December 19, 2013

7 great reasons for shoveling !#*%

Every Wednesday and Thursday I hurry out of bed and head over to the Oasis Animal Shelter where I spend the morning helping another volunteer clean kennels. My part of the job consists of shoveling big piles of poop out from the outdoor portions of each dog's run, while my coworker disinfects and hoses down the insides, sets down food, and fills each pail with fresh water. We coordinate our movements while allowing each dog some good quality run-around-the-yard, play-with-the-ball, sniff-around-the-fence, and bark-at-the-cats time (don't worry, the cats are outside the fence...and we put food and water out for them too).

This job has equipped me with a nuanced understanding of a range of canine excretions and how best to deal with them. Whisking up the really soft stuff on a humid July day requires a whole different set of techniques, for instance, than does scraping up frozen piles in sub-zero wind chill (the latter often helped along by a good kick from a heavy boot). All the "material" I remove from the pens is piled into a big plastic poop bucket and later washed down an outdoor drain in a soupy swirl of pungent goo. No bones about it: it's all pretty repulsive. When I start scooping I stop breathing through my nose, and generally don't start again until I'm out walking dogs. It's amazing the disgusting things you can handle if you eliminate their smell!

Despite what you might think from this description, the Oasis dogs are really well cared for. Their pens, which have space to move both inside and out, are cleaned three times daily. They do not go hungry or thirsty, they are warm in the winter, and music is left on for them when we leave. Veterinary care is given when needed. And unless the weather is REALLY bad, in addition to yard time, they get walked at least twice a week. Their lives would improve a lot with adoption, but until then they make do just fine.

Well that is all fine and good, but what really compels ME to return every week just to shovel more of their stinking !#*% for no pay? Ha!

Today I found 7 reasons:

#1. Chloe...

Quiet, intelligent, patient, disciplined, and great on a walk. When Chloe jumps up to give you loves, you know she really means it.

#2. Paddy.

A dedicated and exuberant player, she LOVES diving through the powdery snow.

#3. Buddy.

A booming voice and tough exterior belie a heart tender as a puppy's. Buddy is the perfect name for this big guy.

#4. Herbie.

Total sucker for a good belly rub...especially when it means he can also roll around in the snow!

#5. Ronnie.

A bit intense on a lead...especially when the ground is laced with deer track! You can always tell this girl means business.

#6. Sassy.

Scruffy little ball of fluff and affection...what's not to love? 

#7. Blade.

A big heart in a little body. When this feisty little chihuahua finally warmed up to me...transforming in weeks from a nervous introvert snarling in the corner, to my most eager and devoted Oasis friend...I was a goner. I ADORE this little guy!

There are lots more dogs at Oasis, and every single one provides another reason for me to put up with the early alarm, and the joyful need to scoop little piles of steaming !#*% for a couple of blessed mornings each week.

November 8, 2013

A Strange Courage

Working with color is a challenge for me--one I confronted head on in my latest drawing...

El Hombre

It's a strange courage 
you give me ancient star:
Shine alone in the sunrise
toward which you lend no part!  

    ~William Carlos Williams 
   from his collection, "Al Que Quiere!"

I stumbled upon this poem while idly browsing the web a few months ago, and liked it enough to bookmark the page for later reference. Upon reading it again late last week, an image began to take shape in my mind. Things seemed easy enough starting from my comfortable home-base of black and white, but I realized early on that the piece would eventually require a more ambitious exploration of bright color.

As a kid I remember hearing somewhere--don't know where at this point--that in order to master color, an artist first needed to master black and white. It was a reassuring thought as I delved even deeper into my emerging preference for stark contrast, crisp lines, and austere form..."I'll get really good at black and white and then...just imagine the possibilities!" Maybe I got too comfortable. These days, if I use color at all, it's generally one shade, maybe two, and used without much nuance, blend, or shading--bold areas of color that mirror the distinction of their equally unambiguous frame.

 For El Hombre I envisioned a sort of middle road. I knew I needed a lot of color, but wanted to avoid ruining things with a sad attempt at shading or gradation. I just don't have that skill at the moment. I resolved instead to select a limited palette and apply it in big blocks--more in the style of mosaic or stained glass than a pencil drawing.

I'm more or less satisfied with the result...though I can't help but cringe just a little at its brightness whenever I look at it. It's like I'm practicing really loud excerpts on my trumpet and just KNOW that the neighbors are about to pound the door down with threatening expletives.

October 13, 2013

Full Moon Glare

A few weeks ago I stepped out onto my front porch and watched the full moon shine out from behind bands of rolling clouds. Because of an optical effect caused by my glasses, long glaring beams seemed to radiate from the moon's face and spread out over the sky like a ghostly flower. Though the thick clouds proved impenetrable to the moon's reflected brilliance, their edges still shone with feathered silver. This image stuck in my mind, and provided the inspiration for my latest astronomical abstract...

Here are some "in-process" shots (please forgive the TERRIBLE quality of the photographs)...

And a slightly zoomed in view of the moon...

...and the signature I remembered to add later...only after I took the photos above...oops.

Finishing an artwork always leaves me with mixed feelings. On the one hand, it's nice to have something that feels more or less "complete." But on the other, now I've just got another blank canvas taunting me from the sidelines.

So what's next?

September 19, 2013

Cutting into Copper

Some of you may remember that one of the things I loved most about my time in Evanston was its proximity to the lake shore. I became all but obsessed with making it to the beach in time for sunrise every day and was rewarded by witnessing a panoply of the most stunning vistas imaginable. Coming from Salt Lake City--a valley edged in by mountains--I wasn't used to seeing the sun break above a flat horizon. From this vantage, sunlight travels through a substantial amount of atmosphere and is scattered into displays of brilliant color that often change from minute to minute...the deepest reds, purples, and yellows thickening one moment and then vanishing the next. 

Each morning brought new surprises... 

...especially as temperatures dropped and the water began to freeze. Though one of my biggest worries before moving to the Windy City was its legendarily harsh winter, the excitement of observing lake ice actually made me jump up and down whenever sub-zero temperatures were in the forecast...

Don't worry, there is a reason for my nostalgic indulgence.

About a month ago Rob and I were wandering through the Ginko Gallery, a local art shop and studio, and I was startled to see among a stack of random art supplies...a whole sheet of bright new COPPER! I hadn't found an opportunity to exercise my engraving muscles in quite some time, and visions of ornately scrolling designs instantly began sparking through my imagination. I asked the cashier whether this was something they regularly stocked, but apparently it was kind of a one off.
My lucky day!!!

We bought it right away. 

The 6 x 12 inch sheet, prepared and cut by Chicago based K&S Engineering, sat on my desk for a few weeks as I allowed ideas to bubble and churn. A concrete vision finally took shape for me this morning, and I spent some time today experimenting with materials in preparation for the real thing.

At the very least I first had to make sure I could still handle a graver. There is no eraser for engraving. Every line is as permanent as a tattoo. It would be so PERFECT if I started in on my masterpiece and instead just scratched the whole thing up. Fortunately, I still had an old battered piece of copper I'd picked up from a machine shop at NU...perfect for practicing! Then I gathered up my sharpies (yep, that's right...even on the copper), scrounged around for some old nail polish (I know...this is getting a little ridiculous...and by the way what am I doing with such a crazy shade of RED in my collection...I'll just let you wonder:), and finally started in.

My creative mood was helped along by a playlist of "drawing music" that included Dawn of Midi's new release "Dysnomia," and LaMonte Young's "Well Tuned Piano."  I'd only made it through the first two and a half hours of the second selection when my project was complete.

I haven't decided on a name for it yet, but the scene clearly references my morning trips to Lake Michigan's western shore. I'm planning on elaborating upon this idea in the future, and might decide on a title for the series then.

Here are some up close views. One thing I've always loved about engraving is how it shimmers with every change of light...

To help preserve the copper's ruddy sheen, I lacquered over the top of the whole thing with two coats of clear polish. I eventually hope to mount the piece, but at the moment its dimensions are 6 x 12 inches.

September 10, 2013

First Quarter Moon

The Half Moon 
The half moon shows a face of plaintive sweetness
Ready and poised to wax or wane;
A fire of pale desire in incompleteness,
Tending to pleasure or to pain:--
Lo, while we gaze she rolleth on in fleetness
To perfect loss or perfect gain. 
Half bitterness we know, we know half sweetness;
This world is all on wax, on wane:
When shall completeness round time's incompleteness,
Fulfilling joy, fulfilling pain?
Lo, while we ask, life rolleth on in fleetness
To finished loss or finished gain.  
Christina Rossetti
It is impossible to deduce whether the half moon to which Ms. Rossetti refers in this poem is in its first or last quarter. And that's probably the point. Such ambiguity lends itself well to a metaphor of life's inevitable ups and downs, and our human inclination (whether chosen or fated) to view our changing lot as either half-empty, or half-full.

I'd venture a guess that most people today wouldn't be able to tell the difference between a first and last quarter moon. Up until a few years ago I certainly couldn't. Like most, I'd look up from time to time, notice a pale moon...maybe hanging out in the afternoon sky...and think, "Huh...there's the" And that would be about it. Of course it doesn't take a whole lot more observation before you pick out a pattern or two. And then there are helpful tricks that can save you in a pinch. "DOC" is my favorite: A waxing "D" progresses to a full "O" moon, and then slowly shrinks away into a waning "C." Of course, the pattern is reversed for southern hemisphere observers. Fortunately "COD" is a word in either least in English.

The first quarter moon is a lovely sight. With its eastern edge illuminated and the terminator running straight down the middle of its face, a telescope or pair of binoculars will reveal the shadows of great mountain ranges spilling out over vast crater-pocked lava planes. Though my latest astronomy themed drawing interprets the lunar landscape with a good deal of artistic license, I did try to reference real features made visible at first quarter.

The Sea of Rains (Mare Imbrium) is the central focus. Framing some prominent craters (Archimedes, Aristillus, Autolycus, and Cassini), this ancient volcanic plain is edged from south to north by the Appenine and Caucasus mountains and capped by an "Alpine Valley" (admittedly exaggerated in my depiction). The northern Mare Frigoris (Sea of Cold) bleeds around Aristotle's crater and into the lakes of Death and Dreams, finally bringing the eye to rest on a Sea of Serenity at lower right. Forgive my wordy indulgence here. It's easy to get carried away by such tantalizing names. Exploring the lunar surface can feel like wandering through a poem.

September 8, 2013

A Morning Walk

On advice from an informed neighbor, I altered the course of my walk this morning to incorporate a network of wood-chipped trails that surround Oberlin College's large solar power array. These well-maintained paths trek northwest of campus and lead back into a serene area of woods and meadow...meandering back forth and around a stately field of tracking solar panels.

I was already somewhat aware of the solar array (had previously caught glimpses of it way out behind some houses while exploring the neighborhood one day), but had assumed the land surrounding it was private property or otherwise off limits. Thank goodness for friendly neighbors. Without their well timed advice, I might never have seen these luscious golden fields.

I'm such a junkie for big beautiful vistas...vast quiet spaces that provoke a sense of wonder...

...and nearly always harbor lovely surprises if you take the time to look closely.

Alien shapes hidden away in an otherwise conventional lawn...

...and painterly eruptions of color...

Even things that usually inspire a disgusted cringe can reveal luscious geometries...

...fantastical interiors...

...and spritely keepers that carefully patrol their furrowed refuge...

...glinting like emerald in the sunlight.

September 2, 2013


I know enough about memory to know that it's imperfect, sporadic...that we fill in the stories of our lives with details of feeling, thought, and imagery, so that their "final" version fits well within our evolving sense of who we are...where we came from...where we are going. Though we often believe otherwise, recollections of lived experience are often fraught with fantasy: imagined facts that serve to reinforce and even enhance the personal Truths to which we cling.

As I was looking through an old box of photos this morning, I came across an image of what I still remember as one of the most beautiful moments of my life. During fall break 1999--in the first days of my first romantic relationship--I visited the Grand Canyon for the first time in my life. We'd driven through Zion National Park on the previous day, and then headed down to the Canyon's North Rim, arriving late in the afternoon with just enough time to take a first look over the edge before finding a campsite in the surrounding woods.

In contrast to the typical hubbub that is unavoidable at the more-visited South Rim, our spot on the North was all but deserted. I remember driving  down through the Kaibab National Forest listening to Strauss' Alpine Symphony...light filtered through stands of evergreens...and then sitting together at the edge of an immense chasm...furrowed ridges bathed in amber. "Wouldn't this make a great spot for a first kiss?" he coaxed. I flushed with youthful yearning, but still balked, far too shy to accept.

A picture then...

Standing alone atop the unguarded rim, my body seethed with awe and vertigo and the thrill of everything the moment seemed to promise. With feet braced to stone, I threw my hands to the sky, and the camera clicked...

The film was developed later, probably just down the hill at our local Albertson's Grocery, and came back mostly blank and overexposed (Ahhh...the days before digital!). Fortunately, this shot survived...just barely.

That relationship didn't last long...a couple of months, and then he suggested we just go back to being friends...which we did. I went off to Juilliard the following year. Loved the city. Missed the mountains. Life went on. I came back to Salt Lake, got a job, bought a condo, played my trumpet, quit my job, sold the condo, went back to grad school, and then followed Rob to Oberlin, where I'm now working to re-build and perhaps discover anew which parts of myself are most important.

In the face of unforgiving realities, ecstatic moments like the one in this photo burn all the more strongly in memory. I think of the great things I achieved in the ensuing years...the unforgettable experiences I never would have predicted for myself...all of which feel inevitably and imminently alive within this photo. I also lament what I've lately perceived as a precipitous fall from what was to be my promising future.

Of course I know how imperfect a summary this memory has become. In the same way I sometimes forget to acknowledge the good things in my life today, I know I semi-consciously edit out (or at least downplay) many of the disappointments that occurred alongside the past successes I so desperately cling to. In fact, it's likely that if I were to go back and talk to my former self, she'd admit to feeling the same insecurity, fear, and sense of defeat that I do today, while totally blind to the enchantment I now so strongly recollect.

What I know ties us together, is the desire to live a life full of creativity and adventure. I want to be healthy so my body will be able to carry me to the tops of mountains and still feel pleasure at the exertion, and my mind will remain curious and interested and seeking. I want to maintain high standards in my work...whatever it may strive for achievement and be able to take pride in accomplishment. I want to work with persistence and honesty so that my leisure is restful. And I want to take every opportunity to be out in the world. To experience it firsthand. To hear live music, breathe out across the open space of wilderness, and see the stars with my own eyes.

As generalized and cliché as this all may be, I believe it is still the essence of the story I aspire to create for myself...the autobiography I hope to reconstruct from a highly imperfect memory of lived experience.

August 29, 2013

Going to the Moon

I've been thinking a lot about the moon lately. The full moon was last week. I've been planning two upcoming moon-centered programs with a naturalist at the Wellington Reservation: one in November about observing the first-quarter moon, and one in December about observing under a new-moon sky (so that one's really about the absence of the moon...but still). I went to the library and checked out a stack of books dealing with lunar observation, mythology, exploration...and one that asks the question "What if there were two moons in our sky?" 

A couple nights ago I watched a charming documentary, Lunarcy, that profiles various moon enthusiasts operating on the fringes. One character that stood out in particular to me was Christopher Carson: a man obsessed with mounting a grass-roots effort to colonize the moon. Perhaps his ideas are a bit outside the norm, but I confess that I was still inspired by his resolve, persistence, and unfailing hope in the face of monumental challenges. Toward the end of the documentary, Carson is given the opportunity to meet Alan Bean, a former astronaut turned painter, and one of his special heroes.

Here is how the scene plays out.
Carson (driving a car): Today, I am heading over to have a little chat with the great Alan Bean. The path that he took to get to the moon is not anything like the path I'm taking, and it's not a path which is open to me....Alan is kind of interesting because in a sense here's one guy from my town who went to the how many more?  
In Bean's Studio: Carson: You can't accomplish anything just by talking about it, you've gotta go out there and get actual experience. 
Bean: You do. If something's gonna happen, people are gonna hafta actually do it. 
Carson: I suppose the question is, do you have any advice for another hometown boy who never thought of himself as being the most special person in the world, but really would like to do those great things? If you have anything, you know, you could suggest...? 
Bean: Well, I can suggest that moving history forward, which is what you're talking about, a very worthy endeavor, is difficult. Don't lose your spirit. And you've gotta get other people. And all of you working together MAY be able to achieve the dream you're talking about.  
Carson: Well, Thank you! Thank you... 
Carson (speaking excitedly soon after his visit): Every time I have contact with somebody who really has done these things, it serves, I guess, as a kind of a pick-me-up, or a booster...or just a reminder, you know, that this is not (as one in the dark of the night thinks) "is this really just a dream, is this really just a fantasy, is this truly realistic?" And I can say "NO! Look! This guy! Right here! This guy who's got his arm around my shoulder. This is a guy who's actually gone...Clop, Clop, Clop, ACROSS THE SURFACE OF THE MOON! SO, if somebody says, "Oh, that's crazy." What crazy?! What crazy?! It's not crazy. It's as real as the living flesh of the man who's hand I am shaking." 
So when you think about it, the moon, once a symbol of the utterly unattainable...of the pie-in-the-sky impossible dreams that we can only reach for and miss...might now most reasonably serve as a symbol of what IS possible...the pie-in-the-sky we could actually touch, and taste, and feel under our moon boots as we bound across its surface at a fraction of our Earthly weight.

Well...I don't know if I'll actually ever be so lucky. But some have been. And who's to say that Carson, and others like him, won't make it either? 

Anyway. As I said at the beginning of this post: I've been thinking a lot about the moon lately...and so I made this collage...

As with my last one, it's assembled from torn pieces of black construction paper, spattered and brushed with varying levels of white paint. I've enjoyed exploring this new (for me) mode of creativity. My past work hasn't always had such a prominent textural aspect. I almost feel I could come in for a landing on this surface...