We have returned to terra firma after an extended excursion to Martha’s Vineyard. We usually let the unpacking phase linger long enough to keep some sand between our toes… as a reminder of all those walks on the beach, but there are wonderful things about coming home too.
Somewhere in the mountain of mail we returned to, ( thank you Sue for sorting it all out for us ) , I found my November issue of American Art Collector Magazine, and was pleasantly surprised to see my pal Ted there…
Humble thanks to Master John O’Hern for his ever so kind words about my work, and my muse. The memory I have of the twinkle of humor and love in Ted’s eyes is almost matched by seeing that rakish draping of jeans over boot.
It is a grey soft day here as November creeps upon us. The apples have all been picked up, but the grass is well over the tops of my boots, and the leaves have only just begun to fall.
Inside the studio, the furnace has begun firing up for the season, and so too have the brushes. It’s a good opportunity to work on the stack of commissions that have been piling up. In this time, between working on major bodies of work for shows, I can give undivided attention to those special projects and, after a long hiatus from the easel, my creative energy is restored and ready to rock and roll.
In the days ahead, I plan to show up more often here on the blog with progress notes and ramblings on creativity and studio happenings.
Today it feel so good to be able to say…back to the easel for now.
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…
Last year at this time, I was polishing up the tiara, and mirror ball, for the opening of …
Since then, the dynamic creative production duo of David and Barbarella Fokos, aka Salt and Sugar Productions have been dividing their time between studio work, filming and editing of new productions for TAO, The Artist’s Odyssey (check out their updated website), oh…AND enjoying awards ceremonies at International Film Festivals.
Yep, that’s me at the easel again…still painting that blue door !
So, as I am in final production for my next show, at the Granary Gallery in only a couple weeks, I have been given the opportunity to provide my readers and viewers with a special chance to see the movie, Visions of Home, in all it’s seaside glory, here from my website.
For anyone who might have missed it the first go round, or who may be new to this site because they saw it at some film festival without knowing beforehand who that old woman with the paint all over her shirt was, and for the rest of you who just simply cannot get enough of watching paint dry, and do not let me overlook Finnegan’s fan base…
Anyway, David has made a lovely page dedicated to the movie where you can see the trailer and watch the full film and get some backstory, with the wonderful blog post that Barbarella wrote about last years’ debut screening and some of the process behind their process, which alone is worth the read…and he’s included the article which The Vineyard Gazette published around the time of the opening in which they interviewed Barb and David about the making of the film.
So grab a bowl of popcorn, pull up your lawn chair by the kiddie pool, put a straw in some cool beverage, set your favorite viewing device to this link…
I still miss him every day. The studio has a few precious touchstones, that trigger the corners and pockets of my memory, and light up an arc, between this world and the next.
An impossibly thin teaspoon, made of coin silver, a crackled golden holiday ornament, dangling from an old fishing rod, a shiny little porcelain figurine, from the Red Rose Teabag collection…
and this card, the last we got from Polly, to thank us for a dinner we hosted, which features a print of a painting Ted did of their house in Chilmark.
Their spirits are free to roam now, and while Polly visits her wind chime to keep me company in the garden, Ted is right there on my shoulder, always, tweaking the muses and directing the brushes.
On the island it is different. I think it must be harder for their myriad island friends. It’s a small place, and hard not to drive by their house, to get almost anywhere.
Last year we all but drove off the road, when we came around the bend and saw the old structure, risen, like Lazarus, from it’s resting place, and jacked up 10 feet off of the ground.
Renovations had begun, and a skeleton remainedPeat black wooden ribs laid bare of their clapboard, and scaffolded light pouring into the dark maw of a foundation… the absolute void of the centuries of human life lived within.
Even my deep love of archeology and history, and origin-of-the-species exploration that so enjoys a good treasure hunt… was numbed, by the wave of grief and the smacked into realization, that they were not, as I had comfortably come to fool myself… still sitting, just there in the front room, nodding in the wingchair, beside the window, with the light on.
That warm soft light was a beacon for many a traveler. I, for one, couldn’t bear that corner to be dark… So, I painted it back on.
I just read a wonderful article by Lindsey Lee, oral history curator on Martha’s Vineyard, who, along with the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, is putting together a show based on Ted and Polly Meinelt and their annual Christmas displays.
Readers here will know how deeply Ted and Polly touched our lives, and we got to see a few of their holiday trimmings in person over the years. This article brings to life their unique creativity and cherished love of art and people and the Vineyard.
Clicking on the picture below, one of Ted’s famous holiday cards, will take you to the article on MVTimes web page.
A great big thank you to Lindsey for her dedication to telling Islander stories, and for putting a smile back in my heart on this, as Ted would call it…
Wolsey… this is one hysterical muse. I had a momentary respite, from her staccato background tapping. You’ll read below, that as the last Painter’s Notes were written, the studio fell silent. I took it as a sign. After years of Wolsey’s bombarding, every window through which I can be seen, and both wing mirrors on the truck, I thought maybe she/Ted/my father/whomsoever is driving that bird’s bus…was finally satisfied that I had received whatever message she was laying down.
Yesterday was a major clean up and trailer repair, so I was outside most of the day, but when I was inside…quiet. Today was a marathon of making the garden secure for the gardener to be away for a while. And now, I’m cooling down and crossing off the last things on the list. The second I sat here at the computer to log in the last of the new paintings…tap. TAP TAP TAP.
She’s back. Ya know, I was sort of afraid that the wandering cat, or a predator bird might have eaten her. So, I have to confess, after all this time and in spite of all the myriad levels of annoyance…I guess I sorta missed her.
Well, we are at the end now. These last three paintings complete the 2015 Granary Gallery Show. I hope to see some of you at the opening this coming Sunday, and, for those of you who won’t be able to make it, I thank you for all your support and kind words of appreciation. And now… I give you…Cardinal Wolsey…
Wolsey – 10 x 12
The following is an excerpt from November 2014. The bird had been pecking, steadily, at that point, for over a year. It is now June…2015…and if I could figure out how to put an audio recording on this site…you could hear her now.
Cardinal Wolsey. The ever present window slammer of a bird, is still with me. I now believe she is more than just a disturbed bird. Pat and Finn met a woman at the park last week who, after hearing the story of the intrepid one, immediately suggested that she was someone who I had known who had “passed on” and did I know anyone in the clergy. Well I sat back in my chair at that one. Seriously, my father, the Presbyterian minister, returned as the slammer ?
Possibly ? I’m still pondering that one. But this bird is definitely trying to tell me something. She now follows me from window to window and watches me all day long. The hurling Herself at the panes behavior seems to diminish when I settle in at the easel. Then she just flies up and stares at me…the rubbernecker.
Well, ok, that part could be Ted. He is definitely nudging me to focus on painting…probably as I write this…which is taking time away from what I began this blog with…
that perfect painting day.
Well, the dreary rain has turned to our first snowfall of the season. The promise of a winter wonderland, a bird in the oven, one at the window, and two dozen at the feeders…that’s all I need of Thanksgiving.
And, this…to all my friends and patrons, whose support allows me to do the work that is so meaningful to my soul…
Post Script – June 2015
After painting those eyebrows…I do believe it is Ted. He would wear the cappa magna with panache.
The Cardinal – 10 x 12
If you read the other notes on this little gal you understand the determination behind this gaze the relentless dementia of the tapping behavior the persistence of the muse
but you know what ?
ever since I finished these bird series paintings as I have been sitting here in the office for almost a week working on the computer to get these files up on the website and composing painters notes
Not a single tap.
The only other time that happened was when Zoe was here in the studio painting along side of me.
Now what do you make of that ?
Himself – 14 x 12
This is Ted’s teacup. (Thank you Terry) And an old coin silver spoon with which Ted gifted to us a long time ago.
But that bird… she’s all mine.
Cardinal Wolsey. Each time I painted her, I fell deeper into those eyes.
There’s a thing about birds. You can never get close enough in person to really look into their eyes.
I have dozens of good photos now of Wolsey, but there are hundreds of blurry rejects that were snapped just before and just after she smashed into the window.
The split second of the camera lens has given me a gift.
For all her racket, and by that I mean demented torturous unrelenting eternal-faucet-dripping madness of the tapping…
Ted and Pete have made quite a splash in their Cover debut on the American Art Collector Magazine this month, and I thought you would like to see some of their other inspirations as Muses.
Over the years, they each gave me the great gift of seeing the island of Martha’s Vineyard through their eyes. Both had DNA spread liberally across generations and rolling fields and they had an eager student of island history in my eager ears.
Ted and his wife Polly sent me wandering down many a sandy trail through brambles and over rocky rutted roads in pursuit of hidden landmarks and relics of island lore. After Polly left us, Ted rode shotgun on those adventures and navigated us to some seriously back-of-the-beyond treasures.
One such romp was to find the elusive Gay Head Lily. We ended up announcing ourselves in this lovely woman’s yard at the end of a long lane and out Ted, the celebrated head of the island garden club, waltzed to her dock along the pond to show me the flowers. Stunning. As I look back today, his hand seems far more delicate than those petals, but oh the wonders, that magician that he was, our Ted, could pull out of his hat.
Here’s a link to the original blog entry describing this painting…Click Here.
Another fine day found Ted and PG Harris and I bouncing along an old carriage path in my truck in search of The Brickyard. Ted thought it would be sorta fun to see it, and introduced me to PG whose family owned the property, and, after a couple hours of historical lecture on the area…off we three drove…I mean there we were in the middle of three glorious old fields surrounded by ancient stone walls and PG points to a small break in the stone and says, “Just drive over and through there and we’ll see.” The Painter’s Notes give the rest of the story…click here… but suffice it to say, now that they are both floating somewhere high above that island…that adventure was one of my all time favorite memories.
Now, Peter Darling, well…he was just Pete. We called him the Admiral because he always had binoculars around his neck and was ever watchful from his deck. Not nothing, not no one, got past his old farm house on Greenhouse Lane without Pete knowin’ about it. Many a stranded sailor was rescued by the coast guard that Pete had hailed after spying their distress from his perch on top of those bluff steps. And every feather of the nesting osprey was monitored by their stalwart steward of a neighbor.
There is a tiny knoll in the long lane, right by his house, and I took to honking my horn with each passage so as to let oncoming traffic be wary, (and just between you and me…to keep the Admiral on his toes !). The very last time I heard from Pete, he had brought out a great big foghorn to his porch and answered my heralding call with his own. I really loved that.
These two views of Pete’s house give you an idea of the depth of beauty that surrounds the Darling’s farmhouse. His wife Della is there now and I’m eager to see her next week to give her a big hug and hear how life on the lane is faring this season. Della is a great fisherman and a lover of walks. In her travels, she has worn a path all along the perimeter of those old stone walls. I hear that some daisies grow there to welcome her in the late spring. She has earned them.
A couple of years ago…the year of the Apple Series, I spent the winter listening to the double trouble musings of Ted and Pete. Pete was a tremendous trove of knowledge of Up Island lore and indeed history of all flavors. He loaned me a couple old tin coffee pots, the kind that were used over campfires by campers and travelers to cook up the early morning brew. The dear little one that made it into the Skillet Apple Pie painting was my favorite. Looking back, I should have blown some smoke out of that thing. Pete woulda loved that.
The core of this series, (written before the pun hit me, sorry), was the modeling session with Ted in the Magnuson’s Tiasquin Orchard…which all started with Chris’s suggestion…and the rest of that story is in these Painter’s Notes…click here.
And the man himself…
who sits in this chair across from my easel and reminds me, every day, that I am all the better for knowing that twinkle in his mishcievous and loving eye.
Never trust a man, who when left alone in a room with a teacozy, does’t try it on.