Archive for March, 2015

Still Tugging at the Strings

March 11, 2015
A DailyExercise

A Daily Exercise


How the devil do I know

if there are rocks in your field,

plow it and find out.

If the plow strikes something

harder than earth, the point

shatters at a sudden blow

and the tractor jerks sidewise

and dumps you off the seat–

because the spring hitch

isn’t set to trip quickly enough

and it never is–probably

you hit a rock. That means

the glacier emptied his pocket

in your field as well as mine,

but the connection with a thing

is the only truth that I know of,

so plow it.

“Truth” by James Hearst

My head is finally beginning to clear after a frenetic series of days. I was thrilled to make a sale of one of my watercolors to a friend I’ve known from high school, living in the St. Louis area. My parents and siblings still live there, so I packed my Jeep and departed Saturday night, driving the entire night, to get there, deliver it, and enjoy my family. But business has also called me back to Texas, so I rose early Tuesday and drove back (about 10.5 hours each way). During all that windsheld time, followed by quality conversations with my family whom I see so infrequently, there has been plenty of time to think about what drives me the most–the creative process. I strove to practice creative endeavors while away, and continued that today, despite a busy schedule.

While in the St. Louis area, I attempted a pair of plein air watercolor sketches of a cedar growing up beside my parents’ driveway.

Cedar One

Cedar One

Cedar Two

Cedar Two

No matter how crushed my schedule, I really enjoy drawing out the simple watercolor supplies and working on fast sketches such as these. I’ve never felt that I express this properly, but there is a connection I feel with the subject I’m trying to capture, a relationship so to speak. I know I cannot reproduce the object with photographic accuracy, but that’s not what this is about. I’m simply trying to capture its essence, to record some kind of recgonizable representation of what lies at the center of my visual focus. And that relationship, that feeling, is what I enjoy so much, even if the painting or drawing turns out crappy. I would be lying if I said I fished all day and had a wonderful day, soaking up the environment, even if I never got a strike. When I’m “skunked’ fishing, I don’t call it a good day. But I do have a good day–every time–when I’m painting or drawing, even if the piece of art doesn’t work out. The finished result never rises to the excellence of the experience, no matter how fine the finished piece may look. And I am so fascinated with drawing and painting that I stare at passing landscape and objects as I drive, figuring out compositions that would make the objects into decent art.

I posted James Hearst’s poem at the top, because that theme has been running through my consciousness throughout this harried day of packing and organizing for a watercolor workshop I’ll teach soon. Recently I have made myself a promise that a day would not go by without my practicing my guitar and my art. Too many times I’ve griped about not being better at what I do, knowing full well that I will not get better, without practice, without daily application, without study, without discipline. Talent alone will not cut it. I’ve always known that, though I have not always practiced it. I am always running into people who call themselves frustrated artsists or musicians. Yet these frustrated folks never practice their craft; they only complain about being frustrated. I know there is no royal road to improvement. In spite of a harried stretch of recent days, I took my guitar and art supplies with me and got them out daily, telling myself I have no excuse and need to stop griping. The “connection” with a thing is the only thing we can know, so we should “plow it.” So today, I have plowed, with guitar and watercolor brush, even though I had a million details to tend surrounding the business I’m trying to run.

Thanks for reading. I’ll keep plowing.

I paint in order to remember.

I journal when I feel alone.

I blog to remind myself that I am not alone.

Plein Air, Second Version

March 10, 2015


A Leisure Plein-air Afternoon

March 9, 2015


It’s Friday Night and the Coffee is On

March 6, 2015
Quick Sketch of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young

Quick Sketch of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young

The stage personalities, the presence, and the look of these characters were unique. Young, with his sunken-eyed stare shooting out from behind long black strands of hair, loomed to one side of the stage like a captive renegade. Stills floated out front more often, standing with his back straight like a country gentleman, striking hard poses while soloing, or loosening into a pained bluesman at the mike. Nash was the gentle, personable English hippie, who always charmed the crowd with his good nature. Without a doubt, it was Crosby who centered the team on stage. By his own admission, he was “the group mouthpiece.” David also, at this time, coined a visual image that pretty much became the international archetypal hippie look–a long mustache brushed down over the lips, long frizzy hair grown to the shoulders, and a frontiersman’s buckskin jacket, with fringe flying.

Dave Zimmer, Crosby, Stills & Nash: the Biography

These are the simple pleasures that I feel more profoundly now than in earlier years. Spring Break has begun, and I’m delighted to leave school for a week. Temperatures are sliding downward this winter evening and I’m glad to stay indoors. Coffee steams in my mug, Buffalo Springfield spins on my turntable, a good book is in my lap, and I guess I have to admit that I miss not having a cat or dog to scratch right now. My last pet died a couple of summers ago and it does get a little solitary around here when the weekends grow quiet.

I rewarded my quiet hours tonight by kicking out a quick sketch of CSN&Y, then pulling out the acoustic guitar and loosening up with some of their numbers. This was the group that seized my heart right after they put out their first album. I didn’t discover it until 1970, but it made me lay down the electric guitar and pick up the 12-string acoustic. Since then, I’ve only wanted to be an acoustic guitarist and to find people around me to work up some vocal harmonies. I’ve been fortunate to experience some of this, and now recently have found the company of some beautiful acoustic guitarists who challenge me to be better at it. I keep thinking that someday I’ll find myself in a group again, as I miss some of that dynamic from my past. Below, I’ve posted a picture from years gone by when I used to appear with a band at a local watering hole in Fort Worth. I can’t say I really miss those days, but I do miss playing regularly with kindred spirits. It’s been too long.

Former Times in the Pepper Mill Lounge

Former Times in the Pepper Mill Lounge

No One Suspects the Days to be Gods (Emerson)

March 5, 2015
Fresh Snowfall at Dawn

Fresh Snowfall at Dawn

As you learn to follow ideas along, to process those ideas into music or paintings, you start to realize that the issue whether you are talented enough or good enough is no longer relevant. Following your ideas and creating art is just what you do.

Ian Roberts, Creative Authenticity

With pure joy and anticipation, I awakened without an alarm at 6:50. Last night I had already been notified that there would be no school today, due to icy road conditions. I greeted the dawn with a heart brimming with joy and could not make the coffee or get into my favorite reading chair fast enough. While cozied up to Annie Dillard’s Living By Fiction, I looked up in thought, and realized I was gazing at a cluster of leaves dangling in morning sunlight just outside my living room window. I couldn’t stop admiring the organic pattern of the cluster against the bright wintry sky, and suddenly recalled stories I had read yesterday of how Leonardo da Vinci and Henri Matisse focussed on a single leaf or cluster of leaves, and then did studious drawings and painting of the design. My watercolor supplies were nearby, so on impulse I pulled out the basic tools, and, sitting in my reading chair, sought to render quickly and repeatedly what I was staring at outside my morning window.

In a few moments, the sun faded, the leaves lost their illuminative quality, and the moment was gone. I also realized, as the sun was devouring the freshly fallen snow, that by mid-afternoon, only water would be standing in my backyard. This reminded me of what we discussed in yesterday’s A. P. Art History classes while studying the Dutch Baroque still life paintings and the vanitas theme. The seventeenth-century Dutch, with their newfound wealth, were accumulating property faster than ever before in their history. Yet their sober-minded Calvinist culture reminded them that material goods pass away like the morning cloud, as does life.

The vanitas them in Dutch still life painting is named after a famous passage from Ecclesiastes 1:2 — Vanitas vanitatum dixit Ecclesiastes.” (Latin Vulgate), translated: “‘Vanity of Vanities!’ says the Preacher.” This biblical book meditates on the passing away of all things connected to this physical world.

This Pieter Claesz painting is replete with objects depicting the passing of time, loss and death. The newly-rich Dutch Calvinists were painfully conscious of this. However, when carefully assembling a collection of possessions and then rendering them into art, they found a way to relay the story of the one who possessed all this, long after s/he exited the earth’s stage.

I took this opportunity to explain to the students the ground of my own passion for rendering watercolor still lifes. Projecting the image below, I urged them to try and memorize every object in the assembly before moving on to the next slide.

Fishing Memories

Fishing Memories

After a moment, I then projected this story I composed:

He’s No Longer Here 

When the neighbors hammered the padlock off the deceased man’s fishing shed, they peered inside the darkened room with sadness at the world of memories their dear friend had left behind.  Guarding the assembly from its high perch, the kerosene lantern called to memory nights spent on the Mississippi River dikes, waiting for catfish that would find their way to the Griswold skillet.  The Canada Dry crate was the old fisherman’s stool for the nightlong vigils. 

Bass fishing featured the Garcia Mitchell open-faced reel and the vintage wooden plugs for the area lakes and ponds.  In his retirement years, fly fishing took over, and the old man delighted in the long road trips in his Dodge pickup to the Colorado Rockies where he would not be heard from for weeks at a time.. The battered suitcase was his lifelong road companion, as was the dark leather knapsack that he bought from an old leathershop on the dusty streets of Athens during his European excursions.  

The old man had not been heard from for more than a week, and the inquiring neighbors were saddened to enter his home and find him in his final resting place—his favorite recliner in the small front room of his ramshackle house.  His cup was still half-filled with the Dining Car Coffee he relished throughout his years working on the Frisco railroad.  Now, only his possessions remained to tell his life’s story.

The notion of memento mori, to me, does not have to be limited to death; the sentiment of loss can also be tied to a loved one who has moved on. Another still life of mine attempts to relay that story:

Moving On

Moving On

And here is my story:

The young man was up late again, bedding down in the store room of the old filling station.  He had closed the place at dark, but was too engrossed in his college studies to pack up the books and head for his garage apartment in the next county.  So, with the owner’s permission, he would spend another night in this shack, amidst the smells of gasoline, oil, pit grease and the grime that had built up over two generations.  The Texaco station was anchored on historic Route 66 in an obscure town east of Amarillo, Texas.  Interstate commerce had all but obliterated the sleepy town, and as soon as this fellow graduated from the community college, he would depart as well.  The local townspeople and patrons had no knowledge or regard for the things that stirred the soul of this young man.  His volumes of Thoreau, Frost, Whitman and Twain had opened to him worlds beyond this community.  And his few camping possessions stored in this room (Griswold frying pan, stove top percolator, kerosene lantern, Maxwell House tin) were the tether that kept him bound to the wild.  He would be packing up his gear in a week and leaving without notice.  It was time to emerge from this cocoon and embrace the world that was calling out to him.

This day, though not yet half-over, has seemed to be filled with gods. The quiet time and space for reading, reflecting, writing and making art has been a soothing balm for my own weary soul. This Gift has been easy to embrace.

Thank you for reading.

I paint in order to remember.

I journal when I feel alone.

I blog to remind myself that I am not alone.

Ringing the Bell for Recess!

March 4, 2015
A Cozy Night in the Studio

A Cozy Night in the Studio

As I ponder’d in silence,

Returning upon my poems, considering, lingering long,

A Phantom rose before me with distrustful aspect,

Terrible in beauty, age, and power,

The genius of poets of old lands, 

As to me directing like flame its eyes,

With finger pointing to many immortal songs,

And menacing voice, What singest thou? it said,

Know’st thou not there is but one theme for ever-enduring bards? . . .

Walt Whitman, “As I Ponder’d in Silence”

At 8:50 this evening, the joyful message arrived: “Due to inclement weather, classes tomorrow are cancelled!” I felt like an elementary student when the recess bell rings. Two days ago, I scratched out some time to play with and blog my “Harold and the Purple Crayon” watercolor sketch, and just ached to return to the studio yesterday, but too much school stuff intervened, and next thing I knew, the hour was late and I had to retire to bed. Today was a grueling A. P. Art History stretch of classes. But now, I’m free again, a sailor on a 24-hour pass! A student sprinting toward the swing set!

For a few days, I’ve wanted to begin a series of charcoal sketches of a bust I own of Democritus. He sits peering at me through the darkness, just outside the pallor of my desk lamp late nights and pre-dawn mornings. And as I study, I’m always conscious of his presocratic contribution toward the discussion of what lies at the core of Being. The Greek word archē is difficult to translate with facility. We use it to form words like archaeology, architect, archbishop, etc. It refers to the chief, the source, the head, the first. The presocratic thinkers debated among themselves as to what it was that lay at the headwaters of all that Is.

The Whitman poem has haunted me recently, because he felt the chill from the witnesses of antiquity looking over his shoulder when he struggled to give birth to something sublime through his verses. I also feel that shudder when I’m thinking in solitude, writing in my journal, reading pensively, or leaning over a drafting table trying to carve onto the surface of paper some kind of image in the name of Art.

As temperatures outside slide into the 20’s and snow fills the black night sky, I’m delighed to be inside with coffee, my books and art supplies, the sounds of Mozart’s String Quartets coming from my turntable, and a heart filled with gratitude.

Thanks for reading.

I make art in order to remember.

I journal whenI feel alone.

I blog to remind myself that I am not alone.

A Crayon was Waiting this Morning

March 3, 2015


What a strange event this morning. Rising again at 5:00, believing a Quality morning beckoned, I crossed the dark and raining parking lot of my school in the predawn, and looking down at the steps, saw this crayon! I brought it inside, and now begin another amazing day.

Reaching for the Purple Crayon

March 2, 2015
An Attempt to Color My World

An Attempt to Color My World

The mind fits the world and shapes it as a river fits and shapes its own banks.

Annie Dillard, Living By Fiction

With these words, I drifted off to sleep around 1:00 this morning, knowing I would have only four hours of less-than-quality sleep. Nevertheless, when I rose at 5:00, I had Annie’s words still in my heart, and reached for a children’s book that I did not discover until only a few years ago: Harold and the Purple Crayon. I felt my pulse quicken as I re-read the text of this young lad creating his own environment, and I then determined that this would be an artful day. I would go forth and color my own world. I have a great job, I believe in what I do, and a wonderful perk of teaching is the daily invitation to create quality in life as you pass in and out of the classroom.

Every morning was a cheerful invitation to make my life of equal simplicity, and I may say innocence, with Nature herself. I have been as sincere a worshipper of Aurora as the Greeks. . . . The morning, which is the most memorable season of the day, is the awakening hour.

Henry David Thoreau, Walden

By 6:00, I was seated in the back of my darkened classroom, delighted with the cold, wet winter pre-dawn, and reminded that two winters ago I sat in this same place at the same hour and read Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. Stirred by the remembrance of Hemingway’s cold mornings spent in the rooftop Parisian apartment where he worked at perfecting his craft, I went to work on the first draft for this daily blog.

Once the students arrived around 7:30, the work day began, and it was a quality one for me. In A. P. Art History we looked at the Dutch and Flemish Baroque, focusing on Rembrandt and Rubens, then in Regular Art History we resumed our study of Leonardo da Vinci. I continued to draw new ideas concerning these creative spirits, not only from my own studies but also by well-placed queries from my engaging students. Together we worked at coloring this day.

Tonight was Open House. On a forty-degree rainy winter’s night, I knew not to anticipate large crowds. Three parents arrived to chat with me during the first ten minutes of the hour-long session, and that was that. Seated at my podium, I took out my draft of this blog and continued to push it along. Reflecting over a day that held plenty of creative surprises, I mused over all the people I’ve met throughout my life who hate their jobs, their daily routines. As for me, there have been some low moments over my twenty-six-year tenure as a teacher, but I can overwhelmingly testify that it has yielded a life overflowing with reward and daily creative opportunity.

Open House Night

Open House Night

Joseph Heller, author of Catch 22, began working on his second novel that would be titled Something Happened. After working on it for ten years, he had yet to finish and publish the novel, and in an interview, all he could say of the work was: “I’m about two hundred pages in, and it’s about this guy–but I don’t know much about him–I know he has a job, but I don’t know what it is, or what he does. He has this family, but I don’t really know who they are or where they live, I don’t even know his name. He just goes to work and he comes home, and that’s about all.” That interview prompted me to purchase Something Happened, and my heart cried as I read the story of this man’s empty life, and how it reminded me of so many with whom I’ve visited throughout the years–successful people who felt empty, people who learned the art of making a living, but still didn’t know how to live.

I am writing this tonight to anyone out there who finds life empty and woefully short on meaning. It doesn’t have to be that way; you have the power within your own mind to create a meaningful, artful life. You have all the resources within your grasp. You have the purple crayon.

You are more than your daily job.

You are more than a member of your nuclear family.

You are more than a resident in your surrounding neighborhood.

You are Harold, and you wield the purple crayon. Go forth and color your world as you see fit. If today was a pale, colorless day, tomorrow does not have to be a repeat performance.

It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts. 

Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Thanks for reading.

I paint in order to remember.

I journal when I feel alone.

I blog to remind myself that I am not alone.

Ongoing Search for Creative Alchemy

March 1, 2015

I am witnessing a unique physiological phenomenon: John Shade perceiving and transforming the world, taking it in and taking it apart, re-combining its elements in the very process of storing them up so as to produce at some unspecified date an organic miracle, a fusion of image and music, a line of verse. . . . Shade’s poem is, indeed, that sudden flourish of magic: my gray-haired friend, my beloved old conjurer, put a pack of index cards into his hat–and shook out a poem.

Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire

A veritable bouquet of benefits sprouted from this snowbound weekend. Perhaps an early spring is on the way after all. I’m posting two watercolors that just sold over the past few days. I always take pleasure in selling my original work, but it is so much sweeter when I know the patrons as friends, and these two paintings now belong to two quality men who have brought much more than money into my life. Visiting with them has reminded me of my first love: seeking ways to blend disparate elements of this world into some kind of original artistic composition, an alchemy if you please. My passion for flyfishing made possible the two watercolors posted above. But there is so much more to this complex life than flyfishing.

Preparing for tomorrow’s A. P. Art History session on Dutch and Flemish baroque art spurred my return to a fresh study of Peter Paul Rubens. Already I have enjoyed drinking from the fountains of Nabokov’s Pale Fire, and when I came across the words posted above, I was reminded of Rubens’s rich tapestry of interests: the Greek and Latin language, classical philosophy and sculpture, Renaissance drawing and painting, travel, connecting with several dozen artists who were masters of various media. All this, accompanied by my privilege of writing a letter of recommendation for an amazing art student from my past, now accepted into the American University of Rome (wow, she will have access to those wonderful works copied by Rubens shortly after he became a master at age twenty-one).

I’m sincerely hoping to have some time tomorrow to return to the studio. After a weekend of listening to classical music, translating portions from ancient Greek and Latin texts, practicing some sketching of human anatomy, and reading from Nabokov, Annie Dillard and William Carlos Williams, I am ready to make some visual art. The hiatus has been too long. Fortunately I completed the last of my grading around 2:00 this morning, and feel that an albatross has been cut loose from around my neck. Hopefully, I’ll face a more positive fate than Coleridge did.

Thanks always for reading.

I paint in order to remember.

I journal when I feel alone.

I blog to remind myself that I am not alone.