30 years ago….

painting of woodshed in winter
Painting outside in Eastern Washington in all kinds of weather

30 years ago, I left Iowa with an MFA in my pocket. My destination was a rural location in Eastern Washington to house sit for Ben Frank Moss, a former professor.  Essentially, in exchange for care-taking and getting the house ready for their return in the summer months, my family lived almost rent free for 10 months and I could paint to my heart’s content. It was a great gift.

Leaving behind the tumult, angst and intensity of 3 years of grad school (plus having a child in the middle of it) was a wonderful opportunity … a chance to catch my breath before starting on the yearly academic job hunting routine. It was a good year- very productive and I felt I could authentically respond to the landscape around me.

Recently, after reading a book about Swedish Death Cleaning (yes, apparently it’s a thing) I thought I’d go through some old journals. I also found an old folder of letters from friends and professors and faculty at other institutions from this period. Some of them date back to those tumultuous years in grad school, some came after when I began meeting colleagues around the country.

During my first year in the program, I couldn’t quiet my mind and settle down – and was feeling unmoored – but I was encouraged by a teacher I respected, not to give up.  I needed to get tougher, more ambitious and work harder and in 10-12 years I would be able to find my painterly voice. At the time, that seemed like such a long road ahead, but now looking back , it really was about 10 years, before I found a subject matter that really moved me, and that provided the motivation to dive deeper into the content.

There was a constant flow of visiting artists that came through the building. Thanks in large part to how connected the faculty was to their own studio work and the larger art world. Sometimes they reinforced what I was hearing from others, sometimes they were totally on their own trip, and had a hard time relating to what I was trying to manifest.

Elizabeth Murray encouraged us to have ambition for the work, not for it’s own sake

Howard Rogovin – “don’t be afraid to let the work evolve into something else” …it could encompass “beauty and loss, poetry and strength”

John Dunn, who was a former theology student – spoke of the urge to “see the vision” the compelling reason that we need to keep painting – and the four things at work in making a painting (or a life) : Habit – Will – Memory – Chance

I wanted air and light in my work. I was captivated by an atmosphere that was almost palpable but not at the expense of things literally dissolving away. I was encouraged to get contrast, clarity, or definite edge in the work- ie: things were often too gauzy or soft.

Selina Trieff –it’s all a matter of “back and forth-ing”

Studio Building at U of Iowa

Sometimes I felt that people were gradually chipping away at what I came with, which is another way to say that we were constantly being challenged- learning to trust our instincts as they were informed by growing skill and questioning.

I was a good 10 years older than many of my cohorts, and perhaps felt the added pressure of making up for lost time. My personal life was more settled in some ways, but my studio life was far less sure. I could not make visible what I thought I wanted every time, but at least I was becoming more aware of my own language and voice.

I fixed on this quote from Nicholson Baker in the Atlantic, “ If your life is like my life, there are within it short sections…when your mind achieves a polished and complicated coherence. Your opinions become neat and unruffled-able…you are firm, you think fast, you offer delicately phrased advice. Such intermissions of calm are very rare in any case. Most of the time we are in some middle phase of changing our minds about many, if not all, things. We have no choice. Changes of mind should be distinguished from decisions, for decisions seem to reside in the present, while changes of mind imply habits of thought, a slow crystallization of truth, a partially felt, dense past.”

Slowly, things did begin to crystalize for me. Every once in a while, I began to make the intangible become visible and my mind could fall into intermissions of calm.

Still chasing after those moments…

early drawing, graphite





Everybody into the pool! (the art of not being all-consumingly productive all the time)

that’s my dad and me filling up the old pool in the back yard-

I was reminded there is such a thing as the “academic calendar” upon spotting the occasional U-haul trucks loaded with belongings making an appearance in downtown streets.

I used to live by it, whether in tune with my daughter’s school activities and vacations, or dealing with my own academic life.  Waiting for summer, so I would finally have more time for my own studio work.  (Hah! you’d think that would be the case, but if you’re an academic mommy, it just means your own kids are out of school, so you are pulled differently away from your work, not necessarily less so.) I also remember the sinking feeling when department meetings started up again…..”no… not yet!””

All those years are far behind me now. And I tend to get more studio work accomplished during the fall/winter/spring months. Times when there are fewer outdoor distractions, when I don’t mind hunkering down in the basement under the lights.IMG_0017

Summer is a different story. After the studio tour wrapped up,  3 cubic yards of great top soil/compost was dumped in the driveway.  We’ve been trying to cut down on lawn area and use more of the front yard for growing veggies and perennials and flowers.  So, many shovels and wheelbarrow loads later, it’s all distributed and also stored in the garage in two trash cans.  Then there’s the recent load of stripstone that I loaded into the back of my station wagon to edge the flagstone patio and the garden beds in back.  I also enjoy the daily picking, dead-heading, occasional weed pulling, and watering.

There’s been time spent reading, gathering my thoughts, finishing up a few smaller paintings, weeding out things in the studio, swimming at the pool around the corner, bike rides, hikes….. and just enjoying sitting on the deck, watching the clouds and storms roll in, appreciating the birds and other critters that scamper through the hedge, and ….. well, you get the picture.

pastel- from my Oregon days-  9x12
pastel- from my Oregon days- 1984 -9×12…… it seems I’ve always been a gardener

It’s not that I’m a total slacker though, there are a few shows coming up this fall that are getting contributions from me – “Aria” a small group exhibit at Artworks in Loveland, CO;  “Contemporary Colorado” a juried show at the newly reopened Curfmann Gallery at Colorado State University;  “Must Love Art”  a combination exhibit/and marriage celebration of two friends.. and the on-going posting of new works on two art marketing websites.

I am also determined to finally get my hands into some solar plate print-making.

But this is also the time to sit. To look at the sky, to marvel at the lovely birds that come  close by for a drink or meal, to read a good book in the shade. Simple stuff.  Not resume builders or the kinds of things that prompt you to moan about how “busy” you are, when asked.

The real gift of summer.



Swimming from here to where?

During the recent Republican National Convention in Tampa, I heard many speakers refer to “success”, and it made me start to question what they actually meant by that term.  Money? Power? Being on a national stage?  Here are two other ways to define that term.

After her grueling attempt to swim from Cuba to Florida, Diana Nyad wrote in the Huffington Post:

“It’s not in my nature to admit that no matter how much will you summon, no matter how much courage you express, no matter how much intelligent and complex planning you do, no matter the excruciating long hours of training, no matter the dedicated and expert individuals you choose to help you, sometimes you just don’t arrive at your destination. And somehow you still have to find the pride and the joy in your journey.”

and just recently, she wrote about her late brother who had lived on the streets of Boston for most of his adult life…  (you can read the entire article here)  On the way to his funeral, she said,

“I was…fully prepared to mourn the tragedy that was my brother’s life.  But so many of the homeless who showed up at the service, intelligent and marginalized individuals, to be sure, stood up and spoke of Shariff with eloquence and sincere admiration.  One blind man said my brother had brought him dinner from down the street at the soup kitchen every night for 12 years. No matter the winter weather. No matter if Shariff had the flu. He made a tray and carried it down the block to this fellow every single night for twelve years.

I flew home in a state of contentment. Sure, I wish Shariff had known more daily physical comfort. I wish he had taken some adventure vacations. I wish he had soaked in a few lovely hot baths.

But he evidently created a community who turned to him for leadership. He cared about a great many people and took good care of them.
In the end, I admired him.”

Diana’s just a few months older than me, and frankly, I would consider it a success if I swam more than 30 laps in the pool, without getting bored.  So her 100-plus mile achievement is pretty mind boggling. On the other hand, perhaps she’s never tried her hand at painting, and would marvel at what I can evoke out of pigment, brushstrokes and curiosity.

Maybe, there are alternative ways to think about success.  As artists, as human beings. ….still thinking about this.

the end of this beginning…

Many artists around the country have had the distinct opportunity to participate in a Creative Capital Professional Development Weekend.  And this last weekend was my chance. (big shout-out to Beet Street for bringing in a second annual one)

The presenters, Maureen Huskey, Colleen Keegan, Aaron Landsman, Jackie Battenfield, and Byron Au Yong, were all incredibly generous and helpful- I think everyone felt like they took away quite a bit that was not only useful, but truly personal and meaningful to each participant.

At the wrap-up, Colleen used the expression the “end of the beginning” to refer to our impending activities- filtering all this good stuff, starting to address issues unique to our own practice and moving forward, armed with clearer intentions (can you say “strategic planning?”) and optimism.

As it happens, I have been following “Communicatrix”,  Colleen Wainright’s blog for a while  (although it is much more than that) and today, something arrived in my mailbox with her last in a series of “embracing the tiny” observations.  Coincidence?   I think not.


For my part, I left the two days, filled with new energy to lead myself back to work that was more personal and meaningful to me- something that made me excited to keep moving forward, not something that I assumed would be embraced by a too-specific audience.

I (re) learned that I need to make the work that matters, and then move it out into the world, so the right audience can find it.  I will feel blessed, and I think those finding it will feel fortunate when they do.

What doesn’t totally confuse you makes you stronger…

20120318-145022.jpgas in… making your brain learn new things is a good thing.  My most recent venture is to finally learn how to put together a presentation in the post 35mm slide era.  This does truly make me a relic from another time.

Most of the work I did prior to 2004 is still in slide form and I have to give a power point presentation, for the upcoming Creative Capital workshop…so that means scanning a bunch of images into digital files.

“Why this is child’s play”, you say.  Indeed, my kid was learning how to do this in school.  But, unfortunately, the last time I was a visiting artist/public speaker, they still gave you the option of slides. Now of course, projectors aren’t even being made anymore.

So, I spent an hour or so scanning some older images at the local university library.  A mere drop in the bucket considering the three drawers full that will need my attention later at some point.

What’s your latest brain challenge?

(Instead of powerpoint, I’m going with Keynote, the Mac application that seems to get more votes for being visually elegant and easier to deal with- so far I agree)

Indulge me in some plans /promises to keep…

1. more drawings but about generally tangled environments (perhaps not specifically vines?)

2. keep researching and contacting new potential gallery prospects… thought I was done with this avenue, but I might want to reconsider if the fit is right, and it’s closer to me than Seattle was.

3. not get involved in activities that don’t in some way directly feed the studio work (sorry- no more birdhouses for charity, or decorated transformer cabinets)

4.maintain and increase contacts with art consultants who might help me find a niche- I’m thinking medical / hospitality…

5. do the annual studio tour in Fort Collins.  Since giving up my more public studio space downtown, there are probably some folks who are curious about what I’ve been up to- plus who doesn’t love a deadline to get cranking on new pieces? More on that later.

6. cook more with bacon-man! have you tasted that Black Forest variety at Whole Foods?

OK, maybe this comes from last night’s bacon-wrapped blue cheese filled dates at Cafe Vino, with Barb Gilhoolyand Ayn Hanna– stellar Fort Collins artists.  Check them out!