While I sit here in the studio, awaiting the plumber, who will help me address the water which is pouring out of a busted pipe in the basement below my feet.
These unexpected pauses, jolting the daily drive train of a creative workflow, still unnerve me… there are decidedly a scarce few things which fill me with more dread than having to go down to the basement.
But, with Pat’s steady backup, I have conquered that stage of the drama and the power has been cut off from the errant water pump and, as I mentioned, the trusty plumber is on the way.
Which gives me that rare moment… the unexpected pause between crisis and resuming of normal play and I am filling this one by paying forward a gift.
Last night, after a long day, a message popped up on my phone from one among you who are followers that I have never met, but whose name I recognize from the occasional gift of a “like” response to a posting here or there.
She wrote that she follows my work and she had read a poem which, for some reason, made her think of me… Pat looked at me from across the sofa and asked why I was crying… I read the poem outloud, and we were both in tears.
So this pause is by way of a thank you to K, for stopping to share the gift of this gracefully moving beauty and her own kind words, and to remind myself to take a deeper breath and let the muses take the wheel today.
They have a powerhouse collection of artists featured in this show and you can preview the work by clicking on this link…Click Here.
As we settle back home, after a whirlwind week at the Granary Gallery show, the studio has a bit more room to move around in and the muses are taking full advantage. No rest for the artiste…I am being given short spurts of time off to harvest the tomatoes, and pluck the odd green bean or two…then it is right back to the easel.
So watch this space…
Now that this new website is blazingly fast, it will be a pleasure to send out blog posts in a more regular and timely fashion. Thanks as ever, for coming along on this ride.
“When you look at some faces, you can see the turbulence of the infinite beginning to gather to the surface. This moment can open in a gaze from a stranger, or in a conversation with someone you know well. Suddenly, without their intending it or being conscious of it, their gaze lasts for only a second. In that slightest interim, something more than the person looks out.” John O’Donohue, Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom
My pal Alex, the philosopher fisherman, is a muse of the most mysterious kind.
He arrives unannounced, on silent feet, and rings the bell hanging ourtside my studio door…once. One clear ring. And never when I am listening for it, so it’s always a gift.
He is never empty handed. Most often a fishing pole is leaned against the porch, with a bit of tackle, or a turtle or a golf ball or the bottom shard of an old bottle… and then we talk.
Picking up right where we left off, even if it was a year ago, the conversation flits about according to where his curious eyes land or where my wandering mind does.
It can bounce around all day, or sit solidly on something heavy for a while. All topics are worthy of our examination and his curiosity is contagious.
One day during the summer he was 14 he came bearing a turtle. “I thought you would like to paint this” I wasn’t entirely sure, but brought my camera out, rather than the turtle in, and he held it in the sunshine for me to see.
It was a beautiful creature with patterns and colors that we studied under the tutelage of his vast knowledge of local nature. He and his subject were reverential of each other and I was just there to record.
It was a while before I saw him again, and in the interim I sorted through those photos to see if anything connected with the brushes.
What snapped my heartstrings was his face. The presence and the peace that was a young boy just beginning to tip into adolescence.
I made some notes and put it aside.
The next time I saw Alex, was a hot summer afternoon. He had been fishing after a morning of chores and was shirtless and sunburned with the creek dripping off of his sneaks.
The muses struck… What wasn’t working from that first photo shoot was that he had been wearing very dark eyeglasses. I asked him to pose again as now I could clearly see all of his face.
So we found a turtle sized rock and tried to recreate the scene.
And then another year went by.
I found myself reviewing the two sets of photos, knowing it was time to work on this painting. But what I had before me was a dramatic contrast.
Alex holding the turtle was clearly a young boy. Alex holding the turtle stone was absolutely a young man.
I really labored over this one. In the end I decided to do both, eventually the turtle will surface.
But I had been reading the poetry of John O’Donohue, the brilliant poet from Ireland, and came across his writings On Beauty. Just slayed me.
And centered me squarely on this gentle face. The landscape of this young man written across that brow brimming with confidence pale cheeked innocence fading into those widening sunwashed shoulders.
Here is my handsome Muse only last week taming another wild creature on my studio porch.
This majestic spirit watches over Lucy Vincent Beach. If you were standing there now and turned around you would see nothing but the ocean.
As I write this here in my Pennsylvania studio it kinda sorta feels like that ocean is being wrung out of a beach towel directly over our heads.
A train of tropical moisture has been parked over much of the east coast for days and two blocking pressure systems have squeezed that train into a narrow pipeline through central PA.
Many of you may be right in that pipe with us today and I hope you are safe. Our Little Conewago Creek is thinking about big time flooding and with more storms in the pipeline we’ve been carrying treasures and trinkets up to higher ground.
Only 50 feet away, the studio is a full story higher than our creekside log cabin, so I am writing this from my studio office where it is more or less higher and a tiny bit drier. My haven of creativity will be our home until the waters recede.
And, if those muses can all come together and summon up some powerful positive karma…
We will be on that beach and bowing to this goddess of goodness and light in a very few days…
We have one more stop to make in Mystic. A short walk from the Morgan is a lonnnnnng building
And this is the Spinning Loft, below which is the Ropewalk at the Mystic Seaport Museum. There is a short video ...click here...which shows a bit of what this room was all about, and you can read more of it’s history there as well.
But it really is worth a visit to let all your senses dive into this space. Resonant with the century old aromas of hemp and salt air, the velvety soft patine of well worn wooden surfaces, the sensuous flow of the carded fiber, it positively sings history.
The perspective isn’t skewed, this building is really 250 ft long, and it was only one section of the original Plymouth Cordage Company, which operated until the mid-1900’s and was then moved to the Mystic village.
Here are some close up shots to lure you into the lusciousness of the fibers…
and the long walk back in technology…
And there’s a mystery…
As is so often the case, when I returned from one of several visits to the museum and reviewed the thousands of reference photos, I spied this carving on the giant spinning wheel.
Those frisky muses.
Round about my birthday, the Follansbee came through on his trek to teach some woodworking down south, and, being a carver of woody things, I showed him this part of the painting, whereupon he said that Plymouth Cordage used to be a company town built around the rope making industry.
I went down a serious rabbit hole after googling it. I’ll leave those historic details dangling for anyone interested in doing their own research, but the point here is that many of the old buildings remain in town.
These Painter’s Notes will serve as a reminder to Peter that he said he would look into seeing if anyone in those parts recognizes the building from this carving… well…from my rendering of the carving.
That should be sorta fun.
For me, it’s all about the peaceful art… of spinning.
This year’s challenge was to minimize the effects of the Allium Leaf Miner pest which had completely decimated last year’s crop. I can’t even bring myself to revisit the pictures from that devastation, so google it yourselves if you are scientifically motivated.
The local Ag agents suggested covering the crop in the early spring before the creatures emerge. I tried three versions of that. In the cold frame bed featured below, I had the doors closed until mid-April.
In this back bed I used fleece to cover the plants, which the wind and weather rearranged frequently, so there were gaps in time when there would have been access. Image below shows windblown exposure.
In the third bed, (it’s starting to sound like the three little pigs here…) I used a screened tunnel. See garlic growing tall under that screen.
I harvested scapes from all three beds over the last three weeks or so. The bed shown above was curiously the last to form scapes. Possibly the full time cover slowed growth ?
Some test pulling of the plants showed those gnarly wee beasties had indeed begun their invasion. As was the case last year, the leaves were browning early and the bulbs were not forming, or were becoming deformed.
So, this week I yanked them all.
In bed one, 100% infestation. No bulbs were saveable.
In bed two, 60% infestation.
In bed three, the one with the 24/7 tunnel, almost all of the bulbs were untouched.
Out of about 200 plants, I now have close to 60 curing in the greenhouse. If there are some critters lurking within I may lose some of those, but it’s not a total loss.
On the principle of being given lemons… I decided to make lemonade.
Well…garlic scape butter.
I saved all the scapes, which were untouched by the bugs, and yesterday I got out the cuisinart !
The recipe is quite simple. Grind up the scapes, mix them into softened butter, put that into a ziploc bag and spread it thinly to force air out, then freeze. Then it’s easy to break off what you need as you go. It is especially nice to soften and use as the spread for Garlic Bread.
I had enough leftover minced scapes to add some lemon and olive oil and also freeze for later use in sauces and such.
Bonus tip, which I learned from an old blogger whose name I apologize for forgetting, you take the butter wrappers and stack and bag them up and also put in freezer to use as ready made greasers for pre-baking pans.
So, I started this blog yesterday, only to find that my website was down…again. A long frustrating day of dealing with my server resolved the problem late in the evening. When I sat down to write this entry today…down again.
They tell me it is fixed now, for good.
If you are reading this, then at least for now…it is.
You will be hearing more often from me now as we near the big opening for the Granary Gallery Show…This year that date will be August 5.
I’ve been working full tilt at the easel, almost non-stop since last November, and you’ll see the results very soon.
In the meantime, I hope your gardens are glorious, your souls are finding peace, and there is laughter in the air around you.
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…
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.
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)
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.