July 19, 2017 – Pressing Pause

This is me – in 1996 on the island of Brac in Croatia, where my grandparents came from.

I started these posts more than two and a half years ago because I was challenged to.  My coach Lissa Boles challenged me to act in the face of the fears that I’d quit.  A part of me was convinced that I would write for a few weeks or months and then the energy would peter out and I’d be left with an abandoned blog online – for all the world to see that I could not stick with it.  Until two weeks ago, I’d not missed a week.  Every single Tuesday or Wednesday since October 1, 2014 I wrote something brand new for you to read.  I just counted – I’ve written 145 – one hundred and forty five – pieces of writing between 800 and 1500 words long.  I’m reminding myself of this because I’ve come to a decision that wasn’t easy.  I didn’t sleep much last night; I’ve been awake since 2:20 am – wired.  All the thoughts swirling in my head brought me to the conclusion that what’s needed is for me to press pause on posting for a little while.  Here’s why…

It was two weeks ago when the signs first started showing themselves.  We were just back from a wonderfully rich time in Europe with my family and even though I was terribly jet lagged, I hit the ground running.  The week before last, when I first skipped a week writing, I spent the day clearing out the garage and emptying out all the kitchen cabinets.  A remodel of our kitchen was starting the following Monday.  During the weekend that I taught a color workshop, Joe and I finished setting up temporary kitchen facilities in the garage (pantry and sink), side yard, (barbeque, camping stove and pots and pans) and in the dining room (refrigerator, coffee maker, microwave, dishes, silverware and a few things we could use for food prep).  I’m a cook and the kitchen is the place where I re-find my center.  My motto is “when in doubt, cook” and my car happily displays a “Feed People, Cook them Tasty Food” bumper sticker from Penzey’s spices.  We are making do with our temporary setup; we’ve not eaten out yet in the week and a half since construction started.  But without my kitchen-home, I’m just not the same.

Then there are the fleas.  Yes, we have fleas.  We came home to a front yard completely infested with them – likely delivered by a wild critter that had been living in our tree.  Our big black lab Bo had no fleas – until he came home from doggy camp.  Though we made the effort to keep him away from the fleas, and though he has flea medicine in him, and though I’ve bathed him every few days – he has brought them in the house.  I’ve had two fleas crawling out from my hair onto my face in the last two weeks.  Joe is dumping everything he can on the front yard – everything that won’t kill honeybees – Borax, diatomaceous earth, orange oil, rosemary oil – and he has drastically reduced their population, but there are still a few here and there.  As we continue to vacuum and spray orange oil in the house, I still have every little tickle or itch giving me the willies that I have a flea crawling on me – or biting me. This may seem like not a huge deal, but has captivated quite a bit of my attention!

And then there is my hike.  Some of you know that just after Easter I signed up to go on a six day hike in August that will bring me to the summit of Mount Whitney – the highest mountain, not just in California, but in the lower 48 states.  The trip involves hiking a total of 60 miles with overall nearly 12,000 feet of elevation gain – all between 10,000 and 14,500 feet.  I started training this spring, but since recovering from jet lag, I’ve been really pushing my body.  Working on getting a 55 year old body in shape has me realizing how recovery and energy are so not the same as when I was 30.  I’m doing pretty well – I hiked 23 miles and 3300 feet of elevation this past weekend.  Yesterday Bo and I hiked three and a half miles up 1,679 feet in about an hour and a half – and then the same back home in less than an hour.  There will be a post about this experience – it’s been a whole lot more than just getting in physical shape – but that will come later.  For now, all this additional hiking and getting geared up is taking my attention too.

I continue to paint, but very little.  I love to paint, but none of us are painting machines.  It will have to wait too.  What I came to in the middle of the night is that I must take to heart what I’m up to in this life – my deep intention to live a more feminine path.  There is so much talk of bringing in the feminine while actually still operating in the masculine in the world of new age spirituality that I’ve been part of. It’s easy to do, we are steeped in a masculine culture – but it so misses the point.  We must remember that the feminine, like the Earth, has seasons.  The moon has phases, women’s bodies have cycles and there are periods of gestation in bringing in new life.  The feminine does not create every day, every week, every month, every year – without cessation.  It is not her way.

In the past 33 months I’ve shown you – and more importantly I’ve shown myself – that I have the capacity to be faithful in my work.  So now, I’m going to give myself a rest from creating – at least from writing – until my world and my body come back to a more settled state and rhythm.  In the meantime, there are 145 posts here for you to peruse.  I may be back after my hike in August.  We will see.  But I’m giving myself the option of waiting until after the Sausalito Art Festival on Labor Day Weekend.

I wish you summer – I wish you rest – I wish you color and light and life.  I send you my love,

Cara

July 12, 2017 – When it’s hard to focus

Some of the light and color that caught my eye on our trip.

Joe and I have been back a week and a half from a rich and full trip to Paris and several places in Italy with my family.  Since coming home life has been full – working with Carla, our bookkeeper, Fourth of July activities, getting everything out of the kitchen for the start of a remodel, dealing with a front yard that is infested with fleas (!) and preparing for and teaching a color workshop last weekend – on top of my regular groups.  Plus – there has been the jet lag.  I usually have no problem coming west, but I’ve been just done every evening since we flew home – though it’s been just 7pm, it may as well have been midnight for as tired as I am.  This has meant that I’ve barely painted since a few days before we left on June 22.  I’ve not gone three weeks without painting in so long I can’t remember – I know it has been years.

Spending time in my studio making art has become part of what makes me feel like me.  And even though this is the case, it’s still easy for me to be pulled away from it.  I look at my studio – which has become a dumping ground for everything that I don’t know what to do with – as we’ve made the dining room into a temporary kitchen/pantry – and I wistfully imagine myself sitting at my painting table, listening to music and working the colors on the paper to make something come through.  Why can’t I get myself to get in there and paint?

Yesterday morning I read last Friday’s Painter’s Keys post.  Sara told a story about Warren Buffett and Bill Gates.  They were asked independently if there was one single word that described what helped them the most in their lives.  They both came up with the same word: focus.  Focus.  Yes, I can see how letting all distractions fall away, or ignoring them, or operating in the face of them towards a singular aim would contribute to mastery, to one’s success.  As I then hiked up the hill with Bo, I pondered what focusing is for me – it is necessary that I focus in the process of painting, but I also need to focus in order to organize and commit to the act of painting.  If I am to paint, I must look away from email, clear the clutter in my space, get out my palette and put clean water in my container – brushes, paint, image. Go.

Yet, things clamor for my attention and it’s so easy for that focus to evaporate.  A few more paces up the hill, I remind myself I am a feminine-oriented being – and we don’t have the natural ability to focus as much as masculine-oriented beings do.  Biologically we are still the gatherers.  Hunters are wired to keep their attention trained on the deer.  They aren’t just ignoring – it goes further – they have the capacity to not even take in what is occurring peripherally – as if it weren’t even happening.

Gatherers, on the other hand, have brains that are made to mind the little ones, dig roots, collect the ripe berries all the while keeping an ear out for predators.  I had the thought that if indeed what it takes to become a Bill Gates or a Warren Buffett is focus, then it’s no accident they are both males – both hunters.  It’s no wonder then that feminine people don’t wield nearly as much influence in the material world.  A part of me doesn’t know whether to feel relieved – as it is so hard because I’m not made to easily focus – or if I should be depressed that gatherers may never have their influence, unless how we are wired changes.

(I feel compelled to remind you that I don’t mean all men and all women in what I’m saying here. Everyone knows men who have a hard time focusing and women who seem to quite easily – I was born to one.  Still, the majority of women are innately feminine and most men operate from the masculine. On top of this how we see and express gender is exploding which blurs the differences.  Nevertheless, regardless of biological gender, these ways of operating are real and I find it helpful to see their distinctions.)

It is my deep belief that the theme for the life I’m living this go round is to seek balance and harmony between the masculine and the feminine – both within myself and in my relationships with others.  Until fairly recently, I’ve lived my adult life in a way that was more masculine (active, goal-oriented, practical, efficient), than meets with my innate rhythms.  In the last seven years I’ve learned about what it means to be and live from the feminine.  I have experienced a shift in both what it feels like to be me, and in how I operate.  I do focus less readily on tasks, but I also intuit a whole lot more and see patterns and connections.  And I feel people and situations more deeply. And what is most visible to my outer world is that my tuner has been reset – to pick up light, color and beauty.

Sara Genn’s post revealed something else about Warren Buffett.  She quotes him as saying:  “I can’t tell you the color of the walls in my bedroom or my living room, I don’t have a mind that relates to the physical universe well.”  We cannot be everything.  Warren Buffett is Warren Buffet because he’s not distracted from his pursuits – from his focus – by his physical surroundings.

I’m (slowly) learning that life goes better when we lean into who we are.  Which leads to something else she quoted Warren Buffett as saying:  Warren says he focuses on his “circle of competence.”  He says “I don’t worry about things that are outside that circle.”  We don’t think about it this way, but what if seeing beauty, feeling deeply, sensing the infinite – what if being feminine is a “competence?”  What if our future needs for more of us to focus on the feminine circle of competence – instead of just getting more done (which for me even includes making more paintings)?

Two people who are viewed as highly successful each identified focus as the quality that helped them amass gigantic financial wealth and power.  And we admire them because they use their wealth and power to care for those who suffer and are in need.  Most of us will never amass their billions.  But we can still do what is ours to do – we can live our own lives, using whatever capacity we have to focus on our sweet spots.  I see today this is my expanding feminine circle of competence.  I will continue to garner my limited capacity to focus, to pull myself away from the distractions that keep me from painting.  And, I remind myself that for me art-making happens in the context of a lifetime that is up to something else – one that is about endeavoring to bring beauty and understanding and love – to the extent that one person can.

With my love for you –

Cara

July 5, 2017 – 10,000 hours – sticking with it

Mama (Niz) and me with Kaleidoscope – it won second place at the fair!

This is a re-post from June 7, 2016 – 13 months ago.  It’s late again today – the holiday yesterday and a project that had to be done today kept me away from writing.  I’m still not quite on this time zone after a very wonder-ful trip to Italy.  So, I’ve decided to do something I’ve not yet done – repeat a post from the past, rather than attempt to write as a zombie.  Whether you remember it or not, I hope you find it useful.

It’s late.  I’ve not started a post this late on a Tuesday since I started writing every week.  I’m working against a deadline on this painting and last night I got the somewhat crazy idea that I might be able to finish it by late this afternoon- when I had an opportunity to have it captured for my reproductions.  I painted until about 10:45 – which may not be all that late for some, but I’m a morning person and when I noticed I was, as I call it, “stupid painting” I knew it was time to get to bed.  I was back at it at 6 this morning and painted until about 2:00 at which point I was able to make other arrangements for it to be scanned this weekend instead today.  Whew!

The good news is that I made serious progress on the painting and I watched myself focus in a way that I’m not sure I have on a painting before.  Not that I can remember anyway.  I did stop for some exercise with Bo and to feed my brain healthy food, but I stayed with my painting like it was a patient that needed my care.  I avoided putting away the dishes, I didn’t check email, I didn’t play spider solitaire like I do some evenings before painting (did I really write that!?).  I painted:  this petal, then one two over, then another layer on that one, soften edges on that one there.  More quinacridone rose on one I painted last night – darker on the nooks and crannies on those lower blue ones.  I just kept going.

After I realized I was given a reprieve on getting it done today, I picked up other balls I’d dropped (including getting to the polls to vote!).  I’ve just returned from the reception for a show of Paulette Engler’s beautiful watercolors.  (Check out her gorgeous website.)  Paulette is a steadfast member of our Thursday group and is a prolific and dedicated painter.  She calls herself addicted.  When I’m going to be away she makes sure to have plenty of work drawn and ready to paint, for fear of being without.  She paints just about daily at home in between Thursday sessions.  And it shows.  Paulette’s work has evolved markedly in the 4 ½ years she’s been painting with us.  There is no substitute for time in.  But, in addition to the time, she also is very intent on growing as an artist – in skill and expression.

Last night while I was painting I listened to an interesting interview – no, not more Krista Tippet – this time it was Jonathan Fields the host of the Good Life Project podcast.  Jonathan Fields is also a wonderful collector of amazing people.  This one was a conversation with Anders Ericsson, the researcher who is the source of the 10,000 hours to mastery that Malcolm Gladwell made into conventional thinking in his book “The Outliers.”  It turns out that it takes more than spending a whole lot of hours to get really good at something.  It matters how we spend those hours.

Anders Ericsson illuminated this by comparing playing tennis doubles for enjoyment and exercise vs. playing tennis and practicing to become a great tennis player with a coach.  If we hit or serve the ball unskillfully, a coach will take us through it and point out how to do it better.  But if we are playing for fun, we likely will not pay as close attention to what we did and won’t learn as quickly.  If we practice our 10,000 hours with this level attention and intention we progress much more rapidly.  I can’t help but think about this when looking at Paulette’s body of work, her dedication to Thursdays and the questions she asks – she doesn’t just want praise, she wants pointed feedback.

Anders Ericsson said something else that caught my ear:  he sees college students, in order to decide what path to take, seeking out what their gifts might be – as if we are born with all our abilities.  (I remind people I have a computer science degree and had no idea this art was in me until I started really painting.)  He went so far as to say the only qualities from birth we should concern ourselves with are our physical size and shape.  Regardless of how much focused practice, a short person wouldn’t make a good forward in the NBA, and a big person doesn’t make a good jockey in horse racing.  Instead, he suggested we look for what we are interested in, what we want to do – and I’d say what we love.  It is this desire that naturally springs from the center of us that gives us the fuel to keep going for all those hours of focused practice.

Jonathan Fields asked him what helps people keep going through what can be grueling work – all those hours of practice.  His answer was:  progress.  We are motivated by marking our improvements over time.  I so appreciate discovering information like this interview that supports what I see every week.  Some might think I gush a lot over my artists’ work.  But I firmly believe that every effort is worth celebrating.  I’ve seen enough budding artists arrive with nearly paralyzing fear at just putting paint onto paper.  And I’ve talked to others who haven’t yet made it through the door.

Intimidation is a serious hurdle.  We all have a hope, if not a fully-formed vision of how we want our artwork to come out.  My experience is that we are never further from that hope or vision than when we first start.  There are all levels of artist in our groups, so it’s easy for a brand new painter to compare her work to that of more experienced artists and note how far she has to go.  But when compared to someone who has never painted anything at all, making a whole painting, based upon an image she’s chosen, maybe even one she captured herself – of something she loves – is an enormous accomplishment.  It is big progress, right from the start.  And it’s also encouraging for new artists to see the early work of other artists (including me) and the progress that we’ve made in our work by putting in the time. We all start at the beginning.

This brings me to how much a supportive environment matters.  To grow we have to try new things, let ourselves have new experiences.  To let in what’s new we need to open ourselves – and we open much more readily when we feel safe.  Then, as time goes on, we keep growing when our achievements are celebrated and our progress is noted – at least by ourselves.  But, it’s my experience that the impact is considerably greater when we have a tribe to cheer us on.  There were eight other artists from our groups – plus a few husbands – who were there for Paulette this evening – appreciating her accomplishment, her beautiful work and cheering her on.  There is no way she’s going to stop painting anytime soon.

Whether or not any of us will spend our 10,000 hours or reach anything near mastery, all effort is worthy.  Progress builds upon itself.  We have paintings to show for it – our gift to the world.  Plus we end up changed along the way.

Here’s to all of our creative unfolding.  Now, go.  Paint your love.

Cara

June 28, 2017 – Stone Soup Art

“Kaleidoscope – the work of: Robin Bentel, Sondra Blake, Jean Brady, Cara Brown, Niz Brown, Shannon Brown, Karen Burkland, Maria Carlile, Sue Devinny, Velda Draper, Ann Eichhorn, Paulette Engler, Heather Hughes, Ann Jessen, Virginie Kortekaas, Suzie Lahr, Pam Marcucci, Madeleine Meyer, Win Normandi, Janice Pinkston, Sue Rink, Adrienne Rogers, Marielee Rogers, Susie Rosenberg, Valerie Showa, Lenore Stormes, Gwen Toso, Tania Walters and Pat Windom.”

The Magnolias – the artists who paint at 537 Magnolia Avenue in Larkspur – have made our first collaborative painting.  It started on the last day of March – a Friday.  Adrienne Rogers, (who has been coming over to Marin from Lafayette in the East Bay to paint with us most Fridays since the very first Friday in 2012) and I were chatting about what we might do – creatively, as a group.  We have been tossing about the idea that we might all make a painting from the same image.  This would be interesting – to see how each of us would make paintings that reflected our individual style and inclinations.  But then I’d be concerned about the tendency to compare – especially those who have not been painting as long.  We can be so hard on ourselves.  Then… another idea popped up.

I recalled a project I helped do with a friend’s son’s fifth grade class.  We drew an intricate drawing of a tree on a large piece of art paper.  It had lots of branches and roots, lots of shapes to play with.  Then we divided the drawing up into squares, giving each student one to paint.  Putting the squares back together made a really fun and exciting piece of art.  Adrienne is a retired school teacher and has an adventurous creative spirit – she loved this idea.  She got really enthusiastic about it which energized me.  So, right then, we went in search of an image.  We wanted it to have interesting shapes throughout – without large sections of background with nothing going on.  I gathered a few flower photos and showed them to the group that day, expanded on the wall with the projector.

The image we chose and the little photos sitting on their squares – ready to paint.

We landed upon this white dahlia whose photo I took in my friend Leslie’s amazing Pearl Street garden in Sausalito.  By the next Tuesday, I had drawn it and divided it into 36 5”x5” squares – numbered so that we’d know how it went back together.  I made a print on my giclee paper of the white dahlia and cut it into the corresponding squares.  I sent an email out to 36 artists – all who paint with some regularity in our space in Larkspur on either Thursdays, Fridays or Saturdays.  I invited each of them to participate and claim a particular square if they wanted one in particular.  I asked them to honor the whites, the lights and the darks within the shapes of the drawing; beyond that, I encouraged everyone to use color as they were so inspired.  The regulars on Thursday and Friday jumped right in, with a couple of artists painting their square that first week.  A few of them took a bit of cajoling to step up to paint one.  A couple of relatively new painters were afraid their square wouldn’t measure up.  But I wanted for everyone who was at all inclined to play.

It was so fun watching it grow!

It was so exciting to see it start to take shape.  Each individual square is quite abstract; many of them are not even recognizable as part of a flower.  So, in order to see the flower as a flower it took having a certain number of squares completed.  As more of them came in, I got more and more excited – and more impatient!  But, we had to wait for the monthly Saturday group to meet – and for a few who were away to return.  I sent two squares off in the mail – one to Valerie Showa (Thursday evening group) in San Francisco and another to the cattle ranch in Kansas, where Jan Pinkston (Friday group) spends part of her time.  And Velda Draper (Friday group) came back from wintering in Arizona just in time to paint a square.  Not all 36 of the artists on the original email signed on to the project so several of the regulars did two squares, and the end result was the work of 29 different artists including my mom, Niz, and me.

Once every square was in hand, it was time to have it framed in a way that really showed it off.  We played with different sized spaces dividing the squares.  At first I had them too far apart; it was amazing to see the difference bringing them closer made.  To float each square separately, I spent a lot of tedious time making slightly smaller squares out of foam core and attempting to adhere one to the back of each square.  The first type of tape I used didn’t work, so I had do re-do it all.  They still kept popping up – the squares are on thick, 300lb paper, which after getting wet when it is painted, doesn’t like to be flat again.  The painting spent the night under glass and then another under stacks of books, which helped a lot.  I stuck the squares in the correct order on to a large piece of foam core and took it in to be scanned and framed.

I tried flattening the paper under a sheet of glass. It was so great to see all the squares back together.

We – as a collective – entered it in the Marin County Fair Fine Art Exhibition – and it has been accepted! They have a special category called Kaleidoscope – in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love – for abstract and psychedelic art.  When I read the name of the category it seemed a fitting title for our creation.  I took it to the fairgrounds to be juried over the weekend of June 17th, and the people who run the fine art show were mightily impressed with it.  It will be so fun to see it during the fair!  (For those of you who plan to go, it should be in the Exhibit Hall where our flower show was – where they hang the special theme art – not where the main exhibit is.)

This piece of art has increased my already deep appreciation for this group of women, these artists who have constellated around me and our art home in Larkspur.  It’s a tangible representation of our connection – and even those who didn’t paint a square cheered the project on.  We had no idea how this project would turn out.  In fact a couple of people confessed they had doubts about it from the start.  The range of experience in the artists, with their differing styles and color choices was a wild card.  The thing is we don’t ever know if a piece of art will work or not.  We generally start with great hopes, but the creative process has its own life – and this one had even more variables.

I always loved the story of Stone Soup my mom read to us when we were little.  It took faith and a bit of audacity to say that delicious soup can be made of stones.  This painting feels like that – that these little pieces of art paper, each on its own is a bit interesting, but neither does it say a whole lot, but brought together, the group of them has such energy!  The bringing together the 29 minds, hearts, souls and hands that created and it has made magic.

Ann Jessen (Thursday evening group) suggested that we do one of these every year.  I love this idea!  I also thought that it would be really amazing to do another one including artists who aren’t local.  I mailed squares off for this one, so why not mail them all out?  If you would be interested in participating in something like this, let me know – and stay tuned!  If you are local and plan to go to the fair, stop by to see our creation!  And yes, it is for sale.  Let me know if you are interested!

Love to you all,

Cara

June 21, 2017 – When art must wait

“This painting will hold down the fort in my studio while I’m away.”

We are getting ready to go on vacation and I’m in full-on get-ready mode.  The list of things to do today is long and if I let myself think about it too much, I can get almost stopped in my tracks by the overwhelm.  I still don’t have a good carry-on bag.  My recent trips I’ve taken the one my dad almost never uses.  But he’s on this trip, so I need one of my own!  I’ve yet not packed one thing, and I still have a couple pairs of new shorts and a skirt to hem (they are always too long)  And we leave tomorrow! What makes it even more challenging is, as a feminine oriented being, my environment “talks to me” – big time!  The dishes tell me to put them away, the laundry to fold it, the piles in my studio to sort through.  Even if it’s not absolutely necessary to be done before going away, I’m still compelled to tend to it.  I just now stopped writing to dig through a box in the garage for my travel journal from 1984 to see if I could find the name of the restaurant my brother and I ate at with our boyfriend/girlfriend when we were in Dubrovnik 33 years ago – because he’s there and sent me a text message asking me if I remembered.  I’m hopeless at avoiding distractions!

Though I have still plenty to tend to, I have been actually really busy-efficient this past week – I have gotten so much done.  Yesterday as I was buzzing back and forth to the car, I was thinking about this mode, this pre-vacation mode and how efficiency experts revere it.  They say we should strive to always be as effective as we are right before we go away.  I found myself second guessing that wisdom.  Yes, stuff needs to get done too in life.  But do I really, really want to be as on-task, on-purpose as I am this past week – all the time?  It feels so good to be clear that I really, really don’t!  Here’s why.

I’m a different person in this mode.  In the PAX world, we call it being in “man-mode.”  Actively doing one thing after another prevents me from perceiving in a more nuanced, tuned in way.  I don’t notice beauty as I pass by, I can’t feel people’s feelings, I have less patience – my values even shift.  I find myself not caring about what goes in which recycle bin so much.  (Those of you who know how I am about trash know this is a big deal!)  And it’s almost impossible to think about sitting down to paint.  It’s nearly impossible to think about writing.  It’s been so hard to make myself sit down to write that I’m up against my deadline today.

There is a cost to being in this mode.  The capacities that feel the most precious to me fall by the wayside.  I suggest that if we never get out of this mode, our lives would lack beauty and wonder.  We’d have fewer paintings, songs and poems to inspire us.  No one would be holding the bigger picture or the deeper story.  And there would be a whole lot more grouchiness!

Last week I heard an interview of the members of the band Con Brio.  The lead singer Ziek McCarter said something that caught my ear and has stayed with me.  He said that when they write their songs they are focused on “getting the message out.”  The interviewer, Michael Krasney, asked him why the message is important.  He said:  “It’s what inspires, it’s what motivates, it’s what gives us hope, gives us a sense of purpose in what we are doing on this beautiful Earth.”  If these were my words, they would sound to me almost like platitudes, but spoken by a younger man, a passionate creative spirit who makes music that is intentionally enlivening and uplifting – music that nevertheless comes through difficult experiences, these words sound prophetic.  Creativity like this doesn’t happen in pre-vacation mode.

Teachers in my life have inspired me to adopt a philosophy of “yes, and” rather than “either or.”  I’m not saying that pre-vacation mode is a bad thing – it is actually fun to rock – to get stuff done.  Like everything under heaven there is a season.  So, in the spirit of this day, of my day, I’m going to sign off and get back to my list of to-do’s, knowing that I will be in on-vacation mode very soon.

That thought has me take a breath and find myself in a sweet state of expectancy.  Last week Sister Mary asked me what I most hope for in these 10 days.  What came to me is that I hope we have experiences that we could never have imagined – those travel surprises that feel like little miracles, along with special times with my loved ones in out-of-the-ordinary places, beauty that will jump out to greet me, because I (hopefully) will be ready for it!  My in-progress painting will be here to greet me when I come back home.

I wish for you (those of you in the northern half of our planet) to have the time and space to enjoy these long days of summer –

Love,

Cara

June 14, 2017 – Learning to paint fuzzy

The painting I’m working on – I got the hard part done first – the fuzzy background. I still don’t find them easy!

Do you ever wonder who ate the first artichoke?  Who saw this prickly, thistly thing and thought it would be edible?  I ask myself these questions all the time – appreciating having been born in a time when so much has already been figured out!  I think of all the people who perished by eating poisonous things – before we had ways of knowing what was poisonous versus what would provide the nutrition we need to stay alive.  It’s no small thing! In the time of human history – which has just been determined to be another hundred million years older than previously thought – there has been a vast body of knowledge acquired.  And with the advent of the Internet during the tiniest last bit of that history, a huge part of all this knowledge is available with a few taps on a keyboard.  It’s mind boggling!  As a student of how we learn I see the part that information plays – but it only just cracks open the door to learning how to do something.

It seems there are (at least) two kinds of learning – either we gain information via reading, listening or watching, or we have to plunge in and do something.  I’m a compulsive learner – especially the information gathering kind.  I love knowing just for the sake of knowing and I also know it can take me over!  I love the other kind of learning too – though it does not come nearly as easily.  I find it empowering to have skills.  I’ve learned to use knives in the kitchen, to set ceramic tile, to handle plants in the garden, to make my own clothes, embroidery stitching, cross stitch and needle point – though I can’t handle knitting needles for beans!  I find it very satisfying to be able to do things with my hands. It’s no surprise then that I ended up doing something tactile, making these paintings.  The thing about learning a skill is that it’s not as easy as running your eyes across words, you have to move your muscles and interact with stuff – with materials in the physical world.

Sally Ragusa, someone who is dear to me,  is a student of mine from Arizona – she came all the way here to Larkspur to take the color workshop last year.  As I’ve been painting my way through this pretty intricate “fuzzy background” in the past week I have had Sally’s voice in my head – asking me to teach how to paint out of focus.  The truth is as much as I can describe what I do, with every single one of these backgrounds I find my way through.  It’s not just one technique I follow throughout.  Sometimes I do one thing sometimes I do the opposite.  So, Sally, here goes.  I’ll describe what I’ve observed.

  • First off, there is the physical-ness of paint and water.  I’ve come to see, even visualize in my head, how the paint is a whole bunch of particles.  In a light, thin wash, there are a relatively small amount of particles suspended in the water, and a thick, heavy layer of paint has just enough water to make lots of particles fluid.  Thick washes have more capacity to push than a thin wash – more particles, more “muscle.”
  • Next you must know that it’s all about the water, how much and where it is:  on the brush, on your paper and in the wash on the palette.  The late artist and teacher Susan Adams used the analogy of tea, milk and cream.  The more water the more movement and the less control you have.
  • Remember this:  the water will always flow from where it is to where it isn’t – on the brush, paper and palette.
  • The caveat to this is that without a minimum amount of water it won’t flow at all.  Just as a damp, wrung out sponge is much more absorbent than a dry sponge, if you want to use your brush to lift some water off your paper, it works best if your brush is a bit damp.  If you want your paint to flow onto your paper, it must be at least somewhat damp, otherwise it takes the brush to move it around.
  • The whole idea with painting fuzzy is to create a narrow transition where the particles of paint taper off from a more concentrated application – such that you have no hard edges, while still controlling the contours of the shapes.

With these fundamentals in mind, here’s what I find myself doing:

  • Paint a very concentrated, heavy wash with a small brush (I use a 6 most often) with little water onto damp paper.
  • Then sometimes I use a clean, damp brush to lift or “reshape” the paint while it is still wet.
  • Paint a shape on dry paper then clean my brush and run a damp brush along the edge of the shape, washing my brush frequently as I go.
  • Paint “wet next to wet” by painting a shape and then right away painting another shape in a different color right next to it, so that the pigments can blend.  This works best when both are relatively similar concentrations of paint.  If one is thick and the other thin, the delineation between them won’t be as clear – one will spill into the other.
  • Paint light colors first, knowing that when I paint an adjacent darker color I can soften the edge of the darker shape.
  • Paint dark colors first, softening all edges, taking care to not stain (too much!) the areas that will be light in color.
  • Use a more stiff brush (such as one I’ve worn the tip off of ) to lift out shapes from a dry wash – I do this often to make what I call “light bubbles.”
  • Use a scrubber to erode the sharp edge of a shape that has dried hard – one that got away from me. It doesn’t take too much scrubbing to have the edge look soft.  Note that this has the tendency to scuff up the tooth of the paper which impacts how new layers of paint will appear.  It also has my painting look “scrubbed” and lately I’ve been working on avoiding using scrubbers if at all possible.
  • Layer over using any and all of these ideas when what I’ve done on the first past isn’t “there” yet – after the first layer has dried.

 

My earliest attempt to paint a fuzzy background and one that I like – and had fun painting!

Painting this way is a challenge – it can be even frustrating.  But know it’s possible to learn how.  I look at my earliest fuzzy backgrounds and see an enormous difference from what I can do now.  And I’ve witnessed the same evolution in several of the artists in our groups – those who have been intent on practicing it – which is what it takes to learn a skill.  You can’t just read about it.  Though I hope that reading what I’ve described about painting “fuzzy” is helpful – I hope it can to get you started.  But ultimately, it’s a solo journey.  Your hand has to be on the brush dipping into the water and paint, putting it on the paper to see what happens with each variable – of paint, water, brush size and stiffness, and drying time.  The other thing it takes is patience with yourself.  I’ve painted dozens and dozens of fuzzy backgrounds and I still feel adrift.  Ours is a wild medium, one that doesn’t take to being readily tamed.

But painting in watercolor is home to me.  I’ll spend the rest of my life – as long as my hands, eyes and brain allow me to – in partnering with this medium to bring beauty to life.  One of the things that keeps me going is knowing you are right here with me.

Love,

Cara

June 7, 2017 – The two faces of color

Blossoming Hope – the yellow roses I painted… in yellow!

I’ll never forget her question:  it was at my second festival in San Anselmo 9 years ago, a woman held up a print of “Blossoming Hope” and asked if I “had this available in red?”  It took me a second, but then I realized that she didn’t recognize it as a piece of artwork, but rather like drapery or a couch cushion! After all, fabrics in a particular pattern are often made in different color schemes.  I know she didn’t intend for her question to sound ridiculous to me, she indeed liked my painting!  And I get it – red just went better with her décor. I found it within me to tell her in a pleasant voice that I had only painted that painting of yellow roses.  Since she wanted a print, with the wonders of Photoshop, I could have attempted to modify it, making the roses red, but I couldn’t go there.  Since I’ve made my life with color this is one of the more memorable situations to have shown me how completely subjective color is.  And yet, we make art and live our lives in a world where everything we’d like to do with color is not possible. We must come to terms with how our ideas about color can bump up against its limits – and how each of the paints we use is much more than just a color.

Color is a rather abstract idea.  It doesn’t exist without something – even just light – to carry it.  In fact, color really isn’t anything at all – it is a reflection of part of the light spectrum.  The nature of the substance it is reflected from is such that it absorbs all the light except for the color we see.  Color also is energy.  There is less energy in violet than there is in red – which must have something to do with the length of its light waves.  Energy varies from color to color as do our responses – which are as individual as we are.  Very vibrant color is enlivening to some, and overwhelming to others.  Muted, neutral colors are boring or dull to some of us, while to others they are calming.  I’m making choices for some new finishes for our kitchen and I’m finding it a challenge for this color-lover – there is so much grey out there!

Adrienne Rogers in our Friday group brought back for me a wonderful book from one of her trips to Boston called “ROY G. BIV,” by Jude Stewart.  Its subtitle is “An Exceedingly Surprising Book about COLOR.”  For any of you who are as into color as much as I and are amused by fascinating facts and stories, it’s a book for you.  It’s filled with all kinds of meanings and associations for colors and our relationships with them – in all their shades.  Did you know that many years ago, pink was for boys and blue was for girls?

I love this quote from the book:

Color is like sex.  It’s mysterious.  It’s unknowable.  It never looks the same twice.  No two people see the same thing.  I once went to China on a cruise ship.  Eight hundred of us got off the ship wearing white, because it feels festive and shippy and says “I’m on a cruise.”  In China white is the color of mourning.  We looked insane. – Stephen Drucker, editor-in-chief, House Beautiful

Within this abstract world of our ideas, inclinations and preferences for color, those of us who work with it have to do so the real world.  The challenges of seeing, capturing and attempting to re-produce color are threaded throughout the entire art making process – and they continue when we attempt to share images of our finished paintings.  Living with the variation and imprecision in color is a fact of life for artists.

When we see something as we go about our lives that we’d like to paint, many of us start by taking a photo of it – and here’s where our color challenges begin.  For the most part our cameras do a decent job of capturing color – way better than my memory can!  But cameras really cannot capture exactly as we see; red and dark pink are notoriously difficult to capture accurately.  From there our device displays and printers each bring in their own color interpretations.  With all these variables the color in our images are more often different from what we saw in real life.

Then there are the paints-pigments that are available to make our art with.  It’s a very common misconception when we begin to use art paint to think of the different colors of paints as different versions of the same basic substance.  I thought so when I first started!  But, the pigments that color our paints come from very different sources.  Most modern pigments are created by chemists in the lab, but there are still plenty of them in use today that come from ground up earth and stones – as they have for millennia.  It’s not uncommon to see a color in an image and have a hard time re-creating it with paint.  I have a big collection of paints in the pink-fuchsia-magenta range, in my attempt to find a certain favorite color!  And still there are hundreds of colors of art paint available and I remind myself is that no one ever looks at my paintings and thinks they are lacking in color!

The pigments in our paints have qualities in addition to color we must learn about in order to get the results we want.  Pigments can be transparent or opaque, they can have very tiny particles that dissolve into the water creating clear layers of color – or they can be comprised of larger, heavier particles that settle out of the water, creating texture.  They can be easily lifted or they can stain our paper.  And one quality that I pay particular attention to – they can be “lightfast” – resisting fading as they are exposed to light, or they can be “fugitive” – meaning they will indeed fade or change color over time.  There is so much to know about our “colors” beyond the colors we see as we paint our paintings!

So that I can better help those who come to learn to paint from me, I have tried very hard to observe what is going on with the paint and the water as I make my paintings.  The thing I’ve observed and attempt to explain is how pigment, as it is mixed with water is a physical substance.  The amount of paint, the amount of water, and the ratio between them, all make an enormous difference in what happens as we paint.

I do know a lot about color, I can recognize a number of pigments based on their color, I can see color in color – such as the green in a grey or a blue in a violet-maroon.  I can because I have paid careful attention for all these years I’ve been painting to what is happening as I am painting.  I’ve said this before, but how and to what we pay attention creates our world.  I’ve created a world for myself that is filled with color.

I have a real relationship with my paints at this point. I recently put together a new, smaller palette of paints to take on a trip with me.  I filled the wells in the palette with only the paints that I use often – those that I love the most.  When I looked at the collection of paints, my thought was:  these paints are my friends!  I don’t regularly provide a list of my paints to students (besides a starter list of student level paints for those who are just setting out and need guidance).  I resist sharing my paints because I don’t want you buying these paints just because I like them.  I want for you to discover what paints are your friends.

A work in progress with samples of some of my paints.

It’s no secret I’m inspired by color.  Color and the illusion of light weave through just about every painting of mine.  I need color, I experience it as nourishment and couldn’t imagine wanting to go on living in a world without it.  And to make art we need to also learn how to work with color in the world – in our photos and digital images – and in the real substances that are our watercolor paints.  I know… there’s so much to learn – even for me!  And I didn’t even start into the whole idea of mixing color!

With my appreciation for you in my world,

Cara

P.S.:  I’m offering the “Get Intimate With Color” weekend workshop this summer – a “color camp for grownups!” July 7-8 (Sat-Sun) In Larkspur, CA.  It’s a great way to get started with color and with painting in watercolor.  No experience necessary – really!

Contact me for more information.  I’d love to have you join us!

May 31, 2017 – Painting the Light

Here it is! Meet “Gala” – my newest painting. Look for the story in my gallery later this week.

During Marin Open Studios earlier this month, I was paid a visit by two lovely people – Trinette and James – who I’d met at last summer’s San Anselmo festival and they took the Get Intimate with Color workshop right after that.  Trinette told me that they were continuing to paint – or at leasthad been exploring color – which I love to hear.  James said that he missed the Special Saturday in January where we looked at what it takes to “paint the light.”  I know that I’m doing what I’m meant to in this life in moments like this – because what I said next came through without hesitation, as if I had just prepared myself to teach the class right then.  I rattled off four things it takes to paint the light.  I thought I’d share them with you today.

Painting the light…when you think about it, it’s an interesting thing to consider.  It’s not quite like painting certain shapes or textures – light is less definable or describable.  But we do know it when we see it – it’s probably the most frequent comment I hear about this art that is coming through me – that my paintings have captured “the light.”  In looking at how that is, I’ve come up with these four things.

The first is you must start with the light.  All of us in our watercolor community – as do many artists everywhere – use photo references.  This is particularly helpful if what you want to do is paint light.  Light is fleeting, ever changing and the camera saves the light for us as it was in the moment.  Looking through photos as potential paintings for the last 17-or-so years, I’ve discovered a light meter that lives in the center of me.  I have a response in my body when a photo has the sense of light that is worth painting.  I take a quick breath in – almost surprised by it.  There’s even a sound that is part of the reaction – it’s close to an “oh” – but not quite.  I want to be taken by my initial photograph – by the light it captured.  In these two photos, can you see which one gave me that reaction and which one didn’t?

Not every single thing I’ve painted has shocking light like the photo that inspired “Hallelujah” (on the right), but if it doesn’t there needs to be something else that evokes magic for me – like the sugar crystals in “Jellies from Hédiard,” or raindrops in “Raindance” below.  In order to sustain me over the many hours it takes to make a painting, I need to be enchanted by some quality in the image.   What I’ve also discovered is that I – at least – can’t fake it.  I’ve tried increasing the contrast of a photo in Photoshop and it just doesn’t work.  If it’s not there to start with I can’t create the magic.

I just saw the Monet, The Early Years exhibition at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco on Monday and he, along with many others over time, painted plenty of paintings of subjects under grey skies.  The paintings that grabbed, though, me were those where sunlight created contrast – these paintings shimmered from all the way across the large gallery rooms.  This said, if what moves you is to paint the softness and subtleness of diffuse light – you go!  We are all called to express in our own way.

This early painting of Monet’s reveals something of what was to come in his work.

The second is particular to watercolor – you have to save your whites.  Watercolor paintings are most luminous, most striking when the whites and very light tones come from the white of the paper shining through – rather than from white paint.  White paint has a density, a dullness that reflects quite differently than white paper.  To support myself in saving my whites I always start with a strong drawing – I do all my composing digitally so I have the support of the drawing and my reference image to show me where the whites are.  Then, it takes focus to pay attention as we paint.  When I’m headed into a new section of a painting the first question I ask myself is:  What is the lightest color that isn’t white?  This has me notice not only what light color I will paint, but what I will not paint – what I will leave white.  It takes practice to be able to pay attention in this way – both in observing our reference image and in where we put our brush to the paper.

Third, you have to get your darks dark enough.  Contrast is what grabs us in a painting – contrast is what gets the viewer’s attention.  There is no light without dark.  A blank piece of paper is all light, but it’s not interesting until we put some darks on it to show us where the light is – by blocking out where it isn’t.  Creating darks can be a challenge in watercolor.  Because our paint is diluted with water, there is a tendency to have thin washes which don’t create dark-darks.  What you want is not to paint straight from the tube – you do need to add water – your paint should always be fluid.  Getting dark enough means having enough water and enough paint.  You might watch this video as I painted the last part of “Eternal.”  With a dense mixture of paint and water, I painted a smooth layer of paint that obscures all the white of the paper in one go.  In order to paint light, don’t be afraid of the dark!

Lastly, you have to be very clear about where the light and dark are.  Mostly what this means is that the lightest parts of your paintings must be the only places with the unpainted paper.  I find myself pointing this out frequently to the artists in our groups.  The light areas in the shadows often need to be made a bit darker.  We are oriented towards saving our whites – this is good!  But then as we finish, we need to look at the overall picture.  Evaluate where the brightest parts of your image are – the whitest whites should be the only untouched paper.  Everything else should have some amount of paint on it.

I had to make some of the light parts of the rose darker in order to have the light at the top read.

I love that there is a mystery to art, that we can look at a piece of art and wonder “how did they do that?” But for those of us who are called to make it, I also love that there is often a way to break it down and dispel the mystery – so that we can do it too!  Because the thing that makes our art ours doesn’t require that we keep secret how we do what we do.  The art that comes from each of us is unique and precious because of the one-of-a-kind instrument inside each of us that receives messages from the world to “paint this” – and, because just like our handwriting – no one will put the brush to the paper or canvas as we do.

Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings a week ago included this post which seems the perfect way send you out into the world – this world we are living at this moment.  A collaboration by an artist and a writer, it’s a charge for those of us who are drawn to the light.  I’ve ordered one for my studio – the rainbow version (of course).  They are also available in black and white and red, white and blue.  The link to order is in Maria Popova’s post.

Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton, words by Courtney E. Martin

“This is your assignment.

Feel all the things. Feel the hard things. The inexplicable things, the things that make you disavow humanity’s capacity for redemption. Feel all the maddening paradoxes. Feel overwhelmed, crazy. Feel uncertain. Feel angry. Feel afraid. Feel powerless. Feel frozen. And then FOCUS.

Pick up your pen. Pick up your paintbrush. Pick up your damn chin. Put your two calloused hands on the turntables, in the clay, on the strings. Get behind the camera. Look for that pinprick of light. Look for the truth (yes, it is a thing—it still exists.)

Focus on that light. Enlarge it. Reveal the fierce urgency of now. Reveal how shattered we are, how capable of being repaired. But don’t lament the break. Nothing new would be built if things were never broken. A wise man once said: there’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in. Get after that light.

This is your assignment.”  – Courtney E. Martin

We are the light-seekers. Artists: Go, seek it – and paint on!

With my love,

Cara

May 24, 2017 – When whispers become passions

“Getting there with my parrot tulip painting – and contemplating what’s next.”

There is this idea in our culture that what we should do is find our passion.  What’s more, we hear that this passion is like a switch – you come upon a way to channel your energies and boom:  You fall in love and are lit a-fire with the burning need to do this thing – at all costs.  It does sometimes happen this way; I had an airline pilot, a captain on 747’s, take a color class once.  She said that the first time she took a lesson in a small plane, she was hooked.  She sold everything she could to take lessons and made becoming a pilot her whole life.  My sense, though, is that this is rather rare – mostly it’s not how it goes. Much more often, finding what we would re-arrange our lives for isn’t quite as immediate or unequivocal.  How is it, then that we who aren’t “struck by lightning” can end up living our passion?

I’m asked quite often by those who have just met me how long I’ve been painting.  The answer I give them is that it’s been many years since I started, but if my painting life were a mathematical curve, it would be exponential – relatively flat for a while, and then in a short time it shot up.  Day one was a Saturday in June of 1992 – 25 years ago next month.  My mom and I thought it would be fun to take a one-day, adult-ed class:  Painting Flowers in Watercolor.  My first painting was a somewhat awkward blue-violet Dutch iris on a quarter sheet (11”x5”) with a plain white background.  I found the drawing frustrating, but using color was fun – yet still no flaring passion had yet been sparked.

I went home and over the next few weeks painted three more quarter-sheet paintings of tulips, sweet peas and a big, pale pink camellia.  But after that, because my life at the time didn’t support my being freely creative, my energy and impetus to paint petered out.  Looking through my stack of early art, there’s evidence that I did paint a bit in the years that followed, but only sporadically – usually on vacation.  More farting around than passionate!

About the turn of the century, when my Joseph and I had settled in to doing life together, I picked my watercolors back up again with a bit more enthusiasm.  But painting didn’t really grab ahold of me until two major circumstances impacted me – one internal, the other external.  In 2004 came the unthinkable realization that I wasn’t going to have any children in this life.  This enormous disappointment left a chasm in my soul that sent me looking for something to put my energies into – something more worth spending my life on than working in the corporate world.  The external force came in 2007 when I started showing my work – having an audience put a real fire under me to finish my paintings.

Ten more years down the road and I have come to know this life and these paintings as a direct outcome of how my life unfolded.  I love to paint, I love working with color, I love supporting others in their painting process.  Just recently I’ve started to notice something else – a deepening sense of appreciation for my paintings.  I was in conversation with a gallery owner from out of state about representing me and my work.  Looking at my website she expressed interest in my most recent paintings.  The idea of crating and shipping these paintings I’ve just finished – the ones for which I still can feel the struggle of making them – brought up a clear “no” from somewhere inside.  I want to have them close by – to be able to show them myself for a while first.

In one of my recent posts on the Beatitudes for Artists, I said that if there is one thing to pray for in becoming an artist it is this:  an irrepressible desire to make it.  I quoted Renoir as having said that for him the urge to paint was as persistent as the urge to pee.  When I first read this in the margin of one of Julia Cameron’s books, I wanted to paint that badly.  (It’s interesting, isn’t it, how I had a desire to have the desire?)  So how and where do we get this desire?  Initially it comes from the mysterious place that is the source of everything that makes us us.  It’s this place that whispers “watercolor” or “poetry” or “the piano” or whatever it is we hear.

Then what?  In my experience, it happens more like my exponential curve – we try it once, have a positive experience and then our desire grows a bit if we find it enjoyable and have had some level of success at it.  This then makes us want to attempt to do that again – and/or to try something else.  For some of us, at some point, painting – or whatever is our art – becomes what we do and who we are.  We get to the point where we can’t imagine being without something to paint.  Before the one we are working on is done, we are already considering what we’ll paint next.  We can even feel a bit of panic if an idea isn’t readily arising.

There are other factors that come into play.  Working a full time job, moving house and home, and serious Illness – ours or a family member’s – are often what use up our energies and keep us from creating.  But – as in my experience – loss can actually have a catalyzing effect.  After the acute grief has passed, loss can re-orient us; it makes a space in us that pulls away our resistance to create.  Looking at it, these circumstances are often out of our control, though.  We can’t really avoid life’s big obligations and we never go about seeking life-changing loss.

Lately I’ve been questioning the whole idea (that is so very American) – that we can do anything we want to.  That, with enough hard work and commitment, whatever we set our sights on is a real possibility. This is a very attractive idea – one that calls to people from all over the globe – and there are many examples of famous lives that prove it to be true.  But I wonder just how universal it is.  It takes a huge amount of desire/energy to overcome any circumstance and to sustain the commitment over time – in order to change our lives in a big way.  I wonder just how many of us can self-generate the kind of will that can keep up the energy necessary.  And then there are those of us whose lives are shaped by responding to what comes our way, rather than from a fire that arises from within us – a feminine rather than a masculine orientation.

I wanted to need to paint like Renoir did, but I didn’t actually rearrange my life to paint until circumstances arose that both stripped away my inner resistance and gave me a reason to.  The way I know myself to be, the way I am wired, I can’t imagine it having gone any differently.  So what does this mean?  Should we just be fatalistic about our desires and our creative lives?  Maybe.  But there is another piece.  The thread that has woven through my life in all of this has been to become more and more awake and present to my inner and outer life.  I first learned – and since have made it a practice – to pay attention – to my desires, to my pain, to what is going on in me and around me – so I can hear the messages that life has for me – so, then my responses can become more conscious and intentional.

I once read Victoria Moran advise to “live the chapter we are in” – as opposed to a chapter yet to come. If we are caring for someone we love, or are having to work very hard in some other way, we are pulled away from our creative work, then this is the chapter we are living.  Not being able to pour ourselves into making art is normal.  I’m finding myself, just as I was last week, ending with the question that I started with still lacking a pat answer.  Passion, where it comes from – and how it sometimes grows and sometimes doesn’t – is still pretty much a mystery to me.  I don’t question that we hear these whispers, though.  What we can do is honor the whispers, offer them our appreciation and hold them for safe keeping in our souls, knowing we will act upon them when life turns the page to the chapter that is theirs.

With my love,

Cara

May 17, 2017 – Painting the truth

My tulip painting is coming along – I’m having fun with these colors!

Marin Open Studios 2017 has just passed, which means I spent the past two weekends hanging out at my mom’s real estate office in Larkspur, my artwork all over the walls, as people came in to see it. Witnessing the response to this art that I make from others – many of whom are complete strangers – is an interesting part of being an exhibiting artist.  I’ve come to realized that paintings – mine included – emanate a certain energy that some people can sense.  It’s like a radio station that is picked up by an inner receiver of that particular frequency.  But it’s curious to me – what is this transmission?  How is it that art and people have these connections?

It is certainly very individual.  There are plenty of people who either don’t even notice the art or, if they do, seem not at all interested.  My “studio” is a storefront space in a commercial district, giving my art the opportunity to be seen by passers-by who wouldn’t be walking by our house in a residential neighborhood in Fairfax.  People go by who are headed to the movie theater, the nail salon, the burrito place next door.  It is often assumed that I’d be busy all day with people seeing the art through the windows and wandering in, but even with a Marin Open Studios sign on the sidewalk inviting them in, not very many of those who weren’t already planning to, actually do.

Last Thursday, someone did.  It wasn’t even the official “open studio” time – it was during our painting group.  With nine or ten artists crammed into the space – lots of talking and activity, a woman walked in, almost in a trance.  Looking around she asked whose art is this? Someone pointed her to me.  She was on her way to a lunch at the Left Bank on the corner and was drawn in by my art.  It turns out she lives in London and was leaving town that evening.  She walked out having purchased three large prints of roses – completely unplanned.  She is one whose tuner picked up the frequency that Life in Full Color sends out, that’s for sure!

A new source of wisdom and inspiration has come into my life:  brainpickings.org – the site of Maria Popova, a Bulgarian-born Brooklynite.  She writes this beautiful and fascinating blog on culture, literature, art, history and other human endeavors, citing extensively from her sources.  I’ve just recently become a regular follower – and in the past few weeks every Sunday’s digest has provided me something that relates to this exploration of mine of what it means to be a human who makes art.  I bookmarked this post from a few weeks ago where she reveals Ursula K. Le Guinn’s take on art and its message – from the perspective of the art-maker and from its viewer.

Maria Popova begins with this statement:  “Art transforms us not with what it contains but with what it creates in us — the constellation of interpretations, revelations, and emotional truths illuminated – …” And then she quotes Ursula K. Le Guinn:

The kids ask me, “When you write a story, do you decide on the message first or do you begin with the story and put the message in it?”

No, I say, I don’t.  I don’t do messages.  I write stories and poems.  That’s all.  What the story or the poem means to you — its “message” to you — may be entirely different from what it means to me.

The kids are often disappointed, even shocked.  I think they see me as irresponsible.  I know their teachers do.

They may be right.  Maybe all writing, even literature, is not an end in itself but a means to an end other than itself.  But I couldn’t write stories or poetry if I thought the true and central value of my work was in a message it carried, or in providing information or reassurance, offering wisdom, giving hope.  Vast and noble as these goals are, they would decisively limit the scope of the work; they would interfere with its natural growth and cut it off from the mystery which is the deepest source of the vitality of art.

A poem or story consciously written to address a problem or bring about a specific result, no matter how powerful or beneficent, has abdicated its first duty and privilege, its responsibility to itself.  Its primary job is simply to find the words that give it its right, true shape.  That shape is its beauty and its truth.

She’s speaking about writing – as her medium – but I know this equally applies to visual art.  And I’d never considered this before – that there is a truth that our paintings hold.  We paint what we paint – for its own sake – for the sake of whatever we find worthy of our time and effort.  What happens next is out of our hands.  Ten years ago, my friend Vicki was one of the first buyers of my art.  She bought Paris Roses.  She told me that it took her to a place inside that she didn’t even know existed – a place that was both feminine and strong.  I had just painted roses that I thought were beautiful and Vicki received a message of truth.

Paris Roses – the painting that transported my friend Vicki

Several weeks ago I went to the reception for a show of watercolors by Paulette Engler, one of the original members of our Thursday group.  Paulette is amongst those who paints the most regularly and she shows more frequently than any of us – even me it seems!  Looking across the large room, one of her paintings jumped off the wall at me.  I said to myself that I wanted to have it in my life.  Though I had watched her paint it over a series of Thursdays, its transmission to me happened in that moment.

Paulette’s ‘Looking for Blue Skies’

She called it “Looking for Blue Skies” and painted it just after the presidential election last year – channeling her intense feelings into it.  I saw the largest of the pink flowers with its view blocked by the dark branches, yet I knew that inside that space it lived, pristine and un-marred by any darkness or chaos.  Paulette’s painting reveals a truth to me about light and dark and the un-broken, un-breakable-ness at center of all things.  I’d stake my life on it that Paulette had no intention to include this message as she was painting!

I love this idea that there are truths that are found, felt, seen, heard in works of art of all kinds – truths that the artist was unaware of until revealed by the receivers of the art.  Knowing this has me feel more deeply what it is I’m up to – what we are all up to.  But we also should not be over-conscious of it.  Ursula K. Le Guinn tells us to stay innocent to it.  She says to stay with our process, which for us is the specifics of pencil lines and brush strokes, and let whatever this magic is have its own life.  I hear a caution that if we become overly conscious of it we would get in the way of the “right, true shape” of our art.  These truths must find their own way, allowing the viewer to find their truth themselves – rather than hitting them between the eyes with our version of truth.

Going forward, as I paint, as I write my paintings’ stories, and as I give them names, I want to hold on to this innocence.  At the same time, I want to be ever more intimate with the spirit of my art.  Our paintings are our off-spring and I can see the parallels in parents’ relationships with their children.  We love them, shape them, support their way into the world.  But it’s not for us to say what they are here for, who they are here for.  That is up to them.  I end this post as I started it, curious as to the mystery of art and how it connects us.  I see that it is an enduring mystery – one we will never understand.  This feels – to me – just as it should be.

With my love,

Cara

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