July 7, 2018

K and M backyard
Glendale backyard, spring 2017 (mixed media on cold pressed illustration board)

I created this while sitting in the backyard of a friend’s 1920s Spanish revival house. That was in spring 2017. What you see here is quintessential Southern California—large mature blood orange tree on the right, kumquat in the upper left (next to the terra cotta roof of the garage), glowing balls of yellow rose blossoms below that, delicate golden spirea foliage below that and a couple palm trees floating through that amazing blue sky in the background. It’s funny, but if you went into my friend’s backyard today it would look almost exactly the same—except the blood oranges have all been picked and devoured. But the roses are in bloom and there are still a few kumquats on that tree (different from the ones I captured that spring). However, all of this is about to change because in the next couple weeks they are adding on to the back of the house and the landscape you see here will be forever altered. Sometimes I feel like my mission as a California landscape artist has always been to capture a beautiful, thoughtful or important CA moment, as it will soon be different. In fact, I am always a bit surprised if I paint a landscape, go back after a year or 10, and it looks the same. And in point of fact I am always a bit in awe when I find a particular view I have enjoyed that has remained the same over any period of time.

Of course this bit of SoCal tranquility belies the change that has already taken place inside the house, even before the planned addition has been added. It’s the kitchen! It was gutted and is in the process of being taken from its original early 20th century cooking space into the early 21st century. It has been a huge disruption for its occupants, my friends, and has been going on for several months now. But the real story here is about food, and the problems one might face when the kitchen is torn up and you have only a frig and microwave for meal preparation and are washing dishes in the bathroom sink. Friends, like me, know that it’s important to share food with friends in need. This whole process has been a reminder for me of all the needy homeless we have here in Los Angeles and the blessing a cramped dining room with a frig full of food might be for them. Count your blessings, right?

I am a great one for bringing food to those I love. Last Christmas I signed up my friends for six months of Harry and David’s fruit of the month club. The fruit started arriving in February and as of this month, the monthly gifts of lovely fruit stops. (I was certain the kitchen would be done by now.) I have also been randomly calling at weekend lunch times to see if I can bring over delicious sandwiches, brownies with whipped cream, my mother’s rice salad or beans. Yes, I said beans. I have about 5 different versions of those delectable legumes. A couple of my bean recipes come from my mother and she would describe herself as a good “winter” cook, making lots of lovely soups and beans. I usually only make beans during the cool weather as my summer kitchen gets way too hot even to turn on the oven to make a frozen pizza. And I’m not really sure if anyone wants to dig into a big bowl of beans when it’s 90 bazillion degrees outside.

I’ve taken my beans to friends who have been sick, just had a baby, as a house-warming gift and have even taken huge pots of beans on camping trips. When my first niece was born I took a large pot of beans to my brother’s house. My sister-in-law asked me what they should do with them. We come from “bean people,” my brother and I, so I was surprised with such a question. I replied, “Heat them in a pot on the stove, or microwave. Put a couple scoops in a bowl, add a dollop of sour cream and eat it with a spoon. Of course a lovely piece of crusty bread and a glass of Zinfandel will round out the whole thing. Maybe a salad?” Was she kidding?

When this same niece started eating solid foods I took this same sister-in-law homemade applesauce, made with apples from my trees. I had had a bumper crop of apricots that year and I added a few to the applesauce. It was such a pretty color and made it absolutely scrummy. Well, she didn’t even taste it, but ignored the half dozen jars on the kitchen counter. So, I took it all home with me and ate it myself. It was delicious! Usually my gifts of food are appreciated and well accepted. I remember my dad saying, “No accounting for taste.” Oh well.

Back to the beans…I have listed here probably my most favorite bean recipe. It has meat in it, so it’s not for your vegetarian friends. I usually make a huge batch, so I have some for me. Frances Mayes in her book “Under the Tuscan Sun” has a wonderful bean recipe called Ribollita. It’s in the Winter Kitchen Notes chapter of the book (winter, not summer…). It’s actually what I make for my vegetarian friends as it can be made without meat or dairy. I have even served it to my vegan friends that are in need of a sturdy meal. Ms. Mayes adds Parmesan cheese at the end, but I have found that even a fine dusting of any cheese kind of congeals in the hot bean liquid which results in chewy blobs of goo. Not a fan of that. So, I don’t add any Parmesan at all. And like magic it becomes vegan.

Here is my “go to” bean recipe, and for some reason it has no name. So I will call it “Beans.” (Disclaimer: Cooking a pot of beans, made from scratch, can take 4 to 5 hours. So, plan accordingly. It will make the kitchen pretty warm, so that’s why I usually don’t make it during the warm months. I hope I have made it clear that I don’t make beans in the summer…just sayin’)

Beans

¾ pound of dried beans (*1/4 pound of 3 different kinds of beans is my usual—e.g. King City pinks (probably only found in CA), small white beans, black-eyed peas.)

¼ pound split peas (works as a thickener when it breaks down)

* I like black beans, but don’t usually mix them with others as all the lovely pink and white beans take on a grayish color. And even a big dollop of sour cream can’t take away the gray.

 

  1. Wash all the beans, put them in a large stockpot and cover with lots of water. Once it starts to boil, put on the lid and turn off the heat. Let it sit closed up for a couple of hours.
  2. Dump off the water and fill with fresh water to cover the beans again. Add seasonings to your taste. I like salt, pepper, sage, oregano and lots of dill. If you are making non-vegetarian beans, add a couple ham hocks. If you are not adding seasoning meat, you will want to cover the beans with vegetable stock instead of plain water. I also put in a large washed carrot into the pot. (You may not believe it, but the carrot absorbs most of the farts from the beans. If you don’t believe me, make this recipe without the carrot. But I warned you…) Again, bring it to a boil and simmer until the beans are the way you like them. I prefer them a little al dente as they will continue to cook when the remaining ingredients are added.
  3. Ladle out the ham hocks and the carrot. Once the ham hocks have cooled you can pick off whatever meat is there and put it back in the bean mixture. But you must throw away the carrot. Don’t eat it! Add a large can of chopped tomatoes and chopped onion. For my family I would add a large chopped onion (Be careful with too many onions as it can somehow add back the gas the carrot has extracted.). But add whatever size onion you and your family can tolerate. I usually let that cook 45 minutes or so.
  4. Finally, chop up some kind of sausage into great hunks and add it to the pot. I usually use kielbasa. Now, it’s all over but the shouting and you just need to cook the sausage until it’s done.
  5. Serve it up in a bowl and drop in a spoonful of sour cream, if you are not on a diet and/or your cholesterol is OK. Maybe you don’t need a tutorial on how to enjoy this yummy CA comfort food, but eating it with a hunk of San Francisco Sourdough bread and glass or two of Zinfandel from Paso Robles will definitely enhance the experience. Enjoy! (Actually, beans are best the next day as all the flavors have had a chance to mingle.)

I didn’t plan to say so much about beans in this July 7, 2018 post, but my bean obsession doesn’t seem to have ended with Frances Mayes’s Ribollita and my bean soup recipe. I just finished reading the best book, called “The Little Paris Bookshop,” by Nina George. And in one chapter a small cup of bean soup called Pistou actually brings a character back to life after she jumps into a stormy river. (The recipe for Pistou and other foods mentioned in the book are conveniently at the back of the book.) So, now I am destined to try making Pistou and of course some of the other recipes Ms. George has so generously shared with her readers. Actually, these beans sound like they are a little more summer friendly as the beans listed in the recipe are canned, and are therefore already cooked. Her final recipe in the book is Lavender Ice Cream. Sounds like “cool” heaven to me!

With the mention of Lavender Ice Cream and the fact that it was 108 degrees at 1 PM yesterday and 102 today, it’s time to bring this into a summer place of food. Here is my mother’s artichoke and rice salad. Oh, and this one is good with some cold grilled chicken and my “go to” wine cooler.

Mom’s Artichoke and Rice Salad

2 cups of left over rice, cooled

2 chopped green onions (both the green and white parts)

½ sweet pepper (This is where you can add some color to the salad with red, orange, yellow, green or purple peppers. If you like big chunks of sweet pepper, cut them that way. If you just want a little crunch, mince away.)

10 or so sliced green olives (Here again you can add your favorite and if green olives are not your fav, leave them out or add just a couple. I love the green olives that are stuffed with chunks of garlic, and the more the merrier for me.)

2 six-ounce jars of marinated artichoke hearts (drained and chopped, but save 1/3 cup of the liquid)

1/3 cup of mayonnaise

½ tsp curry

  1. Mix rice, onions, sweet peppers, olives and marinated artichoke hearts.
  2. Mix the mayonnaise, 1/3 cup artichoke liquid and curry together. Then mix the liquid mixture with everything else.
  3. I like it room temperature, but don’t leave it out too long. (I’m always a little nervous about foods with mayo that are not refrigerated.)

“Wine Street Inn” Wine Cooler

There used to be a fondue place in San Luis Obispo. I worked as a hostess, waitress and cocktail waitress there. They had a great recipe for a wine cooler, which I got from one of the bartenders I dated.

  1. Fill a glass almost to the top with ice.
  2. Pour in a favorite wine to about an inch and half from the top of the glass. Do not use really cheap wine. (Gives me a headache just thinking about it.) I would probably not use a really expensive kind either. Besides I don’t think a heavy red, like cabernet, would work very well. Again, I often use moderately priced Old Vine Zinfandel’s for this yummy summer drink. (I also seem to often have a bottle of Zin in my cupboard anyway.)
  3. Pour in a generous splash of carbonated lemon-lime drink to the wine.
  4. Cut a fresh lime into eighths and squeeze the juice from one of those wedges into the drink. Stir with an ice tea spoon.

Keep cool! Bon Appetit!

June 30, 2018

Eliza1
Costumes for Eliza Doolittle, Pygmalion, Summer 1984 (ink/marker on sketch paper, fabric sample for Eliza, Act IV)
Pygmalion2
Costumes for Pygmalion, Summer 1984 (ink/marker on sketch paper, fabric sample for Mrs. Higgins)

In last week’s post I wrote about Occidental’s summer drama program, where they presented plays in Oxy’s Greek Bowl for more than 50 years. I wrote about working in the costume shop the summer of 1984 and my role in the design and fabrication of costumes for the characters in Pygmalion. That story got me thinking about some sketches I had done. So, I dug through my myriad of portfolios and found some art. I designed and made the ivory-colored ball gown you see here for Eliza (Act IV). I enjoyed making this dress so much that I even lined it with some left over soft peach-colored silk that I had dyed. (It was left over from another project.) The actress who played the part looked stunning in the dress, along with the rented full-length white gloves and sparkling necklace and tiara (made by the Oxy props department). As it turns out I did not make the “men’s suit” inspired dress to the right for her. Well, actually I did make it, but in a bright red-orange fabric that all but glowed in the dark. In fact, it was just too bright and upstaged everything every time she walked out on stage. Oh well. Thank goodness there was a perfectly lovely Victorian period dress that had already been made for the actress playing Eliza (from a previous play—I think it was from “The Importance of Being Earnest”) and we used it instead. The other set of sketches show what I had envisioned for Henry Higgins, Colonel Pickering and Henry’s mother. We didn’t make any men’s costumes, as there were so many Victorian period suits we could rent from various costume rental businesses in town. I remember we rented a mid-length black overcoat for Colonel Pickering. And we found a women’s cape made of fur in Oxy’s women’s costume room that I put around the neck and shoulders of that actor. It looked really cool on stage, like a great fur coat a man with great wealth would have worn to the theater in Victorian London in winter. (Of course it was LA in July, so the actor who played Colonel Pickering must have sweltered in his suit and tie, overcoat and fur mantle.) I don’t remember what I made for Henry Higgins’s mother. I know I wanted the cool dress I sketched here, but I think since she wasn’t really a principle character I found something else suitable for her to wear. And if I remember correctly, there just wasn’t enough time to make one more costume from scratch. It was so much fun to research, plan and execute all of the costumes for that play. As I said in last week’s blog, the summer of 1984 was pretty great for me!

Last time I also mentioned that I had taken a costuming class at UCLA extension before that summer. (For a brief time I considered “costuming” as a career. And such a notion started with this class.) A very bubbly blonde taught it and her name was Deirdre Naughton. When I first signed up for the class I didn’t really know anything about “costuming” and I didn’t know who Dierdre was, but I had heard of the TV show “Square Pegs.” (She was the head costumer for that 1982-1983 show.) Just as an aside—a costumer is generally the person who manages/organizes/cleans costumes worn by actors. And generally speaking a costume designer determines what will be worn. Either way, to work on costumes in movies and TV you need to belong to a union, or guild.

Deirdre invited Robert Turturice, a costume designer, to speak at one of our classes. He had so many interesting stories to tell, including his early work at Western Costuming where his job there was to dye shoes. That’s right, all he did was spray men’s and women’s shoes different colors. I don’t remember his exact words on the subject, but I wish I did. They were the kind of words a person should live by. I remember he said that you never knew whom you were “spraying” shoes for—it could have been for a major star or someone who had only one or two scenes in a movie. He admitted that it was pretty monotonous—white to brown, black to lavender, red to metallic gold, two-toned spectators etc. But he said he always did the best job he could for each pair because he never knew who was going to wear those shoes and he wanted that person to be outstanding and shine as they walked on set. I’ve reflected often on this story and truly believe he meant it as a metaphor for life—to do every job you are given the best you can. Of course he followed that one up with stories of his later design work in Las Vegas where he created leather dominatrix costumes for various showgirls. I guess he even wanted those dressed in head to toe leather to shine just like a beautiful pair of shoes. Thinking about the way he told those two stories, one after another, still makes me grin a little. There are of course other words to live by that might be something more like “don’t take yourself too seriously…”

And then Mr. Turturice got to his more current work, where he described doing costumes for the 1983 TV movie, “Blood Feud” (story of Bobby Kennedy trying to take down Jimmy Hoffa). That was so interesting as he described how the lawmakers/politician’s wore rumpled and ill-fitting shirts and suits. Whereas, the teamsters (lead by Jimmy Hoffa) were impeccably dressed with expensive suits, tie pins and cufflinks. He talked of setting up a kind of warehouse of suits, ties and shoes of different sizes and shapes for the various actors to try on before they made the movie at 20th Century Fox. He talked about using tea to dye the dress shirts to be a bit off white as a pristine white shirt was just too bright and would appear to almost vibrate when on camera. He also talked about something called Picrin, an all-purpose dry stain remover. Both he and Deirdre discussed this miracle product as well as going to “all night” dry cleaners in town. (I guess the armpit area of shirts and suit jackets can get pretty stained and stinky. It was explained clearly to us that it was the costumer’s job to get armloads of clothing cleaned before the next day’s “shoot.”) After Mr. Turturice finished describing what he did for “Blood Feud” he talked about working with Cybill Shepherd. Over the years he had become her “go to” designer and was about to start working on costumes for her in a new show (at the time) called “Moonlighting.” He didn’t have anything to do with Bruce Willis’s suits, but Robert Turturice designed every piece of clothing worn by Ms. Shepherd from March 1985 to May 1989. (In 1987 he won an Emmy for Outstanding Achievement in Costuming for a Series for Moonlighting. And when I got married that summer, I tried to make my hair look like her character on the show. It looked great for about 15 minutes…maybe that was my 15 minutes of fame…)

But the final costuming story this one California girl wants to tell is about Ms. Naughton. She was wonderful and so generous with her ideas and suggestions. She talked endlessly about her job, even how she and Mr. Turturice had both participated in the Emmy Awards voting for people in the costume design and costumer categories. Deirdre also talked about how to break into the business, including how to get into the costumer’s union. In fact, on the second to last class she asked a couple of us if we wanted to do some last minute “in the trenches” costuming for a movie that was on it’s third unit. Of course I said, “Yeah!” And I threw myself into that project “with both feet and my hat off.” (That means with my usual gusto.) It was fun, but when the summer of 1984 ended I decided that I wasn’t really interested in pursuing “costuming” as a career. It seemed to me there was so much uncertainty about when, or if, you would have regular work, even if the work were a blast. But very late one night in early fall; I got a call from Dierdre. She wanted to be sure I had really considered becoming a costumer or costume designer. She was very encouraging and thought I would be really good at it. I appreciated the call and the words of encouragement, but didn’t have the heart to tell her I didn’t think it really was for me. It was so very thoughtful of her to make the effort.

Sadly, both Dierdre Naughton and Robert Turturice each have passed away. I found that out as I looked on the Internet for additional information to round out this post. It was fun to be prompted to recall and learn of her costuming credits, pre- and post summer 1984. For example, her costuming career started with “All in the Family.” And after she finished “Square Pegs” in 1983 she did costumes for a couple TV shows—“Head of the Class” and “A Different World.” It was clear that both Dierdre and Robert were each very creative and had a great passion for what they did—passing much of that enthusiasm along to me. I only met Mr. Turturice the one time and did not keep in touch with Deirdre after her late night call in late 1984. But I always liked the idea that such creative people were out there in the world doing cool things and pursuing a life in the “arts.” It’s hard to make a consistent living doing that. Maybe California still has wonderful and creative things that can be done under the sun for those of us who are square pegs that don’t fit into round holes or are the ultimate master at spraying shoes different colors. I know that if you are reading this, and have the soul of an artist like me, you know exactly what I am talking about and why we do it. Right?

Happy Birthday Deirdre Naughton, July 13, 1951

And Happy Birthday to my brother Brian, June 29

June 22, 2018

1Greek Bowl, Oxy art
Greek Bowl, Occidental College, June 13, 2018 (plein air, mixed media on watercolor paper)
2Greek Bowl
Greek Bowl, Occidental College, June 19, 2018 (watercolor, pen and ink on watercolor paper)

I went to Occidental College in Eagle Rock the other morning. At the top of the campus is the Greek Bowl. I climbed the concrete steps to the very back of this outdoor stage and sat pretty far to the right. Is that stage left? Or do those stage directions apply if you are not actually on the stage? While sitting there I painted the first piece you see. But when I finished it, I realized it was too close up and the viewer might not get the sense of the details and scope of this type of theater. I wasn’t sure if the three vertical ivy “wings” on either side of the rectangular lawn looked like anything other than just more greenery. I also wondered if I “scrubbed” some of the “plant” sections too much…and it was “overworked.” So when I got home I did the second one, from a photo I had taken. I like that it includes more details like the stairs and the round patch of lawn—not really sure why that’s there. Maybe it had originally been some kind of pond or fountain that was later filled in with dirt and grass seed. I understand that in ancient Rome they used to fill the Coliseum with water and have “mock” sea battles. Maybe Oxy students in ancient times had tiny “mock” sea battles there.

Starting in 1960 Occidental College began presenting plays (summer drama festival) in the Greek Bowl—adding a proper stage over the circular lawn and steps on either side for the run of the festival. Omar Paxson, an Oxy theater arts professor, started the festival and he ran it for some 26 years. And it was only a couple years ago Occidental stopped the program. (I remember hearing a local story about its last summer, but don’t remember when that was. But I can safely say that the summer drama festival ran for over 50 years.) Each summer they produced 5 plays, which included a Shakespeare, a Shaw, a Gilbert and Sullivan, and two other dramas. In the summer of 1984, I helped with costumes for that season. Earlier in the year I had taken a “costuming” class at UCLA extension and was looking to design and make costumes for plays, movies or TV. That summer they produced “Midsummer’s Night Dream,” “Iolanthe,” “Pygmalion,” “Our Town” and “Guys and Dolls.” I was in charge of costumes for Pygmalion, but helped make costumes for all the other plays as well. Most of the performers were theater arts students and they each had parts in all 5 plays. But the program had a unique learning/teaching component as each student was also assigned “behind the scenes” jobs besides their “on stage” roles. Some were assigned to be directors or stage managers. And some were assigned to help with lighting, sound, props or help us with various jobs in the costume room. The theater department was down the hill from the Greek Bowl, in Thorne Hall. Once rehearsals (in Thorne Hall) had begun for “Guys and Dolls,” the students and crew (like me) loaded everything we would need for the five different plays in a large truck and drove it up the hill to the Bowl. Once we got the sewing machines, sergers and worktables into the Treehouse, a small narrow building just below the bowl, we went to work. I immediately set up meetings for discussions with the director, scheduled measurement sessions for the actors and did sketches for costumes for Pygmalion. Our day-to-day crew, like me, and the student helpers worked really hard and got a lot done. The head costume designer for the summer program said we were all going to start looking like Quasimodo because we spent so many hours hunched over a sewing machine, or leaning over tables to cut out fabric. It was pretty warm in Eagle Rock that summer and it was pretty warm in the costume room we lovingly called the “sweatshop.” I had a blast! It was wonderful!

As the head designer for Pygmalion I designed quite a few costumes for women, especially for Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins’s mother. I also helped make countless long white and aqua tulle ballerina skirts for the many fairies of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe. We went to local fabric shops in downtown LA to get a lot of the fabric we needed for such costumes. However, we didn’t fabricate all the costumes. We didn’t make men’s clothing, like suits or shirts for Henry Higgins or Colonel Pickering. Most of what was used for them was rented. As you might imagine, there are a number costume rental businesses here in LA. One of the big rental companies at the time was Western Costume Co. We got a few things from there, but most men’s clothing I got for Pygmalion (hats, ties, suits, overcoats etc) was from a costume shop in Glendale, called The Costume Shop. If you have never been to a theatrical costume shop it can be overwhelming. Just imagine a huge warehouse with floor to ceiling racks and racks of clothing and accessories. Huge places like this are divided up into sections such as western wear, Victorian, vintage 60s or 70s, circus clowns, suits for aliens, costumes for children and so on and so on. You can almost get lost in a place like that. But we found suitable suits and hats for the men in Pygmalion as well as Guys and Dolls.

Not only did we make costumes on the spot and rent them nearby, but we also used costumes from the huge store of costumes in the theater arts department at Thorne Hall. OK, probably the best part of this story, at least for me, is the women and men’s costume rooms that were connected to Thorne Hall at the time. First, to get to the women’s costume room you first entered the theater arts office, through another door and then ducked down a bit to enter a cavernous windowless room that was filled floor to ceiling with women’s costumes and accessories. It was not as large as The Costume Shop or Western Costuming, but it was big and also divided into sections much like the costume businesses in the area. Oh, and this room had only the women’s clothing. To get to the men’s costumes, it was a bit more harrowing. On the far side of this room was a ladder that went up about 15 or 20 feet. First you climbed up the ladder, and then crawled on a horizontal ladder that went lengthwise across the very tiptop of the Thorne Hall stage. Oh, and it was pitch black up there and you made this journey by feeling your way along the ladder. (Would have been great to have a miner’s headlamp.) Then when you got to the other side you climbed down (again in complete darkness). Finally, you went through a door into the men’s costume room. Fortunately there was a light in that room, so at least you weren’t looking for men’s coats, hats, shirts and shoes in the dark. And as you might imagine, eventually you would found what you were looking for and had to repeat the dark journey back to the women’s room—only this time you usually had only one hand to hold on as you were carrying whatever you had found in the other one. A number of times I could hear the actors rehearsing on the stage below me. I thought of making some ghost-like sounds to help me with the eerie feeling I had up there. But, you know that heat rises, right? And it was stifling up there and it was all I could do to talk to myself in my head and get to the light of the women’s costume room on the other side. Quite a story, right? When I was on the Occidental College campus the other day I looked for that outside door to the theater arts office that would have lead to the women’s costume room, but couldn’t find it. Looks like all of those buildings have since been remodeled. Actually, I can’t imagine it is still set up like that. But who knows!

In the summer of 1984 I was living in Long Beach and I drove to Occidental College each afternoon. It was also the summer of the Olympics, which was held in LA. Needless to say, it was pretty crazy all over town. Most evenings we worked in the costume shop until 2 or 3 in the morning and then I would drive on the “empty” LA freeways home. I would get up late the next morning and be back at Oxy by 2 or 3 in the afternoon. (The freeways were pretty jammed at that time of the day—quite a departure from my early morning drives.) Many of the actors in Occidental’s summer plays performed at the opening ceremony at the LA Memorial Coliseum the evening of July 28th. I can’t remember where we all sat and watched that on TV, as there sure wasn’t a television in the costume room, and there wasn’t any spare surface for anything. But we did watch it, hoping we would see some of the people who were performing that summer. Pretty cool.

So, that’s how it was that summer—hot, fast and furious. But maybe there is one more 1984 “costume” story left to tell. The wrestling events for the summer Olympics were held in Long Beach. My aunt was a volunteer for the venue. She got a really cute and colorful uniform to wear. So, that Halloween I went to a cool party in Laguna with a friend. She went as a cheerleader and I borrowed my aunt’s outfit and covered the business end of a toilet plunger with foil and went as an Olympic torchbearer. There I was, again surrounded by people in costumes. But this was a very different group of people and there was to be a very different evening of drama. Besides the usual vampires, witches and the lone wholesome Olympic torch bearer and her cheerleader friend there were quite a few men in drag, someone wearing a mask on the back of his head and huge fake genitalia attached to the back of the costume (it was his party) and a clown that had cut out a hole at the back of his costume, so his bare butt was showing. Oh, but we weren’t yet done. My cheerleader friend and I had had enough and were about to leave when one of the party goers, dressed as a nurse, turned on some music and started taking off her clothes. The guy who hosted the party (the fake genitalia guy) had hired a stripper. That was our cue to leave. And that means it is now my cue to end this LA story.

Oh, first day of summer was just yesterday. Hope you have a nice summer!

June 16, 2018

Paramount Ranch
Church at Paramount Ranch, June 9, 2018 (watercolor and Inktense pencil on watercolor paper)

I belong to a “Meet Up” sketching group. Last Sunday we went to Paramount Ranch to sketch/paint. I’d never even heard of the place, let alone been there. So, here is what I discovered while the wonders and mystery of my GPS showed me a map and the way to Paramount Ranch. It’s in the Santa Monica Mountains, between the hills of Agoura and Point Dume, Malibu. It’s a lovely, hilly area with lots of huge coast live oaks. There wasn’t much traffic on the 101 that morning so I was in good spirits when I arrived. And once I saw the countless oak trees at the visitor center, a particular favorite of mine, I was certain being there for a couple hours would be fabulous. While a waited for some of my painting buddies to show up I ate some yoghurt. Behind me there were a couple fire fighters washing a fire truck. (Always glad to see fire fighters out in such a place, as this area will be very dry and hot in a few weeks.) I wasn’t exactly sure what I was in for, but pretty soon a guy with a huge horse trailer pulled up. He jumped out of the truck and systematically began to unload 8 horses from the trailer, tying each one off at the side. I was starting to get the picture that Paramount Ranch and these horses were somehow going to be joined at some point.

A Background Paragraph on Paramount Ranch

This seems an opportune moment to provide a little background. (I looked all this up on the Internet when I got home later that day.) In 1927, Paramount Pictures bought the land and built some western town movie sets. Paramount used the sets for westerns they made for about 25 years. Then in 1953, they sold the property to a new owner and it became an independent movie ranch. At that time the new owners expanded the size of the Western Town set so the many production companies that were making westerns for television in the 1950s could use it. In the 80’s, the National Parks Service bought most of the land (including the Western Town) and now they rent it out to various production companies who are in need of a ready-made western set. Such production companies are allowed to make alterations to the buildings, but the western town theme is to stay in tact. Based on the photos I saw on the Internet it looks like Western Town can also be rented out for weddings too.

So, once I had finished my snack and my friends had arrived we started into Western Town. On our way in a friend noticed that what appeared to be wooden siding on an old building was actually a sheet of metal siding that had been fabricated and painted to look like a wall of huge wooden beams. But as we both realized, nothing would be as it seemed in this fake western town and I’m sure no one would notice such a fake wall when watching a TV western that might include that building. As we turned the corner I saw quite a few artist posses on each street corner. They had already set up their supplies and were already painting. None of these artists were wearing cowboy hats or western boots, but rather had on sensible sun hats and shorts. It was such a great juxtaposition of yesterday compared with today, real versus fake. And almost as if on cue, the real came along side the unreal when a huge group of people on 21st century bicycles zoomed past us—past the general store, with Dry Goods, Groceries and Clothing, the Hotel Mud Bug and the Great Bend Jail and Sheriff’s office. It was about that time I figured out that the guy with the horses had a plan. And it was about this time that I realized once again the craziness of the California dream, with entrepreneur opportunities galore. It was great!

I wandered around the town a bit and found a great shady spot under a huge coast live oak tree. (Last week’s blog was all about California’s oak woodland and the history behind those magnificent and important trees.) For this adventure I was delighted to find a nice spot, in the shade, under such an oak. It must have been at least 300 years old. I wondered who else might have sat under that tree to cool off. Episodes of the TV show Gunsmoke were filmed here. Maybe the marshal or a bad guy sat under the tree with his or her horse tied off nearby. To my right was a wooden wagon that looked to be at least 100 years old (probably another fake) and directly in front of me was the old church you see here. Of course it’s part of this western town and a fake as well. It was only recently added to the property and used for the HBO show Westworld. If you look it up you can see how it was a white church with a pretty tall steeple and faux graveyard to the right. It was pretty nice to peacefully sit there and imagine days gone by with wagons and horses. But of course the 21st century was clearly still here as directly behind me a group of Eagle Scouts was engaged in some kind of project. Near as I could tell, they were shoveling large amounts of leaves and dried acorns into wheelbarrows. Then they looked for places to distribute all these trimmings to other places on the property. Of course one of the spots they chose to dump the yard waste was only a couple yards away from me. These 13 and 14-year old boys seemed to be having only a minimal amount of fun, kind of complaining about the work they were doing and talking. Most of the conversation I heard was about school and that the grade F for sure meant Fail, but that you could earn an E if you were Emotional. Pretty funny and emotional if you ask me.

We had a throw down on one of the streets in Western Town after a bit. A throw down is when we gather together and place our sketchpads side by side and we talk about our art. For this one, we lined up our art on the wooden sidewalk up against a fake old building. And as I had guessed, the horse entrepreneur had rented horses for people to ride around Western Town as some of the artists had captured just that. Most artists had painted the various buildings, with and without horses. Others had painted the same church, but of course their interpretation of the old looking building was completely different from mine. It was all really great to see. We talked quite a bit about who we were, the art and materials we used. I am always amazed with the people who come to these events—animators, architects, graphic artists and then just regular folks like me.

After we finished the plan was to eat lunch under some trees. I had planned to do that and had my customary peanut butter and jelly sandwich prepared. But I knew the traffic on 101 would just be getting worse as the afternoon went on. Reality was creeping into the wonderful unreality of the morning. So, I ate my peanut butter sandwich and pretzels in the car on the ride home. And yah, the traffic was awful. But I have this little piece of art I can look at to remind me of the old days—the old days of today and long ago. It is a bit confusing at times, but that’s LA for you! Gotta love it!

June 9, 2018

River Road Oak
River Road Oak Tree, San Miguel, CA spring 2001 (watercolor and colored pencil on cold press illustration board)

This is actually a photocopy of a piece of art I had framed and gave to a friend. She was born in Paso Robles (very near San Miguel) and I think she probably loves oak trees as much as I do. But there is more to this piece of art than meets the eye as the amazing wall of clouds I painted here was not the actual backdrop of the hill with oak trees on that particular day. Here’s what I actually mean. I took the photo of the golden-looking oak trees on River Road in early spring 2001, but I photographed those clouds the previous fall (on that same stretch of River Road), after a wonderful bit of rain. As is the prerogative of a painter, I can do that. I can mix and match what I want. I can add or take away what pleases me. I remember thinking that the golden spring oak leaves I had set against the perfect sky of white clouds and pristine clean blue sky would look amazing. I think I also remember wondering about the color of the spring leaves on those trees as they were not green, but rather a golden color. So, I cannot be sure what kind of oak this is, but I am fairly certain it is not a live oak—a common evergreen oak tree we have here. But whatever kind of oaks I saw that day (and later painted), those sparkling golden leaves look pretty spectacular here.

I have always been enchanted by the oak trees (in oak woodlands) we have here in California. They have such a nice sturdy shape, they produce these cool-looking edible acorns (if you rinse and rinse out the natural bitter taste from the acorn flour), they are often very slow growing and tend to live a long time. For example, a coast live oak can live to be more than 250 years old. And since they live so long, you just get used to having them around. For me they are somehow a constant in an ever changing California world. I have written about the many changes we’ve seen since the missions were built in the 18th and 19th centuries. San Miguel has a mission that was founded in 1797, but burned down in 1806. It was rebuilt and complete in 1821. I like to imagine there were mature oak trees near the mission at that time. Maybe they are not the same ones you might see today, but I am sure they were welcome shade for the people who rebuilt that mission. When I was young I fondly remember seeing far away rolling golden hillsides of oaks from my Paso Robles friend’s kitchen window. Of course lots of houses have filled the spaces between the trees since the early 2000s. And neighboring hillsides of Paso oaks are now also filled with vineyards. I believe mature oak trees are considered an asset to a homeowner who is lucky enough to have one on the property. And I know I have heard that a house will sell for more money if there are such trees on the land.

I wrote about working at Addison Wesley Publishing Co, in Menlo Park (right next to Palo Alto) last time and that the building on Sand Hill Road was part of what is known as “Stanford land.” Not sure what actually means, but I think people who have businesses there don’t get to really own the land…somehow. Anyway, in the courtyard outside the two story office where I worked was a huge oak tree that towered over the top of that building. (I remember a couple of the guys who worked in the design department liked to sit under the tree and smoke cigars. Hmmm…) Next to us was a second Addison Wesley two-story building and towering oak on the property as well. Those trees were at least 200 years old and probably more like 250 years old. I worked there from about 1991 to 1994. That meant the trees may have been saplings in the 1750s, right? And that was way before Leland Stanford built Stanford (1891) and there was no such notion of “Stanford land.” Native Americans were definitely living near there when those trees were young. (A Native American man who worked with us in the editorial department said that Native American artifacts had been found when they put in the linear accelerator (SLAC—Stanford Linear Collider) and Stanford Shopping Center right next door to Addison Wesley. Pretty cool, huh?

Of course if you really want to get a sense of old trees here in CA, I have to mention the CA redwood. A typical lifespan of a CA redwood is 500 to 700 years, with some living to be 2000 years old. They don’t produce anything that we can eat, like an acorn, but you have to marvel at the changes that have occurred since some of those old trees were seedlings. If they could only talk and tell us what it was like…

Speaking of edible acorns

In the fall of 1993 I went on a hike with other like-minded tree huggers on trails through amazing groves of redwoods and oaks at Castle Rock State Park. Castle Rock State Park is on the crest of the Santa Cruz Mountains and is not only a great place for hiking, but also a great place to go rock climbing. Anyway, the person who took us on the hike talked quite a bit about the oak trees on the trails. She described at great length about the tanoak and the tanoak acorn. It seems that the tanoak isn’t really a true oak at all, but a kind of cross between an oak and a chestnut tree. Native American groups in the coastal ranges of California relied on the tanoak acorns for food. And it seems a single tanoak can produce 200 pounds of acorn per year and it has been estimated that CA tribes would harvest 500 to 2000 pounds of acorns per family per year. Yikes, that’s just mind blowing to me.

An acorn has a very unique appearance. Each one has a little cap that fits snuggly to a small nut that is shaped like a football. As a kid I remember collecting acorns and acorn caps that were under oak trees. This happened during the time of year when the tree naturally dropped the nuts (seeds) in hopes that a new oak tree would sprout and grow into another oak. But also usually at this time the caps and nuts were not together anymore, and there would be hundreds of such acorns and caps spread around under each tree. I would painstakingly try to match the exact cap that went to the exact nut. And when I found one that was still together, I was in heaven. It always seemed like such a prize. I had learned in school that Native Americans ground up the nut part of the acorn into flour and then made bread. What a lot of work! I remembering my mom telling us kids that there were acorn grinding bowls carved into the huge granite boulders near the “swimmin’ hole” on their property in Mariposa. She said there were even smaller granite stones in the bowls that the local Native Americans had used to grind the acorns into flour. At some point I guess the grinding stones disappeared. If I ever saw the bowl impressions in the rock, I don’t remember. I was very little when my mother’s family sold that property.

As I said, I learned about how California Native Americans made bread flour from acorns, and I guess they had done just that (probably for generations) near my mom’s house in Mariposa. But I also remember thinking that after all the work of pulverizing hundreds and hundreds of acorns, you weren’t even close to being ready to make bread. I have never tasted acorn flour that had just been milled, but I understand it is really bitter and inedible. So, there is yet one more step of rinsing and rinsing (called leaching) the flour to rinse out the bitter taste. Then the acorn meal is dried and bread dough can be made and baked. So, there are a couple things I have always wondered about eating acorn meal. First, who thought such a hard nut could be ground up and eaten? (I read that they used to suck on them if they had a sore throat.) Second, who thought of rinsing and rinsing the flour to make it edible? (Probably why the Mariposa grinding bowls were so close to swimmin’ hole.) And third, how many years (generations) did it take to carve out a grinding bowl for acorns in granite? (Granite is one of the hardest rocks around, right?) And finally, didn’t that probably mean you were eating granite dust in your bread? I wonder if your teeth would grind down from years of chewing on granite dust. I wonder about these things…, don’t you?

June 2, 2018

Henry's sunflower
Stanford sunflowers, summer 1994 (acrylic on canvas, (18″ by 24″)

It’s early June, 1994. I am about 5 months pregnant with my one and only child and I am working as a book editor at Addison Wesley, Publishing Co in Menlo Park. I live in Santa Clara and commute to Addison Wesley every day. Each morning I squish myself, with my ever expanding belly, behind the wheel of the Acura and try to think of new ways to avoid the traffic and see something new on my way to work. Sometimes I take surface streets, like El Camino, where I go past Stanford University. Then I hang a left through a short parking lot attached to the Stanford Shopping Center and that brings me quickly to Sand Hill Road. (Addison Wesley used to be on Sand Hill Road.). One day I took a different left turn (before the Stanford Shopping Center) and drove around behind it past the back parking lots. As I sat at a light back there I looked to my right and noticed a mass planting of sunflowers on a corner of one of the parking lots. I was transfixed. And my life was forever changed by the enormous and beautiful display of every kind of sunflower imaginable. I wanted to pull over then and there, but I was about to be late to work and decided I would stop on my way home. And that’s what I did. It was a warm afternoon, but I stopped by that very parking lot that very afternoon and I inspected every inch of that sunflower wonder. There were rows of tall single head sunflowers, medium-sized single head sunflowers, and short squat sunflower bushes that were covered with flowers. Some flowers were dark yellow, some light yellow, some were the color of amber, some were a dark red and some were the color of crème. It was so densely packed with thick and thin green stems and leaves, and colorful flowers that no soil was visible. As I said, I was forever changed, as this would be the theme of the child I was waiting for, my sunflower baby. I drove past this vision every morning and every afternoon after that, noticing that the flower heads were in different positions as they followed the sun across the sky throughout the day. And I was acutely aware that the dark brown flower centers were getting larger and larger (much like my belly), while the flower petals were getting smaller and thinner. Because if you know anything about sunflowers, they don’t last very long in this beautiful “full flower” state as the whole point to the flower’s existence is to produce large seeds. Pretty soon the flower heads were starting to droop. But the people at the Stanford Shopping Center hadn’t noticed that a pregnant lady stopped by every day to appreciate, study and look at this vision and one day they were all gone. Just like that. All that was left was a large patch of dirt. (Maybe they had noticed the sweaty pregnant lady getting out and into the front seat of a blue Acura every weekday afternoon and it was just too much to watch anymore.)

I have done many paintings and drawings of sunflowers since first seeing them those fateful few weeks in Menlo Park, June 1994. In fact, I did a drawing of a couple sunflowers I’d seen there, adding a photo of my son’s “hours old” head popping out of a sunflower bud. Then I hand colored each one and sent them as birth announcements—my sunflower baby. I was just now remembering that was born at the Stanford Children’s Hospital just around the corner from there—pretty funny and somehow part of my cosmic sunflower obsession and journey. I was extremely obnoxious with that sunflower theme for many months after my son was born. In fact his first birthday had a sunflower theme, complete with a sunflower cake and yellow balloons on tall green ribbons everywhere.

What you see here is an example of just one of my sunflower paintings/sketches. I think this one has a kind of cosmic look, if you notice the background. When I rehung it in my house the other day (I am constantly moving my art from room to room, wall to wall.) I noticed another single sunflower on the back. I had forgotten I had painted that one first. But when it was done I decided I didn’t like it that much and re stretched the sunflower canvas so I could paint on the other side, creating the single sunflower stem and flower you see here.

In my blog last week I droned on and on about seeing art at your leisure and not being bothered by people getting in your way when you want to view a special painting. And I actually made a remark that I wanted to see the Mona Lisa at the Louvre someday, but it’s pretty small (30 inches by 21 inches) and is probably hard to get a really good view of it without people being in the way. Well, my 24 inch by 18 inch sunflower painting (slightly smaller) could be easily viewed from far away without any trouble I think. That’s probably because the image is simple with great colors that provide such a contrast. If you really want to get the full cosmic sunflower affect of this one though, you would need to be up a little closer. But you know, I don’t really need to look at it anymore, because all I have to do is close my eyes and I can still picture that huge display of sunflowers in my mind. That picture will always be way better than any painting I could make. Besides I just planted a bunch of different kinds of sunflowers (Van Gogh, Garnet Star and Sundancer) in my front yard and I’m just waiting for them to bloom, kind of like I am waiting again for my baby to be born. So in a week or so I can look out my front window and get a real view to match with that memory. Gotta love that!

Gardens/plantings that should not be missed in Palo Alto and/or Woodside

The plantings at the Stanford Shopping Center are pretty special year round. There have been many times I have gone there just to see what had been planted. But going shopping there can be fun too, although it’s pretty expensive. When I was a girl my mom would take me to buy school clothes at the Stanford Shopping Center Emporium Department Store every fall. That was always a special treat. The Emporium has been gone a long time (like many of the department stores that were around when I was young), but the fountains and flowers are still going strong. I look forward to times in the future I can see what’s  blooming there again.

Another garden I love to go to in Palo Alto is in an old neighborhood there. It’s called the Gamble Garden and a great place to wander through, imaging a lovely glass of ice tea at the Stanford Shopping center when you are done. In fact, I copied part of that garden in the front yard of our house in Grass Valley. We had a couple lovely mature weeping cherry trees with a few roses and mostly lawn. The Gamble Garden also had several mature weeping cherry trees, but instead of turf, they had vinca as a ground cover surrounding the trees. All around that vision of pink cherry blossoms was a lavender-colored vinca carpet, with roses and boxwood. I didn’t put in the boxwood, but I did take out the lawn and added the vinca ground cover. And all around this lovely “Gamble Garden” inspired corner yard in Grass Valley I added countless roses. Oh, and I forgot to add that our garden had a huge 10 foot tall hedge of English Laurel, that mimicked the Gamble Garden’s charming woven fences (painted green) that lined the garden on the street. In spring, our house looked like a giant painted Easter egg! When we sold the house I told the new owner of the inspiration for the front yard garden—weeping cherry trees, vinca ground cover, green lined hedge/fencing and roses. One of the first things she did after they moved in was to take down the hedge and remove the vinca–adding back the lawn. I think she left the roses alone. Yikes and oh well! No accounting for taste. I haven’t been back to Grass Valley since the house sold and I don’t think I could stand to drive by to see the garden as it looks now. But I do have plans to go back to the Gamble Garden one of these days and paint those very trees, the ground cover and roses. That’s the memory of our house and the Gamble Garden I want to have.

Finally, there is a garden just a bit north of Palo Alto (Woodside) that shouldn’t be missed. It’s called Filoli. The house and gardens there have a connection to Grass Valley as the original owner of the Empire Mine in Grass Valley also owned Filoli. I am not mentioning any of this because of my Grass Valley garden angst, but rather to say that the gardens there are amazing and worth going to see. If you are old enough to have watched the TV show “Dynasty,” then you might remember the house they show in the credits. That’s it! That’s the very house on the Filoli estate. Not sure I care that much about the house, but my memory of those gardens is pretty special. As I have said in previous posts about California, it’s a pretty strange and yet amazing place.

 

May 26, 2018

spring pinks
Rose Garden at the Descanso Garden, April 29, 2018 (mixed media on Canson Mix Media paper)

I guess I can’t seem to get out of the rose garden at the Descanso, and I just give up that I will paint anywhere else when I’m there—at least not in the foreseeable future. That part of the garden was just so full of such tantalizing spring colors and all. My mind was so full of ideas of how to capture those amazing pink spring blossoms and the new growth on the roses. Whatever! I give up! (If you haven’t read my blog before, I am lamenting the fact that every time I go to the Descanso Garden I always head for the rose garden to paint.) Oh well. So, before I begin to describe my color choices for this piece I should mention that I was trying out a new watercolor paper. (Actually it’s not watercolor paper at all, but rather a paper for mixed media.) It was ok, but I think I prefer that watercolor paper have more texture than this. It was pretty flat, with no little knobs or dents to obstruct the flow of the paint. In my opinion washes are more interesting when the paper has a subtle texture especially when rendering the sky—with clouds or a cloudless blue.

But my real intent was to use all of the red and pink colors in my watercolor cakes and tubes, as well as my watercolor pencils to render all of the flower petals and shiny new leaves in the rose garden that day. So, listed here are those colors and a few notes I made for each one I used:

Watercolors:

  • Chinese White

Small amounts of: Scarlet Lake, Cadmium Barium (red, medium), Cadmium red (light), mixed with sap green with some of these reds to make the trunks/branches of some trees

  • Alizarin Crimson (tube and cake): Blossoms mostly, but touched the sky as well
  • Opera

 

Watercolor pencils:

Inktense pencils: poppy red, fuschia

Staedtler watercolour pencils–#61, #23

I almost never use a color straight from the tube or in a cake; I just have to add a little something else to every pot of color I make. Not sure if any of you out there use colors just as they come, or if you are like me and just have to fiddle around to make the perfect color, or make the perfect allusion of a color. I thought it worth some thoughts and words about the making of a color like pink, as I think it can go so wrong very quickly. I am such a nut about my blues and greens, so of course I must obsess about pink as well. There are a couple ways I get “Descanso Garden pink.” I usually start with a diluted and pale red color so I can layer more pigment later if I want. I also like to leave white space around the pink as I think it brightens the color as though it’s a highlight. I also like to suggest intensity with spots of scribbled bright watercolor pencil. Sometimes I leave it raw and sometimes I soften and swirl it around with a dab of water. I did that on the blossoms of the two trees to the right and the new growth of the rose in the foreground.* I don’t often add white to my watercolors, let alone to any of my “go to” reds (pretty mad about alizarin crimson in watercolor and oil paints as well) to make pink. Not really sure why I hold back the white pigment (gouache in this case). I am willing to mix huge amounts of white to my oil paints, no problem. Somehow I am OK with that because they are all still oils, where watercolors (transparent) and gouache (opaque) are different. It always feels like I’m cheating or trying to cover up a mistake when I add white. I feel like I should be able to use the white color of the paper underneath or beside the pigment to lighten the load of such a color, not cover it up. For this piece I did mix some Chinese white with my diluted red to make the blossoms in the shrub in the middle. And I like it. I have one exception to my seemingly crazy rules of mixing paint and pink and that is the color “Opera.” I do use that one straight from the tube. I didn’t use it in all its glory here, but I did spread it around quite liberally when I painted a friend’s bougainvillea summer before last.

* I don’t usually identify plants in my work as the two trees on the right or the shrub in the middle. I usually get up and look at the printed name stakes staked under each plant I am drawing. I mean, that’s what I love about places like the Descanso Garden or Huntington Botanical Garden, they have markers with names under all roses, trees and shrubs. Don’t know why I didn’t go and look on that day. I will definitely do that the next time I’m there.

People don’t often stop by when I am working, and I am actually kind of glad to not be distracted. But on that day a man and woman walked slowly past as I had just finished my large watercolor primary and secondary washes and blobs of watercolor foliage on the paper. I was thinking of taking a break to eat half of my peanut butter sandwich. They were about 8 feet away and didn’t really stop, but slowed their pace a bit to comment on what I was painting. Both said they thought it nice, but the man went further and said I should consider stopping as it was done. Of course I was thinking, “What did he mean by that?” I had so many more plans to add color and detail with my watercolor pencils. But I waited till they were way out of range, stopped, and stood back about 8 feet to see if he was right. I usually do this at various times of each watercolor. At that distance I take off my glasses, imagining I am someone else, looking at my art through different eyes. It is always at about this time that I make a mental note of what areas seem to be working best and which need a bit more attention. And I have to say that even though I later added a bit more linear color and detail with my pencils, it really looks pretty much the same as before.

I have already mused and written about when an artist knows he or she is done with a piece of art. And I still have no idea how to tell when I am done. I just make myself stop. That sometimes coincides with running out of painting water and my starting to use my drinking water. On that day I had run out of painting water, decided I was done and began packing up. As I did so the on looker’s comments got thinking about how far away one must stand to really get the total impact of a painting? Of course I initially thought it shouldn’t really matter and should be up to the viewer. This is a free country, don’t I get to stand as close or as far away as I would like? (Assuming I haven’t gotten too close and a museum guard has come to escort me away…) So, I wondered about other painters and what they might consider the optimum distance one should stand when looking at one of their finished works. I mean, if you get too close to a Van Gogh, all you see is brush strokes. And while that is pretty wonderful to look at, I would imagine he wanted you back a few feet to get the full affect of one color next to another, so your brain can magically mix them together in your mind. And Monet’s water lilies take up whole walls and getting too close to one of those pieces just doesn’t have the impact of standing way back. And I am certain that more contemporary artists, like Jackson Pollack, really wanted you to stand a good distance away to get the full affect of his large abstract canvases. Maybe when a painter decides to do a large piece, they are kind of daring you to get too close, knowing full well you will be compelled as if by some great force to take several paces back. This can sometimes be a very frustrating and selfish trick the great artists play on us. For example, last winter (2016-2017) the Norton Simon had Van Gogh’s “Bedroom” on Loan from the Art Institute of Chicago. That happens to be a real favorite of mine and I went to see it on a Friday evening during that time. There were so many people trying to get a good view of it, that I never got a real good look at it. I wanted to look close at the brush strokes and then step back until I was at the optimum distance I am sure Van Gogh wanted me to stand. But inevitably someone would see this space I had created and walk right into it. I tried to pretend that it didn’t matter, look through them and hope that he or she would soon be gone. But of course someone else joined that person, and so on and so on, until I finally walked away. I tried several times to go back and look at it again, but it was always the same thing. How do you look past someone with a stroller, or two friends with two strollers? So unfair and frustrating!

I hope to someday see Leonardo’s “Mona Lisa” in the Louvre. But I think he has played the ultimate trick an artist can play on all of us because that one is so small. (I just looked it up and it’s 2′ 6″ x 1′ 9.”) It’s also behind bulletproof glass (can’t blame Leonardo for that), which probably means there is some kind of glare when looking at it from some angles. To really see that one you would probably need to start out pretty close and then move a bit to each side to get the perfect view of her smile. And what are the chances that anyone will get out of your way so you can actually do that? (Such a whiner, I know.) I decided that’s when it’s probably good to be rich and famous, so you can pay to have everyone moved out of the way to get a good look. Not that any of my little watercolors could compare with the Mona Lisa, but I like to create art that would get your attention from across the room. And I don’t want the viewer to be gypped with just one perfect viewing distance to get the true affect of one of my little landscapes. I try to have a little something for everyone in my little works at every angle, just like this one. So I add small details of lines and scribbles of color that you can’t actually see unless you get closer. So, if any of my art is ever hanging in the Norton Simon or at the Louvre you will be able to enjoy it from many different angles. Of course if it happens to be under bulletproof glass or there are just too many people with strollers, you are on your own!

May 19, 2018

wasp1
1. Wasp details, summer 1991 (ink on acetate)
wasp2
2. Wasp genitalia, summer 1991 (ink on tracing paper)

You are probably wondering what you are looking at exactly. Well, these are close up parts of solitary wasps from Papua, New Guinea. This is one of those times where the story behind the art is probably way more interesting and complete than the sketches you see here. In the summer of 1991 I worked at the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park and I did illustrations for a couple botanists and one entomologist who worked there. It’s kind of crazy as I have plenty of copies of finished plants and plant parts, but I could only find a few sketches of wasps. Not really sure why I have such scant bits of these ferocious bugs to remind me of that work, but I have some great stories about the people I met on the entomology floor of the Cal Academy.

So, now it’s time for the story about drawing wasp genitalia and I need to start with some kind of disclaimer or explanation. The entomologist I worked for at the Academy, and all of the people I got to know on both the entomology and botany floors, was amazing. My entomologist was so passionate about his studies of these solitary wasps from a far-away place. When I told my friends, and husband at the time, what I was doing there I was always met with a bit of a smirk or snort. Of course I don’t remember my husband at the time smiling about someone drawing wasp genitalia. He seemed to be more concerned with my possible deteriorating vision as a result of my looking back and forth at microscopic bug parts under a microscope (sometimes using an electron microscope) and then refocusing my eyes to look at a sheet of acetate where I inked in the lines of the wasp. He told me I should be getting more than 10 dollars an hour if I was going to go blind. Somehow, I just didn’t mind.

I thought all of it was so interesting. I loved the whole process I had to go through to complete just one final illustration. If this is all too odd for words, you have probably stopped reading. But if not, here’s how it went for each wasp I illustrated. First, the entomologist would prepare the genitalia bit he wanted me draw and placed it in a shallow dish of liquid (probably water). Then he placed it under the lens of a special projector that projected the specimen onto the wall of a windowless room that was lit only by light from the projector. Once he adjusted the picture on the wall to the size he wanted, I taped a small piece of tracing paper on that very spot. Then I used a pretty hard-leaded pencil to trace the structure and hairs you see in the second illustration. And once the sketch was done I then went into a well-lit room by a window and rendered the structure with a very fine point mechanical pen (.25 and .30 mm, that continuously clogged) on a sheet of acetate. Next, to add further detail to some “hair-like” strands of the lines I took a fine-pointed blade and scraped away some of the ink to make the lines go from thin to thick then back to thin again. “Lions and Tiger and Hairs, oh my!”

I guess the real question here is was it funny that I illustrated wasp genitalia, or was it funny that I enjoyed working really hard to make the best darn wasp genitalia I could? And I guess what’s really funny at this point in the story is that I assumed that each hairy little bug bit I illustrated was the actual wasp penis. But it isn’t! I never really asked him much about what I was drawing. And I only recently figured it all out when I looked it up online the other day—literally just the other day. Back then I knew that if you looked at the back end of these wasps, they looked different depending on the species. (I am guessing wasps didn’t need drawings to help them decide who was the male and who was the female.) But if you are a bug scientist, this is how you can tell one from another. I remember learning that you can look at wings or the head to also tell male from female. Look at the mandibles of that beast—at the very top of the bug hierarchy of predator bugs. Right? Are they afraid of you and you afraid of them? I’ve had them chase me…

From end to end I was fascinated with these wasps. But I was all wrong about their “back end” anatomy back then. It turns out that those hairy feather-like structures come in pairs and actually surround the penis on either side. So, I never did draw a wasp penis, just one side of the hairy outside covering. Who knew? I wonder why I didn’t wonder about it back then. Maybe the idea that this hairy feather like thing was a penis was kind of amusing to me. But I suspect the answer is even funnier than that. My entomologist had such passion for his work, but I was more interested in just making the best genitalia I could with no questions asked. I’m sure he would have explained it to me if I’d asked, but since I was on the clock it was all business the minute I walked into his office, with no time for explanations. Most of our conversations took place as I was starting a new specimen and when I came back from lunch. He frequently asked me then if I had had any caffeinated drinks, as he was concerned that my hand would be too shaky to draw. I guess the final part of this long winded disclaimer is that I never thought he was funny or ridiculous for studying such things. I got it. And he carried me along with his enthusiasm and I loved all the steps it took to get the final art of male wasp genitalia (penis coverings) from Papua New Guinea.

There were lots of reasons to snigger and smile that summer, I guess. Thinking back, probably the least funny bits were the actual wasp bits I was drawing, but I still smile when I think about some other characters I met on the entomology floor that summer. For example, one morning, as I walked down the hall behind one of the younger entomologists, he suddenly whipped around and presented me with a tiny box. It was a pair of copulating insects that had been captured, pinned and preserved in the act. Of course I was startled, but not as startled as he. He said, “Oh, sorry, I thought you were someone else.” Then as quickly as he had first turned to look at me, he turned back around and hurried on his way. I remember thinking then as now, who did he think I was? Pretty funny, right?

Another morning I rode up in the elevator with another entomologist that enjoyed describing something called a “Skipper”—a tiny butterfly-like creature. With a smile on his face and twinkle in his eye he told me that he had spent his career studying this particular insect. Once we got to our floor he asked me if I’d like to look at some of the Skippers he had collected, but I noticed he was a bit slow getting out of the door. As we walked to his office he told me that he was about to have knee replacement surgery. It seems that he had compromised his knee joints from years of crouching in fields and balancing heavy collection boxes on his thighs with bent knees. But once he had a collection box in his grasp he was transported to a field of skippers. And I was there along with him. As a little girl I remembered these tiny golden things flitting from flower in a neighbors back yard. Ah yes, I got it too.

Of course the people who studied spiders were also on the entomology floor. I had a few encounters with those folks. Somehow I remember one “spider-guy’s” office as being more sinister and dark. Glad he didn’t ask me to draw any spider bits. I probably would have done it, but it would have seemed like Halloween all the time. Was I really ready to go blind squinting at spider parts for 10 dollars an hour? Too much for me, I think.

But the final and not very funny story of it all was when I told my entomologist that I was leaving. He was truly sad. So, when I finished my work on my final afternoon on the entomology floor at the Academy, he took me to a local, and very wonderful pastry shop, for a cup of tea and lovely sweet. And of course at that point, he didn’t really care if I had had any caffeine, as it didn’t matter if my hand shook. We visited for a time—don’t remember what we talked about—and he dropped me off at the BART station and that was that. I never went back as a Cal Academy employee. All future visits have been as a visitor. I’m sure such art would be done with a computer these days. Once you’ve drawn one bit of genitalia on the computer it’s just a bit of maneuvering that would need to done to elongate/shorten parts or add hairs. No more clogged mechanical pens and scraping. Of course now I do need glasses to clearly see this screen, write these words and create my art. But I can’t really blame it on my time with my entomologist or the solitary wasps from Papua New Guinea. It’s all due to just the passing of time.

May 12, 2018

Gene Autry tree
Gene Autry Museum, summer 2017 (mixed media on watercolor paper, 9 x 12 inches)

The first piece of art is of a tree outside the Autry Museum in Griffith Park. (I’ll get to the row of fantasy flowers in a bit.) Griffith Park is kind of big deal around here. I just looked it up on Google and saw that it is over 4210 acres right here in the city of Los Angeles and it goes from an elevation of 384 up to 1625 feet above sea level. That space includes the Autry Museum of the American West, the Hollywood Sign, Greek Theatre, Griffith Observatory (La La Land and Rebel Without a Cause featured this location), the LA Zoo, and 70 miles of trails to hike on. And it’s very close to the Warner Brothers Studios (in Burbank) and Universal (in Universal City). I guess to say Griffin Park is a big deal is kind of an understatement! And all of this is very close to downtown Los Angeles.

One early cool morning, last July, I was wandering the grounds outside the Autry Museum of the American West and I saw this tree and felt compelled to capture the shade and coolness of the tree. It was kind of nice as I found a picnic bench nearby and I sat there and painted away until the heat of the day started drying out my pots of color too quickly. I filled up that paper with all that lovely cool blue, green and pink. I think it was just in my last blog that I wrote of “filling the page” or “filling the space” and I have been thinking a lot about that idea. And that idea really started the afternoon of Friday, April 20th, when I taught a class of 2nd graders how to use oil pastels.

In my real life I work with children at a couple schools. When a teacher at my elementary school saw/heard that I was a painter and had been an elementary school art teacher, she asked me if I would come in and show her students how to use oil pastels. When I walked in the door, they were ready for me–with butcher paper on the tables and each student wearing a smock to protect their clothes from this very non-kid friendly medium. I quickly put on my apron and began to describe the color wheel, with its primary and secondary colors, to this rapt audience. I’m never sure if kids are really listening to me at this point of a lesson, or if they are just dying to break out a cool new material and start drawing Spiderman, a car, a princess or something from a video game or movie. But I gave it my all and not only explained what the color wheel looked like, but how those 6 colors of pigment, plus white and black, are related to each other.

row of flowers
Made up row of flowers, summer 2017 (mixed media on 6 x 9 inch watercolor paper)

(Now would be a good time to look at this flower illustration for inspiration. But I should say that this piece is only vaguely like what I demonstrated for them that afternoon. Besides, these flowers came from my imagination and I was trying to get them to picture flowers they may have actually seen before.) Since it was spring I contrived to have them first draw a row of 3 flowers (tulip, daisy and hyacinth) on long stems coming up through a bit of grass.  And aside from telling them not to use black because it can make everything kind of smudged I didn’t say anything about filling the space, or filling the paper. I didn’t tell them to first arrange the paper like a window, not a door. I thought they would notice that I had done my sample drawing in a horizontal position, but a couple didn’t notice and placed their paper on the vertical (like a door). And that was fine with me. So, I passed out the oil pastels, encouraged them to see what happened if you layered one color on top of another on some scratch paper and scrubbed, or mixed, the different colors right on the paper. Then… Ready! Set! Go! As I walked around the room it was so fun to see that some had done the row of flowers near the bottom of the page, some in the middle and some floated the row of flowers near the top. Some drew large flowers that filled the space, while others drew a row of small flowers. So interesting to see if anyone would want to fill the space and add something else, or would they just stop with the flowers and grass? When I could see that some were adding the sun, clouds, butterflies and lots of grass, I encouraged them to do so. Some were focused on each flower and were actually trying to mix the oil pastels on the paper, while others kept the colors very distinct and pure. All of the art was smudged a bit (a definite downside to this medium, especially for children), but no one seemed to mind. All were busy bees and the room practically hummed with the energy from such a creative hive. The teacher had gotten a special shiny silver pen for each student to boldly sign his or her art. She also told me she would mount each piece on black paper, much like a frame. The teacher added that the art would be displayed in the classroom for Open House. (This is a “time honored” spring event where families are invited to come to school and view each student’s classroom. Our Open House will be Tuesday.) And when it was finally time to clean up, I looked around one last time. The diversity in their finished work was lovely to behold. Some had completely filled the page, some had not and a couple convinced me to let them try the black and it really added to the overall effect of their flowers. I explained that the only artist I thought got how to use black was Vincent Van Gogh. Not sure if anyone was listening by that time because they were pretty close to being done. (I was thinking of his “Wheatfield with Crows” as he just added that dark bit of black to the sky and the “flying crows” detail so effectively. But I didn’t want to go any further and scare the little kiddies as Van Gogh did that one at the end of his life. And I guess there is much speculation as to his state of mind by that time.) I asked the teacher if she wanted to tackle watercolor with her students before the school year was out. She just kind of looked at me, with that “Are you kidding expression?” and reminded me that Open House was coming and there would be much to do before then. She agreed to talk about it, but seemed relieved when I said we could do it next year, with a new batch of second grade artists. Actually, the middle of August would be a great time to talk about watercolor. It’s so hot here at that time, which would make it a perfect time to talk about that medium and the miracle of evaporation. Oh yeah, I have also been a science teacher. Remember the answer to this one? What are the three states of water? What do you know about ice, liquid water and water vapor? Wouldn’t watercolor be a complete disaster without evaporation? I mean, what’s the worst that could happen with watercolors at elementary school? Someone spills water on the floor? No problem. Everything dries out eventually, right? Stay tuned…

Further note about my row of flowers:

My aunt has a friend who lives in Seal Beach. Her friend is an amazing artist and has done a lot of painting. She enjoys using all kinds of media and in the past liked to paint on furniture. Very whimsical and pretty! My aunt told me that this friend invites people over to paint with her, and my aunt likes to join the group when she can. My aunt doesn’t think she is much of an artist, so she usually knits when they get together. Most times my aunt’s friend has some new kind of art material or project to try out for these get togethers. Some bring art they are working on and others try out whatever she’s got going. I happened to be visiting my aunt last summer when she went to Seal Beach to hang out with the group. I had a great time trying out some of her pens, doing the repetitive details you see here. It seems like the artists I meet these days are very interested in trying new materials or techniques. (One of my Urban Sketchers said something like, “We all just love to ‘geek out’ over new pens, brushes, watercolor colors, paper, techniques and general painting stuff.” That is so true!) As you can see, I really filled up that flower space. And when I ran out of the obvious white spaces I imagined other kinds of spaces and began layering more and more detail on top of everything. And I even added the dreaded black! Not really sure outlining everything with a great black ink pen counts as being as bold and brilliant as Van Gogh though. Oh well.

May 5, 2018

Earth Day 2018 art
Doris Japanese Garden, Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area, April 21, 2018 (mixed media on watercolor paper)

I did this watercolor at a World Wide Sketch Crawl for Earth Day this year. I had never been to the Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Center and was a bit confused about where I was as I went past quite a few vacant lots with oil well pumps. (Random rows of oil well pumps in SoCal and parts of Central CA are pretty common sites. In fact, whole block areas of Long Beach are still loaded with oil well pumps. When my dad was a kid growing up in Long Beach he and his cousin used to climb the wooden derricks. His cousin thought it great fun to go to the bathroom while twenty feet off the ground. Yikes!) So, it was a bit disorienting to go past so many familiar CA sights in an unfamiliar part of Los Angeles. Finally, I started to see a few thickets of eucalyptus trees and fewer oil well pumps on the right side of the road. Then I saw the entrance, just as the GPS had predicted and my phone died. Since this was a new place for me it took a few minutes of walking around to find my little gang of LA Urban Sketchers. They were all gathered around this little bit of water and greenery and had already started to paint and sketch. So, as is usual for the urban sketchers I know (including me) we first walk around a bit to decide where we might like to settle and paint. I noticed that I didn’t see anything on this side of the pond that I wanted to capture and it looked cooler on the opposite side. So, I walked around. And there, I could see all these sketchers on the grass. I thought, I don’t often put people in my art and planned to immortalize everyone I saw on the spot—especially as I could clearly make out a couple painters I knew that were wearing large red hats. Adding those hats seemed like a lovely bit of unexpected color to accentuate sketchers on a patch of cool green and yellow. And I loved the idea that everyone sat very still, with no one moving around and doing strange things with his or her arms or legs. (I’m sure you’ve noticed that there aren’t any people in the finished piece. I tried. I did try. Oh well.) I sat at a bench in the shade and looked at a lovely little bit of water with bright red bridges, sloping grass with sketchers and rows of trees in the background with a tall stand of eucalyptus touching the sky at the very back. After a time, one of my friends across the way decided to move over to my side of the pond. She was one of the people who were wearing a large brimmed red hat. Uh-oh. I was now one stationery “red-hatted” person down. I quickly scribbled in the remaining people sitting on the grass, careful to include the other person still wearing her red hat. I then felt comfortable to focus on the rest of the composition, and started looking around. I watched a row of turtles at the edge of my side of the pond as they plopped into the water, one after another. I chased a couple of squirrels away from my peanut butter and jelly sandwich, mixed my pots of color and added the sky and tree layers. There was a rather large party of young people also at this pond. It was a young lady’s Quinceanera, or her fiesta de quince anos, and she was being followed around by her entourage and a photographer who was chronicling the event. A girl celebrates her Quinceanera when she turns 15. It’s a coming of age celebration that has its origins in Latin America, but is widely celebrated in both North and South America. Google it to see more. It is a very popular thing for a Los Angeles adolescent Latina to plan for and celebrate, so it’s a pretty big deal around here. There were about 8 boys who ranged in age from 5 or 6 to 13 or 14 years of age and they each wore matching charcoal-colored suits with pale pink ties. There were also about 5 young girls in fancy dress and long gowns, with assorted adults wandering around with the group as well. (I didn’t get an actual head count as they never stayed in one place long enough to do that.) At the center of all the commotion was a 15-year old girl in the midst of celebrating her Quinceanera, looking very much like a princess in her long “Cinderella-like” gown. I continued to watch the group move around the pond for photo opportunities and continued to add everything but the people to my watercolor. Can you tell that the wrong people had my attention? And you know where this is going, right?

So, by the time I got back to adding the sketchers in earnest, many of them had moved into the shade, or had moved behind bushes. What the heck! I began trying to ad lib the people I had previously scribbled in, trying to remember where they were and what they were doing. The only thing that stood out to me at this point was the remaining red hat. That was a mistake and it soon became too large for anyone’s head on that scale. My original plan to permanently add humans to my little world sort of deteriorated from there. I went to work scrubbing out everyone and the offending hat from the grass with a slightly wet brush. And just like that they were gone. The squirrels before me persisted, but I wasn’t about to put one of those pests in this piece.

It got to be time for us to get together and share what we had created, so I gathered up my materials and repacked my backpack. As I was walking around to the other side of the pond, a woman stopped me to ask what we were all doing. It turns out she was quite an artist and she showed me a couple photos of her work on her phone. She did these amazing close ups of flowers, kind of on the order of Georgia O’Keefe. She used such vibrant colors with a kind of fantastic realism. Not really sure if what she showed me jives with the Urban Sketcher mantra, but I suggested she join us anyway. She didn’t seem that interested, but was interested in my watercolor and said that she liked that I had “filled the page.” When doing a landscape like this, I can’t really help myself—I like to fill the page. (That might actually be a good subject for another time. Hmmm…) We said goodbye and I joined the gang to share our work. That part is always fun to me. Painting and writing are very singular endeavors. I think that’s why I like these events, it forces my rather shy self to get out there and mingle. It was amazing to see just what everyone had painted, as they were all kind of looking in the same direction at the same things—or so I thought. But everyone’s art looked completely different. Some painted in tiny tablets or books. Some did pen and ink on white paper, while someone else focused on the turtles using only graphite and white gouache on toned paper. We laid all the work on the ground and one of the artists set to work organizing each piece into a kind cohesive patchwork of art so a photo or two could be taken and get everyone’s in the shot. (She was pretty good at it and I thought she would probably be good to have around when it came time to load the dishwasher after Thanksgiving dinner.) Then one of the organizers of the group told us she was thinking of putting together a San Francisco Film Noire excursion this summer. She thought it would be fun to go to various haunts of Sam Spade in the Maltese Falcon (by Dashiell Hammett) to draw and eat. Sounds great, right? Of course I didn’t have the heart to tell her that the weather in San Francisco during the summer months can be cloudy and cold. (You may or may not know the best months to visit San Francisco. September and October are usually best.) But I wasn’t about to spoil the moment and decided that people would for sure be wearing hats and that would give me another great opportunity to add some sketchers to a watercolor.

A Parting Look at the Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Center

So, it was finally time to leave for home and I was wondering how my internal GPS was working as the battery in my phone needed to be recharged. I walked past a huge limo and was guessing that the Quincenara group was inside, ready to go to the next part of the celebration. I recently met a young lady who is a Quincenara choreographer (Yeah, you should Google this. It sounds pretty fun!) and I was guessing they were all about to go dancing. And based on the 3 or 4 year old girl who was having a melt down as she and her mom walked past (maybe more like on tip toe and screaming) this little one was not invited into the limo. But I imagine she will probably soon be planning her Quincenara. Of course she didn’t see it that way! She wanted to party, but probably really needed a nap! And even though Cinco de Mayo has absolutely nothing to do with young girl’s special party on a beautiful spring day in California, it somehow seems fitting to say Happy Cinco de Mayo because it is!