Yankee stories

In the midst of crisis, new traditions are created.

Soft September Morning, oil on canvas, by Carol L. Douglas, was a painting commission.

This week, I drove south to deliver a painting. The client is a redoubtable Yankee lady: straight, strong and smart. Her home is a classic Yankee house. It started as a tiny Victorian cottage and grew pell-mell over the generations.

We got talking—as women do—about the holidays. She had ordered a 28-pound turkey for Thanksgiving. Her family is close, and she normally sets a magnificent table using her grandmother’s linens and her best flatware and dishes.

Fallow field, oil on canvas, by Carol L. Douglas, is available for investment.

Then COVID got worse and our restrictions grew tighter. A 28-pound turkey between two older people is as close to eternity as one wants to get, and she barely outweighs that bird. However, she was obliged. So, she cooked her traditional Thanksgiving feast anyway, and carefully boxed it up. “I had a chart telling me which package went with what so that everyone had enough for dinner and for leftovers,” she said. At the appointed time, her family drove in and collected their Thanksgiving dinners. “The kids were so happy to see their cousins,” she said, “even out in the driveway.”

And—bam—in the midst of crisis, a new tradition is created. “Remember the year we had Drive-Thru Thanksgiving?” those kids will recall as they themselves morph into redoubtable old Yankees. And they’ll remember their resourceful, optimistic, loving grandmother.

Tête-à-tête, by Carol L. Douglas, was a commissioned painting.

From there I went to another client. She had to move in a hurry and bought her new house in a sellers’ market. There were a lot of expensive repairs. The painting I delivered is of her old home, and it will have pride of place because she misses it. But she believes God has placed her there ‘for a reason and a season,’ as we evangelicals are wont to say. She sent me along with a jar of homemade applesauce.

My little dog occasionally needs a stop, so we found a dog park along the way. There was one other human there. She told me she’s planning on buying a van and hitting the road when her only child starts college next fall.

“I haven’t been anywhere for 18 years,” she said. She must have been a very young mother, because she barely looked much over 18 herself. I suggested her son might want a room to come home to, but she’d already thought of that. “His grandparents live here, and they have a room for him, and for me,” she said.

Midsummer, oil on canvas, by Carol L. Douglas, is available, and it’s a statement piece; it’s large.

Why not? If not now, when? I’ve traveled and camped alone and I recommend it. The bears are unlikely to bother you and the human predators prefer easier pickings. The message she’ll send her son is powerful—you can chart your own course in this world.

I don’t often talk about paintings as investments, but this year has got me thinking about diversification. Like many Americans, my husband and I don’t have pensions. Our retirement savings are invested in mutual funds. The stock market has had a great run, but now I’m thinking about diversifying my own portfolio.

Art is a very illiquid asset. You’re not going to sell it quickly to make a buck, and you should only invest in it if you know something about art to start with. Having said that, the global art boom is here to stay. Worldwide art sales surpassed $67 billion last year. That’s an objective measure of value.

The great beauty of art is that you get to enjoy it while it appreciates (which is not true of my IRA). That means you don’t have to feel self-indulgent if you buy a painting; it may be the best thing you ever did for your heirs.

Appreciating liberty

“This is bigger than 9/11,” she said sadly, “and did we ever go back after 9/11?”

Stormy Skies, by Carol L. Douglas. Available.

Yesterday was a Zoom-intensive day. I started with my class. Then I switched channels to the Maine Arts Commission. That’s a meeting I had to attend, since the commission is working heroically for our economically-battered arts sector.

That meant six hours of online meetings. Later I texted a friend whose job involves doing this all day long. “It left me feeling extremely out-of-sorts,” I told her. “I’m kind of anxious, and I’m not an anxious person.” She said the same thing sometimes happens to her.

A group in which I serve is operating on the principle that we won’t meet in person at all for the foreseeable future. That means we must put all our activities online as much as is possible. But how to do that and in what form remains to be seen.

After the storm, pastel, by Carol L. Douglas

I also belong to a group that’s trying to figure out how to start meeting in person if the limit on gatherings is eased in June. There’s varied opinion in our circle about the importance of the restrictions now in place. However, we’re united in wanting to make live meetings happen. That means doing what’s necessary to make everyone comfortable.

Wise leaders are struggling to meet people where they’re at, rather than dictating what their response should be. I have friends who think this is a conspiracy to deprive them of their rights, and friends who are afraid to go to the grocery store. All must be accommodated as we grope our way forward.

How much will we appreciate our liberty when this is all over? The answer depends, in part, on whether you find the current crisis much of an impingement. Not everyone does.

Parrsboro Dawn, by Carol L. Douglas. Available.

As someone whose livelihood and religious practice have both been swept off the table, I recognize that things have changed. The question I ask myself is whether I’m intrepid enough to venture out into this new reality, or whether I should retire to the country and raise chickens.

Last night I asked my friend Cheryl whether she thought we’d ever go back to life as we knew it. “This is bigger than 9/11,” she said sadly, “and did we ever go back after 9/11?”

I’ve always wondered why so many people willingly collaborated with the Nazis during WW2. Today people apparently denounce their neighbors for having company or for not wearing masks. I know people have noticed the New York plates in my driveway because they’ve remarked on them. Luckily, these were people who like me.

Sunrise in Virginia, pastel, by Carol L. Douglas

I begin to understand the social pressure that drove the collaborators. They were driven by fear, anger, and opportunism as much as ideology. These are all social behaviors, just as much as love and friendship are. We humans are ultimately social animals, even when we’re sheltering apart. We’re so strongly designed that way that it can be our undoing. As I discovered in Argentina, the answer to the question, “If all your friends jumped off a cliff, would you, too?” is, apparently, yes.

Still, don’t for a moment think I’m unduly pessimistic about the future. My faith can be derided as simple, but simple isn’t necessarily a bad thing. “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you,” wrote the prophet Isaiah. I know that good will come of these trying times; it always does.

How do you teach effectively with Zoom?

What techniques have you devised to make online learning more effective?
Sometimes it rains, by Carol L. Douglas

Yesterday, I taught my second class by Zoom. I found a format which I thought would work better than my usual one-on-one teaching model. This was a variation on the paint-and-sip model (minus the wine; it was morning) where the teacher leads the class through a painting and everyone ends up with more or less the same result.

I’m no fan of paint-and-sip, it’s entertainment, not painting class. (Here’s a tale of what happens when you let a real artist loose at one.) I didn’t ask my students to use the same reference photo. Instead, my instructions were relaxed—everyone had to paint evergreens of some sort.
Bunker Hill Overlook, watercolor on Yupo, by Carol L. Douglas
I completed each step of a painting and my students followed. Then I looked, round-robin, at their work, to see if they’d completed that step satisfactorily. In terms of class dynamics, it was fine; technically, it had shortcomings.
The first is that I had to choose one medium or the other. Without a cameraman, I couldn’t easily flip between watercolor and oil setups. That’s not great in an all-media class.
The Dugs in Autumn, by Carol L. Douglas
The biggest issue we faced is the size of the screen. If people have iPads or laptops handy, I think they’ll work better than their phones. I’m using my phone because it can be mounted on a tripod. But that means that most paintings I’m looking at are only a few inches across. We can talk about issues like composition at that scale, but not about brushwork, marrying edges, or paint application. The lighting is bad in most home studios. That means I can’t see color accurately.
I felt like I was touching on only about half the subjects I normally do. Color theory and composition are important parts of painting, but they aren’t the whole picture.
Rising Tide at Wadsworth Cove, by Carol L. Douglas
I’ll tinker this week to figure out if I can monitor the Zoom session from my laptop while broadcasting from my phone. Or if I can feed the video from a separate camera. Luckily, my son has finally made it home from his long exodus back from university. At that age, technology is in their sinews.
I have figured out that bigger props are better. I replaced my sketchbook with charcoal and newsprint for the composition phase. I painted a 12X16 demo; that’s a huge 3-hour painting but it wasn’t large enough. Next week, I’ll drag in a 24X30 canvas. That will help students see better. And I’ve learned that any props I need must be assembled in advance.
And here was my demo painting. I was most surprised when a Maine painter friend immediately identified it as Barnum Brook Trail at Paul Smith’s College Visitor Information Center. She then showed me a painting she’d done of it!
Having students mute their mikes when not speaking turns out to be a two-edged sword. It keeps the screen focused on the speaker. At the same time, it quells the commentary and criticism that’s so important in a small painting class. I think my students usually learn as much from each other as from me, and I’m sorry to see our interchanges become so formal.
One advantage of this online class was that I was able to invite two teacher-painter friends to join us: David Broerman from Fort Wayne, Indiana, and Chrissy Spoor Pahucki, from Goshen, NY. Usually, at this time of year they’re cracking the whip on teenagers with spring fever. It was a special treat to have them with us. That’s something to build on.
I’m interested in how you’re teaching and learning long-distance. That goes not only for workshop teachers and students, but for public school teachers, university professors, students, and those of you taking frequent online meetings. What techniques have you devised or mastered to make this easier or more effective?

Be careful what you wish for

One in five houses in Maine is someone’s vacation home. The potential implications of COVID-19 are terrible.

Four Ducks, Cape Elizabeth Paint for Preservation, by Carol L. Douglas

One thing I’ve dreaded doing was striking out upcoming events on my website. As I’ve written before, I think the plein air festival has lost its punch. Because of this, I deleted all but a few key events in 2020. The ones I kept had strong revenues or provided unusual opportunities for painting. Then cancellations started flooding in from organizers rightly worried about promoting events they can’t deliver. Now I’m left with what I’d thought I wanted: a summer where I can concentrate on painting here at home, and where I can run my studio-gallery without interruption.

Of course, I don’t know whether anyone will be able to come. Like everyone else, I have no idea what shape the summer will take. The state of Maine is on lockdown. That’s not irrational: one in five houses in this state is someone’s vacation home, the highest percentage in the nation. That makes us very vulnerable to visiting pathogens.
Ottawa House, Parrsboro International Plein Air Festival, by Carol L. Douglas
But tourism is one of our top economic drivers. In 2018, over 37 million people visited Maine, spending $6.2 billion and supporting 110,000 jobs. The cost of this lockdown, if it continues through the summer months, is incalculable. The cultural costs are being felt already. Our bicentennial was March 15, but the state had to postpone a host of celebrations that have been years in the making.
In the near future, I’ll be teaching painting via Zoom. Teaching via the internet is going to be radically different from teaching in person. I need to figure out new ways to prepare, since we won’t all be looking at the same scene, carefully curated to address a specific issue in painting. The issue isn’t technology; it’s creating projects that are doable in students’ homes.
Ocean Park Beach, Art in the Park, by Carol L. Douglas
I’m kicking myself for not paying more attention to Katie Dobson Cundiff while we were in Argentina. She teaches at Ringling College of Art and Design. Her students were all sent home while they were on spring break. While the rest of us were larking around the glaciers, she was creating a template for remote teaching.
The only analogy in my lifetime was the economic collapse of 2008. My income fell by 2/3 in one horrible year. Both painting sales and classes were way down. My strategy was to stop showing and selling until the market had time to recover. Even my teaching practice was reduced. Instead, I used that time to focus on my own development.
I don’t think the current crisis will have the same shape as the 2008 crash, but I’ll probably do something similar. I’m retracting, watching, and trying to be nimble. And I’m really curious about your ideas.

But first I have to feel better. I’m entering week four of being ill. This morning, I’m breaking my quarantine to drive to my PCP’s office for further testing. If I get arrested, you can send me a file in a cake.