Sometimes paintings magically work the first time I put them down. More often I have to try and try again. In the case of Phyllis, I painted about a dozen versions before I got it right.
Phyllis started out as an image of a kid walking on Cadillac Mountain. I painted it at home, before my artist-in-residency at the Deer Isle Artists Association gallery.
I liked it well enough, but it wasn’t quite what I was getting at. The vegetation seemed a little overworked, the figure was a little stiff, the feeling it elicited wasn’t exactly awe at Cadillac’s majesty and all that.
I tried painting three adults at the edge of the painting.
Nope, that didn’t do it for me either. I liked the image of the woman, but again the vegetation looked overworked.
So I shifted gears and painted a panoramic view of Frenchman Bay from Cadillac Mountain. All of these paintings were adapted from a couple dozen photos I took with my cell phone.
I was pleasantly surprised by the way the painting glowed (thank you, quinacridone gold).
I decided to leave it alone and go back to my images of people on Cadillac Mountain. I set my timer on my cell phone and finished in 30 minutes.
Cindy Bourque-Simonds, who manages the DIAA’s exhibits, dropped in with her dog. “Who’s that?” she asked, pointing to the woman I’d made up on the top of the mountain.
“Phyllis,” I said.
Phyllis looked cartoony and the mountain looked too pink in some places, too muddy in others. I tried again.
Then I thought I’d combine the Cadillac Mountain Panorama with Phyllis.
Version No. 1:
Version No. 2. I didn’t even finish Phyllis. I knew what I had to do.
In one way or another, I’ve been working for two years on this painting of an interior courtyard at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
By Day Nineteen at the DIAA Gallery I finally finished it. I may do it over, but, like my lobster trap painting, the details are so exhausting I probably don’t have it in me.
The painting is based on a bunch of photos I took while wandering the National Gallery of Art during my lunch hour. My office was 10 minutes away from the NGA, and I often took solace there during the winter of 2014-15. My boss was abusing me at work, and he had ordered my colleagues not to talk to me. I was just trying to survive until I could sell my house and move to Maine.
The image of the shadowy guard in the background is what the painting is about. He reminds me of me back then, a marginalized presence looking at an aspiration (even if the aspiration was to kill a goose rather than sell a house).
Judith Felch, the DIAA’s treasurer, came in to the gallery one day while Oscar and I were painting, and she mentioned she was taking her grandchildren to Washington, D.C. Judith graciously listened as I rattled off my rules for survival for tourists with children in Washington, D.C.
Prepare for security. You can enter few public buildings in Washington without going through a metal detector. And don’t be alarmed by the paramilitary surrounding the Capitol. They probably won’t shoot you.
Have a plan for a place to rest. The National Mall is not friendly to pedestrians, so break up your day with a meal or a snack. The café at the Sculpture Garden, the courtyard at the National Portrait Gallery/Museum of American Art are good places for lunch. The Botanical Garden is a good place to rest after the Air and Space Museum.
(Here, by the way, is what the National Gallery is featuring:
It may be a created memory, but years ago I read somewhere that John Singer Sargent said all painting is based on blue and orange.
I’ve looked it up on the internet, but can’t find the quote. Still, I’m a huge fan of blue and orange.
Fortunately Dan (my husband) owns a pair of blue suspenders and an orange chamois shirt (from L.L. Bean, of course). When he puts it on to go hiking I make sure my cell phone is charged. I will take lots of pictures and maybe I’ll get a painting out of it.
I took a bunch of photos on our recent excursion to the Schoodic Peninsula. Sitting in the DIAA gallery with Oscar, I decided to paint Dan against the dark brush – white hair (paper), orange (cadmium red, cadmium orange, alizarin crimson and maybe some quinacridone magenta) shirt, blue (cobalt) suspenders and white (paper)-with-shadow (cobalt and raw umber) pants.
The first painting looks weak and watery. And I’m trying to paint looser, but it isn’t working.
The second version is better, though I’m not thrilled with the figure.
And I didn’t get orange — red-orange, really — quite the way I want it. Red is hard to paint. You can’t just add water or white to lighten it and get gradations the way you can with blue. You have to combine different reds. In water color, for example, you might combine cadmium red, which is opaque, and quinacridone magenta, which is transparent.
I had an art teacher who once made her students study the Vermeer painting, “Girl With the Red Hat” so we understood how to paint red. We had to count how many different reds were in the hat. I don’t remember how many, except that it was a lot.
There’s a lot to say about red. Playwright John Logan did in his play about Mark Rothko called Red by John Logan. I saw a terrific performance of it at The Winnipesaukee Playhouse with my mother-in-law two summers ago. But I digress.
I decide to paint Schoodic Stroll once more in 30 minutes. Just as an exercise to loosen up. Here’s what happened:
Maybe I’ll take another crack at it some other time.
Today I finally fix my painting of Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse. There’s a triangular rock under a pine tree with too much light on it, and it ruins the composition. I feel it staring at me from up on the wall, like a portrait with eyes that move. Finally I can’t take it anymore. I take the painting off the wall, paint out the rock and put it back on the wall. There. Much better.
There’s a bumper sticker you see on Deer Isle that says “Incite Art. Create Community.” (You also see “Fish Forever.”) I believe the Stonington Opera House printed it about 20 years ago.
Oscar and I create some community today as we incite art in the DIAA gallery. We host a parade of visitors, people stopping by on the way to the Post Office or the library or driving through town.
Hub White stops in and I give him the bad news: His ART matters 2 discussion series will fall on Super Bowl Sunday – and the Patriots are playing. With this arty crowd it probably won’t affect attendance much, not half as bad as a Bagaduce Chorale concert.
Hub sighs. “Next year I’m going to notify the NFL not to schedule the Super Bowl on the same day as ART matters,” he says.
Oscar looks up from his painting. “Is football still big at Michigan?” he asks.
Rebecca Daugherty and Michael Daugherty drop in. They live directly off their work, writing and painting and paddling kayaks. They used to run an art gallery in Stonington called Isalos, and now Rebecca is painting in a studio in Stonington’s old elementary school. Michael is a Maine Guide who wrote a book on kayaking and is working on a novel.
I am embarrassed about my lighthouse paintings. I give Michael and Rebecca my shtick about how it was Edward Hopper who made the lighthouse a cliché. Rebecca says Winslow Homer painted lighthouses before Edward Hopper and they were awesome.
Michael says you make things your own. “When Edward Weston photographed peppers, people said peppers had been photographed before,” said Michael. “But Weston said, ‘These are my peppers’.”
A storm. The lights flicker. If there’s a power outage perhaps the Central Maine Power drones will locate the source quickly.
Oscar calls and says we should forgo the DIAA gallery because of the roads. He posts on Facebook a picture of ice on his roof.
Dan is skeptical, I say I’m going in anyway. Then Dan looks at our eaves and sees ice. We hear few if any pickup trucks roaring by. If even the crazy pickup drivers are staying home, I am too.
Oscar has been working on a painting of two white buildings on Greenhead, a peninsula that sticks out in Stonington Harbor. At the end is the Greenhead Lobster Company. Greenhead is Stonington’s answer to the red fishing shack in Rockport, Mass., which artists once called Motif No. 1 – and now everyone else does.
I’m also working on a painting of white buildings, Mark Island Light. I put them both up on the wall.
Oscar is reading a book of poems by Stu Kestenbaum, I wish I could remember which one. Stu is our neighbor in Deer Isle, former director of the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, current interim director of the Maine College of Art, member of the Church of the Morning After, occasional pickleball player, very nice guy and Maine’s poet laureate.
Oscar held out a page with the poem Only Now, the first 15 or so lines heavily underlined.
We throw away so many things, pack them into translucent garbage bags where you can see through to the once beloved objects. The humbling moment is to realize it’s all heading to the dumpster, not just my journal and last month’s bills, but all of history, and all that will be left is an ember rotating in space. Don’t worry, it will all start over again. This isn’t the only world, this is just one try at it. This is the world that had ice and snow, this is the world where the apple blossoms fell to earth, this is the world where the clapboarded churches stood so white against the blue sky, like a remarkable original idea that gets our attention.
He pointed to the line about the clapboard churches. “That’s what we’re doing,” he said.
Day Thirteen of my artist-in-residency is a day off. I wake up with a vicious headache and skip Sunday morning pickleball. By midmorning I feel better so Dan and I decide to go to the Schoodic Peninsula, hike around a little bit. It’s the quiet side of Acadia National Park, the side we like.
Dan comes downstairs wearing his orange chamois shirt and his blue suspenders. All painting is based on blue and orange. I’m thinking I’m going to get some images I can use in a painting.
I take some shots of Cadillac Mountain and, even better, a lighthouse in front of Cadillac Mountain. We go to Blueberry Hill and walk around a little bit. He suggests the waves against the rocks would be a good image. Maybe.
Walking back to the car I see Dan against the dark brush: white hair, orange shirt, blue suspenders. Just go ahead of me, I say. He groans, knowing what I’m up to, but he complies.
We drive past a sign that says Schoodic Institute. We wonder what it is. We drive up, we’re surprised by the buildings: bunkhouses, laboratories, a dining hall, an auditorium, classrooms.
I want to see this big building, I say. We drive up to it. I realize with a jolt I’ve been here before, back when it was a naval station.
The week before my sophomore year in college, I spent hiking Acadia National Park with my friends Ruth and Yoko and twins whose names I’ve forgotten. I flew from Cleveland to Portland. Ruth met me at the airport and told me we’d have to take the bus to our cabin in East Sullivan. A promised car had not materialized.
It took us a day and a half to get there from the airport, about 170 miles. We were thrown off the bus to Bangor because Ruth said “Fuck” to the driver and we spent the night in the bus station parking lot.
At the cabin we had very little food and very little money. A farmer gave us a huge squash, and we dig mussels and clams for dinner.
It was cold one night, so we turned on the heat. If one of the twins hadn’t wakened us moaning we probably would have died from a gas leak.
It was probably the prospect of free food that appealed to us. We had party clothes. We put them in our backpacks and we hitchhiked to the Schoodic Peninsula. We hiked a few miles along the park road until we got close to the naval station. We went into a cedar swamp and changed our clothes, combed our hair and put on makeup.
We walked into a change-of-command party in the mansion, uninvited but very welcome. It was a big room, elegant, with flowers, champagne, officers in dress whites, a few wives who seemed very old to us and a lot of tasty food still left on the buffet table. We pounced on the food.
It was probably one of the most important days in some admiral’s life, but we didn’t care. We ate the food, drank the champagne and sassed the Navy brass. I sat on a highly decorated officer’s lap and asked him about his ribbons. He didn’t care either.
Oh to be young and firm and the only young women at a party in a remote naval station…
Day Twelve falls on Saturday, a short day. I have to be at the gym at 2 pm to help set up the pickleball tournament.
I go to Oscar’s house to pick him up. and we chat with Diana about having a party at the end of our artist residency. Saturday, Feb. 4 would be best. Diana has champagne, I have salmon. “There are plastic glasses at the gallery,” I say. “People who go to art receptions know to expect cheap wine in plastic glasses.” Oscar holds up a bottle of beer. We’ll have that, too.
At the DIAA gallery my drawing of a Bar Harbor streetscape awaits me. I’m going to finish it today. I’m going to paint quickly. And I’m not going to use cerulean. I depend on it too much.
I go with cobalt and burnt umber rather than my cerulean and cadmium for walls and pavement and shadows. The focal point of the image is a woman’s hair. I will use cadmium and Quinacridone gold for her hair. I will use Prussian blue for her blouse. When I finish, I’m not happy. My values need adjusting. I darken the background but not the walls around her. It’s time to go but I’m not done. Oh well. Oscar likes it a lot.
I go home and make Hoo Mee chow mein for lunch. I can blame my unhealthy meal when I’m easily eliminated from the pickleball game. And my flannel shirt, not exactly ideal athletic wear.
I play with Alex Shorey, a Deer Isle-Stonington High School senior and pickleball devotee. It was Alex who decided we’d wear plaid flannel shirts as our team uniform. We are done for as soon as our opponent Linda Campbell realizes my backhand is weak. I sit on the bench and chat with the spectators. Oscar is watching, trying to figure out the game.
Though Winterfest is sponsored by the Healthy Island Project, there is a huge table of brownies, cookies and Rice Krispy Treats at the gym entrance. I tell Oscar to go get some chocolate. Then I get some myself. “There must be a billion calories on this table,” I say.
The woman presiding over it laughs. “I’m doing the social part of well-being,” she says.
Dan comes by. He just dropped two cases of clam pie off at Tradewinds in Blue Hill. They have a Made in Maine section. We love them.
“Look at all the nice paintings on the wall,” Dan says.
“They suck,” I say.
“No, they’re nice,” he says.
Oscar looks up. “You say they suck, then people say they’re good. That’s the deal. That’s what we do.”
I see Katy Helman coming out of the post office. I wave and open the door. She comes in. “I’m going to ask Linda if she can take photos with her drone for my Haystack students next weekend,” she says. “Cool idea,” I say.
She looks at my Pepto-Bismol painting without the Pepto and slips into Teacher Mode, which I always find entertaining. “Much improved,” she says.
“Who did this?” she says, pointing to Oscar’s painting of the Church of the Morning After. “Oscar, you should do white line woodcuts,” she says. “It would really lend itself to your work.”
We look up Kate Hanlon, Katy’s friend who does white line woodcuts. Hmmm. Good idea. Katy explains how it works. Maybe she’ll teach us.
She looks at my 30-minute mountain painting. “Why didn’t you use a square format?” she said. “If you cropped it and moved the figure in it would be much more dynamic.”
“It’s a pain to mat and frame square formats,” I say. Matting and framing are the bane of artists who work with paper. It’s why some people turn to oil on canvas. It’s probably why I’ll turn to oil on canvas. Katy says you can get square frames at Target. The nearest Target is an hour and a half away.
I run to the Galley to get a sandwich. Oscar brought his lunch so he’s going to stay put, though he loves the Galley. Along with the Burnt Cove Market and V&S Variety, it’s the biggest worker cooperative in the state of Maine.
When I return Oscar is explaining to Katy it’s nearly impossible for him to remember names since his stroke (though I’m flattered he remembers mine). To learn a new technique, he has to see it repeated and repeated and repeated. Katy says, “So you adjust.”
Oscar and I walk to 44 North to get our half cup of coffee. The lights are on in Bruce Bulger’s studio in the old high school, so we go in. Bruce makes beautiful furniture. He is a woodworker and illustrator, and his studio is filled with marvelous machinery and woodcutting tools. Bruce’s son comes out and greets us.
He’s working on a drawer with 45-degree angled dovetails. “How many times do you measure before you cut?” I ask. “The more I measure, the less I have to cut,” he says.
I take a picture of the big wooden statue in the next room. “That’s Tam Tam,” he says. “From the Fiji Islands.” It’s going to the Blue Hill Library. His dad is making a pedestal for it. I try to take a picture of Rudy, his new puppy. Rudy is too quick for me and hides under a workbench.
Melissa Raftery is in at 44 North Coffee. She says they’re excited about moving to the old Fibula Gallery on Main Street. They’ll have nooks for the coffee shop on the first floor, she says, and they’ll have to hire a crane to move their roaster. I tell her they’ll do very, very well. I take a picture for the Stonington Farmers Market Facebook page. Too bad I can’t take a photo of her partner, Megan Wood, too. “She’s in Guatemala,” says Melissa. “I got to go to Australia last year.” On coffee business.
I paint horses, two of them, at Acadia. I try to draw very precisely and paint very loosely. I’m almost done at the end of the day. Oscar says it’s the best thing I’ve done. I’m not sure how I feel about it.
Oscar wants to try pickleball tonight so I drop him off at the Island Community Center, go home, change, and return to pickleball. There are 11 new players and 12 old ones, like me. Pickleballs are flying all over the gym, coats and boots piled on the benches and buzzing conversations while people wait their turn to play. Or try to play. I tell a newbie I like to come to the gym in winter because it’s warm and light and friendly when it’s cold and dreary outside. “I need more of that in my life,” she says.
Oscar and I are back to a full day on Day Nine. When I get to his house at 9 am I see the Subaru is gone and therefore so is Diana. Oscar comes out to the car and invites me in the house to look at some work he admires. On the landing is a loose, fluid landscape. It’s signed ‘Kappa.’ His mother lived on the island, Oscar says. Oscar loves the style. He is amazed at how quickly Kappa put it down.
We look at one more, and then two of Oscar’s own paintings.
This is his favorite.
Deer Isle is busy today, as the Post Office and the library are open. I tweak my lobster trap painting, adding some pink to the water so it doesn’t fight with the sky. Some of the Pepto-Bismol still shines through.
Linda Campbell from Due North next door stops by to ask if I can tell the pickleballers she’ll be there a half-hour late tonight at 5. “I have a conference call,” she says. It involves a committee of Deer Isle Village merchants trying to get sidewalks. “We have to do something,” she says. There used to be an ice cream shop, an apartment, a lawyer’s office, an art gallery. Now Due North is the only business open throughout the winter. She says maybe they’ll make a parking lot at the end of Main Street, across from Rte. 15 where the house burned down in 2011.
Hub White stops in for a visit. He and Oscar try to figure out if they studied architecture at Michigan at the same time. They didn’t. Hub was in the Army after Korea. Oscar was in the Navy for five years in Vietnam. Hub and Oscar also both lived in Connecticut and did architecture work in New York City.
Hub worked for the Saarinen firm. He said they worked crazy hours, 70 hours a week. His wife had to get a job as a receptionist just to see him. Those must have been exciting times in New York, I say. Hub said they were. (I have a little bit of an idea: my mother and my uncle worked for New York advertising agencies. In fact I was in a Congoleum flooring magazine ad before I was born.)
Saarinen was friends with the great Charles Eames. Eames would come to visit and a hush would fall over the office. Hub tells us about Eames. I say, “Did you ever see Mad Men? It’s about a New York advertising agency in the ‘60s. The period details are tremendous, except they used Helvetica typeface for the corporate signage and it wasn’t used yet.”
Hub asks if I’d seen the documentary Helvetica. I say no, and Hub says it’s terrific. It’s about how the Swiss invented the typeface, how it changed the world of graphic design and how graphic artists are bitterly divided over it. I later find out the director designed a Helvetica poster that was used as a prop for Mad Men. Also that Mad Men did indeed play fast and loose with typography. Also that it was Arial, not Helvetica, that was used improperly. Also that the Peggy character sits in a Saarinen chair.
(An aside: Eero Saarinen designed the Dulles Airport terminal. Looking at the terminal is the best thing about Dulles Airport. The only good thing. The control tower is now a national landmark. I got to go in it when I was a reporter. Not much to report there, except for the view. Here’s the Stonington Airport. Not much to report there, either.)
Annie Taylor Gray emails me. “You probably need words for the Lupinefest poster,” she writes.
“Funny, I was just talking to Hub about typefaces,” I say. I don’t think I’ll use Helvetica.
Day Nine Work and Play
Oscar has been laboring over a painting he doesn’t like. I tell him he should set a timer and just try to do something in 30 minutes.
I take my own advice. I set my timer on my phone to 30 minutes and I paint Cadillac Mountain. By the time the timer dings, I’m done. I like it.
We leave a little early because it’s pickleball night. Oscar says he might come over to the Island Community Center gym to watch.
At the gym, we have a brief meeting to talk about the tournament. Anne Douglass tells us she was on the Good Morning Maine television show with Renee Colson-Hudson this morning talking about Winterfest and mentioned our tournament! We are all excited. (You can watch it here.)
I’m on the court playing when I see Oscar sitting in the bleachers. There are 12 players, two courts, so four people at a time wait on the benches. Oscar tells Wayne Endriss, his neighbor, it looks serious. Wayne says, “No, we’re not serious.” Oscar says, “I see serious.” There’s a pickleball clinic Thursday night as part of Winterfest and a prelude to the tournament. Oscar said he’ll come to see if he can play.
Helvetica: By GearedBull Jim Hood – Own work, GFDL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3367075
I check in with Facebook. My friend Alexis Adler posted this:
I feel like it’s my own personal Jean-Michel Basquiat Week.
I have to drive my neighbor Zoe Hansson to the nursing home on the morning of Day Eight. Then I have to go to book group.
Zoe has lost much of her sight and can’t drive. We go to the Island Nursing Home every Monday to visit her sister Luanne. Zoe walks with Luanne around the building, helps her eat, makes sure she’s cared for. Sometimes Zoe coaxes a smile from Luanne. Those are good days. Luanne has Alzheimer’s. “I have to be realistic,” says Zoe. I admire the hell out of Zoe.
She asks me if I’ve done my snowman painting yet. Zoe thinks I should paint a snowman. Why not? I think. I’ve painted dancing lobsters on a shingle before.
Zoe is in a good mood today. I’m just dropping her off at the nursing home and then she’s going to lunch with friends at 11. I ask who she’s going with. “Bunzy Sherman,” says Zoe. “How funny,” I say. “My book group is meeting right next to Bunzy’s studio.”
Bunzy is a potter. This island is lousy with artists: potters and painters and blacksmiths, jewelry makers, weavers, knitters. Half the women who come to book group today are artists. Me, Carolyn Walton, a painter, and Mary Howe, a book artist. All DIAA members. All PFAs – people from away. You’re a PFA if you weren’t born on the island. We all love the book, News of the World by Paulette Jiles. Everyone gives it a nine on a scale of one to 10.
I leave book group early to pick up Oscar. He brings two travel mugs, each filled with a half cup of coffee. 44 North is closed today because of the MLK holiday. There’s little traffic outside as the Post Office and library are closed. We work diligently for three hours, saying little.
I work on my lighthouse painting. I spent most of yesterday painstakingly painting three pine trees — branches, needles, twigs – on the left of the lighthouse. Just before we left on Day Seven I quickly roughed in a fourth tree on the right of the lighthouse. I like the one on the right so much better than the three on the left. I spend much of Day Eight undoing what I did on Day Seven. I’m not sure I can salvage this painting.
Oscar gives me some sandpaper to lift up the Pepto-Bismol from my lobster trap painting. It’s on 300 lb. paper, which can take a beating. Gwendolyn Bragg, my former teacher at the Art League in Alexandria taught me that.
There’s a little light in the sky when we leave. “How would you paint that?” Oscar asks. “Cerulean, a little cadmium, some raw sienna,” I say. “The clouds I’d make cobalt blue and raw umber.”