Plans derailed

I want to roam, but I don’t want to be a stupid American who gets into trouble with the military authorities.
Southern Beech, by Carol L. Douglas, 9X12, available.

Yesterday’s plans to hike along the Rio Electrico were derailed. The Army is making rounds, checking the hosterias in the area to verify that travelers are maintaining quarantine. Even though we would still be a self-contained group, it was thought that it would be better if we were not gallivanting around as a group. “I think it’s best if we keep our profile low,” said Jane Chapin.

Alexander is married to artist Natalia Andreeva. He’s not a painter, but is a dedicated hiker. Yesterday, he decided that the best way to get his exercise was to walk up and down the drive. That way, he’d see the soldiers when they arrive. Born in the Soviet Union, he has a healthy respect for the Army. I am listening to him.
We native-born Americans are cheerfully ignorant of the power of the military in other parts of the world. Our army doesn’t maneuver on domestic soil, we have no checkpoints, and people are constitutionally secure in their own homes. This crisis has reminded me of just how fragile that social contract is. Just as we experienced an erosion of personal liberty after 9/11, we may face a similar erosion from coronavirus. It’s up to us to be vigilant.
There were rocks in that large satchel, but it still didn’t stop my easel from going over.
In the Arctic and subpolar Canada, wind was my greatest enemy. It’s true here as well. My tough little pochade box blew down three times, despite being tethered with rocks. The first time, it wiped out my brush roll. The second time, my wash tank. The third time, it did me in, and I quit. By then, it was lashing rain anyway.
Being grounded to the immediate environs of the hosteria, I decided to paint the scrubby beech trees. Nothofagus pumilla is the predominant tree cover in this southern polar region, as common here as spruces in the North American taiga. These southern beeches have tiny serrated leaves that mimic their northern cousins. There any similarity with our northern beeches ends. The mature trees have deeply-grooved bark and are twisted and bent by the constant winds.
The leaves of the Southern Beech are about the only thing that resembles the beeches of the Northern Hemisphere.
Berberis microphylla, or barberry, grows wild. It’s known here as calafate, giving its name to the town. The berries of the local variety are edible. Legend has it that eating one assures you a return trip to Patagonia. Sadly, they’re out of season.
I’ve been carefree through this whole venture. Yesterday, I realized I was approaching my first real crisis. I brought 24 boards with me—two for each of ten painting days, and four spares. With the extension of our trip, I’m suddenly left with a shortage of painting surfaces. Typically, I bring too many boards, so rationing painting boards is new territory to me.
Rain, by Carol L. Douglas, 8X10, available.
Perhaps the Army will come today. After all, they have a huge range of territory to patrol. Meanwhile, we feel our range steadily contracting. First, we were limited to the country, then the province, then the town, then our hosteria and its grounds. Will we be limited to indoors next? Our rooms? Whatever happens, we’ll roll with it. In a constantly-changing situation, it’s best to be flexible.

The number one key to success as a plein air painter

It not only gets you through terrible weather, it keeps your brain supple.
Eventually, my easel fell into this manure pile. Of course.

The end of this week is dripping, sloppy and cool in the northeast. Nevertheless, there are painters trying to knock out paintings at events on Cape Ann and in the Hudson Valley. When they’ve committed to paint, they don’t have much choice but to succeed.

“100% chance of heavy rain tomorrow. more sun but much colder and windy on Friday. Cold and windy and cloudy on Saturday. Sunday there’s a reception in Middletown; that’s the day its sunny, but cold,” Elissa Gore noted on Wednesday. That’s a forecast that has the artist scrambling to pack every possible contrivance against the weather. Their only comfort is that every person in the event is facing the same lousy conditions.
Watch Her Paint! by Ed Buonvecchio. He painted this as we sheltered inside during a torrential downpour. (Private collection.)
Wind makes you wish you had five hands, because, outdoors, every item in your kit has the potential to go airborne. We can weigh down our easels, but umbrellas are useless. It’s difficult to clamp down a large canvas, so we switch gears and paint smaller. Or, we huddle in the lee of our cars, sacrificing the best view for what is possible.
Last week my class painted at a blueberry barren in Union, ME. The forecast was for fog, and when we arrived the clouds were kissing hilltops. My students’ value studies were developed accordingly. By 11 AM, the sky was clear, and the scene had changed entirely. It takes flexibility to salvage a painting in such radically shifting light. But it can be done.
Obstacles can include a garbage truck, as in here, in Manhattan.
Rain and snow are almost impossible obstacles for watercolorists. Even under cover, their paper just won’t dry. It’s almost as bad for oil painting. Once the moisture settles on your paints, any mixing creates a rigid emulsion of water and oil.
If you set up in a public place you stand the risk of something or someone getting between you and your view. It’s one thing if it’s a person. It’s another if it’s a delivery truck.
Or, a lovely boat is in harbor when you arrive and you decide to include it. You’re half-finished when you realize the lobsterman is preparing to leave. Even without people, boats move constantly on the water, and always according to their own mysterious plan.
Or the obstacles might be tourists, as here, in Camden harbor.
So how do you avoid coming home with a fistful of half-finished paintings? You learn to be flexible, to sub in other details for the ones that just vanished. You learn the cycles of places: the rotation of boats on their moorings, or when the food truck arrives and departs. You get creative about draping and bracing your easel to protect it. And, above all, you learn to paint fast.
All of those are signs of cognitive flexibility. This is the ability to switch your thinking or focus, or entertain multiple ideas or viewpoints at once. It’s an important part of learning and thinking. It’s one that declines through adulthood, sadly. The young brain is simply more plastic than the older one.
But your brain responds to exercise just like your body responds to yoga. The more you have to scramble, the better you get at it. Next time your easel falls down, remind yourself that you’re not just there making brilliant work. You’re exercising your cognitive flexibility.

Prairie madness

Little Giant (North End Ship Yard), 16X12, oil on canvas, Carol L. Douglas

 As I write this, the temperature is 9° F. That’s not exactly balmy, end-of-March weather. The wind blew steadily yesterday and into the night. It was a cutting wind, and it roared and thrummed in the woods behind my house. “It’s driving me nuts,” I told my husband.

“An alarming amount of insanity occurs in the new prairie States among farmers and their wives,” wrote EV Smalley in 1893. He blamed the isolation.
An unexpected snow squall cut visibility in the morning, Photo courtesy of Sarah Wardman.
Novelist Willa Cather blamed the wind. “Insanity and suicide are very common things on the Divide,” she wrote. “They come on like an epidemic in the hot wind season. Those scorching dusty winds that blow up over the bluffs from Kansas seem to dry up the blood in men’s veins as they do the sap in the corn leaves… It causes no great sensation there when a Dane is found swinging to his own windmill tower, and most of the Poles when they have become too careless and discouraged to shave themselves keep their razors to cut their throats with.”
This phenomenon, called “prairie fever” or “prairie madness” lasted throughout the late 19th century. Bitter cold winters combined with short hot summers to make life exceedingly difficult on the northern Plains. Sociologists say prairie madness vanished when settlements became more populous and the barriers of language no longer divided immigrants. But since more than one in ten Americans take anti-depressants, methinks prairie madness just moved indoors.
American writers often used the ocean as a metaphor to describe the prairies. Both are enormous, seemingly empty, and yet bountiful. Having painted both, I see and feel the similarities.
Winch (American Eagle), Carol L. Douglas. Same site, warmer day.
In either place, wind—on a practical level—makes my work difficult. That’s why I jumped at the opportunity to paint from the shipyard office. I’ve never done that before; it seems unsporting, somehow, to be warm and comfortable while painting snow.
Schooners attract a kind of romantic, well-read crew, and their patter is unlike most shop talk. It is larded with history and geography, and firmly grounded in sailing.
There were frequent references to The Shipping News, which I first took to mean Annie Proulx’ Pulitzer-winning novel. Soon I realized that they were talking about the literal shipping news: the 1907 lists of boats with their hauls of pineapples, animal hides and other perishable crops, moving up and down the Americas.
Little Giant, on a sunnier day.
An unpredicted snow squall rose, scuppering the captains’ plansto work on the marine railroad. The schooners themselves are still shrouded in their winter framework of plastic and plywood. For the romantic fancier of boats, a crane might seem a strange subject. However, this painting does record a true relationship, that between cranes and boats with masts. At any rate, my two-year-old grandson will think it’s the best thing I’ve ever painted.

I’m not lost

"Coal seam," very unfinished. It's destined for the studio.

“Coal seam,” very unfinished. It’s destined for the studio.
“We are on the fringe of the great North and its living whiteness, its loneliness and replenishment, its resignations and release, tis call and answer, its cleansing rhythms. It seems that the top of the continent is a source of spiritual flow that will ever shed clarity into the growing race of America.” (Lawren S. Harris, 1926)
I was born exactly 144 km from Lawren Harris’ birthplace, and I understand the call of the Great White North as much as Tom Thomson and the Group of Sevendid. Still, I don’t think the Great White North is the beating heart of Canada. That honor must go to its prairies. Immense, they have a deep, diverse economy: oil, natural gas, coal, beef, grain, and wind. Once you’re away from the settlements, they are a land of enormous skies and great emptiness.
Even with easel lashed to SUV, the vibrations made it impossible to paint.

Even with easel lashed to SUV, the vibrations made it impossible to paint.
There are pumping jacks everywhere in eastern Alberta, and they were, in the majority, stilled. Canadian oil is in a bust phase of its boom-bust economy. Still, I wish we would buy whatever oil we cannot produce ourselves from our democratic neighbor to the north rather than from those who wish to harm us.
Atlas #3 coal mine on the Red Deer River.

Atlas #3 coal mine on the Red Deer River.
We set off yesterday to see Canada’s Badlands, promised hoodoos and dinosaur bones by Alberta Provincial Parks. Canada’s badlands are, like its people: nice. They are incapable of raising a frisson of fear. Still, the Red Deer River Valley is particularly lovely, with its fringe of trees golden against the scoured ridges.
Once again, I was flummoxed by the wind. The enormous windmills were making one revolution every three seconds. Parked in the shadow of a cliff, I lashed my tripod to the SUV, and set about painting a small study of a coal seam in the rock. The easel jarred and rattled even with many rocks weighing its base. My medium cup kept flipping over, so I put a pebble in it.
Going about the business of the plains.

Going about the business of the plains.
I wear a ponytail so that my cap doesn’t fly off, but even with that I was wishing for a string to hold it down. An hour later, I’d made very little progress. This painting is destined to be finished in the studio.
Our detour had taken us about 70 miles west, and it was midafternoon before we set off to our second destination: the Great Sand Hills of Saskatchewan. Northwest of the Red Deer River, the land is a little drier and wilder. There is more pasturage and less wheat. The wind ruffles grass the color of a Belgian’s hair in a motion that looks just like whitecaps on Penobscot Bay.
Pronghorn antelope notice our presence.

Pronghorn antelope notice our presence.
The internet is a little vague about how to reach the sand hills themselves, but we had an idea of where they were located, and I’m an inveterate shunpiker. Twice we set out along range roads and tracks in the general direction; twice we were rebuffed when the roads petered out into farm tracks.
That was a costly error.

That was a costly error.
It was not a wasted trip. A coyote loped across the road in front of us. Innumerable waterfowl filled the sloughs. Hawks, magpies and crows perched on fenceposts, waggling as they adjusted their weight to the wind. Herds of prong-horn antelope, startled by our approach, raced away across the prairie.
Prairie cemetery.

Prairie cemetery.
As the sun dropped, we quit our search and headed southeast to Swift Current. The well-head lights shone like fairy lights against the deepening blue twilight.
Today we have vowed to stay closer to the Trans-Canada Highway. All that shunpiking, while beautiful, was unproductive.