Barb tightened down the last strip before we left for the night.
I spend so much time doing other things that one could be excused for not believing I’m married. In fact, we have been pursuing this fidelity lark for 36 years. There have been long stretches of conventional living, spent raising kids, paying mortgages, and pursuing careers. However, we’ve never been inseparable, even though we prefer to do things together.
When my husband left for band practice on Thursday night, our houseguest asked me if I was going to go with him. That sort of surprised me, because I couldn’t imagine using my time like that. My husband helps me when I need help and vice-versa, but we each have our own work to pursue.
This week, he’s on the road and I’m home in Maine. When that happens, I exercise a vicious double standard. I can camp on the road somewhere and I’ll check in as soon as I have cell service. He’s just going to a Hyatt hotel in a large city, but he’d better call me when he gets there or I’ll squawk until he checks in.
I chose ladder duty. I must be nuts.
One thing about not living in my partner’s pocket: when he asks for help, I jump. When he realized—in Freeport—that he’d forgotten something important, I changed my plans and met him to deliver it. Yes, I was doing something equally important at the time, but our special relationship dictates that he takes priority. That’s not a gender-role issue; he would do the same for me.
This meant I had to tell my friend Barb that there was a glitch in our plans to install The Usual Suspects: An Ongoing Investigation, opening on November 11 at Pop Up 265 in Augusta. She’s not feeling well and the delay made her very nervous. Still, we got the main structure in place by the time we ran out of steam, and I have to say, it looks nice.
I was helped by having no expectations or emotional engagement. I was seeing her idea for the first time and it was exciting. She just saw the ways in which it failed to meet her plan. If you’ve ever helped a friend clean, you know exactly what I mean. For you, it’s a lark; for your friend, it’s all wrapped up in emotion and ownership.
The painter’s equivalent to an installation is the Big Framing Project for a solo show.
My husband has heard that exact same pessimism from me as he’s helped me frame work for shows. It’s almost impossible for artists to see the work of our hands objectively. My daughter Mary told me that every time I finished a painting on my Canadian trip, I announced to her that it wasn’t that good. I’ve learned to not share that initial discontent with the public, but it’s hard to keep it totally to oneself.
We only made one significant error hanging Barb’s panels (our initial spacing of the magnets). That was nothing short of miraculous, since the figures were intended to be evenly spaced around an old room with uneven walls and more than a few obstacles. If you’ve ever wallpapered in an old house, you’ll understand exactly what I mean.
In so many things, the learning lies in the doing. The best a teacher can do is steer you away from pitfalls. Often, your hard-won knowledge is task-specific, never to be used in that form again. But as it joins your sum total of knowledge, it informs you in new ways. Take those young-wife tasks of my misspent youth—wallpapering and sewing. Both helped me as I helped Barb.
“Bloomfield Farm,” by Carol L. Douglas. The soft rolling hills, hazy light and deep, gravelly soil are typical of the western part of New York.
This has been a week of retrenchment, the backroom work that has to happen so that one can go back to the rough-and-tumble brush duel. Among other things, I met with a gallery owner. We talked about the differences between my New York and Maine paintings. Earlier this week I said it was the light, but it’s also the land.
I have been thinking about the spodosols that underlie the boggy boreal forest here. These are found in Maine, eastern Canada, Scotland, and Scandinavia, and they’re partly why these North Atlantic regions tend to have a similar feel. They provide romance and color for artists and an uphill battle for farmers.
“Mountain Lake, Spring,” by Carol L. Douglas. In some ways the Adirondacks can double for Maine because they have the same soil type.
Spodosols are also found in the Adirondacks, which may explain why Winslow Homer had such an affinity for both places. I watched a friend garden in the lower Adirondacks for a few years. While he was able to amend the shallow soil, the short growing season ultimately did him in.
“Catskills Farm,” pastel, by Carol L. Douglas.
My working life has been mostly spent in upstate, central and western New York. There, the soil is very deep and well drained, often running to clay. It is also essentially basic, meaning there are no broadleaf evergreens in the forest understory. If untended, it quickly reverts to forest, which tends strongly to maples, ashes, tulip trees and other hardwoods.
“Kaaterskill Falls,” by Carol L. Douglas. This is the shale of Southern Tier and Catskill Mountains.
It can be extremely stony from glaciation, but it is never rocky in the way of Maine. The exception is where rivers cut gorges through its bedrock limestone and shale. Western New York is oddly flat compared to the rest of the Northeast. The hills are low, worn, humpy things, remnants of glacial formations that are much flashier in other parts of the continent. That is why people think of it as Midwestern, rather than Mid-Atlantic.
“Corn Hill Methodist Church,” by Carol L. Douglas. This ruin is of Medina Sandstone, which is a cool red color.
Medina sandstone, which underlies the Lake Plains, is reddish in color. That gives its dirt a cool red undertone. The color is echoed in the Victorian Gothic architecture of its cities and towns. A great percentage of the land is under production, since this is very fine farming soil, both for truck farming and for grapes.
“Middle Falls of the Genesee River,” oil on canvas, by Carol L. Douglas.
A landscape painter is in some ways a journalist. We notice and communicate facts about our world. We frequently tell people that painting is in the seeing, not the paint application. Nowhere does that play out more than in plein air work. The more observant we are, the more we tell the story of the place.
“Jael and Sisera,” by Artemisia Gentileschi, 1620.
Since the Bible is a compilation of 66 books by 40 authors, it is a lot of things, including an historical record. It includes rather ugly facts about the condition of women in the ancient world. That doesn’t make it misogynistic; it makes it history. It’s also replete with women heroes.
For some reason, the history of Renaissance art includes a great love for the two warrior women, Judith and Jael. I’ve been thinking a lot about these paintings since my visit to the Met last weekend. Why is it that the predominantly male art world was so fascinated by the hammer of retribution being wielded by the feminine hand?
The story of Jael comes from the Book of Judges. Deborah, the only named female prophet and judge in the Bible, advised Barak to mobilize troops to meet a Canaanite threat. Barak whined. Deborah agreed to go with him, but told him that the honor of victory will go to a woman because he was being such a wimp. A downpour mired the Canaanite chariots and they were defeated. Their general, Sisera, fled on foot to the tent of Jael, wife of Heber the Kenite. She gave him a jug of milk and a blanket and he fell asleep. While he was sleeping, Jael drove a tent peg through his skull.
“Judith Slaying Holofernes,” by Artemisia Gentileschi, 1614–20.
The story of the beheading of Holofernes by Judith comes from a book we now consider deuterocanonical, although it was part of the Catholic Bible during the Renaissance. Judith visited the tent of the Assyrian general Holofernes, who was about to trash Judith’s hometown. Drunk, he passed out. Judith sawed his head off, and it was carried away in a basket.
“Susanna and the Elders,” by Artemisia Gentileschi, 1610.
The story of Susanna and the Elders is considered doctrinal by Catholics and Orthodox Christians and apocryphal by Protestants. As Susanna bathed in her garden, she was watched by two voyeurs, who, as elders, were powerful. They threatened to accuse her of meeting her lover in the garden unless she agreed to sleep with them. Refusing to be blackmailed, she was about to be put to death when young Daniel insisted on a proper investigation. The elders’ stories didn’t match, and Susanna’s virtue escapes unscathed.
These subjects are considered part of a medieval and Renaissance art genre which inverts the typical power relationship between men and women. They included myriad secular stories and classical myths as well as the Bible stories I’ve mentioned. What they reflect are the gender politics of the late middle ages, not those of the Biblical era.
I’ve used paintings of these subjects by Artemisia Gentileschi. She was almost alone in being a successful woman Renaissance painter. She has a unique view of the Power of Women discussion.
“The Meeting of David and Abigail,” by Peter Paul Rubens, 1630.
There is another hero woman mentioned in Samuel who didn’t get much traction with painters. Abigail overrode her loutish ingrate husband to intervene with an irate King David. She has been painted at her meeting with David, when she prophesizes his greatness and begs him to spare her people, saying that in his moment of greatness, “ my lord will not have on his conscience the staggering burden of needless bloodshed or of having avenged himself.”
The part I would like to paint, however, is when she went home to Nabal and told him off for being such an ass. He had a hangover, and then he had a stroke, and then he died. A fine ending, that.
In the past year, many people have talked to me about how my paintings have changed. This week I have a visitor from near Ithaca, NY. She’s a painter, so she’s visually observant. She talked about her impressions driving up the coast.
“While the leaves are gorgeous in New York right now, the light and clouds are different here,” she mused. “And the colors are different. We don’t get the clarity of light in New York. There is too much haze.” She went on to describe the light spilling through the clouds as the sun set, the warm golds of the reeds and marshes set against the blue-purples in the shadows and the slate gray of the clouds. It was a lovely word-sketch and it got me thinking.
“Nunda Autumn Day” (pastel), was painted before I moved to Maine.
There is nothing wrong with the filtered light of the mid-Atlantic region; it’s why my skin is so flawless going into old age. But there is less contrast in the landscape. Consider the work of Cornelia Foss, with whom I studied and greatly respect as a painter. She is the person who has had the greatest influence on me in terms of thinking about color. Her landscapes are absolutely accurate for Long Island, but they would be flat here in Maine.
“Behind the schoolhouse” was painted as a storm moved in on Monhegan, but the light is still stronger than it would have been in New York (painting by Carol L. Douglas)
I’ve been vaguely aware that I’m focusing more on value in my paintings these days, but I haven’t thought much about why that is. While talking to my guest, I realized it’s just a response to the high-key light of Maine.
“Keuka Lake” is an example of a lovely milky New York sky.
I’m not really doing anything differently; I’m painting something different. It would be a sign of failure if my Maine looked like my New York, wouldn’t it?
When I was younger, my dream job was to be a New York City cabbie. At that time, there was no GPS, so cabbies had to learn the city by heart. Driving in the city was like rolling around in a giant pinball game, and it was fun. Either Maine or old age has softened me up. Coming into Queens on Friday night, I found myself taking the innumerable small rudenesses personally, instead of answering them in the spirit in which they were intended.
In Queens the traffic problem is exacerbated because there’s no way off Long Island except through New York City. There have been Long Island Sound bridges and tunnels proposed since the 1950s, but they never get built. I’m not sure a bridge would do much except allow the metropolis to slop further out of its jar. It sure would change the view.
Brad Marshall and his painting.
Long Island Sound is an estuary. That makes it an important feeding, breeding and nursery area for migratory fish and birds. It is also among the earliest and most densely settled areas in the United States. Somehow that tension between 400 years of human habitation and nature works to make it a very beautiful place.
I went to Rye intending to paint boats, which are one of my favorite subjects. The American Yacht Club has an anemometer, and on Sunday, winds were gusting up to 45 mph. My canvas would have made a nice little sail that sent my easel flying into the Sound. Instead, Brad Marshall and I hunkered down in the lee of the building, giving us a view of the beach and its riprap breakwater but, sadly, no boats. Still, we both managed to turn out credible compositions.
The American Yacht Club owns this wonderful painting of tugs by Jack L. Gray.
Between painting and the reception, artists mostly want to stay out of the way. Luckily, the yacht club has a great selection of art, including a terrific model of the America and a lovely painting of tugs by Canadian maritime painter Jack L. Gray. We pottered about peering at things and were very happy.
At the reception, a couple told me that my painting reminded them of the Group of Seven. Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven are my artistic ideal; I think and write about them frequently. It turns out that my new friends are Canadian, and know my home town of Buffalo very well. My painting went home with them and I headed back north, grateful to be driving gently once again.
Rain, I can handle. Wind—in the usual amounts—I can handle. The combination is difficult, since the wind makes an umbrella impossible. Rain makes for gloomy paintings anyway, which one can sometimes recast as moody, but not always.
The organizers of this weekend’s event had given us two days for one painting. So when Saturday was both windy and guttering rain, Brad Marshall and I decided to take pencils to the Met instead. We thought we’d look at Max Beckmann, follow him up with some lighthearted Fragonard frivolity, and then find a bit of Roman statuary to draw. But as Brad held the elevator door, a gentleman turned to him and said, “Did you see the Caravaggisti? Really excellent.”
by Brad Marshall
There really being only one Caravaggio, I’ve never been that interested in his followers. There’s a fine line between emotionalism and being just plain silly. So I was pleasantly surprised at what a fine painter Valentin de Boulogne was.
I found myself in a group of three ladies querying me about Judith and Holofernes. (Brad had neatly sidestepped.) “How do you know this stuff?” one finally asked.
by Brad Marshall
“I’m an evangelical Christian. We learn this stuff,” I answered. But regardless of faith, these stories are a powerful part of our cultural legacy, since the books of the Bible are the greatest collection of literature surviving from antiquity. There was a time when everyone learned them, and they learned them predominantly through paintings. As Brad said later, “I know them from Art History.”
Valentin also turned out innumerable morality paintings, as per his time. All those fortune-tellers-with-soldiers put me in the mood to draw armor, so we made our way to that Hall. Since there were no benches, I asked a security guard if we could sit on the floor.
by Brad Marshall
“Absolutely impermissible,” he sniffed, in the refined tones of a descendent of ten generations of Norman knights. “Not allowed… Still, if you promise to not tell my supervisor that I allowed it, go ahead.” Later, he walked by again and muttered, “Impermissible,” at me. He would have his little joke.
by Brad Marshall
So we drew horses and armor, Brad sketching away lightheartedly and me fuming and cursing and complaining that I didn’t understand how the mannequins were seated.
“Stop drawing what you know and start drawing what you see,” Brad said, and it was, of course, good advice. I was rather surprised at the stature of these warhorses. In my mind’s eye, I’d seen them towering like modern-day Friesians. Instead, if the armor is any indication, they were about the size of my old quarter horse.
Suddenly it was 7 PM and time for us to head back, since Sunday promised to be a long day. We picked up a pizza as we exited the subway. That made it a perfect New York evening.
A patch of blueberries is an amazing confection of red tones, turning the summer-green-foliage question on its head. It’s fascinating to mix those colors. Of course it is easier with a palette knife. I’d pulled mine out of my kit to see if I could do a better fix than I’d done along the road in Canada. Alas, I forgot to return it.
It is very difficult to paint without a palette knife; until yesterday, I’d have said it was darn near impossible. Mixing with a brush is inaccurate and is hard on your brushes. But there were no sticks handy to carve into a mixing knife. I used my brushes.
For those of you who don’t live near them, blueberries in their native clime are short, similar to heather in stature.
While they’ve developed highbush cultivars of the blueberry that grow in warmer places, the native blueberry species mostly grow in boreal and tundra areas. Yes, one can get blueberries from New Jersey, but they bear about as much resemblance to the Maine blueberry as plasticulture strawberries do to the ones that grow in my lawn.
I’d intended to spend an hour painting those fantastic reds, but the light was exquisite and the day was warmer than forecast. I was there closer to three. With a start, I realized I needed to be on the road to make Pittsfield before my grandchildren’s bedtime.
By the time I was done, a mackerel sky was building and the light was going fast.
The MassPike is replacing its toll/cash system with overhead gantries on October 28. This system was in place in Australia when I visited in 2008, and it’s a lot faster than toll booths. However, it does mean a higher toll and a bill in the mail for anyone without an EZ Pass.
It’s amazing how fast a drive of five hours seems after traveling across Canada. I blasted the stereo and sang along. A car of young men saw me bouncing and whirled around my car to check me out. I chortled as they realized I was old enough to be their mother.
All rocks are not the same. The same brushstrokes that suggest the sandstone and shale ledges of Kaaterskill Falls in New York are inappropriate for the Maine Coast. Nor are all rocks uniformly brown. In fact, rocks in Maine generally aren’t brown at all.
To the artist, nothing is more distinctive about Maine than the cradle of grey and pink granite in which it lies. Having meandered around fringes of the North Atlantic quite a bit this year (the Hebrides, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick), I am struck by how similar the coastline is in all of these places. The fingers of granite cutting into the ocean at Iona reach out as if to interlace with those at Eastport.
Artists know that soil color is different in different places, but we seldom consider why. The underlying rocks, weathering, rainfall and tide play their parts. So too does organic matter, as we know from murder mysteries where the corpse is found in a shallow grave.
“Island Village, Coast of Maine,” Rockwell Kent, 1909
Maine is full of a soil formation called spodosol. This is infertile, acidic, and found mostly in boreal forests. It’s good for trees, blueberries and potatoes, and not much else. It’s part of the reason that spruces topple in winter gales here, and it’s actually pretty rare, making up less than 4% of soils worldwide. The observant artist notes the ways in which it influences the landscape: blueberry barrens, bogs, and fallen trees.
Schoodic Point in Acadia, where I teach my annual workshop, has some of the most beautiful rock formations in Maine. Black basalt dikes cut through pale pink granite in long lines running out to sea. These were formed by magma forcing its way into cracks in the older stone. Since they fracture faster than granite, they’re in control of the current pattern of erosion. The honest painter thinks about their color and fracture patterns, and doesn’t just throw in a generic rock face in the general area it’s needed.
Granite near Thunder Hole in Acadia. The rock is pink, not brown.
I’ve included examples by three Maine painters who cared more about observation than current conventions in mark-making. Their work is now universally included in the canon of masters. There’s a hint in there: to succeed in the long run, you have to be serious about seeing.
Napoleon I on his Imperial Throne (Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, 1806). Dismissed at the time, it is now considered one of the most insightful political portraits ever painted.
A-Levels are our British cousins’ version of a high-school concentration. It’s a wide and varied list, including Punjabi and Classical Greek, among many other subjects. We Americans, accustomed to readin’, writin’, and ‘rithmetic being our fundamental choices in high school, have no similar experience. Kids sit for two exams over two years in each subject. When they’re done, their proficiencies are part of the mysterious equation that gets them into college or university.
In 2018, the A-Level in Art History will be tossed on the ashcan, offered no more. This decision was, inscrutably, part of a Conservative initiative to modernize the tests. In part, the decision was blamed on a lack of qualified teachers. Clearly, there is some fundamental difference between the British educational economy and ours, because I know a plethora of adjunct professors here who would leap at the opportunity for a gig paying an actual living wage.
Art history is the visual record of the thoughts and values of our ancestors, and it ought to be taught side-by-side with political history. For example, if a class were studying the French and American Revolutions, a few weeks perusing the catalog to Citizens and Kings would be eye-opening. The radical change in social values that drove revolution is laid out in perfect clarity. These ideas are stunning and very pertinent to the Current Crisis.
Portrait of Louis-François Bertin (Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, 1832). Ingres recorded so much more than just fabric.
Art history is nuanced. It cannot be easily reduced to a Scantron exam. It requires analysis, interpretation, prodigious memorization, and excellent writing skills. You can’t learn it without accidentally learning language, theology, history, and economics. To grade such a subject, a teacher must read (and understand) complex essays. That simply isn’t feasible in the modern age of productivity and quantification, so it is being sacrificed to Progress by our British cousins. And it doesn’t get the respect it deserves here, either.
Louise de Broglie, Countess d’Haussonville. (Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, 1845). Who, actually, is this woman?
However, there’s good news in that. While companies like Pearson make billions commodifying our Three Rs, there’s no real money to be made in art history. That makes it a wide-open subject for the self-taught man. Janson’s History of Art is in its eighth edition, and will set back a college freshman several hundred dollars (for shame). However, the sixth edition can be had for less than $20. Art history really hasn’t changed a bit since it was published in 2001.
Go ahead, be a subversive: buy it and read it. Nobody really owns the right to our shared history and knowledge, no matter how hard corporations try to corner the market.
I’ve been blessedly ignorant of the American election for weeks. I would occasionally hear TV news when stuck in a waiting room, but generally I had too little personal bandwidth to take it in. When Canadians would ask my opinion, they did so lightheartedly. No surprise there; it’s not their train wreck.
At this point, I plan to vote for neither candidate; I was born and raised in New York and have followed both of them for a long time. A plague on both their houses.
Please don’t send me any links explaining why I’m wrong. All that ‘information’ is a big part of the problem.
“That’s how men are,” is one argument that has been prematurely dismissed this week. Most of us are rightfully offended on behalf of our own fathers, brothers, husbands and sons. In fact, alpha males have behaved like this for a long time, and we live in a society of extreme moral grunge, so none of this should come as a particular surprise.
Every woman at some point holds a friend’s hand while she experiences the death of her marriage. It’s devastating. The most private things become public while, at the same time, the grief is overwhelming. Sadly, there’s a common thread running through many of these stories: the wife always knew he was a jerk; she just never believed she could do better. I’m always immensely saddened when a friend comes to that realization. Of course she deserved better. As a nation, so do we.
I wonder how Lyndon Baines Johnson would have fared in today’s world of electronic eavesdropping. He was famously crude and said to have been repeatedly unfaithful to Lady Bird. I doubt I would have liked him much, but he was an undeniably effective politician.
In the Sixties, we hid facts to make our politicians more palatable. Today, we create facts to make them less palatable. I receive hundreds of emails a day and an equal number of messages via other platforms. For five weeks, I had a respite, since I simply deleted everything from my phone without reading it. Coming back, I feel like I’ve taken a load of birdshot in the face.
There is no way I can sort out the truthiness in the barrage. Add TV (which I don’t watch) to that mix, and it’s safe to say that we’re all bathing in a stew of disinformation. It is impossible to sort hard news from opinion or, worse, absolute slander.
In 2016, none of us can agree on anything. Prove something and someone will immediately prove that the opposite is actually the truth. This is the end of rationalism, the death of the Age of Reason, brought to us by an overload of information. I’m not enjoying it particularly. Are you?