On Painting

For years I had a print ad for the venerable Art Students League on my wall. Below a small line drawing was the art school’s motto: “Nulla Dies Sine Linea” – “No Day Without a Line.”

So when I read about the book, “Art Students League of New York On Painting: Lessons and Mediums, Styles, and Methods” by James L. McElhinney and the instructors of the Arts Students League of New York (offered by “Blogging for Books”), I was curious. I spent several days in January reading with pleasure this hefty volume and taking notes.

Written by instructors at the school, the book is divided into three sections with different formats: Lessons and Demos, Advice and Philosophies and Interviews. Two-page spreads titled Lessons in Print give instructions about accomplishing particular paintings. Writings by these different people provide an expansive view of the history of painting, introduce artists (both traditional and innovative), describe techniques, inspirations, and studios, and reveal working and teaching methods.

While they share technical details, much of the pleasure comes from painters’ revelations about the underpinnings of a life in art. They speak of artistic awakenings, (many were struck at a young age by an experience at a museum), paths to becoming an artist, and methods of work. Pages of the artists’ paintings are followed by a gallery of images from accomplished students. The reproduced art, both lavish and beautiful, often fills the page.

Much about art and painting is to be learned from this book, because artists accustomed to communicating describe the making of paintings. With some the artspeak gets thick – but others deliver words of wisdom. Sharon Sprung who paints figures and gorgeous textiles says: “My advice to everyone is to look harder, look more than you paint. Immerse yourself in the visual world. Ask a lot of yourself, but without negativity and self-doubt. You need to risk being wrong if you ever want to be right.”

James L. McElhinney, the author, works in the field and paints in long skinny Moleskine books, making visual journals. Of artists and sketchbooks he writes: “The greatest benefit of journal work may be that it returns painting to a devotional scale – an environment in which painting can be experienced on an individual level where painters and viewers might pursue more intimate conversations.”

Near the end is an interview with Knox Martin, an artist who vehemently distinguishes drawing from sketching. He answers a question this way: “One lovely thing I do: I had a botanical print because it’s descriptive of the plant itself. Every stem and joint is exactly, honestly detailed.” He describes drawing from the print in pen and ink and then enlivening it by extending leaves and pushing stems – “Without making it unrecognizable, the leaves and folds began to rotate this way and that until the whole rectangle was activated.”

Martin is an abstract painter, and no image accompanies his words, but words, descriptions in a good book, can inspire – set one off on a new path!

(Following the example of blogger friends, I signed up for and received this book from the “Blogging For Books” program in exchange for an honest review. More information about the book here.)

Art Students League book cover

Change It Up

This first month of a new year, I’m thinking about change – who likes it, who loathes it, and about my conflicted relationship to it. I’m envious of people who began life with a childhood in one place, aware that my peripatetic childhood inclines me to motion. And I’ve always thought it a mistake to be so eager to change things in some way.

And then I read a wonderful article (here) by the novelist Jhumpa Lahirie about her passion for the Italian language, an obsession pursued so ably she can write eloquently in Italian (translated here by Ferrante’s translator). Lahirie says writing in Italian makes her a “tougher, freer writer, who, taking root again, grows in a different way.” She writes:

“One could say that the mechanism of metamorphosis is the only element of life that never changes. The journey of every individual, every country, every historical epoch – of the entire universe and all it contains – is nothing but a series of changes, at times subtle, at times deep without which we would stand still.”

Born in America to immigrant parents from West Bengal, Lahirie describes her mother as coping with that move by “a refusal to modify her aspect,” while Lahirie always felt for herself an “insistence on transforming.” Lahirie’s embrace of change is so strong:

“The moments of transition, in which something changes, constitute the backbone of all of us. Whether they are a salvation or a loss, they are moments that we tend to remember. They give structure to our existence. Almost all the rest is oblivion.”

Oblivion!

She ties change to her reason for art: “I think the power of art is the power to wake us up, strike us to our depths, change us. What are we searching for when we read a novel, see a film, listen to a piece of music? We are searching through a work of art, for something that alters us, that we weren’t aware of before.”

Lahirie acknowledges changes can be small – “at times subtle,” and they can be a “salvation or a loss” – maybe some of both. She finds much positive in the act of change itself. Viewing change as positive puts me in mind of the resistance born of negatives associated with change – risk and fear and their relatives.

I like Lahirie’s view better – making change happen with permission and encouragement!

Amaryllis changing

 

“Marguerite’s Christmas” and New Year Thoughts

India Desjardin’s picture book, “Marguerite’s Christmas,” illustrated by Pascal Blanchet and translated from the French by Carolyn Grifel, is the story of Marguerite Godin who lives alone and has come to realize she would be happy to never step outside her house again. (Thanks to Julie Danielson for introducing me to this book on her blog, and Julie includes spreads from the book: http://blaine.org/sevenimpossiblethings/?p=3948)

Anxious and afraid of much in the world, of what might befall her, Marguerite turns down invitations from children and grandchildren and plans a quiet Christmas Eve, heating a frozen meal and watching television specials. But events provide a complicating encounter with strangers.

I love everything about this elegant book, from the diagonal candy-cane striped endpapers and luminous, angular illustrations of cozy houses and falling snow to the story – not at all usual for a children’s book. (I am eager to read it to Lady Baby and hear her take).

What follows here isn’t a tidy tie-together, maybe just intersecting thoughts, but Marguerite’s story played in my mind all through the holiday. I recognize that pull to stay put, to narrow down to comforts and familiar habits – how different from engaging, from making an effort.

At night we see the glittering lights of Victoria, British Columbia, across the Strait from our house. Sweet Baby’s parents had never been, so New Year’s Eve we had planned a quick trip.

After a week of dark, cold rain, the weather turned clear on New Year’s Eve eve, and Sweet Baby, who proved to be as flexible a traveler as her parents, slept on the ferry. She woke as we approached the decorated buildings around Victoria’s quiet inner harbor.

The next morning Sweet Baby, zipped into her dad’s down jacket, slept as we walked through beautiful Beacon Hill Park to see our bluff from the other side. In the afternoon she rode in Lady Baby’s little pink London stroller while we explored the Royal British Columbia Museum.

We ate great restaurant meals, Sweet Baby sitting in a high chair to dine on “tubes” of various contents and O’s – little puffs she carefully picks up one at a time. She looks at us when we eat noisy food like chips. (I think she knows something more could be on offer. Something to complicate life.)

For dinner on New Year’s Eve, we arranged to meet the woman I met by chance in December when we boarded the plane home from Anchorage. A scientist, she’d been in the Arctic interviewing people about their experiences with recent weather. Although she lives in Victoria, as we exchanged the usual seatmate greetings, we realized that we planned to visit Victoria for New Year’s, and she planned to come to Port Townsend with her daughter. Their plans changed, so we invited them to join us for dinner.

My new friend and her daughter certainly weren’t in a snow bank like Marguerite’s people – but were a serendipitous encounter acted upon.

I’m going to remember “Marguerite’s Christmas” this year. We did have a really good time at that dinner – but even if we hadn’t, we’d have had a new experience. And that’s of value, great value.

Olivia and Laura 1

Slow Beginnings – A Little More December

Arriving the day before Christmas Eve and departing the weekend after New Years, Sweet Baby and her parents came north for the whole holiday. That gift of time made for the most luxurious of holidays.

Having nine-month old lively Sweet Baby changed everything. We celebrated around her wake time (early) and naps (one in the front pack on a walk and one in the crib). Sitting in a little chair that hooked onto our wooden spool coffee table, she ate meals with us by the fire.

Sweet Baby gets up and down from the floor with enviable ease and can stand alone, although a little shakily. For Christmas she revealed one bottom tooth and then another in the days after. Sometimes she wore a t-shirt with a glittery heart on front saying, “My heart is made of gold.”

If she’s on the floor, she extends her little arms for a pick-up or grabs hold of our jeans to pull herself up. Once up, she’s a cuddly, wiggling bundle delivering smiles, squeezes, and squeals. She pats us, then extends her arm as though to point, but turns her hand palm up in the most graceful, slightly questioning way. I’m not sure what it means, but it is pure Sweet Baby.

Santa and stockings? Secondary to the package she received from our niece on arrival day, wrapped with a huge curly-ribboned bow. Each time Sweet Baby encountered the bow, she would carefully pull one strand out, turn it this way and that, and eventually insert it in her mouth (the final exploration). An adult would remove it, and she’d pick another.

Sweet Baby looked with intensity at everything – pictures on walls and fridge, the sky and trees. When I carried her over my hip in one arm while I opened or closed the shades, put the kettle on, made the oatmeal – I explained my actions. She’d watch the shade go up and then turn her head toward my face and study me – looking for reaction, for more words.

Oh, and words – her mom speaks mostly Thai to her, so her tiny head is full of two languages. The sort of things you say to babies became familiar in Thai, even to us.

For Christmas dinner we went out to our favorite Thai restaurant – cheerful and colorful. The Sweet Bride and the restaurant’s owner chatted to one another while each held a baby girl. The Sweet Bride said it felt like being home – and to us the evening felt like a delicious new tradition.

On the day of departure I picked up the remains of the ribbon when we got back from the airport run. Good times never last quite long enough – and oh, Sweet Baby’s first Christmas was a very good time!

Olivia and Laura

 

Short and Dark

“Such a short time you were here,” said Lady Baby, the night before we flew home from our December visit. But we made merry!

On the first day we selected a tree – the tallest ever at Downtown Abbey – and Lady Baby, studying each ornament and determining careful placement, hung hearts, stars, and fluffy owls. We cut out cats, angels, and gingerbread folk to bake and frost and eat. At a lively high school production of a hip-hop “Nutcracker,” Lady Baby might have liked more plot and fewer dance numbers, but she eyed the Mouse King’s every move.

For two days I took her to preschool, and we’d arrive at the little schoolroom in morning darkness to find candle glow, fragrant greenery, and quiet children in a circle around their teacher. In a snow globe moment at pickup time, bundled-up children sledded, squealed, and chased snowflakes to catch on their tongues.

But I treasure most the glimpsed bits of Lady Baby’s thinking: I wouldn’t have known, or ever guessed, that Prudhoe Bay is the best place to get a vegan sandwich (you will remember that Nick, the father of Baby Boy, spends a lot of time in Prudhoe Bay – though he prefers a sausage sandwich).

At the nearby elementary school, Lady Baby climbed the frosty equipment, watched the school’s hardy chickens standing about on one leg (the other tucked into their feathers), and observed “they’d be warmer in their little hut, because they have a light to warm it up.”

Walking home she spotted a dog and its master starting out for a walk. She stopped and stared a minute, then told me “Somebody must really love that sweet puppy.”

We read an animal character version of “A Christmas Carol,” identifying all the animals placed in the familiar Dickens tale, and revisited old favorites like “Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree.” Beginning “The Dog Who Found Christmas, a book new to us and discovering Buster abandoned by heartless owners, I said, “Uh oh, this might be sad.” Lady Baby quickly reassured me, “Don’t worry Granna Katy, he’ll find a home by the end.” And so he did.

While Mrs. Hughes and Mr. Carson had a night away, we spent an overnight with Lady Baby – and it seemed a privilege that everything was so normal. Dinner, bath, books, bed – sleeping tight all night – waking up to “Pretend you are the baby tiger and I am the mama, or no I am the baby and you are the mama.”

Her parents, on the other hand, did that thing I remember so well – looking forward to a break and a chance to ski and eat with grown ups – then spending the whole time talking about the almost four-year old at home.

This visit was short – and winter solstice dark – but rich with Christmas magic (“I think Santa might really be a mouse, so he can fit in all the chimneys”), candle light, tree lights, and music – days to savor.

Is everything ready at your house? I wish you such a happy Christmas, abrim with peace, joy, and love!

christmas cards