Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Roadtripping, Cat Lady Style

Leo, Hazel, and I hit the road on Wednesday, off on an excellent Florida adventure.  The beginning of the 2-day drive looked and sounded like this:

Leo and Hazel travel in style in a purple mesh pop-up carrier that takes up most of the backseat and includes all the modern conveniences (i.e., a little box). It gives them a little room to stretch, but keeps them from leaping out the window at toll booths. Over the 14 years that the kitties and I have been spending time together, they've logged many miles. They're not always happy about it, but they are surprisingly patient and flexible.

If nothing else, they enjoy that after a day of meditative sunshine driving, I perk up (yes, cats sense your mood). While they don't let me sing (like many others, they interpret it as yowling, and meow with alarm when I forget and start in) they do let me change radio stations to catch scary 80s classics (yes, "Abracadra" still gets air time. Want to have a 1982 tune stuck in your head?  Click here: After a few hours of following the yellow lines, the endless winter gloom of DC gray fades into exploration and insights into other places, odd roadside moments and the peaceful zen of driving.

Day 1 of driving landed us at the Walterboro, SC Motel6.  Given that Motel6s are cheap and allow pets, we are brand loyal. This particular safe haven came with a bbq invite from the guys in orange reflective vests grilling dinner in the parking lot. They were in town to do electrical work in Ridgeland and were, safe to say, a little bored. Anyone who starts a conversation with "So you from out of town?" in a motel parking lot may be yearning for anything new (do lots of people in town stay at the Motel6?).

The kitties and I opted out of the parking lot festivities and instead hunkered down for a night of junk food and bad TV. I prefer to think that the bug Hazel found was not a baby roach, but some orphan insect of a less revolting tribe. 

The biggest excitement for me is that the Motel6 has a new, and possibly even more hideous bedspread pattern, this one with a Motel6 logo wound into yellows and oranges and blues.  The previous bedspread used, I can tell you, by most Motel6s across the country, flaunted blues and magenta, a stain-hiding combination that I've come to expect.

We hit the road early, anxious for more sun, more flashback music, and finally getting to the warmth. 

We first felt the shift to southern winter at a gas station stop in Georgia (at a nondescript Shell, not Mr. Pete's Pecans and Gas that we saw advertised in curly script on a billboard, as intrigued we were by that unlikely combination). Even though it was a chilly morning, it felt different...the sun was sharper, the sky bluer, and the birds sang with a tropical lilt. The wind coming inland from the the ocean still carried its salty smell. 

Hazel was probably thinking: lizards! 

When we lived in Miami, she was the mighty huntress, picking up, and dropping many lizards.  She didn't often kill them -- I imagine they don't taste all that yummy, although I don't intend to verify that. But she would chase them around and pick them up with zeal, at which point, they would drop their tails (a lizard stress reaction).  Many short-tailed lizards lived, anxiously, around our cottage.

The big excitement on Day 2 of driving (aside from arriving at our destination) all took place in the vicinity of Lawtey, FL. 

You can't say they don't give you
fair warning...
First: the Speed Trap billboard, 4.5 miles outside of town on 301. Yes, once in town, I saw a black unmarked car with a lawman sitting as promised in the 35 miles per hour zone there.  You have to figure, whoever pays for the billboard the town hero. 
Also in Lawtey, we made a brief stop to take a picture of not one, not two, but THREE giant metal chickens. 

Modern Styling.

Because one is not enough.

The reason for this can be found here:  Knock, knock is a running joke with a friend to whom I periodically send pictures of large metal chickens (or roosters - I'm flexible on these things).

Having finally arrived in our Florida destination,today, the cats and I are enjoying some down time on the porch. Leo had a tough morning with a visit to a local vet, as his back is hurting -- the prevailing theory is he twisted it on the stairs yesterday surveying his temporary kingdom, as he seemed surprisingly spry after the car ride. But by last evening, poor guy was hurting. Today, after a couple of shots, he's feeling better, and so is his nervous caretaker. 

In front of us on the porch, a palm tree is rustling in the wind. A few fluffy clouds are floating by.  I plan to go to the beach in a little while and stick my toes in the ocean. December in Florida, Santa hats and bathing suits, has much to recommend it. 

I hope Leo and Hazel agree.   

Hazel: "Lizards!"; Leo: "Cat treats!"

Monday, November 28, 2011

Them Apples

Green Apples
acrylic on canvas
10 x 8
As part of another attempt to de-clutter my apartment, I spent yesterday sorting through stacks of art supplies. Like coming across old snapshots, paintings take me back to the time and place where I painted them.

"Green Apples," an attempt at a classic still life with somewhat atraditional color choices, was painted on the balcony of a beach house rented for the Sisters Beach Trip 3.0 the week after Hurricane Irene.  My sister was working on a painting too, hers of shells. 

At the time, I wasn't much thrilled with my effort. Now I find I like it much better, perhaps because it returns me to a warm balcony with ocean air full of familial love, acceptance, and creative exploration. 

Those are some darn good apples in that context.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Evolution of a Naked Man

acrylic on canvas
36 x 30
This one I painted a few months ago, futzed with endlessly, and then put aside because it still didn't capture what I wanted. The frustration of seeing something in your mind that you can't create plagues most artists, I imagine, even those with more developed technical skills. 

Still, he looks a whole lot more like a person than the creepy monster he started out as. I am learning something. Various stages are displayed in the clip below. 

Friday, November 25, 2011

Naked Lady

Yes, if you paint, eventually you end up trying to paint naked people. Let me tell you, it's a lot harder than it looks. You would think, gosh, a few nice long lines, and voila! a person. Not so. Or at least, not a person that isn't part of some surgery-gone-wrong exposé. 

acrylic on canvas
22 x 32

Monday, November 21, 2011

Thanksgiving Gratitude List 2011

I complain. And whine. And grumble. A lot. Too often I see the glass chipped and half-empty. To counteract that tendency, last year I drew up a list of 25 things for which I'm grateful.  Cataloging the many ways in which I am rich is becoming a yearly tradition, a welcome antidote to all the fretting about silly junk. 

Here is the list for this year. I tried not to peek at last year's until I finished this year's, but the similarities are striking. I'm still incredibly lucky. 

So without further ado, and in no particular order, Thanksgiving Gratitude List 2011.
  1. Model horses rock!
    photo credit: Thomas A Daffron, Jr. (my grandfather)
    My sister: She's my best friend, not because she is my sister, but because she is courageous and funny, smart, kind, and honest. She puts up with my endless rambling and whining and reliably responds with wit and a healthy dose of reality. And – bonus! – she makes really yummy cookies and chocolate zucchini bread among many other tasties.
  2. My parents: In very different ways, they are both remarkable people. I am clear in the love we have for each other. The older I get, the luckier I know I am.
  3. My cats: As oldsters, they're largely fluffy doorstops snoring in one chair or another, and they do nothing to decrease the cricket population in my apartment. But they purr when I pick them up, come when I call them (yes, even though they're cats), and never tire of the excitement of dinnertime. In the winter particularly, they cleave to me for warmth and affection, and viceversa. They still groove on catnip and playtime and their hedonistic lifestyle of dozing in the sunshine.
  4. Painting: Expert technique is still far, far out of reach. But what I do have is a corner of my living room set up for the right side of my brain to play. Five minutes or an hour of messing with color and shape calms me while letting me explore, a stellar combination.
  5. Writing: Since I started keeping character sketches of friends and family as a preteen, through the many years of journals, stories, poems, novels, essays, and blog posts, writing is how I organize my thoughts, express my hopes and fears, and clarify my values. It's where I find forgiveness for myself and others, where I play, and where I mourn.
  6. Running: Breathe in, breathe out. The steady beat of Vibrams Five Fingers (my running shoe of choice – ask me, and I'll tell you more than you ever wanted to know about how much I like them) on a quiet path. Running strengthens me while it relaxes me.
  7. Hiking: Sweating through summer haze or sloshing through fall rain, hiking makes me look around at how gorgeous and how simple and how awe-inspiring the natural world can be -- if I just pay attention.
  8. Leo hard at work on a craft project
    Driving: I know, it's not environmentally conscious to go for a Sunday drive. But the joy of windows down, radio up, and singing loud is hard to beat, as is the curiosity of seeing what's just up around that corner or on the other side of the country.  
  9. My Aunt Kathy: My aunt spent much of this year helping my mother during her treatment for cancer. She also dealt with my moments of panic and insanity the bubbled up through some of the tougher times. Kathy remained endlessly patient, gracious, practical, and efficient. She is one of the kindest people I know. And she likes a good bowl of popcorn and a road trip, so we have many common interests.
  10. Friends Old & New: It's been a bumpy year with family stress and financial bummers, but through that, I've had a steady stream of support from people I treasure. I've spoken unspeakable things to phenomenal people who have in turn shared their struggles and successes with me. I recognize that being close with the people I am over many years of friendship, being with people that bring out my best side, is a tremendous gift. I look forward to growing even closer and supporting those friendships to the best of my ability in the coming years. 
  11. My Freelance Writing/Virtual Assistant Business: My commute is about 10 feet to turn on my computer. I never set my alarm clock. I run errands in the middle of the afternoon. While it's true that my retirement is nil and health care nonexistent, I believe this business will, in time, provide me with a wee bit more financial security to go with the freedom and intellectual stimulation of doing what I want to do.
  12. St. Pete Beach, FL
    Time: Time trumps money, I concluded this summer when I turned down a (relatively-speaking) lucrative, but time- and soul-sucking job. To have opportunity to choose that was liberating however much I still panic when the rent comes due and still kick myself for not being a more normal, socially acceptable person. For me though, happiness requires enough quiet daydream time (preferably with a cat purring in the window) to relax into it, and I'm thrilled that I have the luxury to choose that life and still be able to eat.
  13. Letting Go: Sometimes you can care deeply for people and still find yourself arguing with venom over pointless crap, banging your head against one wall or another. There is value for everyone in letting go of anger and those connections that feed into unhealthy patterns and instead putting energy into more peaceful places of growth.      
  14. Free & Cheap & Fun & Creative Stuff: Necessity is the mother of invention, and because it would be unreasonably frivolous even for me to go out and buy endless electronic gizmos I don't need, I've become better at realizing what I do need (food, shelter), what I don't (a Ferrari), and creatively re-purposing what I've got to fill the gray zones in between the extremes. I found goodies at thrift stores that speak to my sense of humor, scanned free piles for ugly mobile parts, recycled canvases to create my new (sometimes lumpy) paintings, and removed a lot of waste from my consumer diet, from deleting pricier junk food to making better use of the library.
  15. Light: Given my increased focus on the visual arts, painting, photography, and crooked suncatchers, I'm more aware of the magic of light, the angles of highlight and shadow, the splintering by prisms, the benevolence bestowed by its alchemy.     
  16. Family: The more I see how family can go radically wrong, collapse in anger, neglect, fury, abandonment, despair, violence, the more amazed I am by the collective kindness, intelligence, loyalty, and humor of my immediate and extended family.
  17. Health: Having spent time pacing hospitals hallways this year, I hold an even higher value on the dumb luck of my own good health.
  18. Kids: No, you haven't missed anything exciting -- I don't have kids. But I enjoy spending time with my friends' kids and smile when I see happy crews running amok at playgrounds or parades or wherever.  I love the creativity and chaos and unbridled fun that kids generate by keeping the world wondrously new and immediate.   
  19. Radiator Heat, Indoor Plumbing, Electric Lights, Maintained Roads, Public Safety: All those bills and taxes go some place to keep a sprawling, radically complicated system chugging along. Sometimes it clunks more than purrs – vitriolic government rhetoric, the poor distribution of wealth, blackouts, shutdowns, riots, dishonesty, greed, natural and man-made disasters. But every day, most days, millions of cogs in the wheels turn smoothly without breaking the machinery, a consistency I take for granted.
  20. Possibility: Emily Dickinson wrote, “I dwell in possibility,” and while she was talking more specifically about the life of a poet, for me, imagination and change provide great hope, vehicles for shifting to a new approach.
  21. Memory: Some moments and some people are, for good or bad, gone forever. There is much that I would choose to forget, but much, much more that I am so glad that I can remember, re-live, and enjoy again.
  22. Learning: Learning takes place in many environments, so while I have had lots of formal education (and that has given me a lot of tangible opportunities as a result), I'm mostly talking about the capacity to learn in any environment, be it an ivory tower or muddy cave.
  23. Aging: Am I happy about the gray hair frizzing over my head or the wrinkles by my eyes? No, not so much. But I'm grateful for the time accrued and perspective. As my father is fond of saying, getting old beats the alternative.
  24. Being Sentimental & Cheesy & Mushy: Sure, there is something just a little schmaltzy about gratitude. But I'm grateful for it nonetheless, as I bask here in my riches. So there.
  25. Food! Thanksgiving turkey, mashed potatoes, homemade chocolate chip cookies, horribly bad for you French fries, popcorn, a perfectly done steak with horseradish sauce, spinach salad with walnuts and strong cheese, cheese, chocolate, did I mention cheese?, strawberry smoothies, pomegranates and, of course, ice cream. I've had lean financial moments, but I've never truly faced hunger and have enjoyed many a gourmet meal. That's not the case for millions of people around the world.  
So that's my list this year. I encourage you to make your own if you want to feel super rich.

On Thanksgiving morning, I'm running the So Others Might Eat Trot For Hunger 5K. If you feel like contributing to a good cause that serves the homeless and poor of the Washington, DC area, you may do so here:

Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Artful Roses

Some days, art lets you down.

Some days, you get up to gray skies and reread the brilliant story you were working on yesterday to find it flat, hackneyed, lifeless, riddled with structural flaws and bland language.

Some days, you examine the portrait that you'd spent hours tweaking the night before to find it looks like a misshapen cartoon with fang-like teeth and slightly crossed eyes. 

Some days, the critical voices swarm in and ask you, "What's the point?"and (with increasing energy as the due dates for bills approach) "Does this make you any money?"

Today is a day where I have to remind myself that art is a process and a craft.  Transforming a blank page or canvas takes time, work, and skill, with a more than happy dash of dumb luck or divine inspiration. 

Developing skill takes time, and the only way to nourish those nascent talents is to keep plugging away. The roses don't bloom the day after the seeds are planted. 

The reason I delve into the arts is because of what I learn along the way. Let me repeat that: explorations in art are about learning. 

Sure, ending up with a lovely product that people ooh and aah over and pay a trillion dollars to hang on their wall would be swell. I'd love to paint in the rose garden of my mansion by the pool. 

But I paint and write as a means to explore ideas, images, techniques, craft, beauty, memory, emotion, imagination, character, story, and all the other elements churned up in the process.
As a culture, we're encouraged to be humble, to only acknowledge our flaws, to highlight all that is wrong with the world, from one disaster to disaster. 

But as I'm busily criticizing everything that is radically off with my art (and life, for that matter), and being accountable for that, learning from those missteps, I try to also put some energy toward recognizing everything that I did right.

The choices, artistic and otherwise, that worked, shouldn't be the neglected good children. They deserve their gold stars as much as the failures deserve demerits, time wearing the dunce cap, and other corrective actions.  

Maybe the good was accidental -- the shaky brushstroke that made the eyes look real, the turn of phrase that evoked more than originally intended, the good decisions made for petty reasons. Celebrate the good anyway, and learn how to reproduce it deliberately. 

Bottom line, life and art are about showing up.  Keep squeezing paints onto the palette.  Keep getting lost in words.  Explore the process of art, rather than the product, and you won't be let down. You will instead be gifted with the perspective of the journey. 

The process allows you to learn more and more and make the choices that push you closer to being the person and artist you want to be. Plus, your artwork will get better because you will keep showing up at the blank page or the blank canvas and creating anew.

This might not net you the swimming pool, but the perfume of progress smells sweeter than chlorine. 

Up from the ashes grow the roses of success.

The Artful Mistakes theme song.

Saturday, November 12, 2011


acrylic on canvas
20 x 26

Friday, November 4, 2011

Touching Spiders

Today, I touched a spider. On purpose.

Specifically, I touched this spider:

Captain Daddy Long-Legs
He was a big Daddy, maybe 2-inches across with his impressive legs, lolling there on a sunny concrete ledge.

The reason I touched the spider is, in part, because of the ending of hysterical blog post over on Hyperbole and a Half.  Go ahead and read it right now.  I'll wait. 

[singing, humming, filing nails]

All done?  Great. 

So now you know that about the scariest thing she could think of to do was to touch a spider.

Solidarity, sister, I say.

Spiders have scared the snickers out of me since I was a little kid.  My mother spent a lot of time removing them from one corner of my room where they tended to lurk.  I took their presence personally, figuring that they knew they made me quiver, and so picked on me. Like dogs, they could sense my fear, and hunted me down. 

Bad Memory #1: After using a plastic bathroom cup to rinse my mouth out after brushing my teeth, I spit the foam out in the sink, and then saw a very large, hairy, wet, and downright angry looking spider trying to crawl back out of the sink. 

I still don't know if he got the dental swirl, but let's just say, I never used that cup again.  To this day, I cup my hands together to rinse my mouth when brushing my teeth.  There is no big cup in which big spiders may lounge about in in my bathroom.

Bad Memory #2: As a teenager, I remember waking up standing next to my light switch at the door to my room, the room ablaze, trying to piece together just how I got there.  Then it came to me, the image of spiders half a foot in diameter dangling down from the ceiling, webbing their way toward me. 

The only way I could talk myself back into sleeping was by realizing that, without my contact lenses, I couldn't see a spider that size that far away. 

I didn't find that comforting, since that didn't mean that gigantic spiders weren't up there, just that I couldn't see them.  I slept stifling myself with a spider-guard sheet tucked around my head.

Spiders, no matter how good they may be for your garden and removing other pests, freaked me out.  As a grownup, they still send me galloping off and announcing their presence in a high pitched voice when I encounter one. Spider! Spider! Spider!  That's usually followed by swatting at them with a shoe. 

However today, having just read about spiders and fear and invincibility, when I saw that big spider that appeared to be dead and possibly permanently affixed to the cement, well, I had to stop to take a picture at least. 

The first step to dealing with fear is to examine it closely. 

On observation, I noted that the radioactive mutant spider had 7 legs.  That meant that bad boy had a run in with something and lost a leg. 

Another uncomfortable childhood memory involves 2nd grade boys pulling the legs off daddy long legs until they could only push themselves around with one leg.  Then they pulled that last leg off and left the legless immobile body shaking there.

That's about when I realized human cruelty is real and arbitrary and starts very young. 

And I don't even like spiders.  But I digress.

Back to Big Daddy and his photo opportunity.  I took his picture and then figured, oh, what the heck.  Touch the spider. He's not even alive, so he's not, for instance, going to skitter up my arm and spit venom in my eye.

I tapped one leg.

And Big Daddy scampered right off on his lucky seven legs, not at all dead.

I scampered way off in the other direction down the path, totally grossed out and quietly thrilled. 

I touched a spider today.  On purpose.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Portrait Series

Tea & Sympathy
I've started working on a series of portraits.  This time, as opposed to painting people I know, I'm painting strangers, and in some ways, that's liberating. I don't feel any particular compunction to make them look like the real person (handy, since I haven't been terribly successful at realism anyway). 

The first painting, "Tea & Sympathy," ended up looking somewhat like my cousin. Perhaps we gravitate toward painting who we know whether we mean to or not.

I know I fall toward my fiction roots and spend time thinking about character, the made-up back story of subjects and how that changes as paintings evolve.

Bite Wounds

I have mixed feelings on the use of background words in "Bite Wounds." I may nix those. I wanted a contrast to the perky smile, some extension to the squint around her eyes, but I can't yet decide if the words add or subtract overall according to my own weird aesthetics. 

Obviously, I have a long way to go in terms of technical skill, among other things. What I envision in my mind is far from being represented on the canvas. 

But as always with Artful Mistakes, I focus on the process (the AM tag line: the process of arting).  And through that, I find that there are elements I like of both paintings, some currents of frailty and warmth mixing in with the paint.

Painting, creating something, learning more with each misstep -- these feel useful to me. 

Both paintings remain in process. I find more and more I understand why artists are often so at loathe to sign paintings. It's hard to sign something that you know you're going to keep tweaking, or possibly, completely renovate.