Meet your oppressor

It’s horrible to watch a city you love overdosing on hate and violence.

High Falls of the Genesee, by Carol L. Douglas.

I’d like you to meet my friend Ha. He’s a portly gentleman in his seventies, with a thick thatch of white hair and an irrepressible smile. His wife, Khanh, is a tiny, self-contained woman. Ha’s sister, Nu, is tall and rangy with an outsize personality to match. They run a small restaurant on lower Monroe Avenue in Rochester, NY. This is a part the city that has been described as “up and coming” for the past twenty years.

Ha’s family is from mainland China, and their trade was food service. Like many petit-bourgeoisie, they fled when it was clear that the communists had won the Chinese Civil War. The skill to roast a pig is international currency, and they resettled in Saigon. There has always been a large and successful Chinese population in South Vietnam. But by the late 1970s, ethnic Chinese were being violently suppressed, especially the capitalist ones. I once asked Nu how they managed to escape. She rubbed fingers and thumb together in the international symbol for payola.

North Rochester, by Carol L. Douglas. This is where my old church is.

They were on the move again, this time by boat to an international refugee camp in Malaysia. One brother died before they landed. They have a worn photo of that landing; they are carrying what they can through the surf from a rickety cruiser.

From there, some went to Canada. Ha and his sisters came here. He met Khanh in a match arranged by her brother. They lost a child, they had another. Nu and her husband had a daughter. Two sisters died. They set up shop on Monroe Avenue, and all of them worked like navvies to establish the restaurant. They’re there from late morning until late at night, every day of the week. The first time I ever saw them take a day off was for their daughter’s college graduation.

Last year, Khanh and Nu were assaulted by a drunk. They were both seriously injured; Khanh suffered a broken hip. While they recovered, the restaurant was closed; there is no other staff. They don’t speak English so you didn’t see them on the evening news. Besides, inner-city violence is a tiresome fact of life, hardly newsworthy.

Canal, by Carol L. Douglas. Rochester has its idyllic moments.

They’d like to retire, but their assets are tied up in the restaurant. They had buyers in mind, a Vietnamese couple with a small jewelry store around the corner. These young people want to put their feet on the first rung of the American ladder themselves.

Fast forward to last month, when riots rocked Rochester. My friends got off lightly; their building was tagged, not torched. But buildings on either side of them burned, and their prospective buyers’ Hispanic neighbor was severely beaten trying to protect their shop for them. 

This weekend another round of rioting closed down Rochester again. I have the greatest sympathy for Daniel Prude’s family. Anyone who’s lived with a mentally-ill loved one has to be thinking, “there but for the grace of God go I.” The circumstances of his death should be investigated—but not by a mob.

My friends are not oppressors; rather, they’ve fled two oppressive regimes in their lifetimes. They’ve been stoic about the current round of violence. They’ve seen worse.

This weekend, the damage was centered a few blocks north of their restaurant, in a much ‘nicer’ area. For twenty years, the city has marketed this neighborhood to middle-class professionals. Perhaps you think that’s okay, that somehow these people are the oppressors. Instead, they’re the people who’ve propped up the tax base in a moribund city.

The net result of Rochester’s 1964 riots was the flight of capital and brains from the city—“white flight,” they called it then. I have no idea what they’ll call it this time, but it’s horrible to watch a city you love convulsing in another overdose of hate and violence. Apparently, it has learned nothing whatsoever from its own history.

Cloudy with a chance of rain

A reader asks for advice teaching his first workshop.

Janith Mason at a Sea & Sky workshop. One of my all-time favorite photos of a student.

It looks like the rain predicted for Monday has moved up to Sunday, but I’m prepared; I rented a shelter for this workshopmonths ago. It can be a fly tarp, a tent, a shelter, your studio, or a porch, but you must have a place for students to keep working when the weather goes bad. Rain is inevitable.

Your first and most important step, however, is to get consent from the places you’ll take your class. The rules change when you’re not alone. For example, if you bring a group to Acadia or another national park, you need a permit and proof that you’re carrying insurance (which you should have anyway). Many state and local parks have similar requirements. Historic sites often also charge a fee.
Rain is inevitable. Here we are getting soaked on the Monhegan ferry.
If you’re painting a view along a street or road, remember to ask the property owner first. Stay on the sidewalks, the shoulder of the road, or in a pocket park if you’re in a public place.
You’re morally and legally responsible for the safety of your students. That’s why I don’t teach at Raven’s Nest in Schoodic, even though it’s a fantastic view. It’s not safe for big groups. Keep your people back from the road, and away from drop-offs and heavy equipment.
Know your own process and be able to break it down into discrete steps. Can you explain why you’re doing what you’re doing each step of the way? If not, go back and run through a painting in your studio and note each step. If you don’t have a consistent protocol, you’re probably not ready to teach.
You can’t demo convincingly unless you understand how and why you do each step in your process.
In a similar vein, if you’re not a natural-born encourager and coach, teaching might not be the best option for you. Teaching painting is far more than just technical advice. Your own personality is the biggest indicator of your potential as a teacher.
Write supply lists and disseminate them freely. Mine are in this blog post. (No, I don’t mind if you use them as templates.)
Every workshop should have a focus. This weekend’s is the composition questions raised by the gently rolling landscape of the Genesee Valley. In The Age of Sail, it will be watercolor sketching on the fly. Sea & Sky at Schoodic is longer, so we work more intensively on essentials of painting rocks, water, trees and skies.
Students need time to work alone, but they also need your attention.
Don’t take too many students. For me, twelve is about the maximum. Bigger classes end up with the teacher spending too much time demoing, and a video is cheaper and better for that. They’ve paid for your individual attention and problem-solving, and they should get them.
I do ask students to not spread out too far apart, or I spend all my time walking from person to person. When possible, I carry a bicycle with me to get from painter to painter faster.
The bottom line for a good workshop is one-on-one attention. Oh, and sunscreen.
Any time I have more than six students, I engage a classroom monitor. This person is responsible for setting up my supplies, logistics and answering simple questions (but not for teaching).
Lastly, I carry a teaching bag containing extra boards, rain slickers, palette knife, and bug spray. People inevitably forget something, and we want them to have a good time.
Addendum: I forgot to mention restroom access here. In the deep wilds you can use a porta-potty or nature itself, but in more civilized place, find a site with public restrooms.

World’s Okayest Mom

Lonely rubber ducky in Camden harbor.

Lonely rubber ducky in Camden harbor.
You might know my young friend Sandy Quang. She was my painting student for a long time, then my studio assistant, and sometimes my workshop monitor. Most recently, she worked at Camden Falls Gallery.
Sandy’s parents run a restaurant called Dac Hoa. It’s a small eatery on the edge of downtown Rochester, known for its fresh Vietnamese, Thai and Chinese food. Ha, Kahn and Nu know this range of cuisine because their families left China during the Chinese Civil War and settled in Vietnam. After the fall of Saigon they moved along again, eventually ending up in Rochester. I respect them for their courage, hard work, and integrity. Through Sandy, we’ve become friends.
"My parents’ restaurant," graphite on paper, approx. 16X18, 2008, by Sandy Quang.
“My parents’ restaurant,” graphite on paper, approx. 16X18, 2008, by Sandy Quang.
When I was a kid, I had a crush on an imaginary boy called Homer Price. I loved him because he was nice and could fix anything. Years later, I met him in the form of a gangling high school student. We’ve had four kids and grown grey together.
At the time, I didn’t know anything about Homer Price’s creator, Deer Isle’s own Robert McCloskey. I’d never seen his other children’s book classics. But I raised my own kids on a steady diet of his books. My youngest took Make Way for Ducklings very much to heart. The lad loved everything about ducks. “Well, that’s cute,” I thought. His obsession about ducks was just one of those things that were in the background of our collective family consciousness.
And then he was slightly older and we were at Dac Hoa during a Christmas season very much like this. He was restive and annoying, as little boys are wont to be. Looking to amuse him, I showed him the roasted ducks in the window. To this day, I have no idea why I thought this would be a good idea.

"Sandy’s parents’ restaurant interior," graphite, approx. 18X24, 2008, by Zeyuan Chen.

“Sandy’s parents’ restaurant interior,” graphite, approx. 18X24, 2008, by Zeyuan Chen.
He dissolved into howling, violent grief. Our dinner, obviously, was ruined. The lad cried for days.
“That boy is going to be in therapy for years,” I thought ruefully.
Last week we were in Dac Hoa celebrating the same kid’s 20th birthday. I asked him if he remembered the incident with the ducks. My husband pulled an exasperated face. Nu laughed. And my son also laughed. I’m so relieved.
I simultaneously believe that parenting is our most important job and that kids make their way somehow despite it. I guess for this youngest one, “World’s Okayist Mom” was good enough.
Christmas is the season of grace-made-manifest through the incarnation of Jesus Christ. It’s nice to know I’m forgiven.

Redeeming the day

East Main Street, Rochester.(Photo by Douglas Perot)
It’s just ten days until my move to Maine, and it’s a pretty ragged time. The Volunteers of America truck will be here tomorrow, my house looks like the aftermath of urban rioting, and I figure I’m about three weeks behind on my to-do list. Everything, in short, has been going as well as can be expected.
Rochester, struggling? Yeah, that’s one reason. (Photo courtesy of Ivan Ramos.)
Then a series of cascading events hit yesterday:
  • My Prius was hit by a flying traffic cone, shattering the front bumper;
  • Our Civic needed $500 worth of brake work to pass inspection;
  • I dropped my mobile and shattered the screen;
  • An hour after the Civic got new brakes, it blew its muffler.

Rochester. (Photo courtesy of Ivan Ramos.)
Of course, all these things needed attention before I leave town. The only solution was to throw money at the cars, but after dropping a thousand dollars on them, I wasn’t keen to spend more on a new phone.

I’ve enjoyed my weeks of packing and sorting, oddly enough, and didn’t want my good mood to fizzle. “Lord, don’t let this steal my enjoyment of this day,” I prayed.

Rochester. (Photo courtesy of Ivan Ramos.)
I called Verizon; they wanted $180 to fix the screen. A used replacement was about $200, only marginally less than a new one. We watched a Youtube video on fixing it ourselves, but the replacement parts were $33 plus tax with two-day shipping, and when and how I’d do it remained up in the air.
Just to tell myself I’d checked off every option, I called an independent repair shop. Run by two nice young men, the Wireless Wizard fixed my screen for $70 including tax. The young man who helped me told me he’d worked at Rochester General Hospital before he and his brother rehabbed their first office space on East Main Street two years ago and opened for business. They moved across the street two months ago, and have just added a nail salon next door to their shop.
Once a star in Rochester’s firmament, East High now graduates about 39% of its students. (Photo courtesy of Ivan Ramos.)
My last studio was almost across the street from their shop, so I know the neighborhood well. There are parts of Main Street that are almost genteel, but that block is struggling. Any new enterprise that moves in is a triumph of hope over experience.
At N. Winton Village, East Main becomes almost genteel. (Photo courtesy of Ivan Ramos.)
Seeing a new business succeeding in Rochester cheered me up a great deal. Having my phone fixed at a decent price cheered me up even more. The day was redeemed.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me on the Schoodic Peninsula in beautiful Acadia National Park in August 2015. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops! Download a brochure here.

Last class in Rochester

Nina Koski and Cece Tassone painting in my garden. (Yes, I’m partial to the jungle aesthetic.)
There is no lovelier place than the Genesee Valley. From the six spectacular falls in the Genesee River to the Lake Ontario shore to the old neighborhoods of Rochester to our parks and arboretums, our area shines in May. So where did I decide to teach my last class? In my front garden, of course, coming full circle around to the place where I first declared myself a teacher.
Me, Nina and Carol Thiel painting in my front garden.
When my friend Catherine suggested that I hold painting classes, I was skeptical. I’m not credentialed in education, and my teaching experience was limited to Sunday school. But I rapidly realized that I could, in fact, teach.
What teaching teaches you is that your method can be divided and described as a process. I really didn’t realize how much I knew about painting until I taught it, year in and year out.
Brad Van Auken and Aaron Boucher painting in my front garden while Carol takes a break in the shade.
Still, a lot of people can paint well and even describe their process. However, not all of them care whether others reach their full potential. That’s the basic difference between someone who should be teaching and someone who shouldn’t.
Victoria Brzustowicz and Teressa Ramos listening to my blather.
My husband plays with an Eastman-trained musician, Pastor Debra Parris. He once said to me, “she’s got all the talent in the world, but she spends so much time encouraging others to make music.” That’s a fine legacy and something to aspire to.
The solar queen attended and waved regally at us.
Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me on the Schoodic Peninsula in beautiful Acadia National Park in August 2015. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops! Download a brochure here.

Don’t believe half of what you read

The tail end of the anti-Bill demonstration at the bus headquarters.

Yesterday I was driving downtown when I passed a demonstration at the bus headquarters. Union members were protesting the decision to stop busing 9,000 Rochester City School District students on the RTS because troublemakers won’t stop fighting. The move will cost 144 jobs. I get their frustration but I was a little offended by the signs that read, “Fire Bill,” particularly as the graphics alluded to the “Kill Bill” movies.

See, I know Bill. He’s not an abstraction but a real, live human being. I thought for a moment about stopping and telling the protesters what a nice guy he is, but I didn’t think it would change their minds. Anyways, I was headed downtown for the National Day of Prayer, and I was running late.
Listening to prayers on the steps of City Hall.
On Wednesday a teenager was shot while playing basketball at a little park on Fourth Street. That’s right by the Public Market, and I know that park pretty well. My car was once totaled by a stolen vehicle alongside the jungle-gym. It’s absurd that a kid could be shot in a park full of children in broad daylight. If that happened in tony Loudoun County, VA, where our government muckety-mucks raise their families, the uproar would be appalling. But this is urban Rochester and it warranted three sentences on the news.
The closer you are to the city, the more aware you are that it is in trouble and that politics doesn’t seem able to fix much. It’s no surprise that the impulse to pray was led overwhelmingly by the inner-city churches. After all, if you live in Henrietta or Webster, the problems of crime and education are a pity, but a vague one.
Hands stretching in prayer from City Hall to the County Building.
The National Day of Prayer event started with politicians and formal prayers. But the real action happened when citizens formed a human chain reaching from City Hall to the County Building and prayed like mad for the welfare of our community.
At one point I caught myself thinking, “750,000 people in this county, and only several hundred of us came out. What difference can we possibly make?” But in fact we can. Prayer is not the work of our hands, but a plea for a miraculous intervention. The results, basically, have nothing to do with us.
This handsome shofar player is Eugene Henn from Brighton. It was a beautiful thing to hear the shofar ringing off that Medina sandstone.
I ran into Bill’s wife downtown. As we were leaving, I suggested that she take a different route home so she didn’t have to see the protesters. “Maybe I should bring them water bottles,” she mused. The answer to the end of urban violence is to bless the ones who curse you, to stop keeping score, but it’s so hard to do. Anyway, they had folded up shop when I drove past a few minutes later. The prayers had outlasted the demonstrators.
A crime map for my fair city for the first four months of 2015. For an up-to-date version, see here.
Meanwhile, while both events were taking place, a woman’s body was found on Hudson Avenue. Just another day in Rochester.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me on the Schoodic Peninsula in beautiful Acadia National Park in August 2015. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops! Download a brochure here.

Utopia, derailed

Queensboro Bridge construction, 10X8, by Carol L. Douglas. Cities were once the highest expression of civilization. What happened?
I had intended to write about the beauty of boreal bogs this morning. But then I came across this, from the Economist:
The bigger problem for Baltimore is that lawlessness is not limited to nights like tonight. As one young woman standing taking photos said to me, West Baltimore is “always like this. Well not like this, but you know, shootings”. This is a city where a young black man is killed almost every day—not by police officers, but by other young black men. The failure of the police in this city is that they cannot enforce the law even at the best of times. At their worst, as the death of Mr Gray seems to suggest, Baltimore’s police are simply another source of the lawlessness.

Whenever I am totally disheartened, I wander over to Mt. Hope Cemetery to commune with my heroes.
On Monday I wroteabout returning from Maine to Rochester’s daily violence. As Baltimore descended into chaos, I was following a local story:  the (Rochester) Regional Transit Service’s decision to end a 37-year relationship with the Rochester City School District (RCSD). That means the district needs to figure out how to move 9,500 students around, and 144 jobs will be cut. The problem is a simple one: a small percentage of the kids in the district are abusing their bus privileges with fighting, and the usual correctives haven’t worked.
Beneath the Queensboro Bridge, 14X18, by Carol L. Douglas
“As being an older adult, it can be intimidating at times because you never know when you’re going to be caught up in a situation,” Elmyra Crawford-Brown toldTime-Warner News.
I have concluded that the Rochester story is really the same as the Baltimore story: a city skittering on the edge of chaos resorts to extreme measures to protect the law-abiding majority of its citizens.
Toya Graham, the mother who yanked her 16-year-old son out of the fray in Baltimore, said, “A lot of his friends have been killed. I just want to keep him in the house, but that’s not really going to work.” At the end of the day, the National Guard will leave Baltimore, the RCSD will find some other way to move its students, and the killing fields will get back to business as usual.
What would Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass make of the mess we have today?
Tune in tomorrow for the boreal bogs.

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.

Back home in New York

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.

In the bleak midwinter

Deer in snow, oil on canvas, by Carol L. Douglas. This was not painted en plein air and it shows. Not just in the deer, but in the heightened shadows, which are next to impossible here in mid-winter.
These days I will go outside to paint in the winter, but only if one of my pals really wants to. I think I’ve done my penance freezing in the bleak midwinter.
Highland Park snow squall, pastel, by Carol L. Douglas
About 15 years ago, I decided that I would paint outdoors every day (which for me meant six days a week).  I did this for one calendar year. Of course it seemed like that was the coldest winter we’d ever had, but in truth every winter is the coldest we’ve ever had.
Vineyard in snow, pastel, by Carol L. Douglas
Rochester doesn’t get the body-numbing cold of other northern areas because we have the tempering effect of Lake Ontario. However, we get an almost constant deep cloud cover from moisture picked up over that same lake. A damp 20° F. with no sun feels colder than 10° F. on a bright day. Add a snow squall raging in from the lake and you have a situation of indescribable unpleasantness.
Snowy road in Rush, pastel, by Carol L. Douglas
That heavy overcast also makes for grey, indirect lighting without shadows. It’s just not that exciting to paint, and one reason I quit painting in winter was that most of what I painted bored me. But my brief foray in Maine last month reminded me of how beautiful winter can be when the sun actually comes out.
Skating rink, oil on canvas, by Carol L. Douglas
A few years ago, I did another painting-a-day cycle with small still lives. When you insist on finishing a painting every day, you develop a specific working rhythm. You take work to a certain point and no further. Both times I finished doing them, I was happy to start working on more intentional, longer works. But my painting style has changed a lot in fifteen years, and I’m thinking that another cycle of painting-a-day might be in my immediate future.
Just not this week. It’s too cold out there.
Painting in Piseco, New York in February.
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.

Corporal Acts of Mercy

Another snowy day in the Duchy.
Being very laid back, we in the Duchy don’t enforce all that border-crossing nonsense, but if you visit, you know immediately that you’re in a different space.
For one thing, our hierarchy is upside down. The nobility—and by that I mean me—seem to spend an inordinate amount of time clearing drains and uncovering fire hydrants. This isn’t because I’m particularly nice; in fact, I’m a curmudgeon, always grumbling about the neighbor who lets his dog defecate on my property. That blasted spaniel is indiscriminate about where he goes. Last month he went right in the middle of our front walk. My assistant managed to pick it up on her shoe and track it through my house, forcing us to stop working and wash all the hardwood floors. But I digress.
The Duchy has a resident saint and she frequently drags me along on her acts of mercy. Mary has lived in the Duchy for her entire life, so she knows everyone. She has a tender heart. I do not, but I go along with her schemes because they’re always more interesting than whatever I was supposed to be doing.
Winter snowsquall in the Duchy. 6X8, oil on canvas, Carol L. Douglas
“Number 178 is being cased by a burglar in an old silver sedan,” Penny the Ducal Mailperson announced yesterday. “Two feet of snow in the driveway and a package in the door for days; it’s obvious that nobody’s home.” Because Mary fixes things, Penny handed her a slip of paper with the license plate number on it.
A portrait of the artist as a maintenance guy.
The easiest solution was to shovel out Number 178 to make it look less abandoned.  The average house in the Duchy has 30 feet of front walk, 50 feet of sidewalk, and 120 feet of tarmac that starts about 10 feet across and widens to a parking area in the back. Only a zealot (me) ever shovels this by hand. Nobody who is not dead lets it build up, especially when Mother Nature is furiously showering down snow. It packs in like concrete.
An hour into our Herculean labors, we saw a commercial plow come down the street. “Let’s pay him to finish this,” we instantly agreed. Ripping off her hat and shaking out her gleaming blonde hair, Mary flashed a bit of very shapely leg at him to get his attention. He trundled on.
Mother Nature is just in one of those moods.
“Boy, was thatever a kick in the ego,” she grumbled.
“I think you’re supposed to remove some of the twelve layers you’re wearing,” I pointed out.
Today Number 178 was snowed in again. There were footprints around the house and garage, as if someone was peering in the windows. Again we shoveled, and then we called the police.
Bad parking job.
The irony? That’s the neighbor whose dog messes on my property.  And that’s why Mary is a saint: nobody else could have gotten me to do that.

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.