Christmas Eve memories

It wasn’t Santa Claus but it was magic nevertheless.

Santa toy, oil on archival canvasboard, $435 in a narrow silver frame, available this month through Camden Public Library.

We were raised without Santa Claus, my parents believing that it was bad to lie to children. Furthermore, my mother was inept at gift-buying. It was the Swinging Sixties, and my friends were getting Barbies, slot cars and record players. We got winter gloves, long underwear, clothes and socks.

I don’t remember feeling particularly deprived about it. We were rich in playthings. We had dirt bikes, dogs, horses, chickens, cows, and a sailboat. Mom was just whimsy-impaired. There were never Barbies or Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots when we were little.

Christmas Presents, sold this month through Camden Public Library.

We were not churchgoers, so nothing set Christmas morning apart. We would open our gifts, have breakfast, and then do as we always did on weekends and holidays—go outside and scare up some fun.

Christmas Eve was the holiday that mattered. Our grandmother’s home in South Buffalo was an hour’s drive in perfect weather. The weather in Buffalo in December is often horrible. Blizzards blow in across Lake Erie in the so-called ‘lake effect’ storms of early winter. Yet we never missed a year, even when it meant inching along the Thruway in white-out conditions.

There was always a battle for a window seat, because there was no car radio or light to read by. Instead, there was frost on the windows, in which one could draw pictures, and a kaleidoscope of winter scenes.

Christmas Eve, oil on archival canvasboard, $435 in a narrow silver frame, available this month through Camden Public Library.

It’s said that my Aunt Mary once laid my infant cousin Liz down in the huge pile of coats on my grandmother’s bed and forgot her. I can no longer remember if that is true or not.

What I remember most was the noise. The tables were set down the center of my grandmother’s apartment, and we were seated in descending order of age. There was no segregation of kids from adults. My grandmother was an immigrant and a young widow. She was the head of her clan, with six kids and 25 grandkids. In a sense, we were her life’s work, and she liked seeing us all together.

There was no dishwasher, of course. After dinner, aunts and cousins retreated to the kitchen to clean up, and my grandmother’s standards were exacting. That might gall today, but we didn’t mind. I got to know my cousins standing in Grandma’s kitchen drying plates.

Christmas Angel, courtesy private collector.

If it was not storming, my parents might be persuaded to go to Midnight Mass at my grandmother’s parish church. The hush, the candles, and the strange beauty of Catholic liturgy were all alien and yet so familiar. I’d been watching it from outside for my whole short life.

And then, the long drive home through the snow. Dozing, perhaps, but never really sleeping, the squeak of tires in snow, windshield wipers flapping. Dark roads and sometimes moonlight. It wasn’t Santa Claus but it was magic nevertheless.

My sister Ann died, and then my brother John, and then my cousin Frankie. My dad pretty much fell apart after that. Grandma got too old to make the white pasta and baccalà, so the aunts took over with sheet pans of lasagna. The Christmas feast wandered, irresolute, from house to house until it finally died.

But Christmas Eve remains one of my favorite days of the year. We’ll fry fish tonight, and video-chat with our kids and grandkids, and then wait with the rest of the world, in a silent hush of anticipation. Tonight, we celebrate the Incarnation, when God sent his only son to deliver us from our own stupidity. Of all the gifts I’ve ever received, that understanding is undoubtably the greatest.

Loss and love

We think of it as a political problem but every single coronavirus death in America is, first and foremost, a personal tragedy.

My late Aunt Mary, painted a long time ago by me.

I’m in Buffalo for a memorial service. My uncle was in fine fettle when I was in Argentina in March, texting me about my trip. A few days later, he was dead. Yes, I’m aware that he had lived a rich, full life, but that is small consolation for the sudden loss of someone I loved very much.

My cousins endured their father’s death in the worst parts of the epidemic, separated and unable to comfort him or each other. They’re no strangers to loss; their mother (my aunt Mary) died the day before her sixtieth birthday. I am comforted by the idea that my aunt and uncle are reunited now, along with the infant son they lost so many years ago.

Like my whole extended family, my uncle was a committed Catholic Democrat. I’m sure he was puzzled when I ended up a born-again Reagan Republican. But that was never a factor in our relationship. It puzzles me when people use politics or religion as an excuse to fight with their families.

Grain Elevators, Buffalo, by Carol L. Douglas. The waterfront in my hometown looks so much better than when I painted this. I really should teach a workshop there sometime soon.

A friend sends me videos every day criticizing our government’s response to coronavirus. I delete them without responding. The last emperor to be criticized for his response to plague was Pharaoh, and that was by his escaped Hebrew slaves; his subjects certainly didn’t mention it. Was the Emperor Justinian castigated for allowing bubonic plague into Europe, or Edward III deposed because he didn’t prevent the Black Death?

Mankind’s historic understanding has been that there are only two possible tools against plagues: prayer and science. The Ghost Map is an excellent read about the origins of epidemiology. In 1854, people were more interested in containing cholera than blaming their political opponents for its rise.

First ward, Buffalo, oil with cold-wax medium on gessoed paper, by Carol L. Douglas

Still, there are questions that require communal response. What we do with kids in a few weeks’ time, when they’re supposed to return to their classrooms? How do we protect our elderly? Perhaps both of these questions really point up that we have gotten a little too reliant on large institutions.

None of my kids were born in Buffalo, but they are all traveling back to pay their respects to a man I loved. I’m very touched by this. Last night I went for a walk with my oldest grandchild. He may be only five, but he has insights into complex concepts. If he never spends another day in a classroom, he’ll be fine. Both parents are engineers and quite able to teach him all the way up through multivariable calculus.

When my mother started kindergarten, she did not speak English. Her own mother was illiterate. Public school was a lifeline and the way out of poverty for my mother and her siblings. The same is true of my goddaughter, whose parents are Chinese-speaking former refugees. We have record-high levels of immigrants in the US today. They need public school. The same is true of native-born kids whose parents didn’t have good educations. We must find ways to teach them.

I’ve watched many small businesses close this year. Many of them were already struggling. Lockdown was the coup de grace that brought them down. This is economic pruning. It may yet prove to be a healthy thing for our economy, just as the Black Death ultimately resulted in the end of serfdom in Europe. I remind myself of that every day. Crisis is opportunity. Either we adapt, or we retire from the field.

But all of that is political. Every single coronavirus death in America is, first and foremost, a personal tragedy. This weekend, I’ll be thinking of my uncle and what a fine man he was, and how immeasurable a loss his death is to me, and to a whole community.

An artist I didn’t know was from Buffalo

And why does everyone hate on mistletoe?
Buffalo Grain Elevators, Ralston Crawford, 1937, oil on canvas, courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum

“We saw a beautiful painting by Ralston Crawford in an exhibition at the Ashmolean (American ‘Cool’ Modernism). It said he was a Buffalo painter, but I’d never heard of him. I’m picky about abstract art, but I really loved that painting!” wrote an expatriate reader.

I’m from Buffalo, and I hadn’t heard of him, either. I certainly never saw his paintings at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo—because they own none. They do, however, own prints of some of his photos.
Buffalo (2 grain elevator cylinders), Ralston Crawford, 1942, gelatin silver print, courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum
Crawford was born in St. Catharines, Ontario (across the Niagara River from Buffalo) in 1906. He spent his childhood in Buffalo, where he shipped aboard Great Lakes Freighters with his father. At the age of twenty, he pushed out of Buffalo harbor for good, crewing on tramp steamers plying the coast of North and Central America. That landed him in California, where he enrolled in California’s newly-minted Otis Art Institute. After a stint working at Walt Disney’s studio, he headed back east to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. In 1934, he had his first one-man show, at the Maryland Institute College of Art.
He was associated with a 1930s group from Bucks County, PA, called the Independents. They—rather predictably, by this time—were in rebellion against the Pennsylvania Impressionists then in vogue. But Crawford suffered from bouts of wanderlust all his life, so he didn’t stay in Philly, either. He painted and took photos all around the world. He was invited to witness the first public test of an atomic bomb in the Marshall Islands in 1946. What he saw ended up as the basis of a series of paintings of the “devastating character” of the nuclear bomb. He’s buried in New Orleans, in a cemetery that—in life—he loved to paint.
1961–Number 3, Ralston Crawford, 1961, oil on canvas, courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum
“Why are Mainers so worried about mistletoe?” asked a summer visitor. “Isn’t it supposed to be festive?”
Mistletoe is a parasitic plant. I don’t know why it ever became a symbol of fertility, because it’s toxic and destructive. At least the English version is decorative. The species that grows in Maine—Eastern Dwarf Mistletoe—is too small to see from the ground. Instead, it stimulates its host to produce large twiggy growths called brooms. Its preferred hosts, unfortunately, are our majestic native spruces, usually on headlands along the open ocean, although it will colonize on pine, balsam, and larch, too.  Farther away from the water, it’s less common for the infestation to be as heavy, and such trees may carry their parasites for many years.
However, those on the coast will die over time, especially those with serious infections. The only ‘cure’ is to chop down mature infested trees and hope that reforested babies avoid infection. But the ancient spruce overhanging the sea is a Maine icon, so mistletoe is definitely unwelcome here.
Lafayette Street, Ralston Crawford, 1954, lithograph, courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum
Last weekend for first dibs on my holiday sale.
Have you wanted to get someone (or yourself) one of my paintings but never quite been able to afford one?  I’m offering a few paintings starting this week at steep discounts. These are on a hidden page, which only my readers have access to.
Here’s the link: Hidden Holiday Sale
There are 28 paintings in all, discounted 30, 40, 50, even 60% off their list prices. Not only that, but postage to the US and Canada is included.

Art for art’s sake

What will happen to our work when we die? Most of it will be destroyed, of course.
Courtesy Buffalo Religious Arts Center.

With its imposing Romanesque spire, the former St. Francis Xavier Church looms over its surrounding neighborhood. This is working-class Black Rock, at the northernmost tip of the city of Buffalo, but the church isn’t unique. As was true in so many northeastern cities, the Catholic Church was the center of working-class and immigrant life in Buffalo. Stand on the top of the parking ramp on the Broadway Market and try to count the spires surrounding you in the East Side. You’ll lose track before you finish.

Having grown up in a Catholic family in Buffalo, I’ve been in many of these churches. Their parishes may have slumped into disrepute, their worshippers moved to the suburbs, but as long as there were people around to care for them, their sanctuaries were treasured spaces.
Courtesy Buffalo Religious Arts Center.
What the mega-church is to modern worshippers, the 19th- and early 20th-century Catholic church was to immigrants. Some of them, like St. Stanilaus, Mother Church of Buffalo’s Polish community, seated thousands in their heyday. They were filled with beautiful windows, statuary, paintings and tile work, often imported at great cost from Europe.
A combination of demographics and scandal has led to many of those great churches being shuttered. What to do with them is a problem facing cities like Buffalo. They’re not suitable for most modern purposes (including worship), but they are too important to tear down.
Courtesy Buffalo Religious Arts Center.
St. Francis Xavier Church has moved on to new life as the Buffalo Religious Arts Center, founded in 2008. Its vision is acute and forward-thinking, so much so that I’m afraid it’s ahead of its time. Usually a period of iconoclasm and destruction must be endured before we sweep up the few remaining bits of art and hang them on museum walls.
Courtesy Buffalo Religious Arts Center.
This came to mind because I was recently asked a related question: “Have you made any provision for what will happen to your unsold artwork when you die?” It was such a cheerful thought that I took the living willI’d been filling out and stuffed it in the woodstove.
Like every artist, I have a pile of unsold artwork hanging around my studio. What happens to it will be determined by the market, not me. If my work is selling well at the time of my death, my kids can hire an art curator to market it posthumously. If I’ve been forgotten in the scrap heap of time, they can take my unsold paintings out to the burn pile and get rid of them. Once I’m dead, it’s of no importance to me.
Courtesy Buffalo Religious Arts Center.
That’s the first step in the inevitable winnowing of an artist’s oeuvre, and in fact, until recent times, nobody really thought much about it. It’s what drives up prices for dead artists’ work.
Looking at what we have in museums is, in fact, very instructive about this process. It’s absurd to think that no artists before the Impressionists ever sketched a meadow or drew an abstract sketch, but very few examples of these survive. The Greeks and Romans left us the pantheon of gods and heroes. Medieval and Renaissance art was concerned with our relationship with God. Landscape sketches and abstractions weren’t important to the culture of the time, so they were ignored and ultimately destroyed.

What I saw in Castine

We humans really have no idea how tiny we are compared to nature.

Towering Elm, Carol L. Douglas, painted at Castine Plein Air
Trees are the largest living beings surrounding us, but we pay them scant attention. Until one drops a limb, we have no sense of their power or scale. Most of us can’t identify more than one or two species. Gardeners may fuss over the flowering trees, but they pay scant attention to the large masses of green just beyond their fences.
There are about 3.04 trillion trees on Earth, or around 422 for each person. It seems like we ought to pay more attention to them.
As with everything visual, my ‘knowledge’ sometimes overwrites what I see. I told you how I once repeatedly mis-corrected a student’s drawing of a lobster boat. Being able to draw something from memory is a skill. The downside is when we stop observing altogether.
I had a similar epiphany last week in Castine. I’d seen Don Tenney of the Castine Arts Associationover the winter. He told me about a survey map of elms in the town.
Photo of Delaware Avenue near Summer Street, 1939, by Wilbur H. Porterfield, courtesy Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society. 
“Elms?” I asked, disbelieving. I’m from Buffalo, where Dutch Elm Disease first appeared in 1951. By the late 1960s, almost every elm was dead. Buffalo, once known as the City of Trees, lay bare, its Cathedral Arches of about 180,000 trees gone forever. I was a small girl when the city arborists cut down the remaining trees on our block. It went from a magical green tunnel to an unremarkable, clapped-out neighborhood instantly.
I assumed the elms were gone everywhere, gone the way of the American chestnut, into the annals of history.
Dutch Elm Disease arrived in the US in 1928. Of an estimated 77 million elms in North America in 1930, over 75% were gone by 1989. But it turns out there are remaining pockets of elms, most notably in Canada’s western provinces. And there are still a lot of them in Castine.
Once I realized they were there, I couldn’t stop seeing them. They’re even taller and statelier than in my memory. They’re no longer in an unbroken line, except for a stretch of Court Street, but they still arch over Castine’s lovely streets.
In Republic of Shade: New England and the American Elm, Thomas J. Campanella documents the importance of the American elm to our American identity. Elms were planted in formation across the country. 
The Elm Tree, c. 1880, George Inness, courtesy of the Clark Museum.
Dutch Elm Disease notwithstanding, elms were hardy and long-lived. They have a dense canopy with a unique parasol shape, echoing a vase or the Gothic arch. Since they had no commercial usefulness, they were allowed to grow untouched on the edges of fields and in the forest. They came to represent the primeval forest in the American imagination.
I painted the above example of an elm at the corner of State and Court Streets as dusk fell. Next year, I’ll approach the composition differently.  But this painting was useful in setting the scale of the trees. I had to erase the house repeatedly and make it smaller to make it true to reality. We humans really have no idea how tiny we are compared to nature.
I’ve got one more workshop available this summer. Join me for Sea and Sky at Schoodic, August 5-10. We’re strictly limited to twelve, but there are still seats open.

Home is where they wear you out with parties

When your car is too ratty for Buffalo, you may have a problem.
Erie Canal, by Carol L. Douglas

I woke up to the smell of lake water in the air—a uniquely Buffalo smell, and one that presages rain. It’s my last day here, and I’ll be glad to head home after eight days on the road. I can’t keep up the pace of all this partying. It’s the official sport of Buffalo, after all.

Buffalo’s always been a hard-partying kind of town. At one time the bars stayed open all night to cater to shift-workers. There are no more manufacturing jobs, and the bars now close at 4 AM. I don’t know any American city more dedicated to drinking than that.
Rock tumble at the Holley canal spillway, by Carol L. Douglas
My childhood chum Tim Wendel is in town promoting his newest book, Cancer Crossings. I’d like to catch up, but I comfort myself with the idea that he doesn’t have any more time than I do. I’d hoped to connect with another childhood friend, dancer Cynthia Cadwell Pegado. She’s one of my oldest friends, actually, since we met at our infant dedication at Delaware Baptist Church. I managed to connect with my sister-in-law and her new husband yesterday. And I had dinner in Ellicott Creek Park with my brother and his family. When your life is in your car, you meet up where you can.
It’s like this every time I go on a road trip, but never more so than when I’m in Buffalo. This is my home town, and I’m proud to be from here. However, I can’t see myself ever coming back to live. I can’t handle the pace.
Bluebells on the Erie Canal towpath. WNY has its moments of fascination, for sure.
Buffalonians are, in general, polite drivers, but I still don’t much enjoy sitting in traffic. There’s more and more of that in my old haunts. After a sixty-year hiatus, my home town is finally coming into its own. I’ve waited for this, but I can’t say that I like it much.
I followed a Lamborghini down Niagara Falls Boulevard yesterday. This was always a city of rusty cargo vans. Suddenly, I’m self-conscious about the condition of the old Mercury Monterey we’re tooling around in. I didn’t realize it was possible to drive a car that’s too ratty for Buffalo.
I drove to Grand Island to look at a replacement for my trusty Prius yesterday. At 257,000 miles, it’s grown fragile. My best option, I think, is a pickup truck. “That’s a rather extreme shift,” my daughter commented.
After 257,000 miles and 13 years, the Prius is growing fragile.
I’m spending more and more time on back roads. My Prius, while indomitable, has broken two springs. It was never designed for the dirt roads of Nova Scotia, for example. It’s too small to camp in, and I had to have the roof repainted after (inadvisably) carrying my canoe on it.
I looked at SUVs, but they all seem designed more for luxury than for off-roading. I hate scrubbing paint out of upholstery, so a truck is starting to look like my best choice. Still, $40,000 is a lot to spend on a vehicle.
I don’t even remember painting this sketch of a NYSDOT tug on the Erie Canal. I wonder where it ended up.
I have one more task—to load my youngest kid’s stuff in my van—and then we can take off. By mid-afternoon, I should be tooling east on US 90 toward Massachusetts. After that, I get to work in earnest. I have a commission to finish, and a piece to write for Saranac Lake, and if I plan to make any money this summer, I’d better deliver some new work to my galleries.

Approaching the finish line

Joined together under a single cell-phone plan, they are now (almost) man and wife.


The artist’s great conceit is that he or she can make anything. Today I’m going to make bouquets out of heirloom roses and thistles. I kind of wish the bridal party was carrying helium balloons instead.
Some time this afternoon, I’m supposed to close down my workroom, freshen up my makeup, and appear at the wedding rehearsal as if I’ve been doing nothing more than hanging out at a spa all day. Plein air artists do this every time we have an event opening. One moment, we’re madly framing on the back decks of our cars. Then the final bell tolls. We’re done, for better or worse. We find a public restroom, wash as well as we can, and slip into our nice clothes. Then we go into the sale gallery and look at our paintings and think of all the things we wish we’d done differently.
I once did an event with Laurie Lefebvre where, under her beautiful clinging party dress, she was spattered with brilliant paint that wouldn’t wash off. Laurie is statuesque and beautiful, so she carried it off. I usually have paint rubbed into my eye sockets, so I often look like I’m coming off a nine-day drunk.
Some of the other flowers in my order didn’t travel as well.
When my first daughter was married, I missed her rehearsal and dinner entirely. The crystal and flatware at the venue were not cleaned to my standards. There were more than 200 guests at that wedding, so washing the dishes and resetting the tables was no small feat. Still, it had to be done—or so I thought at the time.
I’ve smartened up since then. I’ve resolved to take Philippians 4:5-7 as if it were a pointed comment directed right at me. I asked another daughter yesterday (not the bride) whether I was overreacting about browning on the flowers. She assured me I wasn’t, so I’m waiting now for a replacement delivery. My chef friends tell me your results are only as good as the ingredients you use. It’s certainly true of painting.
The designer put boning in this bodice for a reason. A tailor removed it. I replaced it. Hopefully, when the owner shows up today, the dress will fit her.
I’m not faulting the online vendor. The flowers were packed on the wrong truck and carted around Niagara Falls by mistake. So far, the company is responsive. Still, I’m starting to feel the pressure of delays against a fixed deadline.
Daughter number two is furloughed this week, waiting for the Federal government to renew her contract. I’m terrifically proud of this kid for many things, but one of them is that she and her husband are careful money managers. They’re not knocked off their pins by this setback, and it’s given us a chance to spend time together.
At one point yesterday, she was deboning a chicken while I was boning the bodice of a dress. My youngest found the language so offensive he went out for a walk.
The bride found my tasteful fascinator too funereal, so I fun-fettied it.
Meanwhile, the bride and groom met up with Sandy Quang at a restaurant near Rochester, where she handed over the critical documents needed for a marriage license in New York. They then went to the closest town clerk and got the business done. Future genealogists will be stumped looking for that license, since Henrietta, NY plays no part in either of their histories.
They then proceeded to a T-Mobile store to buy a cell phone plan. That, in modern parlance, is probably the true joining together of man and wife.

The Bourbon Trail

Our national identity is to be found in diners and city parks, cypress swamps and little towns, local church services, at Home Depot, on city streets and lonely country roads.

I may have the wrong footwear for Buffalo…
As much as I like overseas travel, I’ve never felt the urge to teach in another country. Landscape painting conveys a deeper shade of intimacy that I simply don’t feel when visiting other places. I enjoy them, but I don’t love them in the same way as I love the US and Canada.
I took this trip to pave the way for a workshop in the Deep South. Why didn’t I just head to the more familiar eastern seaboard states? I’m familiar enough with them that a road trip wasn’t necessary. The central south has been calling to me for a long time, although I’m still not sure what it’s saying.
I usually approach Kentucky from the north. It seems very southern compared to Ohio. This time, driving up from Mississippi, it seemed northern, its drawl flattened out to a midwestern twang. Either way, its identity is confused. This is where the great antislavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was set. When Eliza struggled across the frozen Ohio River, she was literally leaping from slavery to freedom.
One-lane road, central Kentucky.
And yet, nowhere was ‘brother against brother’ truer than in Kentucky. The state tried to sit out the Civil war, but its self-declared neutrality was ignored by both sides. Eventually, it cast its lot with the Union. But southern sympathies were strong, and a group of citizens formed a shadow government that joined the Confederacy.
I came to love Kentucky when I did art festival in Louisville. Now I take every opportunity to shun-pike through this state. It has beautiful farms, lovely steep hollows and hills, and the biggest known cave system in the world. But I was being a serious driver yesterday, intending to get from Bowling Green to Buffalo, NY in one shot. That meant sticking to the Interstate system like a burr on a saddle-blanket.
Dogwood and distillery.
Maybe it was the knowledge that there was snow ahead, but I couldn’t resist veering down the Bluegrass Parkway. This runs east to Kentucky horse country. These are the most manicured farms in America, and the horses—even the ones free to graze near the road—are beasts of singular beauty. The spring grass is in, and the horses were gamboling in the sun.
Before I got that far, I saw a sign for Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail. That eventually put me on a series of one-lane roads. The blind corners, cropped hedges and small-town distilleries reminded me of the Isle of Skye.
Most of us, when we say we’ve ‘been to’ a place, mean we’ve driven through on the Interstate or we’ve flown in, gone downtown, eaten at trendy restaurants and seen a few tourist sites. You really don’t learn much about your country like that. Our common ground is to be found on the old Federal routes, at diners and city parks, in cypress swamps and little towns, at local church services, or talking to the guy at Home Depot. We should all do more of that.

Midnight Ambler

Charles Burchfield wasn’t necessarily manic-depressive; he perfectly reflected his time and place.

Night of the Equinox, 1917-1955, watercolor, brush and ink, gouache, and charcoal on paper , Charles Burchfield (Smithsonian Museum). “One of the most exciting weather events of the whole year. What we called the spring equinoctial storm. It seemed as if terrific forces were abroad in the land,” wrote Burchfield.

At home I watch the passage of time through the night sky. On the road, that’s often confused. I’m in my hometown of Buffalo, NY for the holiday weekend. The sky glows all night long. My insomnia is in sympathy with the place. This is, after all, a city where last call is at 4 AM, a remnant of the days when the mills roared 24-7.

The only Buffalo artist to enter the pantheon of the greats was Charles Ephraim Burchfield, born in 1893 in Ashtabula Harbor, Ohio. Burchfield attended the Cleveland School of Art. In 1916, he received a scholarship to the National Academy of Design in New York. He quit after just one day.
Ice Glare, 1933, watercolor, charcoal, and graphite on paper, Charles Burchfield (Whitney Museum of American Art)
He came to Buffalo in 1921 to take a job with M. H. Birge & Sons. His painting influenced his wallpaper design work, and his work at Birge influenced his later paintings. The sinuous, twisting shapes of Burchfield’s electric trees are strongly reminiscent of the patterns of Art Nouveau home furnishings. “Design was my especial field in which I excelled,” he wrote.  He was particularly attracted to Art Nouveau illustrators and Japanese and Chinese painting styles. This prepared the way for his later career.
Birge enabled him to marry and have a family, but in turn created a financial trap. Eight years and five kids later, he was suffering from ulcers. Anxiety was a state that seemed to dog him whenever he was in a nine-to-five job, whether at Birge, in the Army or as an art teacher.
The Coming of Spring, 1917-1943, watercolor, Charles Burchfield (The Metropolitan Museum of Art). This is an allegorical painting but it bears a strong resemblance to nearby Shale Creek Preserve.
“I’d rather be poor and hungry than be a widow,” he recollected his wife Bertha telling him. Still, painting was a good economic choice. Burchfield successfully weathered the Great Depression as a full-time painter.
Burchfield created realistic work during this period, work that associated him with his friend Edward Hopper or with the American Regionalistmovement of the period. However, he was, more than anything else, a visionary painter.
Dandelion Seed Heads and the Moon, 1961-1965, watercolor, gouache, charcoal, and sgraffito (Burchfield Penney Art Center).
That included painting en plein air. Ice Glare (1933) was painted at the corner of Clinton and Lord Streets. Today, that intersection is now almost completely depopulated by urban flight.

Burchfield started with preparatory sketches, gridding them onto his paper for his final painting. He worked almost exclusively in dry brush in watercolor and gouache. He believed that watercolor works on paper could be as resistant to fading as oil paintings if stored and displayed properly.

Much has been interpreted about Burchfield’s mental state from his paintings. Was he manic-depressive or did he mirror the sights, sound and stimulus of the Jazz Age?
Song of the Telegraph(1917-1952, watercolor, private collection), is a sound painting of the Jazz Age.
Burchfield lived from 1925 to his death in 1967 in the tiny hamlet of Gardenville, which has been swallowed up by the suburb of West Seneca. He’s honored there with a nature center. Maybe if it ever stops raining, I’ll go walk there this weekend.
We slept under a Hudson’s Bay blanket last night. This is a great, hairy woolen thing suited for Arctic nights. That might seem odd to people in other parts of the country, but it’s still cold here. The unknown critic who once described Burchfield as “Edward Hopper on a rainy day” didn’t know Buffalo. It wasn’t that Burchfield was a depressive; it was all about where he lived.

A shot of Old-Time Christmas

A traditional Tom and Jerry set, like the one on the bar at Schwabls, will set you back a significant chunk of change.

A traditional Tom and Jerry set, like the one on the bar at Schwabls, will set you back a significant chunk of change.
When facing cancer, a brilliant doctor is your greatest ally. A mediocre doctor can cause a lot of damage. I know this from personal experience. The first time I had cancer, both my internist and gastroenterologist missed it, writing off my symptoms as running-related. They got worse and I finally switched doctors a year later. My new medico figured I might have a tumor. A week later, I was diagnosed, and the specialists he sent me to, saved my life. Thirteen years later, another team got to do it again for a completely-unrelated cancer.
The first time, I had six weeks of radiation, ten months of chemo and three surgeries. It was an aggressive regimen and there was some discussion about whether it was overkill. “You have young kids,” said my oncologist, and that was that.

That’s why I still go to Rochester twice a year to see my doctors. I realize there are fine doctors in Maine, but for now, I’m afraid to cut the cord. This is my week for medical tourism. “You really must like travel,” one of my friends commented. Well, I do, but I don’t like the Rockport-to-Rochester loop. I don’t much like being prodded, poked and scraped, either, but I’ve gotten sixteen good years out of it.
The Place lets you keep the mug as a reminder that your headache is not necessarily from your sinus infection.

The Place lets you keep the mug as a reminder that your headache is not necessarily from your sinus infection.
Since I’m in Western New York anyway I met a gaggle of my kids in Buffalo for a Tom and Jerry and a beef-on-weck sandwich.
A Tom and Jerry is a form of hot egg nog laced with brandy and rum and topped with nutmeg. It’s very sweet and lethally potent. It’s been around since the early 19th century. Damon Runyon wrote a short story in 1932 that featured his protagonist drinking them with “one of the best lone-hand git-‘em-up guys in the world.”
“This hot Tom and Jerry is an old time drink that is once used by one and all in this country to celebrate Christmas with, and in fact it is once so popular that many people think Christmas is invented only to furnish an excuse for hot Tom and Jerry, although of course this is by no means true.”
It being Prohibition, Runyon’s characters substitute drugstore rye whiskey for rum. Runyon touches on the delicacy of the recipe. “[I]n the days when it is not illegal a good hot Tom and Jerry maker commands good wages and many friends.” Tom and Jerrys start with a meringue batter, and from personal experience I agree; it’s hard to make.
The sandwich, more properly called a beef-on-kümmelweck, is made of roast beef on a roll topped with salt crystals and caraway seeds. The beef is slathered in horseradish. Its origin is lost in time, but it was a beautiful collaboration between baker and butcher back in Buffalo’s German heyday.
Forget poutine; beef on weck is the apotheosis of cold-weather eating in North America.

Forget poutine; beef on weck is the apotheosis of cold-weather eating in North America. The horseradish can cure anything.
In general, you don’t find these foods in trendy new places, but in bars that are as old as your grandfather. Schwabls in West Seneca is often our destination but The Place in Elmwood Village got our custom on Wednesday.
Buffalo is simultaneously the most beautiful city in America and the one with the worst climate, I told myself as I slid on my walk back to my car. Coincidentally, my kids were off to the hospital to see a friend who’d fractured her kneecap earlier in the day.
Everyone should visit Buffalo; in fact, a lot of people do, just to see its architecture. The sensible ones go in the summer.