Archive for the ‘Robert Motherwell’ Category

Sun breaking through the Gloom

April 10, 2016

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Sometimes I have an imaginary picture in mind of the poet Mallarmé in his study late at night–changing, blotting, transferring, transforming each word and its relations with such care–and I think that the sustained energy for that travail must have come from the secret knowledge that each word was a link in the chain that he was forging to bind himself to the universe; and so with other poets, composers and painters.

Robert Motherwell

As one who loathes reading pity-party blogs, I will just say that this weekend took me to rock bottom, simply started by spending my entire Saturday, from 9 a.m. till 11:30 p.m. grading exams from high school. I awoke this morning with a stiff neck, headache (I almost never get headaches) and a deep feeling of depression. Fortunately, I shook it off by traveling to the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth to view for the third time in a week the extensive Robert Motherwell installation, to take more notes, record more observations, and then retreat to the cafe patio to read further from my new book Robert Motherwell: 100 Years over a cup of coffee. With rainy weather throughout the day, the sky was overcast rendering the temperatures cool and delicious.

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Reading Motherwell’s imaginative ruminations about the poet Mallarmé inhis study stirred my blood, as it brought to my mind images of Motherwell working through the night in his Greenwich, Connecticut studio, painting, scrutinizing, adjusting, second-guessing, editing further. This is what motivates me when making art, and I wish to God I could have had studio time yesterday instead of burning up the entire day and night with grading deadlines. The past weeks have featured abundant obstacles, and time away from the studio pushes my spirits downward. At least on this splendid day, I could vicariously enjoy Mallarmé and Motherwell’s creative processes, and drink deeply from the Modern’s art collection. I feel more than ready to walk into tomorrow’s art history classes as we continue our push through the modern era.

The week ahead will be a busy one, with an overcrowded school schedule, and my first art festival of the year coming up Friday. I’ll do my best to blog between now and the weekend. Another part of my afternoon was spent going over the rough drafts of this book I’m attempting to write about my experiences last summer on the Texas Laguna Madre. The draft is still rough, just not as rough as yesterday. I will go ahead and post it below. It covers the first day of my island observations.  Thanks for reading.

Chapter One

S U N D A Y

1

 

 

Watching my Friends Pull Away

What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing?–it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.[1]

At 10:43 a.m., Sunday morning, June 7, 2015, I stood at the dock and waved at the boat pulling away, carrying with it my two new acquaintances that had just transported me to this small island on the Texas Laguna Madre. They will return in six days. For the first time in my sixty-one years on this planet, I stand, gazing across a hypersaline body of water. But I don’t feel exiled, cut off, expelled from civilization. On the contrary, I have been honored with space to create and find my artistic voice. Having reached a plateau in my body of watercolor work, I now have an opportunity to reclaim my mojo hand.  I have landed an Artist-in-Residence assignment with Texas A&M University Corpus Christi, and will spend a week exploring and painting this exotic environment on a spoil island in the Laguna Madre, with no distracting appointments and no transportation to use as an excuse to run off and find something else to do. As a painter, I am filled with deep-seated gratitude at what Eugene Delacroix and Henri Matisse described as “cleansing the eye.” This is not my home, not my environment. Just raw nature enveloping me, and in Emersonian fashion my head is bathed in the blithe air.

Having risen at 4:30 this morning to catch the boat to the island, and 3:00 yesterday morning, to make the eight-hour drive from Arlington to Corpus Christi, I felt fatigued and worried that Day One of my residency would be flat due to lack of rest. But as I watched Paul and Bobby pull away from the dock, a switch flipped, and turning to the front porch table I had converted to a workbench, I immediately began soaking and stretching paper for my first paintings.

From my tenth-grade Art II teacher, Mr. Leo Hoeh, I learned to soak and stretch watercolor paper over canvas stretchers, using a staple gun to secure the edges, in the same way oil and acrylic painters stretch canvas. When the paper dries, it shrinks and stretches tightly over the stretchers and feels like a drum skin. When painting outdoors en plein air (I was told that was French for painting with the bugs!), the paper dries rapidly while watercoloring, since the front and back surfaces are exposed to the breeze. After years of practice, I can stretch these very quickly, and immediately set to work stretching four 9 x 12” papers, laying them out in the sun to dry.

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. . . and so begins the task . . .

As the paper dried on the stretchers, I took out my small Fluid watercolor block and went to work, looking to the west by northwest at the distant gas-powered electrical plant for Flower Bluff, adjacent to Corpus Christi. The billowing clouds piled above were very attractive, and for the first time in my life, I tried to paint the actual clouds as portraits, recording their contours and colors as closely as I could to what I saw above me.  In time past, I had always “faked” my clouds, using gimmicks like pouring, blotting with cloth towels, scouring with Q-tips, etc.  I had never actually tried to copy clouds from life as I did on this day.

The longer I worked on the clouds, the more my soul smiled, feeling a connection with Monet and company as they experimented en plein air more than a century before. Desiré Louis, viewing the work of Monet, recorded the following on May 19, 1891 in L’Événement:

His skies, whether pure or cloudy, gay or melancholic, resonate with the mysterious sounds of the universe.  He forces the spirit to think and to soar above these magisterial representations . . . of reality . . . . In front of this seductive painting, you have the impression of a full and benevolent life which makes you recall the intoxication one feels with the dawning of a new day.[2]

3

First Attempted Painting at the Laguna Madre

By the time I got to the water below, the sun had risen high enough that the colors had muted considerably. That is the challenge of plein air painting: light conditions change rapidly and the painter has to make quick decisions while painting this moving target.  Monet himself complained of nature not posing still for him, saying “I am grinding away, bent on a series of different effects, but at this time of year, the sun goes down so quickly that I cannot keep up with it.”[3]  I am thinking seriously about setting up at the same time tomorrow, and if the sun is strong and the day clear, perhaps I’ll get another look at that fabulous teal lagoon. I have little-to-no experience painting broad expanses of water and am unsure as to how to match those deep colors I saw earlier when I began.

Laying the painting aside, I resumed my reading of Thoreau’s A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. I am about three-quarters of my way through the book now, and as I explore these pages, my enthusiasm just keeps building. I cannot believe the flair for writing the young Thoreau possessed. Finding my stretched paper dry enough to begin work, I turned my attention to a bed of wildflowers and prickly pear cactus on the south side of the field station where I’m living this week. I’ve never painted cactus before, and I’m going to have to make some more tries at this. I have trouble distinguishing it from the greenery surrounding it, and haven’t quite found the key to that. But the effort was still enjoyable. I love the process of plein air painting, even if I don’t get the results I anticipated.

4

Cactus and Wildflowers

About halfway through the cactus sketch, I looked out over another spread of wildflowers and lush grasses on the west side of my porch, and decided to give those a try, with a little help from a bottle of masquing fluid. I enjoyed the effort of duplicating the colors of the flowers that popped among the grasses, but also decided to make some abstract compositional decisions on the shape of the composition, thinking back over my recent experiments with Andrew Wyeth drybrush sketches.  My high school teacher of Art I and III, Mr. Robie Scucchi, taught me much about abstract compositional matters, pointing out the way Andrew Wyeth left the margins of his watercolor paper untouched, and shaping his positive spaces of landscape textures with fingers and tentacles reaching out into the white void in all directions.  Mr. Scucchi urged that the shape of the negative boundaries surrounding the composition were just as dramatic as the actual ground textures in the Wyeth drybrush studies.  I decided to experiment with the perimeter of my wildflowers sketch, pushing fingers of greenery into the surrounding void.

5

A Second Attempt at Sketching Wildflowers

As the June sun waxed in the western half of the sky, rendering the heat of my front porch unbearable, I retreated to the rear of the field station, seeking shade, and noticed some attractive clumps of gulf cordgrass with white flowers accenting their base, flourishing a few feet from the eastern porch. Sitting on a bench and leaning against the field station, I read some more from Thoreau, but kept looking up at the cordgrass on the shady side of the house, and could not stop thinking about the Albrecht Dürer drybrush studies of tall grasses that I have always admired. Wyeth was always harking back to those compositions, testifying that they inspired him to attempt grass studies in watercolor.  I recalled Dürer’s statement that “art lies hidden within nature; he who can wrest it from her, has it.” So, I closed the book and contemplated on solving the problem of rendering tall grasses in transparent watercolor. Suddenly it hit me: masque the white flowers first on the white paper, then flood the paper with the lightest, coolest shade of green. When it dries, draw tall grasses with the Masquepen. Let it dry. Then flood the paper with a little darker green (I mixed transparent yellow into it). Let it dry. Then draw more grasses with the masquepen. Let dry. Then I added Winsor Red to darken and warm the green and flooded the area again. After it dried, I masqued more grasses. Next I added Winsor Violet to the ever-darkening green I was building up. Then I masqued some more. Finally, adding Alizarin Crimson, I made the green nearly black, and painted grasses over the entire masque-and-layered composition, frequently raking my sharp HB pencil through the wet to draw out thin, spiky blades of cordgrass. Once it dried, I stripped away all the layers of masquing, and finding too much white grass, flooded it once more with a light, cool green to turn the white grasses into pale green.

6

Fourth and Final Watercolor of the First Day

This was my fourth watercolor of the day, and I was too tired to assess whether it was any good (or any of the other paintings for that matter). But I was deeply pleased that I kicked out four sketches on Day One, got in some excellent reading, and ground out a number of journal pages.

That man who does not believe that each day contains an earlier, more sacred, and auroral hour than he has yet profaned, has despaired of life, and is pursuing a descending and darkening way.[4]

The day was perfect, but long. That night I planned to sleep a long time for the first time in three nights.

 

[1] Jack Kerouac, On the Road

[2] Paul Hayes Tucker, Monet in the ‘90s: The Series Paintings (Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1989), pp. 3-4.

[3] Ibid,. p. 3.

[4] Thoreau, Walden.

 

 

Filling the Lacuna

April 7, 2016

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Motherwell’s formidable intelligence was matched by his capacity for deep feeling, and the conflict between intellect and instinct formed one of the richest undercurrents of his art. He approached the situations of his life and of his art with a remarkable flexibility–constantly alert, his thought constantly in motion, his attitudes toward the world around him continually in a state of reappraisal.

Jack Flam, Robert Motherwell: 100 Years

There has been a considerable gap since my last blog posting, because I’ve felt that nothing was going on worthy of a post, though I have been extremely busy chasing school-related and income tax deadlines. I seem to be currently slogging around in the swamp water, yet life is good. Grateful for so much good that has washed over me in recent weeks, I still find myself fumbling over what to do just now with my life with this overload of stimuli. Still, that is a good thing, right?

Last Sunday, I stumbled on a Robert Motherwell installation at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, and the timing couldn’t have been better–Amazon just delivered to me the book I quoted above. I am immersed in the reading of this remarkable text, always in awe of this marvelous, spiritual man.  And I have already returned to visit the show a second time. Thanks to Motherwell, I am drawing more in my sketchbook and plotting out my next series of watercolors. With an art festival approaching in eight days, I doubt that I’ll be able to pursue painting for another week-to-ten days. But at least my mind and heart are fixed on the notion.

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My Tuesday night “Parisian Café” is one of the most precious events to enter my solitary life. As I’ve stated before, “the French Impressionists had their Café Guerbois. Picasso and friends had their Les Deux Magots. The Ash Can School had 806 Walnut Street in Philadelphia. The Abstract Expressionists had the Cedar Bar in Greenwich Village. I myself have ached for an art cafe where I could show up once a week or so and just talk with other creative people . . .”  This gathering of artists and writers fills my cup to overflowing every time I sit down with them. I have gone most of my adult life without a close circle of friends, and I cannot describe the joy and warmth I feel now that I have been embraced. Stacy (seated on the left) is the most soulful poet I have ever known personally, and conversations with her always leave me with an overflowing sense of gratitude.  To make things better, she teaches in the same school as I. Here is a link to Stacy’s blog:

stacycampbell1010.wordpress.com

 

laguna madre poster

Since my last blog post, I’ve cranked out thirty-nine pages of typed rough draft on a book I’m trying to write, recording my Laguna Madre experience of last summer. All my adult life, I’ve wanted to write a book, but never knew how to go about getting it published. I’ve decided I’m writing this one anyway, for me. I’m enclosing the draft of my introductory chapter, and trust me, it’s rough.

Cleansing the Eye:

Recollections from a Grateful Artist-in-Residence

PROLEGOMENA

“Gauguin returned from his first Tahitian sojourn in 1893 with enough canvases and carvings to constitute a one-man show; but he knew that the strangeness of his Tahitian imagery would require some stage-managing if it was to be a success. He had in mind the idea of producing a book that would introduce and explain his imagery to a Parisian audience.” (page X, Writings of a Savage)

How do I introduce myself as quickly as possible and then get out of the way?  I hope that this is not a book about me, but a book about you, dear Reader. I have never believed that quality reading is a passive exercise; you the reader create your own world as you read my words and interact with this text.  Upon completion and release of this book, I will not go forth into the rest of my life, wondering whether or not I am understood; I just want to make a contribution.  I want someone’s life to improve because they spent time with me in this book.

So, what exactly am I?  An unfrustrated public school teacher who has had the pleasure (for the most part) of doing as he pleased for more than a quarter of a century.  My only real issue has been how to make a gift of the knowledge and experiences that have enriched me throughout these years.  My lifestyle, as I’ve sojourned in this world, has been to absorb knowledge, Faustlike, and embed these observations in lesson plans, lectures, and paintings, hoping always that others received something significant from the encounters.  I never expected others to see the world my way, but always hoped to deal an ace worth picking up and inserting into someone else’s poker hand.

Why did Henry David Thoreau go to Walden Woods?  My perspective has been this: he received a vaunted Harvard degree, and with it a skill set, an academic toolbox.  But early in life, he reached the conviction that all knowledge he had received up to that point was secondary.  All the divines whom he had read received their truths directly from nature, he from their books and lectures.  He had lived out Emerson’s complaint that opened Nature in 1836:

The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes.  Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe?  Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs?  Embosomed for a season in nature, whose floods of life stream around and through us, and invite us by the powers they supply, to action proportioned to nature, why should we grope among the dry bones of the past, or put the living generation into masquerade out of its faded wardrobe?  The sun shines to-day also.  There is more wool and flax in the fields.  There are new lands, new men, new thoughts.  Let us demand our own works and laws and worship.

Travelling to Walden Pond to live, Thoreau decided it was time to learn directly from nature, to find out what he could learn from her, and then to publish those results to the world.

And hence I find myself this day at the Laguna Madre.  This is a gift.  My education over my past sixty-plus years has been a gift, but nearly all of it secondary.  Now, for the first time, I hope to scoop primary experience and pass it on to other outstretched hands.  Hopefully, by the end of this sojourn I will echo Nietzsche’s words that I have become weary of my wisdom as a bee that has gathered too much honey, needing hands outstretched to receive it.

Quoting Thoreau, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan- like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.”

My conviction has always been grounded in the notion that solitude is the studio for creativity.  I myself have never found fulfilment in collaborative projects in the visual arts, nor have I found my inspiration in the vortex of think tanks.  The school of solitude is where I have always mined my ideas for painting.  Anthony Storr has argued:

The creative person is constantly seeking to discover himself, to remodel his own identity, and to find meaning in the universe through what he creates.  He finds this a valuable integrating process which, like meditation or prayer, has little to do with other people, but which has its own separate validity.  His most significant moments are those in which he attains some new insight, or makes some new discovery; and these moments are chiefly, if not invariably, those in which he is alone.[1]

“Alone” is the key word that describes my life, though I have been in relationships for most of my years.  I have always required space for my own thinking, writing and creating.  This was true in public school, the university, graduate school, the ministry, and all my subsequent years devoted to the classrooms and lecture halls.  I still look back with gratitude at those times spent in library study carrels, in my own study, under trees, beside flowing streams, in hotel rooms and lobbies, coffee bars and book stores, in roadside parks or staring through a windshield while driving across the country.  My private study cubicle has been wherever I could pause, alone, and pull out a journal or laptop or sketchbook, and pour out my thoughts on the pages.  And throughout my years, I have looked at those file drawers filled with stuffed manila folders, those computer files filled with data, the over one hundred volumes of handwritten journals on my shelf—and wondered how to distill those memories and research efforts into some kind of a book, my life, my philosophy, my love.  Volumes and volumes, pages and pages, layers and layers of themes and threads seeking some kind of resolution, some kind of synthesis, some kind of understandable “story” for others to read and use as desired.  My clusters of recorded ideas have milled about over the decades, as actors on a stage waiting for a director.

As shared in the opening of this chapter, Gauguin returned from his island excursion with a stack of canvases and sought a way to “stage-manage” his public exhibition. So I too returned from the Laguna Madre with nineteen plein air watercolors, with a plan to show them in two exhibitions, conduct a series of watercolor workshops, deliver some public addresses, and attempt to relay to my audiences what I gleaned from this peak experience.

And so, this book will be my first effort, since my doctoral dissertation, to engage in an extended essay, synthesizing the ideas that have meant so much to me over the years and found a way to crystalize while sojourning on a small spoil island in the Texas Laguna Madre.

When Hemingway accepted his Nobel Prize, he declared that “writing, at its best, is a lonely life.”  I would propose the word “solitary.”  I don’t feel lonely when I make art, though I am alone, solitary.  I find those moments soothing.  When the boat pulled away from the dock that first Sunday morning on June 6, 2015, and I waved good-bye to my new friends, watching as they diminished in size on the horizon, the first thing I noticed was that the island was quiet, very quiet.  And I could feel myself beaming inwardly.  I was in an unspoiled paradise, though standing on a spoil island.  It was time to go to work.

[1]Anthony Storr, Solitude: A Return to Self (New York: The Free Press, 1988),  p. xiv.

Thanks for reading.

 

An Artful, 3-day Weekend

January 15, 2016

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I begin a painting with a series of mistakes. The painting comes out of the correction of mistakes by feeling.

Robert Motherwell

Good evening. I’m posting a new drawing from today, because the painting I have worked on the past three days is a disaster. I’m trying to find some measure of consolation from the Motherwell quote that he began paintings with a series of mistakes–that has not been my way, but it certainly is how this recent work is going. Maybe tomorrow I will find a way to correct it (and then post it!).

A three-day weekend greets me and the timing couldn’t be better. Winter weather may be settling into my area tomorrow. The logs are stacked, the fireplace is ready, and I’ll light the fire if the temperatures get back down to where they belong this time of year (above 60 degrees today, unbelievable).  The bottle of cabernet sauvignon has been opened and I’m ready to pour my first glass while watching a movie on Georgia O’Keeffe that I just acquired (Joan Allen, Jeremy Irons).

Thanks for reading. I hope I’ll have some decent art to post over the weekend. For what it’s worth, I did enjoy the tree drawing of this day.

Relaxing and Rethinking

July 8, 2015

Every artist has a central story to tell, and the difficulty, the impossible task, is trying to present that story in pictures.

Gregory Crewdson

Approaching Real Life DFW Talk Radio Station

Approaching Real Life DFW Talk Radio Station

Talk Radio Host Heidi Valdez Hardy

Talk Radio Host Heidi Valdez Hardy

The Broadcast Booth

The Broadcast Booth

I can think of few occasions more delicious than an evening to relax and reflect over a satisfying day. I am exhausted to the bone, but after a few days of tension building up to this afternoon’s two-hour radio interview, I am serene and thankful that all went well. From the moment I entered the broadcast booth with host Heidi Valdez Hardy, I knew things would go smoothly. She is a confident broadcaster, with a pleasing demeanor and enthusiastic wit.

The afternoon had its points of humor. Fifteen minutes before going live, Heidi asked me if I would mind being the co-host of the program. I had no clue what that meant. Did I know how to navigate facebook? Yes. Then would I mind posting information on her facebook timeline as the show progressed? And would I mind answering the phone when the screen lit up with an incoming call? At first I thought this would unravel me, but as it turned out, I was multi-tasking, and it took my mind off the nervousness I had been feeling about speaking over the air. So . . . I got to be the interviewee, social media secretary, and call screener all rolled into one, and it was wonderful. I had no time to feel nervous or uptight. Quite frankly, it reminded me of days when I worked in the Office of Communications of the Fort Worth Police Department long ago–I just didn’t have to take any 9-1-1 calls today.

The very first call into the program came from Cedar Hill, Missouri, from a friend with whom I had graduated high school forty-three years ago. Heidi could not believe that this was a caller from outside the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex. The man had the most gracious words of praise to offer, and started the program on a highly affirming note. Thanks, Mark. I really needed that boost.

The two hours rolled by, feeling like twenty minutes. When it was over, I just heaved a sigh of relief and genuine thanks. What a rush of good will. I could reproduce pages of handwritten journal memories from these two hours, and I’m very satisfied that we got to talk in earnest and at great length about the experiences of the Artist in Residence program at the Texas Laguna Madre. A podcast will be posted in the future of today’s show, and anyone wishing to access www.dfwreallifetalk.com may listen to it.

There were two questions posed that moved me deeply, and I want to address those. First,which artist would I bring back to life with whom to have a conversation, if that were possible? I feel that I had waited all my life to answer that, and I was stirred up, just thinking about it. I would start with Andrew Wyeth. I have always been fascinated wtih his eye for the environment, and his way of rendering the details with exacting precision, while at the same time allowing some of the watercolor wash and splatter to spin out of control. I love his balance of control and freedom in the compositions. I feel that his still waters ran very deeply and wish I could have had private moments to talk quietly with him. Edward Hopper is also on my list. That quiet man had such a profound philosophi and poetic mind, with his love of literature and the American scene. I see the profound loneliness and isolation in his urban and small town settings, and wish that I could unlock the secret to instilling that kind of mood into my own compositions. And finally, Robert Motherwell. That brilliant scholar lectured on twenty-seven university faculties, wrote and published essays, edited for scholarly journals, devoured literature and philosophy, and still had time to create a vast inventory of paintings, a huge body of work. How rare to see the scholar and creative artist occupying the same body. And he made no apology for loving both worlds, perhaps because it was all one to him. That is what I want to embody as well. He is my role model.

The second question concerned my ultimate dream or desire. This answer would surprise some, because most would expect me to wish for broader exposure or sales. Of course, those things are important, but there is something more: I love painting more than selling or displaying my work. But I make my art in solitude, and don’t complain about that. What I do covet though, is the Parisian Cafe. Never in my life have I known a gathering place for creative spirits to meet at least once a week. The French Impressionists had their Cafe Gerbois. The Lost Generation met at Gertrude Stein’s. The Abstract Expressionists had the Cedar Bar. The Ash Can School met at 806 Walnut Street in Philadelphia. But I have never had a cafe where I could meet consistently with other creative minds eager to talk of ideas, philosophy, literature, art, music, or any creative endeavor. That I have always craved. That I still seek. When I sit and read a lengthy email from fellow WordPress blogger Corey Aber, I feel that I am sitting in a Parisian Cafe, listening to another creative, eager spirit. I just wish I could physically sit in the presence of a circle of those men and women, and hear their dreams, share in the joy of their explorations, and talk of ways that we can make this world better by living more artful lives.

It is bedtime. But I wanted to put some thoughts onto the blog before retiring. I didn’t think it possible to feel even better than I did before I started writing this, but it happened. It’s been a day worth recounting.

Thank you again for reading.

I paint in order to remember.

I journal when I feel alone.

I blog to remind myself that I am not alone.