My Art and Life in Words
Essays about making art and just "plein" living.
My Art and Life in Words
Essays about making art and just "plein" living.
When I was a small child, I used to visit my paternal grandparents and aunts and uncles in Elmer New Jersey - a small, rural town in the heart of South Jersey that you probably have never heard of. My whole extended family lived in houses next to each other and across the street from each other on Main Street: the quieter part of Main Street - the part that crosses Shirley Road by the bridge over Elmer Lake, after the shops and the fancier Victorians end and the street narrows.
My family lived in Northeast Philadelphia at the time, in a cul-de-sac where all the houses looked like the same, nondescript box. Trees were few and far between, and, really, the only green were the squares of grass, sparingly planted between the concrete sidewalks and paved driveways.
Elmer was the opposite. The woods, the lakes, the fields of vegetables, the pens of pigs and roaming chickens! The sound of crickets and frogs at night were a welcome respite: not only from my urban neighborhood, but also from the nightly fights and angry yelling of my unhappily married parents. I loved our weekend trips to Elmer. Elmer was heaven.
My parents separated the summer before my first year in grade school. We moved to the other side of the city, to the suburbs. My dad would pick us up on his weekends to drive me and my three siblings to Elmer. (Again, another welcome respite as my mom had left one angry loveless marriage, to another that was also filled with nightly, violent fights. This time, not due to a lack of love, but to my step-father’s addiction to alcohol.)
I remember those weekends, colored in a warm-summer haze. Funny, I am sure that we visited my grandparents in the wintertime, but I only remember the summers. The heat of the hot South Jersey sun, the scratchy feel of August grass on my shoeless feet, hours spent outdoors, roaming the woods in back of my grandparent’s house, looking for snapping turtles, frogs and other wildlife, while avoiding the long, black snakes that call South Jersey home. I remember the double swing glider in my grandparent’s backyard, sitting across from my older sister, Lorie, at dusk, pumping our legs to make it go higher and higher, while belting out, “Delta Dawn, what’s that flower you have on?” into the oncoming night.
My dad eventually remarried and inherited 3 sons and another baby of his own. The weekend visits tapered off and then completely stopped and summers in Elmer became a memory, a thing of the past, a place I longed to go back to. It was Shangri La or Brigadoon to me - a mythical place. I would dream about waking up in Elmer, in my grandparent’s house, to the sound of a rooster’s crowing; I would fantasize about walking down the road, past the lake and up the stone path and through the front door and onto the screened in porch of my Aunt Nina’s house. Once I learned to drive, while listening to WXPN, I would hear the town of Elmer mentioned in radio ads for Appel Farm’s yearly music festival. Knowing Elmer - how small it was, how rural, how stuck in another time - I couldn’t believe that my Elmer New Jersey, was home to an internationally-renowned music festival. Elmer? Really?
Fast forward, 40 some years, and here I am back in Elmer, actually helping to plan and manage that very same festival at Appel Farm. How I arrived here is a story for another day.
The Appel Farm Music Festival has morphed into a two day festival (now called the South Jersey Arts Fest, June 2 and 3, 1 - 6pm) that unlike the original Music Festival, focuses on ALL of the arts - dance, music, theatre, visual arts - and specifically, all that South Jersey has to offer as a place to live and visit. It includes continuous performances on its main stage and a separate Kid’s Pop Up Arts Camp so parents can drop their kids off while they enjoy the festival kid-free. Three large interactive tents will have rotating workshops and smaller performances all day. Attendees can learn to Bollywood Dance in the Performing Arts Tent; they can discover how rainwater is collected and re-used to offset the effect of climate change and drought in the STEAM Tent; and they can lend their hand to painting a mural in the Visual Arts Tent. Food trucks, Flying Fish Beer, Auburn Road Vineyard wines, crafters and a South Jersey Cycling Tour add to the experience.
On Saturday night, attendees are invited to stay and listen to singer-songwriter Joe Crookston, as he performs at an evening bonfire. Then, they can fall asleep under Elmer’s giant night sky, and wake up on Sunday morning to the sound of a rooster crowing, just like I did when I was a child.
If you have never been to Appel Farm, the South Jersey Arts Fest is the perfect time to visit. Appel Farm’s 115 acre property is an artistic oasis in a small town, population 1300. In addition to hosting the SJ Arts Fest, Appel Farm is also a residential arts summer camp where quirky, artistic kids (like I once was) can explore the arts in an environment where they can be their best selves without the usual childhood peer pressures. There, they can make friends for life and find their people. And in 2019, Appel Farm is set to become home to an Arts Charter School for students, grades 5 - 8.
All of my paternal aunts and uncles have passed away, save for one - my Aunt Nina. New people live in their houses which have all been remodeled with updated exteriors. Everything seems smaller than it did back when I was a kid - as it always does. Back then, my world was a block of Main Street in Elmer. I had no idea that Appel Farm was just a hop, skip and a jump (literally) down the road. And no where in my wildest imagination, did I ever think my dream would come true - that I would wake up again on a summer's morning in Elmer.
But that is exactly how it is. I shake my head in disbelief that I am here, inviting others to visit my Brigadoon. It feels good to be home.
Join me at the SJ Art Fest! More information: https://www.appelfarm.org/south-jersey-arts-fest/
I wanted to share this blog post because it features my super creative sister and niece!
Today is the last day of my yearly pilgrimage to The Porches Writers Retreat in Norwood, Virginia (I go to paint, not write). Tomorrow morning, after 6 days, I head home. It is late January and the sun is fully set by 6pm. To make the most of my last moments here and the last moments of light, I decide to take a walk. The sun is setting, but there is still enough light to see my way.
This year’s retreat was good, though not as restorative as it’s been in years past. I was on a mission this week to complete (or nearly complete) two paintings, and so I pretty much painted from dawn to dusk and one night beyond - even though the electric light made seeing difficult. I gained two almost-finished paintings, but lost the time I usually take, in-between, for moments of contemplation. Those reflective moments allow me to think about my life - they help me to remember what I like about life - things I forget in the day to day hustle of a full time job and full time relationships and responsibilities.
I walk down the empty main road that runs through the town of Norwood. Norwood is an historic town built along the James River. It was established in the mid to late 1700’s and is just a short car ride from Walton’s Mountain. There are only a few houses here and there, most of them shuttered and abandoned. It is a chilly night and the wind is blowing slightly. I pass a hedge of bamboo and hear rustling. I stop, take out my headphones and listen, waiting for a creature to emerge (or a rapist - not that I am letting my imagination get the best of me. I would never do that!). It is only the wind. I put my headphones back in and continue my walk.
I am listening to music and I began to sing along, out loud, to Maren Morris’ “My Church”. There is no one around, no one to bear witness (or so I think), so I belt out the lyrics. But then I see two gorgeous creatures running from far away across a field towards me. Two horses have heard me singing! I stop walking and wait, and I keep singing. “Can I get a hallelujah? Can I get an amen?” The two come right up to the fence, jutting their faces into mine. Horses are big, and I am little, but they are just saying hello, so I reach up and pet their beautiful faces and look into their beautiful eyes. I sing the whole time.
This was the moment that I almost missed by painting around the clock on this retreat and focusing entirely on work. Just one 45 minute walk at the end of the day, on my last day, and my week is complete and I remember what I like about life. Can I get a hallelujah? Can I get an amen?
I am excited for my first solo exhibition of the year at Congregation Kol Ami in February. I will be showing the first six months of my "painting-a-month" series of 30 x 30" paintings that each represent a month of the year. This body of work explores the influence that Stained Glass Windows have had on my life. From my years as a grade school student at St. Francis of Assisi School to Sunday morning mass, I have spent a lot of hours, daydreaming and staring at the colored light filtering through. I hope you can stop by to take a look!
P.S. The word "Panoply" means a "complete collection of things". This is NOT a complete collection as it only represents six of twelve months, but if I call it a Panoply now, maybe I can trick myself into finishing the other six! Mind games.
Almost exactly a year ago today, I went on a mandatory "self help" work retreat called a "Breakthrough Intensive". I was skeptical and resistant - I did not want to spend an entire weekend examining what in my life was holding me back from achieving my potential. (Frankly, I didn't even know anything was holding me back; I had lived with a feeling of dread and anxiety for so long that I thought it was normal.) But I went to the retreat because I had to, but decided pretty early on, that as long as I was there, I might as well make the most of it.
It was December, and I was hemorrhaging money - bills, a car accident and Christmas were making me feel overwhelmed, hopeless and poor. I love my job working for a non-profit arts organization, Appel Farm Arts Camp, that runs a truly transformative summer camp for creative kids (a group of kids whom I see myself in every single day of the summer.) But I don't make a ton of money. I pretty much live paycheck to paycheck. And I knew it was time to start thinking (worrying) about my future retirement.
Along with a group of maybe 30 other "stuck" adults looking for their "Breakthrough Moment", I sat in a room for 3 long days. Why did I believe that because I studied art in college and because I worked for a non-profit, that I would always be poor? What were the beliefs that I was telling myself, that I had been telling myself my whole life, that I believed to be inherently true, but probably weren't? (The leaders of this workshop called these beliefs "files" so for the rest of this post, I will call them files.)
These were the files that I identified that weekend: File 1: Because I work for a non-profit and am a fine artist, there is a ceiling to the amount of money I can earn. I can either choose a job and a vocation that I love or a job that pays well. It is a choice of one or the other and not both. File 2: Because I was raised by parents who never had enough money to make ends meet; this would also be my lot in life. Who was I to think I deserved better from whence I came? and File 3: If I could only find a man with money, my problems would be solved. (Continued fall-out from watching the movie "Pretty Woman" at an impressionable age.)
That weekend, I did a lot of thinking, writing, and talking that resulted in a change of thinking. I COULD be (because I was competent, smart and as deserving as the next person) financially successful on my own - without a man to prop me up while still doing what I love. My files were holding me back. I had to pull them out of the filing cabinet that was my brain, open them up, read them, and then examine them in order to file them away and move forward.
It has been a year since I attended the "Breakthrough Intensive" and my life is changing. I am in a much better position financially. I am fulfilled at the non-profit where I work, I am showing and selling my artwork and I have even started my own Networking Business, selling PLEXUS, which is not only increasing my income, but is making me FEEL BETTER and is so part-time, that I can still pursue my passion for painting. I even have a growing savings account.
2017 brought me self-reliance, more financial independence, the ability to work at things that I am PASSIONATE about, all while focusing on my health and well-being. I am excited to see what 2018 brings!
I was reading artist Christina Brinkman’s “Inside the Artist Studio” blog about her porcelain sculptures on the Main Street Arts website. Brinkman's work is usually entirely white. Brinkman writes: “Without the distraction of color, one considers the outline, the interior and exterior space, the proportions and relationships of the form.” There is a stillness to an all-white sculpture; it doesn’t vibrate in the viewer’s eye, but instead it is motion stopped, I can’t say there is no movement in her work, but it is more like arrested movement.
At the opening reception for Small Works at Main Street Arts, in Clifton Springs, New York, last Saturday night, I stood before her piece, Do You Gather Me?, for quite a while. I was intrigued by its absence of color. Its porcelain surface didn’t seem to reflect the color of the light around it – it was white, really white. Her sculpture (a bouquet of flowers) was extremely complex, and the absence of color allowed me to concentrate on that complexity.
Almost directly across the room from Brinkman’s piece is my landscape painting - a snow scene. When I was learning to paint in high school, college and the years that followed, the color white was the bane of my existence. When I looked at cumulous clouds in the sky, or at the petals of an Easter lily, or the cambric blouse of a model, I did not see white – I saw a multitude of color. How does one use all the colors one sees, while still portraying the essence of the color white? When I was first learning to paint, snow would have been impossible.
Brinkman also writes that “white is the absence of color (as well as) the sum of all colors.” In Do You Gather Me?, white really is the absence of color. In my painting, white really is the sum of all colors. Which is why my painting is entitled Kind of Blue and not Kind of White though now that I think of it, Kind of White is probably more apropos.
Small Works is on display until January 4th. Work can be purchased online.
I grew up attending Catholic School, going to church on Sunday and singing in the choir. I loved the ritual and grandeur of mass, the recitation of the responses together in unison and the enthusiastic singing of the hymnals. But like most kids, I struggled to pay attention. My mind would wander as I stared at the stained-glass windows that dominated the four church walls of St. Francis of Assisi church, soaring skywards. The stained glass outlined by dark lead cane cast colorful shapes on the congregation, capturing my attention and leaving a deep impression. It reminded me of leaves and branches, backlit by the sun, when you lie on the grass and look up at the sky. The colored shapes reflected on the marble floor and wood pews were like the shadows of leaves dappling the grass under a tree. Both were (and are) without-limit-beautiful.
I am drawn to the spiritual and emotional quality of light filtering through branches, leaves or the glass panes of a church window (or really any window.) I am always trying to capture the transitory beauty of light in my work.
Mark Rothko described the relationship between viewer and painting as this: “A picture lives by companionship, expanding and quickening in the eyes of the sensitive observer”.
I have always thought about the question, "how do you know when a painting is done?" It isn't arbitrary - it's a feeling - you kind of just know it: there is nothing left to do, everything feels harmonious. Rothko gives words to that feeling. A painting is finished when you look at it and you can feel it expanding and quickening before your eyes - just like Rothko described.
The paintings below are in progress. They are two of the clearest examples I have of what I mean when I compare the similarities of cane and glass and trees against sky.
At the moment, I am in the thick. The "expanding and quickening" is beyond my reach. Stay tuned.
I have had the best time teaching Fiber Arts at Appel Farm Arts Camp this summer!
Our final project: 100% white cotton t shirts transformed into summer-y one of a kind Sun Print Beach Bags!
1.) Using water-downed acrylic paint, Anya, Mona and Yanni saturated damp t shirts with color. As they worked, they continuously sprayed their work with water, being careful not to let the paint dry.
2) Next, they created a pattern by laying assorted natural objects with interesting shapes onto the wet fabric. They chose mostly natural objects such as sea shells, flowers, and rocks.
3. The final step in the printing process - placing their t shirts in the sun to dry.
4. To transform their t shirts into bags, they first, cut off the t shirt's sleeves and collar. Second, they cut fringe along the bottom edge, which they then tied.
The final step in the transformation process was to make each bag even more uniquely their own. Using the subtle impressions of the objects imprinted on the fabric from the sun as a starting off point, Anya, Mona and Yanni embellished their bags with silk flowers, words and buttons.
And finally, here they are, modeling their final projects - fittingly, in front of the ocean.
Saturday afternoon, Patrick drove me to a spot along the Delaware River where he used to fish in his late teens. The spot was near a boat launch at Neshaminy Park off of Station and State Roads. We walked on a path that ran along the river, through some trees and into an opening that revealed a great expanse of manicured lawn. We could see a large mansion off in the distance. Stone steps, worn down and broken from the rising and ebbing tide, led from the lawn to the bank of the Delaware River. The last time Patrick had visited this spot (more than 20 years ago) the estate was overgrown, abandoned and victimized by vandals. Today, we could see a bridal party posing for pictures in front of a gorgeously restored 18th century manor house - Pen Ryn.
Pen Ryn Estate was built in the late 1700's by a wealthy Philadelphia family, the Bickley's. Notable guests such as Benjamin Franklin and Benjamin West were visitors back in the day. Tragedy struck at Pen Ryn when Robert Bickley, the son of patriarch, Abraham, married a common, local woman, of whom his parents did not approve. During a heated fight on Christmas Eve, his father disowned him and Robert ran out of the house, across the wide lawn, down the stone steps and into the Delaware River, where the strong current swept him away.
I sat on those same steps and began to paint the river. A man with a metal detector passed by on his way to the Delaware's narrow beach. We asked him if he had ever been lucky. He told us about the time he found an antique women's purse, severely ravaged by the elements, but containing a $2.50 Liberty Head gold coin from the late 1800's. Did it belong to a long-ago guest or resident?
Sitting on those ancient steps, I could feel the vibrations of Pen Ryn's history, passing through my bones.
The paintings I painted that afternoon are light in color and mood, though the sky was constantly shifting between clouds and sun and the temperature was hot - in the low 90's. At the end of the afternoon, the sky suddenly opened and a downpour flooded the fields and swelled the river. The kind of downpour that only happens in the middle of a hot, summer afternoon.