Making Spirits Bright

Merry and bright! Macy’s Star and Christmas tree in downtown Seattle

Today is the Winter Solstice.  In Seattle, we have 8 hours and 25 minutes of daylight on this shortest day of the year, fully 7 hours and 34 minutes fewer than our longest day in June.  And although I always look forward to the holiday lights that brighten this dark season, I do find some respite and renewal in the gifts of darkness and hibernation — slowing down, resting, and even hibernating.  Everything has its season.

Near Pioneer Square, Seattle
Pioneer Square
Westlake Mall, Seattle
Seattle Skyline from Gasworks Park, evening across Lake Union

“To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark.  Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.”
— Wendell Berry, “To Know the Dark”

“In a dark time, the eye begins to see.”
— Theodore Roethke

Handmade Christmas card


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.



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



Painting the Trees around Green Lake

Green Lake on an August morning

It has been over one month since taking Shari Blaukopf’s watercolor workshop, and since then I’ve been practicing some of her tips for painting trees.  I’m lucky in that I live close to Green Lake Park in Seattle, which has over 160 different kinds of trees according to local tree expert, Arthur Lee Jacobson.  I walk past the lake on my way to work, and I also try to walk around the lake almost daily during the summer, so I’ve been paying some attention to the various tree silhouettes I see.

I’ve written about the trees of Green Lake in other blog posts.  You can view some of them here and here. I don’t think I am done with this Green Lake tree theme yet.  But here is what I’ve painted so far:




To See Broadly, Tenderly at Jellomold Farm

“Was it possible that my focus on making art, on creating tellable stories, was interrupting my ability to see broadly and tenderly and without gain?  What would it be like to give my expansive attention to the world, to the present moment, without expectation or promise of an obvious payoff?  Was I capable of practicing a ‘God’s love’ kind of attention?  An adoring and democratic awe?  Could I be more papal?”
— Kyo Maclear, Birds Art Life

Harvested buckets of ‘Love-in-a-mist’ at Jellomold Farm

“. . . it is your attempt to get special experiences from life that makes you miss the actual experience of life. . . . If you are busy trying to get something, you will miss the slice you’re actually experiencing.”
— Michael A. Singer, The Untethered Soul: The Journey Beyond Yourself

“Most of the things we do in life, we do for the sake of something else.  We work to earn money; we exercise to get fit; we study to pass exams; we watch TV to relax; we engage in spiritual exercises to improve ourselves; and so on.

But life’s most sublime moments often occur when we engage in activities entirely for their own sake, without any ulterior motives.”
— Gary Hayden, Walking with Plato: A Philosophical Hike through the British Isles

I am interested in the idea that we so seldom simply immerse ourselves in deeply living each moment, just being rather than doing.  I find it an ongoing challenge.  For example, it would be difficult and almost inconceivable for me to willingly leave my camera at home while on vacation.  I am driven (by what exactly?) to “take” photos of the many beautiful things that capture my attention.  I think I would feel withdrawal and regret if I could not document my special experiences with photos.

Having blogged for so many years, it is second nature to me to always be assessing whether my activities are worthy enough for sharing in a blog post.  It is as if I need to make something tangible of my life, proof that I have been there and done that.

I am not alone.  The explosion of selfies attests to the addictive appeal of taking something of almost everything we see.  The quick snapshot makes taking so easy.  And once we take that photo, are we not already casting about for the next special thing?

What would it be like to see “broadly and tenderly and without gain” as Maclear writes in the opening quote?

Maybe one of these days I will experiment with leaving my camera at home, enjoying each moment fully without grasping and trying to capture it.

In the meantime, you might be thankful that I had my camera in hand on a recent visit to Jellomold Farm in the Skagit Valley.  This is a busy time for my flower grower friends.  I was left alone on a short, late afternoon visit to wander the fields and greenhouses.  I am happy to share this beautiful place with you.

Garden shed

Amaranth field
Garden shed with wheelbarrows
Monarda ‘Raspberry Wine’




Watercolor Workshop in the Skagit Valley

View of Samish Bay from Bonnie’s living room window

This past week I spent four days as a student at Shari Blaukopf’s watercolor workshop in Anacortes and the Skagit Valley.  Shari is a professional painter and design teacher from Montreal, and I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to study under her, if even for a few days.

The workshop was wonderful on so many levels.  My good friend Bonnie, whom I met several years ago through this blog, invited me stay at her home overlooking Samish Bay, and she was a gracious and welcoming host (besides feeding me the most nutritious and delicious meals!)  The other workshop participants were a mix of kindred spirits, old friends and new.  The organizers of the workshop selected stunning locations for painting our landscapes, so I discovered even more beautiful nooks and crannies in the Skagit Valley, already one of my most favorite places on earth.

Mount Baker on view from the Skagit Valley


Pastoral landscapes, Skagit Valley near La Conner

It was evident that Shari had scouted the locations before we met each day, and that was important because we “wasted” no time settling in to paint.  Here are the locations where we painted:

Old schoolhouse on the grounds of Christianson’s Nursery in Mount Vernon, location of our workshop on Day 1


Christianson’s Nursery


Lovric’s Marina, location for Day 2 of our workshop; this painting was completed by our teacher, Shari Blaukopf during one morning session.


Cannery overlooking Guemes Bay, site of our workshop on Day 2; painting by Shari Blaukopf


We painted trees in Washington Park in Anacortes


Cap Sante Marina; location of our fourth day in the workshop; painting by Shari Blaukopf.



Under the piers at Cap Sante Marina in Anacortes


Madrona grove, location for our final afternoon of painting

As it was, the time flew by.  There were morning and afternoon sessions, each three hours long, during which Shari taught, demonstrated her techniques and skills, and then critiqued the paintings we made trying to apply her lessons on the spot.  It was a revelation to watch a master painter at work — planning and anticipating the order in which she would be applying pigments, paying attention to the range of light and dark values, actually painting with sure, confident strokes.  It was a miracle to see, daily, beautiful images emerge gradually from a blank sheet of paper.  Sometimes what looked like a mess early on became a finished masterpiece.  (Lesson:  don’t give up on your work too early.)

Watching Shari’s painting demonstrations


A painting lesson imparted under the trees of the madrona grove

Shari said that when she paints, her objective is to “capture the essence” of what she sees, the “fastest impression” of her experience of a place.  Successful paintings, to her, have “something genuine” in the work.

Painting demo by Shari Blaukopf: loose lines and fresh painting

I take with me some precepts and lessons that I hope to use in the days, months, and years ahead to improve my work.  Here are some of Shari’s key tips that I will be carrying with me:

  • The two most common mistakes watercolor painters make are:  1) not enough water and 2) not enough pigment on the brush.  Shari said, “My watercolors got better when I started using more water.”
  • Aim for loose line work and fresh painting (it helps to hold your drawing and painting implements higher on the stem for more expressive lines and strokes).
  • Before painting, and while deciding upon your composition, analyze values without thinking about the actual colors:  darkest and lightest parts, decide what to leave white.
  • When you get the values right, color doesn’t matter.
  • Start with what you love (when you have a complex scene or composition with several parts).
  • Paint foliage in masses, large shapes.
  • Think about shapes: make interesting shapes within big shapes, pay attention to overlapping shapes, mass together some shapes, simplify shapes.
  • Pick up paint from the sides of the brush rather than digging in with the point (keeping your pigments moist helps).
  • Don’t go more than one inch without changing color.  Use a variety of colors in dark and shadow areas.
  • A good amount of neutral makes the color sing.
  • Burnt sienna and ultramarine blue make a nice neutral gray.
  • Not all white is white white.  (Sometimes a white in shadow is a darker value than the sky.)
  • Most of the time when you don’t like your work it’s because your darks are diffident.  Take the time to add dark accents and final touches.  Don’t quit too soon.
  • You can never practice values enough.
My practice paintings completed during Shari Blaukopf’s watercolor workshop

Infinite Reflections: the Art of Yayoi Kusama

From the peephole of “Infinity Mirrored Room — Love Forever,” Yayoi Kusama Exhibit, Seattle Art Museum

I tickled my calendar months ago when I first heard that the Seattle Art Museum (SAM) was going to host an exhibit, “Infinity Mirrors,” by Yayoi Kusama.  I was fortunate to get two free museum passes for its opening day on June 30th from the Seattle Public Library’s Museum Pass Program.  However, I missed getting advance timed tickets to the mirror rooms, so my friend Carol and I stood in line for an hour before SAM opened so that we could snag one of the limited number of tickets given out each day on a first-come, first-served basis.  Our luck was with us, and we got some of the first batch of timed tickets of the day.

I first became aware of Kusama’s art when I stumbled upon another of her shows at a New York art gallery.  You can see my write-up about that experience here.  Back then, I stood in line for entry to the sole Infinity Mirror room, and my 45-second time allotment with her installation was worth every minute of waiting.

The SAM exhibit featured four Infinity Mirror rooms, and we were allotted just 20 or 30 seconds per room in groups of two or three.  I loved how Kusama riffed on the theme of infinity in unique ways in each room.  One featured soft fabric “tubers” in white with red polka dots.  Very playful.

Infinity Mirror room — “Phall’s Field,” 1965

The second room — “Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity” — was a light show with golden bulbs strung against a deep black background; it gave intimations of a sky full of stars reflected on black water.  The lighting was choreographed and ever changing as we stood in awe.

The third room — “All the Eternal Love I Have for Pumpkins” — was filled with soft, rotund fabric pumpkins of various sizes, all covered in black polka dots and reflected endlessly in mirrors.

The fourth “room” was the interior of a giant pink fabric balloon.  Again, it was covered in polka dots and mirrors reflected the joyous airy balls to infinity.

“Dots Obsession — Love Transformed into Dots”

There was an interactive art installation, “The Obliteration Room,” where we were invited to stick colored dots onto the white surfaces of the walls and furnishings.  As the exhibit runs its course, more and more of the white surfaces will be covered or obliterated.

“The Obliteration Room”

The rest of the exhibit featured more of Kusama’s sculptures, paintings and peepholes.  I loved the play of light and mirrors, the joyful colors, and the variety.

From the peephole of a polka-dot balloon

“Not in the frantic shapes of new fashion,
not in the shapes borrowed from others —
perfection is simply being natural,
perfection is the breath of the earth.

Don’t torment yourself that art is secondary,
destined only to reflect,
that is remains so limited and lean,
compared with nature itself.

Without acting a part,
look to yourself for the sources of art,
and quietly and uniquely
reproduce yourself just as you are.

Be reflected, as a creation of nature
bending over a well
draws the reflection of its face
up from the ice-ringed depths.
— Excerpt from “Perfection,” by Yevgeny Yevtushenko