Painting through the dark places

Art has allowed me to look at pain, grief and dislocation obliquely, instead of confronting them head-on.
Carrying the cross, by Carol L. Douglas, courtesy St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, Rochester, NY.
You may have noticed that I haven’t done much this week. I finally collapsed from the ailment we dragged back from South America. Despite a slew of tests, no pathogen has yet been identified. However, our nurse-practitioner treated the symptoms. I’m almost back in fighting form, albeit very tired. Hopefully, my fellow travelers will recover as quickly.
Yesterday I attended a virtual meeting. One of my fellows, normally a very cheerful woman, was awash with anxiety. “I can’t paint!” she confessed. “I go in my studio and start, and then I go back and turn on CNN.” Later, I asked her if there was anything I could do to help. She elaborated. Her daughter has had COVID-19; she knows a young person currently on a vent and has lost another friend from it. She—like me—is from New York, the epicenter of this disease. That’s where our kids, friends and family are, and there’s nothing we can do to help them.
My heart goes out to her. It’s an awful thing to feel helpless in the face of disaster.
The Curtain of the Temple was Rent, by Carol L. Douglas, courtesy St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, Rochester, NY.
When we were waiting out our confinement in Buenos Aires, I was thoroughly disinterested in the non-existent landscape. It was not until the end that I decided to start painting what I felt instead of what I saw. That’s not necessarily easy for a realist to do directly (although we’re all doing it indirectly). That’s why I started with the idea of home, and then moved to Blake’s Jerusalemfor inspiration. I could look at my feelings of griefand dislocation obliquely, instead of confronting them head-on.
Twenty years ago, I was asked to do a set of Stations of the Cross for St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church in Rochester, NY. The request was made in the summer; by September I’d been diagnosed with a colon cancer that had perfed the bowel wall and spread to nearby lymph nodes. I had four kids, ages 11 to 3. My primary goal was to stay alive long enough to see them raised.
Finishing an art project seemed almost frivolous in the circumstances. I was especially disinterested in one that dealt with the horrific events leading up to the Crucifixion. That year was a late Easter, too, so by the time Holy Week arrived, I had a rough version finished, which I delivered in book form. (In some ways, I prefer it to the final Stations, for its very rawness.)
Veronica, by Carol L. Douglas, courtesy St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, Rochester, NY. And before you correct me, I’m perfectly aware that Veronica is medieval fan-fic, but I think it points to a very human need to ameliorate suffering.
I drew in my hospital bed, from my couch, during the hours of chemotherapy. I wouldn’t have told you I was engaged or enthused in the least. When I was well enough, I arranged a massive photoshoot and took reference photos. The final drawings were finished the following year. They weren’t my best work, I thought, but at least they were done.
And yet, and yet… they’ve been in use for two decades since. And every Holy Week, I get a note from a parishioner telling me how much they appreciate them. I’ve certainly gotten more meaningful mail about them than about any other work of art I’ve ever done.
This year, St. Thomas’—like the rest of Christendom—is shuttered, its people observing the rites from afar. I’m not sure how I’m going to approach Good Friday in a season already penitential in the extreme, but there’s something to be said for routine, ritual, habit and movement. That goes for painting as much as for faith. 
May God bless you this weekend with a radical new way of seeing things, in Jesus’ name, amen.

Born in blood

Landscape tells us about our existence, our relationships with each other, and ultimately our relationship with God.

Deadwood, 36X48, oil on canvas, Carol L. Douglas
God+Man

Carol L. Douglas Studio
394 Commercial Street
Rockport, ME 04856
Saturday, February 29, 2020
2 to 5 PM

Painting is a solitary business, which gives you plenty of time to think. At the same time, it’s a form of communication, so it ought to attract people with something to say. That creates a constant pull between seeing and saying, making and showing.
I do as much of my painting as I can outdoors. That inevitably gives me time to think about what the view in front of me means. Landscape tells us about our existence, our relationships with each other, and ultimately our relationship with God. This visible record is subtle, but once you start to notice it, you realize it’s everywhere.
The work in this display was made for an invitational show at the Davison Gallery at Roberts Wesleyan College. It was conceived as a faith statement. This isn’t too much of a reach. God is obviously there in every tree, cloud and sunset. Man is nearly as ubiquitous.
All flesh is as grass, 36X48, oil on canvas, Carol L. Douglas
This was just before I moved to Maine for good. I was working summers here teaching and painting. In mid-October, I went home to Rochester to paint the work for this show. What wasn’t on my schedule was a second cancer diagnosis.
I made my canvases during the four-week recovery period between surgeries. As always, I drenched the canvases with Naphthol Red. This is an excellent undertone for landscape, and my students will recognize it as standard practice for my plein air painting. However, the effect of all that red on those looming large canvases was making me slightly queasy.
Something wasn’t quite right. I was bleeding internally, and in early February I hemorrhaged. This same thing had happened during my cancer treatment in 2000; in both cases, blood loss laid me low in a way my treatment never did.
I ultimately realized there was a connection between this health crisis and the paintings, which were proceeding by starts and fits. Over the summer, I had sketched each canvas out in smaller form. It was supposed to be a simple matter of gridding them up and painting big, but I was having trouble getting them done in the allotted time. In the end, I let the canvas show through, because they were literally born in blood.
Beauty instead of ashes, 36X48, oil on canvas, Carol L. Douglas
Included in this show are several scenes familiar to midcoast Maine viewers, including northern lights over Owls Head and the lime tailings at Rockport.
By the Civil War, midcoast Maine was producing more than a million casks of lime a year. The evidence of this industry is still all over our communities, including in the lime tailings along the Goose River. Although this lime is benign, it is a symbol of greater damage elsewhere. Environmental damage is not just a metaphor for sin; it’s a form of sin itself. The damage take a long time to heal.
The opening is on Saturday, February 29, from 4 to 6 PM, at my studio, 394 Commercial Street, Rockport. The public is invited.

A Good Friday reflection

It turned out to be much more work than I imagined, but it has proven to be an enduring tradition.

Carrying the Cross, pastel, by Carol L. Douglas
Twenty years ago, a member of my church approached me with an apparently-simple request: could I write and illustrate a Stations of the Cross for our Sunday school students? While we used a liturgy similar to Catholics, our belief system was very much Protestant.
Catholic Stations take the form of artwork hanging in or near the nave. They are generally in the form of bas-relief. My mother’s family is Catholic (although we were not) so I’d had plenty of time to contemplate the Stations growing up.
Gambling, pastel, by Carol L. Douglas
The Stations grew from the tradition of pilgrims walking the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem. This dates from the time of Byzantium. During the late Middle Ages, Franciscans built a series of outdoor shrines across Europe so that common people could also experience this meditation. By the 17th century, stations were being built within churches. They were a popular printed devotional; Albrecht Dürer’s Great Passion and Little Passion are the Stations in book form.
Eventually, Catholic Stations evolved into the fourteen scenes that are used by Catholics today. They include scenes that aren’t Biblical; rather, they are an imagining of that bitter, difficult walk to Calvary. In my naivete, I figured I’d just ‘correct’ them to make them more Biblically accurate. That was about as feasible as making a few quick adjustments to the Book of Kells for the modern reader.
The Crucifixion, pastel, by Carol L. Douglas
No, a rewrite was in order. With the Gospels in one hand and a children’s book about the Holy Land in the other, I set out to make a new set of Stations.
And then disaster struck. I was diagnosed with a big, fat, robust bowel cancer. I spent the following year being radiated, poisoned and cut apart. Concentration was difficult. I sketched out the bones of the project, wrote the text and assembled my sketches into a first iteration. That was all I could do.
Piercing his side, pastel, by Carol L. Douglas
In all, it took two years for me to finish the Stations. The church hung the pictures in the nave during Holy Week. I moved along to an evangelical church, and ultimately to Maine.
It gives me great joy that, this many years later, they still hang the paintings every year. Each year I get tagged in a photo from one old friend or another, with a note saying, “your stations are up.” There are children in those illustrations who have now graduated from college. Many of my older models have died, but others continue to worship in that same church. I still get a kick out of looking at the pictures and remembering them.
Stations hanging in the nave of St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Rochester.
If you’re in Rochester, you can see the Stations today, at St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, 2000 Highland Avenue. If you want to read them this Good Friday, the opening pages are here. Just hit the “newer post” button at the bottom of the page to continue. And have a blessed Easter weekend!

Dreams deferred and taken up again

There’s no reason to beat yourself up for not finishing. You will either find joy in it again, or move on to something else.

Hedgerow in Paradise, by Carol L. Douglas
“Did you ever have a dream or goal, and then let go of it, and try to pick it up again later?” a reader asked. She hasn’t been feeling well, so I take the question as a sign that her health is better.
My first cancer, in 2000, required daily radiation, ten months of chemotherapy, three surgeries and a blood transfusion. Every day was devoted to hospitals, treatment and recovery. I didn’t think; I just did what my doctors told me to do. When I was finally done, I asked my oncologist what came next. “Go live your life,” he said.
The trouble was, it didn’t feel like I had a life anymore. I hadn’t worked in almost a year. My kids and husband were managing. Running, which had been so important to me, was impossible. I was, for the only time in my life, profoundly depressed and anxious.
Prayer Warrior, by Carol L. Douglas
My answer was to seek out a therapist. “All the best people do it,” my friend consoled me. Therapy is likened to peeling an onion, because it is the process of getting past the original complaint and figuring out the deeper issues. I hated it, but it was worth all the time I spent.
A period in the desert can be useful in figuring out what’s important. I saw a former student recently. “I’m just not feeling it,” he’d told me. He’d had the impulse to take up painting and been very good at it. Work got in the way. He didn’t feel like taking it back up.
Cold light, by Carol L. Douglas
And that’s okay. Our callings in life are difficult to discern. In art there is no ‘right’ career path. Experimenting, learning, and moving on is part of the process of discovery.  It should never be characterized as failure, no matter what the voices from your childhood tell you.
Years ago, I had a prayer canvas. Each day when I started working, I would pray for people and write their names on the canvas in paint as I prayed. Unfortunately, it started to look like art. It got turned into the painting above.
It ought to have been simple enough to replace, but I never did. This week I finally fished through my collection of failed paintings for another canvas for that purpose. In doing so, I came across an unfinished nocturne I started with my students in last year’s Sea & Sky workshop.
The very unfinished nocturne that grounded the study above.
I have what realtors optimistically call a “seasonal water view.” That means we can see the ocean during the winter. I’ve watched the moon rise over the water for the last three nights. The light it cast was cool, almost green.
I’ve got a nocturne on my easel that’s exciting, but the color structure is wrong. That little nocturne I found in my discards ended up being an experiment in color for this big painting. I think I’ve got it. And I’ve got another idea for a painting as well. Both came from starting again on something deferred. They were totally different, but somehow related.

The lesson of pacing yourself

It’s a great idea, but when God ordains something else, you’d best go along quietly.

Mary Day returns to her home port, by Carol L. Douglas.

Tad Retz is the perfect houseguest. He’s stayed here twice and is so unobtrusive that I’ve never actually met him. I do know his older brother, animator Zac Retz, whom I met in a cemetery.

Tad arrived late Saturday night and left very early Sunday morning. I would have stopped to see him before church, but he had already finished painting and catapulted off to his next destination.
Contemplating that amount of energy is exhausting. Then I remember that Tad is the same age as my youngest child. It’s no surprise that he bounces around like a corn kernel on a hot griddle.
The motto of coastal Maine ought to be, “make hay while the sun shines.” That’s also the guiding principle of plein air painting, and art festivals and craft shows. Spin like a dervish while you can, and rest after the season ends.
Still, everyone needs some down time. I received a horrifying photo from a friend. She has a second infection in her face. Last year it was a sinus infection run amok; this time it’s in her eyes. Like me, she works an intensive summer season. Cutting corners and being overtired resulted in some impressively ugly mug shots.
I try to identify the signs of overwork before I get sick. On Thursday, I painted at Rockport harbor. I forgot my palette, so I whipped home to collect it. I careened back into the closest parking spot, only to realize my brush holder wasn’t in my backpack.
You can’t finish a painting when your central boat leaves, or that’s my excuse.
At noon, the central boat in my composition cast off its buoy and headed out. I packed up, and found a parking ticket on my windshield. “Three strikes and you’re out,” I told myself. Instead of working, I went out to lunch.
Noting that I’m mucking up small things usually stops me from screwing up spectacularly. I have a busy week ahead and then I’m on the road for three weeks. I will steal my rest where I can in the coming days.
Still, I’m flying to Baltimore as you read this, on a 24-hour, last-minute visit. I wish the circumstances could be different, mainly because I’m going to pray with a friend who’s gravely ill with cancer.
“I’m no good at it,” I told my friend Helen when the idea first burrowed into my consciousness. Years ago, my cousin was in hospice in Atlanta. I picked up my brother in Virginia and we tore down I-81.
Self portrait with cancer, charcoal, by Carol L. Douglas.
We arrived to learn that she’d just awakened from her coma. She moved from hospice to rehab and lived another eighteen months.
I told this to Helen as an example of how my praying didn’t matter. She read it differently. “I think you need to go to Baltimore,” she said. I gasped as I grabbed the implication.

And so, I go. You can set your sights on Tarshish, but if you’re supposed to go to Nineveh, you’d best just get on with it.

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.

A question of identity

Self-portrait having surgical stitches removed. I asked to remove one myself, just to see how it was done.

Self-portrait having surgical stitches removed. I asked to remove one myself, just to see how it was done.
I have survived two different cancers. The first one showed up in my 40th year, but a gastroenterologist dismissed the bleeding as running-related hemorrhoids. (Yes, I once was really that active.) In his mind, I was too young and too vegetarian for it to be colon cancer. By the time it was properly diagnosed, the tumor had breached the bowel wall. What could have been a quick snip ended up being a year of intensive treatment.
My second cancer was much less dramatic. Again it started with internal bleeding, this time from a uterine tumor. Those parts had all been pretty well microwaved during my first treatment, so they just took them all out.

The oddity wasn’t just having two cancers; it was having them younger than the age recommended by the NIH. I was tested for Lynch Syndrome, or hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer, as it used to be called. Unsurprisingly, it came up positive.
I’m pretty larky, so when people asked me if I was journaling about my experiences, I told them I was writing a book called One Hundred Best Things about Having Cancer. (Number one, of course, was getting out of leading Youth Group.) Yeah, I was likely to die of cancer, but we’re all going to die of something. In practical terms, nothing really changed. I was already being screened aggressively, and it didn’t change that.
But deep down it affected my thinking. I’m a carrier of cancer, I told myself. I may have given this to my children. I don’t have an infinite amount of time left. I have to hurry to finish what I’ve set out to do.
This year I decided I was sick of defining myself as a cancer survivor. I know too many people who are entering old age in prisons of health problems to want to build one for myself. It’s not like I can just pretend it never happened, because all that treatment radically changed my body. But I wouldn’t talk or think about it anymore. I no longer needed to see my life through a lens of cancer.
Pastor Alvin Parris of Joy Community Church in Rochester, NY. He's a talented musician and preacher, and he aims to finish the race strong.

Pastor Alvin Parris of Joy Community Church in Rochester, NY. He’s a talented musician and preacher, and he aims to finish the race strong.
Then, late this summer, I got another letter from my geneticist. It said they’d had another look-see at my profile and decided that my gene mutation wasn’t really Lynch Syndrome after all. Never mind.
Practically speaking, that changes little. I still go regularly to Rochester to be poked and prodded. But it does raise the question asked in Isaiah 53:1: “Who has believed our report? And to whom is the arm of the Lord revealed?”
Pastor Alvin Parris in Rochester, NY has been on dialysis since I met him. He is physically frail, but his inner power just glows. Last week his son commented, “Every time I hear my dad preach, I think about how the doctor told him that by the time he was 50, preaching was one of the many things he would no longer be able to do. He’s 65 now.”
That’s a role model for our generation.

What work are we doing here?

Getting there. It should be done tomorrow, I swear.
I’ve been dogged by illness this whole winter, but by the grace of God something is coming together for my upcoming show at the Davison Gallery at Roberts Wesleyan. I promised the gallery director a postcard image this week, and a postcard image she shall have.
I wish I’d named this show “Blood,” because that’s been the prevailing motif. Blood of the Lamb, hemorrhaging, red underpainting—it’s all been a bloody mess. Cancer has owned my body since November. I’m finally feeling better, but when my doctors demand my presence (which is often) I drop my brush and go. That happened again yesterday.
I am, generally, a pretty neat painter. But when I get close to a deadline, that all falls apart.
If you aren’t in the doctor grind, you don’t realize that every half-hour visit uses up hours of the patient’s time. A pedicure and good hair are talismans against loss of dignity, so they must be attended to before you can go.
“Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy,” is erroneously attributed to Benjamin Franklin, who preferred wine. So do I, especially after a long day.
Home by noon, I was in my studio by 1 PM. At 3 PM, a friend stopped by. This friend has tended me through the winter, bringing me dinner, talking me out of my hole, cheering on my work. Yesterday she needed to talk, so I needed to listen. This is the work to which God truly calls us.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops! 

Our inheritance

My great-grandfather’s landscape design portfolio, done in his late teens.

On Friday I learned that I have a genetic mutation. My doctor gave me an assignment: to flesh out my vague family history with real names, dates, and medical diagnoses—in short, to create a pedigree for myself.

Each of us carries two separate copies of our genes. In my case, one copy started off broken. I most likely inherited it from an ancestor, and I’ve got a 50-50 chance of having passed it along to my kids. The goal is to identify relatives with similar cancers so geneticists can trace a pattern.
Fine, except I have always resisted genealogy. As with bouillabaisse, there are no guarantees about what might come up on the spoon.
My husband had the notion that my great-grandmother’s Bible was in a box on the third floor and kindly went up to fetch it. When he came back, he also carried down a folio of drawings that were in the same box.
Decades later, he scrawled a draft of a job application on the back of one of his drawings.
I may not recognize my relatives but I recognized it—a student portfolio of landscape sketches. They could have been drawn by my father in 1942, or by me in 1979, but instead they were done by my paternal great-grandfather in 1862-63.
I’ve been known to do a bit of landscape design myself, here at St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church in Rochester.
I was looking for one trait but found another, shared among three people with vastly different experiences and training. “How could something like that be carried through a protein?” my skeptical husband asked.  It probably can’t, but nevertheless it was strung along two centuries of family. It’s a lovely mystery.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

What is the lesson here?

Underpainting of lime tailings in Rockport. I was a little confused about what I intended to do with those rocks at the bottom; that’s the problem with having your work so rudely interrupted.
Every day I get up wondering how much I can work. It’s been a stop-and-start recovery, and I haven’t enjoyed my enforced inertia.
So perhaps that’s lesson #1: revel in the opportunity to work, because you don’t know when it will be taken away from you again.
It’s an amazing feeling to not be able to open a can of paint, lift anything much heavier than your brush, or adjust your easel. I couldn’t be painting at all if Sandy weren’t doing all the heavy lifting.
I have a show opening on March 24 at Roberts Wesleyan College, and these large works are what I want to show. Back in December the gallery director gave me a chance to opt out and I didn’t take it; I was certain I could meet my commitment. At the time, it seemed like this was a cut-and-recover cancer.
So I’m doing something I’ve never done before: letting my studio assistant (the wonderful Sandy Quang) do some of my gridding. After all, why train a wonderful painter if you don’t let her paint? I realize this is historically acceptable, and you will never see her brushstrokes, but it’s still taken me a lot to let someone else touch my canvases.
Sandy gridding. The kid sure can paint. I take credit for it, of course, but I have to admit Pratt probably had some part to play.
So that’s lesson #2 of this round of cancer: stop being such a control freak.
A visitor to my studio saw the red peeking out from the snow in an underpainting and said, “I kind of like that. It looks like your recent past.” That has gotten me thinking that I won’t polish these paintings to death.
So that’s lesson #3: I don’t need to overwork everything in life.
And me, in a rolling office chair, actually painting. Maybe next week I can work standing for a little bit at a time.
Lastly, I’m kind of amazed at how rough things are around the edges right now. Mostly these are minor things like shoveling the walk or sweeping the floors. (I can’t bend or lift at all.) I’ve spent so many years acknowledging that my husband is unique because he does so much housework and makes it possible for me to travel that I’ve come to see myself as superfluous to my own life.
And that’s lesson #4: Son-of-a-gun! I am actually useful.


Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!