I decided to give my blog page a little lift with its own name. I’m calling it Sycamore Notes and some day I will explain where that comes from. (see a more recent post for that) For now, know that it is based on my belief that art can be something that lifts us out of the ordinary and inspires or challenges us. So here I will “go out on a limb” and share new works that are being added into this site’s galleries or tell you about coming events and opportunities, or share techniques I use; or perhaps I will share a thought that I feel needs to be shared. My hope is that this will become interactive and to that end, I invite you to share your thoughts or questions as we proceed.
“Spell check” may not like the expression “en plein air” very much but for some reason artists today still use this rather antiquated phrase for painting outdoors. The term originated around 1800 and is attributed to Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes (1750–1819) who first expounded on the concept in a treatise entitled Reflections and Advice to a Student on Painting, Particularly on Landscape. The concept is what I am most interested in and what I have finally come home to. Years ago, I would ONLY paint from life either outdoors or in the studio. When I think back to some of those paintings, like the ones I did on Presque Isle near my earlier home, I can feel a presence that I don’t often feel from paintings I do from photographs. When I paints outdoors, I have to paint fairly quickly as the conditions can vary greatly within a short period of time. The light changes; bugs bight; temperatures vary; wind blows. Because of that I can’t get hung up on details. I bring to the painting, not only what I see but also the smells and sounds and feel of the whole environment. All of the senses become part of the painting. Over the summer I was invited by a new friend and watercolorist in the area to join her and others at a plein air event. I put it off until one day the group was scheduled to paint literally in my backyard, on the other side of Sugarloaf Mountain, MY mountain. How could I say no?
We painted along the Ocooee River for just a couple of hours and I fell in love again with plein air. For the past few months I have been setting aside at least one morning a week to paint outdoors or (if weather prohibits that) in the plein air state of mind. It has become a weekly meditation. The paintings are not necessarily spectacular but the experience definitely is. When I draw or paint this way–outdoors, surrounded by the sights and sounds of flora and fauna–I am transported into another universe, no background music but the songs of the birds; no “breaking news” reports other than the breakthroughs of mindfulness. My preference is to paint alone.
One Sunday morning recently, I spent close to two hours sitting and drawing near Cookson Creek. I know the cooler months will not be conducive to sitting on a stool outside, so I wanted to experiment with drawing and taking notes and then working from those to translate them into a painting back in the studio, kind of a hybrid of plein air plus studio work. I wish I could bottle the peace that came over me. Cookson Creek, which flows into the Ocoee River, goes right under the bridge on our quiet country road. The sun shone brightly filtered by thickets of trees just starting to turn to fall colors. Carolina wrens sang. Woodpeckers pecked. Crows cawed. Leaves fluttered and walnuts dropped noisily. The slightly chilled fresh air smelled of decaying leaves. The drawing came easily. My goal was to paint from the drawing, only using this short video to remind me of those peace-filled sounds and, to some extent, the scene itself.
This is the painting that came from that experience. I called it “Remembering The Sycamore”.
That slanted silvery tree that is reflected in the creek is a sycamore, reminding me of my once Sycamore Gallery and this blog, too . (Why “Sycamore Notes?” she said….) My personal goal is to do more plein air painting as circumstances allow. It doesn’t mean I won’t ever work from photos. There are a lot of times when that works best. It also does not mean I won’t experiment with combining media in my work or trying new surfaces to paint on. But this old-but-now-new-again way of painting mindfully is what my soul needs to keep my work fresh and authentic. My hope is that it will touch your heart as it has mine.
Do you remember the smell of a brand new box of crayons? I certainly do and loved the anticipation of what would become of those beautiful colors. Someone who worked for Crayola actually was employed to give them names like cadet blue, razzle dazzle rose, and screamin’ green, a job I secretly envied for years. Earlier this week I shared this quotation by Hugh Macleod on Facebook without really thinking it through: “Everyone is born creative; everyone is given a box of crayons in kindergarten. Then when you hit puberty they take the crayons away and replace them with dry uninspiring books on algebra, history, etc. Being suddenly hit years later with the ‘creative bug’ is just a wee voice telling you ‘I’d like my crayons back, please.’ ”
I was fortunate that nobody every took my crayons away. In fact, “they” just gave me more crayons of a different kind to play with. Those crayons actually were some of those “dry uninspiring” subjects like biology and geometry and even chemistry. that were taught by teachers who showed me that they were crayons too. What is a crayon, after all, but a stick of pigment in wax, a tool to create something of beauty, a metaphor for a spirit of curiosity, creativity, and wonder?
One of my own former biology students challenged me to re-think what I had shared in that quotation. I did. The point being made by Macleod, I think, has to do with the disregard for the importance of the arts in education and the emphasis on the more “useful” disciplines (fortunately an attitude that appears to be changing). That was particularly true in earlier generations. Maybe we still need to learn and appreciate how all the disciplines can provide color in our lives. Then we can see the beauty of a scientist’s search to find the secrets of the genetic code or the origin of the Big Bang. We can marvel at the Fibonacci series in the whirl of a sunflower head. Then our minds can be opened to how a plant photosynthesizes or a bird sings a particular song. Then we can treasure the changes of the season and the evolution of life on earth and understand the reality of climate change. We can rejoice with Mission Control at NASA when a new satellite achieves orbit. We can ponder with amazement how a virus we cannot see was able to bring mighty nations to their knees and the world to a standstill. We can delight in the stories that brought humankind to this moment in history.
” I know artists whose medium is life itself, and who express the inexpressible without brush, pencil, chisel or guitar. They neither paint nor dance. Their medium is Being. Whatever their hand touches has increased life… They are the artists of being alive.” Frederick Franck
Perhaps you have seen me refer to this organization, but have you wondered what it is? When I first moved to TN in 2001 I heard bits and pieces about the organization but did not join until 2010. I quickly learned that TnWS is an organization totally dedicated to the promotion of watercolor as a viable and important artistic medium. The organization is divided into five regions around the major metropolitan areas of the state. I am in Region 3, the Chattanooga Region, and am the only member in my county. Currently there are around 250 members across the state. This year the organization is celebrating 50 years since its founding, not a bad accomplishment. The region I am in has had two exhibits already to celebrate the golden anniversary and currently we are joining with the artists from the rest of eastern Tennessee in exhibit at the art center in Athens, TN. It is going to be a great exhibit featuring the work of 27 artists. Next year, a biennial exhibit from the entire state membership will be held in Chattanooga and will be juried by noted watercolorist, Stan Miller from the state of Washington. He will select the exhibit next spring from all the entries submitted and the exhibit will hang at AVA in Chattanooga for a month before traveling to 5 other locations across the state. Once a member is accepted into three juried exhibits, they receive what is called signature membership meaning that the member has the right to add the initials TnWS to his/her signature. It is an accomplishment and many members choose to do just that. I received my signature status in 2016 but choose not to use the initials. It was a personal goal to work toward signature and I am pleased and proud that my work was juried into those three exhibits in 2010, 2012, and 2016. Of course, I hope to create something significant during the year to come and that it will be juried into the Chattanooga exhibit. Thousands of dollars worth of prizes are given during these major exhibits. I you would like to visit the members gallery or learn more about TnWS, you can do that at www.tnws.org.
“Hurray for our side!”……That’s what my Dad would say when someone in the family accomplished something worth crowing about. All of us knew just what he meant: he was proud and wanted us to know that. When I got the news that “The Fierce Call of Morning” (12×18 woven watercolor on yupo) was accepted into the 2021 Fiftieth Anniversary Celebration exhibit of the Tennessee Watercolor Society, I was sure I heard Dad celebrating with me with that expression. Then it got even better this week when I was invited to attend a virtual zoom awardspresentation where I was pleased to receive an Honorable Mention award. Yep, there was Dad, cheering once again. On-line only, the exhibit represents some of the finest watercolor in the South. Hurray for my side! You can enjoy the exhibit in its entirety here.
I have been experimenting with woven watercolors since January 1, 2018when I decided to try “something different” for the new year and did a small piece I called It’s a New Day which now lives in Springfield, Missouri. I have lost track of how many I have done since ,but they are fun, challenging, and surprising. The technique involves painting two paintings about the same size and similar or complementary subject matter, then cutting the two in opposite directions and weaving them together. The result is hard to envision in advance and some end up in the recycle bin! This one didn’t!
For those of you who have been walking with me for awhile, you are well aware of my ongoing kimono series. For those who have recently joined me, you can read about this series that is so very important to me right here. Today I am sharing the nineteenth kimono of what started as a ten-kimono goal. This particular kimono started a year ago. We had just gone into covid lockdown. Every next step seemed unclear, ambiguous, and, yes, more than a bit frightening. It was to be a year of ambiguity. That year is behind us as I write this, but there is still a lack of clarity. The fog is just starting to lift. We’ve all experienced the lifting fog some time, whether actual or figurative. We see it over “our” mountain frequently. Clarity starts to come at the bottom and gradually work it’s way up the mountain, revealing slowly the fields, the trees, the mountain top, the sky. That’s where I feel we are now. We are starting to feel we can plan a trip, or an event, or even a gathering with friends. But the clouds of uncertainty and the harsh warnings from the CDC give us pause and those year-old fears creep in again. That is what this kimono is trying to say. I have been working on it off and on over this covid year. It was larger for awhile. It was textured. It was even a totally different color prompting me to buy a new tube of Venetian Red! But this is how it turned out. If you look closely you will see row after row of small holes made with a dressmaker’s tool for transferring a pattern, along with row after row of machine stitching in “Yale blue” and metallic silver. As I write this, I am still not sure if the image is complete or even if it is the right image or if I need to start all over. I have tempered hope that the fog will lift and we will feel the freedom of a bright sunny day…..eventually.
If you knew me before my move to the South in 1996, you may recall my gallery on the campus of Villa Maria College/Gannon University. It was a special place for me that I called Sycamore Gallery. There wasn’t a sycamore in sight on the campus, but I drew inspiration for the name from the only reference to a sycamore in the New Testament. Remember Zacchaeus, the little guy who wanted to see Jesus but couldn’t because of the crowd? Zacchaeus climbed the sycamore tree to get above the crowd and see! For me, that’s what art does….music, poetry, the visual arts, dance….art of any kind. It takes me ABOVE THE CROWD so I can get a glimpse of the divine. It’s as simple as that. The thought has stayed with me and is the inspiration for this blog and for all I do as I paint, draw, or write. To keep reminding me to get above the crowd, the noise, the distractions, there are two sycamore trees planted on our property in Ocoee TN.
There are many wonderful reasons for maintaining my website and blog but perhaps the one that brings me the most joy is like the one that happened recently. A name appeared on a contact form in my mailbox with a fun description of some antics in a biology class in the late 70’s when I taught biology at VMA in Erie. Several emails were exchanged and stories told of all that has transpired on both ends of the story fleshing out some old memories from long ago. I LOVE being able to do that and to learn about where life has taken my students. So many have found me with a google search that lead them to my website. Some visit for a span and others have become life long friends. It happens more than I ever would have anticipated. This particular reunion had yet another element. “How did you happen to look for me at this time?” I said. “Marie, I think of you every week when I dust a framed drawing my mother gave me in the mid-90’s!” After I asked her to send me a photo, I was gobsmacked (have wanted to use that word!) to see a drawing I did in Holland in 1984 while on a solo backpacking trip through Europe to draw and paint and visit the museums, under the direction of my friend and mentor Frederick Franck. So, it became a double reunion with my student Kathy and with Femke and her mother, the models in that drawing. Who knew that dusting could bring so much pleasure?
Several of you who will read this post were likely students of mine at some time. If so, thank you so much for finding me.
In the mid 1970’s I was a student at St Bonaventure University in Olean NY working on a master’s degree in biology over several summers. During one of those summers I met and befriended a man with a long white beard, tattered layers of sweaters and shirts, and a braided knot on the top of his head! Colorful? You betcha. John the Vagabond, as he referred to himself, told me stories of traveling the globe, meeting people and learning from them, and imparting his personal philosophies and guidance along the way. He was there at SBU to take advantage of tuition-free classes for seniors, studying psychology so that he could better counsel the people he would encounter along his personal journey. We talked at length while strolling around the beautiful campus At summer’s end, I gave him my address in hopes that I would hear from this very colorful personality. And I did. In fact, a letter-writing relationship developed that lasted until his death in 1986 in Bradenton FL Fast forward thirty years when I received an email from John’s grand nephew who had inherited a box of John’s personal items, among which were letters from me to his grand-uncle! Email exchanges and phone calls followed. I found among my own treasures a stash of letters from John that I had saved and two old b&w photographs I had taken of him at SBU. More photos came from my new much younger friend and John’s relative, and a collection of paintings and drawings followed (many of which are included in this portfolio.) The story is ongoing and not quite ready for prime time yet, but on the way I have learned a lot more about John’s very interesting life, far more than I knew back in those student days. This portrait embodies for me his colorful and caring personality. He was an itinerant searcher of truth, a pilgrim of the universe, a teller of tales, and much more than met the eye. It was my real privilege to get to know him then and now to learn about him all over again.
Sometimes multiple interests come together in a single painting. Such was the case with this piece which combines my interest in nature, art, and native American history. Phew! All in one little roughly 9×9 watercolor.
The image is of a gulf fritillary that has a unique relationship with this flower, commonly referred to as the Passion Flower. Both are beautiful creations in themselves, but what is so interesting is that this little butterfly MUST lay its eggs on this particular plant because that is all their fussy little caterpillars will eat! This is just like the relationship that monarchs have to milkweed. My practical side says, how inefficient, how unwise to be so dependent on a single food source. Could it be that these butterflies need beauty in their lives too??
And there is more to this story. The Cherokee who used to inhabit the very land I live on here in southeast TN called the fruit of the Passion Flower “u-wa-ga” and the area around the river where it grew was called “u-wa-go-hi,” which means “where the passion fruits grow.” To English speaking folks this sounded like “o-co-ee” and so the river became the Ocoee River and the land nearby was called Ocoee, which is where I live. So I live in the Land of the Passion Flower! There is so much in this story that I love, so I had to paint it and I finally did. I have painted the flower several times but this is the grist time I have included the fritillary as well. Purchase information can be found in the Birds, Butterflies, and Beasts gallery or in the Blossoms and Blooms gallery.
On a weekend following a number of days doing relatively non-creative tasks, my insides demanded some play time. A very energizing exercise for me is to do one of my woven paintings. To do this, I generally paint two paintings, often on yupo, that have some similar elements in color and/or line. Yupo is a synthetic material that has a very hard non-absorbent surface that does not act at all like traditional watercolor paper. It is hard to control but results in very vibrant lively color that I love to work with. After painting and letting them dry well, I slice the two paintings in opposite directions and then weave them back together. The fun part is that I never quite know what the finished piece will look like. Ok, it’s not always fun but it sure can be interesting…..This is one of those surprises. It could remind the viewer of a spectacular sunrise or sunset, thus the title “Solar Flare.” The image itself is 10×14 and it is matted and framed to 16×19. You can see more woven watercolors here.