Not all regional differences are about the landscape, the accents and the buildings. There are also differences in character.
Erie Canal Sketch by Carol L. Douglas. You’re pretty, New York, but don’t let it go to your head.
Last year, Bobbi Heathand I stopped on the road and bought boxes, bubble wrap and tape. We left these, carefully marked, for our work to be returned after a show in New Jersey. Mine were mailed back unsecured and unwrapped. Mercifully, nothing was damaged, but had that $3000 of inventory been ruined, the Postal Service would have been justified in not paying the claim. Our host at that event was gracious and kind, but the slipshod mailing left me thinking poorly of the event.
Compare that to my experience at Santa Fe Plein Air Fiesta earlier this month. When my frames arrived broken, co-chair Jane Chapin loaned me three of hers. That flexible, kind attitude was visible in small and large ways throughout the event. They held three receptions for the artists. They cooked for us and cared for us. Their attitude makes me want to hurry back.
There are invisible differences from place to place in America, and sometimes they’re more important than what you see.
Erie Canal Bridge Sketch, by Carol L. Douglas.
I engage with government in very limited ways—the department of motor vehicles, the town clerk, the planning office, and the post office. In my small town of Rockport, ME (pop. 3,330), I’m accustomed to public officials being accommodating and thoughtful. The other day I visited the clerk’s office to ask what my excise tax would be on a new car I’m considering. It was a few minutes before closing time. The deputy clerk calculated it, commiserated, and made a friendly joke as we left.
In New York, it’s a high crime and misdemeanor if every dot and tittle is not in place. Its clerks guard their prerogatives assiduously. I should have remembered that, but I’ve gotten soft.
Catskill Farm, by Carol L. Douglas
So I was a little blindsided when my daughter ran into trouble at the local town hall. She and her fiancé need a marriage license by the weekend. They had followed the instructions on the New York State website. Of course, like everyone else, they followed them wrong. She was carrying the wrong identification.
Still, the town she is getting married in is very close to the town where she was born. She’s carrying the highest-and-greatest form of identification—her United States Passport. It ought to have been no big deal to just get a new birth certificate.
No way, no how. They won’t give it to her without her Social Security card, one of the most loosely-controlled documents Americans carry. “Homeland Security visits us, you know!” the clerk told her.
The Dugs, by Carol L. Douglas
“This is New York, right?” a friend quipped. “Try bribing them.” I won’t do that, but if it doesn’t get straightened out today, I’m going to try sending a little muscle along. And there’s always ‘the touch’, putting the word out to friends and family to see who knows someone who knows someone. Because in New York, that’s how things get done.
But back to sensible Maine for the answer. I called Camden Falls Gallery and got Howard Gallagher on the phone. “Sure!” he said, and he sent Sandy Quang over to my house to get the requisite documents from my safe. Then she got into her car and left for New York a few hours earlier than she had planned. If all goes well, Mary’s birth certificate and social security card should be in her hand by midday and the wedding will proceed as planned.
Yes, you can paint and sell generic landscapes, but what’s the point?
Keuka Lake vineyard, by Carol L. Douglas
If you were to blindfold me and drop me somewhere in New York, Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont or, I suppose, parts of Connecticut or New Jersey, I could, after an hour or two of hiking, tell you approximately where I was. (Please let’s not try this game in winter.) I could approximate the latitude and longitude by experience.
Chugash Range, Alaska, by Carol L. Douglas
I’ve spent a lifetime observing the rocks, the trees, the understory plants, the architecture, the old businesses, and even the smells of these places. This is why I am so emphatic that Linden Frederick’s Night Stories are a portrait of Amsterdam, NY and not the Maine coast. It’s why I yammer away to my students about the cleavage in granite. There’s nothing less convincing than a shale outcropping on a supposedly-Maine coast.
Now, if you were to play the same game and drop me in the Kit Carson National Forest or somewhere in the Florida Keys, I’d be wandering around confused a week later. I don’t know the places well enough.
Parke County, Indiana, by Carol L. Douglas
Places are defined by their political boundaries. These don’t represent their geographical realities. Consider Indiana, for example. If you haven’t been there, you probably think it’s flat, ‘fly-over country,’ and post-industrial rustbelt. Those are all true, but limited, descriptions. Much of the state is rolling farmland, dotted with hardwood forests, marshes, and flood-prone, mud-banked rivers. Southern Indiana is downright hilly in places. In the north, the soil is made of glacial till left over from the last Ice Age. In the south, there’s limestone.
New England towns are topsy-turvier than New York towns because there’s nowhere flat to draw a street plan on. New England is forested until it breaks out into beaches, as at Cape Cod. I visited tiny Williamson, NY, yesterday. Its main street marches in a straight line for blocks. Large square houses line the streets, now somewhat recovered from the bad years. There are long, rolling, mowed lawns and cobblestone houses. Its orchards are filled with old, severely-pruned trees, which are characteristic of the apple-growing regions of the state.
Rachel Carson refuge, Ocean Park, ME, by Carol L. Douglas
Then there’s weather. As you head west into the Great Lakes region, you frequently hit a wall of clouds. They are often angry, sometimes morose, but never static. If you’re painting in that place at that time of year, you need to tone down the contrast, because part of the sense of place comes from the consistent low light. Conversely, if you’re from the Great Lakes region, the clear blue skies of coastal America may come as a surprise.
If you’re a landscape painter, you’d be smart to observe these differences. Mary Byrom is one of the finest painters I know. Her work is simplified to the point of abstraction, but its still immediately identifiable as the southern coast of Maine, with its rocks, surf, and marshes.
Yes, you can paint and sell generic landscapes, but what’s the point?
Have a blessed holiday! There will be no Monday Morning Art School on Christmas. Your assignment? To eat, drink and be merry.
A long drive gave me plenty of time to ponder the meaning of success and failure.
Whiteface Makes Its Own Weather, was painted last time I was here, in 2014.
Yesterday a radio host was talking about the late Dallas Cowboys football coach, Tom Landry, and his attitude toward losing. “It’s got a priority, but it’s not number one in my life. This creates for me a certain amount of calmness, even though I’m human enough to suffer when we lose,” Landry said.
I’d just been musing on artists’ reaction to failure. I’m as bad as anyone else about taking it personally. However, like Landry, my career isn’t my highest priority. That helps me regain my equanimity a little faster.
We sometimes think a single-minded focus on painting will make us better artists. If Landry’s career is any indication, that’s not true. In fact, it may hinder our recovery from failure. No matter what your walk in life, it’s never a question of whether you will encounter setbacks or crises. They happen to us all. The question is whether you will have the resilience to recover.
Weather Moving In At Barnum Bog, was painted last time I was here, in 2014.
I had a lot of time to think yesterday, as I was driving from Rockport, ME to Saranac Lake, NY. I had a choice of routes. I could drive cross-lots west, which was the shortest distance. Or I could head south to Manchester, which was the fastest route. The obstacle is Lake Champlain, which was in my way no matter which angle I come from. I chose the coastal route. Every town was a snarl of holiday traffic. The trip took hours longer than I anticipated. I was weary.
If New Hampshire and Vermont were starched and ironed, they’d be at least as big as Texas. They’re mountainous and beautiful and villainously difficult to drive.
At 4 PM I considered just stopping for the night and calling it quits. After all, the Green and White Mountains and the High Peaks of the Adirondacks are all Appalachian uplifts, and they all look more or less the same.
The Au Sable River at Jay, 12X9, was painted last time I was here, in 2014.
On the other hand, the stretch between Middlebury, VT and Lake Champlain is one long flash of brilliant green. Heading west from the Atlantic, it’s the first flat open farmland one sees. Those long fields, so common to the Midwest, don’t happen in the Northeast. Just beyond Lake Champlain, the High Peaks of the Adirondacks rise again, providing a mountain backdrop to a pastoral scene. Anyone interested in living back of beyond could do worse than to land in Addison County, VT.
Although we were instructed to do a nocturne once the sun set at 8 PM, I was impossibly tired. If one is going to be done, it will be an early-morning painting. The sun rises later here than it does on the Maine Coast.
Judging by this morning, I would have until 6 AM to finish. The Eastern Time Zone is impressively wide along our northern border. It runs from Eastport, ME nearly to Chicago. The difference feels substantial every time I come to New York. At this rate, the sun must come up around noon in Indianapolis.
Yesterday I wrote about painters who continued working into their dotage. Today, I give you an example of one who didn’t even start until after most of her peers were dead.
Hoosick Falls, New York, In Winter, 1944, Grandma Moses
“The examples you gave yesterday are of people who have painted their whole lives,” a reader wrote. “I won’t have time to learn to paint until I retire. Do you think that is also true for people who take up painting at a later age?”
Leaving aside the idea that other work makes painting impossible (it doesn’t), we have a great example in Anna Mary Robertson “Grandma” Moses. She was born in 1860 in Greenwich, New York. She died in 1961 in Hoosick Falls, which is about twenty miles south. She had given birth to ten children, five of whom survived. She and her husband subsisted as small farmers, making much of what they had and doing without. From our 21stcentury viewpoint, her life was hard and limited in scope.
Wash Day, 1945, Grandma Moses
Still, that band of land from Greenwich to Hoosick Falls is arguably New York’s most sublime landscape, a region of soft rolling hills, fertile fields and pretty, old farmhouses. The other place where she lived for two decades, Staunton, Virginia, is in the Shenandoah Valley. It could be described exactly the same way. Both are places where rich urbanites come to vacation and appreciate the beauties of nature, but where the locals struggle to keep the house painted.
Grandma Moses did not take up painting until she was 78, but she showed an inclination toward art for her whole life. She had rudimentary art lessons in the one-room schoolhouse she attended (now the Bennington Museum in Vermont), and access to art supplies from the family who hired her as a farm hand at the age of twelve.
Mt. Nebo On The Hill, crewel embroidery, 1940, Grandma Moses
She produced quilts, dolls, and much crewel embroidery. Her unique painting style resonates with the values of her needlework, which in turn was influenced by the Currier & Ives lithographs of her childhood. Long before she was a painter, she was embroidering landscape paintings of her own design. In fact, she only took up painting when arthritis made holding a needle too difficult.
Moses was discovered by art collector Louis Caldor, who saw her work in the window of Thomas’ Drug Store in Hoosick Falls. Three of the paintings he bought were then included in the Contemporary Unknown American Painters exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1939. Two one-woman New York shows immediately followed. This began Moses’s meteoric rise in the art world. By 1943, there was an overwhelming demand for her paintings.
Photo is labelled on reverse: “Mrs. Thomas and Grandma Moses her paintings were displayed in Mrs. Thomas drug store Hoosick Falls, N.Y. that’s how she was discovered A man came by bought all paintings at $1.00 each.” c. 1940 (Courtesy Hoosick Falls Past and Present Facebook page)
Her homespun viewpoint contrasted sharply with the abstract-expressionistZeitgeist of post-war intellectual America. She was popular for all the same reasons her friend Norman Rockwell was popular. By the middle of the 20th century, there was a noticeable split between the cognoscenti and the middle classes in terms of values and mores. It has only become wider and deeper today.
Most of Grandma Moses’s paintings were done on cardboard and are relatively small. She painted her scenes first, and then inserted figures going about the daily work of farm life. She didn’t draw from life or photographs, but from her own fertile imagination. Because of this, her paintings are reminiscent of the Labours of the Seasons from medieval Books of Hours.
Country Fair, 1950, Grandma Moses
She belongs in the pantheon of naïve painters because she was self-taught, but to say that she was in any way primitive is risible, considering what has followed in the art world.
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.
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. 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.
In the past year, many people have talked to me about how my paintings have changed. This week I have a visitor from near Ithaca, NY. She’s a painter, so she’s visually observant. She talked about her impressions driving up the coast.
“While the leaves are gorgeous in New York right now, the light and clouds are different here,” she mused. “And the colors are different. We don’t get the clarity of light in New York. There is too much haze.” She went on to describe the light spilling through the clouds as the sun set, the warm golds of the reeds and marshes set against the blue-purples in the shadows and the slate gray of the clouds. It was a lovely word-sketch and it got me thinking.
“Nunda Autumn Day” (pastel), was painted before I moved to Maine.
There is nothing wrong with the filtered light of the mid-Atlantic region; it’s why my skin is so flawless going into old age. But there is less contrast in the landscape. Consider the work of Cornelia Foss, with whom I studied and greatly respect as a painter. She is the person who has had the greatest influence on me in terms of thinking about color. Her landscapes are absolutely accurate for Long Island, but they would be flat here in Maine.
“Behind the schoolhouse” was painted as a storm moved in on Monhegan, but the light is still stronger than it would have been in New York (painting by Carol L. Douglas)
I’ve been vaguely aware that I’m focusing more on value in my paintings these days, but I haven’t thought much about why that is. While talking to my guest, I realized it’s just a response to the high-key light of Maine.
“Keuka Lake” is an example of a lovely milky New York sky.
I’m not really doing anything differently; I’m painting something different. It would be a sign of failure if my Maine looked like my New York, wouldn’t it?
Grain Elevators, oil on canvas, 16X20, Carol L. Douglas
I got home on Tuesday to read yet another news story about the dystopia that is America’s archetypal mid-sized city. The feral children who are the result of 50 years of public policy were rioting in the new transportation center, and this week’s police department reorganization coincided with a wave of shootings. Six shot in a pub in Gates, one dead. A man shot and killed on Hudson Avenue.
North Rochester, oil on canvas, Carol L. Douglas. This was the view from my studio window back in the day.
In short, business as usual, but it was like a dousing with cold water after a few days away from the news.
I’m a New Yorker, bred to the bone. But I’m also exhausted by the intractability of our problems, and I can’t think what good I do to fix them.
First Ward, Buffalo, field sketch, 4X5, Carol L. Douglas
I’ve lost count of how many people I’ve known who’ve had murder touch their lives. It’s an everyday occurrence around here and in most cities. The news media generally pays little attention unless it breaks the usual pattern of urban youths blowing each other to perdition. Not noticing it is in some ways the worst racism and classism of all.
First Ward, Buffalo, oil on canvas, 16X20, Carol L. Douglas
When we talk about the reasons for the 50-year exodus from upstate New York, we usually concentrate on economics: loss of jobs, high taxes, a government culture that stifles innovation. Seldom do we think about despair as a motivator, but it has to be part of the equation. If I can’t make it better, am I somehow helping to make it worse?
Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me on the Schoodic Peninsula in beautiful Acadia National Park in 2015 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops! Download a brochure here.
Today I’m taking my Texan friend to see the Mennonite/Amish areas of the Finger Lakes. The Amish have a significant presence in New York, despite the impediments to agriculture here. It’s a population that’s growing.
Finger Lakes Overlook, 8X10, by Carol L. Douglas
New York’s farmland is fertile and productive, and cheap compared to Ohio and Pennsylvania. About a quarter of New York State is farmland. However, farming is a tough industry here: between 1997 and 2007, the amount of farmland declined by 7.9 percent. Farms are increasingly being consolidated, although most remain small and family-owned. Moreover, New York is consistently rated worst for business start-ups in the US. So how are these Amish communities moving in and succeeding?
Finger Lakes Farm, 11X14, by Carol L. Douglas
It’s not by evading taxes. The Amish have a religious exemption from some payroll taxes, because they do not believe in commercial insurance or taking money from the government. At the same time, they don’t take those benefits from the state: they care for their own unfortunate, elderly, and disabled within their own communities. But beyond that, they’re subject to all the same taxes we are, including hefty school taxes that they don’t see any direct benefit from (since they educate their own children).
Field in Paradise, 16X20, by Carol L. Douglas
Historically, the Amish settled in Chautauqua County, south of Buffalo, but there are now Amish communities throughout the state, and particularly in the Finger Lakes region. I’ve painted in these towns many times, but it never would have occurred to me to stress the ‘quaint.’ The Amish are our neighbors; they’re as much a part of pageant that is New York as I am.
Spring Blossoms, 8X10, by Carol L. Douglas
Remember, you’ve got until December 31 to get an early-bird discount for next year’s Acadia workshop. Read all about it here, or download a brochure here.
Like it or not, we’re all in this web together. This particular web was at Wahconah Falls in the Berkshires, where I plan to stop to paint on my way to Maine in two weeks.
Non-New Yorkers always seem skeptical when we tell them there are vast tracts of our state that are uninhabited. Hamilton County, for example, sprawls over more than 1800 square miles of land, but its population is fewer than 5,000. That gives it a population density equal to North Dakota.
Since I leave—shortly—for the duration of the summer, I took a short trip this past weekend. I’ll be off-grid for much of the time I’m in Maine. I needed a better sense of what was negotiable with these old bones and what I can’t live without. I haven’t done any back-of-beyond camping in more than a decade.
My 2005 Prius–which went over 200,000 miles on Friday–has a perfect smartphone holder in the door. Amazing, since there were no smartphones when it was built.
Yes, I can still sleep in a tent and get up the next morning and be (relatively) limber, providing I have some kind of air mattress. Yes, it’s still a lot of work to camp, what with pitching a tent, hauling water and food and rolling and rerolling bedding. And although I used to like to cook over a campfire, I find it a pain these days.
Since I almost never paint from photos anyway, there is a declining advantage in hauling around my Panasonic DMC-LX5. If I’m just testing viewpoints for a painting–as here–I might as well use my pocket-sized computing device, a/k/a ‘phone’.
What has changed since I last went back of beyond is the nation’s cell phone network. I was on the top of a hill with no running water, no electricity, no septic, no artificial lighting of any kind—and an absolutely stellar 4G signal.
I’m thinking that will change how I interact with you while I’m on the road. Daily blogging without wi-fi or electricity may be difficult (although there are open wi-fi networks everywhere) but Instagram and Facebook are available everywhere. Does that mean my camera, with its beautiful, fast Leica lens, is obsolete in favor of my cell phone? Perhaps.
Of course, going off-the-grid with a party of youngsters is a little different from going with a party of painters. Mainly, the toys are noisier. (What we have here is a convoy.)
I have two openings left for my 2014 workshop in Belfast, ME. Information is available here.