I’m the Bird

I heard some commotion on the screen porch the other day and went out to investigate. Apparently I’d left the door propped open the last time I was photographing my paintings, and a bright red cardinal had gotten inside. What I heard was the sound of him throwing himself against the screens trying to get out. He didn’t understand that the door was the only opening. I worried he would die trying to break through the screen barriers. It was painful to watch. 

“Use the door!” I yelled. Then I tried talking to it like it was my dog, coaxing it toward the open door– “Here, birdie. That’s a good boy. Come on.” When I was off trying to figure out new strategies, the cardinal eventually figured it out and liberated himself into the backyard. 

Later that same day, I found myself crying into my afternoon coffee. I’m that damned bird I told my mug. 

I’ve been struggling with this new covid world. With the kids home since March, I haven’t been able to have that precious, uninterrupted, quiet, focused work time I had come to rely on. Working from home is normal for me. Doing so while I take care of kids is not. Day in and day out I have found myself in power struggles with an eight year old. Often I would go to bed all curled up in a day’s, then a week’s, then a month’s worth of guilt only to wake up each morning to the same exact fight over screen time and back talk. “You just don’t listen” was my refrain. And it wasn’t helping. 

I knew I had to try another strategy. The cardinal showed me it was possible, even if he’d spent the better part of the afternoon banging his head. So I invested in an online parenting course I’d been thinking about for a while. I needed some help. I needed new strategies. I needed to stop exhausting myself with the same failed course of action. 

It has not been an overnight success, there’s no dramatic before and after image I could plaster on the screen for you to marvel at. But I’ve been learning a lot and figuring out, slowly, imperfectly, how to use the new tools I have. More importantly, I feel empowered. I don’t feel trapped by my habits and struggles. I can change course. I can try new things. 

This spirit of change, of redirection, of empowerment is the heart of my new paintings. I started the abstract above, immediately after my “I’m the bird” incident. The vertical lines are a nod to the screen porch and the jail they represented for the cardinal. But they are also freedom– the beauty of the trees that cardinal finally flew towards. The red is the bird, both trapped and free. The red is anger but also passion, the life force that allows us to grow and to change. 

This painting is just one of many I’m working on. Just one of many meditations, some more literal, some abstracted, on feeling trapped and feeling powerful. I will “release” (can’t resist!) the entire new collection mid-August.

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Doggone it.

I have been working hard on a particular batch of paintings– a triptych for a nursery for a very dear friend. My paintings have been less than inspired lately. The strokes feel labored, my subjects tired (gee, I wonder whose energy they could be reflecting?) so when this batch came out effortlessly and joyfully, I was thrilled. I had been waiting for a painting win and they always arrive…eventually. 

Basking in the glow of paintings that finally didn’t torture me, I decided to start photographing some of my newer pieces in preparation for an upcoming website release. Photographing paintings is harder than it sounds. I’ve got to move mostly wet paintings from the garage through the house, out the screen porch, and into natural light that isn’t too bright. I can’t just open the garage doors because then I’d unleash my precious AC into the neighborhood and in South Mississippi, that is just not something you can recoup without letting it run again for at least a few hours.

I had a lot of paintings to photograph so I brought on an unpaid intern, my seven-year-old son, to serve as the door holder. First, he’d open the door from garage to house and close it behind me, next he’d run ahead and open the door from house to porch and close it behind me. Finally, he’d open the screen door from porch to backyard and close it behind me as I’d carefully walk my paintings out to their photoshoot. Rinse, repeat for about five rounds. We have to be diligent about closing the doors because our fifty-pound poodle likes to run onto the porch where she’s been known to bust through the screens in pursuit of her nemesis, all of squirrel-kind. 

For a kid who doesn’t have much going on these days, my son was delighted by this circus that was doorholder/artist assisstant. I was too. In fact, on our very last round, I got a little too confident and tried to shortcut the system. Instead of keeping our jobs specialized, I asked him to grab the last painting so as to bypass another trip. He held one painting and opened the doors while I carried the last two canvases. We made it to the last door in the obstacle course when, as he opened it, awkwardly because of the large painting he was trying valiantly not to drop, the poodle dashed up beside him, brushing her beautiful black fuzz all along the surface of the very wet painting I had just completed earlier that day.

 

I cried out in anguish and horror and my son burst into immediate tears. I could see the whole thing happening in slow motion, and in the half second before the dog was covered in oil paint and my painting ruined, I could not find the words to make it stop– “BAD THING” I almost, futility, yelled. 

It was mere days ago, I was telling my son that the best part about painting was that you could just paint right over anything you didn’t like. There were no mistakes. Accidents were oh so often happy. He is far more of a perfectionist than I am and doesn’t share my love of imperfect shapes, colors that smear beyond their boundaries, and lines that aren’t straight. I honestly don’t find them that often, but if this wasn’t one of those teachable moments, I didn’t know what was. 

If my son hadn’t been there, I would have lamented longer and louder, but I had to practice what I had just preached to him. So I wiped as much of the hot pink and green off the dog’s butt and legs as was possible with an entire pack of makeup wipes, assured him it was not his fault and that my anger was solely poodle-directed, and explained to him that I could definitely fix my smeared painting– that it would almost certainly be better because of the incident. 

Here we are, days later. The groomer can’t take the dog for another two weeks despite my recounting to her of this horror story, the dog’s fur still has a springtime tint to it, and, doggone it, I’ve got a painting with more character than it did originally. I’ll post the new and improved version soon. 

Let’s face it, accidents aren’t always happy and I didn’t recount all this to suggest that they are. That’s one of the reasons I paint– to make prettier messes out of less pretty ones. To organize (haphazardly, chaotically) what is haphazard and chaotic. To deal with rotten luck, frustration, bad timing, dissapointment. I paint because it allows me to adjust, reinvent, pivot, and, yes, sometimes cry out in anguish, curse and shout. 

I don’t know if any of this will matter to my son the next time the lego tower he’s been constructing for hours falls over, or he inadvertently writes his “d’s” as “b’s” again. But even if it doesn’t, if he still bemoans and rages against imperfection, I’ll take it as a lesson in my own tenacity– keep going, re-working, trying. Keep teaching him even when it’s not sinking in. One day, I am sure, like oil paint on poodle butt, the lessons are going to stick.

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From Shadows.

“From Shadows” 20x20, oil on canvas

I’ve been MIA on my blog. On May 28th, surrounded by family in a small ceremony, I got married to the love of my life on the steps on St. Rose de Lima church in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. The next day, we jumped in the car and headed to the mountains of North Carolina where social distancing was easy, beautiful. That mountain air renewed my spirit after what has been a challenging, to say the least, few months.  

I wish that could somehow be the end of my post–  a preface to writing about my renewed desire to paint after such a relaxing and well-timed break. But so much has transpired since my brief break from art, that I’ve taken more time off than I was actually gone from the easel. There were no words I could conjure that carried any weight. They all felt frivolous and they still do. 

I didn’t start painting until college– a time when both art and literature took hold of me, began opening my eyes to a world far bigger, more beautiful, and more terrible than I had ever imagined. Since I grew up, worshipped, and socialized only in homogeneous communities, my most memorable encounters with experiences vastly different than my own were through the books I read and the art I viewed (sometimes on little two inch slides projected onto a screen). My first (and only) painting professor told me tree trunks weren’t brown but green and yellow, orange, purple and blue– it blew my mind when, sure enough, I could see all those colors and more on the bark of the oak trees that graced the campus of Spring Hill College. That professor gave us an assignment to paint the shadows of objects, to find what colors lay hidden in what we assumed was just grey. I could not believe what I found when I looked closely, challenged the assumptions I had, did my best to approach the subject without seeking to find what I thought was there. Almost twenty years later, and I am still obsessively staring at shadows, wondering what vibrant colors they will reveal. 

When I attempt to apply this concept of honest looking to my broader life, I have to acknowledge some painful truths– about the racial injustices I would rather didn’t exist and sometimes, honestly, just wish I wouldn’t have to see. I also have to acknowledge my own participation in the systems brought out from the once-grey shadows of a cursory and unfocused, unwilling vision. 

There are universes I still don’t see (and undoubtedly have the privilege to turn away from) when I look at the world around me, places I still first see grey when there is obvious purple and orange. There is no final destination, no “wokeness” achieved. There is just practice. There is just trying. 

From our first encounters until now, art has beckoned me, repeatedly, to look closely, deeply, to understand more (there is always more). I am at my very best as an artist when I do. I am at my very best as a human when I do, too. I fail often. The effort is always imperfect. The stakes of not looking, not listening, not putting aside assumptions, is far higher when we’re talking about life and not paint. People can go their whole lives seeing only brown tree trunks and grey shadows, and that is perfectly okay. But to go our whole lives ignoring or denying the experiences of those we claim matter under a universal “all”– that is a travesty, one that can never lead to peace or justice. 

Just as I am continually trying to better see what truths lie in the subjects I paint, I will try to better see the social realities around and beyond me– my place in both unjust systems and also the opportunities I have to stand in solidarity and use my voice (frivolous and useless as it may seem).

My life has changed in the last few weeks. My family (and therefore my heart) has expanded. I’m so proud of the people I’m honored to now share a home with. My home of two has become one of five. I’m looking for ways to expand more– my vision, my focus, my listening, my understanding.

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Time is small and precious.

Coronavirus time reminds me of when my son was really little and I would sneak in painting sessions when he napped. I never knew exactly how long I would have. I just knew the time was small and precious. I gave little efforts that somehow, miraculously, added up. 

Even though he’s older now, capable of entertaining himself (though not eager to do so), I’m still trying to sneak in painting between the endless tasks that come with being mostly stuck at home and engaging with the child I’m trying to prevent from becoming a video-game zombie.

Yesterday’s effort was small. There was nothing profound about it. There was not blood or tears or pain or discomfort. And yet. 

Three tiny paintings. Three blooms. From three original itty bitty teeny tiny seeds.

I’m not moving mountains here. But I’m finding my place in them. One little step at a time. 

The plan is for these three to be joined by a handful more. Once the motley crew bouquet is complete, I’ll add them to the shop.

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Day 61. Not Yet

“Muddy Waters” 10x10, oil on canvas, $300.00

Today’s painting is of the Tchefuncte River– that special place where cypress trees reach their long trunks into the muddy waters that hold a mirror up to them. Form and reflection touching where land meets water. It is a place of my childhood memories, a little refuge on weekdays when it’s calm and peaceful. 

On day 61, I’m going to pull back (just a little) from the daily paintings. I’ll still be posting a lot, just not every day and my blog entries will no longer start with numbers. 

We aren’t through with any of this, not yet, and painting will continue to be how I manage my anxiety during this pandemic. I’m just going to space them out a little more, work on some bigger pieces, and find a new little rhythm. What paintings do you most want to see in the next month or two?

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Day 60. Specific

“Magnolia Melodies” 10x10, oil on canvas, $300.00

I typically like to paint flowers with less specificity– roses and ranunculus in particular. Flowers whose petals all kind of blend together, and I freely apply the palette knife to the canvas to create bumps that suggest rather than describe exactly what’s going on in the bloom. 

Magnolias are different. Their petals are distinct, one from the other. There is no one fell swoop that can encompass them all. 

That’s why, when I paint them (rarely), I like to have some fun in the background– not-so defined blocks of color that release me from the constraints of specificity. 

What do you think?

 

 

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