January 31, 2017
I mentioned in my January 4th blog post about The Book of Joy that I would paint copies of the book covers from some of my favorite reads in 2017. Some of my paintings are adaptations rather than true copies. Here are the covers from the best books from among those I read in January:
Sun, Moon, Earth: The History of Solar Eclipses from Omens of Doom to Einstein and Exoplanets by Tyler Nordgren. I wrote about this book in my January 5th blog post and how it heightened my anticipation for the total solar eclipse on August 21st of this year.
Coast Range: A Collection from the Pacific Edge by Nick Neely. I liked this book of essays and Neely’s musings about collecting and collections. He says, “. . . I had the collection bug: the impulse to hold, and possibly hoard, the world.” His objects are familiar to my landscape — salmon, madrone trees, beaches, rivers draining into the Pacific Ocean.
Mink River by Brian Doyle. I liked this novel so much that I am reading more of his works.
Tasha Tudor’s Garden by Tovah Martin and Richard Brown. The photos of Tasha Tudor in her garden are luscious. I love the little watercolor vignettes, too. This book takes us through the four seasons of the year.
One Vacant Chair by Joe Coomer. I love this book because one of the protagonists is 62-year-old Aunt Edna who for the past twenty years was the live-in caregiver for her ill mother and an elementary lunch lady AND an artist. She painted only one subject over and over — chairs. “She was still painting chairs and only chairs . . .” She painted for herself: “Painting isn’t for bill paying. Painting is for painting.”
The story takes place after the death of Edna’s mother. The clan gathers and her niece Sarah — who is experiencing a life crisis of her own — decides to stay on with Edna while she closes up her mother’s estate. Sarah is a successful commercial artist of Christmas ornaments, but she regrets not following her dream to become a fine artist. Edna’s advice to Sarah is, “It’s the only important thing, the work itself. I want you to stop worrying about what your pictures look like for now. You should just enjoy holding the brush or pencil in your hand, the time spent. . . . you have to like the moment of working or your work will become valueless.”
I love how art-related musings and philosophy intermingle with the story. And how the subject of a painting, like a chair, can evoke metaphors about life. The characters are quirky and flawed, family dynamics are stressed, and yet this is a warm-hearted novel.
January 17, 2017
My close friends and family know that I love reading about and researching places I will be visiting on upcoming trips. For me, this process of discovery whets my anticipation and clues me in to things I might look for when I am actually on the ground at my destination. I don’t want to over plan, and I do want to stay open to serendipitous encounters. But I very much enjoy the planning stages.
So with my calendar pencilled in to drive to the Oregon Coat to see the total eclipse of the sun on August 21st, I was thrilled to come across an essay, “Total Eclipse,” by Annie Dillard about her experiences watching the 1979 total solar eclipse in the Yakima Valley of Washington State. Her descriptions were so vivid that I modified some of the things I had been imagining about seeing the sun disappear. For example:
- I might not actually see the moon as I normally picture it in the sky in those moments leading up to the eclipse. Dillard says, “You do not see the moon. So near the sun, it is as completely invisible as the stars are by day.”
- The eclipsed sun might appear as a very small circle in the sky, not as the big, overwhelming orb I had in my mind’s eye for such an extraordinary event: “The hole where the sky belongs is very small. A thin ring of light marked its place. . . . the ring is as small as one goose in a flock of migrating geese . . . The sun we see is less than half the diameter of a dime held at arm’s length.”
- I hadn’t thought about how swiftly the dark shadow of the moon would come at the moment of total eclipse, and how terrifying this approaching darkness might be. Dillard and the people watching on the hillside where she stood screamed involuntarily. Here is how she describes it: “The second before the sun went out we saw a wall of dark shadow come speeding at us. We no sooner saw it than it was upon us, like thunder. It roared up the valley. It slammed our hill and knocked us out. It was the monstrous swift shadow cone of the moon. I have since read that this wave of shadow moves 1,800 miles an hour. Language can give no sense of this sort of speed — 1,800 miles an hour. It was 195 miles wide. No end was in sight — you saw only the edge. It rolled at you across the land at 1,800 miles an hour, hauling darkness like a plague behind it.”
- I am now prepared for the draining of color from my surroundings in the sudden darkness. With the absence of light, objects apparently take on an unearthly silver cast: “The sun was going, and the world was wrong. The grasses were wrong; they were platinum. . . . The hues were metallic; their finish was matte. . . . The sky was navy blue. My hands were silver.”
I sensed that Dillard’s experience of watching the total solar eclipse was so alien and disorienting that she was at a loss for words to describe it until time passed and she had some distance from it. She says, “I saw, early in the morning, the sun diminish against a backdrop of sky. I saw a circular piece of that sky appear suddenly detached, blackened, and backlighted; from nowhere it came and overlapped the sun. It did not look like the moon. It was enormous and black. If I had not read that it was the moon, I could have seen the sight a hundred times and never thought of the moon once.”
She says, “The sky snapped over the sun like a lens cover. The hatch in the brain slammed. Abruptly it was dark night, on the land and in the sky.”
The total eclipse “began with no ado.” The moon, when it exactly covered the sphere of the sun was “an abrupt black body out of nowhere.” The time of the sun’s absence was short — about 2 minutes, and then it was over.
Witnessing a total eclipse of the sun promises top be one of those experiences that one remembers for their entire lives. One comes face-to-face with the implacable movements of the planets, moons, and stars, something so immense and out-of-our control that it must make one feel insubstantial and unnecessary to the workings of the universe. It is hard to anticipate how I will feel if I am fortunate enough to watch the 2017 eclipse. I am praying for clear skies!
“One turns at last even from glory itself with a sigh of relief. From the depths of mystery, and even from the heights of splendor, we bounce back and hurry for the latitudes of home.”
— all quotes from Annie Dillard, “Total Eclipse,” from Teaching a Stone to Talk
January 5, 2017
“It is a spectacle pure and simple, the most magnificent free show that nature presents to man. . . . [N]ot to view the coming one would be literally to lose the opportunity of a lifetime.”
— “On the Solar Eclipse of 1925,” The New York Times
To witness a total solar eclipse total solar eclipse is a rare phenomenon. The last time one touched the mainland United States was in 1979. But on August 21, 2017 some of us in the United States will have a chance to see one without traveling too far. A continent-spanning eclipse like the one this year hasn’t occurred in the United States since 1918.
Total solar eclipses happen when our Moon is exactly the right distance from the Earth to cover the sun completely. For a couple of minutes, the Earth is fully in the shadow of the Moon.
Eclipses actually happen fairly frequently, but sometimes the Moon’s shadow is cast in the endless reaches of space. Imperfect alignments happen, too, and those are partial eclipses. To experience a total solar eclipse in one particular point on Earth more than once is very rare indeed. Astronomer and physics professor Tyler Nordgren, in his new book, Sun, Moon, Earth, says, “Though eclipses happen roughly twice each year, each one follows a different path across our planet. The patterns repeat in shape every eighteen years, but each time, the path is positioned one-third of the way around the planet and a little farther north or south than before. . . . eventually any spot on Earth can expect, on average, to see totality every 375 years.”
The path of totality for the August 21, 2017 solar eclipse cuts a swath across the entire United States. You can find maps at http://www.GreatAmericanEclipse.com. It will start at 10:26 PDT on the Oregon coast and 93 minutes later will move away from the Atlantic coast.
I have made camping reservations on the Oregon coast for a few days overlapping the day of the eclipse. That morning, I will have to drive about 2 hours south to be in the path of totality. Barring clouds (always a possibility on the coast), I should experience one of Nature’s most awesome shows.
The descriptions in Nordgren’s book have primed me to expect a wondrous and multi sensory few minutes: “. . . the temperature drops, birds grow quiet, shadows sharpen, and colors become muted and fade. Then, all at once, the Sun turns black and the stars come out. Overhead a ghostly aura steams outwards around the Sun’s dark disk.”
And, “The corona, a ring of immense pearly tendrils, envelopes the darkness and stretches off into the sky in all directions. It is unimaginably beautiful and only visible during these few precious minutes of totality. All around it are the brighter stars and planets, invisible until now; it is a day that has become night at noon, with the Sun, Moon, planets, and stars overhead all at once.”
You don’t want to miss this year’s eclipse because you will have a long wait for another one. The next total solar eclipses on American soil will happen in 2024, 2044, 2045, and 2052.
I wonder how I will be affected by seeing a day with two dawns and midnight at noon?
“. . .[T]he great lesson of the eclipse to the masses who saw it is that one little unusual phenomenon in the skies makes us realize how closely akin we all are in this common planetary boat out on an ethereal sea that has no visible shores.”
— The New York Times, January 25, 1925
January 4, 2017
Today is the first time in 2017 that I took the time to pick up art materials and make art. It felt good. It is a bright, sunny, cold day, and the light was good for painting at my table.
As I look forward to this coming year, I’ve decided to focus on four main art projects/themes/activities for 2017:
- To continue working on line drawings in pen and ink or pencil. I have a new book to put these in. I think I can only get better if I draw a lot.
- To copy famous art works by master artists from history; my own version in watercolor;
- To do more portraits of animals and people; and
- To take the time to draw or paint the covers of some of the best books I read in 2017.
My first book cover painting and pencil sketch are from The Book of Joy by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
These two wise men spent a week together discussing various aspects of joy and obstacles to feeling joy. They offer insights into eight “pillars of joy” — four qualities of the mind and four qualities of the heart:
The facilitator, Douglas Abrams, wove the Dalai Lama’s and Archbishop Tutu’s comments and observations with recent findings from academic and scientific research. It was interesting to see the overlap. One researcher, Sonja Lyubomirsky, found the following three factors have the greatest influence on increasing joy and happiness:
- our ability to reframe our situation more positively
- our ability to experience gratitude
- our choice to be kind and generous
Another researcher, Richard Davidson, discovered four independent brain circuits that influence our happiness and well-being:
- the ability to maintain positive states
- the ability to recover from negative states
- the ability to focus the mind and avoid mind wandering
- the ability to be generous
I especially appreciated the discussion about negative thoughts and emotions, like feelings of worthlessness, envy, loneliness, etc. The Dalai Lama was a strong advocate for building our mental immunity so that we are less susceptible to negative thoughts and feelings. He believed that preventive measures can be learned and cultivated, things like meditation or keeping a gratitude journal. Archbishop Tutu, on the other hand, felt that human beings are not always in control of the negative emotions and thoughts that crop up during times of stress. He believed that because negative thoughts and emotions are inevitable, we should accept that they come and forgive ourselves for having them. We can learn and grow and develop stress resistance over time after experiencing challenges and situations and people that test us.
Reading The Book of Joy was a perfect way to start the new year. The two holy men remind us of our common humanity and that we are in this life together.
“. . . ultimately our greatest joy is when we seek to do good for others.”
— Archbishop Desmond Tutu
“Too much self-centered thinking is the source of suffering. A compassionate concern for others’ well-being is the source of happiness.”
— The Dalai Lama
January 2, 2017
“Every day is a new opportunity to begin again.”
— from The Book of Joy by the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu
It’s January 2nd and seems quite natural to reflect and make resolutions for the year ahead. I like the thought of beginnings, starting something new. For me, the fresh start applies not only to possible projects I might take on in 2017, but also to relationships. I have regrets over acting badly at times, especially with those closest to me, but I find solace in the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu which I am reading in The Book of Joy. He says that sometimes negative thoughts and emotions are inevitable because we are only human, after all. We are not perfect. So we should accept our occasional failings and forgive ourselves. We hone our emotions, thoughts, and behaviors as we work through our flaws, failings, challenges, and heartbreaks. We can grow through our struggles. We can allow ourselves a fresh start.
December 21, 2016
Christmas is the time of gift giving, and so it is also the time of thank-you notes (or at least, I hope it is the time to thank and acknowledge the givers). And I don’t mean “dreaded” thank you notes either. I find the occasion of sitting down to write them a joy. It’s a few moments to stop the busy craziness of our lives and to really think about the giver, how their gift represents their love for you, and what their presence in your life means to you.
I aspire to write great thank you notes, ones that might even halfway repay the generosity of the giver and that acknowledge my gratitude. I am inspired by thank yous I have received, and ones I’ve read like this letter by Sylvia Townsend Warner in Letters of Note:
Usually one begins a thank-letter by some graceless comparison, by saying, I have never been given such a very scarlet muffler, or, This is the largest horse I have ever been sent for Christmas. But your matchbox is a nonpareil, for never in my life have I been given a matchbox. Stamps, yes, drawing-pins, yes, balls of string, yes, yes, menacingly too often; but never a matchbox. Now that it has happened I ask myself why it has never happened before. They are such charming things, neat as wrens, and what a deal of ingenuity and human artfulness has gone into their construction; for if they were like the ordinary box with a lid they would not be one half so convenient. This one though is especially neat, charming, and ingenious, and the tray slides in and out as though Chippendale had made it.
But what I like best of all about my matchbox is that it is an empty one. I have often thought how much I should enjoy being given an empty house in Norway, what pleasure it would be to walk into those bare wood-smelling chambers, walls, floor, ceiling, all wood, which is after all the natural shelter of man, or at any rate the most congenial. And when I opened your matchbox which is now my matchbox and saw that beautiful clean sweet-smelling empty rectangular expanse it was exactly as though my house in Norway had come true; with the added advantage of being just the right size to carry in my hand. I shut my imagination up in it instantly, and it is still sitting there, listening to the wind in the firwood outside. Sitting there in a couple of days time I shall hear the Lutheran bell calling me to go and sing Lutheran hymns while the pastor’s wife gazes abstractedly at her husband in a bower of evergreen while she wonders if she remembered to put pepper in the goose-stuffing; but I shan’t go, I shall be far too happy sitting in my house that Alyse gave me for Christmas.
Oh, I must tell you I have finished my book—begun in 1941 and a hundred times imperilled but finished at last. So I can give an undivided mind to enjoying my matchbox.
P.S. There is still so much to say…carried away by my delight in form and texture I forgot to praise the picture on the back. I have never seen such an agreeable likeness of a hedgehog, and the volcano in the background is magnificent.”
How could you not be inspired to make your thank you notes a higher form of communication after reading a gem like Townsend Warner’s? Here is one attempt, by me, for a gift I received this Christmas:
“Thank you for The Book of Joy, which is such a perfect encapsulation of the joy you spread in the world. Its arrival on our doorstep was a complete surprise — most of the packages that come here are for Sandra, things she’s ordered online. Unexpected packages, especially around Christmas, have to be one of life’s warming joys. Even unopened they carry the message that someone was thinking of me! They mean love.
Your gift is perfect. It shows how well you know me — a reader, someone like you who is trying to find meaningful ways to be in this world. I know I will find joy and wisdom in the words of the two sages, the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu. I can already see myself copying quotes in my commonplace journals and then finding a few apt ones to share in my blog. These activities are my private joys, and your gift indulges them and me. I know they will bring light to this dark time of year, and lessons for the hard times ahead. Your gift is one that will keep on giving.
A proper thank you note will be forthcoming in the mail, but I wanted to express my gratitude for the book, your friendship, and your being in a more immediate way with this email.
My heart is filled with thanks this holiday season. Thank you, dear readers, for checking in with me so faithfully.
November 28, 2016
“Without a doubt [Leonardo’s] drawing was a source of solace, of tuning out the world, and of capturing it as well. Consider those early lost drawings not for their focus on some particular thing, like a twig or a frog, as would be usual, but for what’s blocked out. They are psychological documents as well as artistic. Any drawing is. Most importantly, one senses that the act of drawing became his way to learn about a thing. It was how he contemplated the world.”
— Mike Lankford, Becoming Leonardo: An Exploded View of the Life of Leonardo da Vinci
“One of Leonardo’s greatest discoveries as a child had to be the power of his own left hand. It must’ve seemed magical to him at first — and to everyone else. Not only could it capture reality and put it on paper, but the effort of drawing a thing seemed to inform him as well, as if he knew it better afterwards. As if he owned it afterwards. As if to study something closely enough to draw accurately was also to learn it deeply all over its surface, to absorb the thing through visual touch. For him, drawing was a way of knowing the world, and he learned that as a child. Self-taught, it seems clear.”
— Mike Lankford, Becoming Leonardo: An Exploded View of the Life of Leonardo da Vinci
I had the opportunity to read an advanced reader copy of Mike Lankford’s Becoming Leonardo: An Exploded View of the Life of Leonardo da Vinci. This new biography of Leonardo da Vinci will be released in March 2017. I was drawn into the life of Leonardo by the sheer imagination of the author. He seems to have put himself into the shoes of a Renaissance man, using clues from places Leonardo lived, historic events that would have been talked about in homes at the time, and jottings from Leonardo’s surviving notebooks (10 of 18 notebooks have been lost) to imagine Leonardo in the world.
For example, consider the place of Leonardo’s birth — Vinci. It was a two-day trek over a mountain to the city of Florence. Imagine living with something so glorious just beyond the horizon. His home on a hill gave out on “a bird’s eye view of the countryside that was panoramic.” Imagine how this perspective fueled Leonardo’s thoughts about flight and his mapping skills. Life during the time of Leonardo was chaotic, swept by plagues and warring factions, full of death. Lankford says, “One key to understanding Leonardo is to see the brutal chaos he came out of, the chaos he tried to separate himself from, the noise on every side. It was not an easy place to think a straight thought.”
Lankford asks us to consider what it would have been like to live without photographic images or pictures of people we see on TV and computer screens. During Renaissance times, even mirrors were rare, and people seldom saw their own faces. Then imagine Leonardo’s seemingly magical talent to draw images accurately on paper:
“. . . the rarity of representational art in their lives meant that it had a stronger impact on the viewer than it has today . . . the important thing to consider is the enormous power Leonardo had to convince others simply because he could draw so well.”
“In an age before images were a common thing, Leonardo was the artist/magician who plucked living objects out of thin air. To the average person it was as if his thinking was more real than everybody else’s. Certainly more concrete and vivid. And surely more convincing as well.”
I enjoyed reading about the power of Leonardo’s drawings, especially since I am currently embarked on my own project of doing pen and ink sketches for a month or two while I take a break from painting in color. Like Leonardo, I appreciate the act of drawing as a way to see things more deeply. I really haven’t seen a thing until I try to draw it, and then I notice its nuances and how difficult it is to translate what I see onto paper.
I am also a person who thinks better with a pen in my hand. So I was particularly interested in Lankford’s descriptions about the importance of the notebooks to Leonardo’s creativity and inventiveness. Leonardo was a genius at coming up with ideas, but he often did not actually make many of his inventions and he left many art and engineering works unfinished. He captured many of these ideas in his notebooks. Of the notebooks, Lankford says: “. . . that’s what originality looks like. It’s scattered, not entirely coherent, full of holes and gaps and repetitions, even founded on false assumptions, but also containing great insights that penetrate into the nature of the world.”
Lankford says, “It seems to me his notebooks served many functions, from open lab books where the apprentices were encouraged to read, to draft books of ideas he wanted to consider, or ideas for letters, to (at their most personal) his memory books. If he saw some machine or mechanism he wanted to understand and remember, or some gesture or look in an eye, or a pattern in a lady’s lace or the curl of a finger, anything he wanted to know and examine, he would copy. I think this is the essence of Leonardo as autodidact: constantly looking, constantly observing, noting, guessing, recording — all for later when he could peruse these thoughts more thoroughly and without distraction.”
“Leonardo’s reputation for invention is actually more the business of a squirrel saving up its nuts until they’re needed. That was his bottom-most process: follow your inspiration of the moment and then archive the result for later when it can be useful. Inspiration must be caught while present.”
It seems that Leonardo was exceptionally attuned to catching those flickers of ideas and did not just let them slip by unmarked to die. He may not have brought all or even most of his ideas to fruition, but he did jot them down and develop them as concepts that seemed like they could work.
Becoming Leonardo is a fairly comprehensive biography, but I was less interested in his roles as engineer for the warring royalty than in his role as painter. He was not that prolific, but the paintings he did finish were remarkable — the Mona Lisa, the Last Supper, the Lady with an Ermine. I was amazed that he worked on some of these paintings for years. And that they were not painted until he was in his 40s, 50s and 60s. His multi-faceted genius was coupled with a curiosity that kept him learning and growing into old age. I admire him for that.