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
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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, 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″
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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

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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

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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.

What Compels You?

At the Point, 14″ x 14″, Oil on Canvas
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I tried to paint a different spot in that creek the night before, with no success. I knew instantly why it hadn’t worked. I was trying to paint everything all at once, and everything at all at once doesn’t work in any part of my life.

Saturday had been an incredible day of painting in the Pennsylvania countryside with my mentor. Work and an upcoming ear procedure had receded to become a blurry part of another background. I had meditated with the trees and the past their prime daffodils as the clouds chased the sun, and an occasional mist called me off.

Saturday had been a success, because I had stopped to meditate on the trees, intertwining with each other, and taking the time to answer the question, “what compels you?” What part of this part of the natural world compels you to simply stand and exist in the moment, without making plans or replaying conversations where you wish you had said some thing else?

What compels you to just let go?

That was the question.

Sunday morning I struggled to find that focus. The upcoming procedure was closer, and that evening reality would creep in with homework and budgets.

Now, my mentor and I stood on the rocky shore of the creek, watching a group of horseback riders waiting for their mounts to drink and splash. It was a magical moment teeming with characters and details.

I turned away from the charming story playing out in the creek, and something that looked like a heron standing on a jagged shore further down caught my eye. The rocks around him gleamed in the sunlight, and the water quietly eddied around the larger stones that fortified his peninsula. My mentor and I stared in its direction for a while, a different element, capturing each of us.

“I don’t think that’s a heron,“ she said.

I tried to zoom in with my camera, but it was no more accurate than my eyes. For a minute I thought of that scene in Harold and Maude, when Maude insisted that a remembered, flock of seagulls would always be glorious birds to her. I decided that even if that glimmer of light on the shore was a carefully hung T-shirt, or a spiky stump, I would let it remain a glorious bird that had first drawn my eye to a sliver of sunlight in the middle of the river and got ready to paint.

I knew what compelled me about that scene, and it wasn’t the possibility of a glorious bird. It was bright clarity of simplicity emerging from the murkiness of “everything all at once.”

Winter Heat

Sometimes to help someone, you need to disconnect just enough from your empathy to keep the other person from the fog instead of marching into it holding their hand. I’ve had a few such cases at work lately. I can recognize my own traumas in the person I’m helping, but to use the lessons of experience and education, had to resist the temptation of wading into memories.  

One of the pitfalls of that professional detachment is that it is sometimes hard to reconnect with other parts of life.

Painting is usually my lifeline, but the latest sessions felt as flat as the rest of my day. I’ve recently moved into abstraction, channeling the emotions inspired by our local mountains and the storms that move through them, and the emotion wasn’t there. 

I tried faking the emotion. Then I tried painting the flatness. 

Finally I decided to fight the flatness and get out of the studio for a day and go to the fields and woods.

I hadn’t been plein air painting since summer, and I rarely paint outside in the winter. Sometimes, I paint in the car with watercolors, but last Saturday, I knew I needed the kiss of the cold and wind to bring my whole brain to life.

It was bitter cold when I parked the car by my favorite field. I had my fingerless mittens and layers of shawl and scarf, and, after finding the right way to position my easel by the car door so that the wind wouldn’t blow things over and wick the heat from my body, I queued up a new playlist of mostly melancholy music to match my mood.

 I was keen to get the racing clouds as they brushed the tops of the mountains with a new dusting of snow. I could feel my fingertips freezing, but there was a glow of life in the midst of this winter scape. I could hear ice cracking on the nearby Battenkill as the sun briefly emerged, and some creature, disturbed my presence, rustled nearby, invading my iPod playlist with their own music.

For the first time in days I was fully awake, intensely aware of every emotion, completely at peace, and seeing the answers to a question that had been plaguing me for months: Why do I need to paint nature?

Is there a point to painting nature when the world is in chaos? Aren’t there more important subjects? Why do I need nature in order to paint?

The answers had happened as winter’s soundtrack and sights and my moving brush reconnected with the same emotions that make me want to help and hope for a world at peace in the first place. 

Weird things

Morning Break, 10″x20″, Oil on Canvas
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So I realize there’s this one–OK not only one – weird thing I do when I paint lately.

I’m trying to get more into working in abstraction, and to “get in the mood“ for whatever try emotion I’m trying to conjure up, I have a playlist of songs. I’ve always listened to music while I paint, and I usually dance a little (much to the mortification of my kids).