Celebrity intellectuals

The Heart of the Andes, 1858, Frederic Edwin Church. It is useless to imagine this painting from a photo; it has to be seen. You can do that at the Metropolitan Museum in New York.
There’s a Humboldt Street in Rochester, a Humboldt Parkway in Buffalo, and various fixtures named Humboldt across our country.  I had the vague idea that he was a famous explorer, but last week it clicked that he was the fellow whose work inspired Frederic Church’s The Heart of the Andes.
Alexander von Humboldt was the last of that breed of brilliant scientific generalists, largely self-taught, who contributed so much to the world’s knowledge of botany and geography. Between 1799 and 1804, he traveled throughout South America, exploring and describing it in scientific terms.
Humboldt is the first person to have realized that the coasts of South America and Africa dovetail, and he proposed the idea that they might have once been joined. He noted that volcanoes fall in linear chains and demonstrated the fallacy of the idea that rocks were formed from the world’s oceans. He laid the foundations of modern geography and meteorology. In his spare time, he surveyed Cuba and stopped to visit President Thomas Jefferson at the White House.
Self-portrait, 1815, Alexander von Humboldt. Gentlemen-scientists once knew how to draw.
Humboldt saw the physical world as a unified system and the physical sciences as interlinked. He understood that botany was dependent on biology, meteorology, and geology. To prove that required the time-consuming analysis of the data he’d collected in South America.  This took him 21 years and he never felt it was complete, but it changed the way we see the world.
He expected artists to play a part in the collection of natural data, by accurately portraying the landscape. Humboldt recognized landscape painting—then in its own infancy—as among the highest expressions of love of nature.
Enter the brilliant American painter and entrepreneur, Frederic Edwin Church. In 1853 and 1859, Church traveled to South America to replicate Humboldt’s journeys. While Humboldt had used family money to finance his explorations, Church enlisted an American financier, Cyrus West Field, who wanted to encourage investment in his South American ventures.
Isothermal chart of the world, cartographer William Channing Woodbridge, made using Humboldt’s data.
The Heart of the Andes is a composite of South American topography and botany. Its monumental scale and detail can’t be appreciated through photographs; you really need to go to New York to see it in person.
But that was pre-Civil War America, where there wasn’t even a decent railroad system. The painting went on tour, visiting seven American cities and London. At its opening in New York (April 29 to May 23, 1859) 12,000 people paid a quarter apiece to see it. People swooned. It was the talk of the town.
Geography of Plants in the Tropics, 1805, Alexander von Humboldt and A.G. Bonpland.
At the end of its tour, Church sold the painting for $10,000—at the time, the highest price ever paid for a work by a living American artist.
Both Humboldt and Church were famous in their day. A world that reveres science and art is a world that is well-read, disciplined, and thoughtful. Compare that to our current fascination with the Kardashians, and you might get the idea that we’re in trouble.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me on the Schoodic Peninsula in beautiful Acadia National Park in 2015 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops! Download a brochure here.

Je suis France

The ‘controversial’ street art that earned Combo a beating.
On Monday I wrote about the responsibility of artists to tell the truth. In the United States, we are reasonably safe from persecution, but that isn’t the case in France. Last month 17 people were assassinated and 22 wounded in a series of terroristic attacks that were putatively in response to cartoons critical of the prophet Muhammad.  
Compared to the staff of Charlie Hebdo, the street artist known as Combo got off easy. Le Monde reports that four young toughs asked the artist to remove an offensive piece of art last weekend. He refused and they beat him up.  Combo is a big fellow who learned boxing essentials from a younger brother, but he suffered a dislocated shoulder and other injuries sufficient to put his right arm in a sling—in essence, they were trying to silence his drawing hand.

On the other hand, the ‘offensive art’ he posted on a Paris street is, by our lights, soothing and safe. It is a riff on that ubiquitous Coexist bumper sticker that is plastered on Priuses all over America. His art consisted of a picture of himself dressed in a djellaba on a wall alongside the Coexist image.

Part of Combo’s installation in Chernobyl.
Born in Amiens to a Lebanese Christian father and a Muslim Moroccan mother, Combo is the eldest in a family of four boys, of whom the younger have become more religious. “At first I thought I was French, but then I quickly realized that I was Arab. Now, I am told that I am a Muslim. This is the French disintegration,” he added.
Part of Combo’s installation for the 2014 French election.
When Combo decided to leave for Beirut, his friends said, “You are a fool! What are you going to do, jihad?”

“I’m going to make jihad-art on the walls of Beirut,” he answered. “Less of Hamas, more of hummus.”

Combo refuses to speculate on the identity of those who assaulted him. “That would only add fuel to the fire. Of course I’m scared. But I said I was Charlie, and I still am.” And then he smiled. “Too bad for them that I am left-handed.”


Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me on the Schoodic Peninsula in beautiful Acadia National Park in 2015 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops! Download a brochure here.

The Secret Life of Dr. Seuss

Hotel del Coronado records the view outside Geisel’s studio window.
I can’t imagine there’s an American alive who isn’t familiar with the works of Dr. Seuss (Theodor Geisel). Several generations of children have learned to read with his books and his drawings are ubiquitous.
Gosh! Do I Look as Old as All That! is part of an 11-painting series gently mocking La Jolla matrons.
The world as seen by Dr. Seuss is strange, but it might look a bit less odd to a native of San Diego. Geisel modeled his palms and acacias, brightly-plumed birds and bright landscapes on the Southern California scene.
Martini Bird, Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss)
Geisel lived in La Jolla, an upscale seaside neighborhood in San Diego, from 1953 until his death in 1991. There he wrote most of his classic children’s tales including The Cat in the Hat, Horton Hears a Who, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Green Eggs and Ham, and The Lorax.
Raising Money for the Arts, Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss)
Like so many 20th-century book illustrators, he learned his craft through advertising, drawing for General Electric, NBC, Standard Oil, and other companies.
Cat Behind the Hat, Theodor Geisel (Dr Seuss)
Dr. Seuss liked to paint at night after he was done writing and illustrating during the day. Unlike most artists with a bifurcated work life, his personal paintings aren’t clearly different from his story books. This couldn’t have been because his life was smooth sailing: his first wife, Helen Palmer Geisel, committed suicide in despair over illness and her husband’s burgeoning affair with her close friend. Geisel served in the First Motion Picture Unit of the Army in the Second World War and lived through all of the epochal, cataclysmic events of the 20th century. But none of that shows in his work. It is unfailingly gentle and shallow, although marginally more adult.
Lion Stroll, Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss)
Ingenious! The World of Doctor Seuss is an exhibit of reproductions of his paintings and sculpture. (His widow refuses to allow any of his original work to be displayed.) It runs at the San Diego History Center until the end of 2015.
Oh, I’d Love to go to the Party, but I’m Absolutely Dead, Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss)
                                                                                                                                              

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me on the Schoodic Peninsula in beautiful Acadia National Park in 2015 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops! Download a brochure here.

In the bleak midwinter

Deer in snow, oil on canvas, by Carol L. Douglas. This was not painted en plein air and it shows. Not just in the deer, but in the heightened shadows, which are next to impossible here in mid-winter.
These days I will go outside to paint in the winter, but only if one of my pals really wants to. I think I’ve done my penance freezing in the bleak midwinter.
Highland Park snow squall, pastel, by Carol L. Douglas
About 15 years ago, I decided that I would paint outdoors every day (which for me meant six days a week).  I did this for one calendar year. Of course it seemed like that was the coldest winter we’d ever had, but in truth every winter is the coldest we’ve ever had.
Vineyard in snow, pastel, by Carol L. Douglas
Rochester doesn’t get the body-numbing cold of other northern areas because we have the tempering effect of Lake Ontario. However, we get an almost constant deep cloud cover from moisture picked up over that same lake. A damp 20° F. with no sun feels colder than 10° F. on a bright day. Add a snow squall raging in from the lake and you have a situation of indescribable unpleasantness.
Snowy road in Rush, pastel, by Carol L. Douglas
That heavy overcast also makes for grey, indirect lighting without shadows. It’s just not that exciting to paint, and one reason I quit painting in winter was that most of what I painted bored me. But my brief foray in Maine last month reminded me of how beautiful winter can be when the sun actually comes out.
Skating rink, oil on canvas, by Carol L. Douglas
A few years ago, I did another painting-a-day cycle with small still lives. When you insist on finishing a painting every day, you develop a specific working rhythm. You take work to a certain point and no further. Both times I finished doing them, I was happy to start working on more intentional, longer works. But my painting style has changed a lot in fifteen years, and I’m thinking that another cycle of painting-a-day might be in my immediate future.
Just not this week. It’s too cold out there.
Painting in Piseco, New York in February.
Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me on the Schoodic Peninsula in beautiful Acadia National Park in 2015 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops! Download a brochure here.

The Brian Williams Factbook

Brian Williams probably didn’t see dead bodies lying in the street during Hurricane Katrina, and it’s clear that he didn’t come under small arms enemy fire in a Chinook helicopter in 2003. Nor did Hillary Clinton land under sniper fire in the Balkins or Tom Harkin fly combat missions in Vietnam.

There’s the institutional blindness of Rotherham Borough in ignoringthe grooming, drugging and rape of at least 1400 mostly underage, predominantly white girls by local Pakistani Kashmiri Muslims. 

Last week on Facebook I ‘learned’ that one in five children will develop cancer from eating GMO foods, and that “every day Christians kill a transgendered person.” And then there’s our President (a graduate of Columbia and Harvard Law) drawing crude and illogical parallels between the Crusades and ISIS.

These people aren’t really lying. They’re twisting and spinning information. They sacrifice inconvenient facts to their bigger truth. In this systematic destruction of small truths lies a Great Truth about our times: facts are subservient to narrative, and it’s no longer a big deal to lie.

The drawings on this post were done by J—, who grew up in a cult which perfected the use of media in manipulating the public. No less a personage than Oprah was taken in by them. Yes, the truth ultimately came out, but at great expense to many. While the public was still sorting out what was true (mainly through the efforts of the Texas court system), more people suffered.
One of the bitter fruits of gaslighting (as that truth-twisting is called) is that it’s hard for its victims to understand what is true and what is false. Imagine that every time you pick up a pencil your past kicks in to question you. When J— asks, “What should I draw? I don’t know what to draw,” it is not that he’s not creative; it’s his history trying to shut him up.
All this public and private lying makes me feel so old. Even though my parents were bohemian by the standards of their day (no church, no scouting) we did have the advantage of a stiff whipping if we were caught bending the truth. (Oddly enough, that didn’t impair our creativity.)

Today truthiness is preferable to truth in our culture. That’s why our mass media is a cesspool of simulated sex. It’s why the coy, sexualized nude done by a middle age man gets enthusiastic exhibit space, but paintings about misogyny are closed down. That’s how we can call 50 Shades of Grey a romantic movie, instead of a glorification of abuse. We can deal with shallow illusions, but we hate hard truths. They might require us to do something.
What are we—as artists—to do about it? In a culture suffused with lies, we must continue to tell the truth, and we should demand the truth from our students. To me, this points to realism as the most radical style of art for our age. Can you really tell the story of abuse, beauty, misogyny, love, war, or peace if the details are fuzzy?

Truth is frequently controversial. Controversy, paradoxically, is often not truthful. Truth is sometimes happy, but it’s never twee. Truth is often unpopular until long after the truth-teller has left. For this reason, it makes sense to leaven the bitter with the palatable, unless you like serving coffee for a living.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me on the Schoodic Peninsula in beautiful Acadia National Park in 2015 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops! Download a brochure here.

Corporal Acts of Mercy

Another snowy day in the Duchy.
Being very laid back, we in the Duchy don’t enforce all that border-crossing nonsense, but if you visit, you know immediately that you’re in a different space.
For one thing, our hierarchy is upside down. The nobility—and by that I mean me—seem to spend an inordinate amount of time clearing drains and uncovering fire hydrants. This isn’t because I’m particularly nice; in fact, I’m a curmudgeon, always grumbling about the neighbor who lets his dog defecate on my property. That blasted spaniel is indiscriminate about where he goes. Last month he went right in the middle of our front walk. My assistant managed to pick it up on her shoe and track it through my house, forcing us to stop working and wash all the hardwood floors. But I digress.
The Duchy has a resident saint and she frequently drags me along on her acts of mercy. Mary has lived in the Duchy for her entire life, so she knows everyone. She has a tender heart. I do not, but I go along with her schemes because they’re always more interesting than whatever I was supposed to be doing.
Winter snowsquall in the Duchy. 6X8, oil on canvas, Carol L. Douglas
“Number 178 is being cased by a burglar in an old silver sedan,” Penny the Ducal Mailperson announced yesterday. “Two feet of snow in the driveway and a package in the door for days; it’s obvious that nobody’s home.” Because Mary fixes things, Penny handed her a slip of paper with the license plate number on it.
A portrait of the artist as a maintenance guy.
The easiest solution was to shovel out Number 178 to make it look less abandoned.  The average house in the Duchy has 30 feet of front walk, 50 feet of sidewalk, and 120 feet of tarmac that starts about 10 feet across and widens to a parking area in the back. Only a zealot (me) ever shovels this by hand. Nobody who is not dead lets it build up, especially when Mother Nature is furiously showering down snow. It packs in like concrete.
An hour into our Herculean labors, we saw a commercial plow come down the street. “Let’s pay him to finish this,” we instantly agreed. Ripping off her hat and shaking out her gleaming blonde hair, Mary flashed a bit of very shapely leg at him to get his attention. He trundled on.
Mother Nature is just in one of those moods.
“Boy, was thatever a kick in the ego,” she grumbled.
“I think you’re supposed to remove some of the twelve layers you’re wearing,” I pointed out.
Today Number 178 was snowed in again. There were footprints around the house and garage, as if someone was peering in the windows. Again we shoveled, and then we called the police.
Bad parking job.
The irony? That’s the neighbor whose dog messes on my property.  And that’s why Mary is a saint: nobody else could have gotten me to do that.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me on the Schoodic Peninsula in beautiful Acadia National Park in 2015 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops! Download a brochure here.

All good things

It’s helpful when you can stay on the right side of the road. It wasn’t alway possible.

As I toured the Institute grounds, the first fat flakes started to fall. I’d been warned that a significant storm was expected at midday and would move in fast. I don’t have studded snow tires; I don’t even have snow tires. For a few minutes, I thought I’d left it for too late.

The first sign of the weather changing was the wind picking up.
 Still, Western New Yorkers are accustomed to snow. Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse have the highest snowfall of all American cities. Our storms are amplified by the open water of the Great Lakes.

Drift ice is among my favorite things.
Coastal Maine adds a fillip to the experience: a fine layer of ice under its snow. The first twelve miles of our trip was on back roads that wouldn’t see a salter or plow for a day or so. The Mainers might have been slithering sideways on the hills in their pickup trucks (which are notoriously bad on snow) but they were taking it in stride. So did my little Prius.

Snow-covered rocks off Blueberry Hill.
The northeast is having its second hard winter in a row. Very few people visit Maine in January, but it is beautiful. I no longer do much wintertime plein air work. Still, our world is lovely in the deep snow.

The open road doesn’t look too bad, does it? But there’s absolutely no traction and my poor little Prius was choosing its own route.
Ah, home sweet home…

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me on the Schoodic Peninsula in beautiful Acadia National Park in 2015 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops! Download a brochure here.

What drew them to Maine?

It’s all about the light…
In the mid-19th century working in natural settings and capturing natural light became particularly important to painters. The popularity of plein air painting increased with the introduction of pre-mixed paints in tubes and the rapid development of new, color-fast pigments.
And the granite outcroppings…
This movement arose more or less simultaneously around the world, including the Barbizon and Impressionist schools in France, the Newlyn painters in England, the Group of Seven painters in Canada, the Heidelberg School in Australia, and the Hudson River School in New York.
And the untouched wilderness…
A national awareness of Maine’s striking landscape was raised in large part by the Hudson River School artists. Thomas Cole, Frederic Church and Thomas Doughty were among the first nationally-known painters to capture Maine’s natural beauty.
At the time, New York was the unrivaled center of art in America, and the Hudson River painters were celebrities. Their paintings were travelogues for a nation hungry to learn about the vast, untamed wildernesses in their own country. It is no coincidence that they painted concurrently with our westward expansion and the first movements toward a national park system.
And the ocean breezes…
They established a tradition of urban artists finding inspiration in Maine. Born in Boston, trained and established in New York, Winslow Homer reached his artistic maturity in Maine. Many other painters have followed his lead, including George Bellows, Rockwell Kent, Edward Hopper, and Rackstraw Downes.
And the power and motion of the sea.

What impulse drove them to Maine? In part it was a desire to escape market-driven and competitive New York. It was also a response to the clear bright light, the bracing breezes, the constant motion of the sea, the sighing winds and the bending pines.
A storm sky forming over Mt. Desert Narrows.
Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me on the Schoodic Peninsula in beautiful Acadia National Park in 2015 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops! Download a brochure here.

Elvers and Pickled Wrinkles

Lobster traps in Corea, ME. This little burg will be on our agenda. It’s very much a working fishery town.
North of Ellsworth, ME, the Atlantic coast veers away into a different world. Gone are the clamshacks, the art galleries, and the coffeeshops geared toward visitors from away. We’re now in working Maine.
Stunning rock outcroppings.
I passed a sign reading, “Elvers bought here.”  It turns out that an elver is not a juvenile elf but a juvenile eel. If I had a pickup truck full of them, I’d be a wealthy woman, even though the price has dropped from its 2012 high of $2600/lb. to a more rational $400-600/lb. Although I’ve never heard of the things, in 2012 the statewide harvest was valued at more than $38 million, making it the second-most lucrative catch in Maine’s fisheries industry.
Our home-away-from-home.
I couldn’t take photos of the insides of our accommodations—the water and power is off, and there’s antifreeze in the toilets. But they’re four-bedroom duplexes, originally designed as Navy barracks. There are kitchens and sufficient bathrooms, but there will be no 600-thread-count sheets at this workshop. For those of you who have visited Ghost Ranch at Abiquiu, NM, this is very much the northeastern equivalent. It’s all about the sky and the landscape.
Last summer, Schoodic Institute hosted a stone sculpture symposium. This is carved granite, in front of Morse Auditorium at the Institute.
Because we’re back of beyond, our workshop includes all meals. However, there is a good pub in Winter Harbor—the Pickled Wrinkle—that you should visit on your way home.
The Dining Hall is stripped for winter, but there’s a wonderful view.
Acadia seems to be everyone’s darling recently. See Good Morning America’s video, here, and USA Today’s reporting, here.  In anticipation of increased visitation, the Park Service is busy upgrading the fabric of the place, including newly-paved roads. In a few years, you’ll be able to look down your nose and tell people, “I was there before it was cool.”
Very much working Maine.
(One of my students asked me whether there’s a ferry from Schoodic to Bar Harbor. There is; it leaves from Winter Harbor.)

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me on the Schoodic Peninsula in beautiful Acadia National Park in 2015 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops! Download a brochure here.

A winter morning at Schoodic

Electronics just get smaller and smaller. What once took a whole naval base now operates out of this lighthouse at Winter Harbor, ME.
The Schoodic Institute is a relatively new addition to Acadia National Park. The property was operated as a secure United States Navy base from 1935 to 2002. (I’d tell you that they did cryptology, but then I’d have to kill you.) This replaced an earlier site, Otter Cliffs, which was on Mt. Desert Island from 1917 until 1933.
Little Moose Island catching the evening light.
Otter Cliffs was considered the Navy’s best transatlantic radio receiver site due to its isolation and the unobstructed ocean in front of it. Much of the Navy’s early receiver, antenna and noise mitigation technology was developed here under the leadership of radio pioneer Greenleaf Whittier Pickard.  But John D. Rockefeller wanted Otter Cliffs included in Acadia National Park. He convinced the Navy to swap locations. This is why the base at Schoodic had such an over-the-top main building—Rockefeller never did anything by halves.
In addition to fantastic shoreline, there are boreal bogs, too. This one won’t look like this in the summer, but I couldn’t resist the faerie lighting of the mist-shrouded branches.
We will be visiting at a unique point in Schoodic’s development. It’s still an unknown entity for most people, and the accommodations are best described as “military base chic.” But the Park Service is slowly rebuilding the facility. An area around the park—encompassing a third more property than the park itself—has been acquired for development as a resort. (This development would already be underway had it not been delayed by the Great Recession of 2008.)
Rolling Island seen through a shroud of trees.

Arey Cove at low tide. It looks very different with the tide up.

But for now, we will get to paint some of the best landscapes on the North Atlantic in relative solitude. This week I will post a pictorial essay on what we will be seeing. I hope you enjoy it.
Rockefeller never did anything by halves. This is the administration building for the former naval base.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me on the Schoodic Peninsula in beautiful Acadia National Park in 2015 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops! Download a brochure here.