Within easy walking distance of my studio is Crescent Park. When we’re at home, Dorothy and I go there in every season, nearly every day. I’m guessing the park is about a hundred acres — it includes playing fields, a small lake, and, for us, a labyrinth of forest pathways. We have a route, and Dorothy can be counted on to become agitated in places of previous canine encounters, historic squirrels, and other reinventions of her long nose. These pathways hold my memories as well — sights, understandings and minor epiphanies. When I revisit my parade of wonders I become anchored and focused. Measuring the seasons, new growth, old friends. This is where lines are written and scored — and paintings are laid out on the retina of the mind. While other folks may pass by and be a part of this space, I claim it as my own.
The cedar growing from the spruce
The rock of sunning turtles
The pond of great bullfrogs
The tree of the barred owls
The sunlit arbor with hanging moss
The lover’s bridge with huckleberries
The playground of laughing children
The field of determined moles
The daisies at the bench memorial
The reedy verge of wood ducks
The place of whispering cottonwoods
The tree-stumps red at sunset
The view we sometimes paint
The fungous musk of the fallen fir
The feral snapdragons of the old cabin
The ancient larch standing alone
The ever-running brook
A place can be quite ordinary and still be a special place. It’s all in the eye of the beholder. And shared history can magnify wonders–our children played and were painted on the great curved rocks that are now too overgrown to paint again. Now the swings and teeter-totters are for someone else’s tots. With the naming and claiming that artists tend to do, there’s a collection to be had. Like the haiku of titled paintings, they are the labels of our lives. By some miracle we are allowed on this path for a short while, and you can be sure when we are gone some like-minded ones will be there to take over.
PS: “The world is so full of a number of things, that I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.” (Robert Louis Stevenson)
Esoterica: Some of the items we might put into our album are hard-won and require a bit of subterfuge. The tree of the barred owls, for example, is a moveable tree — for as far as I can see this species is seldom in the same spot twice. But these owls can be tracked down at certain times of the year. It’s a matter of listening for and going toward the distress calls of nesting robins and thrushes. Where these birds are found, an owl will be nearby, cat-like on a low branch, enduring the cacophony. Sometimes you have to go through something else to find what you are looking for.
Revisiting familiar places
by Jo Scott-B, Vancouver, BC, Canada
Solitude by definition can be a quality of quiet remoteness or seclusion in places where human activity is generally absent. There is a re-assurance to travelling a path surrounded by continuity and tradition. Back in Britain where I once went to art school, I have the added pleasure of revisiting once familiar places. Church is not a usual part of my Canadian life, yet to sit in a church built in 1453, restored in 1865, listening to a choral Anglican service reminds me of my childhood and brings to me the comfort and security found in the continuity of rituals of community. Because of this quiet contemplation in church and old graveyards where I once loved to draw, I have discovered a feast of art material in medieval, carved Suffolk pews. Perhaps revisiting familiar places works when we as artists go there with a mind ready for new discoveries.
by Barb Rees, Powell River, BC, Canada
Thank you for the lift. We are in the process of letting go of a cabin that we believed was tied permanently in with our happiness and freedom. When we let go, there is a grieving, but we are moving forward to free up our time to explore more, to travel more. Thanks to my journaling and then reading your letter, I am reminded, “Sometimes you have to go through something else to find what you’re looking for.”
Local woodland treasures
by Becky McMahon, Surrey, BC, Canada
Your walk through the woods let me see it and hear and feel it. I, too, have a small woods I walk through. It’s at the edge of the Royal Kwantlen Park and covers, at most, 2 blocks. But there I’ve seen eagles, a horned owl, coyotes, rabbits, piliated woodpeckers and a host of smaller birds and beasts. I love to sample the seasonal berries, from the early salmon berries, to the juicy blackberries and my favourite huckleberries. My dog, Buffy, and I wander through and we have our favourite places. The twisting trails through the salmon berries, under the tall cedars and firs or the huge-leafed maples. Or else the twisting vine maples and the colourful red elderberry and mountain ash. I’ve spent my life wandering in the woods, both urban and wild, and there is so much to see. Most people don’t realize how much there is to see in the smallest of local woodlands. In my park there is one species of orchid. There were two but someone mowed down the second and didn’t even know it was there.
Last Child in the Woods
by Cathy DeWitt, Gainesville, FL, USA
Although you are obviously speaking of walking with a canine companion, your current letter reminds me of a book that’s been very popular here lately: Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods. It’s about the need for nature, and the fact that American children are suffering from what he calls NDD or Nature Deprivation Disorder. It’s very interesting.
An ordinary, special place
by Sandy Davison, Lansing, MI, USA
Indeed a place can be very ordinary and still be special. I painted last summer at a little wetland reclamation area ten minutes from home, plein air, nearly every night, sometimes several paintings (they are small). The area is really not conventionally beautiful, neither in terms of classic plein air work, expectations of outdoor beauty or surrounding vista – those include a large commuter parking lot for a Big Ten university. The shape of the wet is cursed with the tyranny of the rectangle and is more functional in terms of the economics of digging it than any aesthetic appeal. I see tremendous life energy there and the tiny paintings cover a period from July to Sept and swings in weather. The dragonflies storm, ducks gaggle at bad jokes, the muskrat totters on his business. I love it! This year I feel a shift Maybe I’ve exhausted the point of view that served so well last year, but I am still wowed and cowed by some of the complex patterns and speed with which beauty strikes and retreats.
House and home
by Roberta Faulhaber, Paris, France
There’s something in us that animates, not necessarily anthropomorphizes, the things we live with. Nature is often our closest friend, including sun, moon and stars (for me — constellations in particular), but a house, or furniture, can sometimes be a close second. Of course, these reflections perhaps make more sense in an “Old World” context, but when you think about it, a house or apartment can have a very long life of its own. There are houses in the French countryside (just ordinary farmhouses) which are very, very old and have housed generations of different people. How do they see us? I can get very, very attached to those old places, which have accreted so much experience and are marked by nature and time and only superficially by the people who pass through them in a very slow stream.
And then there’s furniture. Old furniture, valuable or ordinary, can last a very long time and serve many generations of people. I get very attached to my old furniture (and sometimes my new stuff, especially if I make it myself) but I can’t help thinking about how, when I’m gone, it will be friendly with someone else, and I’m only a temporary relation.
Awe and wonder
by Gael Drew, Atlanta, GA, USA
Your parade of wonders immediately drew me to Mary Oliver’s latest poem, Messenger:
“My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird—
Equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.
Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect? Let me
Keep my mind on what matters
Which is my work,
Which is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished ”
The poem goes on. I attend my parade in the city in my garden, however, I find myself being called to revisit the ever-changing seasonal parades of the Blue Ridge Mountains that continue to construct and anchor my interior paintings. It is the antiquity and newness of that ever-changing old growth forest that anchors me like no other parade. I feel at times as if the Internet allows some of us to live a little behind our retina of awe and wonder… yet another parade of wonders!
Appreciation from art historian
by Ellen Poole, Vancouver, BC, Canada
As a non-painter, but a friend to and admirer of many, it’s more than academically interesting for me to receive your twice-weekly letters. Your sage words to other artists often provide inspiration to this layperson and I want to thank you again for them. You really do make a difference!
Also, your Painter’s Keys Art Directory is a regular source of information to me as historian of people and things to do with the Federation of Canadian Artists. I continue to learn a lot from these references (and am careful to give credit to the right source).
Rocks in the head
by Martin Pryce, Newmarket, ON, Canada
I had watched a show about Japanese gardens and how they placed rocks in strategic ways to assume human-like emotions. I found this so fascinating that I sat down with a nice soft pencil and did a series of sketches, thinking all the time about human feelings. These concepts run anywhere from mother and child, to aggression to lovers. I do this also when I’m generating ideas for my large abstracts.
Getting in on the Vacation Workshop loop
by Janie Ravenhurst, Toronto, ON, Canada
I have been teaching art now for some 20 years, grades K-12. Now I am wishing to expand and teach adults. What would be your advice on how to enter the Painting Workshop Vacations loop? Is it almost necessary to buy an old house in France or Greece to renovate and then run the workshops myself? Or is there a way to find positions for painting/pastel instructor with some of the already established companies? I have picked up on a few companies but most are husband and wife teams and not looking for extra instructors. Is it best to actually just take part in one of the workshops and get known and then get a position that way?
(RG note) Thanks, Janine. Painting Workshop Vacations are big business and getting bigger. Having a great collection of truly spectacular paintings on line is a good place to start. Well thought out tutorials to go along with them would be useful too. Then it’s a matter of hooking up with people like Phil Levine who run painting workshops in Brittany, Provence, and other places. There are several of these sorts of destinations and schools featured in our Workshop Calendar and Studios Worldwide. To get an overview of what’s possible I’d contact workshop pros like Stephen Quiller, Kiff Holland, Tony Van Hasselt, and others. Artists who are in this game often build a clientele over a period of years and take the same people again and again to different places of inspiration. Think what you can uniquely bring to the business.
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2006.
That includes Suzanne Northcott who wrote, “Yesterday, walking down busy Glover Road to my sister’s place, I saw a small feather whose thinner side glinted electric blue, then a small pale green moth moving strangely on the sidewalk. A closer look revealed an ant carrying the moth like an exotic fan. It is a wonder how magic is there wherever we are, whenever we are present for it.”
And also Nigel Blackburn of Chile who wrote, “I must say I agree with the comment on your reply to Angus Bungay. When I saw the original article, I was strongly reminded of the ritual body painting of the disappeared Tierra del Fuego natives, the Selk’nam and the Alakaluf. (Googling these names in images is very interesting.) So where do we inspire ourselves? Is not all we paint a reflection of our previous experience?”
And also Pat Meras who wrote, “Your letter serendipitously arrived at the perfect time for me today. Thank you for so generously sharing your fertile imagination and creative writing.”
And also Brian McGilvra who wrote, “Sometimes we get caught up in the world, and live life day to day, as opposed to keeping our creative minds open and stopping to smell the roses. Sometimes I forget to go back to that sponge state of mind, to soak up everything around me.”
And also Lenny Niles of Lincolnshire, England who wrote, “You have just described, in the most eloquent language and true Shakespearean tongue, my most favourite and secret place in the world. Have you visited it in my absence?”
And also Karen Mead of Ocala, FL, USA who wrote, “I love your ability of seeing… oh I can see… but to be able to express in words — Wow, now there you are so great!”