Katy Gilmore is an artist (watercolors and artists' books ) and writer living in the Pacific Northwest. She is the author/illustrator of "The Year in Flowers: A Daybook." Katy has had more than 25 solo exhibitions, and her work is included in public and private collections. Her blog "Her spirits rose..." explores art and inspiration in the everyday things of home and garden, and her work is found at Bainbridge Arts and Crafts on Bainbridge Island, Washington.
In spite of early snow and torrential rain (no exaggeration), the frost on Sunday felt decisively January.
On a sunny walk, my mind buzzed with thoughts of my commonplace book idea. I’d imagined 24 small books about flowers for the beautiful glass cases at the Miller, but lately, I’ve questioned that plan.
Now I think about taller books, still about flowers, the year in flowers. Just a sampler, and, of course, Washington flowers this time. Some of the months will require revisiting past notes and blogs. And because the books’ size will better allow stems, I can begin with the branches of January.
In these early months I get to check memory against reality – and observe new things – like this beginning to bud Ribes sanguineum decorated for some unknown reason with a teeny, tiny knitted hat!
While getting out the tree decorations this year I found a note I wrote to myself: “I’m putting these decorations away on January 6, 2021, while rioters attack the U.S. Capitol. Where will we be when I unpack them?” The answer I suppose is in the midst of a barely bipartisan investigation and a lot of other woes.
The tree didn’t get decorated by our California family as hoped – colds (not Covid) felled three members, cancelling travel. In hindsight, maybe a good thing. Omicron increased its presence, an after Christmas snowfall left ice in its wake polished by a stiff north wind, and temperatures fell to a record 17° in the Pacific Northwest.
Our young friend, her parents, and her visiting university friend from England, salvaged Christmas Eve. The young people decorated the tree (revisiting a long-standing tradition from our young friend’s childhood), and it was interesting to hear the 20-somethings’ take on Covid, feeling lucky because they’d had two years of real college, and feeling sorry for younger students who began their studies on-line.
We missed the California crew, but, backsliding to FaceTime togetherness, opened Christmas presents in the morning and ate Christmas dinner with them. Which is far better than nothing.
Now it is January – and we head into our third pandemic year with mind-boggling crises around every corner – the Covid deaths that now seem unnecessary, the refusal to deal with climate change, and the threats to our democracy.
The other night we watched “Don’t Look Up!” – have you seen it? I laughed – laughed hard – the reactions to impending and certain doom so absurd. And then, of course, the truth of the whole thing hits – how precisely and accurately the movie skewers humankind’s reaction to important events like climate change – or Covid for that matter. The attempts by the heroes are familiar and heartbreaking – the responses chilling. It’s very good and very discouraging.
But it is a new year, and, as my painter friend said recently about the future: “you never know.”
So, here’s hoping for health, accomplishments in your chosen endeavors, and year-long sprinklings of unexpected joy (like revisiting images from the last 10 years – starting the sunbonnet of Lady B – who just turned 10 herself)!
If you are away for a while this time of year, and miss the gradual shortening of the days, the disappearance of light is shocking. Darkness lingers late in the morning and descends early in the afternoon – but – all the better for shining twinkle lights and Christmas trees!
We were away in Kauai – for a glorious time (a year delayed) with both families. Days of body surfing and boogie boards with Mrs. Hughes for the girls, Lord B floated the “Lazy River” that forms by the shore near the place where we stay, and Sweet Brother, having never known Hawaii pleasures, happily paddled in the shallows and dug in the sand.
Each night after dinner the cousins searched by flashlight for frogs and giant snails. They mastered walkie-talkie lingo enabling fun communication between the condos (code named Jungle Base and Tower Base). Every morning I walked what we came to call the “cookie walk” – with Sweet Brother in the stroller and one or the other, or both Sweet B and Lord B. As we walked a path beside the beach, my companions adventurously tromped cross-country through a patch of trees, spoke of birds and baby chicks, stopped at the “laboratory tree” to include found treasures in its crannies, and sang made up songs to appease Sweet Brother (he does not like to stop).
The Alaskans had gone home before our trip ended with three days of serious storm – gale winds and torrential rain – but warmth.
After missing holidays and trips last year, to be together in that warmth felt luxurious. Last year we all tried so hard with strange, lonely holidays – and here is normalcy (sort of) returned and welcome. While the pandemic slides into endemic –the California contingent will come for Christmas.
I’ve been silent here on the blog – so many books I’ve missed writing about – Anthony Doerr’s new book “Cloud Cuckoo Land,” “Patchwork: A Life Amongst Clothes” by Claire Wilcox, a curator at the V&A, and a revisiting of all the novels of Elizabeth Taylor, beloved if not well-known, British writer from the last century. Treasures all.
My excuse is the show next summer – I want to explore books and pictures about gardens and plants, and I have been rereading my books and visiting the Miller Library. So far, I’ve only produced dummies of the artists’ books and bookmarks I’d like to make, but I have plans. Without the fresh flowers of the warm seasons and the inspiration of growing things – this will be a different way to prepare for a show.
In the meantime, along with our Christmas card (drawn by Lady B this year!), I send you warm wishes that these days at the year’s nadir are full of holiday cheer!
Last week a rainstorm blew in – a drenching that called for sturdy shoes and coats and startled after this summer of day-after-day sun.
During the first week of August, in the midst of that sunshine, Lady B came to visit. We did all our best things: drawing trees at Bloedel, beach time and hikes, painting pottery, and visiting the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle. She overlapped a day with Sweet B, and the two of them decorated our driveway with chalk flowers and a “welcome to the neighborhood sign,” and then camped out in the living room for a sleepover night.
The next morning, we rode the ferry to meet Lady B’s mom and eat crumpets and ice cream before they returned to Alaska. Sweet B stayed on with her family for three terrific weeks.
In September, the Garden Project at the Bainbridge Arts and Crafts Gallery succeeded with a near sell-out – earning more than $800 for the food bank. In an exciting development for me, I met another artist in the exhibition, a kindred spirit named Lou Cabeen. Over coffee one morning, she told me about the Elisabeth C. Miller Library at the Center for Urban Horticulture, part of the University of Washington Botanic Gardens.
In addition to emphasizing books about horticulture, botany, plant ecology, and garden design, this library presents monthly exhibits by artists who share the library’s love of plants, gardens, and nature. I applied to exhibit, and a lucky vacancy allowed me to be accepted for a show in July 2022.
The Miller is heaven for me – books and gardens! Last month I rode the light rail to the University of Washington, walked along a wetland path on the shore of Lake Washington, behind the huge stadiums and athletic buildings, to meet librarian Rebecca Alexander and see the available space. It’s plentiful, varied, and inspiring with possibility – and a little intimidating.
But really I wanted to make this update because of this piece by Adrian Higgins about trees. It reminded me that, in my efforts to transform the pumpkin patch into a long-lasting space, more trees are in order. (I’m beginning this process, but for now, more than 25 pumpkins nearly engulf the shrubs I planted last spring.) Our neighborhood has seen the destruction of all sorts of small habitats these last few years. It’s fall planting time, and a joy, to put some back.
How can it be the middle of July already? Summer days for sure. We endured the heat dome, and now experience our summer drought – day after day of sunshine – but so far, thankfully, without a return of the extreme heat.
A recent comment referred to these posts as “accounts of life, illustrated,” a lovely definition of what I’ve always tried to do here – and an update is due.
My work is now part of the Bainbridge Arts and Crafts exhibition in September – not August. The pieces made of gardeners’ words and my images are safely at the gallery – all 50 of them! They will be priced at just $35.00, unframed, with my portion of proceeds to be donated to the local food bank at Helpline House. (That seemed a good solution to using other people’s words.) It was great fun to do this project, and I look forward to meeting many of the gardeners at the opening!
This September show is large, with many artists involved, so I’m not sure my other work will all be hung, but I surely enjoyed the making – illustrating garden bloom. In August I’ll post more blue and whites here, and maybe some pieces from “A Garden Project” on Instagram. Here’s one!
The other day I received an email from a dear reader who wondered, “being a worrier,” about the blog. After 10 years of mostly weekly posts, this has indeed been a long spring break.
We’ve been to both Alaska and California – exciting to go through the familiar steps of travel – and bliss to see the grandchildren. A long enough visit in California let us settle into a routine with a table full of art supplies and projects, lots of book reading, and much admiring of the changes in Sweet Brother! He’s a whole little person now – walking everywhere, full of fun and strong opinions. We visited the two open museums in Los Angeles, the Sweet Bride made us wonderful meals, and their garden in a California April is paradise.
And Alaska – one year and five months since we saw Lady B and her brother. I’m thankful for technology for keeping us from seeming strangers, but nothing compares with being together. Lots of hugs, many games of Go Fish (I lose always), Quick Cups (I sometimes win), and Lady B worked with me on my “Illustrating Animals” class homework. Lord B delighted us – funny and smart and so welcoming – he worked on Star Wars Legos with Papa Jim and listened every night to chapters of “The Lord of the Rings.” The Anchorage April landscape brought back memories.
I would have written about all this, and books, and excitement about Biden’s attempts to right things, but the Bainbridge Arts and Crafts Gallery offered the opportunity to be featured in August – to do flowers – whatever I wanted.
I plan three big paintings and many more of the blue and white series. In that wonderful way of ideas appearing from nowhere, I also began to think about words from local gardeners about their gardens, to combine with images from my past flower and garden illustration work.
I passed out a query letter to gardeners on my walks, asked coordinators of P-patches and garden groups to share them, and encouraged all to pass on to gardener friends. The varied responses range from the closely personal to Ann Lovejoy’s, “If you have too many weeds, you don’t have enough plants.” It’s been great fun to receive gardener’s words and choose a suitable image to accompany them. The final products – text and pictures on a backing – look a little like garden book pages.
So, it’s been busy – in a good way for sure! I hope you are well and vaccinated and enjoying this spring and coming summer!
A week ago, while listening to a book on FaceTime, Lord B told me that, in Alaska, “it’s not spring, but it’s spring break.” Snow still covers the ski mountain – making for great ski days without school.
Here it is spring – just days past the vernal equinox, blossoms cover cherry and plum trees, flowering daphne perfumes the air, anemone and a few cautious tulips join daffodils, whose insistent yellow declares the season begun. On my morning walk, a pair of small dinosaur hatchlings suddenly appeared at the end of a driveway – made of plastic and wearing masks, of course.
Resident birds noisily busy themselves, and V-shaped flocks of geese touch down on Eagle Harbor, then depart for northern climes. Unseen for months, rabbits appear from thickets to nibble fresh green grass. And in the human world, the garden center seems relaxed compared to this time last year, when a desperate air permeated the place – gone are many of the restrictions and plants are plentiful.
It’s a good time for a short spring break in “Her spirits rose….”
After being a click ‘n shipper for a year, last week I actually visited the post office. Bainbridge sports two post offices, one tiny and the other small. Just one person at a time may enter the tiny post office. But a line forms at the other – six customers and two workers in a small room, sort of spaced out, not really a crowd – but being there made me antsy.
And made me think about crowds, about how they used to be associated with exciting things: travel, performances, big cities, the Women’s March. How readily we accepted being close to an unknown person – and how long ago that seems.
And now I wonder what it will be like as things open up, will we ever again be comfortable with crowds? Will we come to a point where crowded moments – the cluster that forms as people wait to disembark the ferry, an airport waiting area, the aisle of a movie theatre after the show, the crush of a rattling, stuffy subway car! – will be normal again?
What do you most look forward to in our future? I love the very thought of a hug (or maybe a crowded hug) with grandchildren and their parents. Increasing acceptance of public crowds will mark a milestone in our COVID-19 journey – this one toward joy!
Because I began and continued to read Maggie O’Farrell’s new book, “Hamnet,” in bed for several nights in that liminal space between awake and sleep, I utterly failed to appreciate what a wonder it is. But I woke up to its pleasures about a third of the way in, and the next day began to devour it properly. I have loved Maggie O’Farrell’s books and now also this one – for her language and the scope of her imagining.
Despite the title, the crucial, central character in the book is Agnes, the name O’Farrell gives Anne Hathaway, William Shakespeare’s wife. She’s a healer and herbalist, an outsider, a woman who at 26, married the 18-year-old Latin tutor, destined to become playwright to the centuries. The tale alternates between the book’s present time, when Hamnet, their only son, is 11 with the time of Agnes’s youth – beloved mother and wicked stepmother, meeting her husband, and the birth of their three children.
Replete with Shakespearean themes of death, grief, the supernatural, twins, mistaken identity and the natural world, O’Farrell wholly imagines the life of the family Shakespeare left behind (paying only infrequent visits) as he found his way in London. O’Farrell uses the everyday details of forests (hazelnuts are “dust-jacketed pearls”) and kitchens, herbs (“extract of valerian and tincture of chickweed) and animals, childbirth, in-laws, and houses.
And she writes specifically of tragedy, for Hamnet is felled by an unnamed pestilence, most probably bubonic plague. (O’Farrell’s rich recreation of the infection’s journey, via generations of fleas who voyage the world, is harrowing during our plague.) Hamnet’s death brings an unbearable grief to Agnes.
In the end, Agnes’s countryside and the playwright’s teeming London town collide – and also the griefs of mother and father – in the crowded pit of the Globe Theatre, during a production of “Hamlet,” four years after the death of Hamnet.
It’s a marvel of a book – worthy of a wideawake reading.
On the third of March last year, I first mentioned the coronavirus on the blog, wondering about its spread. Then gradually, with no real uh-oh moment, we learned new words and phrases: fomite, flatten the curve, shelter in place, social distancing, super spreader. It shocked when Italy shut down, but by mid-month Washington followed suit. Masks quickly became standard, as did virtual work, school, and social life. Hugging went the way of touching our faces.
But at no point early did I imagine that a year later COVID-19 would have killed upwards of 500,000 Americans. Now we can answer the questions posed as the year wore on: Will the winter of 2020 be better? Or the darkest winter we’ve ever known?
I just mark this anniversary, and for a moment think about then and now. It’s discouraging to face how badly the past administration did, but heartening to watch the new one attempt to set things right. At first vaccines seemed a matter of years in the future – and now everyone is scrambling to get one of three approved vaccines. (Speedy vaccine development made possible by scientific breakthroughs, and by the appalling amount of virus circulating in the country.)
And I try to appreciate that vaccine miracle as we negotiate the new uncertainties. We’ve grown familiar and comfortable with masks and distance, and I try not to think about the variants with their uncatchy number names. But nothing seems certain anymore. And we are a little numbed I think, very accustomed to Zoom life with family and friends, maybe a little nervous to actually be with them. With two shots aboard, my friend of longstanding visited hers, and commented, “it’s real life in an unknown time.”
I loved reading about happiness at vaccination centers. Surely the coming spring and summer will bring an easing of anxiety and return of trust – an end to this COVID year’s dearth of joy.
Last week I went to Seattle with my old friend who lives here (my longstanding friend of shared adventures). We decided on a whim the day before to travel (remember such thoughts?), to ride the ferry, be in the city and, after ongoing gray, make use of promised sunshine.
In a word, Seattle was grim. On our visit in December, holiday festivities buffered reality with a little glitter and cheer. This week all seemed grubby and crazy and more than a little sad. Hammering Man still pounds, and walking past I wondered if anybody considers putting a mask on him, thinking it would probably tangle with his hammer. But gazing up at him takes eyes away from the street scene – more shelters in doorways, blue tarps, tents, boarded up shops. No scurrying office workers clutching coffee cups.
Beyond curiosity and the desire to walk someplace else, our only target was The Crumpet Shop (hoping to recreate our holiday visit, eat some, take some home). But no, “closed due to COVID and winter business constriction.” We absorbed this sign, and kept walking.
Still bustling at Christmas, now the market was deserted, all the long row of stalls empty. People milled along the street through the market, small clusters formed in front of a few vegetable stands, the original Starbucks, noodle shops, and Le Panier. Corrugated iron shades shuttered the bakery I look for (because it has enormous vegan chocolate chip cookies that can be an indulgent meal in a pinch).
A mid-week, winter day surely explains the empty market (it must still bustle on the weekend, even on this recent snowy Valentine’s Sunday), but I’d hoped for a glimpse of the flower stands loaded with spring blossom, tall, galvanized buckets full of tulip and daffodil color.
We circled more blocks, then searched for a Mexican place my friend once mentioned as providing a memorable evening meal – a tiny taqueria on First Avenue. Beans and rice just when you need them – and guacamole and freshly made tortillas – at a metal table tucked just off the sidewalk. Suddenly we were doing the unheard of – eating at a restaurant, albeit outdoors. We talked about cities, about living in a city in a pandemic – how so many places no longer exist as we picture them in our memories.
We were glad we went. And glad to be home.
It’s mid-term in the U.K., so class took a break last week. In our break assignment, we painted random watercolor shapes, and then changed them into people by adding features and clothing using gouache – taking advantage of its opaqueness and layering ability.
The ladies below appeared out of the watercolor blobs, wearing their winter coats, and standing in a meadow of flowers. Maybe they are out of the city for the day.
A walloping snowstorm hit Washington this weekend – eight inches and more of heavy, maybe good for snowmen but lousy for sledding, snow. Gazing out the window, I see the patio table turned into a giant snow cone, St. Francis wearing a pointed shroud, cars, lawns, and streets engulfed. Often impassable sidewalks force pedestrians into the street – trudging through wind driven snow.
Our power stayed on though, and enabled too much impeachment trial – reliving January 6th, and learning even more about the former president’s efforts to bring forth his murderous mob. And then we watched as most Republican senators fulfilled the verdict’s foregone conclusion.
Last week was hard in several ways. Lady Cora, beloved and beautiful dog of Downtown Abbey, died after collapsing suddenly in a snowy meadow with Mr. Carson, her favorite person. The vet thinks she probably suffered an aneurysm – one of those out of the blue life enders – a shock to the whole family and a first brush with death for Lord and Lady B. Painful, so painful. Cora was the sweetest dog, ever present. She is sorely missed in a much quieter house.
Such is my mindset today, I see the snowstorm as just another hardship thrown at people whose paychecks depend on getting to work.
I write on the weekend, but rain is predicted for Monday and a return to 41° and normal winter. February goes on.
Since the middle of January, I’ve been attending a weekly class presented by the House of Illustration in London. “Illustrating People,” is taught by the Welsh illustrator, Siôn Aptos. The sessions begin at 6:30 p.m. London time (10:30 a.m. for me). It will run for 10 weeks, and I love this class.
On Thursday mornings, I join 15 other students on Zoom for two hours of presentation – learning about drawing from reference and life, and the myriad ways to illustrate people. My classmates sign in from all over, a woman from Estonia, another Yank, Brits with senses of humor from around the UK. I often wish I could visit with them afterwards – the way you do in a real class – my tribe, people whose eyes don’t glaze over when talk turns to tricks for getting the length of a nose right.
We started with facial features on amorphous watercolor shapes, an approach meant to help break down the intimidation it’s easy to feel about the oh, so familiar human face. Encouraged to simplify and exaggerate to create a character, I struggle, getting lost, as I tend to do, in the reality weeds. We draw “in class,” and have assignments to complete and post to our shared Padlet (an online classroom corkboard). On good days I get involved and obsessed and keep at it – the best of learning.
Other days I fizzle – but can be cheered by yet more screen time and an exchange with the important people in Alaska or California or both together. We’ve discovered a couple of book series that appeal to all of them (except Sweet Brother – he’s not ready for FaceTime book club). We read about Kitty, a girl with cat-like superpowers, or Zoey (and her cat Sassafras) who can speak to and help animals by using basic methods of science, or little Darek who finds a “dragonling,” and comes to promote peaceful life between dragons and townspeople. My audience is patient with technological missteps, “upside down Granny Katy.” Sometimes they draw or do Legos, but often just listen and always follow the plot.
The video calls, like the illustration class, leave me feeling I’ve been with them, but not quite. FaceTime dinners with friends are like that, too. You get takeout and it’s all simple, and still fun, but I’d be so glad to see them and their cozy houses. My screen experiences are just a shadow of what faces those who work from home or attend school virtually – upsides and down.
It’s a privilege to have these alternate methods of being with people. I know that. And here we are – almost a year of pandemic – but we keep Zooming and carry on!
When my friend who lives here on the island offered a chance to nab a vaccine appointment (momentarily available at Swedish in Seattle), I should have jumped. Instead, I passed. Oh, so cavalier at that point!
For a while I did the coulda, shoulda shaming number, but many people are in a worse position. I am not in a grocery store all day waiting for the mutant virus variant to come shopping, or living in a way that guarantees family sharing of the virus.
For days I kept sorting through the possible vaccine sites, and read last week of the first county clinic on this side of the water. Registration opened at 10 a.m. Monday, and by the time the twirly ball paused at 10:13, the registration page opened to read, “there are no appointments available.”
Then, just as I’d resigned myself to stay part of the “haven’t hads,” a local Instagram friend posted that she’d been vaccinated. Awestruck by her ability to negotiate the system, I inquired and learned of another clinic in nearby Silverdale, where the website announced, “no appointments but check back on Friday.” So I did – occasionally refreshing the page as I did other things. Suddenly, lo and behold, a little past mid-day, a schedule appeared. By the time I nervously signed up my husband and me and dashed next door to tell my neighbors to try, the appointments were gone.
I’m not sure this system should be so confusing, reliant on online access and time, threatened by inequities (like hospital donors getting early vaccine), nor so dependent on luck and chance (a fortunate Oregon few vaccinated while stuck in a snowstorm behind a jackknifed tractor-trailer). But my heart goes out to the people managing this rollout, the same public health workers who have coped with the pandemic for a year. It seems beyond hard to deal with last minute and uncertain vaccine allotments.
I hope, if your phase is open, you have had the shot or have an appointment! “Keep checking back” really does work.
One very happy thing during the endless month of January 2021 – Sweet Brother turned one last week. Only ever having known a pandemic and his whole family home together, he has one upper and two bottom teeth, a definite exploratory nature, and can walk everywhere – including a snowy totter on a birthday adventure!
It’s almost a week ago now, but what a relief-filled, celebratory inauguration morning – a coordinated, heartfelt event in the face of coronavirus restrictions and domestic terrorist threats.
For four years we have suffered anxiety and fear dosed out by a president bent on destroying the good in our multi-cultural democracy. From the day after his inauguration when we marched in pink hats, to the capitol riots by his supporters on January 6th, people have died and been terrorized on his cruel watch. He’s gone now, and on a morning spitting snow and flashes of sun, a set of real leaders changed the dynamic by word and music.
First Kamala, beautiful in her plum coat, pearls, and delighted smile, adding to her incredible history-making firsts the sight of loving husband, family (stepdaughter Ella Emhoff’s plaid coat with bedazzled shoulders!), this swearing-in brought tears and joy to many of us.
And President Biden (what a pleasure to say that) – the grownup we need – brave, caring, hard-working. Without naming names, he declared the end to lies and pledged truth. Not denying the pain ahead, but committing to pay attention, be a guardian, and bring planning and expertise to bear. You could feel echoes of “ask not” in his speech, as Biden made it seem we all have a part to play. Perhaps a constant and refreshing barrage of the truth might sway those who have been victims of destructive lies and fabrications. Biden offers and asks for common sense.
In that gathering of dark blue suits, and chosen for significance, jewel-toned wool coats of purple, plum, and ocean blues, sunshine shone from the young poet (and highlight of the morning) Amanda Gorman, in her dandelion suit and cherry red hat band. Her very presence, reciting her spoken word poem, faced our dark and showed the light – her words perfect and sparkling.
“And so we lift our gazes not to what stands between us,
but what stands before us.”
That phrase holds wonderous possibility and hard reality. Later in the day Biden got right to work on the latter, signing a slew of executive orders to begin the promised repair and replenish.
Last week hope lifted spirits. A genuine fight against the coronavirus lies ahead – tragically too late for hundreds of thousands of Americans – an economic and health crisis exacerbated by incompetence, but now we are led by a government promising to listen to science, and face – and tell us – the truth.
Lady B watched the inauguration, and her mom sent the drawing she made during it. She’s nine now, and sees one key to our future clearly. That looks like a knock-out punch to me!