Art as information

When we paint, we speak to our present generation, but we’re also speaking to the future.

Giant deer from the replica of Lascaux.

The Irish elk was one of the largest deer that has ever lived. Its range was vast, across all of Eurasia from the Atlantic to Siberia, feeding on the same boreal woodlands that appeal to modern moose. Males had ridiculous showy racks. Some scientists think those racks were their downfall, because they made grazing too difficult.

What we know about them is limited mainly to fossils, and to the cave art of Lascaux (17,000 years old) and Chauvet Cave (30,000-35,000 years old). The interpretation of paleolithic art can be problematic, colored as it is by our own preconceptions. However, the animals themselves are straightforward, rendered with an eye to detail and description.

Lion painting replica from Chauvet Cave, courtesy Brno museum Anthropos.

At Lascaux, they include aurochs (the wild cattle that preceded our domestic cows) and a large animal that looks like a unicorn. There are big cats, horses, ibex, red deer and bison. At Chauvet Cave, the walls feature predators: cave lions, cave hyenas, leopards, bears, and rhinoceroses. Many of these species, like the Irish elk, have been extinct for millennia.

Fossils can be reconstructed, but they’re often just bones. They almost never give us a sense of musculature or color. Real-time paintings coupled with the fossil record give us a much more rounded view of these extinct animals.

Meanwhile, in Australia, scientists discovered a 17,300-year-old painting of a kangaroo. (Well, it’s a line drawing, and it’s been partially obscured, but it’s certainly a marsupial of some sort.) In Indonesia, there are cave paintings of a wild pig (45,000 years old) and a buffalo(44,000 years old). All of which tells us that there’s a whole world of undiscovered art underground, for those with the courage to go spelunking.

Nakht and Family Fishing and Fowling, Tomb of Nakht, c. 1400-1390 BC, courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The fruits, vegetables and game that we eat have been portrayed in art since the ancient Egyptians. These paintings tell us a lot about the evolution of the human diet, including when certain staples appeared in different parts of the world.

Dutch Golden Agepainters were focused on the abundance of their trade-based culture. That makes them a treasure-trove of information about food (and ships’ rigging, and window hardware, and almost every other aspect of 17th century European culture). Their traders were importing goods from all over the world, and the Dutch artists recorded it all. When we look at their paintings through the lens of art history, we tend to gloss over the taxonomy of what’s shown. However, the meticulous painting style that was prized in the Dutch Republic makes these paintings a scientific and historical resource.

Still life with monkeys, 1630-40, Frans Snyders (Flemish), courtesy National Gallery of Prague. Does that lobster call into question the story that they originated as food given to prisoners in Massachusetts Bay Colony?

Photography and our current excessive written history seem to have erased the need for paintings as documentation; that’s one reason for the explosion of abstraction in the 20th century. But, surely, that’s a short-sighted view. The nameless cave-painters at Chauvet Cave weren’t painting lions to preserve them for history—and yet they did. When we paint, we speak to our present generation, but we’re also speaking to the future. How that’s interpreted, and what it will mean, is beyond our current understanding.

It’s all about the food

Painting is great, but sometimes I’m really focused on where my next meal is coming from.

It has to be fresh and healthy and delicious, or I won’t waste my calories on it.

My husband revealed a secret stash of Italian pastries the other day. I’m a healthy eater, but I’m not one to look a gift Torta Novecento in the mouth.

My mother worked hard to avoid raising picky eaters, but I’m afraid she failed with me. There’s no point in using up calories if they’re not buying food made with the freshest, purest ingredients. I’d rather not eat than eat badly, which is why I pack my own lunches when flying (as I’m doing today).

Fresh bread aboard schooner American Eagle, all done by hand. 

But what constitutes good food? Our taste is both a product of our biology and learned behavior. That’s why my Chinese goddaughter loves pickled ginger and I prefer gingersnaps. What we like to eat is the result of all our senses interacting together, not just the sense of taste. That’s then overlaid with memory and emotion. That’s why our food taste is so unique and unpredictable, and why we have such strong feelings on the subject.

How food tastes is based on much more than our tastebuds.

Last week I picnicked on a bridge abutment while painting with Ken DeWaard and Björn Runquist. We had the simplest hastily-assembled sandwiches. We all remarked that they were unusually delicious. The combination of crisp air, warm sunlight, ice and snow, and cheerful banter made our sandwiches so much better than they would have been if eaten in our cars or our kitchens.

That’s also what happens in my painting workshops aboard the schooner American Eagle. Usually, we dine al fresco on deck. The salt air, dazzling light, and company combine to sharpen the palette.

The gam at sunset.

Captain John Foss told me in passing that Matthew Weeks signed on for another season as cook on American Eagle. I personally think Matthew is a genius; he cooks everything exactly the way I like it. Would messmate Sarah Collins also be back, I asked. Not for the whole season, John thought, but possibly for the gam. That’s a raft-up of all the windjammers in the fleet, and it happens in June. It’s an amazing sight.

The gam is also a party.

It’s also our first watercolor workshop trip of the year, so I think I’d better lay off the tortas and save room for Sarah’s baking. It’s incredible.

Schooner cooks add an extra level of difficulty to cooking for crowds: they’re working on a woodstove in a hot galley, below decks in the heart of a pitching, rolling ship. When the mate loudly calls out a change in tack, she’s not doing it for our amusement; it’s so Matthew and Sarah can stop dessert from flying.

And they do without electricity. That means meringues are beaten by hand, and bread is kneaded by hand.

We have access to fresh seafood around Maine.

Their stove is an early 20th century Atlantic Fisherman Although it’s the proper vintage, it’s not original to the boat. “The stove that was in the galley completely disintegrated when we tried to move it, so the Atlantic Fisherman stove came from Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. Along with the steering wheel, bell, steering gear, all the rigging blocks, and a bunch of other gear,” Captain John told me. I believe that makes Eagle a dual citizen.

It would grace any historic kitchen with elegance, but it’s a hard worker. In addition to providing coffee and meals, it heats all the hot water for our ablutions. If you’re an extremely early riser, you can hear Matthew softly padding down to the galley in the wee hours. He’s firing up the woodstove. That requires a lot of firewood. It’s stacked and stored between trips and then fed into that stove, piece by piece, throughout the sail. I’m a hard worker, and I couldn’t do what those sailors do every summer.

Sadly, we had to cancel both watercolor workshops in 2020. Most of my students rebooked for 2021, but there are a few openings for both the June and September trips. However, they’re always subject to the boat’s other bookings, so if you’re interested you should contact Shary to reserve a berth. I hope you’ll join us. The painting is great; have I mentioned the food?

This post is about food. And cooking. Seriously.

Dessert from my last painting workshop, in the Adirondacks. I have every reason to believe the meals at this workshop will be just as good!
Only six more days, and I’ll be in Maine teaching. I set out this morning to do my task-of-the-day, which was to determine which paintings go to Rockland with me and which ones get held in abeyance for Rye later this summer. Sadly—or not, depending on how you look at it—my painting storage is located next to my bedroom. It being the day after a busy weekend, I sat down on my bed for just a moment… and awoke, groggy, two hours later, having missed a hail-and-rain storm that had all Rochester chattering.
I’d also missed a phone call from Lakewatch Manor. I was half asleep when I returned it. It’s a pity, because they wanted to talk to me about food. They wanted my input, actually, which is silly—as if Degas had dialed me up and asked for advice on drawing dancers.
Those who know about my aversion to cooking will be surprised to learn that I’m terribly in tune with Lakewatch’s approach to the culinary arts. Their chefs believe in locally-sourced, organic, healthful produce, eggs and meats prepared with great care—and I believe in EATING exactly that. So it was a pity that I was only half awake for this conversation. I remember hearing phrases like “lobster bisque” and “rhubarb pie” and “hearty hors d’oeuvre,” all of which make me very happy to roll around in my memory.
The problem with mid-coast Maine, sadly, is that there are also too many great places to eat in addition to the Inn. Just a few: there’s S. Fernald’s Country Store in Damariscotta (which the Maine writer Van Reid introduced me to) with its fantastic deli. There’s Owl’s Head General Store, which was celebrating its Best Burger in Maine status when I was in Rockland last November. There are the Irish Egg Rolls at Billy’s Tavern, which I didn’t sample because I was busy having a fantastic burger there, too, but which I intend to sample next time around. They feature corned beef, sauerkraut and Swiss cheese fried into a wonton. There’s the Rockland Café, with its all-you-can-eat seafood.
Of course, there are a gazillion more upmarket restaurants, too, but I never go to these places, since I usually look like The Wreck of the Hesperus* after a long day in the sun painting.
At any rate, that’s why the Lakewatch Manor people allowed for an evening off to go prowling around Rockland. Not only are there the Farnsworth and a slew of other galleries in town, but there are countless opportunities to dine out.
I’m looking forward to it!

*Longfellow based that poem on the wreck of the Favorite, a ship from Wiscasset, which is just down the road a piece from Rockland.

Every day I do one task to prepare for my June workshop in Rockland, ME. Meanwhile, what are you doing to get ready for it? August and September are sold out for my workshop at Lakewatch Manor in Rockland, ME… and the other sessions are selling fast.  Join us in June, July and October, but please hurry! Check here for more information.