Practice What You Teach

Unreal

Saturday morning I came across a Facebook post by a musician friend describing the “unifying breath” taken by a choir or orchestra before they begin to make something beautiful that brings them and their listeners together. It was still in my head later in the morning as Thing2 and I were driving to Home Depot and talking about his college plans.


Thing2 plays guitar for several hours each day. He’s been playing with that intensity for a few years now, and that intensity seems to be leading him to audition for one music program or another. 

Thing2 has other interests — often a sounding board for friends, he has thought about going into mental health counseling or psychiatry – but, as we talked, I sensed that something other than passion for the subject was driving this recent career exploration.

Thing2 also has an older brother who found a more traditional field (computer science) and is now earning more money than both his parents put together.  Thing1 loves his new life, but he also loves the work of problem-solving. He has found his passion.

“I like the idea of helping people,” Thing2 said. 

I reminded him that when musicians bring people together to enjoy music, they are creating moment of communal peace that no other art or craft can achieve. Painters can’t do it. Writers don’t do it. Doctors and teachers don’t do it.  Yet, even in our small town, a kids’ concert or an impromptu band can bring together people with wildly different experiences and viewpoints for the sole purpose of enjoying music together. 

“I know,” he said. He started to say something and then was silent for a bit. We talked about music education and music therapy as career paths. Then he said, “When I listen to my favorite musician, I think about being able to make something that so many people will enjoy, but…” 

We walked through the lumber aisle, and he said again how great it would be to have people responding to his music the way he responds to others. I reminded him of one cousin who is making their life in music and another is making his career in music and music production. 

“I’m just afraid,” he said. “What if I put all my energy into a dream that is really unlikely and then find I’m in my thirties wishing I had done something else?”

“Creativity takes courage,” I blurted out, knowing that, in recent weeks, I had been ignoring the words of Henri Matisse, retreating to realism out of fear that people who have bought my art in the past won’t like my abstract work. I knew my response was trite. 

I could have told Thing2 about coworkers who started with creative careers that took them in unpredictable directions and different fields where their creative natures and backgrounds were integral to the successes.

At that moment, however, I wanted more than anything for him to to understand, at the age of 17, the big and improbable dreams are just as important as the practical ones. He needed to understand the value of his art in his life and the difference it could make in others’. He needed, especially as adult life gets closer, to be willing to take that leap of faith in himself.

We were still talking as we sat in the drive thru waiting for a coffee order. 

“I won’t give up on abstract if you don’t give up on your music,” I said. 

“Okay,” he said as he extracted a promise to have first pick on paintings he likes.

We shook on it, and I gave him a music writing assignment inspired by my painting teacher. 

Our new bargain is way more better deal that others I’ve made with them over the last few months (a Faustian bargain to give up my favorite diet soda, for example). It’s also the most important deal I’ve ever made with him. 

It reminded me of the first rule of teaching, which is that we teach what we model, sometimes, without even knowing it. And now at this crucial time in this wonderful kids life, it’s more important than ever that I start to practice what he needs me to teach.

No Regrets

North

With one of my kids, recently grown and flown (Thing1), and the other, starting to contemplate his life outside the nest (Thing2), I find myself thinking more about what might have been if I made different choices.

I used to wish I had made different choices — better choices. 

I am not naïve enough to think of my life is anything other than a journey filled with missteps, redirections, and spectacular mistakes of my own making. Some of those mistakes were due to circumstances I couldn’t control for a long time, but others were simply bad choices.

When I was Thing2’s age and going for college visits, I desperately wanted to go to art school. I let a tough but fair portfolio critique and well-meaning but off-target input from my parents derail further attempts for art school or even a fine art major at a college. 

Even now, however, a conversation with one of the art professors at the school I did briefly attend for another major rings in my head. “You should do this only if you need to paint,“ he said. I needed to paint then and still do. 

If I had been stronger or braver, I would have done more of the type of drawing that would’ve led to getting into those schools. If I had been more sure of myself, and willing to confront my bipolar disorder, (or even realize what it was) I had a younger age, I might have stood my ground and picked the fine art major.

But even as I think about those mistakes, I don’t have regrets. Those mistakes inform the advice I give my kids.

My mistakes eventually brought me back to art. They brought me to teaching, which is one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life even as it is shaped by, and then informed by creativity. Mistakes they brought me to these conversations with my chicks as they are leaving the nest.

Without my mistakes, I wouldn’t have the big guy I married. I wouldn’t have an adult child, who comes home to geek out with me over the latest happenings in Tech. I wouldn’t have a soulful, introspective Thing2 who is a sounding board for his friends, and art critic at large.

It makes me realize that the best advice I can give to my kids is to start making their mistakes as they find and live their truths. 

Hat Season

Color is Coming, 8”x10”, Oil on Canvas

Monday, less than a week after I got my studio back and functioning, I put on my student hat again as my fall courses started. Tonight, I am putting on my teacher hat to get ready for the in-service days that precede the arrival of middle schoolers into our building. They fit over my flamboyant, feathery artist hat (which sits over a tightly-fitted tinfoil hat that I wear for my mom job), and, as I do with the beginning of every school year or text season in the past, I wonder what will happen to my feathers over the next few months.

Part of getting my studio back was an effort to keep momentum of a year-long painting mentorship. The other part was to create a tangible space in my life for creativity. 

I know that the feathers on my artist hat are long and flexible. They will find their way through the cracks between my teacher and student hats. Even the most tenacious tendrils, however, need air and fluffing on a regular basis. This year – the busiest year yet -makes it even more important to strike a balance between carving out time dedicated to unscripted inspiration and simply integrating it into the other parts of my life. 

Integrating creativity into daily life is vital. It alters your perspective about learning and living. Sometimes that perspective simply helps you find the magic in the mundane and opportunities instead of problems. 

Fusing creative approaches into daily life, however, doesn’t take the place of keeping a sacred space for creating for its own sake. For me, honing in on painting or drawing or writing  — making for the sake of making – is about refining skills, but it’s about something more. It is about meditating on and then escaping from the worries of the day. It is about nurturing something divine that lives in each of us.

Finding the balance between fusing creativity into the everyday and dedicating time and space to making is the foundation of creating and re-creating oneself in to keep up with the job of being fully human. It means finding a way to make all the hats fit and still let the feathers breathe.

Cast of One

Dead Heads, 8″ x 10″, Oil on Canvas
Click Here if you would like this painting to live on your wall.

This was the second of a pair of paintings that upended my outlook on landscapes.

For the past few years I’ve been painting the scenes in Southwestern Vermont and Michigan, and it wasn’t until a conversation with my mentor that I realized that all of those stories featured ensemble casts. Most of my pieces feature the mountains or lake and sky and any elements that add to the drama of a storm or setting sun.

Painting in a small space with rain misting over me for much of the weekend, however, meant that the compelling element in a piece was a cast of one. I started filtering out the noise in the scene and in my head and focused on what mattered.

The last week or so, I’ve been in my studio painting what pops into my head, and the ensemble cast has made a return.

This piece and the one below, however, hang on the wall beyond my easel as to remind me to get out of my head and connect with life and to be compelled.

Overcast

Overcast, 18″x 24″, Oil on Canvas

The punches of color are showing up more frequently along the southern Vermont roadsides, and this painting started as an attempt to keep the glory of late summer early fall in my head.

Instead, on this last weekend, before school and graduate work, begin again, I found myself returning to memories of, soggier fall days. At first, I thought this rainy summer was living rent free in my head, but, I realized the fog had its origins and anxiety about the ability to meet the demands of the coming square and to continue to paint without a mentor and outside schedule defined by work and study.

Talking to Trees

Talking to Trees, Oil on Canvas, 24″x24″
Click here if you would like this painting to live on your wall.

The last few lazy days of summer, and right now, it’s the light and the lines of the trees that compel. There are some red hair in there, but mostly the mountains are a jumble of green and gold.

Too Soon

Please contact me if you would like this painting to live on your wall.

Too much rain has brought out the fall colors far too soon. They are just starting to peek through, and it would only have been noticed on a day like today when the sun makes an all too rare appearance for the summer.

The first spots of red and orange always seem to be signs telling us to enjoy time outside and carefree days while we can.

Hill Climb

Please contact me if you would like this painting to live on your wall.

This past weekend Manchester/Sunderland, hosted the annual hill climb — a bottom to top tour of the Equinox mountain in Manchester, Vermont. The hitch is that all of the cars doing the climbing are classics, and none of them are equipped with the all wheel drive that is emblematic of most vehicles in our brave little state.

I passed by the classic car convention a few times this weekend, every once in a while, wishing we could take an hour or two to drive to the top (Thing1 climbed it by himself on foot on his 17th birthday). It was a perfect day to be at the top of a 5000+ foot mountain. Puffy, clouds, and the sky is a deep saturated blue these days.

Missing Michigan

Too many things came up this summer, and we are missing seeing our family along the banks of Lake Michigan. I anticipated missing seeing parents and siblings, but I’m always surprised when I actually miss the violent storms that are a fact of life up there these days.

Increasingly, south western Michigan sees storms coming off the lake that morph into tornadoes. It’s always scary when it happens or is being reported, but it’s also more than a little exciting.

I don’t wish for death the way I did when I was younger. I even fear it a little now, and when the storms come, sometimes threatening life and property and getting hearts pounding with the wind, they are powerful reminders of just how alive we actually are.

Art in Layers

I’ve noticed a trend as, trying to find my voice and my style, I’ve painted with a mentor over this last year. The paintings that have been the most satisfying still seem to occur by accident. There’s more intention in the way that I work each day – starting with reckless abandon, trying to find the joy, then looking for the element in the moment that compels me. Very often, however, the paintings I like the best of the ones that emerge through layers of missteps and experiments. The final piece is scarred with evidence of prior experiments and discoveries poking through.

The realization came to me while we were in Rome at the beginning of July. My husband and I, both keenly aware of that Thing1’s impending move to the big city signaled that opportunities for family vacations are dwindling and booked a trip for the four of us. I got off the plane hoping for days of watercolor sketching, but, wandering a city filled with sights that compel you, I struggled to hone in on one thing. 

As we wandered from Imperial ruins to medieval neighborhoods and collections of renaissance art, however, the intense blue of the sky brought the colored stucco into sharp relief. At first I thought the pinks and yellows and oranges were the compelling elements, but, as I sketched the doorway of our apartment, noticing the layers of history between the wall and the cornices, I realized how Rome had cast such a powerful spell. 

It was the same reason that authors written about — the city is always changing and evolving, but the scars of history are never completely erased. A fresh coat of stucco doesn’t completely hide cracks from the layers below or the stonework that forms the original structure of a wall. Medieval timbers may form the ceiling of an apartment with 200 year old windows and conduits for ethernet or electrical cables. 

The city exists in layers, and that is what I ended up painting when we got home.  I had been painting it for months without realizing it, and painting those scars and reminders of all my mistakes and little victories has turned out to be the the best expression of who I am as an artist — and a person.