Paint Schoodic

We had another successful painting workshop at the Schoodic Institute in beautiful Acadia National Park. Join us in 2018!

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Prairie madness

Little Giant (North End Ship Yard), 16X12, oil on canvas, Carol L. Douglas
 As I write this, the temperature is 9° F. That’s not exactly balmy, end-of-March weather. The wind blew steadily yesterday and into the night. It was a cutting wind, and it roared and thrummed in the woods behind my house. “It’s driving me nuts,” I told my husband.

“An alarming amount of insanity occurs in the new prairie States among farmers and their wives,” wrote EV Smalley in 1893. He blamed the isolation.

An unexpected snow squall cut visibility in the morning, Photo courtesy of Sarah Wardman.
Novelist Willa Cather blamed the wind. “Insanity and suicide are very common things on the Divide,” she wrote. “They come on like an epidemic in the hot wind season. Those scorching dusty winds that blow up over the bluffs from Kansas seem to dry up the blood in men’s veins as they do the sap in the corn leaves… It causes no great sensation there when a Dane is found swinging to his own windmill tower, and most of the Poles when they have become too careless and discouraged to shave themselves keep their razors to cut their throats with.”

This phenomenon, called “prairie fever” or “prairie madness” lasted throughout the late 19th century. Bitter cold winters combined with short hot summers to make life exceedingly difficult on the northern Plains. Sociologists say prairie madness vanished when settlements became more populous and the barriers of language no longer divided immigrants. But since more than one in ten Americans take anti-depressants, methinks prairie madness just moved indoors.

American writers often used the ocean as a metaphor to describe the prairies. Both are enormous, seemingly empty, and yet bountiful. Having painted both, I see and feel the similarities.

Winch (American Eagle), Carol L. Douglas. Same site, warmer day.
In either place, wind—on a practical level—makes my work difficult. That’s why I jumped at the opportunity to paint from the shipyard office. I’ve never done that before; it seems unsporting, somehow, to be warm and comfortable while painting snow.

Schooners attract a kind of romantic, well-read crew, and their patter is unlike most shop talk. It is larded with history and geography, and firmly grounded in sailing.

There were frequent references to The Shipping News, which I first took to mean Annie Proulx’ Pulitzer-winning novel. Soon I realized that they were talking about the literal shipping news: the 1907 lists of boats with their hauls of pineapples, animal hides and other perishable crops, moving up and down the Americas.

Little Giant, on a sunnier day.
An unpredicted snow squall rose, scuppering the captains’ plans to work on the marine railroad. The schooners themselves are still shrouded in their winter framework of plastic and plywood. For the romantic fancier of boats, a crane might seem a strange subject. However, this painting does record a true relationship, that between cranes and boats with masts. At any rate, my two-year-old grandson will think it’s the best thing I’ve ever painted.

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