Current Directions

Since returning from Germany over six weeks ago, I can finally say that I have re-adjusted to life in Huntsville and work at the studio.  I realized this was a particularly good time to become more organized and establish some new goals, so that is probably the best way I can describe what I have been up to lately.  I am working on plenty of commissions as usual and am open to more for the fall and winter season, but I am also trying out a few new things and focusing on learning more.  From plein air work to signing up for workshops and just-for-fun projects between commissions, growth is on my mind.  I feel as if I owe it to myself and my clients to take the time to learn and grow and experiment.  For instance, the painting at the beginning of this post is a 16X20 portrait of a small ceramic figurine.  I first read about The Traveling Chicken quite a long time ago on the Facebook page of Kimberly Kelly Santini, an artist whose work I rather enjoy.  The concept was simple; artists around the world send each other a chicken figurine (often traveling with a group of other ceramic chicken friends) to paint in their own styles, thereby connecting and sharing their work.  The appeal of this, beyond the pure whimsical nature of the project, is seeing the creativity with which artists around the world approached the subject and trying to say something new with my own addition to the collection.  I have written a light-hearted account of the chickens' visit to Huntsville here.

The portrait of the lady with the red lips and pearl earring was painted in an ongoing workshop with Huntsville artist Robert Bean.  I also recently participated in a composition workshop with Robin Roberts.  I see these workshops as a chance to broaden my repertoire as I think over my visions and goals for the future.  The painting below is a recent commission I did of Lowe Mill of which I am extremely proud. . . I suspect it represents the future direction of my work.  My interest in architecture and expressing thoughts and feelings through architectural scenes and lighting conditions persists, and that is something I would particularly like to keep thinking about and working on.  This is a busy season, so I may not have much to say on this blog for the next couple months, but I continue to have great expectations.  Stay tuned. . .

Choosing What to Paint

In a little over a week, I will be returning to Huntsville, AL.  Over the course of nearly two months in Germany, I have completed seven paintings of varying sizes (some as big as 18X24), started four more paintings that are awaiting my attention (at least one of which I will try to finish next week), and have dozens of ideas for further paintings swimming around in my head.  This was my first really serious attempt at painting while on a trip (I have sketched and dabbled in acrylics before, but nothing quite on this scale), and it is certainly something I would like to do more of in the future.  My approach this time around was not necessarily methodical, but reflecting on the experience, I instinctively felt the need to keep the pieces loose and Impressionistic so as to be able to get as many ideas on canvas as possible.  I am pleased with the look of the completed works-- the painting at the top of this post, for instance, of a particularly tall sunflower in the village, strikes me as being the most representative image I have created of the place where I am staying and I enjoy its freshness.  The second piece in this post is an abstraction of the Alps, based on my experience at a Berggottesdienst I attended last month.  The final piece is the view from the balcony, which I started shortly after I arrived and finished only recently.  In a way, it brings everything full circle.  While I feel as if I have to leave just as I managed to gather my thoughts and come up with themes and plans that I wanted to explore in depth, I have still taken joy in freely splattering paint around for the duration of the trip, and joy and freedom tend to show up strongly in the brushwork.  Each color and line represents, in some way, a good memory.

That said, there were many ways to go about the challenge of painting while traveling, and for the sake of future reference as well as my artist friends who might be interested, here are a few that came to mind initially:

1) Focus on drawing mostly, then choose the best scenes to use as reference for one or two finished pieces (which could be finished while traveling or in the studio).

2) Make as many small (8X10-11X14) plein air pieces as possible and use them for future reference.

3) Work on one or two large pieces methodically over the course of the trip.

4)  Write down themes that come to mind and create thumbnail sketches.

5) Focus on documenting different elements rather than creating entire works-- types of trees or birds, types of buildings, color schemes.

Personally, as I intend to return here, I would like to focus on 2 and 5 on my next trip, or pick one theme (such as architecture, people, weather conditions, or landscapes) to explore in a series of works.  Moreover, although I cannot quite imagine how what I have done here will influence my work upon my return to Alabama just yet, it will be interesting to see if and how it does.  As always, I look forward to sharing the results.

The paintings shown at the top and bottom of this post are sold, but the abstract in the middle is still available for $450.  Custom print orders are also welcome.  Please send inquiries to

Creative Play

My friend and fellow artist Julia Harrison wrote a recent blog post about what she calls "Creative Winter", why it can be necessary or even beneficial, and how to ride it out.  It is a wonderful, honest post, and, along with some of my current activities, it inspired me to contemplate how creative people get to be the idea factories they are in the first place and manage to sustain what, to the outside world, can look like a startlingly endless stream of inventiveness and energy throughout a lifetime.  From the countless TED talks I have stumbled across concerning creativity to the myriad books on the subject to the constant comments I receive about how "lucky" I am to be creative, there is no doubt about it that creativity is something humans appreciate, envy, covet, and try to cultivate in themselves, consciously or not.  Our creativity as a species leads to resourcefulness, which ultimately helps us both survive and thrive, and do so in all manner of styles with all sorts of different meanings and identities tied to them.  Personally, I believe that all of us are creative in some way (one need not wield a brush to be creative), but some of us choose to nourish our creativity more than others.  As far as those of us who do wield brushes are concerned, I suspect that most of us tend to have other creative hobbies that feed our love for color or spark our imaginations or renew our spirits so that we can keep coming back to our artwork with energy and passion.

For me, the secret of those of us who manage to be creative on a regular basis is not that we never burn out or need to shift focus or take breaks, but that we are not afraid to keep playing.  I mentioned creative play in my last post, but think the subject merits a little more discussion.  For some reason, as adults we forget how much of our previous learning and inspiration happened organically through play. . . and the ability to play comes through casting off our fear of our own ideas.  I paint regularly, but even when I do not find time to paint or am not able to experiment freely in paint for some reason, I never really stop making things or experimenting with new hobbies or letting my imagination enjoy itself.  I tend to feel my artistic best when I manage to dedicate plenty of time to these activities and I get cranky and stagnant when I do not.  At this point, creative play has become a normal habit for me. . . and while a lot of it that is not directly related to oil painting takes the form of practicing at the piano, photography, ballpoint pen sketches, I also have the tendency to take up literally any other constructive thing I have the sudden urge to dabble in from testing out the enfleurage method of perfumerie to refinishing a piano (I simply do not question or dismiss positive and constructive urges; I entertain them and see if they want to stick around).  In recent years, my old love of knitting has reawakened, and while I am here in Germany, I seem to be knitting more often than ever before.

Having taken on the challenge of finishing a massive pattern called the Find Your Fade Shawl, which I thought (rightly) would be perfect to take along on car trips or while listening in on Florian's trombone rehearsals, I find myself feverishly trying to finish the project before I have to leave so that we can do a photoshoot with it here.  I want to be able to look back on it as a piece I made here, a wonderful memory of my trip.  Consisting of 7 colors of the knitter's choice (the photo at the top of this post shows my progress when I was at color #2, but I am now nearing color #6), it feels like an artistic collaboration between the pattern designer, the indie dyers I bought my yarns from, and me, the curator and builder of this giant scheme.  I had to deliberate carefully about which colors to use and how I wanted them to be arranged, which led to much delightful sorting through my stash of beautiful colors and textures of yarn.  Now, seeing each row, each speckle, each color, weave out of my thoughts and into reality, often turning out even more interesting than I expected, certainly sparks my imagination.  Inspired by the yarns, Florian and I even tried dyeing our own with food coloring (the middle picture is the result of my first experiment).  Perhaps these first results are nowhere near the beauty of the coveted skeins I buy through Etsy and Instagram, but we gave it our best, the results look good enough to use, and we enjoyed the experience enough that now we know whether we would ever try it again-- that is, we most certainly would!  There are countless ways to engage in creative play from sewing to building furniture out of reclaimed wood to building or programming a computer (yes, even this can be creative play, as I have learned from spending time in a Makerspace on and off throughout the years). . . and being around others who are unafraid to play (such as the afore-mentioned Makers) makes inspiration all the more easy to find.

For me, even picking flowers by the roadside and arranging them nicely for a photo like the one at the bottom of this post is a kind of creative play. . . a chance to really enjoy the colors, the shapes of the flowers, explore them, see how they complement each other or create interesting contrasts, examine the way the blooms develop and open.  Play is more about the imagination than the equipment, and starting with what you have in the kitchen already or what you find in nature can often be more inspiring than buying expensive materials from the craft store.  When I was a child, my Mom showed me how to make chains out of pine needles and I spent plenty of time creating bracelets and necklaces for myself out of them.  While it may sound humble when many children have their own smartphones, little experiences like that were surprisingly satisfying and thought-provoking then, and I have tried my best not only to not forget them, but to revisit them as often as I can.

What are your thoughts on creativity?  Do you try to foster creativity in your life?  If so, how?

When Germany Calls

This blog has been sitting idle again simply because I have not.  Since my last post, I have been continuously engaged in commissions, and while I look forward to taking on new custom work in September, I am currently on a bit of a self-imposed break.  Being successfully self-employed requires knowing when to rest just as much as it requires motivation to work, and being a successful artist, as my former professor Dr. Meister used to tell me, requires regular creative play.  For me, that means painting whatever I feel like painting without pressure or deadlines and indulging in my love of textiles by knitting with the exquisitely handpainted yarns I have a tendency to collect.

My last vacation took me to Rome in 2013 and my last trip to Germany was even farther back, in 2008, but after I met my boyfriend Florian (who lives in Germany) last fall, it soon became clear that traveling was on the horizon again, and that I probably should not have waited so many years to take enough time off to enjoy a change of scenery.  I am currently writing this post from a pleasant small village in Bavaria, with a steady breeze wafting through the kitchen window and the dramatic clouds threatening rain over the Alps beyond.  I arrived here at the end of June and will remain here until the beginning of September.

We have been doing a bit of traveling around the area (a trip to Salzburg, Austria inspired the painting above), but after the first two weeks here, Florian had to go back to work, and we can only travel on weekends (we took a wonderful trip this past weekend to see old friends of mine in Dresden).  On these trips, I wind up taking hundreds of reference photos and imagining a million different ways to paint the things I see.  During the week now, I find myself with 7-10 hour stretches of alone time, with no real responsibilities, in a village where the only "distractions" are the pervasive green of the rolling grasses, the startling yellow of the sunflowers, and the ever-shifting clouds over the mountains.  This is probably for the best, because it gives me time to process all the things I have seen and try to put them on canvas while they are still fresh on my mind.  I spend my days painting, taking pictures of the scenery, writing in my journal, sitting on the balcony, or visiting the chickens and goats at a nearby farm.  I could take the bus into the larger neighboring town and probably will at some point, but I am currently too intrigued by the utter tranquility of a life of solitary meditations (and read Thoreau far too often as a teenager) to venture back into the rest of the world just yet.

When you strip away your daily job, your daily nuisances and distractions, the hangouts where you while away your hours, the constant buzz of life in a larger town where novelty has swept the imaginations of most of the inhabitants, where hype and events and new businesses and developments are constantly fighting for your attention, you have an unusual opportunity to look at yourself and your place in the world, and ask yourself if you really follow your priorities or not.  You ask yourself what you really care about.  How you would really like to spend your limited time on this Earth.  With little to no schedule and nobody holding you accountable, you ultimately have only yourself to depend on for a fulfilling day, and your work has to be its own reward.  In reality, this is always true, but we humans cloak ourselves in a lot of illusions and excuses whenever we get the chance.

And the burden of freedom and choice, for someone who has grown accustomed to habit and not having free time and allowing the the external world to lead one around, is simultaneously dazzling and daunting.  It forces the soul to let go of frustrations and delusions, to muster the strength to go forward in a more deliberate way than before.

In the coming weeks, I think it would be interesting to learn more about how artists live and work here in Germany, revisit a couple of the museums I enjoyed so greatly back in 2008, and look into some of the opportunities I might have to show or sell my work here. . . the downside of lots of free time alone is that laziness has a way of setting in and I really do enjoy giving myself goals. . . but for now, I will relish the opportunity to stop and look around for a while, to make sure those goals will be fulfilling ones before diving in.

If you like the work you have seen in this post or on Facebook or Instagram recently, feel free to inquire about prints or originals.  I will be offering two of my favorite pieces as limited edition prints when I return in September. . . for the details and to pre-order, please visit this Etsy link.

The New Romanticism

[Above photo: my most recent painting, depicting Harrison Brothers Hardware, a general store that has been on the Square in my town for over 100 years.]

Given my academic proclivities, it feels strange to admit that I no longer manage to stay informed about contemporary art trends in big cities.  This is in part due to the rigors of running my brick-and-mortar store, but the main reason is more likely that I do not believe that those art scenes hold as much global sway as the Internet does these days.  A sort of artistic populism dominates the Internet and has managed to create an art scene in its own right.  In a sense, this represents a fundamentally modern way of experiencing art-- in reproduction, and without the guiding hands of curators, critics, or gallery owners to decide what gets released to the general public and what constitutes high culture.  It is an art scene controlled by artists and their fans, and it can be a boon to artists who act as entrepreneurs such as myself, though I would be lying if I did not concede that it is a bit anarchistic and lacking in quality control at times.

That said, I enjoy the wealth of different works I have been exposed to through my internet explorations.  I particularly enjoy following artists' pages on Facebook, and along with favorites from my own town whose work I have the pleasure of admiring in person such as Logan Tanner, Chris Wade, and Yuri Ozaki, I come back week after week to see what Duane Keiser, David Boyd Jr., Kimberly Kelly Santini, Stanka Kordic, and Jennifer Gennari are working on.  I also have a blossoming Board on Pinterest devoted to art that has caught my eye for one reason or another. . . lately, I have been drawn to heavily stylized plein air street scenes, landscapes, and interior scenes of all sorts.  Since I find myself moving in that direction in my own work, I cannot help but collect images that reflect my artistic interests, but I also try to ascertain which styles and subjects are gaining traction in the process.

Some seven years ago, when I was living in Montreal and thinking deeply about the art I saw in galleries and journals versus the art I saw online, I noticed that photorealism was a dominant trend in print and online media.  I wrote a piece for Escape Into Life discussing the reasons I assumed to be fueling the trend, chief among them being the ease by which one could deem a photorealistic piece successful (based on how much it resembled a photo and depicted detail accurately) and how well photorealistic works come across in reproduction.  This is not the case anymore.  The predominant art I see online in 2016 is more Impressionistic and idealistic, full of thick brushwork, and generally less urban in style, even if the subject depicted happens to be a city street.  It is almost as if those of us (and I say us because I am for once rather a part of the Zeitgeist) who did not grow up in urban areas or are disillusioned by them are reclaiming a softer, more dreamy form of art. . . and it is almost as if that softness enhances the beauty of historic and natural scenes and blurs the ugliness of harsher post-modern lines.

To me, these loose, brushwork-laden pieces represent a new Romantic movement that encourages artists to step away from reference photographs in loft studios or converted garages, urging them to go outside and feel the sunlight on their faces again.  The realistic art of today is classical rather than photorealistic or hyperrealistic, cloaked in deep shadows and bathed in golden light, but much of it is abstract up close, almost startlingly so.  I see strong surrealist and minimalist tendencies alive and well in illustration, but "fine art" has taken a turn away from these trends to reflect a different time in painting, to reclaim a space away from digital screens and cities.  How ironic that I should be viewing most of these pieces on the internet, and yet the simple act of viewing them begs me to turn away from my screen and look outside again, to reclaim my landscape, fill my eyes with it, blur its ugliness into oblivion, then rediscover and accentuate its beauty.  Is this an escapist trend?  I do have to ask myself that at times. . . but artists are probably more aware than most that we get to choose our own realities to a great extent.  Why not choose a lush, expressive, elegant one after all?

An Artist's Guide to Shopping Local

 [Above and Below Photos: my shop in a converted storage unit in Downtown Huntsville, AL.]

When I was still running my art business out of my living room a few years back, there were misty afternoons when I would begin to listlessly daydream, sitting on my balcony waiting for the universe to speak to me, calling up friends to see who was free, and then once I managed to find a buddy with spare time, the afternoon would proceed in more or less the same manner.  We would make our first stop at The Kaffeeklatsch, a shop that has been in business for over 40 years where I would buy some tea or coffee or a handmade mug for my collection.  I can think of nothing more reassuring than being greeted by owners Grant and Kathy Heath, who always bothered to remember my name and which teas I enjoyed and still do now that I run my shop across the street from theirs (what a treat to be greeted by the toast-like aroma of beans roasting as I cross the street, eager to liven up a sleepy afternoon at the studio with a $2 cup of their coffee of the day).  Next, a walk around our generally quiet historic Courthouse Square (a staple of any real Southern town), maybe even some gelato at Sam and Greg's Pizzeria and Gelateria.

Last but not least, we would drive or walk to Five Points, to a place called The Switch House (which has since closed in Huntsville and re-emerged as the 3-Ring Traveling Apothecary in Detroit), a tiny shop in an actual former switch house beside the railroad tracks, packed with the owner's handmade candles and bath products, as well as all manner of handmade local goods-- anything from bread to upcycled sweaters to hand-sewn notebooks to soaps to hand-dyed scarves and wool roving balls.  This last place always held a certain strange magic to me. . . among the old bricks and the unusually beautiful fragrance from owner Monique Given's candles and the odds and ends and goodies and random treasures, I could always expect my spirits to stir again, my dulled senses to come back to life.  I would usually wind up with a candle and a loaf of Huntsville's very own Fred Bread, then my traveling buddy for the day and I would return to my living room for a pot of tea and some grilled cheese sandwiches and an evening of endless conversation.  I am happy to sell 3-Ring candles at my own shop now, and simply opening them and taking a whiff sometimes brings back a flood of evocative thoughts and memories.

Why do I wax nostalgic over this, you ask?  Because, as Kandinsky once said, an artist must train not only his eye but his soul, and there are days when I train my soul by reading or praying or meditating or walking in nature, and there are days when I train my soul by hosting tea parties, and there are days when only a bit of exploration of my town will do, and part of the allure of certain parts of my town is the way local businesses manage to become community hubs and places of inspiration that foster the exchange of goods and ideas alike.  There are days when I need to get back in touch with what makes my town interesting, my surroundings special, not just by chasing whispers from the past but by seeing life in the present, when I need new tea to fill my tins and new candles to thaw my frozen emotions and bread to fill my stomach and provide food for thought too.  When I need to go out and look at things that other people have made with their hands and hold them and hear the story behind them and have the honor of taking them home to savor and remember.  Call it romantic, call it finicky, call it whatever you like; I want more and I want that extra little caring personal touch in an age when too many things feel impersonal and negligent.  I do not want to grab things off a warehouse shelf and call it a day. . . I want to talk to people and learn something and share the connection of being human and feel that I bought something that has a bit of love behind it.

There have been countless other local businesses, some that I can continue to enjoy and some gone but not forgotten, that have cheered me on my afternoons of wandering. . . as well as a few small neighborhoods and parks and alleys and other places I can go when I need to escape bland suburbia, creeping sprawl, heavy traffic, and my occasional feelings of inner discord and disconnection.  Simply going to a farmer's market packed with fresh, delicious vegetables or a locally-owned, smaller grocery store can cheer me as no enormous, fluorescent-lit warehouse of a box store ever could.

Moreover, it is inspiring and life-affirming to see owners and workers who do not hate their jobs (as far too many people do), who genuinely want to help clients, who make beautiful, high-quality things, who care about beauty and poetry and community and neighbors, not simply dollars and clocking out at the end of the day and getting it all over with.  Seeing people who dare to live out their dreams and believe in seizing the day gives me hope and helps to motivate me.  I strive to be that sort of person myself and opened my own store in the hope that I could create a little bit of the magic for others that my favorite local businesses have created for me. . . I needed the right outlet to realize my innate potential each day and work toward refining my talents and sharing things of value with others.  It is very hard work sometimes, but it is the most worthwhile work I have ever done or ever care to do.

You have probably heard the "Shop Local" mantra, and you may have already heard about how following it puts more money into your local economy.  Perhaps you have noticed how many local businesses work hard to be eco-conscious or particularly ethical in some other way.  Maybe you have heard a few weak counter-arguments about higher prices (which are not necessarily true) or how not every place is capable of producing everything (which misses the point, I believe-- shopping local is about trying to support local ownership and thoughtful small business practices, not entirely denying oneself products from out-of-state or accepting sub-par goods).  At any rate, you have probably heard all the positive economic lectures and compelling condemnations of many big corporations too.  Maybe "shop local" has become a feel-good phrase for you. . . something you talk about, but find inconvenient or are rarely able to do or do as a kind of activism.  If you are already reading my blog, you probably do not need me to reiterate those arguments.  That said, if there is anything I would like to emphasize about why I enjoy shopping local, it is the way local business owners often go above and beyond in offering a pleasant experience to their clients, care about what they do, have found a niche for themselves that makes them happy to go to work each day, and strive to nurture the qualities and talents that make your town uniquely your own.  If that is not worth seeking out and celebrating, I do not know what is.

What Painting Taught Me About Writing

 [Above: The Times Building in Downtown Huntsville.]

Is it too early in my return to blogging to write a self-reflexive post?  If a self-described show about nothing can become a hit, I suppose I should not be so self-conscious, which brings me to my point. . .

My friend Liz from Waltz & Willow wrote a post this June about choosing an art form and the way we often drift in and out of our interests over the years.  Reading it again last week reminded me that writing used to be my art form of choice.  Of course, I am fairly certain that painting has superceded it for good, but I do still enjoy wordsmithing, and when I stumble across old essays and poems from the days when I pursued belles lettres like an ardent yet furiously unrequited lover, I am shocked to find that I was not only a fairly competent writer, but possibly an exceptional one.  Not that I was happy with my work or happy when working at the time.  Ever in search of le mot juste and prone to severe self-criticism, there came a day when I would simply stare at the page, write the first word, then proceed to cross it out, terrified at how vulnerable words made me to the opinions of others, terrified at how the wrong message might sway others, terrified at the seeming impossibility of ever truly communicating with others, in short, unable to speak.  No matter how worthy those concerns were, I was not looking at them as interesting questions, but rather allowing them to become insurmountable obstructions.  I did not practice my craft or learn about it-- I wrestled with it using only brute force (something my mother warned me about, but I did not know how to listen).  Naturally, it fought back and paralyzed me.

[Above: The Red Chair-- a good place for armchair philosophers.]

My approach to painting was vastly different. . . I had always drawn; I even doodled in my planners all throughout my high school years, prompting my algebra teacher to ask why I was drawing in class and whether I had finished my homework already (I had-- I was rather fond of math).  Doodling helped me concentrate, and expressing myself in pictures seemed to be safer than expressing myself in words (a fallacy, really, but it felt that way at the time). . . I was cloaked in a sort of protective symbolism, I thought, that words, which seemed to require more concrete meanings, could not offer.  When I took up a brush for the first time, I did so with no expectations whatsoever.  I was not trying to create the next great masterpiece or shake the world or be edgy; I simply wanted to make a painting.

In making subsequent paintings, I would set a small goal-- to use a certain color, create a certain effect, or consider how style could influence meaning in some particular way-- and if I accomplished that goal, I considered the painting complete.  If the painting did not please me, I simply made another.  I would look at the "failed" piece as an opportunity to learn and make a better piece next time.  I enjoyed the act of painting and viewed visual imagery as a language that allowed me enough flexibility to say many things all at once.  I never worried about whether there might be a problem with my message while working. . . I would look at the painting after finishing it, and if the message seemed problematic, I would simply paint over it or not share it.  Funny enough, very few of my pieces genuinely displeased me then, and I am not prone to over-analyzing my work now.  I do not even ask myself whether I am a good painter. . . I simply make paintings, look at paintings, study different styles of art, read about art history and theory, and do my best to learn everything I can about what constitutes a successful painting.  If I like the painting enough, which I usually do, I share it with others in the hope that it might bring them a bit of whatever good it brought me.

 [Above: Rainy Day, one of my very early abstract paintings.]

In reviving this blog again after a long hiatus, it occurred to me that I need not approach writing any differently than I approach my paintings.  The exact same habits and principles apply.  Given my good intentions, what is the point of being self-conscious?  Instead of becoming pessimistic, I can write a dozen new pieces to see which ones work or I can come back to a post a week after scribbling it down and edit whatever I need to edit.  Worrying about sounding intelligent every time I attempt to write is not going to make my work more valuable-- being sincere and thinking things through is.  If I wind up writing something dreadful, I can simply choose not to share it. . . but increasingly, I do not think my writing is dreadful.  There are things to try, learn, and hone, but I have not somehow disrupted the entire fabric of the universe if I have written a few dozen or even hundred paragraphs that are not worthy of publication.  Most importantly, I can set small goals for each piece I write and break topics down into manageable chunks. . . that is not an indicator of failure and incompetence; it is nothing more than a sensible way to accomplish any task.

According to Kant, Enlightenment is the casting off of one's self-imposed immaturity ("Aufklärung ist der Ausgang des Menschen aus seiner selbst verschuldeten Unmündigkeit"), but the German word Unmündigkeit, with its roots in the word for "mouth", seems to describe the concept of immaturity not in terms of being unripe or young, but in terms of being incapable of speaking for oneself.  I have always appreciated that quote, but I did not realize how much it applied to my years of writer's block.  At any rate, I am finding new joy in casting off my self-imposed "mouthlessness", and I look forward to discovering the many paths where it might lead. . .

There Are Places I Remember

What makes a place meaningful?  I paint a lot of "places", so I ask myself this question regularly, but in the past week, when I learned of the closings of two locally-owned businesses in my town that meant a lot to me because of their charm, benefit to our community's health and happiness, and the memories of friends and family I had made in them (Emma's Tea Room [above photo] and Garden Cove, as many fellow Huntsvillains will know), the question became a bit more pressing than usual.

The outskirts of my hometown have been a mass of sprawling, dull box stores and development since the early 90's, but now the Downtown area is in the midst of major redevelopment plans too, and with this redevelopment comes both exciting openings and sad closings, unexpected changes both beautiful and frustrating, threatening talk of "urbanization", and genuinely productive questions such as "What makes a town engaging?" and "What makes people love their hometowns?"

 [Above:  St. Mary of the Visitation Catholic Church, where I have attended many a Latin Mass and many an organ recital and Christmas concert.]

Though I am no city planner, I can still try to answer those questions, if only from my own personal perspective.  Moreover, as an artist and local business owner, I can manage to express a little bit of what I love in certain places through my work and seek to explain why some places hold more magic and poetry in my imagination than others.  I can even try to create a little of that magic for others in my business.  I am particularly drawn to historic places, especially if they were beautifully designed, local businesses where the owners remember my name, libraries, ornate concert halls, museums with great rooms I can get lost in, universities that offer plenty of public lectures, buildings dripping in ornamental carvings and corniches, untamed nature, parks in which people and nature may find balance, fountains, friendly small towns filled with flower shops and farmers markets, places that are romantic and old. . . but it is not always easy to explain why exactly.

Familiarity may play a role-- my thoughts are always moving and changing, so I long for certain things, such as the joy of sitting on an old front porch with a book, to stay the same-- but I think there is more to it than that.  I crave the sort of authenticity, continuity, and harmony that allows my mind to organize its jumbled words and images into meaning and value, and those qualities can be hard to find and even harder to cultivate in a world that seems perennially obsessed with shallow trends, obnoxious celebrities, vicious political ranting, and making a quick buck.

I look for the personal touches that add warmth to an existence that can be mysterious or cold, the organic traditions and quirks that can only spring up over time that help us bond with one another and enjoy life just a bit more, the lack of pretense and the openness to experience that spark thought, creativity, and discovery.

[Above: "The Tourist", a painting of me taking a picture on a quiet street in Old Decatur, AL.]

Sometimes, I find what I am looking for in my own hometown, but I often have to take to the open road to find it. . . to small towns, to hidden corners, off the main highways, to the places that are authentic because most of the people who would manage to obscure their authenticity have not found them yet.  I can hear myself think in these quieter, older places, and though some of the more rural areas among them may not offer enough in the way of academia or arts for me to see myself living in them permanently, they often still manage to awaken my soul enough for me to want to keep going back or hope to have a summer home in the country one day.

Seeing boarded up windows and crumbling bricks in once-thriving small towns can be as heart-breaking as seeing them torn down in the name of progress, but somehow, I still see hope in these places too, and sometimes they even surprise me with the way they have managed to revive themselves with art, local business, and lots of love and care.

[Above:  Lem Motlow's house on the grounds of Jack Daniel's Distillery in Lynchburg, TN, a town that remains more or less frozen in time, though I hear this house has been rebuilt recently.]

What makes a place meaningful?  What makes a town engaging?  What needs to be protected, promoted, preserved and celebrated in a place?  Local ingenuity.  People who embrace what makes that place unique.  Memories.  Stories.  History.  Beautiful natural settings.  Beautiful, classic architecture with  balanced aesthetics and a human scale.  People who are proud of who they are and where they are going.  Authenticity.  Those are just a few of the things that come to mind, though I have only scratched the surface with this post and will continue to contemplate this subject for the rest of my life.

Do you have a favorite place?  Why is it meaningful to you?

How to Succeed in Art Without Really Trying

The title of this post is, like the 1952 satirical business manual and musical I'm referencing in it, a joke, as much of a riddle as any a Sphinx could come up with.  Success in art can mean a number of different things and straining need not be one of them, but no matter how fortuitous one's circumstances are or how astounding one's talents, real achievement generally involves some manner of work or challenge.  For the purpose of today's musing, I will limit my discussion to career success, because I grew up being told by more than a few people that being an artist was not a valid career choice or that making money off my art was akin to "selling out", so choosing to become an artist sparked many questions that I imagine doctors and engineers do not have to concern themselves with (but more on that in another post).

Does this scenario sound familiar to you?  After drilling yourself with questions and re-affirming all your self-doubts one evening, perhaps after a particularly disappointing festival or having to suffer hearing your friends make starving artist jokes yet again (those people are either in need of an education or not friends, by the way), you have found yourself Googling "How to be a successful artist" or "Why is my work not selling?" on your cellphone at 2AM (and clearly lots of people type these questions into search engines, because the lists abound).  You gaze out your window and note that only one other window in your neighborhood glows blue and pink-- that one fellow who plays video games all night and drifts off around 4AM in his chair with the Weather Channel on TV for background noise is up too, and you wonder what he does for a living and how he manages to stay up all night and still get up early enough in the morning to leave for work in his battered mid-90's Nissan.  You have never met him, but you are beginning to feel a level of kinship with him that is not quite normal.  You have not made any art all week and you have not spoken to anyone but your cat all day.  You like to complain to your friends that there are no opportunities for you in your town, but you have not even visited half the local stores that sell original art or gotten involved in any of the arts organizations near you.  Not only is your insomnia far less poetic than you thought it might be in your moody teens, but getting a good night's sleep would probably help you far more than anything you can find on the Internet at 2AM, the online equivalent of lingering around too long in a smoky bar, but without the cover band playing "Closing Time" to remind you that you ought to call a cab.

The above description does not represent my current situation or feelings, mind you, but I have done my share of late-night Internet soul-searching, and while I have picked up more than a few good tips along the way, there are many things I would like to tell my younger self about not worrying or complaining so much.  The best and most practical advice that consistently works for me can be distilled down to four words:  Show up each day.  I cannot remember whatever 7 things I should or should not do or why number 15 was supposed to blow my mind or what I should never write in my cover letter, and reading up on such topics as "How to become rich and famous as an artist" seems to turn up useless generalities, but I can remember to show up.  By show up, I mean both to the easel or drafting table and the interviews, shows, and receptions.  That also means that my mind and heart have to show up too-- showing up half-heartedly is no use.  Circumstance and tastes and people can be unpredictable. . . only experience will confirm what exactly works and does not work, who likes which kind of work enough to buy it, what aspects of working are most fulfilling, and which venues and opportunities ought to be pursued, but in the meantime, I can show up and find out.  Is what I have to say about success original or profound?  Perhaps not. . . but it seems to be more efficient than frustrating myself with vague questions, and if I am going to be up doing something at 2AM, I would rather it be something more enlightening than read generic lists on the Internet-- reading a good instructional book on technique, putting the finishing touches on a mini painting, researching specific shows and galleries, or writing this blog post, for instance. . .

Is there any particular trait, quality, or advice that has helped you to become more successful in art or any other career path?  Weigh in below in the comments!

Brush Care and Other Life Lessons

At some point in the last two years, I gave up on my brushes.  Perhaps it was my grueling new public studio schedule, perhaps it was the fact that I had begun to use nylon brushes almost exclusively, perhaps it was some of the textured surfaces I was painting on (brick, paperboard, coroplast), but my brushes were wearing out at an alarming rate.  I began to buy cheap ones in bulk and threw them away within weeks.  The faster they wore out, the less inclined I was to take care of them in general.  I indiscriminately scrubbed on vast acrylic underpaintings with tiny, delicate nylon flat brushes.  I left paint-choked brushes drowning in water overnight because I was eager to go home at the end of the day.  Sometimes, I would save the chipped and battered handles of my casualties in the vain hope that I might take up macramé in the future; they did have quite an interesting patina by the time I was through with them.  The way I figured it, having to buy more brushes seemed an acceptable loss given the artwork I was making. . .

However, at my first meeting with my new art teacher, we talked about brush care, and something clicked in my mind.  Why was I entrusting my work to inferior, damaged, poorly-maintained tools?  Since when did I accept unnecessary waste as a natural by-product of my work?  While a skilled musician can usually make even a poor instrument sing, would it not be preposterous to simply allow that instrument to deteriorate out of carelessness?  Since when did carelessness become a part of my method?

I have been carefully cleaning and drying my brushes lately, contemplating which ones to use for various tasks, reintroducing bristle brushes and even sturdy utility brushes, and in the process, I am learning that I can get far more mileage and variety out of my tools, that I had been limiting their myriad possibilities, that they can sing for me in ways that I had forgotten or fully ignored.  The task that I had begun to think of as futile or tedious has become meditative instead, and this simple change already seems to be influencing my work, my wallet, and my life.