets of undamaged flowers for my house and took the rest out. It was nice to tell my story to the dog-walking neighbor, lamenting the loss of my sunflowers. I told her I would try again next year, with hopefully some new plan to keep the squirrels at bay. She said she would be looking again for them come spring. Then she cleaned up her dog’s poop and wished me luck. Now, that’s a good and friendly California neighbor.

Sycamore Herb Farm

Sycamore Farms used to be this amazing herb farm, nursery and display garden next door to the vineyard. It was a fun place to buy herbs and see the owner’s animals. They had chickens. And to keep them safe from hunting hawks that were flying overhead, they had a kind of netting over their chicken yard. They also had two stately geese and some goats. I understand that there was a devastating fire there and one of the buildings on the property burned down. I guess it was closed for a long time and then was resurrected at Fat Cat Farms, but sadly that is now gone as well.

My son and I spent many fun hours there, looking at the animals and plants. They had a huge variety of interesting and unique herbs. I remember specifically that they had every kind of mint and basil you could imagine. It was so fun to choose something new for my garden. And I regularly bought their cilantro, trying in vain to get it to grow in my garden, only to have it immediately go to seed and die. I had a friend around the corner from my house that said it had become a pest in her yard and was growing like a weed everywhere, even in the crackers between the pavers. I gave up on growing cilantro and just bought it at the store. But I am forever grateful that Sycamore Herb Farm existed, because if it hadn’t I would never have discovered its next door neighbor, the Bonny Doon Vineyards.

But even though Sycamore Farms is gone, there is still a landscape inspiration to be seen here, and it’s across the street from the vineyard. The locals here call it Heart Mountain. I just Googled Heart Mountain, Paso Robles CA. And if you look through all the pictures under the “images” category you will see a mountain where a cluster of oak trees have grown together to form the shape of a dense green heart. When I first started going to Sycamore Farms, the green heart of trees stood out against golden hills. Now, vineyards surround the heart of oak trees. I painted Heart Mountain with Prismacolor colored pencil and watercolor, but added a huge cluster of sunflowers in the foreground. It’s kind of a little jewel of a painting. Maybe there is still a “little jewel” art theme to be shared here. Stay tuned…

August 25, 2018

Little Church of the Flowers
Little Church of the Flowers, Forest Lawn, Glendale, March 25, 2018 (mixed media)

For my mom’s “March 25th” birthday this year I went to Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale to do some sketching. I thought it would be nice to commemorate her birthday in the exact spot where she and my dad were married August 30, 1952. They often spoke of their wedding at the Little Church of the Flowers near the front entrance of Forest Lawn, Glendale. It was a beautiful spring day and the grounds around the church were lovely. So, in fact this sketch represents two special dates in my mom’s life, as well as very special “life altering” dates for my brothers and me. Seeing the church for the first time in my life, I was reminded of how in love my parents were when they first met. My mom was head over heels for my very handsome dad. OK, I kind of jumped ahead to the beginning of their life together without mentioning the actual funny part of them being married at the Little Church of the Flowers. It was always the family joke that my parents were married in a place where most people go to be buried. And even though they were married at Forest Lawn, neither of them was buried there. As you may have read in last week’s blog equal parts of my mom are buried in Mariposa and Cayucos, while my entire dad is in the cemetery in Cayucos.

I already mentioned that it was a beautiful southern California day, with fluffy white clouds hovering in a perfectly blue sky. I imagine there were no such clouds when my parents were married there in the afternoon at the end of a hot August. My mom had spent the summer tending kids in the Grizzly Club in Yosemite and I am not really sure what my dad was doing earlier that summer. But they were young college students and this was the perfect time of year to get married, as it would give them time to also honeymoon in Point Lobos before UCLA started its fall 1952 semester.

When I go on a sketching adventure I normally look for a bench to sit on or I roll out a sheet of bubble wrap on the ground and start to work. There was no bench to sit on in front of this church. I found the almost perfect spot on the ground (at “gutter level”) to sketch. But after a few minutes of sitting there I realized I couldn’t get all the parts of the church I wanted for this horizontal view. That steeple was just too tall and it would have been a literal pain in the neck to try looking way up to its tip-top and then down to the watercolor paper over and over. So, I positioned my car so I could sit in the back with the hatchback open, thereby seeing what I wanted and working without neck pain. I started with a quick pencil sketch, and then I inked in the hard edges of the building. I mentioned in last week’s blog that I seem to reach for my ink pen these days when doing hard edges, like when I am outlining/detailing a church and/or cemetery. What you see here is actually a second attempt, as I just couldn’t get the brickwork to look right the first time. I also struggled with the green patina of the roof shingles and copper flashing. I like the way this one turned out much better.

I have mentioned in previous posts that sometimes people stop by to see what I am doing and sometimes not. But on that day a very official looking man in a suit walked by. And when I told him that it was my mom’s birthday and my parent’s had been married in the Little Church of the Flowers he stopped to chat. He said that it was not really uncommon for people to get married there as it’s a lovely place and can be rented for a fairly reasonable price. (I knew that’s why my parent’s were married there.). But he went on to say that Ronald Reagan had married his first wife, Jane Wyman, at the Little Church of the Flowers in 1940. Neither one of them was buried there. Ronald Reagan and his second wife, Nancy Reagan, were buried at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley. That’s actually kind of weird. I wonder if anyone else can be buried there. Could other family members be laid to rest at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library? I guess first wives would not be allowed. Jane Wyman remarried (somewhere else) and was buried in another Forest Lawn Mortuary and Memorial Park in Cathedral City.

I mentioned that my parents got married at this church because it was cheap. Throughout my mother’s life she had a way of picking out unpleasant details of even the most special events, and that included her wedding day. First, she frequently talked about not feeling well the day they got married and that she spent the morning in bed. Then, I guess the best man was to be the photographer for their special event, but it appears he was having such a great time that he forgot to take many pictures. He took three at the church—one was a fuzzy shot of my mom way off in the distance in front of the altar. My mom had made her dress and she was tiny and cute. I am sure she looked pretty that day. Sadly, I never got to see her dress because after the wedding she gave it to her father to store at his house in Mariposa. He put it in the “brooder house” (where chickens had once lived) and somehow rats got in and ate her dress. (I am not making this up. No kidding.) There were no pictures of my dad at the church. Mom said he had a suit dyed blue, but it turned out to be a shade of blue that defied description and it did not look good according to my mom. Of course, if the best man had actually taken my dad’s picture you would never have noticed the color because I think he only had black and white film in his Brownie camera. But I must end this strange wedding tale with a fun memory of their reception that was held at the YWCA co-op just off the UCLA campus. Mom and dad met there and refreshments included a sheet cake and cool aid. (Cool aid was served, as alcohol was not allowed at the Young Women’s Christian Association.) Somewhere, I think there is a cute picture of them eating cake with all their college friends. But maybe there isn’t and I have invented in my mind this very attractive and happy couple toasting each other with paper cups of grape cool aid. And in my mind this picture is in living color, ugly suit and all.

August 18, 2018

Old Mariposa Graveyard
Old Mariposa Graveyard-Brown’s in foreground, June 23, 2018 (mixed media)

Before I start a sketch, I picture in my mind what I hope it will look like when I finally decide I’m done. I also think carefully about the medium I will use for this all-important first step. Will it be a graphite pencil (not too soft), Inktense pencil, colored pencil or pen and ink? Sometimes I just do a line drawing with one of those drawing implements without any watercolor. I have gotten into the habit of doing just that when I go to the Norton Simon Museum because the museum artist policy states that no wet media is to be used on the premises. Of course the last time my sketching group went to there I saw one of our members fill up a waterbrush right there in the back pond. None of the museum guards seemed to notice what she was doing. I have one of those brushes, but need to practice a bit more with it because I just seem to get blobs of water on the paper or nothing at all comes out. Maybe I need to get braver and try such a tool again—brazenly filling the hollow tube grip with water from the back pond of the Norton Simon in front of God and everybody. I’m not really brave enough to try any other wet material there. (Another one of our little artist gang often sits way at the back of the garden and quietly paints with her various inks. I think she is a very courageous artist rebel.)

The folks at the Descanso Garden don’t seem to mind artists like me using watercolors there. (I have even seen some paint with oils and pots of ink in the rose garden. I think the guards by the pond at the back of the Norton Simon would have a stroke if someone decided to whip out their oils and paint right there in front of God and everybody.) Lately I have been starting my Descanso watercolor sketches with either a graphite or Inktense pencil. I look at a landscape that’s caught my eye and decide if there is a particular color that seems to be calling my name based on what my imagination has conjured up. Sometimes I squint my eyes for a kind of soft light inspiration. Then I look through my Inktense pencils and sharpen that particular color—it’s often a shade of green, deep indigo, baked earth or bark. If no color seems to grab me, I just sketch with my “B” Staedtler Mars lumograph graphite pencil. However, when I look to add structure to my art, or I am at a cemetery or drawing a church, I ink in outlines and some texture lines with my “F” Faber-Castell black pen. Such lines are not meant to speak up and disappear into the landscape as a pencil line.

It may appear that I get overly stressed about making the “materials” decisions I have described here. I really enjoy this planning stage. I challenge myself to see if I can choose the perfect medium that will reflect my vision that’s inspired from squinting at my surroundings. And if something beautifully unexpected happens, it’s just like extra sprinkles that have landed on a favorite chocolate cake landscape. But in reality these are just sketches, not finished works of art. Maybe one in a hundred might possibly be considered for framing or given as a gift. It’s all a matter of enjoying every painstaking moment without some grand imagined payoff with each sketch. I do remember doing a sketch with another artist at the Norton Simon a while ago now. I left early, but it seems that someone there asked if they could buy our sketch, right there on the spot. I was so excited to hear our sketch had been sold until I heard she had gotten a dollar for it. She promised to get me the 50 cents sometime soon. Haven’t seen her for a while. Hmmm…

At the beginning of my summer break my son and I went to the old Mariposa Cemetery to spread the rest of my mother’s ashes with her parents who are buried there. Before my mother died she requested we bury some of her ashes with her parents. Her other half is with my dad in the cemetery in Cayucos. Yes, there is a story here, but I just don’t have the will to write about her strange thoughts, and comings and goings right now. Before spreading her ashes I had actually planned to sit on a sheet of bubble wrap near my grandparents graves and do this sketch on the spot. I am ashamed to say that I had never visited either grave before and didn’t know where to look, and this old cemetery has no map or directory of who’s buried where. We wandered around the tombstones, up and down a couple hills, and were about to give up and head for the motel when my son finally spotted their headstones. We had been looking for over an hour and it was a very warm afternoon. Before he had found them I thought we might try again the next morning, when it would be much cooler. So, by the time I took a picture of the scene you see here, I had given up the idea of sitting there to paint. I decided to capture it later from some photos I had taken with my phone.

But there is a story behind the photo that inspired this sketch. It actually included my son. He had a rather large grin on his face as he stood at the foot of the “Brown” plot. Oh, and he was also proudly holding out the rest of my mother’s ashes in a medium-sized ziplock bag. I don’t know, I didn’t add him because it seemed kind of weird and almost ghoulish. So, after I took this picture I opened the bag and carefully spread her ashes throughout the Brown enclosure in front of God and everybody. (There was only my son and I in the whole place.) I hadn’t noticed, but it seems my son recorded the event and even caught all my ramblings as I moved about the area. When I finished spreading every last bit of her, I couldn’t remember exactly what I had said. But upon listening to the recording, I heard myself tell my mom that I had kept my promise to bring her home to Mariposa to be with her mom and dad. When my aunt died, my brother, mom and her niece and nephews spread her ashes on this same spot in the old Mariposa Cemetery. (All of my aunt’s ashes are there.) And my cousins later added a plaque in her memory next to her mom and dad. My uncle, the only one missing from this little family, was not buried anywhere near here. In fact he was not buried at all. He donated his body to the UC Davis School of Medicine, and his wife at the time did not invite any of us to the ceremony they had for him there. But that’s not the weirdest part of this family burial story. Not that long ago I clearly remember my uncle saying that when he died he didn’t want a fuss. He said we were to “stake him out in the backyard and let the buzzards have him.” And all of this in front of God and everybody. I have no words…

Final note about the old Mariposa Cemetery

As my son and I had spent so much time wandering the old cemetery, I noticed a lot of red remembrance poppies and markers for veterans who had served in WWI all around. (If you look closely at the background of my sketch you can see a few dots of that red flower.) My grandfather had been in the balloon corp. during WWI and had a marker and small bouquet of poppies beside his headstone. Mom said that he even spent some time at the veteran’s home in Yountville just before he died in 1957.

I had your ashes in my closet for almost two years, mom. And every morning I walked into my closet and said good morning to you. Mom, I miss all the time we spent together. (died August 15, 2016)

And happy birthday Grandma Brown! (born August 24, 1897)

August 11, 2018

Nov sunflower
Dried sunflower, November 1999 (Prismacolor colored pencil on toned paper)

At the time I created this piece I was doing a lot of art on toned paper. Canson toned paper works well with dry materials like colored pencil, graphite and ink pens. I have used gouache on such Canson paper, but it’s not really made to get very wet and will pucker some after it dries. Not really a fan of that. I use toned paper in my art for very specific effects. For example, since the sunflower and morning glory were to reflect an autumn hue and time of year, the gold background supported the color of the dried flower as well as the time of year. Another example of my use of toned paper was posted with my April 7, 2018 Trib story. That featured a couple of tulips on grey toned paper. (For this illustration I actually did use Prismacolor colored pencil over gouache. But I applied the paint using a dry brush technique, so the paper didn’t get excessively wet—no puckered paper there.) I wanted the grey color to make the red flowers topping the thin green stems pop off the page. Of course when the story was printed, the background was eliminated—so much for that affect. I also used the grey toned paper for an illustration (done for a San Luis Obispo children’s a magazine story) of a couple sparrows drinking water from a wine barrel fountain in my backyard. The grey background echoed the color of the grey/brown birds as well as the grey patina of the oak barrel. And I used bright blue and white Prismacolor colored pencils on the grey toned paper to render water spilling into the barrel. Pastel colored pencils were used to look like a child had drawn a rainbow on the wooden surface. Again, the pastel colors popped nicely off the grey background. I have also seen toned paper used to great effect by other artists when he or she wished to add white gouache highlights. As I have said, I don’t usually do that because the final puckered paper bothers me more than the wondrous effect of white highlights.

Nov sunflower story
Telegram Tribune, SLO, November 1999

This article was originally written for the San Luis Obispo Tribune as something a mom or dad (family) could do with his or her child in the garden in the fall. It described a fun activity where a child would be encouraged to walk around outside, picking up seeds (e.g. dried sunflower seed heads etc), cones, bark or whatever seemed interesting. For added fun I encouraged the reader to also collect fall seeds on his or her feet by putting on old wool socks over their shoes for their journey. Some dried seeds will inevitably stick to the sock and hitch a ride to somewhere else. And when the walk is done you can plant the sock in a pot of potting soil, water and wait to see what grows. It’s often just a bunch of weeds, but there have been times those weedy plants have produced a California poppy or two (Those seeds are way to tiny to see and pick up. You just have to be lucky, I guess.)

So this week, as it has been extremely hot, I am imagining a cooler time of year. In fact, it is so hot my tomato plants are an “all over” golden color. It’s like the white-hot sun has bleached out all the green, leaving the plants a pale crispy yellow. A couple weeks ago it was so hot that every cherry tomato on my giant plant shriveled up. They looked like they had been cooked right there on the vine. (I was imagining I could cook some eggs on the sizzling dirt dusted hot concrete, adding just a few sun-dried/sautéed tomatoes to a gritty outdoor omelet.) I am left wondering how to save the tomatoes I have left. I have a fair amount of experience gardening, so when I plant something in my garden I have certain expectations of what should happen. And this summer’s strange crop has been anything, but what you might expect.

Is there a farmer in your genes?

When my son and I lived in Paso Robles our mailbox had been planted in a wine barrel filled with dirt out at the curb. (All the mailboxes on our cul-de-sac, and nearby neighborhood, also had the same “wine country” curbside mail delivery set up.) I planted that barrel at different times of the year with annuals. Early in the summer of 1999 I filled that planter with sunflowers. About mid July I added morning glory seeds (Ipomoea purpurea) to the soil. The intent was to have the drying sunflower stalk as a kind of natural stake for the twining wildflowers. (The art you see above reflects exactly what it looked like.) It was nice to have that round mailbox planter filled with such color year round. I remember that we had a very grumpy mail lady on our block. The first summer we were in that house I gave her a bouquet of my heirloom sweet peas that were growing in the planter, right under her generally disapproving nose. She told me later that it made the cab of her little mail truck smell heavenly. After that, she was rather nice and we had pleasant conversations every time I saw her on her route up our block. Not all my neighbors planted their wine barrel, but I always kept ours looking nice and even replaced it when the wood got rotten and started to pull away from the circular metal hoops that held the planter together.

I know there are a fair number of people who think gardening is for the birds, but I love it. About the time I was writing stories for the Trib I was also doing editorial work on gardening books for Sunset. Most of the time that work was fun. I got to talk to gardeners from all over the country, with most of my focus on gardens in the Pacific Northwest and the South. I spent a lot of time on the phone with these people, asking them about photos of plants in their gardens that were to be used in the Sunset books. I remember speaking with one gardener in Alaska that described thick plantings of 8 to 10-foot cornflower blue delphiniums she had around the perimeter of her log house in summer. She said they were extremely tall and thick because of Alaska’s extra daylight hours during that season. I guess I was lucky to have spoken with her at all that summer day as she had just gotten back from an extended Alaskan kayaking trip. She was also a painter and said that one of her greatest joys was to look out her studio window at snow-capped mountains that framed a nearby Juneau ice field. (I just this minute looked back at the photos of her garden in the book, “Gardening in the Northwest,” and it must be truly sublime to live there amongst all that garden beauty.) For the same book I remember interviewing an interesting gardener who was obsessed with abutilon and had them in pots all around his Snohomish, Washington garden during the summer months. I think I heard that Snohomish, an hour north of Seattle, is not a particularly hospitable place for such a delicate flower year round. In fact, I think I have also heard that the weather up there could be summed up as 9 months of winter and 3 months of late fall. So, his precious plants needed to be brought indoors during the cold weather months. He told me that all of the pots were brought inside his house and placed at every available spot he could find, including on his clothes dryer in the laundry room. He also added that he had to farm out many of his plants to indoor spots at friend’s houses as well. Such dedication to beauty!

I have many such stories of gardeners around the US, but I thought I would finish up here with a gardener I spoke to in North Carolina. His family has owned an apple nursery, Century Farm Orchards, for generations and they specialize in heirloom apples. He said that they were trying to find grafts of apples that were grown in his area during the time of the Civil War, but had somehow gotten lost over the years. You may or may not know that the apples we eat do not come from trees that started from a seed, but rather as a graft on an existing apple tree rootstock. Apples grown on trees that started from a seed, like those that planted by Johnny Appleseed, are used to make cider. And it seems that those early American settlers grew a lot of apples to make cider. If you want to know more about those early apples there is a wonderful book called “The Botany of Desire—A Plant’s Eye View of the World,” by Michael Pollan. Mr. Pollan not only describes Johnny Appleseed and apple cider made by pioneers in the early days of the US, but he also describes our human relationship/desires for 3 other plants—tulips, marijuana and potatoes. Very interesting reading.

So, like it or not, someone in your family was a farmer. And you probably wouldn’t have to go back too far to be able to name that someone. My grandpa on my dad’s side worked as a sharecropper and took care of horses for someone else on their farm in Nebraska and Wyoming. My dad’s mom’s family “worked the sugar beets” in Minnesota when my grandma was a girl. I don’t know as much about my mom’s early farming roots. It seemed that her parent’s families were most recently from cities in the east. Of course my mom told great stories about how her dad had come to California to be a farmer. He had chickens, rabbits, hogs and a huge garden when they lived in Mariposa. My son’s other grandparents were definitely raised on farms growing up. His grandma’s family settled part of Adelaida and raised almonds and walnuts. And his grandpa’s family settled part of Estrella and dry farmed wheat.

My dad had this old saying that drove us all crazy, and it went something like, “…you know my mom and dad were the first generation off the farm.” I was never sure what that meant, but it almost seemed like an excuse for their struggles to earn a living in Long Beach in the 30s. Of course there was a depression, so maybe everyone was struggling, whether they were fresh off the farm or not.

So, don’t be afraid if you find yourself at a nursery looking for something to plant, or you put on a sun hat and go into the garage to look for a shovel. And if you find yourself weeping with joy when a friend brings you a load of compost, soil amendment, or manure just go with it and plant something beautiful.

August 4, 2018

top of the Descanso, 6:28
At the top of the Descanso Garden, June 28, 2018 (watercolor and Inktense pencil on watercolor paper)

The background of this landscape is the San Gabriel Mountains. And the silver-white sliver of buildings in the middle ground is part of the small town of La Canada/Flintridge (population 20,447 as of 2016). If you have been following my blog you may have noticed that when I plop down to paint at the Descanso Garden I almost always turn right out of the main entrance and head straight for the rose garden. As you can see, I have changed my ways. Lately, I have been circling the garden on paths from left to right and then right to left—settling down anywhere but the rose garden to paint. I found this spot completely by accident, during one of my wanderings to the left of the main entrance. The trail to this view is not featured on their website or map of the grounds. It feels like a wonderful secret place that I have found and it’s almost like no one knows it’s there. Here you can sit up high on a flat piece of granite and look through layers of lovely oaks to the San Gabriel’s off in the distance. I can’t see anyone down below as the trees hide me from view. I can hear voices, but thankfully I can’t really make out what anyone is saying. It’s pretty wonderful and a perfect place for me, even if I don’t take out my sketchpad.

Oh, I still go to the rose garden, but only to stop briefly when a tart little rose is just too beautiful to pass by and I bend in to smell something wonderful. In fact, I have noticed that our summer heat intensifies the heady perfume given off by most of the Descanso roses. (Well I guess there is one good thing about the intense summer heat we have been experiencing.) But even though there are colorful clusters and single stems of wonderfully scented flowers all around I have decided that I am just not comfortable sitting there for any extended period of time right now.

Of course there is a story…The other day I was sitting comfortably and painting under the shade of a tree in the rose garden. A group of three moms, with three strollers, wandered by and then stopped at a nearby patch of lawn. They laid out their blankets and visited with each other while attending to their tiny infants. All seemed fine and I continued to paint. But soon, the women got quiet, save one. She had begun a grizzly and suspense-filled tale of the recent experience of giving birth to her youngest child via Cesarean. I was trying not too listen, but it was hard to avoid her description of the trauma for both the mom and baby leading up to the unexpected surgery—complete with her description of the individual organs that needed to be set aside so the doctor could reach in and get the baby out. What she was saying was way too personal for a public place, but she shared every gritty detail with great gusto. After a few minutes of this I found myself hurrying to finish my watercolor so I could leave. I’d had enough. Just as I put the last hurried bit of color on the page and was standing to let everything dry, she finally finished her story (with thankfully a happy ending for both mom and baby). Then it got really quiet and I heard the other mom’s muffled voices say something about needing to get home. So, they all gathered their baby items, babies, and left. I know if I had been one of the silent moms I would have been planning for the moment she took a breath so I could leave too. Yikes! So, I slowed down my planned flight, finished up and packed my bag. But I think the universe was trying to give me one last “beware of people (or new mothers) in the Descanso Rose Garden” message because on my way out I came across a dirty diaper on the grass. I’m not kidding! The next time I went to the Descanso I looked for a new hangout, away from just about everyone—especially new moms with strollers who looked like they had a tale to tell, or maybe just hadn’t quite gotten the hang of diapers. I’ve said it before, but I just don’t know if I really like people.

I saw my doctor the other day and somehow we got to talking about our mutual need to be away from people at times. (I didn’t tell him about the talkative “baby momma” at the Descanso…) But he had a lot to say about such feelings of being too near to others that kind of resonated with me. He described early humans as nomads, wandering around in their small family group looking for something to hunt or gather. There just weren’t a lot of people yet and there was always somewhere else to go without running into anyone you didn’t know. Even though I think I like the idea of having almost no one around (especially when there are way too many people at the beach). I get it. Even though I love the idea of walking a lonely strand of sand without seeing a single soul, there really isn’t anything romantic about being nomadic. It must have been tough, taking great effort to live and thrive in such a world. I guess life got a little easier when some of these same nomads learned to domesticate animals and farm—slowing their need to move around so much. But my doctor said that he thought humans were still basically nomads, with some deep primitive need to move on, move to someplace new. He likened it to the early settlers in North America who were moving westward, looking for something unspoiled and new. But there really isn’t anywhere new to move anymore. We’ve gone as far west as you can. We mused that some think it’s time to move off the planet into outer space. We both laughed and decided that living on Mars would be a terrible idea. I reminded him that there were no oak trees on any other planet, so space would definitely be “out” for me. He mentioned that he had recently become a grandpa and I knew he wasn’t going anywhere.

On my way home from the doctor’s office I thought of a wonderful story I had heard on the radio a long time ago, about very early human nomads. I don’t remember the “radio” guy’s credentials, but I think he was an anthropologist… Anyway, he started out by saying that our human brains haven’t really changed much since the days of the Neanderthals and early Homo sapiens. He didn’t go into great detail about the actual size or shape of those early human brains, but focused on their possible cognitive abilities (e.g. memory, attention etc) as it related to those early family units roaming around together. I distinctly remember him saying that such an early person probably knew, or remembered, a total of 50 people. That’s all he or she would ever encounter. That would include those in his or her actual group, and maybe the members of another group they might come across every so often. Seeing/knowing/remembering only 50 people in my “year in/year out” life seem like a manageable number for my 21st century nomad Neanderthal-like brain. I’m not sure if early Homo sapiens, or Neanderthals, had names, or if they even talked to each other. I can’t even tell you how many different people I have seen in my life, but it’s way more than 50. Bet you can’t either. I do find it amusing that I probably have 50 plus random facts that I can call up at a moment’s notice, but have been known to forget someone I have just met, even when they are standing right in front of me.

I just finished reading “The Enchanted April,” by Elizabeth Von Armin (1922). The premise of the book is very appropriate for this story. It’s about four English women looking to escape their “dreary” lives for various reasons. They don’t know each other, but are brought together by chance when they rent a medieval Italian castle for a month in April. I particularly like how one of the characters, Lady Caroline, ardently looked for a secret place to hide out while at the castle. Ms. Von Armin describes it as “…a little place jutting out from the great wall, a kind of excrescence, or loop, no doubt used in the old distrustful days for observation, where it was possible to sit really unseen…” And if that was not enough to keep her out of sight Ms. Von Armin adds a “thick clump of daphne” that grows in just the right place to further block any intruder’s view. So, Lady Caroline claimed that spot as her “hidy hole.” The hilarious twist to her wanting to be unseen is the fact that she liked to sit there and smoke, but her puffs of cigarette smoke obviously gave away her location to anyone coming even near to that spot. Of course this kind of information makes me wonder if she really wanted to hide away and be left alone. I think there are probably a lot of “I want to be left alone” pretenders out there (Greta Garbo, Grand Hotel, 1932). Just sayin.’

Final note about my secret spot at the Descanso

I took my son to this very spot the other day. He thought it pretty special too, but without any prompting he noted that the view would be better if there were no buildings. I had thought that very thing when I did the watercolor, and almost left them out. It made me smile to think that he is definitely a chip off the old anti-social nomadic Californian block. That’s a relief!

July 28, 2018

Henry and me
Life on the Farm: A tale of the magical reality in my CA life.

LOF 2-3
[pp 2-3, Henry and mom looking at the vineyard]
One summer Henry and his mom moved from Grass Valley to his grandparent’s farm and vineyard in Estrella. Henry’s mom really liked living on the farm.

It’s early summer. Henry wonders if he will make friends when he starts school in a couple weeks.

 

 

LOF 4-5
[pp 4-5, Henry and mom sitting on the front porch of their house]
One afternoon Henry and his mom sat on the front porch, drinking iced tea and talking. “It’s now our job to help grandma and grandpa take care of this house and all the living things on the farm,” said his mom. Henry thought she was looking at him a little too closely. He wondered if his mom could see that he was worried about living there.

“But I miss Grass Valley, our old house and my friends,” said Henry. “I wonder what they are doing right now?”

“I have no idea,” said his mom with a smile. “But could you help me with the goats and chickens? Or they will be wondering why they haven’t been fed yet.”

LOF 6-7
[pp 6-7, goats and chickens in a pen looking at Henry]
The shadows of the fence posts around the goat yard grew longer and longer as the warm afternoon wore on. Henry and his mom fed the goats, gathered eggs and cleaned the yard. Henry’s mom left him to finish up and went into the house to start dinner. She turned on her “cooking music.” That afternoon, it was “Kinda Blue” again and Miles Davis could be heard all over the farm.

Henry turned to look at the open door of the kitchen and smiled. When he turned back around, he couldn’t help noticing that all the animals, down to the smallest chick, seemed to be looking at him.

LOF 8-9
[pp 8-9, close up of a chick on a goat’s head]
“Come closer,” said a chick.

Henry moved in.

“Do you know much about us?” continued the chick. Henry stared at the talking bird. “Thank you for feeding all of us,” she continued. “And I hear your grandma makes the creamiest goat cheese in the north county, and my four-legged friends thank her for that. We need you. And we want you to like living here. By the way, we love your mom’s tunes. It’s our jam.”

LOF 10-11
[pp 10-11, yard filled with dancing goats and chickens]
At that moment the goats and chickens started dancing. Henry watched with “udder” amazement.

But after a time the music changed from Miles to Jack Teagarten. And instead of a cool jazz trumpet, Jack Teagarten’s jazz trombone could be heard all around the farm. Henry turned to look at the open kitchen door and realized that his grandpa must have come into the house and changed the music. Then he heard his mom call him for dinner.

Henry turned around to say goodbye to his new friends, but they were no longer dancing and had all gone back to roaming around the yard, just like regular chickens and goats. It was like that magical musical moment had never happened. “They must not be fans of Dixieland jazz,” thought Henry to himself. He felt kind of sorry for his grandpa because there weren’t many humans left who seemed to like listening to Dixieland either.

Henry wasn’t quite sure what had just happened, but he decided to keep it to himself, for now.

LOF 12-13
[pp 12-13, Henry looking out his bedroom window]
The next morning Henry woke up as the sun’s first rays of the day came into his bedroom. He decided to spend the morning looking for more unusual living things on the farm. He packed a few of his usual exploring items in his backpack and headed out the back door.

 

 

 

LOF 14-15
[pp 14-15, Henry walking through a sunflower maze at the back of the house]
Henry tramped through the dew-covered sunflower maze his grandmother had planted that spring. He saw a few beetles crawling around some of the stems, but none of them stopped to talk. Disappointed, Henry started to leave. To his surprise, he saw some red beetles gathering on a couple of the flower heads. He quickly grabbed the bug net and hand lens from this backpack.

 

 

LOF 16-17
[pp 16-17, art of beetles]
The red beetles began telling funny jokes and some brown ones made pictures as they hovered in the air. And green beetles crash landed onto his bug net and began writing about the weather. Henry watched all of this activity for a minute or two. Then all of a sudden a gust of wind shook the red bugs from the sunflower heads. The brown ones scattered like dust in the sky. And the green beetles flashed as they rolled from the net, struggling to fly away. Just like that, they were all gone. Henry hurried out of the sunflower maze, looking up and down the rows of flowers hoping to find them again.

LOF 18-19
[pp 18-19, oak tree and vineyard, maybe add group of blackbirds in the sky]
Once out of the maze he saw his mom standing under an oak tree at the edge of the vineyard. She seemed to be watching a bunch of blackbirds flying around and around in the sky.

He ran up to her and immediately started talking. “Mom, you’ll never guess what I just saw,” said Henry excitedly. “I mean, is this place magical or something?”

“I like to think so,” she said.

LOF 20-21
[pp 20-21, close up of grape plants with a couple spots of bright light]
Just then, Henry saw what seemed like 100 bright dots of light flashing all over the vineyard. “What’s going on?” said Henry. “Where are those flashes coming from? Can beetles make that kind of light?” said Henry, remembering his recent beetle encounter.

“I don’t know,” said his mom. “Your grandpa and I and some of the vineyard workers tied pieces of reflective tape to the plants this morning. When the wind blows, the sun reflects tiny bits of light all around the vineyard. The random flashes scare the blackbirds. That should keep them from landing on the plants and eating up our grape crop.”

And just like that she turned around and started running towards the house. “That group of birds are headed for the house,” said his mom over her shoulder as she ran. Henry ran close behind her.

LOF 22-23
[pp 22-23, bird’s eye view of vineyard, and house. Henry and his mom are at the top of the ladder.]
“Something’s different this morning,” whispered one of the birds on the roof.

“Yeah,” said another. “Yesterday, we were happily eating some of those tasty grapes. But now there’s something out there that’s scaring me right down to my pin feathers.”

“We didn’t really mean to scare you,” shouted Henry’s mom. “But you need to go somewhere else to eat. Leave our grapes alone!”

The blackbirds looked at Henry and his mother, made a collective loud squawk and flew away.

 

LOF 24-25
[pp 24-25, Henry and his mom running towards the pond]
Henry wanted to talk to her about the talking birds. But she had already climbed all the way down the ladder.

“Maybe I shouldn’t have yelled,” said his mom. “I think they’re headed for the cattails by the pond.”

Now she was running towards the pond. Again, Henry was right behind her.

 

LOF 26-27
[pp 26-27, close-up of a cross section of a pond with tadpoles and mosquito larva]
Henry and his mom got to the pond just after the birds had landed on the cattails. “You can talk to these birds?” said Henry, panting a little bit.

“I warned them not to eat the grapes anymore,” said his mom. “I hope your grandpa’s trick will keep then out of the vineyard. By the way, I wish there was some kind of magic to get rid of these mosquitoes. I don’t think blackbirds or chickens will eat them. Maybe we can get some kind of pump out here. That should keep the water moving and get rid of the wigglers. I’ll get your grandpa on that.”

Henry smiled, remembering how his grandpa was always trying to fix things. “Remember when grandpa was going to put great hunks of bubble gum down the gopher holes in grandma’s rose garden?”

“I think the idea was that the gophers would chew the gum and then never have room in their mouths to eat your grandma’s roses,” said his mom. “Kind of gruesome, actually, I guess they were supposed to starve to death as they endlessly chewed gum.”

LOF 28-29
[pp 28-29, scene at the pond with cattails and mud pies]
The blackbirds seemed to have calmed down. They clung to the cattails and sang to each other as they bounced on the stalks in the breeze. A few hens and chicks scratched in the dirt. Bright orange dragonflies hovered over the pond water, while sparkling beetles climbed the golden cattail stalks. Henry and his mom made mud pies. Then they invited all the living things to tea. No one seemed at all interested.

Henry and his mom were ready for some real tea and headed back to the house. Even though they were both hungry, neither felt the need to run this time.

LOF 30-31
[pp 30-31, view of the porch of the house, with Henry, his mom and his grandma and grandpa]
Henry and his family sat on the porch, drinking lemonade and eating goat cheese on crackers. “Well, Henry, that’s what I thought I’d write,” said his mom after she finished telling the story of their amazing and magical life on the farm. “I knew you were worried about coming here and leaving your friends. I thought this story might help. What do you think?”

“I really love the part about grandpa trying to get rid of gophers with chewing gum,” said Henry.

“He didn’t actually do it, but we did talk about maybe trying it one afternoon,” said Henry’s mom, grinning at her dad. “Hey dad, do you think the reflective tape will keep the birds away?”

But Henry’s grandpa wasn’t really listening to them. Jack Teagarten had just started singing his “bluesy” rendition of “Weary River.” It could be heard all over the farm. Henry’s mom looked over at the goats and chickens in the nearby yard. She believed so passionately in the real and imagined magic of their life on the farm. Were her eyes playing tricks? Or were they swaying, ever so slightly, to the music?

“I have been just like a weary river that keeps winding endlessly.

Fate has been a very cheerful giver to most everyone, but me.

Oh, how long it took me to learn, hope is strong and tides have to turn.

And now I know that every weary river, someday meets the sea.”

 

Post notes for “Life on the Farm:”

When I first got the idea for this story (late 1990s, early 2000s) it was meant to be a picture book for young children. There were to be two kinds of “magical” events going on simultaneously in the story. The first kind was to make the reader believe in the practical wonder and magic of the real world. It was meant as a kind of stewardship message of how we should not only be in awe of life on Earth, but also be “people of parts” who take care of that life. The second kind was meant to be the “get down and dirty” fantastic kind (e.g. talking birds, beetles that tell jokes etc). That was meant to help the reader suspend belief, making you want to go down the magical “rabbit hole” right along with the characters in the story.

I wrote several versions of “Life on the Farm,” maintaining the same basic storyline in each. The first one was done completely in rhyme and the second was written as a kind of math book with specific details related to computations and shapes. I wrote the final story in straight and simple prose, similar to what you see here. But, for this 2018 version, I modified many of the details (e.g. there was no mention of chewing gum and gophers in the first “go round”) and I believe it now has more humor. Oh, and the jazz references reflect real aspects of my family, and that contributes to my life growing up in Silicon Valley.

I make “light” of a couple real problems that people/farmers face in everyday life (e.g. birds eating a cash crop, mosquitoes in standing water and gophers). And those kinds of pests can be a real hazard, no foolin’ around. But I think that supports the idea that we should be stewards of life on Earth and sometimes we need to make hard decisions when faced with not only the good parts of life here, but also the bad parts as well.

I have lots more to say about magic and how it is portrayed in books, movies etc, but this post is already long enough. The discussion of magical events we have in our actual and imaginary lives will have to wait for another time. Stay tuned.

 

July 21, 2018

house from above
House from above, late 90s (watercolor and colored pencil on cold-presses illustration board)

In a previous blog I wrote that I sometimes have very vivid dreams about houses—walking through the different rooms in each night’s very distinct structure. This house was never the stuff of an actual dream. It is a compilation of little clapboard coated farm-style houses I used to drive past when we lived in Paso Robles. I remember wanting to create the most luxurious color possible for this “dreamy” house and landscape. My goal was to saturate the cold pressed illustration board with deep color and suggested 3-D texture from watercolor and Prismacolor pencils. Also, I was intrigued with the idea of looking at my farmhouse fantasy from above, as if seeing it in a dream (a kind of bird’s eye view). I remember getting some of my son’s wooden blocks and stacking them into a kind of two story house. That way I could use the three-dimensional model as a reference to get the angle I wanted while sketching. Once I got the pencil sketch down I scrubbed in the dark shadow colors with Prismacolor colored pencil—starting with indigo blue for the spots in deepest and darkest shadow. Next came a layer of diluted watercolor color, then more Prismacolor and then a layer of watercolor. I did this over and over, with layer upon layer of waxy colored pencil then watercolor. I don’t remember how many layers of pigment are here, but there are a lot. To help speed up the process I used a small hand held hair dryer to dry the watercolor so I could add the colored pencil—a trick I learned a while ago from another scientific illustrator. But even though the hair dryer helped to dry the paint more quickly it definitely took a long time to layer the colored pencil and watercolor. This is because I applied the various pigments while looking through a hand lens so I could look closely at the surface of the illustration board—ensuring the most complete and even color coverage. It was quite a process.

I liked this house so much that when it was finished I had it framed and hung it up in my bedroom. (Later a friend saw it, bought it and now it hangs on his hall wall.) Just about the time I was working on the house, I got an idea for a children’s picture book, where such a structure featured heavily in the narrative. From beginning to end, I worked on the art and a picture book idea from the late 90s to early 2000s.

white house from above1
Farm house from above, late 90s (watercolor and colored pencil on cold press illustration board)

Writing a picture book

In a previous post (August 2017) I have mentioned that I worked as a writer/editor of math and science textbooks, as well as teacher resource materials. That kind of publishing is known as “Educational Publishing.” But there was a kind of publishing that I was dying to be part of, and that is known as “Trade Publishing.” Trade publishing is really what most people think of when looking at books for a general audience, with some specifically targeted to adults and the rest for the juvenile market. I even belonged to a couple writing groups—one that met in Cambria once a week, focusing on trade books (mostly novels) for adults and a “Kiddie Writer’s” group that met once a month. I only went to couple of the meetings in Cambria. At that time my son was pretty little and it was hard for me to get away once a week and drive the 30 miles (60 miles round trip) to Cambria from Paso Robles. But for some reason the Kiddie Writer’s group just worked for me. Maybe it’s because they met only once a month or maybe it’s because I just had a better “vibe” with those women. Whatever the actual “long ago” reason I became a regular at Kiddie Writer’s. I remember very clearly the first meeting I attended. It was in Paso Robles at Juddi Morris’s house—just a mile or two from me. Juddi was known mostly for her non-fiction books. Some of those titles include: “At Home with the Presidents,” “The Harvey Girls: The Women Who Civilized the West,” “Tending the Fire: The Story of Maria Martinez” and “Route 66, the Main Street of America.” A couple of the writers also did non-fiction, but most wrote fiction for various trade publications. It was fun to learn about the different kinds of fiction that could be considered when writing for children (e.g. young adult novels, chapter books and picture books, not to mention short stories and poetry that could be written for children’s magazines.) But with that first meeting at Juddi Morris’s house I was hooked.

So, while I was a full-time mom of a very active boy I made a living writing/editing educational material. But, also during that same time I squeezed in time to write and illustrate picture books, often with my son as the main character. When I initially came up with the idea for this post I thought I might list some of the titles of some of my books, but decided it would be too depressing as not one of my picture book stories ever got published. I had a couple serious “picture book” nibbles, but nothing ever came of it. (I just remembered that I did share a piece of art and page-by-page text of a picture book idea called “Penguins Count” August 26, 2017. And I did write and illustrate stories for the parents of young children in a local magazine, so it wasn’t all that dismal.)

However, I decided to share one other picture book story here and as you can see this second piece of art (rough sketch) is taken directly from my original dream house at the start of this post. I added some characters (living things) to the farm and turned it into the opening pages (called a spread) of a story about a boy and his mom that move to a farm/vineyard with the mom’s parents. The characters you see here include: the mom and her young son (sitting on the swing on the front porch), blackbirds (on the roof), some goats (in a pen), a couple hens (scratching for seeds in the yard) and a patch of sunflowers (at the back of the house). It was so fun to look back at the art and story I had envisioned.

So, I decided this story isn’t going to end here. Oh no! With my recent renewed vigor and interest in this story, I scanned all the thumbnails (small black and white sketches) for the whole story and plan to publish it in my next post. Stay tuned…

Another Special Kiddie Writer Friend

There were a number of Kiddie Writers, besides Juddi Morris, that I got to know over the years. And it was always fun to catch up with what all those wonderful writers were working on every time we saw each other. But there was one writer who truly became one of my most treasured friends, and that was Lori Fisher Peelen. I think our friendship started out because we were creative moms with busy young boys at home. She had a son the same age as mine, and was expecting her third boy when we first met. I think we enjoyed the stories we wrote and shared at Kiddie Writers, but we also really liked spending time together, just talking. And you know someone is a good and treasured friend when you can talk about everything—the good and bad, and everything in between. We certainly did that as we shared our dreams, along with big concerns and some tears, but we also shared a lot of laughter. So, now it’s time to remember all of her wonderful writing and say that I recently found out that Lori has had a book published. It is called “Big Fish Dreams,” and it’s illustrated by Consie Powell.

Lori, it’s so hard to believe our young boys have grown up, but not hard to believe they have grown into nice young men. Congratulations on your book. So happy for you. Some dreams do come true!

 

July 14, 2018

Old Mill, San Marino
El Molino Viejo, The Old Mill, San Marino, June 16, 2018 (watercolor and Inktense pencil on watercolor paper)

The other day I painted this old adobe at the back of El Molina Viejo, also known as The Old Mill, in San Marino. The leader of our “Meet Up” group suggested we sketch there and we were joined by a number of LA Urban Sketchers as well. It was quite a gang of artists with maybe 20 to 25 people all together. The weather was just a bit overcast, but that made it a very cool and pleasant place to sit and paint. Generally, when I get to a new place to sketch, I give myself about 10 minutes to wander around—looking for the perfect shady spot. If I take much longer than that, I get anxious because I usually see a landscape I want to capture and am eager to get started. Not sure why I get this way. It’s like a timer gets set in my head the minute I step onto new ground and I can almost hear it ticking as I walk around. The Old Mill, and its lovely grounds, can be seen in its entirety in about 5 minutes. As I had found this perfect shady spot in that time my internal timer had not yet begun to gong. I was rather relaxed. So I wandered into the main building. Inside they have a tiny museum with a model showing how the mill worked when it was grinding grain. They also had journals, photos and several of the actual grinding stones on display. If you have never been inside an adobe, it’s kind of surreal. From the outside it looks to be of average dimensions, but once inside it feels quite a bit smaller, with low doorway openings and tiny windows. I think the rooms are actually smaller than you might expect because the walls are almost two feet thick, thereby taking up interior floor and wall space.

Wandering around inside the museum I learned that Father Jose Maria de Zalvidea, from Mission San Gabriel Arcángel, built the mill (with the help of the indigenous Native Americans) in 1816. It was meant to grind grain that would supplement food needed at the San Gabriel Mission. But it only functioned as a mill for 7 years before a newer, more efficient one, was built nearby. Later a family inherited the property with this mill and they converted the building into a place they lived in for a number of years. Even though The Old Mill functioned as a mill for only a short while, I was really interested in that period of time—when it was clear Native Americans worked at the mill and did the actual grinding of grains. They were also probably the same people who actually built the structure. I didn’t seem to be in my customary hurry to start sketching, so I engaged a young man at the information desk in a conversation about the mill when it was actually functioning as a mill. As I knew that California Native Americans subsisted on acorns, I assumed that at least some of the time they ground acorns. (If that was true, it wasn’t clear how they got off the outer hard shell of the acorn, so they could grind the inner pulpy parts–based on what I could see of schematic. And it didn’t look like they were set up to rinse and rinse the ground acorn flour because it’s too bitter to eat unless you did that.) Anyway, the young man seemed a bit perturbed with my question because of course they hadn’t ground any acorns here, saying that it was a gristmill and only corn and wheat were pulverized for the people who lived at the San Gabriel Mission. He further reminded me that the Spanish missionaries had taught the Native Americans to plant and farm such grains as corn and wheat. And the message that seemed to be left hanging in the air was that the missionaries had somehow saved some of the California Native Americans from eating acorns by teaching them to farm something else. It was clear that our conversation was over and the young man turned his attention back to his computer screen and I headed for my spot outside. As I walked down the steps of the mill I noticed that a wedding party, with photographer taking pictures, had arrived. Wow! The joint was jumpin’!

But all I could think about, as I set up my paint pots, was the notion that the Native Americans indigenous to this part of California somehow needed “saving” from their “primitive” ways. It almost seemed that what bothered those early missionaries was that it was just too “simple minded” to gather acorns, grind them and then make food. Somehow it would be much smarter to till the soil, plant seeds (saved from somewhere), water and tend the growing plants, harvest and then grind the corn or wheat—finally making something you could cook and eat. That may have been quite a trick back then as Southern California was (and is) a desert, without summer rains. And to further complicate this whole missionary scenario is the fact that corn and wheat are not native to California, and maybe there would be a problem growing something new in the Southern California soil.  I’m guessing that it’s a lot of work to gather, grind and wash acorn flour, but it also seems like a lot of work to plant, water, tend, harvest and grind grain to flour. Not to mention, seed for the next year’s planting would need to be collected and stored somewhere. And then, of course, someone would be hauling lots and lots of water.

Finally, I put aside my thoughts about those early days. I had done a sketch or two, mixed some colors and was loosely applying the big washes for this piece. I was contemplating colors I could layer for the walls of the adobe. But I was also attracted to the old stone wall that held back the soil just below the building. I used my “bark” colored Inktense pencil to outline the rocks and mortar. I also noticed just a hint of blue in the rocks and added some color with my “sea blue” pencil. I liked the way the colors worked together and the Inktense pencil lines gave some nice linearity to the rocks. I thought the pencil also provided an excellent “rock-like” texture to the pebbly watercolor paper.

I took a couple breaks to let the color dry and finally decided I was done and ready to wander around to the front to see what the other sketchers were doing. I started to pack up my gear. A man I had seen when I first arrived moved his set up to a spot nearby. I had never met him before and just assumed he was part of the LA Urban Sketchers group. We started to chat and I asked him where he was from. I thought he said he was from Highland. I thought he was referring to Highland Park, an old LA neighborhood I had heard about. As I am not from LA I assumed that maybe the locals shortened it to Highland. To be sure I had heard him correctly, as well as continue our conversation, I asked him where that was. With no condescension in his voice, but with a bit of smile, he explained that it was on the other side of the Pacific Ocean. I immediately started to feel pretty ridiculous, but he kept up our conversation in earnest, tactfully ignoring the apparent holes in my knowledge of geography. And as you may have already guessed he had said he was from Thailand not Highland Park. I found out that he and his wife were visiting their son here in LA. (I never did find out “where” his son lived in Los Angeles. I was just too embarrassed to continue this line of polite conversation.). In fact, the nice man was the one who had seen the announcement on the Urban Sketchers Facebook page and convinced his wife and son to come to The Old Mill to paint. And after I got over my mortification of appearing to be just another California airhead, I really enjoyed continuing our conversation. It turns out that they were a family of artists and all of them were enjoying an afternoon of sketching and painting in this tiny little spot in San Marino. Realizing that he was from Thailand reminded me of a wonderful friend who was from Brocklyn, but her husband was from Thailand and both their children were born there. When I was newly married, in the early 90s, we worked together at a school in Danville. She was a wonderful and gifted teacher of fifth grade and I was the school’s science teacher. Her husband was (and is) an amazing painter as well as a gifted sculptor, her son graduated from the College of Design in Pasadena and her lovely daughter studied ballet. So, she too came from a family of artists. Unfortunately my friend died of ovarian cancer in 1998. It was pleasant to think again of her when she was very much alive with her wonderful art, music, science and literature lessons. In my mind I can still see her big smile and feel her generous heart.

Soon my new friend’s wife and son joined us. We all chatted a bit longer and then went together to the front of the property. It was getting close to 4 PM and The Old Mill would be closing at 4. (Old Mill hours are Tuesday through Sunday from 1 to 4.) Everyone was milling around, trying to find the perfect spot to share our work and take a picture. I heard that a couple artists were upset that the wedding photographer had inconvenienced them when he asked them to move a bit so he could take pictures of the wedding party. One of the other artists and I locked eyes upon hearing this complaint and decided that whoever said that needed to “get over it.” I mean, we draw and paint all the time. But hopefully this couple wouldn’t be getting married again and therefore no such interruptions would ever occur again. I told the other “like minded” artist that a wedding “trumps” a bunch of artists with ugly sun hats any day.

And just like that, we took the group photo and then we all left in our respective cars. I don’t look at Facebook anymore, so I didn’t see if my new friend from Thailand posted any pictures of his family’s art on the Urban Sketchers group. But no matter, it was a lovely day of painting, connecting with a lovely family from Thailand and remembering once again of a dear friend that I still miss. For me, it doesn’t really get any better than that.