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Monday, July 31, 2006

You Do Not Have to Choose

In the growing-up years, I was friends with two kids whose parents had a calico cat named Rosie. As I remember her, Rosie was a bit skittish - not quite bitchy, the way some cats can be, but just ... wary. And old. She couldn't have always been old, but to me she seemed very pretty but old in attitude. As an ambassador of the species, Rosie neither persuaded me that my cat-loathing mother was wrong nor did she convince me that cats were devil-animals. With Rosie as my guide, I wasn't sure what to think about cats, or about why one would want to own a cat.

What I knew was that we were inarguably Dog People.
Now you can argue over whether dachshunds are really dogs, but ours seemed to have all the requisite doggishness about him: snout, bark, snarl for the mailman. I was, actually, proud to be of parents who understood the value of the higher-maintenance canine varietal of pet.

Then one day, we got new neighbors who were Cat People. I don't even remember who they were now, but they moved in after someone we knew better moved out, and they brought with them a black-striped tiger cat who began to visit my mother's garden with some regularity. You can imagine how she loved that. She didn't.

But I did. This cat was not the stand-offish Rosie type. He trotted right up to me and did that little patented cat dance around my ankles. He purred. He wanted attention. I gave it to him. He purred some more. In no time at all, I grew a real leaping affection for this creature whose name I did not know. And, being who I am, I felt: GUILTY.

It was so strange. I loved this cat who came to visit, and then I felt very clearly that I had betrayed my mother by loving the cat and had called into question my Dog People creds. And yet, I couldn't help it. True, the cat didn't have the tail-wagging, no-holds-barred, I'm-so-excited-I'm-going-to-pee-on-the-carpet kind of love for me in return, but his cattishness was fetching.

Could it be that I was secretly a Cat Person? My whole orientation toward animals was suddenly in question.

Fast-forward many years. I have had cats all my adult life. I have had only one dog of my own, the lovely Ramona, who at age 9 gets more decrepit by the day. I love her madly. I love her in a way, alas, I do not love the cats. I love the way I am the sun and the moon in her world. I love her like a (sigh) Dog Person.

On the other hand, this (in the picture, sitting on a pile of blankets) is Elliot: hunter, cuddler, furball. I love him the way I can only love a pet who gives me lip-kisses AND lets himself in and out. I love him because I am not the sun and the moon to him, yet he insists on pressing himself up against my legs at bedtime. I don't know what he's thinking at any given moment, but we've worked out this communication gap with a kind of Zen shrug.

I love him like a Cat Person Who Also Loves Dogs. I've stopped feeling guilty. Now I simply feel superior.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Line-free Sunday

You will notice there are no black ink lines on this work. I really love to draw in ink and add watercolor washes. I'm addicted to line-making, actually. But painting is not so much about line, it's about hue and values. I've decided to practice in that area, since it's not my strength and there's good reason to gain some competence there. Sometimes I'll want to make art from objects that are more about color and shape than about line. (Sometimes I'll make them out of lines anyway, because of the aforementioned addiction.)

Carlo went to Trader Joe's today and stocked up on fruit, including these plums. I ate one for inspiration. It could have used another day to ripen, but it was tasty. Then I dived into the work at hand. I kinda like the way the highlights turned out. What I'm seeking is to be able to pull off a scene like this where, when you look at it, it seems the artist has carefully laid her paint brush on the paper maybe 5 times, choosing exactly the clear, correct color each time, hitting that spot on the paper only once, and ending up wiith a simple but beautiful sketch. In my mind, such a painting would require about five minutes of studying the object, then 10 minutes of mixing color and blobbing it ever-so-expertly on the paper. You can do that, right?

I myself spent about 45 minutes on this piece while the children watched some weird reality show about fashion designers.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Sketch: Ballpark

Younger daughter and I went to the Indians game the other night. Our behavior is the horror of those sports-dedicated people we know who obey a strict code of ethics pertaining to fandom. It began with the fact that we were first interested in the free food we got as part of the perks involved with the seats we had. Our seats were in a section of the stadium particularly vulnerable to foul balls, which I thought was kinda neat but which made the kid cower in fear every time a pop-up popped up.

Then, to make matters worse, I pulled out my Moleskine. It really is too much to ask of me to sit in complete observational mode for more than an hour without something to do with my hands. I decided to see how much of the batter's gesture I could capture, then ended up adding the pitcher, drawing a little hunk o' skyline, the giant light fixtures that throw daylight-bright illumination onto the field, and the profile of the popcorn vender. This is one I'll enjoy looking at despite its fast-sketch quality because it'll bring back the fun of the evening to me whenever I see it.

That said, we DID commit the ultimate fan crime: We left in the 7th inning. No reflection on the performance of the team, of course, just the limits of our attention. (But yes, that's right: the Tribe lost.)

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Blue and white

My mother was a very pretty woman who loved and collected pretty things. Among them was china in blue-and-white patterns. It started with a set of Johnson Bros. "onion pattern" dishes long ago, which used to be what our dinner table was set with. They dulled and chipped after many years of daily use, and she started replacing it with a similar but more lustrous version from another manufacturer. Blue and white defined her decorating and, to a degree, her personality: classically appealing.

This candlestick now lives with my Ann Arbor brother (you'll notice a common theme to the posts this week) and obviously I attempted a little still life while we visited, using his bright placemat as a backdrop. It was more of a challenge than I expected to render the curves of the candlestick base. One of the things I liked best about the scene was the way the wax had collected on the well-used candle, but in the end I spent so much time on the china, that part kind of got ignored.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Toad happy

Around the pond outside my brother's house in Ann Arbor, frogs and toads mutter and call to each other. They're not hard to spot, if you're willing to dangle your toes near the edge and peer into the reeds. When I was thinking about posting this sketch, it occurred to me that if I had learned the difference between frogs and toads, I had forgotten it. When I went researching the matter, the answered seemed to be that all toads are frogs but not all frogs are toads; that toads have glands filled with bad stuff behind their eyes, and that frogs are generally more agile jumpers than toads.

I cannot tell you whether the creature depicted here is a frog or a toad, though he's warty and looks toadlike to me. But I can tell you that I've come to an age where proximity to such common creatures provides me with uncommon happiness. That's a version of the adage, "It's not having what you want, it's wanting what you have."

Monday, July 24, 2006

Morning in Ann Arbor

Near my brother's place in Michigan there's a house that looks made from the timbers of an old barn. The wood has faded in streaks. For all I know there's a factory in China where the workers turn out perfectly faded timbers, but it fits right in with the fields around the area.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Evening sky

The reason the Fourth of July seems such a turning point in summer is that it's long enough after the solstice that we begin to sense the first tentative retreat of daylight. Now it is mid-July and there is no kidding ourselves: We are going the other way.

I sat out on the front lawn and hardly thought at all about looking like a dope (there were, after all, no other women on the street sitting in the middle of their front yards). I gazed up at one of the big trees, which had become a silhouette against a glowing evening sky. I like the utility pole and its wires -- that whole up-in-the-air composition.

I was tempted to invent a bird for the wire, and in the end I didn't have to. Reality obliged. Whether or not the bird feels the slight shortening of the days, we'll never know, but I bet he does. Incidentally, the shadow on the upper left isn't on the page, it's from the scan.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

A load of bull

I've never been to a rodeo, so when No. One Bro asked whether I'd like to join him at the Professional Bull Riders tour stop in Cleveland, I could only say yes. Our seats had us perched above the complex maze of gates in which a few dozen bulls were corralled before their matchups. In preparation for the contest, cowboys would lead the bull into a tight pen and the rider would descend onto his back. Then the main gate would open and the bull would proceed to buck and twist while the rider attempted to clear eight seconds. Sometimes the rider would fall and almost get trampled. Sometimes he'd get kind of hung up on the rope. But in general, that's it. That's the entire sport. On paper, it sounds boring. And, as a friend noted today when I was telling her about it (she's a fan of the sport), "the bull always wins."

Maybe it's the exotica of the whole thing. The bulls are exotic in their hugeness and orneriness. The cowboys are exotic because they're so ... real. This is not John Travolta in a 10-gallon hat. These are guys with canisters of chew wearing circles in their back pocket. More importantly, they are men who woke up one day and said, "I'm gonna make a living trying to stay alive on the back of an angry, 2,000-pound animal." Do you understand that? I don't. Maybe that's why it was fun to watch.

I had my sketchbook with me, but I didn't try to draw anything till later. This was, as you can tell (the rider is it too big, or maybe the bull is too small) from my memory. I'd love to know how other artists handle things like this in a more authentic way. Do you do gesture drawings, and something more finished later? Snap photos? Do it from memory? Now when I think about it, it seems I might have done some quick sketches of gesture and details on site, then done something more finished later.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Lemon Shake

The idea was to do a sketch crawl today at Cleveland's Ingenuity Festival of Arts and Technology. Here's a sketch; there wasn't much crawling. It took me a wildly long time to do this, owing to a combination of performance anxiety, hot weather and a brush that was shedding bristles like mad. Excuses all, but they're all I've got. Then of course I managed to smear it.

But I really like the experience of sitting outside and getting caught up in a drawing. Some woman stopped by and asked if I paint people. I said "sometimes." She asked me if I wanted to paint her. I said not now. She asked why. I said I wasn't done with what I was working on. She gave me a disgusted look and walked away.

Modern architecture

Yes. This is a famous fast-food restaurant, as seen from the window of another fast-food restaurant.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Dog ecstasy

Mary Virginia lives on the street behind ours. (Ironically, we live on the street behind hers, too.) We met one day when Ramona, our blond basset hound, wandered through the yards and into the domain of Mary Virginia, who was grilling chicken. Her kitchen door was open, and Ramona simply walked on in. Ramona thought she should have chicken. Mary Virginia thought Ramona should have some chicken, too. Then she looked at the number on Ramona's tag and called us to pick up our dog.

There were other visits between them. Now when we walk Ramona around the block, she attempts a hard left when we get to MV's driveway. There is a deep devotion between these two.

We hadn't seen Mary Virginia in sometime and then, lo and behold, last night she was out doing a powerwalk around the block. Ramona, who has become somewhat crippled in recent months, did her best to run up in greeting. The reunion was a sight to see. Then Mary Virginia asked, "Can I go home and get her some chicken?"
"NO!" I said. "She's eating too much."
"How about a little tuna fish. Just a little tuna?"
It was really a pitiful plea.
"All right," I relented.
"Tuna with mayonnaise?"
"NO!" said I. "Just tuna."

Ramona did her depressed-dog pose, which involves lying on the ground with every possible part of one's dog body flattened, and watched MV rush away. She stayed like that for the ten minutes it took MV to go home and return with a plastic bowl of tuna.

The sketch here represents the height of ecstasy for the dog and, it seems, for Mary Virginia. To say they bond does not nearly describe it. "You are her second-favorite woman," Carlo said to MV. The implication is that I am Ramona's first favorite woman.

I'm not so sure...

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Still life with fat chance

I decided the week of work from the imagination wasn't going as well as I'd wished, and felt the need to become more grounded in something like a still life. A bottle of pet stain remove stood there, curvaceous and promising, so I went on a hunt to find its sisters and make a little collection. I think of them now as the Sisters of Hope. Notice that they are all different brands, and that each of them has a serious-looking nozzle and three have a non-nonsense grip of some sort to make the user feel like she is brandishing something powerful.

This is all fiction. There's an entire industry out there that preys on animal-lovers' wishes to have a stain-free, odor-free house, and maybe even in some small way the products they sell make our places a little less like barns. But if this were a problem that really could be solved by some neutralizing agent, I'd only have one bottle to draw, not a whole chorus line of them.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

More silliness

In a continuation of the Week of Silliness from the Imagination, I today post an old drawing of fishy love. This one was done during a strange but brief time in my life when I used to get up early in the morning to draw cartoons. It's begging for a caption, don't you think?

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Black velvet

The song "Let It Be" was a big hit when I was a little girl. I heard it on the radio. I must have heard it played by my Beatles-loving older brothers. I heard it last night and remembered, all of a sudden, how it had come as a surprise some years ago to hear that Paul McCartney was singing about his own mother in that song. As a child, the tune and the reverence of his voice made me sure -- unquestioning -- that he was singing about the Virgin Mother. I found great comfort to think that The Cute Beatle was taking time out from his work as a rock star to sing a song about Jesus's mother. I found great comfort in his words, "When I find myself in times of trouble/ Mother Mary comes to me/Speaking words of Wisdom/ Let It Be." It sounds like the perfect religious song, doesn't it?

When I finsihed this little drawing and showed it to Carlo, it occurred to me that it would be a natural on black velvet. He got all excited when I made the quip and said, "You should do that!"

"That would be ... cheesy," I countered.

"That would ironic," he offered. The funny thing is that I don't feel ironic toward the whole enterprise. My heart still swells at the sound of "Let It Be," if only for the innocence of a time when the Beatles and the Virgin Mother could coexist in my pliant, little-kid heart.

In the end, it is settled by the fact that I wouldn't begin to know how to make a black velvet painting.

Monday, July 10, 2006

And now for something completely different

Welcome to a week of work from the imagination - in today's case, Lewis Carroll's imagination. I did this illustration (and some other things) a few years ago when I was trying to persuade a design director to let me try a couple of small illustrations. My efforts failed in the short-term, but I've always kind of liked this little drawing. (OK, it's not that little.)

I have to tell you, it's such a strange thing to like one's own work. At least I find it strange. It's downright groundbreaking for me to like something when someone else has essentially said "fooey" to it.

I'll post a few others in the coming days.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Standard face

Back in college I had a journalism professor who wore a terrible hairpiece that almost matched his beard. He was square-jawed and heavy-featured, and his specialty was journalism law. He was witty and sarcastic and sort of charismatic. His class proved a hellish experience of memorizing case studies - something that convinced me I could never take the not-uncommon path of turning a journalism degree into a law degree. But with all I was asked to remember, and all I've forgotten, one thing he said stuck with me.
Don't ask me the context, but one day he was making some point or another when he jabbed a stubby index finger toward his own face.
"This," he said, "is the standard."
By that he meant that since one's own face is more familiar than anyone else's, we all go through life seeing other faces as variations (for good or bad) on what ought to be, and our own is more or less how we expect people to look.
Agree? Disagree?
I tend to agree.
I'm 45 now. For 35 of those years, I've held ongoing quarrels with almost every aspect of my own body. Fleshy Irish hands, a tendency to gain weight around the trunk, skin that won't hold a tan ... and on and on. I once heard a description of what makes pretty fingernails (a long nailbed) and realized my fingertips were structurally unsound. I've been variously told I have "tree-trunk legs" and "Fred Flintstone feet" at different times of my life. Once, at work, I shed a jacket and revealed my sleeveless upper arms only to be told by a colleague that I couldn't pull it off. (To be fair, I asked for her opinion.)

But for a very long time I thought my face was more or less OK. It wasn't anything that was going to make anyone swoon, but it was fine, and suited my sense of myself, the way a person's name can seem exactly right for his or her personality.

And then came ... my forties.
Suddenly the jawline starts to soften, and the facial skin falls forward. And don't even get me started on the neck. It's amazing how dramatically these subtle changes can alter the face peering back from the mirror. My thighs have made me no promises over the years, and I have held them to no high expectations.

But the face? The face is betraying me. Less and less, it feels like me. More and more it looks like a person who ought to be called "ma'am" by grocery store bag boys. (Which is what they call me, and have since long before the face took on m'amish qualities.) So now I am in the process of trying to forget the old face that I always thought of as standard, and to adjust to the new face as the new standard. It gives me a certain empathy for the French woman who underwent the first human face transplant. What must HER mornings in the mirror be like?

Anyway: I had reason to paint a self-portrait this week, which I did by asking one of the kids to take some photos of me to work from. I confess that I struck poses that I thought would make me look most like my old self. I would say that this self-portrait - owing to the angle of the source photos as well as to my general artistic tendency to understate features that can look harsh on the page - is a bit more flattering than it absolutely deserves to be.

But that's OK. It's my idea of "standard."
(By the way, that's a .03 mm Micron pen in my hand there.)

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

If I Were an Artist

The Art Craft Building stands on Superior Avenue in Cleveland, right near a highway entrance ramp. I often pass it on my way to work in the morning. It's a kind of looming, old, dirty-red industrial building that is occupied now by many artist studios. The studios tend to have great light from all the windows. Every once in a while, the artists open their studios in a communal invitation to the public.

I like the way the trees planted along the tree lawn look against the hardness of the building itself. If I were an artist, I'd want a studio in the Art Craft Building.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Interview: God and Dog

My friend Kate is a minister in the United Church of Christ. I know her to be a serious, intellectually oriented woman and a theologian. So when her partner, Jackie, announced that Kate wanted to be interviewed about their Yorkshire terrier, Fletcher Zebedee (born Oct. 16, 2004), I was a little surprised. Fletcher is completely devoted to Kate, and sat with her for the entire interview as we talked about him and about God.

Q: When I was a kid and asked my mother whether there were dogs in heaven, she said no. So I’m wondering whether you, as a minister, think there’s a relationship between humans and their animal friends in a spiritual way.
A: I think creation is so good, and God was in a particularly good mood the day he decided to make Yorkies, that I have to believe animals were part of God’s plan. Because I don’t know what heaven is going to be like, but I can’t imagine heaven without Fletcher, I have to believe Fletcher is going to be there. He completely takes me away from words and head things and anxieties. He’s just cute at everything he does. I love to watch him eat. He slurps water when he drinks.
Q: Why is he the object you decided to talk about?
A: He was the first thing that came to my mind. I was a little hesitant at first because I hate to think of him as an object, but still. If I were going to talk about anything I’d want to talk about Fletcher.
Q: What about living with him has turned out to be a surprise?
A: That it feels like no work to take care of him because I love him so much. After three children, I don’t have that sense of anxiety about taking care of him, like ‘Oh my God, it’s a human being I’m responsible for.’ And as much as I love him, I know there’s a difference between him and a human being.
Q: You get the fun ...
A: And a very cute thing that loves me. When I got the dog I said I wanted a cute little companion that loves me, and he does.
Q: Do you think there are ways that dogs make us better at being human?
A: I am so much more compassionate about animals. I always was, but he has just put me over. I can’t eat veal or lamb anymore. I’m definitely different that way. I’m not a vegetarian yet, but I just feel much more compassionately toward animals. And since that’s what I think true religion is about – becoming more compassionate – I think that makes us better. There’s something about the vulnerability about animals and children. And for some people, it no doubt brings out cruelty. They call us to our deeper levels. When Fletcher was new, Jackie said her friends wanted to give us a shower and I said no because it really seemed excessive to me. But then it turned out to be (a fundraiser) for the Humane Society, so that was good.
I didn’t give my kids lots of animals when they were growing up. I wish I had given them one of these. Now they don’t show any interest in dogs. They’re tolerant.
(Friend and colleague) Laurie will go on and on with ‘Where’s my Kate, what have you done with Kate?’ She thought I had an offhanded attitude toward animals because I grew up with them. And I did, I had very much an attitude that animals are animals and people are people. And when people went around acting like their animals were their children it offended me.
(After I got Fletcher) Laurie said, ‘Kate, now do you understand why people feel the way they do about dogs?’ I said, ‘I understand about THIS dog.’
Q: So do you think of him as a kid?
A: He’s the child Jackie and I can have together. (laughs). No, my children are definitely my children. But he’s definitely added to the list of things I worry about.
Q: Does he have a soul?
A: Depending on what you mean by soul. I don’t see the soul the way I did growing up. I think there’s an animating principle that’s part of me that’s going to be part of God again. And he’s got an animating force inside him, so yes, he does. But to a certain extent, so does that plant behind you. All creation has a heartbeat and breathes with God’s love. I definitely feel Fletcher is one of the ways God loves me. Our arrival home is a ritual now. He’s filled with joy to see us. It makes me feel very good about myself that I can make someone that happy. Then I remember – he does that for everyone. But still. I think there’s a particularly happiness for us.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Watercolor hosta flowers

I bought a box of 24 half-pan Yarka watercolors a while back but it took me till this weekend to sit down and unwrap each of those little pans and try 'em out. I wanted to try something different than my Winsor & Newton field kit (cool as it is), and the colors seemed particularly brilliant. I should have just bought more tube paints, but there's something about standing in front of those racks of individually sold colors that paralyzes me. I like the idea of the pre-determined palette.

Anyway, I unwrapped them and did a test page of every color. I found them to be much wetter than the W&N's - a small dab of water can make them pretty thin pretty fast. But the color really is clean and brilliant. Then I clipped a stalk from what I think is a variety of hosta in my garden and determined, once again, to try to paint a flower. It's a silly thing, really, how inept I feel at the task. The problem seems to be that the flower starts out so perfect it hardly makes sense to try to replicate it. But there's also a way I'm much more comfortable with a pen than a brush. Put a brush in my hand and I tend to try to "draw" with it. I know how to get loose with a pen. I don't know how to get loose with a brush full of color. Subtleties of shading elude me.