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…


Celeste envies Ruth…

So, here’s the thing…

The way my brain scampers about these days,
I need to take notes.
Okay, I’m being generous with the “these days”,
I’ve always taken notes.
Journals full.

With scraps of paper and napkin corners
and dog-eared pages of old magazines,
I have jotted and doodled
hundreds and hundreds of ideas for paintings over the decades.

Sometimes just a few gestures,
often a phrase run across while reading,
or listening to music,
or watching a movie.

Two or three times a year,
I gather the sketchbooks and journals
and thumb-tacked notes,
and review.

So, there I was,
in review mode,
when I remembered that there were notes…
on my phone.

Been a long while since I was in a place without a pencil,
but there have been the odd times when I had to use my phone app to jot down an idea.
Some of those pencilless moments must have been in the middle of the night.

For the life of me, I have no idea what I was thinking when I wrote…

Shackled and dilled
Walker
Jigsaw pieces
Exploding from the center
Tomatoes

Anway,
Two entries from the bottom was this sentence,

Celeste speaks well of Ruth but secretly envies her aprons

A perfect jewel,
which there is no way I thought of myself.
No reference, just that rarefied run-on of perfection.
I instantly ran to the teacups,
searched the studio for my two favorite aprons,
and got to work.

Here is where I must beg forbearance,
from whomever I am so shamelessly plagiarizing,
I thought enough of your playfully glorious words
to save them in my “Painting Ideas” folder,
though I have absolutely no idea where they first crossed my path.

The Muses made certain that the sentence stayed hidden
until the precise moment I was ready, or rather,
THEY knew I was ready.

So…
tag me for the steal,
and thank you from the bottom
of my Aunt Imy’s wedgewood,
and wait for it…
I may catch Celeste and Ruth
in some future,
dare I hope…compromising,
compositions.

 


Sisters and the Muse

This falls under Ted’s favorite category of “sorta fun”.

A while back, one of my master muses, John O’Hern, sent a query asking about the painting Sisters. He was writing an article about florals, and botanicals, and Albrecht Durer, and naturally…thought of moi. (She wrote with a grin)

The article came out in this month’s American Art Collector Magazine, which Pat brought in from the mailbox last night.

As I read through and found it today, I see that an image of Sisters did not make the editorial cut. I can see why as the others make a wonderful bouquet of floral still lifes, and my little garden painting is of the more humble vegetable variety.

But, here’s the fun part.
What John wrote about the painting Sisters is…in his most inimitably magical way…delightful.

And I quote,
“Heather Neill observes a helpful symbiotic relationship in her own garden between her tomato plants and a volunteer scarlet runner bean that self-seeded the year before. Sisters refers to the ancient practice of “sistering” or “growing companion plants to, in this case, literally, support one another”, she explains. “Native Americans would plant corn to support the beans, which would shade lower growing lettuces…all in the same patch.”

The subjects are shown after dusk plucked out of the dark by a porch light. Neill’s saturated color and hyperreal painting along with the dramatic light suggest a more sinister role for the vine when the light is extinguised.”

Only John would imagine such sinister designs, plucked after dusk by a porch light.

Brilliant, and ta.


Bon Voyage

We want to send huge love to Jane Slater, as today she celebrates her 40th year at the antique shop she and her husband Herb have operated in Menemsha. Someone else will be sitting behind this desk next season, but for me, I shall forever see her smile looking back.

Jane will step boldly into a new chapter and we wish her full speed ahead.

Our Ladies of Menemsha


A Sign

A Sign

Last October,
on a perfect New England Autumn day,
was the last time I saw the house,
perched on the edge of the planet,
in all her grace and glory,
before they demolished it.

We all knew it was coming.
The time when nature’s pounding would erode the bluff,
wearing away at the land,
until there was no where else for the houses to rest.

When I pulled the wobbly screen door open
and stepped into empty space it froze my soul.
The house had been emptied of all its touchstones.

All that remained,
perhaps all that would truly chronicle the human presence within,
was the patina of marks on the walls, the floorboards and the ceiling.

This painting looks from the main room,
back through the tiny sleeping nook,
through just a razor thin edge of the window,
onto the sun porch,
where beyond, lies the view of Squibnocket Beach.

New nicks, and old, adorn the lintel,
from generations of foreheads which bumped that coop-like low beam,
where a hundred layers of yellow paint,
outlined the symbol of a duck…reminding us to.

All these objects, and a hundred more …
they have been the keeper of our memories.

The sunny days, the stormy nights,
we grew up in that house,
on the bluff,
as she grew old,
and, in her weathered-shingled way,
became…
the things we are made of.

 


Oversouth Willow

Oversouth Willow

As is true of so many of my paintings,
the muses pulled on some pretty wild threads
to bring this not-so-still-life together.

I’ll say it started with Jane,
because of the teacups,
hidden among the many other artifacts
which she and her sword fishing husband, Herb purveyed
in their antique shop in Menemsha.

This is Jane’s 40th year,
in that treasure shack, Oversouth Willow,
and the last season of her tenure behind the desk.

And that is where we found her, last summer,
the film crew and I,
when we were parading our cameras, and mikes,
around the island, and we stopped to visit with Jane.

The team of David and Barbarella Fokos,
renowned artists/writers/film makers/Emmy winners,
were setting out to make a documentary film
to add to their growing collection for the new website,

TAO – The Artist Odyssey.

The results of which are almost complete,
and Herself and I are picking out our gowns for the premeire !

(Check my blog for details)

While the crew set up and Pat and Jane chatted,
I searched around and found these three porcelain gems.
Jane told us the story of the “Blue Willow” pattern,
which I believe was captured on film,
but what I remember most clearly
was the sparkle in her eyes…and she in her element.

Fast forward a month or two and we are getting ready,
here in my Pennsylvania studio,
for the Fokos Team to arrive for another session of filming.
I needed to have a painting in progress so I brought out those blue vessels.
And then the muses stepped up.
They rifled through the linen prop drawer for something blue,
and the feather that Saren had brought me the day before
drifted down from the teacup shelf,
they fingered around in my back pocket
for the tiny shard of blue tile that I had found
in the pebbled lane the last time I walked up to Camp Sunrise,
and they sent me climbing up to the “old studio”,
the shed on stilts by the creek,
which is now the overflow prop room…
and I opened the door…

the blue door.

Bam, I’m in.

I had climbed those rickety stairs,
and opened that door every day for I don’t know how many years,
and inside was…my bliss.
My first real studio,
after 40 years of dreaming.
I remember when that paint was new.
Around here they were not sure how to mix Nantucket Blue.
There are a couple of paintings which feature the other side of this old door,
but if you stepped back far enough to get some perspective on the outside of it…
you would be swimming in the creek thirty feet below.

Opened to the inside,
with my hand on that wonderful doorknob,
and the light raking over the blue chips of paint…
well, that was interesting.
It was quick work to find something to use as a support,
and the red cover of the old faithful, “Iron Woman” book
was the perfect accent…think Jane.

When the Fokos’ arrived,
the painting was well underway,
but David wanted to recreate and film the set up part of the process.
You should have seen us cramming into the tiny space by that door
with cameras and crew…remember what I said about that one step backwards.

No one was harmed in the filming of this movie,
and now this painting has a great story to tell.

And I’ve got to go dye my eyes to match my gown.


An Art Night Detour…

Sunset Skiff

Sunset Skiff  –  24 x 32

I was driving through Vineyard Haven,
on the way to our annual Art Night dinner,
and I could tell by the slowing of the oncoming traffic,
that there was some kind of light show happening in my rear view mirror.

So I ducked into the boat launch lot,
overlooking the Lagoon,
and turned back into the light.

It was October,
and, when the island slows way down,
and the air is crisp,
the wind has only a few stalwart vessels to buffet.

We often plan our gatherings
so we can share a sunset before getting down to the feast,
and the lively conversations about all things art.

On this night,
I knew they would understand,
if I was delayed in the hopes of capturing the details,
having been in exactly the right place to observe this tapestry of color,
reflected on two of my favorite muses.

Turns out we all had the same idea,
on our separate island roads,
with different mediums in mind,and came together,
as always,
fired up with that creative zeal,
which fuels our souls.

Stopping everything for a sunset…
what it means to be an artist.


Granary Gallery Show

Swan Song an abstract Chilmark aria

It’s that time of year again and oh how those brushes have been flying !

The Granary Gallery Show is almost here…

The Opening is July 31, 5-7pm

I will be rolling out the new paintings here on the blog beginning next week, but the one featured above is a sneak peak at one of my favorites…

I’m calling this, Swan Song – An Abstract Chilmark Aria

I’ve gotten the approval of the dear diva herself, Skip Peterson, to show this now to the world. She modeled for me last October. Among her many talents and gifts, Skip is a painter, and among her many requests and suggestions for how I should capture her portrait, she thought it would be sorta fun to have an actual painting of hers in it.

Locating it some place in Chilmark was a must… as it is for her, like so many others, a treasured place held dearly in her soul…and when I took her to my sacred place, Camp Sunrise, she fell in love instantly.

We knew, when I painted this that the house was slated for demolition. And I had been meaning to capture it from this angle because the meadow in the foreground is where they were planning, and now have built, the new home. When, back in my mid-winter studio, I needed something to carry the energy of Skip’s song, I chose those wonderful swans which were soaring on their way to nearby Squibnocket pond.

But it wasn’t until a few months later, when someone sent me a photo of the empty horizon…when it became sadly real to me that the house was finally gone…that the title came to me.

It usually takes me a while to look back and see the workings of the muses.

With this painting, on so many levels, they have been leading me here for a lifetime.


Meanwhile, in Santa Fe

Because the solstice is upon us, and it’s a full moon, and it’s sizzling summer hot here today…the studio is hopping !

Yet another show to announce, this time at the Sugarman Peterson Gallery out in the high desert of Santa Fe, New Mexico.

The exhibition, An American Trio, will feature works by Katherine Stone, Leo E. Osborne and me. It was written up in the July issue of American Art Collector Magazine ….

cover 2016 72

72 article

The two new works of mine are…

All Politics is Local – 18 x 24

All Politics Is Local

“The muses wanted to weigh in on this election cycle, the prop room decided to step things back a century, and by the time I got around to choosing the right teacup…the eagle was doing a flyby.”

Goodnight Moon – 16 x 20

Goodnight Moon

“Our youngest grand daughter, Zoë, is a firefly, sparkly, bouncy, Tigger sort of a girl. She has the gift of a magical curiousity, and the rare patience to make the most of everything new her 5-year old eyes come across. Our days together are a blast, but I think my favorite part is tucking her freshly brushed and pajama’d self under the covers, giving her an eagle hug, and listening from the room next door as her Gran reads one more book. Goodnight Moon is a favorite for us both. Zoë has her own copy; the book in this painting is the one that sent me to dreamland when I was her age. The mouse is eternal.”

And, after a frantic couple of days when this very website was off the rails…I want to send a shout out of thanks to my tech crew…Ross ! We in the creative department are so glad you’ve got our backs.