Digging out of a slough

Tricks to get myself moving when the body says ‘I want a nap.’

Striping, by Carol L. Douglas

I felt fine when I got home from Scotland. Two days later, I wasn’t so sure, and I spent most of our lovely holiday weekend in a lawn chair with a book (except when canoeing, of course). This week, I ran an errand to Bangor with a painting student. By the time we came home, he was concerned enough to suggest that maybe he should drive.

I can’t decide if I’m suffering from a cold, allergies, fatigue or the ennui that sometimes settles in when I’m shifting gears and restless. The barrier between our mind and our bodies is whisper-thin. Like many Americans, I’m so trained to keep moving that it’s hard to recognize when I’m sick.
Parrsboro sunrise, by Carol L. Douglas
The only way I can tell is by testing my body. Over the years I’ve developed strategies for catapulting myself out of a fog. Most important is routine. Every morning I write this blog, make my bed (so I can’t crawl back into it) and fold clothes. These tasks wake me up. Then I go down to my studio. My brain and body are conditioned to start concentrating at the same time every day.
I cannot overstress the importance of this; it’s why your lawyer, doctor, and insurance adjustor don’t have anxiety attacks every time they approach their desks. The human body loves settled routine, and thrives on regular sleep, exercise and work habits.
Tricky Mary in a Pea-Soup Fog, by Carol L. Douglas
My mother believed you would start moving if you heard a machine working, so she would start a load of laundry while she drank her morning coffee. I’m afraid it doesn’t work for me, but it might for you.
Often what stops me is not knowing where to start. To overcome that, I play a game of “put ten things away.” This is win-win, because you’re either going to force yourself back into motion or you’re going to have a very neat workspace. Ten is about my limit for being thoughtful about sorting, and it’s better than making a commitment to clean.
Water is our bodies’ principal component. It comprises about 60 percent of our body weight. We can live a surprisingly long time without food, but not without water. Fatigue can be caused by dehydration. None of us drink enough fluids when traveling, so when I come back from being on the road, I try to bring up my water intake as quickly as possible.
Marsh, by Carol L. Douglas
Current wisdom says that the basic equation for determining how much water you need is to divide your body weight in half. So, if you weigh 200 pounds, you would need 100 ounces of water per day. (I don’t know if this is scientifically justified.) When I drink that much, I never have the luxury of zoning out; I’m always planning my next toilet stop.
My last mental jog is a brisk walk. Exercise is a proven anti-depressant and makes us more alert. Walking also gives me the mental space to plan out my next steps.
What if I do all these things and I still don’t feel up to working? That’s a vivid warning sign that what I’m feeling isn’t temporary malaise but a true physical problem. I do what any sensible person would: I take some time off to recover.

What works to get you out of the doldrums?

Goodbye, Alaska Highway!

"Regrowth and regeneration," (Borrow Pit #4), by Carol L. Douglas

“Regrowth and regeneration,” (Borrow Pit #4), by Carol L. Douglas
Last summer it took us eight days to drive to Alaska in this vehicle. Given our detours and painting stops, doubling the time this year seemed a fair estimate.
Instead, we left the Alaska Highway at 4 PM yesterday.
East of Fort Nelson, Mary and I had to admit that not much looked familiar. True, we’d passed through here a month earlier last year. In fact, this was the same area in which we’d been stopped for hours due to an accident. But, no, we remembered nothing.
Getting out of here, even in 4WD, was tough. A sharp rise and a lip before we hit the road tore our tailpipe off.

Getting out of here, even in 4WD, was tough. A sharp rise tore our tailpipe loose.
Last year, this stretch seemed so desolate. Yesterday, it seemed sedate and settled. The Al-Can looks very different going west to east. Last year, we counted off the signs of civilization as we lost them: regular gasoline, rest stops, power lines, restaurants, and other travelers, until all that was left was us and the open road. This year, those same amenities crowd back into our vision like not-particularly-welcome relatives. I’ll be happy to be in my snug Maine house again, but I do like the solitude.
The Kiskatinaw Bridge is a three span, timber truss structure built in 1942 by the Corps of Engineers. It's still used today, and its maintenance must be a pip.

The Kiskatinaw Bridge is a curving, three-span, timber truss structure built in 1942 by the Corps of Engineers. It’s still in use today, and its maintenance must be a pip.
One great difference this year has been pavement. It’s mostly past construction season. There are not many sections gravier signs left to remind Mary of poutine. However, the fact that she could joke about poutine is a good sign, for it signals the return of some appetite, even though she still remains pretty low.
About 100 km east of Fort Nelson, I pulled down an off-road track to paint some regrowth in a wildfire area. This is a subject I’d like to return to, since the geometry and variety are so fascinating. But I never relaxed while doing the painting. Plein air painters know this feeling of unease. For me it’s very rare, so when it happens, I heed it. After all, I was standing in a black bear’s salad bowl. So this was a rushed effort, and I’ll detail it in the studio.
There are a few paintings that “got away” along the Al-Can. One was of a hunting camp along the highway. I’d hoped to find one on this last day to paint. I also wanted to paint something of the Peace River Valley, for it looks so western here in its deeply cut ravine.
Goodbye, Alaska Highway!

Goodbye, Alaska Highway!
Alas, the Al-Can carries much more traffic near its eastern terminus. There’s gas exploration, agriculture, and much logging. The shoulder is narrow and the lay-bys few and far between. I took a few tracks off the main road, and came up with nothing. That seemed ironic, since most of the trip has been filled with stunning vistas at every turn.
“It’s an early bedtime, then,” I told myself, and pushed on to our destination. There, Mary pointed out that I’d knocked the tailpipe off while off-road. So once again this morning will be spent in a muffler shop and we’ll be that much little bit more delayed.
I remind myself that we’ve just passed through more than a thousand miles of territory where there are no muffler shops. We have a choice of four here in Dawson Creek. My irritation melts into gratitude to a providential God.

Twice told tales

"Avalanche Country," oil on canvas by Carol L. Douglas.

“Avalanche Country,” oil on canvas by Carol L. Douglas.
Mary is flat on her back, ill with something I cannot figure out. I have a nasty cold; she has that and something else. I left her sleeping in a room at the Toad River Lodge and headed back to Muncho Lake to paint.
Northwest Canada and Alaska rivers and lakes are often strangely-colored—milk chocolate brown, ivory, or turquoise. This is caused by rock flour, which is a substance of fine-grained particles of rock ground off bedrock by glacial erosion. Because the silt is so fine, it ends up suspended in glacial meltwater, creating cloudy water sometimes called glacial milk.
These fellows came to visit me while I was painting. When they realized there was a human involved, they skedaddled. There was a foal with them, who stayed carefully behind. I'm ashamed to say I have no idea what species they are.

These fellows came to visit me while I was painting. When they realized there was a human involved, they skedaddled. There was a baby with them, who stayed carefully behind. I’m ashamed to say I have no idea what species they are.
Lake Louise in Alberta is the most famous of these rock flour lakes, but they occur anywhere there’s glaciation. West of Toad River there are great dumps of till that look for all the world like glacial moraines. We haven’t seen a true glacier in hundreds of miles, but there are permanent snow caps here.
Mary’s illness gave me the opportunity to paint rock-flour water. Muncho Lake is about 50 km west of Toad River community, so I backtracked there, first to paint the Toad River along an avalanche path, then to paint the lake itself in the afternoon sun.
"Muncho Lake," by Carol L. Douglas.

“Muncho Lake,” by Carol L. Douglas.
The Toad was named for the enormous toads found there by Hudson’s Bay Company explorers.  “I have seen some which weighed upwards of a pound, and the Indians inform me there are some to be seen of a much larger size,” wrote John McLeod in 1831.
It is so much easier to paint something commonplace than something unusual. Get the general shape of a teapot and your viewers will understand it to be a teapot. Hit the color of rock-flour water almost perfectly and it looks absurd.
The Toad River Valley is full of glacial till.

The Toad River Valley is full of glacial till.
I’ve thought a great deal about Tom ThomsonEmily Carr and the Group of Seven painters while on this trip. There is something fantastical about their paintings that the American viewer sees as romanticism, or, to put it bluntly, exaggeration for effect. In fact, it turns out to be literal truth-telling. Thomson’s famous Jack Pine may be stylized, but it’s also a tremendously accurate drawing, particularly of the squat black mountains in the background.
Can a viewer in the east understand that a western black spruce might rise like a stick in the air and sends out a bulb of branches at its tip, oddly reminiscent of a fiddlehead fern? Or that some wildfires kill, and other wildfires seem to simply prune, the trees sending out shoots from their blackened trunks?
One too many inquiries.

One too many inquiries.
If you see struggle in these two paintings, you’re looking at them correctly. The colors here are so otherworldly that I’m having trouble committing them to canvas.
I returned to Toad River in the early evening to find that Mary still hadn’t stirred. At this point, my husband took over as long-distance logistician. He has us moving in slow stages over the next few days so that she can rest and recover—and above all, not camp. I’m alright with that, since the temperatures in Jasper and Banff National Parks are well below freezing at night. Even better, there is a clinic in Fort Nelson, and one at Dawson City. If she isn’t perkier today, she’s going to see a doctor.

When life hands you lemons, draw them

Passing a kidney stone. Did I mention there’s very little privacy in a hospital ward?

Yesterday I found myself bunged into the hospital. (This is about the miasma that passes for a climate here in November, and it’s nothing to worry about.) Luckily I nabbed my toothbrush and sketchpad on the way.

It ran into the drawing above, but I loved the caring gesture by the doctor.
I may be the only patient in history that asks to be left on a gurney in the hall. There’s much more interesting stuff to draw.
Two guys who were passing through.
Don’t believe what you hear about people lying on gurneys waiting for hours; in general they’re treated in a minute or two. In most cases, I have very little time to work. (It’s always about me, isn’t it?) I start these drawings as fast gestures. And no, nobody objects to my drawing them—they’re too sick to care.
The easiest people to draw are staffers working on computers. Engrossed in patients’ records, they’ve been known to sit still for minutes at a time. Conversely, sick people move around all over the place. They’re uncomfortable.
Inevitably, someone said, “I’m so jealous of your talent! I can’t draw a thing.” I answered as I always do: I can teach anyone to draw. Her disbelief was writ large in her face, but it’s true. The point isn’t whether these are good, bad or indifferent drawings. The point is that you learn to draw mainly by using your time to draw.
Having said that, I’m down to my last three pages of clean paper. Either they spring me loose this morning or my daughter is going to have to bring me a new sketchbook.

I will be teaching in Acadia National Park next August.  Message me if you want information about the coming year’s classes or this workshop.

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! 

Working under duress

Annunciation to Joseph, c. 2000, by little ol’ me. Who likes hearing upsetting news?
I was recently diagnosed with cancer. It’s kept me from doing much of anything these past few weeks, as I’m in a sort of paralysis of awe and anxiety. This is why I’ve been writing about art theory and history and not so much about practical painting.
Yesterday my doctor was reviewing the charts from my 1999 bout with a different cancer. “And you were running 900 miles a week,” he finished up.
I laughed. “I was actually running 30 to 36 miles a week then,” I said. “And the odd thing is, I’ve been ramping up my mileage all summer, and now I’m doing 25 miles a week.”  Last winter I realized that scrambling around rocks while teaching plein air painting in Maine would require a lot of endurance, so I started training harder.
Carnations and Clematis in a Crystal Vase, Édouard Manet, 1883. Manet dealt with illness by painting some exquisite small florals; you just know they are flowers from his bedside table. I don’t think I have this kind of ‘sweet’ in my character, but, then again, Manet probably didn’t think he did either.
When I had cancer in 1999, I made exercise my top priority. If I wasn’t hooked up to an IV, I walked or ran. It was how I kept sane. And my first resolution with this round of cancer is to do the same, even if it uses up all my limited energy. In retrospect, running is probably why I’m still here.
Twice now I’ve ramped up my workout the year before I learned I had cancer. No, exercise doesn’t cause cancer. Rather, sometimes God tells us to do something that we don’t understand at the time. Listening to the voice of God is pretty hard for people who have been trained to think rationally rather than intuitively. But when we succeed at it, we rapidly realize God has his hand firmly on our shoulders.
Carrying the Cross, from A Child Walks With Jesus, 1999-2000, St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, Rochester.
Right before my last diagnosis, I agreed to do Stations of the Cross for St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church in Rochester. It took me ten months to do 26 sketches, but in retrospect, I think the cancer shaped the work in ways I couldn’t have foreseen. The work also shaped my faith, because it addresses the fundamental question of the Christian experience: did Jesus really give us an end run around the inevitability of sin and death?
Oddly enough, I recently made a commitment to do seven large paintings on the subject of God and man in the environment. I have no idea how being sick can affect this work; I won’t know until I break this paralysis. But I will, and it will. That I know.

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!