What Falling Leaves and Other Things Can Teach Us

Fallen oak leaves

“How surely gravity’s law
strong as an ocean current,
takes hold of even the smallest thing
and pulls it toward the heart of the world.

Each thing —
each stone, blossom, child —
is held in place.

Only we, in our arrogance,
push out beyond what we each belong to
for some empty freedom.

If we surrendered
to earth’s intelligence
we could rise up rooted, like trees.

Instead we entangle ourselves
in knots of our own making
and struggle, lonely and confused.

So, like children, we begin again
to learn from the things,
because they are in God’s heart;
they have never left him.

This is what things can teach us:
to fall,
patiently to trust our heaviness.
Even a bird has to do that
before he can fly!”
— Rainer Maria Rilke

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Lost in the Details: Andrew Wyeth Exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum

“Christina Olson,” 1947

The Seattle Art Museum is now exhibiting a retrospective of Andrew Wyeth’s work in honor of the 100th anniversary of his birth.  Andrew Wyeth: In Retrospect includes 110 paintings and drawings spanning the artist’s 75-year career.  It is an amazing show and a tribute to Wyeth’s mastery of detail, accomplished mostly with tempera on hardboard panels.  But he gets exquisite detail from regular watercolors, too, employing a technique using a dry brush.

I loved seeing Wyeth’s paintings in the flesh, up front and personal.  The overall compositions were always outstanding, but each painting also offered up many interesting and meticulously painted details.  I was interested to see how Wyeth painted trees, for example.  The detail, even on his backgrounds, was astonishing.

Detail of larger painting

Wyeth’s art is grounded in a few locales — Chadd’s Ford, Pennsylvania where he lived his entire life and the coast of Maine where his family summered.  It is inspiring to see the breadth of work that sprung from such few and singular places.  Wyeth’s works evoke a sense of dignity in the ordinary.   He painted beautiful portraits of people in his community, each stroke seemingly made with love.

The details reveal the respectful bond between artist and model.  Such care.

I was hard pressed to pick a favorite from among the paintings and drawings in this exhibition.  I was drawn to the portraits, but Wyeth’s landscapes and still lives were also meticulously wrought and wonderfully evocative of America’s agricultural past.  The details in these compositions rang true to my memories of growing up on a small farm.

And Wyeth was a master of landscapes.  I stood and gazed, lost in the details of the foregrounds, middle grounds, and backgrounds — a rich experience.

“Andrew Wyeth: In Retrospect” is on exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum through January 15, 2018.  If you are downtown, it would be well worth a visit.

 

 

One Pumpkin at a Time

Watercolor sketch of pumpkin

“Experience fall, one pumpkin at a time.”
— Slogan from Gordon Skagit Farms website

I don’t know if I will make the drive this year to Gordon Skagit Farms in Mount Vernon for its annual October pumpkin extravaganza.  I would dearly love to see Eddie Gordon’s newest paintings, which he hangs outdoors on the barns, sheds, and grounds.  They are always amazing.  But this year I am feeling buried under other self-imposed obligations, so I might not make the time to go.

Instead, I invite you to revisit some old blog posts about Gordon Skagit Farms.  You can find links from my day trips in 2012 – 2015 here and here, and here.

This year’s paintings of pumpkins and squashes

September’s Book Cover from Favorite Books

Blind Spot by Teju Cole

This book drew me in because of its lyrical writing and powerful photographs.  It is a book about photography, and it was revealing to read how a good photographer interprets his work.

Cole says, “This project came about when I began to match words to these interconnected images.”  He goes on, “In each place I have traveled, I have used my camera as an extension of my memory.  The images are a tourist’s pictures in this sense.  But they also have an inquiring feeling to them, and in some cases, showed me more about the place than I might have seen otherwise.”  The commonalities among the photos are glimpsed in layers, fragments, or fleeting intuitions.   “I am intrigued by the continuity of places, by the singing line that connects them all. . .” Cole says, “Human experience varies greatly in its externals, but on the emotional and psychological level, we have a great deal of similarity with one another.”

Take cities, for example.  Cole says, “All cities are one city.  What is interesting to find, in this continuity of cities, the less obvious differences of texture:  the signs, the markings, the assemblages, the things hiding in plain sight in each cityscape or landscape:  the way streetlights and traffic signs vary, the most common fonts, the slight variations in building codes, the fleeting ads, the way walls are painted, the noticeable shift in the range of hues that people wear, the color of human absence, the balance of industrial product versus what has been made by hand, greater or lesser degrees of finish, the visual melody of infrastructure as it interacts with terrain: wall, roof, plant, wire, gutter: what is everywhere but is slightly different.”

Some of the photographs, especially those of signs, juxtapose words and images in echoing layers.  For example, “a sign saying ‘cars’ bearing an image of a car above a car.”  Other images are metaphors for ideas that are reinforced by the accompanying text.  “More than the work itself, its form, its genre, its existence in tangible form, what interests me is the secret channel that connects the work to other works.  Tarkovsky calls it ‘poetry.’ . . . When I make a work, no matter how small, its poetic possibility interests me, those moments in which it escapes into some new being.”

Like me, Cole is drawn to themes that make their appearance again and again.  One of these themes is blind spots.  Cole says, “To look is to see only a fraction of what one is looking at.  Even in the most vigilant eye, there is a blind spot.  What is missing?”

 

 

Three Seattle Art Icons

I haven’t been doing much art lately, so today I will post three pieces I painted this summer when I was out and about in Seattle.  These images are recognizable to any Seattle resident:

Black Sun, sculpture by Isamu Noguchi, in Volunteer Park
Fremont troll, by four local artists: Steve Badanes, Will Martin, Donna Walter, and Ross Whitehead. (It is crushing a real Volkswagen Beetle.)
Hat ‘n’ Boots, formerly a western-themed gas station, moved to Oxbow Park in Georgetown in 2003

 

 

The Grand Finale: Sunset Over Eastern Washington

Sun setting over the railroad cars in Ritzville, WA

I still had miles to go across Washington State when the sun set on the final night of my road trip.  I was in eastern Washington, the dry side of my state.  I was in a hurry to get home after a 3-week absence, but I still had to stop several times to photograph this amazing sunset — the Grand Finale to my long road trip across the Western United States.

Nearing sunset along I-90 in eastern Washington

Remembering to look at the parts of the sky away from the descending sun

 

Deepening colors as the light fades

Here is the perfect poem for the end of my journey, which included an island adventure and pleasures along the road:

Ithaka
by C. P. Cavafy
translated by Edmund Keeley

As you set out for Ithaka
hope your road is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians, Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians, Cyclops,
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.
Hope your road is a long one.
May there be many summer mornings when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you enter harbors you’re seeing for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind—
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to learn and go on learning from their scholars.
Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you’re destined for.
But don’t hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you’re old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.
Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you wouldn’t have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

On the Road: Homeward Bound

Sunrise off I-94 in northern Minnesota

After the Mallard Island art residency and a couple of days visiting with siblings, it was time to return home to Seattle.  Work would soon be beckoning again.  Mentally, I was also feeling the end of my vacation and I was ready to go back.

I planned virtually no sightseeing or painting stops for my return road trip, and I so I plotted the quickest possible route on I-94 and I-90.  No more moseying along country roads.  I tried not to get ahead of myself and wish the journey over,  but to simply flow moment by moment, staying open to the scenery along the freeways and taking breaks as needed.

About 35 miles from the Minnesota/North Dakota border, I saw a large flock of blackbirds rise in mass from some trees along the road.  I pulled over to the side of the freeway (possibly an illegal move, but there was very little traffic) to enjoy the sight.  I had always wanted to see a murmuration of starlings, and wishful thinking made me hope my dream was being realized.  My birding experts (my brother and sister-in-law) said that this flock was more likely to be blackbirds, which also migrate in huge flocks.  I love the mystery of any mass movement of animals, and I enjoyed my moments of being amazed on the side of I-94 about an hour into my return journey.

Flock of blackbirds taking wing in mass

I drove straight across North Dakota with stops only for gas and bathroom breaks.  I had driven I-94 eastward on my road trip, so this was familiar landscape.  I had planned to stop for the day at the North Dakota/Montana border, but it was just late afternoon, so I decided to press on.

I drove from sun up to sun down, plus a bit more.  After 755 miles, I had made it to the end of I-94 and the start of I-90 near Billings.  Gosh, Montana is a huge state!  I pulled into a rest stop and slept in the car.

Sunrise along I-90 on the way to Bozeman, MT
Sunrise along I-94

I woke a bit before sunrise on Day 2 of my return journey, and I immediately hit the road.  As day dawned, I could already see how hazy the atmosphere was.  The haze from the summer’s wildfires never really dissipated for the rest of the drive back.  It made for reddish sunrises and sunsets.

The landscape along I-90 in Montana was much hillier than along Hwy 2 to the north.  More grazing land; fewer wheat or other fields.

I stopped in the little town of Three Forks and stretched my legs by strolling the small-town Main Street.  I stepped into the historic Sacagawea Hotel , with its beautiful lobby and front porch lined with rocking chairs.  I saw a wild deer near a pond and meadow as I was leaving town.

Main street in Three Forks, MT
Interior lobby, Sacagawea Hotel in Three Forks
Deer along the road

I finally made it across Montana. (The 80 mph speed limit helped eat up the miles!)  From there, driving the narrow panhandle of Idaho was a snap.  By early evening, I was in my home state of Washington.

I didn’t really want to drive after dark, but I was now anxious to get home.  The 300 miles of I-90 crossing Washington State was a familiar jaunt, so I didn’t mind missing the scenery in the dark.  I took a long break for supper and a stop at the Ritzville Library.  Then I began the final leg of my journey home.

Old building in Ritzville

The last sunset was a spectacular Grand Finale.  Even though I was in a hurry to get home, I kept stopping along the freeway exits to photograph the changing sky.  (I will post some of those sunset photos in tomorrow’s blog post.) At long last, I walked across my doorstep at 10:30 p.m.  I had driven 786 miles in one day.  After a marathon two days of driving almost nonstop, my journey was over.

 

 

The Family Farm in My Brother’s Hands

The woods

On Saturday after I returned to the mainland from Mallard Island, I pointed my car south and drove 6 hours to the Minnesota farm where I grew up.  My youngest and oldest brothers each own and live on half of the farm, and on Saturday my youngest brother was hosting a reunion for the extended family on my father’s side.  The reunion was winding down by the time I finally arrived.  I missed seeing my three surviving aunts and many cousins and their kids.  Thankfully my siblings hung around to see me.  Seven of the nine of us kids made it to the reunion.   After all the cousins left, my siblings and some spouses talked around a fire pit as we roasted hot dogs.

My brother has made many changes and improvements since my Dad died.  He replaced the old farmhouse, garage, and machine shed with new structures.  Only the old red barn remains from my parents’ and grandparents’ time on the farm.  My brother has worked hard to bring the farm into the modern age, and I love all the improvements.  He keeps everything trim and neat and orderly.  The land still holds the memories of our childhood there, and it still feels like I am returning home whenever I travel there.

Hayloft in the old red barn

Part of what is bringing the farm back to life are the animals.  In the last decade of my father’s life, he no longer kept domesticated animals.  Now my brother is raising hogs and a few beef cattle and lots of chickens.  There are at least four or five barn cats and two dogs that have the run of the place.

Early morning and the pigs are sleeping lined up like sausages in a pan

Watercolor painting of a cow (started on my last visit to the farm a year ago; finally finished)

I was able to spend just one night and morning with my brother and his family before continuing my drive.  Here are two of my favorite pictures from this year’s trip to my childhood farm home:  another lovely red sunrise . . .

Sunrise on the farm
Sunrise reflections in the pond near the driveway

 

 

On the Road in Minnesota

Northern Minnesota landscape
From the backroads of northern Minnesota

In my two decades growing up and going to school in Minnesota, I rarely travelled in the northern part of the state.  On this trip, I crossed the border into Minnesota at Fargo and then continued north to Bemidji, where I spent a few days relaxing with my sister and her husband at their cabin on Big Turtle Lake.  It was a lovely interlude between my road trip from Seattle and the start of my art residency on Mallard Island.  We took a long bike ride one day along the Paul Bunyan Trail.

Birch trees are among the deciduous trees lining the Paul Bunyan Trail

When you are in northern Minnesota you can see why the state’s slogan is “Land of Ten Thousand Lakes.”  The land is mixed woods and marshes and farmland, and lakes and ponds dot the landscape in between.

Sunset from my sister’s dock on Big Turtle Lake

I left Bemidji early on Sunday morning to head even farther north to International Falls, where I would meet the nine other artists at Bald Rock dock for the start of our week on Mallard Island on Rainy Lake.  Three times I saw deer alongside the road.  There was little traffic.

On Hwy 71 going north to International Falls

I had time to visit the Rainy Lake Visitor Center in Voyageurs National Park before our meet up time.  I walked the Oberholtzer Trail there.

Along the Oberholtzer Trail at the Rainy Lake Visitor Center
Oak leaves and acorns from along the trail
Maple leaves just starting to turn color

It was still too early in the season for Minnesota’s spectacular displays of colored fall foliage.  But driving along Hwy 53 south to my family farm, I saw little pockets of color.  A teasing taste of the flaming landscape to come.

Trees just beginning to turn color along Hwy 53 in Minnesota

It was still green farther south.  As I drove the final few miles to my brother’s farm, I enjoyed the Midwest sky full of high, white clouds.  (We rarely see skies like this in Seattle.)

The road home
Dragonfly