August 24, 2021

Questions I Ask Myself While Painting


When we work at tasks––cooking, cleaning, gardening, repairing––I imagine that all of us ask ourselves questions, whether consciously or not. Do I add more salt? where should I put this new plant? how can I fix this cupboard door with its loose hinge? will wood putty work? When I'm in the process of painting, which I've been doing for about 50 years (yikes!) I don't usually pay attention to the questions asked, decisions made; although they are constant, I don't focus clearly on them. Painting became like walking, where I don't have to ponder each muscle movement in order to go forward. 

But then, a painting ago, the questions became loud and clear in my head; I noticed them. The questions were about process, about the step by step making of a painting, and not anything philosophical: not why am I doing this at all, not what I'm trying to say. Just process. I imagine every artist has their own particular questions. A first question for me is the palette and which color pastes are to be laid out in the small cups: do I need Cadmium orange? which yellow should I use, Cad yellow medium or light? should I mix the greens I'll need? if so, which blues will come in handy? Ultramarine deep? Cobalt blue deep, or light or standard? maybe a green? Why oh why didn't I order more Chrome oxide green? Should I use some Phthalo green? if so, warm or cool? 

I use photographic sources for my work, so there are often decisions to be made as to how faithfully to follow the image. For this painting one large question was: what color do I paint the lower right corner? The source was green grass, which would not do at all. The warm brown you see sketched in above was many colors before it got to that one. Should it be dark green? blue? a warm earth red? maybe more yellow in that? lighter? darker? Each questioned color was tried and wiped off, to start anew. Should the color have transparency? or be more opaque? I actually thought this: should the color be dead or alive? I think my question meant how intense should the color be? should it recede, or pop, or be on the same plane as the shapes above? 

There are always questions about the composition: will I move the diagonals so that they touch the corners? what about that dark edge: put it in or leave it out? Should I widen the left rectangle? Where should I place the red circle? centered, or higher? And the biggest question: do I leave the arm coming from the left side of the red disk? And the protruding brown cylinder: is it be seen from above, as in the source image, or straight on? 

Here is a detail of that part of the painting, finished, with the questions answered.

Colors chosen bring up a litany of questions, for every color in every painting. Many years ago, when I was a student at Skowhegan, our rallying cry was "Hue! Value! Intensity!", the three qualities of color. Getting these greens––in shadow and light––to work required many layers of color answering how warm? how cool? how light? how dark? how intense do I want the color to be? which blue or green or yellow will give the hue I want? will the shadow color be more or less transparent? will adding white kill the color, or would yellow work? which yellow? maybe I should add lemon yellow to my palette? And the touch, or facture: do I want it to show a subtle painterliness or a more opaque surface? Will the green rectangle on the left be lighter, warmer than the triangular green? How about the lights? how warm, how light? One of the great qualities of egg tempera is its translucency, which allows for color mixing while layering paint. And after each layer, each new color: does it sit properly in space? does it carry enough light?  

Red Disk, 2021, egg tempera on calfskin parchment, 7 5/8 x 8 5/8 in.

A final question: do I include a photo of the finished painting in this blog post? 

As I thought about why my list of questions moved to the foreground of my mind, I remembered that I'd recently read a wonderful poem by John Yau, "Fifty for Richard Nonas", the sculptor, which consisted of a long list of questions, questions that are enlightening, thoughtful, demanding, confounding, compelling, essential. I love this::
What is invisible inside this place you are filling with carbon dioxide? What besides air, light, and memories? 
(click to enlarge)

August 12, 2021

Mushrooms: Wonders of the Woods

"One shouldn't go to the woods looking for something, but rather to see what is there." John Cage

It was thrilling to spot this mass of glowing chanterelles, loudly announcing their emergence. Although they often show up in this spot, it's rarely this many. As different from the composer and mushroom expert John Cage, I know very little about mushrooms; these are the only ones I will eat, along with lawn puffballs. I generally approach mushrooms as an aesthetic, rather than culinary, experience, admiring their widely varying colors and shapes. And wow. this year there is an embarrassment of riches in the woods. After a hot, dry spring, it rained and rained and rained in July, which has encouraged a plethora of species, many of which I've never seen before. 

My chanterelle pizza

I've tried to identify some of the mushrooms I've photographed, using my Audubon guide, but haven't always succeeded. I've seen estimates of 10,000 species of mushrooms, which are the fruiting body of a fungus, and 120,000 fungi. So, I may be forgiven for not knowing even common ones. But, I think this is a Parasol mushroom. It stood out, noticeably tall and white, in the distance on the path; it was about 8 inches tall. I photographed this on August 5th; a couple of days later the cap had spread out into a flat disk, around 6 inches wide. A couple of days after that, I saw it covered with a fine hairy fungus of some sort; and as I write this on August 11, the cap has collapsed into a brown decaying form. 

"Rockland County, where Stony Point is located, abounds in mushrooms of all varieties. The more you know them, the less sure you feel about identifying them. Each one is itself. Each mushroom is what it is—its own center. It's useless to pretend to know mushrooms. They escape your erudition." John Cage


I love seeing red mushrooms. The color is so brilliant against the dun-colored forest floor. They demand attention.

We might think we are underwater when seeing coral mushrooms. How did this similarity happen?

In my mushroom book, this species, or similar, previously unknown to me, is grouped with Coral-like mushrooms. 

And, I'd never seen, or noticed, this cup-shaped mushroom, perhaps because of its dark color, or because it grows so close to the ground. 

It's a treat to see these small, shiny, jelly-like fungi. I think they're Orange jelly, but I wish they were Witches' Butter, because I love the name; Witches' butter, though, are yellow in color. 

I have zero idea what these tiny mushrooms are; some kind of club mushroom I suppose, new to me. They're kind of wonderful, with their groupings of erect forms with rounded tops. 

This grand specimen, about 10 inches across, lives in the same spot each year, growing on underground wood. I assume that it's a polypore of some sort; I admire its deep reddish color and rippling, overlapping forms. 

Here's a beautiful warm gray cap on a mushroom, an unusual color. It's possible that it's a Grey Spotted amanita, as a youngster, but the photos I've seen online don't look like this. The scales and veil on the stem mark it as an amanita (maybe).  

A bolete for sure. They are beautiful mushrooms, with elegant caps and stems, and pores instead of gills under their caps. They are remarkable plentiful in my near woods this summer. Many of them are edible, but since some are not, I won't cook them.

When I saw these two mushrooms, boletes, side by side in the woods, I kept exclaiming "holy mackerel! holy mackerel!" (For some reason stronger language didn't leave my mouth.) Why? because they're HUGE: the larger one was 8 inches across, and I'd never seen anything like it; nothing so large except for polypores. They'd been knocked over, so I brought them home to photograph them. Under the pores was a soft white spongy layer. How many of my readers will tell me I should have cooked these? or maybe not. 

Another exciting find, from very large to very small. These Velvety earth tongues were growing on a pile of logs that I've seen decay over the years; the logs are now covered with teeny orange mushrooms, some small red ones, mosses, and lichens. These are another mushroom I've never seen before, and it's surprising to me how thrilled I feel when seeing something new. They are only about an inch and a half high, which gives you an idea of how tiny the orange mushrooms are. I encourage readers to click on the images to enlarge them, to see these marvels in more detail. I'd like to close with another quote from John Cage, which expresses beautifully the love due to mushrooms:
"What permits us to love one another and the earth we inhabit is that we and it are impermanent. We obsolesce. Life's everlasting. Individuals aren't. A mushroom lasts for only a very short time. Often I go in the woods thinking after all these years I ought finally to be bored with fungi. But coming upon just any mushroom in good condition, I lose my mind all over again. Supreme good fortune: we're both alive!" 


August 2, 2021

Small Objects of My Affection

Sitting on my desk, where I can see them just beyond my computer, are these four small objects. I can't quite explain why, but they comfort me with their familiarity, their shapes, their stories, their unique character. Two of them are reproductions of ancient objects: the bowl with human feet is a favorite piece in the Met's Egyptian collection; the stag is copied from an early bronze age sculpture from Anatolia, which I bought on a marvelous visit to Turkey 20 years ago. The two birds are paperweights, a chicken acquired from an antique shop ages ago, and a dainty Lalique which was in my beloved mother's collection. I see the chicken pecking away and the little glass bird about to take flight. Embedded in them are memories and silent affection. All four of of my desk companions elicit a sense of life, in their still and quiet way.

I began to think about my relationship to the inanimate objects around my house after reading this beautiful and touching prose poem, "Fetish" by Pierre Reverdy, in the book published by Black Square Editions

A little doll, a good luck marionette, she struggles at my window, at the mercy of the wind. The rain has soaked her dress, her face, and her hands, which are fading. She's even lost a leg. But her ring remains, and with it her power. In winter she knocks at the windowpane with her little foot in its blue shoe, and she dances, dances from joy, from the cold, to warm her heart again, her good luck wooden heart. At night she raises her suppliant arms toward the stars. 

Yes, these objects are fetishes, in the sense of embodying magic. Even though the marionette is well-worn she still has her power, and she dances with joy. 

A little stuffed alligator, with his wide smile and waving arms, looks out at me over my bedside clock with humor and charm. His silly attitude reminds me not to take myself too seriously, to remember to relax and smile, so he's an excellent bedtime friend. I'm especially fond of this little creature because I found him in my mother's collection of tiny toys for her great-grandchildren. 

This salt and pepper set and the pieces to follow are antique shop and yard sale finds that I've had for many years. The shakers have the shape of the birds they are named after––kookaburras––with large beaks and squat shapes, but their bright colors are a vivid invention. When I look at them I think of the raucous laugh of these birds, which I was lucky enough to hear in the Australian outback many years ago; it's a startling sound.  

A delicate herd of tiny animals, not more than 2 inches high, sits on my mantle. I love their shapes, simple yet speaking of each individual animal. They have a poignant vulnerability, with straight pins inserted into their bodies where thin legs have broken off. 

With elegant curved form topped with a black beret, a perky fellow sits on a pull toy. The large red wheels give him motion, which he addresses with his upright stance. 

Being a person who likes machines––machines inspire my artwork––I had to include a little wooden toy truck in this post. I imagine it being given to a child or grandchild, who would love pulling or pushing it about. Ah, the shapes! Blue cylinder atop red cylinder, alongside yellow rectangle, all on a black rectangle studded with red circles; so beautifully abstract. 

Each of these objects, and many more around my house, are imbued with a spirit of their own. Like Reverdy's marionette, they have heart and joy, good luck and power; they are magical.