Colors of the West

BryceSunset

Bryce Canyon, sunset. “When we enter the landscape to learn something, we are obligated to pay attention rather than constantly to pose questions. To approach the land as we would a person, by opening an intelligent conversation. And to stay in one place, to make of that one, long observation a fully dilated experience. We will always be rewarded if we give the land credit for more than we imagine, and if we imagine it as being more complex even than language. In these ways we begin to find a home, to sense how to fit a place.” – Barry Lopez, as quoted in Molly Hashimoto’s marvelous Colors of the West: An Artist’s Guide to Nature’s Palette

 

I found Molly Hashimoto’s luscious book in one of the national park bookstores I browsed on our road trip across the country. It was a great companion as we toured the Southwest, even though I did no painting or sketching – just hiking and exploring.

Molly teaches at the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology, the North Cascades Institute, and Yellowstone Forever Institute.

 

ColorsoftheWest

Molly devotes a chapter to each color: green, blue, gold, red, orange, and violet.

 

Molly Hashimoto had an epiphany that led to her artistic vision after encountering the work of Thomas Moran:

“This rendezvous with Moran compelled me to reconsider what it meant to be an artist – how to work, where ideas are generated, the purpose of art. I felt that I, too, had to create work in the field, to keep sketchbooks and journals to record my own experiences in the outdoors. Of course, I had a few doubts. After all, this awakening occurred in what I then felt was middle age, and I wondered if it wasn’t just a little late to be undertaking this new project. But enthusiasm won the day. And now I always tell my students it is never too late to start keeping sketchbooks.”

 

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Each national park, and every natural place, has a palette, says Molly Hashimoto. This is Rialto Beach in Olympic National Park. This watercolor painting appears in Molly’s “blue” chapter. “The deeper blue becomes, the more urgently it summons man towards the infinite…” – Wassily Kandinsky

 

I love Molly’s instructions for palettes of different landscapes:

Skies:

Clear: Use a very weak phthalo blue red shade. The zenith may be a redder, more intense blue, so try adding carbazole violet or cobalt blue to that part of the sky.

Dawn and sunset: Permanent alizarin crimson, hansa yellow, pyrrol orange, perylene red, carbazole violet, phthalo blue red shade, indanthrone blue and quinacridone burnt orange are all colors that may capture the varied shades seen at these hours.

Sea Stacks and Rocks:

Dark rocks seen in silhouette: Use phthalo blue red shade mixed with quinacridone burnt orange and carbazole violet. Or try ultramarine blue plus quinacridone burnt orange plus carbazole violet. 

 

Sedona

This is Sedona, Arizona and the view just down the street from the home of family members we visited on our cross country road trip. What a stunning palette of colors…..

 

Molly includes color instructions for trees and forests, rivers, creeks, tarns, and lakes, glaciers and snowfields, cliffs and rocks summer coastal prairies and meadows, sand, ocean water, and autumn hues.

 

SedonaRedRocks

Red Rock Ranger District, Coconino National Forest, Sedona.

 

GrandCanyon

Grand Canyon South Rim, late afternoon. It has many moods and an infinite number of palettes depending on the time of day, the season, the weather, and a host of other variables.

 

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Another view of the Grand Canyon, a different time of day. “Traveling and sketching in the off-season—when children and college students have returned to school and many people are back at work—feels so much more like the earlier artists’ and travelers’ experience of our national parks and monuments. The sense of discovery is keener when there are fewer people. And the visual thrill of brilliant fall colors is augmented by all our senses: the silence, the fragrance of dry leaves, the feeling of the chill morning air. Beyond that, we know that the shorter days mean that winter is coming, so we value these hours even more.” – Molly Hashimoto. (I agree. My husband and I explored these parks and places in November, which turned out to be gloriously warm with many sun-filled days. And not many people.)

 

Bryce

Bryce Canyon. “Ochres and siennas are colors made from earth compounds tinted with iron oxides and are found in some of the earliest art….”   Molly Hashimoto

 

Bryce3

We met an artist and her husband. She was painting with oils.

 

LifeontheEdge

Life on the edge. This is a limber pine (pinus flexilis)

 

GrandCanyonLodge

The huge fireplace in El Tovar Lodge at the Grand Canyon. In the afternoon, after we’d hiked part of the South Rim, it got chilly and I appreciated this roaring fire. I sat on one of the comfy sofas and read a book.

 

Do you have a favorite national park? Do you keep a nature journal or sketchbook, or do you paint what you encounter in nature?

The spirits of Ghost Ranch

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These low, red hills fascinated Georgia O’Keeffe. Click on this link to see one of her paintings of this landscape. An O’Keeffe painting recently sold for $45 million.

Detours can be the best parts of a journey.

Our detour to Ghost Ranch Education and Retreat Center in northern New Mexico was a turning point in our trip, and a magical gateway to the American Southwest. I’d mentioned to my husband when we were driving through New Mexico that I wanted to see where Georgia O’Keeffe had lived and painted. Joe looked online and discovered that we could stay at Ghost Ranch.

At more than 20,000 acres, Ghost Ranch is a world-renowned center of paleontology, anthropology, and archeology, rich with fossil quarries that contain some of the most important dinosaur bones ever discovered. Georgia O’Keeffe painted many of her masterpieces here, and more than 100 movies have been filmed at Ghost Ranch (including Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and No Country for Old Men.)

 

JuniperTree

This juniper near O’Keeffe’s home, or one like it, inspired her painting, Gerald’s Tree.

 

Now owned by the Presbyterian Church, Ghost Ranch attracts thousands of visitors a year who come here for spiritual retreats, art and music classes, yoga, outdoor adventures and trail rides, or as a temporary refuge if you’re passing through, as my husband and I were.

Ghost Ranch is said to be haunted by spirits. It sure felt that way the night Joe and I arrived, in the dark, after driving up, up, and up on a twisting, turning road with many scary drop-offs. The welcome center had closed, and the staff had left our room key. We found our way in the dark and silence to the dorm, a no-frills adobe structure that had been staff quarters on this exclusive retreat for the wealthy in the 1920s and 1930s.

You had to be invited to come to Ghost Ranch. Georgia O’Keeffe was famous by the time she finagled an invitation. Others who came were Charles Lindbergh’s family and the Robert Wood Johnson family, founders of Johnson & Johnson. The R.W. Johnson former home is now the library at Ghost Ranch. The Lindbergh’s wanted a secret, private escape, as this was after their infant son had been kidnapped. Charles flew over Ghost Ranch and developed its first aerial view map.

 

CerroPedernal

Cerro Pedernal (flint hill), O’Keeffe’s favorite mountain, which she painted several times. Her ashes are scattered here.

 

All was darkness as Joe and I made our way to our room, except for the stars. The Milky Way cut a huge swath in the sky.

Ghost Ranch is said to be haunted by the spirits of the nomadic Native Americans that roamed here for thousands of years. Maybe, also, by the restless spirits of the cattle rustler brothers who, back in the day, hid stolen cattle in this box canyon and along the Chama River. Eventually, the two brothers had a falling out and one killed the other. The local townspeople came for the remaining brother and hung him from a tree that still stands on the property.

 

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Ghost Ranch has a herd of sheep descended from those brought by the Spanish hundreds of years ago. Their wool is sent to a local woolen mill.

 

Our first morning at Ghost Ranch, my husband and I awoke to fluffy clouds that gave way to warm sunshine, which bathed a landscape of unusual rock formations and stunning mountains. The land glowed in hues of vermilion, ochre, gold, cream, and dusty brown.

 

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A typical fireplace. This is in the home of the cattle rustlers who originally inhabited Ghost Ranch land. It is now a museum.

 

The staff and guides at Ghost Ranch were welcoming and knowledgeable. While Joe hiked up to the cliff chimneys, I took a guided tour of the ranch and a trip into the hillsides, where we saw many features of the terrain that Georgia O’Keeffe painted. Wendy, our tour guide, was an expert on O’Keeffe’s art and life. She had samples of the artist’s paintings that she showed us alongside the actual landscape subjects that so fascinated O’Keeffe. Georgia had her automobile outfitted as a portable studio and painted in the desert all day long. When it got too hot, she rested underneath her car.

 

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This is the casita that Georgia O’Keeffe lived in her first summer at Ghost Ranch. O’Keeffe’s world famous photographer husband, Alfred Stieglitz, never visited Ghost Ranch during the summers his wife stayed there. He remained in New York, where he was occupied with his career and his mistress. He and Georgia wrote 25,000 pages of letters to each other. Their relationship is a fascinating study of passionate love and how two great artists supported each other in their work.

 

I also attended a church service in the chapel, where I met a retired chaplain and a minister who were from my home town. The couple had rented out their Cleveland condo and were spending the year living and volunteering at Ghost Ranch.

Joe and I loved the home-cooked meals –  breakfast, lunch, and dinner – in the Ghost Ranch dining hall, where you could meet and mingle with other guests who had come to take classes and watch the sun set in the evenings.

 

Georgia

This is an excellent biography of O’Keeffe by Roxana Robinson, a novelist whose fiction has been compared to the work of John Cheever.

 

We were at Ghost Ranch just short of two days and didn’t have time to explore all its riches.

 

AbiquiChurch

The Catholic church in the nearby town of Abiquiu. O’Keeffe had a home built on Ghost Ranch and then another in Abiquiu, which is now a museum.

 

So we hope to return someday.

 

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Cliff chimneys at Ghost Ranch

 

 

 

The Invention of Nature

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“Humboldt talked of ‘mankind’s mischief…which disturbs nature’s order’. There were moments in this life when he was so pessimistic that he painted a bleak future of humankind’s eventual expansion into space, when humans would spread their lethal mix of vice, greed, violence and ignorance across other planets. The human species could turn even those distant stars barren and leave them ‘ravaged’, Humboldt wrote as early as 1801, just as they were already doing with earth….”

“Maybe now is the moment for us and for the environmental movement to reclaim Alexander von Humboldt as our hero.”   – The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf

I didn’t have the camera or the skills to do justice to the landscape we drove through late one afternoon and into the evening on our cross-country journey. Mile after mile of drilling, fracking, and water pillaging, as far as the eye could see. We found our way into this surreal place unawares, and emerged a few hours later, shaken and sober.

 

Flame:Derrick

 

Living in the Finger Lakes region, I’ve been spoiled: citizens came together to successfully outlaw fracking. Scenes such as these are not unfamiliar to me, though. I grew up in Cleveland and saw heavy industry smokestacks often. But I have never seen anything on this scale before. Hundreds of gas flares marked the landscape as if there were some dire emergency – which I believe there is.

We arrived at our rather desolate, but welcome, motel room and, as timing would have it, that evening I finished reading The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf, about a man who, over 200 years ago, predicted that humans would wreak havoc on the environment. 

The Invention of NatureThe German scientist and naturalist Alexander von Humboldt has been largely forgotten, even though he was an international “rock star” of his time, and even though many parks, lakes, mountains, towns, and counties in the US are named after him. Andrea Wulf’s biography, published in 2015, has resurrected his legacy and spirit. Her book won the James Wright Award for Nature Writing, the Royal Geographical Society Ness Award, and many others, and it was named a best book of the year by many newspapers and publications.

It’s a wonderful read, especially if you love well written biographies with themes of history, nature, travel, and adventure.  Here’s how Humboldt’s story opens:

“They were crawling on hands and knees along a high narrow ridge that was in places only two inches wide. The path, if you could call it that, was layered with sand and loose stones that shifted whenever touched. Down to the left was a steep cliff encrusted with ice that glinted when the sun broke through the thick clouds. The view to the right, with a 1,000-foot drop, wasn’t much better. Here the dark, almost perpendicular walls were covered with rocks that protruded like knife blades.

Alexander Humboldt and his three companions moved in single file, slowly inching forward….It was 23 June 1802, and they were climbing Chimborazo, a beautiful dome-shaped inactive volcano in the Andes that rose to almost 21,000 feet, some 100 miles to the south of Quito in today’s Ecuador.”

As a young man, Humboldt spent five years exploring South America and, later in life, about a year traveling through Siberia. For much of the rest of his years, he conducted research and scientific experiments, lectured, taught, and wrote books about his findings. His books were unlike any seen before, with his discoveries about climate and the natural world. Nearly bankrupting himself, he hired botanical illustrators, naturalists, and researchers to assist him in creating magnificent volumes that were much in demand and translated into many languages.

Humboldt is incredibly important because he concluded that nature was a vast, interconnected global force, and that human impact locally could have ramifications globally.

He had the radical notion that nature did not exist to serve humanity. His work and ideas influenced Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, and others. I like that Wulf devotes entire chapters to Darwin, Thoreau, Muir and a few others, so we can see how they carried Humboldt’s ideas forward in understanding nature and climate.

“… [John] Muir experienced the natural world in a new way….he now began to see connections. Everything was important in this grand big tangle of life. There existed no unconnected ‘fragment’, [John] Muir thought. Tiny organisms were as much part of this web as humankind. “Why ought man to value himself as more than an infinitely small unit of the one great unit of creation?’ Muir asked. “The cosmos,’ he said, using Humboldt’s term, would be incomplete without man but also without ‘the smallest transmicroscopic creature.’”

I love this description of Humboldt’s privately sponsored lectures, which women were allowed to attend. (At that time, women could not attend university lectures or meetings of scientific societies.)

“By not charging any entry fee, Humboldt democratized science: his packed audiences ranged from the royal family to coachmen, from students to servants, from scholars to bricklayers – and half of those attending were women.

With his gentle voice Humboldt took his audiences on a journey through the heavens and deep sea, across the earth, up the highest mountains and then back to a tiny fleck of moss on a rock. He talked about poetry and astronomy but also about geology and landscape painting. Meteorology, the history of the earth, volcanoes and the distribution of plants were all part of his lectures. He roamed from fossils to the northern lights, and from magnetism to flora, fauna and the migration of the human race. The lectures were a portrait of a vivid kaleidoscope of correlations that spanned the entire universe.”

 

Truck

Humboldt wrote prolifically. His most influential books are:

Cosmos: Sketch of a Physical Description of the Universe (Five Volumes)

Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent during the years 1799 – 1804

Views of Nature

Natural gas tanks

 

“The connection between knowledge, art and poetry, between science and emotions – the ‘deeply-seated bond’, as Humboldt called it – is more important than ever before. Humboldt was driven by a sense of wonder for the natural world – a sense of wonder that might help us today realize that we will protect only what we love.”

 

 

Refinery

A refinery

 

Our reward for making it through the landscape in these pictures was a full moon rising.

 

Moonrise

 

Days later in our journey, we passed by Humboldt Toiyabe National Forest in eastern Nevada.

Coming up next, places and images of great beauty and more luscious books, I promise!

 

Old Florida

SpanishMoss

Savannah, Georgia

BookLadyOn our road trip across the US (south to Florida, then west to Tucson, Arizona, then north to Portland, Oregon) we spent nearly two weeks visiting family in the St. Petersburg area. Along the way, we stopped in Savannah, Georgia, my first time in that lovely city. An afternoon wasn’t nearly long enough, but we did visit The Book Lady Bookstore on East Liberty Street.

They had a display devoted to the Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor, who lived most of her life in Milledgeville, Georgia, where she raised peacocks and wrote short stories and novels. Her shocking story, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” is taught in many high school English classes. If you haven’t read it, it’s well worth your time, I promise you. I’ve never forgotten that story, although I’m not a fan of O’Connor’s novels – her protagonists, obsessed with working out their salvation, are too strange for me.

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A Flannery O’Connor display at The Book Lady

But seeing the display called up memories and reminded me how much I enjoyed her collection of letters, The Habit of Being. Many years ago, when I lived in New York City, the assistant rector of the Episcopal church I attended taught a class on Flannery O’Connor. Fleming, our rector, who was from the South, led us in reading her stories and letters, and I was extra thrilled because The New Yorker writer, Joseph Mitchell,  a Southerner himself, was in the class, too.

St. Petersburg

There are many things about Florida that I love, but I’m allergic to all the over-development and the acres of generic condos and shopping centers. There is plenty to do near the beautiful St. Pete waterfront though, and when our sons came down we enjoyed some of the shops and restaurants. (They enjoyed the music and night life, too.) We bought red snapper, grouper, and shrimp from a local fish market that had dozens of ice chests overflowing with fresh catches, and our sons did the cooking.

In Florida, I always look hard for bits of nature and local culture, so I was extra happy when we rented a sweet little apartment in a hidden alley in one of the older St. Petersburg neighborhoods. Some of the streets are cobblestone and lined SleepingPorchwith adorable Old Florida bungalows, many being renovated. Even though most of the windows of our airbnb were painted shut, we had air conditioning, and two large windows in the sleeping porch let in breezes from Tampa Bay two blocks away.

In the yard, I found lots of angel hair fern. We used to add this delicate bit of greenery to the roses we sold by the dozen in my family’s flower shop in Ohio.

This part of Florida reminds me of one of my favorite books growing up, The Yearling, by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. Years later, I discovered, and loved, Marjorie’s memoir, Cross Creek. (There is a Cross Creek Cookery book, too.)

AngelHair

I love angel hair fern.

 
The ‘burbs

We had many happy visits with extended family in the St. Pete suburbs after we left our airbnb.  We walked in the neighborhood every day. It was warm and humid, with occasional light rain that felt wonderful.

 

SandhillCrane

A sandhill crane waits for a bus

 

Ibis

Ibis, following their leader

 

AfterRain

After the rain

 

BigLeaves

They grow them big,

 

Garden

My sister-in-law has a kitchen garden with herbs and veggies, including plenty of Thai basil.

 
We passed by this wind sculpture on our walk every day:

 

 
In the evenings, my niece, my sister-in-law and her mother, and I tried Chinese brush painting for the first time. We taught ourselves how to grind the ink, which is pressed into sticks and colorful rectangles, and mix it with water in an ink stone. Then we practiced brush strokes and painted our first, simple pictures. It was fun!

 

Chick

My attempt to paint a chick

 

RabbitBamboo

My sister-in-law’s mother made a beautiful rabbit and this beautiful bamboo.

 
The Panhandle

Eventually, it was time to say goodbye to family and move on to the Florida panhandle and points west along our Deep South route. We stayed in Destin, our final visit in Florida, which had a lovely beach that we had almost to ourselves. It was beside a sea turtle breeding ground and state park, and there was a hidden garden teeming with Monarch butterflies.

DestinBeach

Destin, Florida. There are military bases in nearby Pensacola, so we heard jets taking off from time to time.

 

Monarch

In a garden on the beach in Destin, there were hundreds of monarch butterflies.

 

Tracks

Places to go….

 

DestinSunrise

Sunrise, Destin, Florida. (Photo by J. Hallinan, who gets up much earlier than I do.)

 

TheYearling

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ classic coming-of-age story, set in backwoods Florida, 1930s

 

CrossCreek

Her memoir.

 

TheHabitofBeing

Flannery was a great writer of letters.

 

The Invention of Nature

This is what I’ve been reading on the road. It’s wonderful! More about it later…

Coming up: Mobile, Alabama and New Orleans

Traveling, immersing in nature, visiting bookstores. Do these experiences call up memories of books read long ago?

 

Sparrow, Art, Life

ArtistTable

An artist’s work table. The photo is the artist’s mother. The feathers are thought to be sparrow feathers. This past summer, Kathy (my college roommate and an accomplished artist) and her husband nursed and fed a one-legged baby sparrow ejected from its nest, helped her learn to fly, and acclimated her to the suburban “wild.” Kathy said she kept finding feathers in her yard, as if the birds were leaving small tokens of thanksgiving.

 

My husband and I and Books Can Save a Life have taken to the road!

We’ve left upstate New York, where we’ve lived for over thirty years, and are heading to one of our favorite cities, Portland, Oregon, via St. Petersburg, Florida, where we have family. The place we’ll ultimately call home is still to be determined, but in the meantime, we’re in search of happy adventures and detours.

I’m excited to share with you highlights of our auspicious first stop: Audubon, New Jersey, the home of my good friend and former college roommate, Kathy. She is an artist who specializes in printing, painting, and drawing. Here is a link to her IG site, @blueberry_hills. If you follow her, you’ll be treated to beautiful art along with her thoughts about the creative process and challenges particular to her project of the moment. Back in the day when we were roommates, Kathy was always working on an illustration, a painting, or illuminated calligraphy. Just being around the making of these beautiful pieces awakened my own creative spirit.

CreativityBooks

Books nourish an artist’s practice. I see familiar titles here on Kathy’s drawing table, and ones new to me that I look forward to reading.

 

I’m intrigued by the books and authors that inspire artists. Kathy keeps these close at hand on her drawing table. I’ve read and highly recommend these:

The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron

Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland

The War of Art by Steven Pressfield

The Art Spirit by Robert Henri

Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh

In Praise of Slowness by Carl Honorè

New to me are:

The Artisan Soul by Erwin McManus

The Wisdom to Know the Difference by Eileen Flanagan

Keep Calm and Carry On  (The title is based on a British motivational poster from World War II that was never actually used – it was for if and when Britain was invaded; the book is a collection of motivational quotes)

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Woodcut, ‘Welcome Home’/’Pineapple’

 

I decided to call this post “Sparrow, Art, Life” because a few weeks ago I wrote about Birds Art Life: A Year of Observation by Kyo Maclear. It seems to me that Kathy’s work, art and life blend together in a seamless way, and this can be so for the rest of us. Plus, a sparrow happened to come along that changed Kathy’s summer.

 

PineappleWoodcut

Detail of the woodblock Kathy carved to make the pineapple prints. The soft pine woodblock is a work of art, too, and woodblocks are often displayed as such. I deepened the color in this photo somewhat; the piece is beautiful – you can’t help wanting to touch the textured surface.

 

Kathy and her husband told us the fascinating story of their becoming foster parents to a baby sparrow. She said it was quite something to become so surprisingly intimate with a member of another species. Over the span of four weeks the sparrow, which they named Nestle, bonded with them. Nestle got to feeling quite comfortable snuggling up on Steve’s lap and going to sleep.

 

WaterAbstract

Exploration of wind across water, reflected trees. Woodcut, Akua ink on 400 count cotton sateen (a really nice pillow case). I find this piece and its production intriguing, mysterious, and unpredictable, and Kathy does too. It requires several steps and layerings of ink. Kathy was planning to create another water print the week after I left. She estimated the printing process would take about two days.

 

Taking care of Nestle, encouraging her to fly, and acclimating her to the wild was intensive, time consuming, and required a bit of research. Kathy and Steve ended up not following much of the advice they found online, but in the end they were successful. The process of letting go was quite moving; at first Nestle returned every evening and wanted to sleep in her cage, but eventually she stopped coming back. Now, occasionally, they spot Nestle in the backyard. I wonder if she remembers her human parents.

 

WaterDetail

Detail, water woodcut

 

We talked about getting close to nature in this way. Maybe if all of us had opportunities to bond with a creature of another species, we’d have more appreciation for the earth and become more inclined to care for the environment. Kathy said Nestle has inspired a unique art project that she’ll be working on in the coming months. I can’t wait to see it.

I found Kathy and Steve’s story especially timely for me, because I’d just finished writing and producing another audio essay in my “From Where I Stand” series. It features the sounds of encounters with a humpback whale and Adelie penguins from my husband’s recent trip to the Antarctic. I hope to share a link to the audio essay here on Books Can Save a Life soon.

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Nestle the sparrow

 

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An artist’s garden. Kyo Maclear, in her book Birds Art Life, writes of artists and writers having a side practice, and certainly for Kathy it is gardening. I enjoyed seeing the flowers and meditation space she’s created over the years and hearing about her future garden plans.

 

Our visit with Kathy and Steve was too short. I loved hanging out in her studio and seeing her other creative spaces, and we could have talked for hours.

ArtistBooks

Another art studio book stack…..

 

I’ll write more in a few days from on the road.  Do you have especially loved books about art, life and creativity? What are they?

Birds Art Life

“They were constantly chirping, and what they were saying, or what I heard them say, was: Stand up. Look around. Be in the world.”


BirdsArtLife

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“For me, birding and writing did not feel interchangeable. Birding was the opposite of writing, a welcome and necessary flight from the awkward daily consciousness of making art. It allowed me to exist in a simple continuity, amid a river of birds and people and hours. The stubborn anxiety that filled the rest of my life was calmed for as long as I was standing in the river.”

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“As long as I can remember I have been drawn to people who have side loves. Maybe because no single job or category has ever worked for me, I am particularly interested in artists who find inspiration alongside their creative practice. It could be a zest for car mechanics or iron welding (Bob Dylan) or for beekeeping (Sylvia Plath). I love the idea that something completely unexpected can be a person’s wellspring or dark inner cavern, that our artistic lives can be so powerfully shaped and lavishly cross-pollinated by what we do in our so-called spare time.”    Birds Art Life: A Year of Observation by Kyo Maclear

I just love this little memoir. Writer Kyo Maclear, a novelist, essayist, and children’s book author, was feeling overwhelmed by the illness of her father, caring for her two young boys, keeping up her writing, and all of life’s other demands. She decided to begin a side practice, something to relax her and refresh her writing and creative spirit.

For a year, she accompanied an avid birder who is also a musician and performer in birding adventures around Toronto and wrote about it, along the way finding truths about life and art.

Many artists and writers are dabblers or become accomplished in a side practice that cross pollinates their art and their life. Vladimir Nabokov was a world renowned butterfly expert. Virginia Woolf gardened.

I’m not sure I have a side practice. Certainly nature feeds my writing and inspires me, and I’m experimenting with learning how to paint watercolors because painting is nonverbal, a relief from hours of being in my own head when I write.

For Kyo, birding was a delightful hobby and new passion because it was relatively easy to do. Despite living in an urban environment, Kyo and her birding companion were intrigued and entertained by the wide range of birds they found along the lake front and in streams, parks, vacant lots, parking lots, backyards, and right outside their picture windows.

Each chapter in Birds Art Life is devoted to a month and a theme: Love, Cages, Smallness, Waiting, Knowledge, Faltering, Lulls, Roaming, Regrets, Questions, and Endings.

A few chapter subtitles will give you an idea of Kyo’s thematic reflections:

Smallness: On the satisfactions of small birds and small art and the audacity of aiming tiny in an age of big ambitions

Lulls: On peaceful lulls and terrifying lulls and the general difficulty of being alone and unbusy

In one chapter, Kyo broadens her scope to reflect on climate change and how, day to day, urbanites and suburbanites don’t notice the human-caused environmental disruption and species depletion happening just outside their view.

Many birders have a spark bird, a particular species of bird that ignites their interest and launches them into birding. Likewise, many devoted readers have a spark book, a book they read in childhood that became a portal to a life of passionate reading.

Do you have a spark book? What comes to mind for me is A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. 

This is a hugely satisfying memoir and meditation on life and art that will replenish your spirit. I highly recommend it.

“This is what birds do when they join a swirl of other birds, I thought. They don’t proclaim their individuality or try to make a splash. They dissolve into the group. I wondered if this merging felt so relaxing because it was an antidote to the artist ego, built on an endless need to individuate, to be your own you. In place of exhausting self-assertion, the relief of disappearing into the crowd.”

Do you have a side practice that complements your primary work? Do you have a spark book, or a spark bird, or something specific that sparked your passion in another hobby or practice?

 

My Absolute Darling

MyAbsoluteDarling“Martin holds his burning cigarette upright. The cherry is just barely visible in the dark; above it, the tower of ash. He turns it slowly, inspecting it from all angles. He says, ‘You want me to eat that scorpion?’

‘Try it!’ Cayenne says.

Turtle can see that the girl wants to share this with him. She wants this to be something they’ve all done together. But Turtle doesn’t want him to do it. She wants to show Cayenne something important here, about her own substance and about Martin’s because Martin, Turtle thinks, is afraid.

Martin says, ‘You didn’t eat a scorpion.’

‘Why would we make this shit up?’ Turtle says.

Martin chews his lip. At last, he says, ‘You really want to see me eat this scorpion, huh?'” – My Absolute Darling, by Gabriel Tallent

This novel and its author have been getting so much attention, I had to find out what all the fuss was about. Stephen King declared My Absolute Darling a masterpiece, and there are endorsement quotes on the book jacket from Phil Klay, who won the National Book Award for the short story collection Redeployment, and Celeste Ng, author of the novel Everything I Never Told You. All are writers I’ve enjoyed whose opinions I respect.

On the other hand, another writer I like, Roxane Gay, the author of Bad Feminist, is not a fan of My Absolute Darling.

So readers are divided about this first novel by Gabriel Tallent, whose mother, by the way, is the writer Elizabeth Tallent. I decided to read other reviews before I wrote this post because I was conflicted about the novel, and I wanted to see if these could help clarify my thinking. If you are up for reading a disturbing story of incest and obsessive love, I do recommend My Absolute Darling. I think the book has flaws but, in the end, they didn’t fatally undermine the story for me, which is a true page-turner – I stayed up late reading it on two consecutive nights. And despite its dark theme, the protagonist, 14-year-old Turtle, is a brave, noble spirit I won’t soon forget.

Turtle lives with her father, Martin, on the northern California coast near Mendocino. Martin is an autodidact partial to reading David Hume and other inscrutable texts of the great philosophers, a survivalist waiting for the end of the world, and a sociopath who is sexually abusing his daughter. Guns are everywhere in their decrepit house, as well as stocks of food and medical supplies. Martin began teaching Turtle how to shoot when she was six, and now she is an excellent markswoman with superb survival skills.

Martin worships Turtle as a goddess he can’t live without, but his mood can turn on a dime and Turtle suddenly turns to filth in his eyes. Having endured this abuse for years, Turtle has a fragile sense of herself. When two boys from the local high school come into her life and Turtle develops a crush on one of them, Turtle realizes that forming bonds with others endangers them. Turtle must go to great lengths, both inside herself and out in the world, to break free from the dark power her father holds over her.

Tallent’s prose can be flashy and mesmerizing. There is a strong sense of place, with lush descriptions of coastal California. Sometimes the language is technical and the paragraphs are long, peppered with words I wasn’t familiar with but, generally, this didn’t bother me; other readers may feel this interferes with the story. I love good nature writing and, for the most part, I felt that Tallent nailed the dramatic beauty and wildness of the California coast.

The writing was sometimes over the top in other ways. For example, Martin, Turtle’s father, could be so senselessly sadistic, he sometimes wasn’t believable. I think the author wanted to write a keep-the-pages-turning story, and he may have been influenced by the current highly sensational nature of movies and television drama. I’m revealing my age as far as literary taste goes, and younger readers might not find aspects of the story so extreme. That said, there are also echoes of fine literary works evident, among them The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Lolita. These deepen and enrich the story of Turtle and Martin.

More problematic than Tallent’s occasionally self-conscious prose are issues that Roxane Gay points out in a Goodreads review. Gay, who has written about sexual abuse, feels that there are elements of Turtle and Martin’s incestuous relationship that Tallent simply got wrong. I can’t speak to this, but I did feel, occasionally, that Turtle would not have acted in certain ways or that she would have made different decisions. Destructive relationships are complicated, and it’s incredibly difficult to capture the psychological dynamics involved.

I’m listing so many caveats you might think I didn’t like the novel, but that’s not the case. Turtle is an unusual heroine, a real survivor, though not the kind her father envisioned. Gabriel Tallent is young – about thirty – and he chose to tell an extremely challenging story.  His writing will mature. He’s now working on a second novel.

Here are a few more excerpts from My Absolute Darling:

“‘You are the most beautiful thing,’ he says, ‘that’s what I think. Everything about you, kibble, is perfect. Every detail. You are the platonic ideal of yourself. Your every blemish, every scratch, is inimitable elaboration on your beauty and your wildness. You look like a naiad. You look like a girl raised by wolves. You know that?'”

********

“Walk away, Turtle. Just walk away from him, and if he follows after and if he will not let you go, you kill him. He’s given you everything and all you need to do is walk away. Do you remember when blood ran in your veins like cool, clear water? You could find that place again and it would be hard but it would be good. Nothing and no one can keep you away from it; only you can take yourself back into the dark, only you can do that. He can’t do it to you, and don’t lie about that. So walk away, Turtle. Think about your soul, and walk away.”

Who else has read this novel by a brand new American novelist, and what did you think? I’d love to hear from other readers.

Salvage the Bones

SalvagetheBones“I will tie the glass and stone with string, hang the shards above my bed, so that they will flash in the dark and tell the story of Katrina, the mother that swept into the Gulf and slaughtered. Her chariot was a storm so great and black the Greeks would say it was harnessed to dragons. She was the murderous mother who cut us to the bone but left us alive, left us naked and bewildered as wrinkled newborn babies, as blind puppies, as sun-starved newly hatched baby snakes. She left us a dark Gulf and salt burned land. She left us to learn to crawl. She left us to salvage. Katrina is the mother we will remember until the next mother with large, merciless hands, committed to blood, comes.”    Salvage the Bones, by Jesmyn Ward

Last week, as Hurricane Harvey had its way with Houston, I wrote about an excellent work of investigative journalism that came out of Hurricane Katrina: Sheri Fink’s Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm Ravaged Hospital,

This week, as Hurricane Irma gathered strength, I finally got around to reading Jesmyn Ward’s fine novel about Hurricane Katrina, Salvage the Bones.

Jesmyn grew up with her family in rural Mississippi trailer parks. Her father had been a gang member; he eventually abandoned the family, but not before the pit bull he was raising attacked Jesmyn, sending her to the hospital.

In 2005, Jesmyn’s family survived Hurricane Katrina. They had to evacuate her grandmother’s house, wade through chest deep water, and wait out the storm in their cars as flood waters swirled around them. Jesmyn was moved to write a novel about the hurricane, in part, because people seemed to forget about Katrina’s devastation long before the land and the people were healed. As a writer, she also must have been compelled to translate this life-threatening and life-changing episode into art.

Salvage the Bones is about an African American family and their rural community of Bois Sauvage, Mississippi, where most of the residents are poor, much like the place where Jesmyn grew up. It’s written from the viewpoint of 15-year-old Esch, who has just discovered she is pregnant. She has three brothers and a hard-drinking father; one of her brothers is raising pit bulls for fighting. China, the pit bull mama, is just as much a character as the people in this novel, as well as a symbol of strength, power, and vengeance.

In the opening pages, I felt a stranger to this family, whose experiences and culture are so foreign to mine even though we live in the same country. By the end, I’d fallen in love with Esch and her family. I even had a grudging respect for China the pit bull, which says something about the power of Ward’s writing – I’ve always disliked and feared pit bulls. I couldn’t help but be awed by Jesmyn West’s fiction. Her writing is outstanding – fierce, evocative, and gritty.  Jesmyn has said that she strives for a “narrative ruthlessness.” Salvage won the National Book Award in 2011.

I plan to read Jesmyn’s memoir next. Men We Reaped is about the deaths of Jesmyn’s brother and four other young black men she knew due to car accidents, drugs, and suicide. And she’s just published another novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing.

You can listen to an interview with Jesmyn Ward on NPR at this link.

Have you read any books by Jesmyn Ward? What about the literature of natural disasters – any books to recommend?

Gone fishin’ (for books)

Summer

From Birds, Art, Life by Kyo Maclear

 

This time around, my post is mostly pictures from bookstore stops on our summer vacation in the Pacific Northwest.

The past few years, we’ve been more consciously immersing in nature in our travels, and I’ve been reading and writing about nature, too. Along the way, I’ve become fascinated by watercolor painting and nature journaling, though I can’t say I actually do much painting or journaling.

Very early on, I let a teacher convince me I had no talent for art, and so I’ve avoided these artistic pleasures and pursuits. I’ve since seen the light, and now I have all sorts of intentions and anticipations when it comes to making art. We’ll see.

In the meantime, my desires and my love for beautiful things are reflected in my bookstore adventures.

 

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Browsers Bookshop in Olympia has become a good friend, a favorite stop in my travels since I happened upon it last year. A warm, welcoming staff and an exceptional selection of books.

 

BrowsersZoology

Browsers Bookshop has many book categories and collections, sprinkled with staff picks. All in all, an outstanding selection of books, with many hidden gems, like the one I found below….

 

ATrailThroughLeaves

A Trail Through Leaves is extraordinary. Part memoir and part instruction in the daily act of keeping a nature journal, Hannah Hinchman’s writing and illustrations are outstanding. “The journal is a place to decant the stuff of life; reassuringly, none of it is wasted. It remains fresh, still tasting of its source. Transferring experience from the vat of life into the vessel of the journal is a distillation: it sieves, concentrates, and ferments. If after many seasons we develop some mastery of the process, the stuff can become as clear and fiery as brandy.”

 

Frogs

A page from Hannah Hinchman’s A Trail Through Leaves: The Journal as a Path to Place. “Everyone should learn to draw competently, with a sense of play and invention, if only to honor the fact that it’s one of the first instinctive gestures we make to appease the appetite for beauty. If everyone acknowledged that hunger, and gained a whole selection of ways to satisfy it, a different culture would emerge.”

 

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Personally recommended by Browsers Bookshop owner Andrea Griffith. What a meaningful gesture, to press a book into someone’s hands. “I never put up a barber pole or a sign or even gave my shop a name.” – Jayber Crow    My journey with Wendell Berry continues. Recently, I finished Hannah Coulter.

 

BookNBrush

In addition to an impressive book collection, Book ‘N’ Brush in Chehalis, Washington sells art supplies and art instruction books. It has a loft, too, where the public can attend art classes. Book ‘N’ Brush was recently named a must-visit, unique independent bookstore by The Culture Trip. 

 

BookNBrushWatercolor

I couldn’t decide…and I could have spent another hour or two in Book ‘N’ Brush.

 

BookNBrushChinese

Chinese brush painting display at Book ‘N’ Brush. These intriguing and beautifully made tools were so enticing I was tempted to try this specialty, and I was led to another hidden gem….

 

ChineseBrush.jpg

“Absorbing and calming, spiritual and steeped in history, the tradition offers something for everyone….Most satisfyingly, the pictures you paint will be in your own ‘handwriting,’ unique to you. ‘Writing a picture’ is the usual way of describing the painting process in China.”

 

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Each page contains simple instructions for making a flower, a fruit, a vegetable, an animal, an insect, a fish….Who knew with just a few strokes I could make a snail, a fuchsia, a chili pepper, a peacock, a relaxing woman, a couple in conversation….

 

BookNBrushStaffPicks

Plenty of staff recommendations at Book ‘N’ Brush too, the mark of a good bookstore. I spy a few familiar faces…

 

KyoMaclear

On my to-read shelf, an urban writer observes birds outside her window for a year: “The artist peered at me thoughtfully for a moment. Her blue eyes were clear and perfectly lined with kohl. Finally she spoke, with a hint of bemusement. She said the students who came to her were always full of hunger. They were seventeen-year-old aspiring artists and eighty-five-year-old retired businessmen. People of mourned, mislaid, or unmined creativity. Their yearning was like the white puff of a dandelion. All she had to do was blow gently and watch their creative spores lift, scatter, and take seed.”

 

KimStafford

We were in Portland, too. At the Woodstock Public Library I found a life-sized etching of a poem written by Kim Stafford. (Earlier this year, I took one of Kim’s online classes, Daily Writing in the Spirit of William Stafford.You have the power to open centuries that trees hold/silent in their rings. This palace of the possible needs you,/your hand on the door. Enchant this place awake.

 

Many thanks to Browers Bookshop and Book ‘N’ Brush for much browsing pleasure, for great books I wouldn’t have discovered anywhere else, and for giving so much to their communities. What would we do without independent bookstores?

Here’s one more quote by Hannah Hinchman, from A Trail Through Leaves; it occurs to me that I must have been not that far away from this scene as it happened – I was in college in Appalachian Ohio in 1976:

“The girls wore plain long dresses with a sort of blazer coat, equally plain. They led me to the barn with no concern for the mud. They showed me the milk vat, half full of milk. Startling to see a whole lake of milk like that, with cat tracks on the lid of the vessel. Such an austere cold and windy gray day, spitting pellets of snow. Arriving at this farm in the deepest of Ohio agricultural land, far from the mainstream of the world, and meeting these youngsters, plain as the winter landscape, but with faces like young peaches, smooth as fresh-shelled beans, like sprouts in winter.”  Hannah Hinchman’s journal, Volume 19, Ohio, 1976.

More about Hannah Hinchman here.

(Since I wrote this post, I found out Hannah Hinchman has another classic book, A Life in Hand: Creating the Illuminated Journal. It’s available as an e-book, but the print versions are now quite expensive. It would be great if a publisher would re-issue a print edition. Print books such as this one disappearing from the world are a loss.)

What are you reading this summer? If you’ve been traveling, where to, and have you found any bookstores to recommend?

To inspire your creative practice, soak up another’s

AtHomeinNature.jpg

“Those who have taken up homesteading – whether in the late nineteenth century, in midcentury, or in more recent periods – have all been acting out particular versions of larger experiments in American cultural dissent and spiritual creativity.”

 

I wake up early, not so usual for me, and when I raise the blinds it’s always sunny here on the dry side of the Columbia River Gorge in Washington.

I put on a thick woolen sweater with a Native American design in sepia and acorn hues, owned by the artist who lives and works here. I grab my cereal and juice, head outside, and eat my shredded wheat looking at Mt. Hood.

We just sold our home of 23 years, where we raised two sons. Wanting to get our minds off of what we left behind, we flew across the country to an artist’s studio and retreat in the Pacific Northwest. New terrain and evidence of an artist hard at work teaching, learning, sharing, and making are reviving my creative spirit.

These things inspire:

  • a weaver’s loom
  • artwork on all the walls, mostly nature based
  • marigolds drying in a basket
  • a display of cloth swatches dyed from goldenrod, Queen Anne’s lace, turmeric, eucalyptus, horsetail, walnut, and blackberries
  • a fragrant garden with mint, basil, tomatoes, squash and other goodies
  • a handmade bread oven
  • poppies everywhere in gold and fiery red
  • jars filled with mysterious things, such as dried flower petals and I don’t know what
  • thick, blush-pink pear slices put by in glass jars
  • a catalog of enticing classes like Wooden Spoon Carving, Flower Farm Dyes, Ikat Weaving, and Columbia Plateau Beadwork

 

ArtistRetreat.jpg

It’s chilly in the morning, often windy, always sunny.

 

Other people’s book collections take us down unforeseen paths, and sometimes the more off the beaten path, the better. There are many books to sample here. At the moment, I’m delving into At Home in Nature: Modern Homesteading and Spiritual Practice in America, by Rebecca Kneale Gould, learning about John Burroughs, Henry David Thoreau, Helen and Scott Nearing, and lesser known American homesteaders – an intriguing slice of American history. It’s perhaps more scholarly than I’d prefer, but I’m enjoying it.

Some other books that live here:

which “aesthetics” do you mean? ten definitions, by Leonard Koren

Coming to Stay: A Columbia River Journey, by Mary Dodds Schlick

A Dyer’s Garden: From Plant to Pot, Growing Dyes for Natural Fibers, by Rita Buchanan

Pacific Feast: A Cook’s Guide to West Coast Foraging and Cuisine, by Jennifer Hahn

Art of the Northern Tlingit, by Aldona Jonaitis

The Textiles of Guatemala, by Regis Bertrand and Danielle Magne

Native Arts of the Columbia River Plateau: The Doris Swayze Bounds Collection, edited by Susan E. Harless

In Zanesville, a novel by Jo Ann Beard (I loved her memoir, The Boys of My Youth.)

Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay: Reflections on Art, Family & Survival, by Christopher Benfey

Recommended by my son, which I packed in my suitcase:

The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food, by Dan Barber

Other books I brought with me:

The Golem and the Jinni, by Helene Wecker (book club reading)

The Artist’s Rule: Nurturing Your Creative Soul with Monastic Wisdom, by Christine Valters Paintner

No Experience Required! Watercolor, by Carol Cooper

I’ll likely read just a couple of these but it’s nice to be able to choose.

 

MtHood

View from the backyard. (I zoomed in on Mt. Hood.)

 

 

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A homemade bread oven. At the moment, a burn ban prohibits its use.

 

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I think these sunflowers would be a relatively easy watercolor project for a beginner like me.

 

Marigolds.jpg

Marigold blossoms drying

 

Climbing a small mountain is another way to get your mind off things. I have more stores of endurance than I thought and limbs that are plenty sore, but the climb gave me a sense of accomplishment.

 

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View of Mt. Hood from Little Huckleberry Mountain in Gifford Pinchot National Forest

 

We saw three of the Cascade mountains once we made it to the top…

 

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Mt. Adams

 

….which I could not have done without the encouragement of my husband.

 

MtStHelens

Mt. Rainier 

 

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Atop Little Huckleberry Mountain, on the ruins of an old fire lookout. Elevation: 4,781 feet.

 

An artist’s tools and artifacts. Books that belong to another. Climbing a small mountain. How do you feed your creative spirit? Can you recommend any books? Are you traveling this summer or working on a creative project?

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