Daffodil: King Trumpeter

March 10, 2017

Spring bouquet

“King Trumpeter to Flora Queen,
Hey, ho, daffodil!
Blow, and the golden jousts begin.”
— from “Daffodil,” The Wind in the Trees: A Book of Country Verse, by Katharine Tynan

Watercolor sketch of daffodil

 

“A single crocus blossom ought to be enough to convince our heart that springtime, no matter how predictable, is somehow a gift, gratuitous, gratis, a grace.”
— David Steindl-Rast

Crocus Chrysanthus by George Maw, from The Art of Botanical Illustration by Wilfrid Blunt and William T. Stearn

“Beside the porch step
the crocus prepares an exaltation
of purple, but for the moment
holds its tongue. . . .”
— Jane Kenyon, from “Mud Season”

An exaltation of purple

Crocuses

Crow with crocuses

 

This is the second post in my Book Cover Project, and it highlights four of the best books I read during the month of February:

News of the World by Paulette Jiles

News of the World by Paulette Jiles

News of the World by Paulette Jiles.  I have been reading books featuring Texas in anticipation of a planned trip there in late April.  News of the World by Paulette Jiles takes place in post-Civil War Texas.  Captain Kidd, a 71-year old widow makes his living as an itinerant performer who gives readings from newspapers in small towns throughout northern Texas.  He is offered a $50 gold piece to deliver a young 10-year-old girl, Johanna Leonberger, to her relatives near San Antonio.  Four years earlier, Johanna was captured by the Kiowa in a raid that killed her parents.

The Captain and Johanna encounter many dangers during the 400-mile journey — lawlessness, a corrupt Reconstructionist government, continuing Indian raids.  The trail narrative itself is compelling, but the author also gives a sympathetic portrayal of the challenges facing those whites who were “rescued” from their Indian captors.  “The Captain never did understand what had caused such a total change in a little girl from a German household and adopted into a Kiowa one.  In a mere four years she completely forgot her birth language and her parents, her people, her religion, her alphabet.  She forgot how to use a knife and fork and how to sing European scales.  And once she was returned to her own people, nothing came back.  She remained at heart a Kiowa to the end of her days.”

“She never learned to value those things that white people valued.  The greatest pride of the Kiowa was to do without, to make use of anything at hand; they were almost vain of their ability to go without water, food, and shelter.  Life was not safe and nothing could make it so, neither fashionable dresses nor bank accounts.”

The Nest by Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney

The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

The Nest by Cynthia D’Arpix Sweeney.  This is a novel about four adult siblings who are each anticipating coming into an inheritance from their father, the “nest,” when the youngest sister turns forty.  Although their parents had taught them not to count their chickens before they hatched, the siblings have watched the small nest egg grow to a considerable amount, and each counted on the money to relieve financial stresses due to choices they made in their adult lives.  For example, the youngest sister was anticipating using the money to fund her daughters’ college educations.  One of the brothers had secretly taken an equity loan against a cherished vacation property in order to keep his business afloat.

Then disaster strikes  few months before coming into their inheritance.  One of the brothers, driving drunk, is in a car accident that severely injures his passenger — a young woman caterer with whom he was about to have an illicit liaison.  In order to settle with the young woman, the siblings’ mother and trustee uses $2 million from the “nest,” leaving just a modest remainder for distribution.  This novel depicts the family’s clashes and adjustments arising from the loss of their “nest.”

Early Morning by Kim Stafford

Early Morning by Kim Stafford

Early Morning: Remembering My Father, William Stafford by Kim Stafford.  The poet William Stafford died in 1993, naming his son Kim his literary executor.  This memoir lovingly celebrates the life and poems of the elder Stafford.  It touches on Stafford’s childhood in Kansas:  “The Great Depression could be rich for a poor family that loved to read and talk.  Without prosperity, they were free to revel in the local and the everyday.”  And it reveals how Stafford’s life was shaped by his pacifism — he was a conscientious objector in WWII, which was not at all a popular or understood stand:  “. . . I absorbed his clarity about aggression:  it’s never okay.  Nor, if you are alert, should it be necessary.  Violence signals a failure of imagination.”

William Stafford exemplified “loyalty to the self.”  He strove to be authentic to his visions, asking, ‘What is my particular calling among the quiet voices of the world?”  His son described him as follows:  “He was objector, writer, wanderer — a three-way isolation by choice.”  And, “It was how he thought — taking an idea, a conversation, a class, a child — or a poem — to the brink of difficult truth.”

I was most impressed by the descriptions of William Stafford’s writing practice.  He got up at 4:00 a.m. every morning to write for three hours before the rest of the household awoke.  Kim says, “You have a family you love.  You have a job you do and some days love, if you are lucky.  But you also have an inner life, a quiet voice, a realm of intuition and expression that may be largely dormant through your busy days.  In my father’s practice, this inner life happened first.”

“Taken as a whole, the daily writing constitutes a symposium with the self, where questions of ethics, aesthetics, education, aggression, and creation are posed, debated, and then practiced in poetic form by one intelligence — my father’s academy of one.  The writing practice reveals the critical and intuitive faculties of a fertile mind in conversation with itself almost every single day for over forty years.  Out of this meditative practice, what he called his ‘compost pile,’ his poems appeared at a rate of about one a day. . . .

The daily writing was not a diary; what might be considered important events by others were nothing to him.  Rather, the daily writing is a realm for the timeless.”

I found the example of such a disciplined and obviously rewarding writing practice to be an inspiration.  I finished the book wondering if I could commit to a daily art practice of my own.

I Am Not Your Negro by Raoul Peck

I Am Not Your Negro by Raoul Peck

I Am Not Your Negro by Raoul Peck, from the writings of James Baldwin.  When James Baldwin died he left notes for an unfinished book project, which he called “Remember This House,” about three Black leaders — Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. — who were murdered before they turned 40 years old.  Peck received permission from the estate of Baldwin to use these and other of his texts to direct a movie (which I have not yet seen).

Baldwin saw his role as one of witness to the lives and deaths of his Black brethren.  He said:

“I was not, for example, a Black Muslim,
in the same way, though for different reasons,
that I never became a Black Panther:
because I did not believe that
all white people were devils,
that I did not want
young black people to believe that.
I was not a member of any Christian congregation
because I knew that they had not heard
and did not live by the commandment
‘love one another as I love you,’
and I was not a member of the NAACP
because in the North, where I grew up,
the NAACP was fatally entangled
with black class distinctions,
or illusions of the same,
which repelled a shoe-shine boy like me.

I did not have to deal with
the criminal state of Mississippi,
hour by hour and day by day,
to say nothing of night after night.
I did not have to sweat cold sweat after decisions
involving hundreds of thousands of lives.
I was not responsible for raising money,
for deciding how to use it.
I was not responsible for strategy controlling
prayer meetings, marches, petitions,
voting registration drives.
I saw the sheriffs, the deputies, the storm troopers
more or less in passing.
I was never in town to stay.
This was sometimes hard on my morale,
but I had to accept, as time wore on,
that part of my responsibility — as a writer —
was to move as largely and as freely as possible,
to write the story, and to get it out.”

There is so much in Baldwin’s writings that illuminate the state of our current world.  Some progress against racism has been made, but not nearly enough.  Baldwin says, “. . . when you try to stand up and look the world in the face like you had a right to be here, you have attacked the entire power structure of the Western world.”

This is how he sees white Americans:  “I’m sure they have nothing whatever against Negroes, but that’s really not the question, you know.  The question is really a kind of apathy and ignorance, which is the price we pay for segregation.  You don’t know what’s happening on the other side of the wall, because you don’t want to know.”  He sees this moral apathy as the “death of the heart.”

“What white people have to do is try and find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a ‘nigger’ in the first place, because I’m not a nigger, I’m a man.  But if you think I’m a nigger, it means you need him. . . . If I’m not the nigger here and you invented him, you white people invented him, then you’ve got to find out why.  And the future of the country depends on that, whether or not it is able to ask that question.”

This is still a question for our time, I believe.  The slogan “America First” carries with it overtones of American superiority — the outdated, erroneous beliefs that white Christian males are better than immigrants, minority citizens, women, the “others.”  What is at the root of the need for that feeling of superiority?  This book asks us to ponder that question.

 

 

Is Art Justified?

February 25, 2017

Pot of yellow primroses

Pot of yellow primroses

“There is not a significant artist in the world who is not asking himself whether his art is justified — not on account of the quality of his talent, but on account of the relevance of art to the demands of the time in which he is living.”
— John Berger, from “Revolutionary Undoing,” Landscapes: John Berger on Art

“There is vitality, a life force, energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique.  And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost.  The world will not have it.  It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable or how it compares with other expressions.  It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.  You do to even have to believe in yourself or your work.  You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you.  Keep the channel open.”
— Martha Graham, from Martha: The Life and Work of Martha Graham by Agnes de Mille

Quotes like these help me to feel better about making art.  I sometimes feel my paintings are frivolous when each morning the news is full of serious and worrisome threats to a peaceful world.

 

 

Starlings: Metallic Rainbows

February 24, 2017

Starling

Starling

Ink sketch of starling

Ink sketch of starling

“From a distance he looked black, but from up close he glistened in sheens of metallic green, purple, and blue.  The feathers on a starling’s breast, head, and neck are purple, and those on its back are green. . . . just below the purple of his neck the feathers were tipped with light yellow, as if individually dipped in cream. . . . he looked like a metallic rainbow.”
— Bernd Heinrich, One Wild Bird at a Time

“To be a starling is to perform airborne dances with myriad others, tracing elaborate syncopated flight patterns in the sky.  We call these gatherings ‘murmurations.'”
— Bernd Heinrich, One Wild Bird at a Time

Starling

Starling

Ink sketch of starling

Ink sketch of starling

“Starlings are painted like oil slicks, layered with shining purple, blue, magenta, and green.  Iridescence in feathers is created through structural changes in the feather surface that makes them appear vibrant at certain angles — microscopic bumps and ridges on the barbs and barbules refract and scatter light. . . . When starlings molt in the fall, many of their fresh iridescent feathers are tipped with white, giving the birds their celestial pattern. . . . the starling’s white tips wear off in winter, leaving the birds glistening black in the spring.”
— Lyanda Lynn Haupt, from Mozart’s Starling

Starling portrait, ink sketch

Starling portrait, ink sketch

Lynda Lynn Haupt’s new book, Mozart’s Starling, will be released April 4th.  It is true that Mozart lived with a pet starling, and this became the idea for Haupt’s book.  She adopted a 6-day-old starling orphan and lived with it as part of her household in order to better understand what it meant for Mozart to live with this particular bird.

Starlings are almost universally reviled by birders and ecologists, as they are non-native to the United States and are an invasive species.  And yet, the possibilities of kinship and love do happen at the individual level, as Haupt discovered when her starling became a beloved pet.  She said, “Starlings are shimmering, plain, despised, charming, collectively devastating, individually fascinating.”  Her story and discoveries show that “these individuals are not ends in themselves but a kind of window onto the totality of existence.”

Starling in watercolor and ink

Starling in watercolor and ink

 

Pussy willows

Pussy willows

“One ought never to forget that by actually perfecting one piece, one learns more than beginning or half finishing ten.  Let it rest, let it rest and keep going back to it and working at it over and over again until there is not a note too much or too little, not a bar you could improve upon.  Whether it is beautiful is and entirely different matter, but perfect it must be.”
— Johannes Brahms

I’ve been trying to paint pussy willows, and after several iterations, I still haven’t managed to capture them perfectly.  Not all of my attempts are pleasing.  With watercolors, I find that working it over generally muddies things, and it is better to slow down and make a new beginning.  I’m still not satisfied with my results, so I need to try again (and again).

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Sweethearts candies for Valentine's Day

Sweethearts candies for Valentine’s Day

Valentine's Day card

Valentine’s Day card

I like the following paragraph about love, which reminds us that Love is a sacred responsibility, a sacred trust.  It seems appropriate to reflect on the duties of loving well on this Valentine’s Day 2017 because given today’s political climate, we feel called upon to fight fiercely to protect what we love and value.

“It isn’t enough to love a child and wish her well.  It isn’t enough to open my heart to a bird-graced morning.  Can I claim to love a morning, if I don’t protect what creates its beauty?  Can I claim to love a child, if I don’t use all the power of my beating heart to preserve a world that nourishes children’s joy?  Loving is not a kind of la-de-da.  Loving is a sacred trust.  To love is to affirm the absolute worth of what you love and to pledge your life to its thriving — to protect it fiercely and faithfully, for all time.”
— Kathleen Dean Moore, “The Call to Forgiveness at the End of the Day,”  from A Sense of Wonder:  The World’s Best Writers on the Sacred, the Profane, & the Ordinary, ed. Brian Doyle

Happy Valentine’s Day!