The art of trees

Please stop cluttering up the forest with silly signs.

Bracken Fern, 9×12, oil on canvasboard, $869 in gold plein air frame.

I like the written word almost as much as I like paint. I spend a lot of my time reading it, and sometimes I write it.

I also like the lonely paths through verdant forest, the high ridges from which I can see the sea and sky. During the week, my hikes are limited to places that I can reach in a few minutes from my home. That means Land Trust properties. I’m grateful that these lands are being maintained as open space by citizen-consortiums, especially with the proliferation of summer homes along the coast.

Spring on Beech Hill, 8×10, oil on canvasboard, $522 unframed.

The occasional blue diamond to keep us on the straight-and-narrow is a good thing. However, most of the signage along the trails near my house has nothing to do with safety. Most of these intrusive signs are ‘informative’, telling us the life-cycle of the blueberry or expounding on the need to regenerate meadows. There are the inevitable and necessary posts about rules, of course.

But strung along a path close to my house are a series of signs with revolving displays of—of all things—poetry. I close my eyes tightly as I walk past, but I inevitably catch some of the words, which in turn intrude into my private thoughts. I avoid this path when I can, but there are times when it’s inevitable.

Still, they’re only a few signs—perhaps a half dozen or dozen in all—so why do they get my back up? And they do regardless of the content, which can range from the pixieish to the political.

Glaciar Cagliaro from Rio Electrico, 12X16, oil on birch, $1159 unframed.

We are drowning in a surfeit of words. They chase us from the time we open our eyes until we rest at night—or in my case, since I read at night, even into my dreams. Our homes are full of written words, with the signage wall-decor trend showing no sign of abating. (One tiny landscape photograph will have far greater impact than that big ‘live, love, laugh’ sign at TJ Maxx, but the shelves are still full of them.)

Nature should be a place where those things are left behind. As the poet Wendell Berry wrote:

To come in among these trees you must leave behind
the six days’ world, all of it, all of its plans and hopes.
You must come without weapon or tool, alone,
expecting nothing, remembering nothing,
into the ease of sight, the brotherhood [and sisterhood!] of eye and leaf.
(Wendell Berry)

We go to the woods to sort out the jumble of our thoughts, to refresh ourselves for living, to chat quietly with a friend, to watch birds and other wildlife, to watch our dogs look at the world. None of that is enhanced by having someone else’s thoughts written over ours.

Beaver Dam on Quebec Brook, 12X16, oil on canvasboard, $1449 in plein air frame.

Henry David Thoreau was a poet, essayist, philosopher, and leading Transcendentalist(a philosophy that could use revisiting these days). He could be considered the father of modern conservation. Thoreau’s life revolved around words, but he turned to nature to concentrate his mind. It was his exemplar and reference point. As he famously wrote:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

Every time I see those blasted signs along my walk, I sigh and wonder, “what would Thoreau think?”

When you’re a terrific failure

I’ve got an image in my mind and I can’t get it out on paper. Have I lost it?
Winter Lambing, by Carol L. Douglas
If you visit my studio this morning, you’ll find a massive pile of failed sketches on my work table. So many, in fact, that I’m now out of watercolor paper and have to buy more.
A few weeks ago, Facebook friends posted the photo, below, of their house in Sanborn, NY. There was a narrative quality to the simple frame house and the windswept snow, and I asked them if I could use it for reference. It was evocative of all the many winter evenings I’d driven along Route 31 in New York. Those drives were empty, flat and dark, broken by occasional holiday lights. At the town of Barre, you could count on a cross-wind to pick up the snow and throw it into the road, making the driving especially treacherous. My painting Winter Lambing, above, was based on a photograph I took on that stretch of road.
If my mind had left it there, I’d have been fine. The photo is beautifully composed as it stands. I am not averse to open space on the canvas, because it’s often a different sort of information. But then another thought crept in and started thrumming in the background. It’s terribly familiar and it starts like this:
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;  
He will not see me stopping here  
To watch his woods fill up with snow…
Robert Frost’s little horse was nosing his way into my painting—not literally, of course, but the sense of waiting in the deep woods. Now I wanted both the little house with its lights and the road and woods. That would be a truly autobiographical painting. The problem is compositional. I haven’t worked out how to do it yet.
One of a gazillion fails.
The two images are fighting a titanic battle. I’ve lined spruces up in the foreground, with the little house twinkling in the back. I’ve put one goofy tree in front, which was a dismal solution (and the one that happened to be on my phone this morning). I’ve tried everything I can think of, in my sketchbook and with paint, and gotten absolutely nowhere. The trouble is, there’s no depth to this painting as I’m currently envisioning it, merely a series of planes stacked up one in front of the other. And as soon as the woods enter, the stillness exits.
So, I did what every (honest) artist does in this situation. I beat myself up about all kinds of other, unrelated disappointments. I had a wee dram—nay, two—and emailed my friend Martha about a cookbook she’d recommended. I watched some footage of old Rockport with my husband. And, of course, I asked myself whether I was over the hill, washed up, done. Had I suddenly forgotten how to draw and paint?
Years ago, I broke my thumb with a table saw. That was, in fact, a miracle accident, because the kickback caught me in my hand and not in my gut. I’d just had a groin-to-breastbone surgery, and the incision was still stapled. I scared myself witless, and didn’t go back to using the saw right away. To this day, I can’t touch one.
Just as with riding, the problem isn’t the fall, although that often hurts like hell. The problem is picking yourself up and getting back to work. Happily, I’ve found that these horrible dry periods are often a gloss over some serious work going on in the background, which in turn lead to important discoveries. I’ll be back at it again tomorrow.