Shifting Fragments

Shifting Fragments, 16″ x 16,” Mixed media painting with collage on deep wood panel

We all know you can’t prepare for everything. We want change that is gradual and slow so we can see it coming, but life has way of sideswiping you when you least expect it.

Almost 6 years ago my husband had a “heart incident” as we like to call it. His heart fluttered, skipped a beat and threw a small clot. Even the paramedics could find nothing wrong when they arrived, but he felt a pain like “toothache” in his chest. So just to be safe he went to the hospital. While there was no damage, we discovered that sometimes he has an irregular heartbeat. “Sometimes” was really hard to deal with at first, but now after so much time he just exercises, eats right, and carries nitroglycerine in his pocket.

 I was reminded again of how slowly, and quickly, things change and could change, while hiking the trails in Stone Mountain State Park. The large rock faces with layers and splits big enough for climbing were formed by geological exfoliation. While they seem impenetrable, as if they will be there for thousands of years, the reality may be different. The change to these rocks is climate related and normally happens very slowly, but according to the park rangers because we don’t know the depth of the splits there is always the risk that rocks, particularly those with vertical and horizontal cracks, will shatter and slide. Of course, should there be an earthquake, they could crumble very quickly.

It’s both a bit scary and a bit comforting how human life parallels nature.  Mostly, the changes are gradual, but we are all shifting.




Graveyard Fields

Graveyard Fields is a ghostly, but enriching landscape that leaves me feeling very large, yet very insignificant at the same time.


GraveyardFieldsweb copy
Graveyard Fields, 36″ x 48″ x 3″, Mixed media collage painting on deep wood panel

This new painting was inspired by a hike in late August along a trail called Graveyard Field in the Blue Ridge Mountains. It’s a flat mountain valley just off the parkway surrounded by mountains like Black Balsam Knob, Tennent Mountain, and Sam Knob. The day we hiked the goldenrod was already evident as were the wild blueberries, and many people left carrying overflowing hats, pails, and milk jugs.

It was an easy hike except for the climb to the falls, but I was most fascinated by the boardwalks that keep the trail elevated in areas that tend to flood—and the flatness even though you are at 5,000 feet elevation. The Park Service history says the name may have come from a windstorm fell that downed hundreds of trees or extensive logging in the early 1900’s. Either way the stumps eventually resembled moss-covered graves. Later fires devastated the entire valley, apparently heating the soil enough to sterilize it so that plants had difficulty growing. Now some trees, shrubs, and grasslands are slowly thriving.

It is a ghostly landscape, but an enriching one as well. Like most of my trips into the woods I leave feeling very large, yet very insignificant at the same time—and very much at peace.



Detail of “Fight Song,”mixed media on board, 36″ x 24”

This past weekend was the second time in as many weeks that I visited my mother and she did not know me. There are many possible reasons for this—medication, the progression of her Lewy Body Dementia, the fact that she is waking from a deep sleep.

It saddens me in many ways, but once I tell her who I am and help her connect, there is lucid conversation. When I tell her about my four-month-old grandson’s crying and tummy troubles, she remembers my brother (who died in August). Then she says: “You were no trouble, always happy.” Of course, this is not what she said while I was growing up or what she would have said a few months ago, but it is lovely to hear. I have to fight the tears because I want us to talk about happy memories, and I want to keep her connected to family as long as I can.

So how does this relate to art? I think it has to do with the layers that I texture, paint, and collage. I was reminded of this when teaching a workshop this past weekend. My paintings have so many layers, some of which I like and some of which I don’t. I may bring one to the surface and then decide I don’t like it or don’t like part of it. Or I may create a layer that is a combination of what is below and the new elements I add to the top.

Putting something new on the surface doesn’t change that initial layer; it just adds to it, making it richer, more complex.  The layers connect each idea, but allow me to focus on what is most important. Life is like that too.

I No Longer Ask Why

“You use a glass mirror to see your face; you use works of art to see your soul.” George Bernard Shaw

"Not Intended For Ground Contact," Mixed media on deep wood panel, "17 x 23"
“Not Intended For Ground Contact,” Mixed media on deep wood panel, “17 x 23”

You use a glass mirror to see your face; you use works of art to see your soul.” George Bernard Shaw

 A couple years ago I a wrote asking art lovers to respond with specifics about a piece of art, not just “beautiful” or “wonderful” or any other single word adjective. Part of me would still like more, but I have decided I was wrong—wrong to ask any viewer to explain their emotions or feelings about a specific piece of work. (Let’s face it sometimes I don’t want to have to explain even to a juror what my painting is “about.”)

Instead, I am now content to just “like.” I have come to understand as one blogger Ralph Ammer puts it, “art is a mirror for artists and viewers alike.” When we as artists have put all of our thoughts, feelings, and emotions into a piece, our story is told. Our view is registered. For the viewer, the reflection begins when they stand before the piece or see it online. And often their emotions and thoughts are so personal and complex, they may feel there is yet another story to tell—or not tell.

So, I no longer ask “why.” I am just grateful that they are art lovers and that I have the opportunity through my paintings to touch someone or trigger a few thoughts.





Positive from Negative


Unfinished paintings making positives using negative space.

“What do you do with everything that is cut away?” she asked Tilman, thinking now about the negative space of stone sculpture, the stone that is discarded, thinking too about how she had thrown away huge pieces of her own early life…”
from The Stone Carvers by Jane Urquhart.

 With both my only parent and only sibling ill, there is a lot of sadness in my life right now, weighing me down, making it hard to focus on anything—even art. But because art keeps me sane, I have turned to it in bits and pieces, usually ending up in a mess of color and movement. For days I let these paintings on paper lay around, but this past week I decided to find out what if anything was important in these painted, collaged pieces.

So I started with grey paint and the basic rules of visual composition, reminding myself that positive space was the primary focus of a picture and the negative space was the background or the space between objects. I had always thought of negative space as quiet space, but obviously less important than the positive shapes.

But the more I painted, the more I wondered: Should there really be a difference between positive and negative space in importance? Can you have one without the other? In order to tell a complete story, don’t you need both? None of the pieces that are pictured are finished or may never be, but the exercise reinforced to me how critical negative space is in my paintings and how it can highlight the positive.




Where Am I Going?

“Mending Fences,” mixed media on board, 11″ x 20″
Journal entry “Mending Fences”


Sometimes I just put paint on paper, moving it here or there, adding a bit of this or that. Sometimes it works out. Most of the time, not so much.

Of course, that’s not true for everyone. Plein air painters produce their best work onsite. And I’ve seen some other wonderful painters who seem to start with one element and just take those twists and turns in the road one at a time until bang—they are in New York or Los Angeles.

If I do that I’m in the middle of no where in Iowa (and yes, Iowa can be lovely), but it’s probably the middle of winter. And while it may be beautiful, it has no focus. I’m one of those artists who needs to have some idea of where they are going, just a bit of a road map. Otherwise, I wander off tract. I see that nice tree over there or perhaps a lovely lake and take a hike. I know that many artists do studies, and I’ve done a few. But the best method for me seems to be a middle ground.

I’ve found that working on ideas in my journal helps me solidify placement of elements, color, markings. With a few little things worked out, I can concentrate on the idea behind the painting and on the emotions and feelings. Hopefully, this produces better strokes, more complicated markings. Doing this also helps when I am in a period that I feel stuck. “I am working,” but because it is in a journal, “I am not exactly working.” Somehow this frees me.

This method has its drawbacks. I can’t be as spontaneous. And don’t think it doesn’t mean I won’t have to redo a painting—but it is a place to start and a way to keep on track.

So what’s your successful method?


Over and Over

Changing just one thing can make a difference.

Over and Over, 18" x 24", Mixed media on paper
“Over and Over,” 18″ x 24″, mixed media on paper

You know how a tune gets locked in your head, an “ear worm” they call it. I am particularly susceptible to any kind of “worm” whether a tune or a behavior. I seem to get locked into action or inaction.

I have been trying to discover how we free ourselves from repeating behavior that we know isn’t good for us, whether it is obsessing over a problem or just painting in the same way we always have. One suggestion was to change just one thing. In my yoga class the instructor often says something similar. She suggests moving the right arm out as you lift the left leg or putting the arms in front rather than behind in “child’s pose.”

I normally paint on deep wood cradles with a highly textured substrate. So I decided to paint on paper. It appears to me this one change has made me focus more on markings, which may well be a good thing.

Oh, I guess I did change two things. Instead of my classical or new age music, I listened to a bit of country. Go figure.

Perhaps you might try changing just one thing in your art or your life—or two?