All images © Carol L. Douglas, Rochester, NY.
No reproduction or reuse permitted without
express consent of the artist.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Tide? What tide? Poppy Balser and I painted boats together.
Tide? What tide? Poppy Balser and I painted boats together.
Poppy Balser is a noted watercolorist from Digby, Nova Scotia. In addition to being a full-time artist, she’s a part-time pharmacist and a wife and mother of two kids. I admire her painting tremendously and looked forward to seeing her at Castine Plein Air again this year.
Yesterday we painted together and she told me a story. She dropped her kids at their grandparents’ house in St. Andrews, NB, and crossed the border at Calais, Maine. This crossing is routine for her.
Her interview with U.S. Customs and Border Protection started in the ordinary way. She told the inspector that she was coming into the US for a few days to paint in a plein air event and see friends. A second agent joined the first one and her car was searched. They found—unsurprisingly—art supplies and frames.
“How much money do you anticipate making?” they asked. The answer, not surprisingly, was in the very low thousands, not the six figures a Canadian performing artist might expect to earn on tour. Nevertheless, they shut her down.
Poppy's offending brushes in the sand.
Poppy’s offending brushes.
She was allowed to proceed with a serious warning. Yes, she can paint at Castine, but she cannot sell her artwork. Her passport has been flagged. If she sells here, either alone or through the non-profit organization, she will forfeit her ability to return to the United States.
I don’t think it was just Poppy’s earnest honesty that got her into hot water, because artists travel outside their home countries to paint, teach and study all the time. The biggest questions we normally face are about our materials, not our intentions. We understand that finished artwork is a commodity subject to tariff laws.
I painted in Canada last year and plan to do it again this fall. I hate the idea that I might be subject to the same hassles crossing our shared border.
Poppy’s newly-flagged passport is no small matter. It means that she will be routinely stopped by Border Control any time she crosses between Calais and St. Stephen and subjected to further interviews or denied access to the US altogether.
Earlier in the day, we discovered we'd both painted the lovely J. & E. Riggin as she left Castine. That's the Bowdoin in the background.
Earlier in the day, we discovered we’d both painted the lovely J. & E. Riggin as she left Castine. That’s the Bowdoin in the background.
For those readers who did not grow up along the Canadian-American border, it’s always been porous. My husband and I used to walk across the Peace Bridge into Ft. Erie, Ontario, on summer evenings. Canadians would, with equal casualness, cross the river to party or shop in Buffalo.
We didn’t need passports. Nobody was repeatedly harassed because they had a common name or had irritated an inspector at a different checkpoint.
If Poppy’s inspector was right and Canadians need work visas or special clearance to cross the border to paint, it’s a closely-held international secret. I could name several who are here in the US painting right now.
Purely for research purposes, I shared Poppy's Scotch Egg. It's my new favorite junk food.
Purely for research purposes, I shared Poppy’s Scotch Egg. It’s my new favorite junk food.
I suppose the government’s rationale is that they’re protecting American jobs. Yet millions of migrant workers have crossed our southern border to work illegally in this country. We lack either the will or the ability to stop them. But we somehow have the resources to prevent a mild-mannered pharmacist from bringing her brushes across from Canada.
Get a grip, Customs and Immigration. Protect us from Nickleback and Celine Dion, not the Poppy Balsers of this world.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

No side deals

"Ice Cream Parlor," 12X16, is one of three pieces sold at last night's show. The remaining four are on display at Jakeman Hall for the rest of the summer.
“Ice Cream Parlor,” 12X16, is one of three pieces sold at last night’s show. The remaining four are on display at Jakeman Hall for the rest of the summer.
A very nice Canadian lady contacted me about buying my painting of Ocean Park’s ice cream parlor. Art in the Park doesn’t permit advance sales. One can, however, leave one’s credit card information with the office and the organizers will make the purchase when the sale opens.
I explained this to her. “But why can’t I buy it directly from you?” she asked. “Why do I have to go through the Ocean Park Association and pay them a commission?”
My final paintings displayed at Ocean Park's Temple.
My final paintings, displayed at Ocean Park’s Temple.
Ocean Park, I told her, is an historic Chautauqua Assembly. The Ocean Park Association is the group responsible for its preservation, educational and cultural programming. They guard the special charm that makes Ocean Park a place people want to return to, summer after summer.
In addition, we artists couldn’t afford to paint there without the hospitality of residents who open their homes to us. The cost of a weekly rental would undo even the best art sales.
“I had no idea,” she answered.
To me, the work done by the non-profits who run plein air events is obvious: land preservation, historic preservation, arts education, community development, and more. But I work with these groups frequently. For someone who doesn’t, or someone from a country where they are funded in other ways, the importance of their fundraising may not be clear.
Anthony Watkins confers with budding driftwood artists.
Anthony Watkins confers with budding driftwood artists.
It was a sweet last day of painting. Anthony Watkins was so tired he was barely standing. Still, he took time to counsel some young admirers on how to paint on driftwood. “We’ll pay you 25% of our profits if you let us use your paints,” they offered.
He deflected them graciously. “The trouble is,” he said, “these are the wrong kind of paints. You need to go home and see if you can find some house paint.”
Russ Whitten and I painted right up to the bell. Not that we were tired, but he lost his painting and I forgot to photograph mine.
Russ Whitten and I painted right up to the bell. Not that we were tired, but he lost his painting and I forgot to photograph mine. (Photo courtesy of Pamela Corcoran)
Russ Whitten sat on a bench painting a delightful nocturne from memory. (Sadly, he managed to lose it between there and the Temple.) A group of developmentally disabled adults surrounded us, enjoying their ice cream under the maples.
The carillon pealed the mighty opening bells exactly at 5. Sales were good, and we finished promptly at 7:30. Some painters headed home to a well-deserved rest. Anthony and I, however, loaded our respective cars and turned north toward Castine Plein Air.
I was approaching Belfast when I realized I hadn’t eaten since morning. After a quick stop, I pulled back on the road. Ahead of me was an old SUV with Maine plates. Despite the late hour, its driver was being annoyingly punctilious about speed limits.
Castine dreamed under a full moon as I finally arrived.
Castine slept under a full moon.
“Maybe I should crawl up his bumper to goose him up,” I thought. As I drew close, the vehicle looked awfully familiar. Was that Anthony’s old truck? I’ll never know for sure, but I followed it almost to Castine. The village slept in the gentle glow of the full moon. My hosts had left the light on for me.
By the time you read this, I’ll be on Castine’s village green, greeting old friends, making new ones, and discussing where we plan to paint. In short, it’s the start of a new event. This is a peculiar life: unpredictable, peripatetic, and often exhausting. Still, it’s a beautiful one, and I wouldn’t change it for the world.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Far more fun than the convention

Come for the art show, stay for the full moon and balmy sea breezes.
Come for the art show, stay for the full moon and balmy sea breezes.
Today is wrap-up day at Ocean Park’s Art in the Park. The wet paint show and saleis tonight from 5 to 7 PM. If you’re in Portland or points south, it’s a short drive to 14 Temple Ave, Ocean Park.
It’s a Perfect 10 day. You’ll see fine artwork in a beautiful historic beach town and you can stroll downtown for an ice cream cone afterward. Above all, nobody will be talking about the Republican National Convention.
Tour-de-force painting of the shuffleboard sign by Russel Whitten. I'm sure he finished this as perfectly as he started it.
Tour-de-force painting of the shuffleboard sign by Russel Whitten, in progress.
For the artists, the last day of an event means finishing work, taking photos, framing and packing. If there’s time, we might even paint one more piece just for fun. For watercolorists and pastel artists, the added work is even more considerable, since they must frame under glass and mount their work on acid-free paper.
Our workbenches are any flat surfaces we can appropriate for a few minutes. I have the luxury of a picnic table and fine weather today, but there have been many times I’ve framed on the back deck of my little Prius.
I started my morning yesterday by finishing my ice cream parlor painting from Monday. Anthony Watkins and Ed Buonvecchio chose the same subject, so we held an impromptu salon under the maples at the corner of Temple and Grand. All three of us like talking about painting almost as much as we like doing it.
"Goosefare sunset," 10X8, Carol L. Douglas
“Goosefare sunset,” 10X8, Carol L. Douglas
An aspiring painter named Heidy sat down to watch me paint. When I realized she had her kit in her car, I suggested she paint with us in the afternoon. “You’ve chosen well, or badly,” I told her. “You’re surrounded by painting teachers.” It wasRussel Whitten who broke first and gave her an impromptu watercolor lesson.
Larry, Curly and Moe lost on a sand dune. That's really Anthony Watkins, Russ Whitten and Ed Buonvecchio.
Larry, Curly and Moe lost on a sand dune. (That’s really Anthony Watkins, Russ Whitten and Ed Buonvecchio.)
In addition to painting, Ed and I hawk Plein Air Painters of Maine to other painters. This totally-free association is a great resource. For most people, it’s important to have support and company in what is essentially a solitary pursuit.
"Curve on Goosefare Brook," 8X6, Carol L. Douglas.
“Curve on Goosefare Brook,” 8X6, Carol L. Douglas.
It’s not that common for event painters to move in a pack like we’ve been doing. I’ve really enjoyed it. For all our larking about, the work we’re turning out is of consistent high caliber. We’re all relaxed and having fun, and it shows in our work.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

What could possibly go wrong?

"Ocean Park Ice Cream Parlor," 12X16. I'm heading down to finish it this morning.
“Ocean Park Ice Cream Fountain,” 12X16. I’m heading down to finish it this morning.
Early yesterday I got a call from Ed Buonvecchio, who is painting at Ocean Park’sArt in the Park with me. He planned to paint along the railroad tracks on the road into town. I told him it sounded, frankly, awful. I’d find my own darn painting spot.
Ambling along Temple Avenue, I ran into Frank Gwalthney, who was walking purposefully up the street. “Could you let me into Jakeman Hall to sharpen my pencils?” I asked.
“I need to run down to the tracks first,” he responded. “I got a call that Ed’s car is too close to the tracks. He needs to move it before it gets hit by a train.”
"Rising Surf," 8X6, painted from the water side.
“Rising Surf,” 8X6, painted from the water side.
Happily, I can report that neither Ed nor his car was harmed, although he was close enough to the tracks that he seemed a little, well, stunned the rest of the day. I was so wrong about the subject. Ed’s painting is one of those rare things that make me think, “I wish I’d painted that.”
Art in the Park has been redesigned to be an invitational event with just five painters. This means we get to know our fellows much better than at the typical event, where 30 painters swarm across the landscape. I took my lunch break under a spreading maple with Christine Mathieu. Our paths have crossed over the years, but this was the first time we’ve ever really had a chance to talk.
The storm which rolled across Maine yesterday rumbled and threatened but eventually skipped over us. It arrived conveniently a few moments before our opening reception at Porter Hall. I enjoyed chatting with a woman who regularly reads my blog at home in St. Martins in the Caribbean.
Painting in the surf. I kept moving the easel toward shore whenever I felt it start slipping.
Painting in the surf. I kept moving the easel toward shore whenever I felt it start slipping.
In the evening I took a few minutes to jump into the sea. “Why not?” I asked myself as I pondered how gorgeous the surf always looks from the water side. The tide was rising, so I had to move my easel every few minutes, but painting from the water worked just fine—until I tried to get the salt-water out of my tripod. It’s carbon fiber, so it isn’t going to rust, but I’m worried about the fittings.
Russ Whitten, Ed Buonvecchio and I painting nocturnes at the end of the day.
Russ Whitten, Ed Buonvecchio and I painted nocturnes at the end of the day.
We ended the day at the Temple, where Ed, Russel Whitten and I set up perilously late to paint a nocturne. (It helps if you do the drawing when it’s still light.) This was a little hard on Russ, whose watercolor paper wasn’t drying in the night air, and who has to “dance backwards,” leaving openings for the light areas instead of painting them in at the end.
The Temple, unfinished. I'll finish it tonight.
The Temple, unfinished. I’ll finish it tonight.
The three of us grumbled and laughed about the absurdity of what we were doing but in the end we all turned out respectable attempts. Fourteen hours after we’d started working we folded up for the night. Today we do it again. It’s a fascinating life, although sometimes it’s grueling as well.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Augmented reality

Rachel Carson sunset, 10X8, oil on canvas
Rachel Carson sunset, 10X8, oil on canvas
Pok√©mon Go has taken my family by storm. It has its critics, but I love the way it blurs the lines between reality and fantasy. They call this “augmented reality,” and I’m all for it. After all, augmented reality is what we artists are supposed to be all about.
I left home yesterday to start seven days of augmenting reality the old-fashioned way: with a brush. Until Wednesday, I’ll be in Ocean Park, ME’s Art in the Park.  On Wednesday I decamp to Castine Plein Air.
That's one full car.
That’s one full car.
While I’m only likely to paint ten paintings over the week, I can’t say for sure what sizes they’ll be, or in what colors, or even what subjects I’ll choose. I have a larger-than-usual assortment of frames and boards with me, plus clothes, paints and tools. My little Prius seems packed for any eventuality, but I still managed to spill ketchup on my one good shirt yesterday.
Ocean Park was founded in 1881 as a Free Will Baptist Chautauqua. It still functions as a Chautaqua Assembly 135 years later. Its grounds are graced with a series of lovely meeting spaces in the classic Camp Meeting style of the last century.
A duck family wandered through my scene.
A duck family wandered through my scene.
I arrived at Porter Hall just a few minutes past the arrival time, and was actually the last expected artist to check in. My hosts are Ocean Park’s Education Committee Chairman Frank Gwalthney and his wife Helen. Although I’ve known them only for a year, they seem like old friends.
We sat and chatted until the sun started dropping. I went to Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge’s Goosefare Brook trail to paint while Helen went to the Temple to see PORTopera present Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Medium. That’s the Chautauqua experience in a nutshell: a whole lot of culture packed into a place of profound tranquility.
Fog moving in.
The fog dropped like a curtain across our view.
Ed Buonvecchio joined me at the mudflats. We worked fast against the sunset. Because I was looking directly west, I painted with my sunglasses on until the sun dropped below the trees. Then I put them on top of my head, only to accidentally shake them off over the bridge embankment.
Yesterday’s lesson was that climbing over guardrails and down concrete ledges was much easier 20 years ago. Nevertheless, I need those glasses. I managed to retrieve them without landing in Goosefare Brook, and decided that henceforth I’ll stash them in their case, not on my head.
The end of the road for painting last night.
The end of the road for painting last night.
A few minutes later, a thick fog started so swirl around us. It came up so fast and thick that I could do nothing but pack up and grope my way back to my car. Redolent of the sea, it was beautiful, soft and cool. And it’s here this morning, so my ideas for today’s first painting have changed just a little.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Thrown out of better places

Very unfinished sketch across to Cold Storage Road in Port Clyde.
Very unfinished sketch across to Cold Storage Road in Port Clyde. Yes, the light was pretty dismal.
The Maine waterfront works for a living, and that’s one of the reasons it’s so interesting. The lobster traps and buoys stacked on piers, and the dories and dinghies tied to floating docks are the tools of someone’s trade. In general, I’ve found that I get along fine with working fishermen as long as I don’t trespass on their property.
PAPME’s northern chapter met at Port Clyde yesterday. This place is a special case. Parking is restricted because property owners understandably don’t want the Monhegan Boat Line’s customers leaving their cars parked all over the village.
This would probably have been my subject off Horse Point Road.
This would probably have been my subject off Horse Point Road.
Marshall Point Lighthouse has visitor parking, but it’s too far from the village to paint the harbor. I arranged to meet Bobbi Heath and Renee Lammers on the co-op’s road instead, where we planned to paint on the verge.
Renee knew another site, off Horse Point Road, which had a fine view of Raspberry Island. This spot was just magical. While Renee photographed a dory, Bobbi and I looked at an outstanding fleet of wooden lobster boats. We were about to start painting when a lobsterman came ashore. “Ladies,” he started, and the next minute we were leaving.
There's a beautiful fleet of wooden lobster boats out of Port Clyde.
There’s a beautiful fleet of wooden lobster boats out of Port Clyde.
We drove back to our first site and our first ideas. Cars were parked on this road because there is a community playground at the corner. I figured we were safe enough in joining them.
By this time it was raining fitfully. The wind was too high for umbrellas, so we just took cover during the wet times.  Bobbi took a compass reading for me and I calculated where the light would be if it ever came up. I guessed wrong. When the sky briefly cleared in the afternoon, I realized I had built the light patterns backwards.
Yes, there were interruptions.
Yes, there were interruptions. (Photo courtesy of Bobbi Heath)
Meanwhile, our friends had been driven off Marshall Point by the wind, and a few of them joined us. I wasn’t paying that much attention until the property owner drove by. “How would you like it if I came to your house and painted all over your front lawn?” he asked. His driveway was completely parked in.
No summer squash to be had anywhere.
No summer squash to be had anywhere.
Well, in fact, I wouldn’t mind, but I did see his point. He couldn’t use his own driveway. Painters are generally polite people, so my pals quickly folded up and left.
Neither Bobbi nor I were in fact on his lawn, so I felt fine staying where I was. However, any magic there had been had faded in the ringing of his words. I took a few more swipes at my unfinished canvas. Then I too folded my tent and headed home.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Asian with a twist

Carpentry with one's brother involves lots of second-guessing. (Photo by Sandy Quang)
Carpentry with one’s brother involves lots of second-guessing. (Photo by Sandy Quang)
My studio is in a retail area on Route 1, but I’m also less than three miles away from Camden Falls Gallery. To sell from my studio would violate my non-compete agreement.
A few weeks ago, Howard Gallagher, CFG’s owner, told me he thought it would be a good idea for me to keep hours in my studio. That opened the door to a mini-gallery of sorts.
Unfortunately, my studio is too beautiful to convert to a store. It has natural-finish shiplap walls, large sliding glass doors, and radiant heat in the poured concrete floor. I don’t want to damage the woodwork, and I don’t want permanent display walls. These are almost insurmountable limitations in designing a display system.
Practicing my "open" sign.
Somehow, my “open” sign looks backwards.
For those few areas where there are uninterrupted walls, I ordered a STAS cliprail system. This will let me rearrange paintings without constantly pounding nails into the woodwork. There are only about 20 running feet of wall space in the studio however. That means I will need additional display walls. However, I want to take them away when the season ends, so I don’t want to attach them permanently to the room.
I had an idea for the panels, but no way to attach them to the open beams. Then my brother Robert showed up. We toddled down to the lumber yard together. Between us, we figured out how to make a false moulding set off from the beam with spacers. It required just six wood screws set into the beam, and it is solid as a rock.
It will be interesting to see if this works.
It will be interesting to see if this works.
Both of us are decent craftsmen, but neither of us totally trusts the other. I surreptitiously checked his angle measurement on the ceiling. After I set the spacing for the screws, I noticed he came back and double-checked them.
“Measure twice and cut once,” I told my son.
“Measure once and re-check everything your sister does,” my brother told him.
What is particularly painful about this is that I had a set of booth walls that I finally got rid of last December, after having stored them in my garage for years. They served me well, but I just didn’t need them anymore.
The panels hanging in place. They're pegged at the top, and can come down and be stored.
The panels hanging in place. They’re pegged at the top, and can come down and be stored.
We finished before dinner and the panels actually looked better than I expected.
“It looks kind of Asian,” I mused.
“In a Home Depot kind of way,” responded my nephew.
True, but really not that bad.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Road with a view

A million quiet moments of beauty are in every vista. (Photo by Sandy Quang)
A million quiet moments of beauty are in every vista. (Photo by Sandy Quang)
One of the tasks of a plein air painting teacher is to locate painting sites. Not only must they have good subject matter, but they must be safe, have sufficient parking, and give access to a bathroom or a quiet stretch of shrubbery. They should be easily accessible to people coming from a wide range of places. Some of my favorites are on the St. George Peninsula.
After being surprised by the overgrowth at Glen Cove a few weeks ago, I decided I should reconnoiter more. Even that doesn’t always work. When I got to Spruce Head yesterday, a bucket truck was parked where I’d hoped to teach, doing something to the power lines. No matter. A little farther along there was ample parking and a different view.
Yesterday's view from the causeway at Spruce Head. (Photo by Sandy Quang)
Yesterday’s view from the causeway at Spruce Head. (Photo by Sandy Quang)
Back in the day, studios at the Art Students League were jammed full of students, to a degree non-New Yorkers would never accept. Needless to say, not everyone had a “good view.” We were expected to make the most of what we had. It was very good training in finding the sublime anywhere.
In general, if you can’t find something to paint, it’s your mind that need adjusting, not the view. That’s not to say that it’s not easier in Maine, where every twist in the road brings something new. But there are many levels of beauty in every scene.
Yesterday, my students all painted variations of a dinghy at rest on the mud flats. It was an easily accessible composition, and it’s what I would have painted. But sometimes when you’re sitting quietly in nature, other things begin to vie with your attention—a rock formation, the shadows formed by a dock. For me, that usually happens about halfway through a painting, when I realize I’m actually more interested in something completely different from where I started.
A heron flew in to fish in the shallows. He spent the whole morning with us.
I currently have three students painting in water-based media. For the teacher, having both oils and watercolor in your class requires turning your brain inside out repeatedly, for the basic way you see and work—light vs. dark—is reversed between them.
Sheryl Cassibry and I did this little watercolor sketch together, as a way of exploring how the medium works.
Sheryl Cassibry and I did this little watercolor sketch together, as a way of exploring how the medium works.
Sheryl Cassibry and I did a joint watercolor painting in my sketchbook last week. We took turns painting on it. It was a fun way to explore how the medium works.
My Southern readers will laugh, but even out on Spruce Head, it was just too hot to paint. My car thermometer read 79° F. as I drove back to Rockport. I’m not acclimated to any kind of heat, and standing out in the blazing sun with a strong on-shore breeze, I got a terrific headache.
It wasn’t just me, either. Renee Lammers told me later that it was too hot to paint in Stonington, too. “I think I need a cooling vest,” she said. Maybe she’ll invent one.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Looking backward


"Delaware Water Gap," 12X9, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas
“Delaware Water Gap,” 12X9, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas
I used to commute from Rochester to New York City once a week, a round trip of about 700 miles. The fastest route between the two ends of New York is actually through Pennsylvania and New Jersey. This takes you through the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area.
A water gap is where an old river cuts through a mountain ridge. My college-age kid tells me that about 400 million years ago, a microcontinent called Avalonia collided with proto-North America. This heated and cracked the quartz in the Shawangunk Ridge, which allowed the Delaware River to slowly cut its path through the mountains as they rose. Or something like that.
“Lower Falls at Letchworth,” 18×24, oil on canvas. It took me a whole summer to finish two paintings but at the end I understood how I wanted to simplify the rock forms.
“Lower Falls at Letchworth,” 18×24, oil on canvas. It took me a whole summer to finish two paintings but at the end I understood how I wanted to simplify the rock forms.
The whole idea sounds about as plausible to me as fairies, but there is no question that the Delaware Water Gap is a beautiful jumble of massive rock folds and towering greenery through which the river glides in cool, reserved majesty.
I frequently stopped there to rest; occasionally I painted. One of those paintings, above, is on my website, but I haven’t thought about it for years. Sunday I received an email inquiry about it. Yesterday a woman from Minnesota purchased it. I don’t know her attachment to the Water Gap, but I hope she has the joy of owning it that I had in painting it.
“Upper Falls at Letchworth,” 18×24, oil on canvas.
“Upper Falls at Letchworth,” 18×24, oil on canvas.
We all end up with good work in our storerooms that we’ve moved beyond. I think particularly of a pair of paintings of Letchworth Gorge that I spent nearly a whole summer on. I consider them among my best landscape paintings. It was in painting them that I learned how to abstract the natural form. However, they are very different from my current work and thus difficult to show.
“Buffalo Grain Elevators,” oil and cold wax medium. This was the culmination of a period of tinkering with surfaces to imply the decay of cities like Buffalo.
“Buffalo Grain Elevators,” oil and cold wax medium. This was the culmination of a period of tinkering with surfaces to describe the age of cities like Buffalo.
There is no expiration date on good work. But we frequently set it aside because its problems no longer interest us. That is a mistake, I think. Old work deserves to be revisited.
Sometimes its strength surprises me. At other times, it’s actually more consistent with my current work than I remembered. But beyond that, what no longer occupies your thoughts on a technical level may still bring great joy to others.

Monday, July 11, 2016

The chattering classes


"War and intimations of war," by Carol L. Douglas, 2001
“War and intimations of war,” by Carol L. Douglas, 2001
Lack of solitude has interrupted my work over the last week. Creativity is a singular process, and too much interaction—even when you love your visitors—is hard on your work. My Mainer friends tell me this is an occupational hazard of living on the coast. After two seasons I understand. But social encroachment takes many forms. Physical contact is only one.
Auberon Waugh coined the phrase “chattering classes” to refer to the politically active, highly-educated urban middle class. While the term is peculiarly British, the concept is not.
Social media has been a very useful invention in my line of work, which one could describe as “self-appointed expert.” In the past, we had to convince an editor of our brilliance and relevance before they would let us opine in print. Now their role as arbiters has withered away. In some ways it’s a pity, since a good editor stops a person from looking like a damn fool.
Older people like me are still daily readers of news. This is an engrained habit. The newspaper was in the kitchen at breakfast and the television wasn’t. Growing up, my local paper (the Buffalo Evening News) was dignified, measured, literate and informative. It shaped my understanding of writing, certainly, but also of reading.
Concurrent with the decline of newspapering has come a rise in public cynicism.Almost nobody believes that the Fourth Estate is independent or accurate. I’m not innocent of this; I too have media sources I don’t trust. But I’m not sure where a culture goes when it can no longer rely on facts.
It was this past weekend’s horrible violence that finally tipped me into paralysis. No responsible citizen can watch a series of public executions and not be moved by them. However, the hardest part was looking at Facebook. Crisis exposes social media’s fatal flaw, as the chattering classes rush to judgment and normally-intelligent people engage in the blame game.
A number of my friends have pointed out the similarities between the Current Crisis and 1968. Let me point out a few of the differences. In 1968, we were a nation of middle-class values. These acted like a giant counterweight to extremism. In 1968, we hadn’t become as profoundly cynical about the ruling classes.
We live in perilous times. When you’re sitting on a tinderbox, it behooves you to speak peace, not war.
The wheels of justice turn slowly, but grind exceedingly fine. The wheels of public opinion jump to conclusions and then warp the facts to meet their preconceived ideas. I need social media, but at times it drives me nuts.

Friday, July 8, 2016

The Sketchbook Wars


Pastor Alvin Parris listening to the sermon.
Pastor Alvin Parris listening to a sermon.
This week my student noticed that she seemed to be seeing things differently since she started to draw. That is because drawing changes how the brain works, as surely as studying music or language does. This is neuroplasticity in action, and it’s a power you can use for good or evil. Only you control whether you make good choices, like art, or bad ones, like using drugs.
Before the invention of the camera, people in many different fields were expected to understand how to draw. The visual image was almost as important for communication as were words. Nobody had the luxury of saying, “I can’t draw a straight line,” or “I’m not talented.” Drawing was too important to leave to a few anointed geniuses.
An ear of someone sitting nearby. Most of my sketches are pretty fast, since people shift around in church.
Most of my sketches are pretty fast, since people shift around in church.
That’s why I love this recent story in Scientific American. Dr. Jennifer Landin of North Carolina State University expects and gets beautiful drawings from her biology students. “Drawing is merely making lines and dots on paper. If you can write your name, you can draw,” she wrote. “But we all take shortcuts when we see; often our brains fool us, and we skip over most visual details.”
As I noted Wednesday, kids draw all the way through childhood until they reach adolescence. Personally, I think art is how they process the amazing changes their young brains are experiencing. Why most kids quit drawing is not well-studied, but cultural factors play a part. Not only do we devalue the arts in our culture, but we believe that only people with talent (whatever that is) can do them. As Dr. Landin so wonderfully demonstrated, talent is mostly about doing the work.
Coat thrown over a chair.
Coat thrown over a chair. You get to draw this a lot in the Northeast.
I always encourage people—and especially children—to carry sketchbooks around with them. Ten minutes in the doctor’s waiting room is far more productive when you surreptitiously draw the person across from you than when you leaf through last year’s People magazine.
I sketch in church because I’m someone who processes words better when my hands are busy. I’m not alone in that; it’s why so many people knit.
But try applying that principle to ADHD kids in school and you get into major trouble. My son needed the distraction of drawing when asked to sit for hours on end. His school absolutely forbade it. Letting him draw would break down discipline in the classroom. Their answer was drugs or a special school for troubled kids. As you can imagine, his school career was one long, unpleasant skirmish.
Don't ask me what those words mean.
Don’t ask me what those words mean.
He graduated by the skin of his teeth. Now that he’s in college, where he is in charge of his own actions, he’s on the Honor Roll.
An art teacher friend of mine told me that the only time her kid ever got in trouble was for drawing in class. It was one of the issues that motivated her to move to another district. If she, a respected professional, couldn’t get the administration to understand the value of drawing, who could?
“Real life isn’t neatly divided by subject,” wrote Dr. Landin. Educators would do well to remember that.