In my element…

“All poems…art, begin as a lump in the throat”

                                             Louise Penny paraphrasing from a letter of Robert Frost’s

The long way home…

I’ve been on this planet for 60 years.

The first 11 were scattered about, but our family came to rest, for a slightly longer spell, when I turned 12 and we moved to Swarthmore, Pennsylvania. An oasis within the post war suburbs of newly poured concrete,  it was a small town of cozy tree lined neighborhoods and Quaker sensibilities. It gave my teenage angst a comfortable cushion to flail about on, and a community of friends who helped me learn to trust.

And it gave me Jim Gainor…

The high school art teacher, who famously taught us to…”Paint the air and not the chair”, and who was a powerhouse of creative energy, and humor and light, and he is here, in this story, because he took me to the beginning…

It was the early 70’s, and all that free spirited flower power was echoed in the open-air curriculum at Swarthmore High, so why not throw a class of teenagers on a bus, and drive them a few miles west on Route 1 to the sleepy crossroads of Chadds Ford.

Mr. Gainor would send us out on our own to wander the fields and the farms and paint. I remember one afternoon in particular, when I collected water from the Brandywine Creek and perched on a hill and lost myself in the painting of a spring house. It was an awakening and, from this distance, I can see those youthful hands, holding a paintbrush, and know that is where the fire began to burn.

I knew that the Wyeth family lived and painted there. His paintings were well known in our household, and I found out recently, that Andrew had begun to secretly paint his young muse, Helga Testorf, around that same time. She would not have been much older than I was as she was helping to nurse and care for Andrew’s friend and muse, Karl Kuerner, who lived on the farm…just over that other hill.

My journey was soon to bend far away from those farm roads,
with many miles traveled over the ensuing decades, but…

Forty years after graduating from Jim Gainor’s lessons,
I once again found myself dropped off in the middle of Chadds Ford…
at the long tree lined entrance…
to Kuerner’s Farm.

The Brandywine River Museum was established in the old Hoffman’s grist mill at the crossroads of Chadds Ford…just about the time I was experimenting with those first watercolor strokes. It exhibits and archives the works of the many generations of Wyeth family artists.

The museum, under the Brandywine Conservancy, which works to preserve the local environment and it’s history, has since acquired the paternal Wyeth family home, where NC Wyeth lived and painted, Andrew’s studio, and The Kuerner Farm and has opened all three spaces for tours. The groups are small, with information provided by docents, who  each offer a unique perspective and background about the working environs of the artists and their subject matters.

We have visited often, but last year I got an opportunity of a different sort.

The museum has opened the Kuerner Farm, for a few days each year, to a limited group of artists of any stripe. They call them Plein Air Days and they offer access to the farm and buildings for an entire day. Which is how I got to spend a glorious day last October…in my element.

My journal notes from that day, remind me that, back then, we were freshly off the boat from Ireland, a bucket list trip which had my mind seeing green and left my body racked for weeks with flu.  I did more or less crawl there, but once we were set loose to roam…that fire, which had been kindled just a few hundred yards from the farm, but oh so many years ago…well it sparked once more… and I got straight to work.

About the farm, Andrew has said,  “I didn’t think it a picturesque place. It just excited me, purely abstractly and purely emotionally.”

I understand that. They have done very little by way of renovation, the place still has the patina of working farm, and I have my own carpet bag full of emotional connections here, but on that quiet day in October, with visions of ancient ruins and wild Donegal fairies recently planted in my head, I came to experience the Kuerner Farm as a thin place.

Where the spirits of his paintings shimmer just above the surface of the dirt and dust in the barn, and float over the mill pond, and whisper through the pine boughs…

so…he’s there,
there are touchstones to his body of work from this farm everywhere you look,
which is after all… our way in…

and, however the arc of my life has circled me back, I was standing there, on a clear fall morning, with sketchbook in hand, as a mature artist, who has a dusty old toolbox of her own tricks, a few hours of daylight and time enough to find her own way in.

My first thought was to head in to the barn. The metal bucket still leans on the iron pipes in the spring room in the middle of what is the ground floor. I had seen it there before, and wanted to start there. Negotiating the dirt and hay strewn floor, I followed a few other artists into the maw of a cave that darkens by degrees as you walk deeper into the lowest level of the barn. The tiny room had a small light on inside, and a photographer. He had already set up a tripod and begun to work. He and that tripod were shoehorned in there and fixing to linger. So, I moved on.

I spent the next couple of hours just orienting my senses and studying the space and the light. My only goal was to listen. To be open to the muses. I kept my pencils and my camera quiet, and walked through the house, sat on the front porch, watched the two little goats playing behind the wired fencing, strolled up past the barn to the old carriage shed, watched as a red tailed hawk soared over the upper fields, and then I went back into that barn.

The space was empty, of humans, and, as I peeked around the door frame, I heard those pesky muses laughing. What had been a dull dusty space, was now alive with color from a high raking light. The old panes of window glass dividers had an eerie teal tint that glanced across the water, spilled down to the edge of the concrete basin and bloomed into a rainbow as it spilled in divided rivulets over and onto the cracked drain in the floor.

The sunlight somehow was angling back in through the opened barn doors and lit up what was left of the chipping red paint on each of the dutch stall doors. And, there was some kind of magical metal dance playing across the bucket. I was in.

Now I mentioned the closeness of the interior there, right. So, I was extremely cautious about my footing, and the proximity to an oil tank and some other machinery and bottles and the odd sharp metal bits. When my eyes had adjusted, and my camera shutter finger allowed that that light just might hang out a bit longer, I took a gingerly step to the right and looked back toward the doorway and saw that mirror. And the raincoat. And that was sorta fun.

It wasn’t until I got home,
and let all that dust settle,
that I saw the rough pencil lines
of the math equation
where Karl must have been keeping track of his herd
someday very very long ago.

Now, stay with me in that spring room.
And remember the gift of that raking light,
and turn around.

This is your next treasure.

It is here that I need to mention that I returned to the farm, on another of their plein air days, on a cloudy close weather day in May. I had captured this light back in October, but I was unsure of just exactly what that hanging metal contraption might have been used for. It had just the teensiest sinister edge about it’s countenance.

By that time I was already 6 months into the body of work that was becoming the Kuerner Farm series, and I had a list of questions to ask of the docent upon my return. First one… whatever was that used for. I had the good fortune to be spending the day with Melody, forgive my not having written down her last name please, who shared a wealth of details and background on everything from the rich family history to the architectural foibles and the names of the cats who own the place. But question one, well it stumped her.

Another good fortune, was that later in the day, Karl the third showed up. He is an accomplished artist in his own right, who runs workshops on the farm, and has carried forward a commitment, in conjunction with the Conservancy, to open the land up to other artists, allowing the creative inspirations to be accessible to future generations.

So Karl had come to drop off some donated cat food. And he knew exactly what that iron was for. His grandfather raised milk cows. The rig hanging in that room was attached at the top to a long iron carrying beam, which would have allowed the workers to sling a big old milking pail from the stalls directly across the barn, over to the cooling spring. Not so sinister after all. I fell completely in love with it at that point, and though the light on that day in May never reached the dramatic levels of October, the second visit gave me a chance to dig deeper, and to see the composition through new filters.

The cobalt blue…
it still makes me swoon.

In her letters, Willa Cather talks about a passage in her novel, The Professor’s House, where she had been describing the aging and depressed professor in his foreboding attic writing room, which he shared with his wife’s dour black clothed dress forms. She wrote that she wanted the transition to the next chapter, which takes place in the brilliant arid sun of the deserts of New Mexico, to rattle and transport the reader, as the professor would have experienced, after flinging open the tiny attic window to escape his despair, and go soaring into the brilliant warm light and openness of a freshening wave of freedom.

And, so we now step, dear reader, out of the rich peaty darkness of the barn…
and… turning back…
have to shade our eyes from the source of that raking light,
and what mystery is this.
The title for this painting is The Cardinal.
So let’s take a closer look.

When I first walked down the hill, from where we parked out back of that distant shed, I noticed the gate. I could do an entire series just of that gate. I spent a lot of time walking around it, this way and that, asking the gate, as master woodworker, George Nakashima was fond of asking a log…what might you want to become.

While I was carrying on that conversation, the cat, who I have come to know, from Karl, is named Lioness, was weaving through my legs and round and round the sketchbook, which I had leaning against that stone wall. I thought she was dear, but…the gate.

I approached and retreated from this composition a dozen times during the day to scope out how the changes in light angles, and shadow play, might bring out the best in that rust. On my final pass, coming in from behind it, I caught the tiniest glimpse of something red. Up close and personal…it turned out to be a cardinal feather. I brought it home in that envelope and let the muses play for a while.

It was their idea to let the hawk in.
I was rooting for the Lioness.

The first treasure I found, on that morning in May, was this tiny egg shell. It was white, but some shadow from the spruce trees gave it a faint teal glow.

It reminded me of the wash of paint in the main room of the farm house…so I started there.

The story goes that, when Karl the first lived there, the house was divided into two halves, in order to accommodate two families, or maybe the owner’s family and then the workers. Somewhere along the way, the central wall was removed, which left two fireplaces side by side.

Though the soft pastels are muted now, by years of hard living, their gentle hues reminded me of that chambered nautilus. You know the one. Betsy’s nightgown could have been used to paint these walls.

The shell is mine,
from an island far from these pillars,
but the shadows belong…ever…
to Anna.

Now turn around…
once more

You’ll know this kitchen.
and that ground hog day long ago.

The museum has done a marvelous job of recreating portions of the antiquated wallpaper pattern, which had been worn away over the years, but was revealed, anew, for the next generation, when they went to move that corner cupboard.

They also strove for verisimilitude by dragging a big old log out there, complete with fanged hinge.

What you can’t see is all the commotion behind that wall to the left.
A flurry of photographers had been camped out on that side of the kitchen all morning.
They were smitten by the chair, and the light, as was I. But their preferred angle of composition crammed them all into a small corner by the old kitchen stove. I don’t like crowds.

And I found this view to be pretty spectacular in it’s own right.
Even after one of those dodos walked into my shots,
and moved the chair a quarter turn to the left.
The force was strong in that room.

Now follow that bright white light coming from the transit,
and step through the screen door onto the wide front porch.

The first thing you don’t see is the spruce tree Karl planted to remind him of his boyhood days in the Black Forest of Germany.

When I first visited the farm, right after they opened it for tours, that tree was so large that it completely obscured the front of the house. When you stood on the porch back then, you couldn’t even see Kuerner’s hill.

The next time I was there, on that first plein air visit, I had made my way onto the porch, while I was waiting for that photographer to finish up in the spring room, The first thing I noticed was the bucket hanging from the gutter. Andrew painted it at least once that I remember, so it was another of those echoes, placed, or not, by the museum, or by Karl the third perhaps. No matter, it fits.

I sat myself on the stuccoed ledge opposite this window and took it all in.

It seemed to me that, if I had lived a good life… to borrow from my friend Follansbee, the sun might just cooperate and sweep over to the right in an hour or two, and cast some manner of interesting light play across those well weathered surfaces of paint.

I waited a long time. Sketched a bit. Rested my eyes. Listened. Hiked up to the truck for a snack. And back down. And there it was. A slow creeping at first, and then a full blown blast of light that would have made Rudolph weep. Full power.

So, I began to document at high speed. Thousands of shots, zooming in and out as first one paint drip cast a shadow, and then a different edge of framing snapped to attention. The reflections interested me and the dark shape in the lower right slowly resolved into a tree. I turned around to look again. Sure enough, there was a young tree planted right next to the giant stump of the old one. The new light was also coming to play on that spruce tree, outlining each needle, and the wind kept rearranging the branches so I that I would have lots to work with.

Then I felt something on my arm. A lady bug.
Then two more.
And on the nearby post…dozens.
They had arrived with the light, and were having a merry old time.
I knew at once that all would be well…it was Ted.
He had a special gift for me.

I focused back on the window…
and saw the pine cone.
Chills actually went along my shoulders.

The last remnant of Karl’s forest was tucked into the wing of the shutter hinge. When I took a closer look, there was the faintest trace of paint from the brush of whoever had most recently whitewashed the moulding.

Slayed, by a whisper of grace.

There were many moments like that.
Throughout the painting of this series, which I know now, is only about halfway completed.

These last few months have been hard, for most of us.
As November collapsed into December I felt psychologically, and spiritually threadbare.
It was a brutal time to show up in an art studio each day and try to connect in a creative way.

In the two months since that first October farm day, I had tried several times to find my way in to the reference work I had done “en plein air” . The work felt serious and intense, which echoed my mood, but I felt heavy and dark, which was the opposite counterpoint to the richly positive energy I had experienced while working there.

So, I carried on with other work, and re-read Louise Penny’s brilliant series of mysteries that take place in the fictional Canadian town of Three Pines. It’s a deeply honest, warmly sentimental, mischievously humorous place to hang out. All her readers harbor intense fantasies about living there. And boy, did I need to believe that a place like that might still exist right about then, even if it was only in storyland.

When I got up to her book, The Long Way Home, the challenges she had written for her characters felt very close to home. The artist, who had lost his way. The one whom he had left questioning hers. The intensity of their struggles, and the power of her prose…“Fear lives in the head. Courage in the heart. The job is to get from one to the other. And in between is the lump in the throat.”

“The poem – art – begins as a lump in the throat.”

I wrote those words down…

and got out my sketchbook from those days at Kuerner Farm…

and picked up a brush.

 

Click here to view paintings on my website…


Inspirational

After removing a finished painting from the easel the other day I found this note hiding next to a well splattered photo of Herself…

Which made me take a closer look at what else is taped to my easel…

This one below is a bit obscured from a decade of wiping my brushes…”There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” from Leonard Cohen

And I love the extra notes reminding me to plant garlic in November and to do a painting of my spoon carving. Both of which I did.

And two favorite pics of our sweet second Berners, Gulliver, enjoying two spots she used to love on the Vineyard. She’s there at her post, by my side, watching me every day.

Just some of the things that inspire me… so what’s on your easel ?

 

 


The Baron… and The Baroness

Every so often I rotate the stack of reference books in the stacks on my studio kitchen table and dip into old volumes to find new treasures. In that way I always find something that I’ve overlooked or was not ready to see before and a window is opened for the muses to shove me through.

Such was the case last month when I was paging through…

I came across a watercolor that my leaky memory has no memory of ever seeing before… Baron Philippe (1981)…

Something clicked and I began to sketch out an idea for a response….

I’ve been working on a series of studio still lifes and this gave me a chance to pull together some of the old props that have been living in the old studio (now renamed the POD ).

The oil lamp was Cousin Ed’s and one of the few treasures of his we were able to purchase back from the auction of his posessions. The empty wine bottle is courtesy of our holiday feast with D and S. The ladies handkerchief was one of Polly’s. The teacup is from Sue’s grandmother. The chair was from the old farmhouse across the road and is a very old shaker style ladderback that somewhere along the way had the rockers sawed off of so it is now a slipper chair. The little porcelain doll in her silky purple gown is a gift from Chris. The cane was a flea market find and has the whisper of a serpent carved in the handle.  The bottle was from an antique store purchased on the day we went to the Amish country to pick out Finnegan. The uniform has appeared in several other paintings and was an old hollywood costume found on Ebay years ago. The shell is from Sengy pond on the Vineyard. I don’t remember from whence the table came but the old wooden floor is the very foundation of my new studio. And the rest… is pure folly.

There are homages here to all three generations of Wyeths and I humbly submit my tribute to them… The Baroness.


Winter Reading

As those of you know who have visited the studio, you will always find an empty chair at the kitchen table but you definitely have to work hard to clear a space to rest your elbows. There are always piles of books and stacks of Gazettes in various stages of perusal. Most are newly collected reference materials, art books, bird books, history books, and some are old dog-eared bookmarked standards that I dip back into often depending on what is on the easel or what is on my mind.

Here’s a look at what’s on the table for this winter’s reading…

While on the Vineyard my friend Ted gave me his library copy of Vanity Fair magazine to read. He said there was an article about a new Rockwell book, Norman Rockwell: Behind the Camera by Ron Schick, that Ted thought was sorta fun which shows the photos Rockwell took for some of his paintings. It was the first book ordered when I got home and, as usual, Ted’s right on. I brought out the magnifying glass for this one and keep returning to certain images finding something new each time. It cleverly illustrates the subtle choices that the artist made to go beyond the photograph changing color, expression, positions and backgrounds  to enhance and often change the narrative.

While reading Fine Art Connoisseur Magazine I came across a review of the new Rembrandt book by Gary Schwartz and so that made it to the pile.  As my friend Peter will tell you I’m more interested in the pictures than the scholarly text but I’ve forced myself to read a bit of it and have learned a thing or two.

In keeping with the Dutch theme I picked up a little book on Bruegel, the elder, Bruegel: The Complete Paintings by Rose-Marie Hagen. It has good reproductions and an easy to read bit of background prose and I have spent hours already with the magnifying glass studying the detail.

At first I was paying attention mostly to the landscapes. I’ve been watching the winter come onto the farm across the street and as the trees lose their leaves and the field corn dries to a brittle umber, the stone barn, farmhouse and outbuildings are revealed. With the raking december sunlight in the early morning the colors reminded me of the Bruegel palette. Now that the storm has passed and the whole scene is blanketed in a foot of snow it has come alive like so many of his little dutch villages.  I decided a couple days ago to paint the view outside of my easel window while that snow is still here…and now when I dip into this book it’s all about the red that he uses. Like the cardinals at my feeders.

And no table of mine would be complete without a couple of Wyeth references. I picked up a new one on our trip to the Brandywine River Museum last week but it didn’t have enough going to keep it in the top ten stack. Instead I reached for the richer volume of Andy’s work, Andrew Wyeth, Mystery and Magic .

The Muses led me to a previously overlooked little gem of a painting, Baron Philippe. Within a few minutes I had gathered some dusty props and the sketchbook and come up with an answer of sorts…The Baroness. Stay tuned for that one.

The other old favorite that has been moved to the top of the pile (no pun intended) is the museum publication, History and Romance, Works by Howard Pyle. Moonlight on a snowy lane…he’s got it down.

I’ve linked the books and images here to the Amazon site and the BR Museum site, not as a promotion but to make it easier for you to get more information. Of course in doing that I have come across two more books to add to the collection. It is Christmas eve after all …

Merry winter to you all from our studio kitchen table…


Brandywine Valley Visit

Earlier this week Pat and Finnegan and I took a day off and drove over the river and through the woods to visit Robert Jackson in his Kennet Square studio. Bob is a highly accomplished realist painter and a magnificently kind and generous spirited human. I’ve followed his work for a while now and after meeting for the first time earlier this year we’ve started down the road towards a friendship that I hope will endure well after we both can no longer lift our paint brushes.

Here’s a look inside his studio at Bob and his wall of boxes…

To see some of his work and appreciate the skill of this story teller and his wonderfully rich sense of humor… click here.

We traveled a little further on down the pike to the Brandywine River Museum to soak up some of the Wyeth family inspiration.

If you live in the area and have young children their model train display is a must see. And they currently have an exhibit featuring illustrations from Alice in Wonderland throughout the years. But it’s the magic of Snowy River that I go to see.

But with the sun setting earlier each day now we soon headed back home along the country roads…passing Amish farmers getting one more plow in before the coming snow…

Since Kennet Square is also the mushroom capitol of the world we stopped at an organic farm and bought a giant box of freshly picked mushrooms to bring home for our first snow of the season tradition…mushroom soup.

Right on cue the biggest storm of this century is in full blizzard mode outside of the studio today. We’re right in the one to two feet swath and… with the heaviest snow yet to fall…I just may get to use that snow blower that has been sitting in the garage for three years now !

But first… the soup.  I’m too excited to paint.


Brushes in the wind

17 January 2009

In the wake of yesterday’s news of the death of Andrew Wyeth it has been somber in the studio. The view outside my window, of a weathered Pennsylvania stone barn and raw umber fields of stubbled winter cornshalks, echoes his own corner of farm land not far from here … and it settles my soul.

Many of you know our tradition of hanging wind chimes in the gardens in honor of loved ones who have died…and you won’t be surprised that this one will need to be special. I’ve decided to make it out of my old brushes.

In my studio, brushes live their lives in stages. I buy in bulk and on sale and only when I’m desparate and the new ones live in a state of reverence in the best of the old jars and mugs until I absolutely have to have that pristine spring and flow. The “working new” then get prime real estate on the table alongside my easel. Separated carefully from the grunts and wiped with the softest rags before being put up at night.

Try as I might, it doesn’t take long before they blend into the rest of the crew and their sabled edges begin to fray and the glossy sheen of their nickel plated ferrules no longer brags. I wean them out every other day or so …the hardest worn, stiffest bristled get tossed into an empty liquin box. When that is full, and the pile has spilled over onto the table, and Gully’s tail has knocked four or five of them on the floor and under the air purifier…then I gather them all up for a serious cleaning.

Last night I threw this bunch into a coffee can with about half an inch of Windsor Newton Brush Restorer  in the bottom. I learned the hard way that this stuff will melt the finish off of the wood, seeing as it is paint !, so I try to make sure it stays only on the bristles. They hang about in that overnight and then I settle in for the tedious second stage which is to scrub them in the tub of Masters Brush Cleaner. Then the big rinse and they’re laid out to dry.

Clean Up

The best of that batch are returned to their staging areas …

Ready to Go

 and the stragglers who refused to come clean are relegated to the graveyard…a box under my workbench…

Graveyard

which, until today, had been the final resting place.

But now I’ve got a better use for them. I’ll let you know when I’ve got Andy’s windchime up.

In the meantime… I’m curious … where do your old brushes go ?