Love and friendship

A friend is a friend, and love is love, no matter if it comes by airmail or through the internet, or in person.

My mother and her cousin Gabriel on her last trip to Australia.

My brother gave me a thumb drive containing about 500 scanned slides from my childhood. They’re very interesting, but they are largely of an era when my parents still only had three children—my sister Ann, my brother John, and, eventually, toddler me.

They went on to have three more—my brothers David, Robert and Daniel. Then John and Ann died in two separate, horrible accidents. My children have only heard stories about them, so their interest is natural. But I could almost not bear the pain of those photos. They’re gripping images of another life entirely, before my family was blown apart by cataclysm. We were miserable for so many years that I’d almost forgotten that we were once happy.

My brother John, me, and my sister Ann kicking up our feet in the Niagara River.

On the other hand, Doug and I are in Albany with our own four adult children and three grandchildren. They’re nice kids. All of them are productively employed; three of the four are happily married. They love each other enough to want to live in the same city. I understand exactly how blessed I am.

Last year’s blog on this date was called, Joy and tragedy are two sides of the same coin. It was about our first COVID year, but it’s universally true. We lose people we love, and then we gain new people to love. The cycle grows more marked over time, but none of us are immune. Grief is the price we ultimately pay for love.

I have friends who have never escaped the acute phase of grief. I lived there for several decades myself. Faith helps, but it comes with its own questions.

For me, the key to surviving has been to keep my pain in a small box and resolutely look outward and forward. I wasn’t always this way. After my father died, I took on the role of ‘memory keeper.’ 

Our lovely boat, now long gone, on the wall at Rich Marine in Buffalo.

Eventually, I realized that I didn’t need to do that. Happiness wasn’t somehow disloyal to the past. If there is omniscience from beyond the grave (and I doubt that, on theological grounds), I don’t think they’d want me to be permanently miserable.

My husband and I don’t exchange Christmas gifts. Now that our kids are grown, there’s seldom anything under our tree. This year, however, I received a package from one of my online students. It contained a cute little ornament that looks just like me. There was also a package marked ‘do not open until Christmas.’ It was squishy and for some reason I decided that it was a stollen.

I was wrong; it was a collection of fine oil-painting brushes from a group of my online students. To say I was speechless, shocked and moved is an understatement. I couldn’t imagine why anyone would give me such a lovely gift. “We call that being ‘surprised with love,’” said the instigator.

I haven’t met all these students ‘in the real world.’ I’m no longer certain that such a distinction even exists. The line between real-world and internet contact is now so blurred as to be almost meaningless.

You young’uns may have never seen an airmail letter. It was a thin, parchment paper and you filled every inch of it with script, because it was expensive to mail. (Courtesy ebay)

My mother and her cousin-in-law in Australia wrote to each other for five decades, starting in the early 1960s. They never met in person until middle age, but they were always friends; decades of indirect contact forged intimate relationship.

I remember telling my youngest that his online friendships were not ‘real’. I’m afraid I owe him an apology. A friend is a friend, and love is love, no matter if it comes by airmail or through the internet, or in person.

In a few minutes, I’m going to head over to my eldest daughter’s house and play with my grandkids and look resolutely forward and outward. Have a blessed, happy new year, my friends.

Some days I hate learning experiences

Painting boats is a great metaphor for life. The wind in your sails is the easy part. It’s the rigging that’s ticklish.

Breaking storm, 48X30, oil on canvas, available through Folly Cove Fine Art.

There are 47,000 photos on this laptop, another 41,000 on our server, and thousands more on my phone. (There is, of course, significant overlap). They’re in folders titled by seasons or events—except for images of paintings, which I store by the year they were completed. The problem is that I’m more likely to remember the curve of a taffrail than where or when I saw it.

Last autumn I did a watercolor sketch for a boat painting. I got as far as laying it out on canvas and then got derailed. I just got back to it this week and I had no recollection of what reference photo (if any) I’d used. There’s a low-res collage called Boats on my thumb drive. That’s a terrible name, since I have almost 400 other pictures with similar names. I looked at them all. No luck.

Sunset Sail, oil on canvas, available through Folly Cove Fine Art.

The shore in my sketch looks like the Camden Hills. Did I use a photo from the Camden Classics Cup regatta? Howard Gallagherand the late Lee Boynton and I once watched the start from Howard’s boat, but if I have any photos I no longer know where they are.

Let this be a lesson to me and everyone else—when you decide to paint from a photo, put it somewhere you can find it later.

I searched online and found a delightful Cornish sloop and a couple of beautiful Camden Class daysailors. I roughed them in and sat back to look. I’d just realized the scale was all wrong when Ann Trainor Domingue stopped by.

“Does it matter?” she asked. If you know Annie’s work (which is terrific) you’ll understand why she questioned that. But to me it mattered.

I can paint the sails of most fore-and-aft rigged vessels in my sleep. They feel as natural as the wind to me. But when it comes to attaching them to a hull, I must be careful. Placing the cabins, the masts, and the sheets properly is ticklish.

It’s a great metaphor for life. The wind is the easy part.

The trouble with combining reference photos of boats is that the wind, the light, the angle and the scale all must be roughly the same. For my painting to work, the different boats’ sails can’t exactly mimic each other. However, boats running in the same wind tend to be trimmed the same way. I debated how much license I wanted to take.

I ran this past my pal Bobbi Heath, who not only paints boats, but also sails. She, in turn, ran it past her husband. He thought my gaff-rigged cutter might plausibly be jibing at the same time as the sloop was running downwind.

“We may be overthinking this,” Bobbi added. I wasn’t worried; Bobbi and I do some of our best work while overthinking things. Still, I was unhappy. My painting had developed a patina of historical drama, and that wasn’t what I wanted at all. I was trying to paint sheer larkiness.

Rising Tide at Wadsworth Cove, 12×16, oil on canvasboard by Carol L. Douglas. Stimulus sale price, $675 (regularly $895 unframed)

Last February, Ann Domingue and I planned a workshop called Uncovering Your Mark, which was a guided exercise to help artists get to the heart of their own work. She planned to teach it in my studio here in Maine in June. With the pandemic, she offered it online as a Zoom class.

I had expected to learn something about how I might change my work. Instead, I realized I was painting exactly what I’m supposed to be painting right now. She couldn’t have given me a greater gift.

Stormy Weather, 16X20, oil on canvas by Carol L. Douglas. Stimulus sale price $1000 (regularly $1400 unframed)

The brilliant thing about art is that neither Ann’s approach nor mine is ‘right’. We’re each saying different things in our paintings, speaking to different audiences. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Thinking about that, something clicked and I remembered where the photo that inspired my sketch was filed—under Eggemoggin Reach Regatta. The human mind is inscrutable, isn’t it?

If I don’t have the exact boats, I certainly have the right wind. Today I can scrape out my flailings and paint it properly. At times, art can be a cruel taskmaster, but if you’re patient you will get there.

Owl’s Head reverie, interrupted

"The Cliff under Owl's Head Light," Carol L. Douglas, 10X8.

“The Cliff under Owl’s Head Light,” Carol L. Douglas, 10X8.
As I listened to my friend Kathy field calls yesterday, I was reminded of how fragmented our lives really are, and how our memories gloss over the interruptions. Perhaps she will remember her Maine trip for birdwatching and reading, but in reality she is spending a good part of it on the phone, trying to cobble together a care plan for an elderly relative.
We got a late start painting because I wanted Brad Marshall to choose the scene. I took him to two shingle beaches and a lighthouse, all at Owl’s Head State Park. As we trudged along a wooded path, Brad reminisced about his very first plein airpainting, decades ago.
Brad Marshall's study of the cliff below Owl's Head Light.

Brad Marshall’s study of the cliff below Owl’s Head Light.
Brad is a very experienced artist.  He attended the San Francisco Academy of Art, and he works as a sign-painter, doing massive pictorial murals all over the US.  His paintings are represented by the Fischbach Gallery.
There he was in Stonington, with a field easel and some paints. How hard, he asked himself, could this plein air lark be?
Brad Marshall's study of the beach at Owl's Head State Park.

Brad Marshall’s study of the beach at Owl’s Head State Park.
“It wasn’t like I’d never painted from life,” he said. “I had lots of experience with that. I was just unprepared for the difficulties of plein air.”
He was totally frustrated. “I thought, who is this man?” laughed Kathy. Still, the resulting painting, A Path in the Maine Woods, has proved enduringly popular.
I frequently tell my students that plein air is the most difficult and highest expression of painting. You can paint from photos? Congratulations; you know how to copy.
My study of the beach at Owl's Head State Park.

My study of the beach at Owl’s Head State Park.
Why bother with the extra work of learning to paint landscapes from life? The camera does a lot of the hard work for you, but it also eliminates most choices. It flattens out light and perspective. When you paint outdoors, you’re not just faithfully recording what you see, you’re painting your relationship with the natural world.
Old buds, together again. (Photo courtesy of Kathy Jalbert)

Old buds, together again. (Photo courtesy of Kathy Jalbert)
Yesterday my own painting was fragmented by too much closeness with my cell phone. There was something I needed to straighten out about next week’s workshop. I had scheduling issues for September that could not wait. Trying to answer these questions without my laptop, I managed to create a wild kerfuffle in my own mind. I got upset with a vendor, but it turns out that I, not she, was in the wrong.
To me, multitasking just means doing everything badly. Sometimes it can’t be helped. Listening to Kathy scrambling to fix her loved one’s problem, I was reminded that peace of mind is a great gift. Many of us are so overstimulated by years of fielding emergencies that we don’t even recognize peace when it shows up at our door. I’m not grateful enough for it.