Painting what I once most feared.

Painting what I once most feared.

 “Flew The Nest” 18×24, oil on canvas

What do you call a cross between a daydream and a nightmare? Whatever the word is, I had a recurring one when I was a kid. I would often imagine that I had a very rare disease that unbeknownst to me made all my thoughts audible to other people. My parents, having been told about the disease from doctors and knowing it would prevent me from functioning in the world if I knew about it, conspired with the whole community to keep it a secret from me. Laws were passed that stated no one could so much as lift an eyebrow to react to whatever they heard in my thoughts no matter how crazy, funny, outrageous, or ridiculous. There was no hiding anything from anyone. I was thoroughly and perpetually exposed, and, in the world of the dream, just beginning to realize it. 

I’m not sure exactly why I let this dream play out so many times other than I felt sure that the most terrifying thing in the world would be to have my innermost thoughts exposed with no ability to filter, control, edit, or even misrepresent them. 

Lately I’ve been painting women with, for lack of a more eloquent way to say it, “stuff” on their heads. When people ask, I tell them all that “stuff” is their thoughts. It’s always just a touch chaotic even when it’s blooming or beautiful. 

It occurred to me recently that, in a way, I’ve been illustrating one of my greatest childhood fears– the thoughts are not invisible and stored internally but take on actual shapes and contours that manifest themselves outside the bodies from which they come. They have weight. In “Flew the Nest” in particular, the swirling thoughts started to form what looked like a nest to me. So I, at the very end and without having planned to, painted a hummingbird near where the heart would be. The bird has left the comfortable nest of thoughts. The invisible and abstract have taken shape, have been made visible and concrete. They were let out. Shared.

It turns out, I don’t have the audible-thoughts disease. My thoughts and ideas, like yours, are invisible until I let them out– in a conversation, a look, a gesture, and more often than not, a painting. I get to control when and how and in what context they are revealed. I get to share them when and how I choose to. I’m not a bug, pinned and wriggling on the wall (hat tip, Prufrock) and how good that is. 

I’m learning to have a healthier relationship with my thoughts. In a perfect world, I’d never bury them or let them take over entire canvases. I’d look at them and let them go. I’d share when they beckon and keep them inside when they are content to be there and I am content to host them. The ones that fly the nest would do so without fear or judgment. They would do so with sincerity and kindness.

I didn’t start “Flew the Nest” with any of these ideas about it. They grew as it grew. I very much relate to Joan Didion’s famous line, “I don’t know what I think until I write it down.” So often I can only understand what I’m thinking after I’ve written about it. But before even that, to understand my own interior world, I’ve got one more step before writing. I’ve got to paint about it. 

Not all my paintings make me feel particularly proud, but “Flew the Nest” does. It reminds me of how far I’ve come– from a soft-spoken and reserved child to someone who discovered her strength was located in the very thing she used to most fear– vulnerability. This painting has a gentleness to it I’ve tried to replicate and can’t quite. It went through countless changes, additions, and rounds of scraping off; there was doing and redoing. There are layers. It makes me think. 

If anything in “Flew the Nest” speaks to you, I’d love to know about it in the comments.

Prepare a Face to Meet the Faces you will Meet


Alfred and Mary


In my last post, I wrote about the new series of paintings I’m developing based on Mary Oliver’s poem “Invitation.” In this series, I’ve been changing up two things. First, I’m using cold wax medium in the paint which amps up the texture as well as gives the paint this waxy, translucent quality I really love. Second, I’m painting quite a few faces, real human faces with eyes and noses and protruding chins– you know, the whole nine. 









My love affair with Oliver’s poetry has been going on for a couple years now. For me, reading it is almost more of a spiritual than a literary pursuit. Her poetry is the only thing I read from a real, hard-covered book and not a screen. Sometimes I make tea or light a candle. It feels sacred. When I close the book, I feel more calm, more hopeful, more secure. 

But it wasn’t quite so long ago, or maybe a very long time ago depending on how you look at it, that I had a different favorite poet. I first encountered T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock” as a teen in the nineties. I clung to it, quoted it, read and reread it, and memorized most of it for at least the next twenty years. In fact, in college I did a series of paintings (two pictured below) based on one line from the poem: “I grow old, I grow old, I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.”










If you’ve not read the poem, I still highly recommend it, although I’ll warn you that the speaker is a tortured, self-important, middle-aged balding man who catastrophizes, worries, and obsesses. He is, quite frankly, exhausting. But I loved it (and still do) because it’s gorgeous. It also speaks to my own self-deprecating and still egoistic tendencies. I felt the closest to Prufrock in my early twenties when I wanted to tell a boy I was interested in him and thought the whole universe hung in his response. Turns out, and I know this might surprise you, it didn’t. 

In the fourth stanza, there’s this phrase I’ve long carried with me– “Prepare a face to meet the faces you will meet,” and as I’ve been painting these faces, I keep thinking of it. It’s like what we do on instagram– prepare a certain face to present to other highly cultivated and curated faces. I’m funny! I’m quirky! I’m important! Meanwhile, underneath the prepared face, aren’t we sometimes just little insects “formulated, sprawling on a pin…wriggling on the wall” under the close inspection of others? 


Invitation to Linger


Now as an almost forty year old, I feel most at home not in Prufrock’s world but in Olivers where the natural world can be nothing other than what it is. Life is not measured out with coffee spoons and our existence does not disturb the universe; it is a tiny but vital part of it. 

Prufrock says, of his mundane dilemma to ask a love interest a question, that he has “wept and fasted, wept and prayed” while in “Wild Geese” Oliver reminds me that  “you do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.” In Prufrock’s mind, he can “disturb the universe” by simply asking a question, whereas Oliver suggests in many of her poems and literally in “Wild Geese” that despite our despair and longings, “the world goes on.”

Armed with the poetry from two very different seasons of my life, I have been preparing faces to meet yours, but I hope they will do so in honesty and not in fear. I hope they are more Oliver than Prufrock; I hope they will invite you to linger as they have me.

These paintings have beckoned me to pause and to get out of my own head. I want each one to remind me that the universe does not hang in the balance of either my thoughts or my art, and therefore, both are free to just be part of it. Part of the universe and not at war with it– what a lovely notion. I’m working to let go of the strain and agony of my more Prufrock self and settle into the “rather ridiculous” performance of the goldfinches that are everywhere performing “not for your sake or for mine but for sheer delight” in my new paintings. 

Day 18. That’s how the Light Gets in

“Ring the Bells that Still Can Ring” 20×24, oil on canvas Buy Now

Today’s painting is a continuation of yesterday’s explorations. I enjoyed the freedom of letting go of a little control and letting the paint do a some of the work, landing where it willed. The idea here is that when I’m free of representation– no bird, no musician– I take the paint on my palette knife and gently run it against the surface. The paint sticks to the parts that are the most elevated with texture and passes over the smoother areas. It creates interesting shapes of it’s own accord. I’m just trying to let it. Guide it.

As more of the “me too” posts came in yesterday, I thought more about it. And appropriately enough given I’ve started a musician series this month,  it was a song that comforted me as I did so–  Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem”. The lyrics are below. 

I had a really good day in the studio last night and this morning. I’m working on some birds, but I’m painting them in such a way that I think (hope) expresses the line from the song: “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” You’ll see what I mean in tomorrow’s post. If you don’t want to miss it, be sure to subscribe to this blog. 

The birds, they sang 
At the break of day 
Start again 
I heard them say 
Don’t dwell on what 
Has passed away 
Or what is yet to be 
Ah, the wars 
They will be fought again 
The holy dove 
She will be caught again 
Bought and sold 
And bought again 
The dove is never free

Ring the bells that still can ring 
Forget your perfect offering 
There is a crack in everything 
That’s how the light gets in

We asked for signs 
The signs were sent: 
The birth betrayed 
The marriage spent 
Yeah the widowhood 
Of every government
Signs for all to see

I can’t run no more 
With that lawless crowd 
While the killers in high places 
Say their prayers out loud
But they’ve summoned, they’ve summoned up 
A thundercloud 
And they’re going to hear from me

Ring the bells that still can ring 
Forget your perfect offering 
There is a crack in everything 
That’s how the light gets in

You can add up the parts 
But you won’t have the sum 
You can strike up the march 
There is no drum 
Every heart, every heart 
To love will come 
But like a refugee

Ring the bells that still can ring 
Forget your perfect offering 
There is a crack, a crack in everything 
That’s how the light gets in

Ring the bells that still can ring 
Forget your perfect offering 
There is a crack, a crack in everything 
That’s how the light gets in 
That’s how the light gets in 
That’s how the light gets in

Day 12. Drawing Inspiration and Glorified Chickens.

Day 12. Drawing Inspiration and Glorified Chickens.

“Flannery” 15×45 in, oil on canvas Buy Now

Books, not paintings, were the first art I loved and before I knew I had any artistic ability, before ubiquitous laptops and iphones, I took to writing words as a form of drawing. It was not only their meaning, but the very act of putting pen to paper that energized me. I liked watching a word form visually, left to right, up and down. I loved seeing a sentence in a place that had previously been devoid of any thought but also any pattern or design.

Writing was powerful to me not just because of the ideas it allowed me to convey, but the lines it allowed me draw.

In high school and beyond my favorite writer was Flannery O’Connor probably because I had not been introduced to many women authors and she was young (she died at just 39), southern, Catholic, a bit a misfit– all things I felt made us part of the same club.

It wasn’t until I started painting seriously that I could add another shared trait to my list: a love of birds. O’Connor raised peacocks on her farm and describes their beautiful, odd, at times awkward behaviors in an essay entitled “Living with a Peacock”.

In true O’Connor fashion, she avoids descriptions of the obvious or conventional in favor of the less idealistic and yet somehow more endearing qualities of the bird :

Flannery O’Connor and two of her peacocks.

“Not every part of the peacock is striking to look at, even when he is full-grown. His upper wing feathers are a striated black and white and might have been borrowed from a Barred Rock Fryer; his end wing feathers are the color of clay; his legs are long, thin and iron-colored; his feet are big; and he appears to be wearing the short pants now so much in favor with playboys in the summer. These extend downward, buff-colored and sleek, from what might be a blue-black waistcoat. One would not be disturbed to find a watch chain hanging from this, but none does. Analyzing the appearance of the pea­cock as he stands with his tail folded, I find the parts incommensurate with the whole. The fact is that with his tail folded, nothing but his bearing saves this bird from being a laughingstock. With his tail spread, he inspires a range of emotions, but I have yet to hear laughter”

The peacock, she seems to suggest, is a just a moodier, bossier, occasionally more majestic chicken.

And, truth be told, most days I feel like chicken. Painting. Writing. Making those types of marks– those are the things that make me feel like peacock is even a little bit possible.


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What Picasso Taught Me

What Picasso Taught Me

Do you know what these four paintings have in common other than their subject matter? They share the same creator: Picasso– the guy who once said, “My mother said to me, ‘If you are a soldier, you will become a general. If you are a monk, you will become the Pope.’ Instead, I was a painter, and became Picasso.”

I fluctuate between, “The nerve of him!” and “What genius! What confidence!”. My feelings are complicated, but if Picasso were still alive, I doubt complicated feelings would bother him at all. He wouldn’t have time for them. He’d be painting. He’d be thinking about the next experiment. The next exploration.

I think most of us use the word “Picasso” as an expression for art that isn’t “realistic”. When someone says “Picasso” we mostly think of images like this one. But that’s one of many types of faces he created. 

In a world that seems to scream “SPECIALIZE!” Picasso reminds me to explore. When I look at his insanely large body of work I see not a specific style that develops over time but experimentation, range. I see incredible understanding and control of lines and spaces, as well as playful investigations into the emotional as well as literal content of a subject.

Niche makes sense for business. But it doesn’t make sense for my sanity. I might be painting birds on the day I die, but lord willing and the creek don’t rise, I’m going to find new ways to paint them. I’m going to abandon them and come back to them. I’m going to try new things in new ways. I hope that I do at least.

As I gear up for a painting a day in October, I’m hoping that the ritual will yield new ideas, new methods, new paintings that may or may not look like my old ones. Even as I write that I worry about my instagram feed– will it look incoherent? Disjointed? Will I be able to get new followers and keep the ones I have? 

To hell with it. I’m ready for some adventure.