Independence Day

little Woodstock
little Woodstock

How did you celebrate your independence?  I cut myself free of my everyday life and went on a trip back in time, and due west  in space.   I went to beautiful Black Mountain, NC.  After locating an old friend on the web,and a 35 year absence from the annual July 4th celebration in Black Mountain, my name was once again on the guest list.

I have dim memories of a communal effort to make pounds and pounds of cole slaw some 35 years ago on July 4th in the old location of this party– The White House.  I remember our young faces, and the good feeling I always had being with this group of people. It meant a lot to me  to be joining them again for the celebration.

Nowadays we look substantially different from our 20-something incarnations, but the spirit is the same.  I really do believe our young selves are still alive, wrapped inside our current selves.  The girl is not gone– she is at the core of the woman.   The humor was just as loving and gentle and knowing as I remember it.  The friendships have held true among this large group of people, and the thread that connects me to them is as strong as if I had nurtured it.  They are of such a loyal and inclusive stripe that I was, even in long absence, at least a little bit present, it seems.

Just like long ago, I still enjoy the quick wit, the practicality, the earthiness and the loving hearts of my Black Mountain friends.  And they really know how to throw a party.  Their fourth was conceived of as a three day affair, in a big open field in the valley, beside the Swannanoa River.  Sobol, Sneed and Allison masterminded a projection screen for movies, a volleyball net, a pond for swimming, and an bunch of barrels for their own unique sport: gocart bowling.  There was a grill, lovingly tended by  Pate, covered in pork coated with a secret barbecue sauce he’d imported  from Alabama which was, I swear, magical.  The Barbecue Brain Trust of Black Mountain has apparently spent years attempting to decode the recipe, but it cannot be done. Sneed says Thomas has Pate bring him a gallon each year which he hides away.  Sneed  is  pictured on this year’s White House tee shirt, and Patty, his  wife organized the Eleanor Roosevelt luncheon for the ladies as well as the tee shirt production and  marketing.

These people, the souls  of hospitality,  erected a huge tent and a smaller tent, brought in a refrigerator to hold the food, and must have shopped for days.  I can’t begin to list all  that went into this amazing extravaganza.  But there was barbecue, corn, marinated cucumbers, savory baked beans, and slaw, so lovingly prepared they’d make you swoon.  And at the same time, we enjoyed live bluegrass music,  a bonfire, kids chasing each other, 80 year olds dancing, tiny babies  being cuddled and old friends’ memories ( or lies).  And this was the 36th time they’ve done this for 100 of their closest friends.

One of the best parts
One of the best parts.

That night I got to sleep at Patty and Sneed’s with the window open, beside a creek that rushed through my dreams all night.  In the wee hours when it started to rain the noises were even more beautiful.  In the morning my last view was of small fat white clouds breaking up against the blue green mountains.  It was really hard to point my car east and slip back down that mountain.

In Praise of June

photography by Mike Carroll
photography by Mike Carroll

July is brand new but it’s hard for me to let go of June in Carolina.  It’s the month I wait for all year… roses, lightning bugs, tomatoes, yellow sun, swimming, painting all day.

The other night I woke up and opened the window.  The night sounds that burst into the room  made me stop mid-motion, holding onto the window frame, my mouth open in sleepy enchantment.  There was, surrounding my house, a web of sound,  an intricate woven form with nubs, holes and rhythms.

To capture the best of the Carolina June day I’ve been getting up at six and going straight to the garden where I’m learning, for the first time, to grow things.  The garden is around what we call “the ruin”.  The ruin is a couple of standing walls from a mostly destroyed building my grandmother called the Jar Room.  I presume that she stored her preserves in it. Perhaps the day’s milking was also kept there, since it had a concrete floor.  When I was little it was a handsome building, made of creek sand, mortar, and local rocks combined into a kind of peach-colored stucco.  It had a hip roof of standing seam tin, and handmade doors.

I am creating a kind of patio area, enclosed by the remaining walls.  It’s been a lot of fun, learning a little masonry in order to patch the crumbling places. From my grandmother’s old cast iron wash pot we made a pool, and water splashes into it from an old discarded spout removed from the general store’s  kerosene pump. The ruin is becoming a space that is quirky and imaginative.

In the cool morning I water the rose bushes my son David planted for me, and work on building a low rock wall to surround my kitchen garden.  Perhaps the best part about this experiment is the chance it creates for me to enjoy my mother’s gardening wisdom.  She is, I’m finding, an encyclopedia of knowledge about plants and gardens.  We have a new subject to discuss.  And, for once, I’m taking all her advice.

In the studio I’m working on a lavishly composed and wildly colorful painting of flowers that grow in Kim’s breathtaking flower bed.  My sister-in-law grows about a quarter acre of flowers in deep beds of great soil.  I’m painting a lily that is 5 feet tall with many blossoms on it, each larger than a man’s hand.  I reverted from oil back to acrylic paint for this piece because I wanted its sharp edges and the variety of colors I have access to.  I knew this painting called for the quinacridone reds, magentas and burnt oranges that are in my acrylic palette.  There were a few awkward moments as I began the painting when I tried to remember the difference in media and shift my mode of handling. But the years of acrylic practice came back to me quickly.

In the early hours of the day I can work in the studio with just the ceiling fan on and the door and windows open.  To conserve energy I’m trying to use air conditioning as little as possible.  I’ve even taken to hanging my wash on the line.  All this was inspired by a program I saw on PBS about energy.  They showed a huge pile of coal sitting on a house lawn and said that was how much coal had to be burned to generate enough electricity to run a light bulb   for a couple of hours.  I was shocked to think of energy in those terms, and the polluting outcome of even a little bit of wastefulness.   I recommitted to turning things off, to being responsible for less wasted energy and more protective of my earthly home.  And to my June sense memories I get to add the clean tree smell of my line-dried clothes.

Painting water, eating corn

My brother Grier. Photograph by Mike Carroll
My brother Grier. Photograph by Mike Carroll

Today I’m painting the swirling patterns in a creek bed.  The last time I actually looked at those patterns was back in March, so at this point they are no longer observational, but instead an abstraction meant to create a mood in the viewer—the mood you’d find yourself in if you were standing in a voluptuous body of water and it moved around you in small surges and eddies.  And the sun was beaming down on it to add hypnotic patterns all around.  That’s some pretty vaunted prose for what I actually turn around and see on the canvas.  There is much to be done to make it do what I want it to.  My son, Gordon, is particularly fond of this painting because it explores some of my “weirder” ideas and pretty much walks off and leaves reality behind.  Paintings like this are more fun to paint.  I long ago became bored with the landscape reproduced as it most often is:   technically predictable,  aping reality.  All those paintings look like they’re by the same artist.   They’re missing the weirdness.  They lack the intensity of a real relationship to what one sees.

Background music for painting swirling water patterns:Etta James.  Especially the sulky ones with attitude.  I guess that pretty much means all of them. And Herbie Hancock, triggering the brain, surging and eddying as he does.

So that is what constitutes this day, along with the newsworthy arrival of the first ripe tomatoes from the farm, and the first of the amazing corn my brother grows and my sister-in-law sells at the Bradford Store.  Tonight there will be the classic summer feast to celebrate this moment in the cycle of things.  I will soon be missing the fresh spinach, cabbage and  lettuces, but they will be replaced by the mid summer tomatoes, corn and cantaloupe, and they in turn by the fall flavors.

Late afternoon I’ll be cleaning out the debris around the foundation of the smokehouse so my brother can clear it up with a loader and a carpenter can look at it for repairs.  The smokehouse is currently supported by the walnut tree it leans against.  We may set it right.  Life on the edge…

Camping Trip

unpacking

I’m just back from a flying camping trip to the Asheville area.  Last night I sat by  a river reading until all the daylight was gone.  This morning I woke up in my dew covered tent the moment the sun appeared.  The day started with a walk around a lake.  The lake was nearly covered with blooming pink waterlilies.  In the small spaces where the lilies didn’t grow Canada Geese swam with their young.  The goslings had such an attitude–like any teenager– I know what I’m doing.  Back off.  I don’t need you.  Or maybe that was just my perception.  I was on a trip to take my youngest to orientation for college.  That was certainly the attitude in my home and in my car over the course of the last few days/weeks/months.  I could just feel it in the body language of the goslings.  Such insouciance.

The day before, I had removed the thorn from my side, dropping him off at college.  Feeling a good deal lighter, I treated myself to a trip back in time.  I embarked on my own little excursion,  to places where I had friends and happy times when I was in college.  It was a lovely, tender experience seeing those places through my older eyes.  Though much had changed there was, about those places, the same important quality of light, of freshness in the air.  The tree canopy is so huge and never-ending there that the air is always fresh. The air and the wildflowers are perhaps the best characteristics of that place.  At a stoplight a dragonfly landed on my windshield that was the biggest one I’d ever seen– probably 6 inch wingspan.  My immediate thought was “helicopter on the windshield”.

Among the highlights of my little journey was a trip through the Blue Spiral Gallery.  I am always inspired by my trips through the Blue Spiral.  It is a destination as rich as any museum.  Today’s experience was a book-makers exhibition.  White gloves were provided for the viewer, so one could leaf through the complex volumes.  I was mesmerized by the craftsmanship, the raw edgy imagination in evidence.  I felt fed by what I saw in The Blue Spiral.  It was a feast—three stories of wonderful art.  I always stop to look at the work by Will Henry Stevens, who  seems like our native John Marin, his eyes as captivated by the North Carolina landscape as my own.

summer rituals

low fire porcelain-- work in progress
low fire porcelain– work in progress

The pattern of summer days is finally falling into place. Once the school year is over it takes me a few fretful days to find my place in such freedom. I’ve closed my classroom and come home to clean out my studio, readying it for long summer days of work. Next comes a difficult day or two of wheel-spinning. I’ve done this through enough seasonal cycles that I’ve learned the ways to trick myself into the change. Get up early. Get some exercise to lift the spirits and focus the mind. If starved for inspiration, a walk in nature helps. Then head to the studio. I wind my way through the morning doing whatever painter’s chore needs doing. Yesterday that was creating dark green areas of negative space between plants I was painting. Today it was building the rough form, in clay, of a magnolia blossom I took from a neighbor’s tree. The one I took two weeks ago is thoroughly and commitedly dead, in its own lovely, peculiar way.

Lunch time means tomatoes on crusty bread with mayonnaise that true North Carolina natives love—Duke’s. You can tell you’re in the home of a transplant if they produce mayo of any other brand. I have a few friends who love to cook as much as I do, and we all feel compelled to tweek the southern tomato sandwich. We add arugula. We plop on the goat cheese. But you will still find Duke’s as the mortar that holds that experience together. I’ve been using the tomato sandwich ritual for so many years to announce the presence of summer and life as a full-time artist that on these first days of summer I get out the ingredients even though the local tomatoes are not yet ripe. I eat the communion food of summer even though it’s not quite the real thing yet. At least it still has Duke’s at its core.

Today after lunch I started a small painting of the dead magnolia blossom. Its petals litter the floor and are as brown as tanned leather. Its leaves have become a lovely nut brown, and pollen peppers them.

the kitchen

kitchen

A couple of months ago I moved an easel into my kitchen. It seemed like I would get more work done in the evenings if my easel was in a cozy comfortable place. Sometimes, like a child, I don’t want to walk out across the dark yard to go to my studio. I want to stay in the warm light of the kitchen. This kitchen was first the domain of my great-grandmother and then my grandmother. I remember sitting in its warm light as a child, on top of a phone book, so I could reach the table. I also remember occupying the family high chair, made long ago by a man we know was named Milas Potts. He was an African American craftsman, his skill the best explanation for why children still sit in that chair. It is oak, and its seat is oak, hand split and woven. And the places where little feet go are worn into the curve of Cupid’s bow. I remember falling backwards while seated in that chair. I must have pushed myself stubbornly away from the table. Back then there was an old clock that sat on a shelf above the kitchen table with a handy kerosene lamp beside it. The clock made a calming background sound that was the meter of the evenings. All this makes me realize my kitchen is dense with association. Now it is also dense with spilled paint on the floor, and carelessly disposed pots and pans. I skip the clean up sometimes to get to the painting, with so little time before bed. The painting this week is vertical. It’s a group of river birch tree trunks, peeling, pastel, complicated, against the green of the woods behind them. It’s a vignette from a subdivision landscape so it seems like cheating. The plants aren’t native. The scene is not venerable. It’s just wildly textured and patterned, and thus it drew me in.

These days I’m working with unaccustomed materials—for the first time in my adult life, oil paint. It’s very different from the acrylics I’ve used for the last 15 years. I miss the wild chemically derived colors in my acrylic palette. There are certain subtle undertones of hue, nearly invisible, that I’m sure can’t be duplicated with my oil paints. But I love the sensuality of the oils, thick, slow to move, grooved by the hairs of the brush. I can almost feel the intersection of two areas of color like a field of conflict.

So in the kitchen, as the night falls, I’m trying to keep the cobalt and cadmium out of my ice cream, so close at hand, and trying to keep the floor from looking even crazier than 150 years of foot traffic has already made it. Then I notice the tread from my shoe reproduced on heart pine in titanium white. Maybe I can find some way to use that…

This photograph was taken by a wonderful photographer, Mike Carroll, last summer.  He spent a day at the farm capturing the light, color and texture of life here.

Introduction

swan1

One day it hit me.  I’d been playing with the idea of writing another book.  Friends who had listened to my stories urged me to continue spinning tales.  I couldn’t make peace, though, with the amount of time and energy and luck it would take to have another book come to light.  Instead of painting and living a life worth writing about, I imagined myself assembling and posting countless manuscripts to the offices of disinterested publishers where they’d languish in a pile until someone had the time to send the rejection.  Precious days of introspection and paint-pushing, quiet hours in nature, would be lost to futile stamp-licking and  failure.

Then, my light bulb moment arrived.  I could write the unending book.   No stamps or rejection notices required.   By adding a blogging  element to my website I could launch an experiment that would chronicle my experiences and observations as an artist, a naturalist, and a woman.  I imagined it beginning as a monologue, but hoped for the good fortune of future dialogue, people responding with their own wisdom, as they have to the writing I’ve done in the past.  So, at this liminal moment in time, when our technology has exponentially outstripped our imaginative uses for it, I see this as the New Book.  All it lacks is a brutal editor and a foreseeable ending.

As with  all the best experiences in life, when one leaps out into the unknown, I wonder what this will bring and how it will evolve.  Perhaps it will be a novel, perhaps a memoir.  I’m sure, like my paintings, it will show me what it needs to be.