Thursday, January 16, 2020

The Ghost Forest

I had written in an earlier blog about the meandering process by which paintings are created. I often retrace my steps because the process intrigues me as much as the results. It is a process of discovery, of creating something new as I deepen my own understanding.

I am in an Artists' Lab which is exploring the topic of global warming and the environment. Now I have to confess that my knowledge in this area doesn’t go very deep so I am in sponge mode, soaking up information and ideas that I can translate visually.

I was intrigued with trees and specifically tree stumps. Some of that came from my reading on deforestation, but I was particularly drawn to the fact that trees are storytellers. Their rings tell us the history of the times in which they lived. Story is my medium, as much as painting, so it was a natural attraction. 

I began painting those tree stumps and especially their rings. Trees soak up a lot of water so if you cut them down you increase the risk of flooding.  I began painting tree stumps and then let the flooding begin. Soon my stumps looked like they were dancing in the water. 

The yellow sky was a gift from a prior painting that lay underneath.  Most of my paintings arise from past efforts that left their residue. I like the idea that nothing is wasted. It gave the painting an ancient feeling. I know I've seen that sky in paintings before.

I had been working with the concept of Absence and Presence so I began to think about how I could represent the presence of loss. How do you represent absence?  I thought about separation and began painting trees with a missing slice, leaving a tree stump beneath the phantom tree, literally with phantom limbs floating above. While I liked the image, it didn't leap out at me so I decided to try a different approach, the ghost forest, painting the trees white. I liked the pop of the bluish white against a dark background. It also emphasized the intertwining of the tree branches, creating the sense of a missing community levitating like a Magritte. 

I named the painting Ghost Forest. It seemed like a phrase that might exist so I googled it. In fact there is such a thing as a ghost forest. It occurs on the coasts when  water levels rise. The salt kills the trees and they turn white and die. They often stand in the water, not as cut tree stumps, but as stubs of dead trees. They are a bit like ghost towns, marking the place where living things once existed.

I had written of the small collages I was experimenting with and decided to do one representing a ghost tree. I liked the semi-submerged feeling of the stub tree in water. It reminded me of my dancing tree stumps. Next I hope to turn my ghost tree into a ghost forest working on a bigger canvas.

For more information on ghost forests: 

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

A Decade of Good Books

Every year since 2010, I have written a blog about my favorite books I read that year. It dawns on me that I now have a decade of my favorite reading. It is not a simple process to decide which are favorites. I keep a list throughout the year and rate them. At the end of the year, I review the list for those that made me think. Some are just fun reads, others are thought-provoking and make me work to digest them. I am drawn to the surprises, those that snuck up on me. I especially love when I discover an author that is new to me and read several of their books.

Memoirs and Biographies
One author that I was introduced to this year was Dani Shapiro. A friend had told me about Dani’s book Inheritance (2019) and I was intrigued when she told me that Dani had written a number of memoirs. “How many memoirs does one person need?” I thought. We only get one life!  Well it turns out that Ms. Shapiro has had a very full life, perhaps several in the space of one. Inheritance is about her discovery through a DNA test, that she was born through artificial insemination. The father who she was so close to was not her biological father. This was complicated further by the fact that she came from a Jewish family with an illustrious history that she had taken great pride in. Was it not her family? Her parents had both passed away by the time of this discovery. She begins to explore attitudes at the time towards artificial insemination as she tries to uncover the story beneath this event. It is a story that raises deep questions about identity and our place in the world.

After reading this book, I also read her books Hourglass:Time, Memory and Marriage (2017) and Still Writing (2013) and had the opportunity to attend a workshop by her. Hourglass is about her marriage, a topic I find hard to conceive one writing about while in it, but she somehow succeeds. Still Writing as one might guess is about writing. Much of it felt relevant to me in terms of both artwork and writing. Her emphasis on taking that first step and letting the incremental process unfold echoed my experience with creative work. She, of course, spoke of it far more eloquently. 

The Wright Brothers (2015) by David McCullough was another delightful surprise. Now I knew that anything by McCullough would be excellent, but this was a quiet book about quiet genius. The Wright Brothers were not flashy, but the study of how they discovered flight was amazing. The intent focus that it required, their study of birds and the sheer perseverance and partnership that they brought to the task made me wonder how such unusual people are formed. They seemed like the bachelor farmers you hear about, content with each other’s company, but in their case with a creative drive that changed the world.

To my surprise, I soon found another person who was similar in many respects, albeit a bit flashier, when I picked up the book Leonardo (2017) by Walter Issacson. I found myself imagining a conversation between Leonardo da Vinci and the Wright Brothers. It would have been riveting as they both brought intense observation to their interest in flight and their study of birds. The sheer diversity of interests of Leonardo was so unusual, but what I especially liked about this book was it painted Leonardo not as a remote genius, but as very human, someone who had a habit of procrastination, hanging onto unfinished paintings for years. I made the mistake of trying to listen to this book originally. There are wonderful images in it and it has to be experienced visually.

Creative Inspiration
I’ve written about The Overstory (2018) by Richard Powers in an earlier blog, but it is a hard book to describe. Suffice it to say that it is about trees and has inspired me in my artwork on the environment. It is composed of multiple stories that converge and addresses the theme of deforestation through a human lens.  It was mystical and sometimes confusing.  It is a book that you just have to let wash over you and you are left with the essence, the metaphorical sap. Apparently,  others thought so too as it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Character Studies
I had read the original Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout in 2008 when it also won the Pulitzer Prize.  I had enjoyed it at the time but had been lukewarm on other books by Strout in the interim, too quiet for my taste.  When I picked up Olive, Again (2019), her continuation of Olive’s life as a woman in her later years, I was captivated. Perhaps I needed to get older myself to truly appreciate it. Olive is a strong personality and this book captures that, but it also captures her vulnerability as she incurs the losses of old age.  It is a character study that succeeds beautifully. I felt as if I knew Olive and perhaps recognized parts of myself in her. And it wasn’t just Olive, but the characters that surrounded her, particularly her second husband who was a late life surprise for her as she was for him.

Feast Your Eyes (2019) by Myla Goldberg is an unusual book, written in the form of a photography catalog for a retrospective of a female photographer who had passed away. It is told in multiple voices, but especially that of her daughter who had once been the subject of her lens to some notoriety. The use of multiple lens was especially effective in creating the person out of the fragments that remain. It is indeed a retrospective on both person and photographs, described, but never seen. The subject is a struggling single mother, a driven photographer, with a close, but sometimes challenging relationship with her daughter. I especially found it interesting for a daughter to view her mother retrospectively, piecing together her story as she came to her own understanding of her.

Essays from a Cross-Cultural Lens
And I have one last recommendation, a book of essays called Objects of Affection (2018) by Ewa Hryniewicz-Yarbrough. The author is Polish by birth but lives in the United States and writes through outside eyes, both of the United States, but also of Poland as she no longer fits so neatly into that culture. She is a translator by profession as well as a writer and her thoughts on translation were especially interesting to me. It is much more than language that is translated as language resides within a culture and contains it. I love the form of essay and found the structure and content compelling. As my genealogy research has taken me frequently to Poland, I was particularly interested in that cross-cultural relationship.

It occurs to me that my appreciation of certain themes has changed as I go through changes within my own life. Certainly getting older, travel, artistic explorations and interest in identity and purpose, feed my choices. They open me to literature that might not have been as relevant to my earlier experience. With that in mind, I'll be curious what I am reading ten years from now.

Other books worth reading:
The Masterpiece by Fiona Davis- historical fiction based on an art school that was once housed in Grand Central Station
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens -story of a young woman who grew up in a swamp, an outcast, and constructed a meaningful and purposeful life.
That Churchill Woman by Stephanie Barron- the story of Jenny Jerome Churchill, mother of Winston Churchill
Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate- historical fiction based on  an orphanage that stole children and placed them with wealthy families
The Library Book by Susan Orlean- tells the story of the 1986 fire that destroyed millions of books in the LA library. An ode to her mother who introduced her to the library.

*initial photo by poojasingh123456 at