Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Stories hidden in the wood...

...not "the wood" in the sense of "into the woods," but the way a memory is triggered, full-blown, complete with scents, sounds, touch, sight...

We sat companionably in the shed last night and suddenly my eye was caught by a piece of oak that has been on my desk since we built the shed--and before that, in a place of honor among my treasures in the dining room--and before that, on a shelf at our old farmhouse.

I remembered that rounded end used to glow with a deep shine; I felt the need to rub it until it shone once again. 

And like Aladdin's lamp, the genie of memory was called forth.


When we lived on the farm, back in the 70s, my then-husband Harris and I cut wood for fuel.  We also had propane, but it was not adequate for our tiny 140-year-old log house, and the cats' water would freeze on the floor.  So would our feet!  We supplemented with a woodstove and a vintage cookstove in the kitchen, and that meant cutting a lot of wood.

We preferred to cut deadwood, already seasoned and ready to burn, so we constantly kept our eyes open for possibilities.  I think we amused some of our longtime REAL-farmer neighbors when we'd ask if we could cut this or that old snag, but they always graciously allowed the greenhorns to do what they needed to, to survive.

This wintry day we climbed a barb-wire fence into an unused pasture with the tumbled remains of another log cabin on it, a frontier homestead long abandoned, fallen in on itself.  The tree that had once shaded those ghostly inhabitants had long since succumbed to age or lightning or wind, and lay reaching toward the road with broken, bare branches. Perfect firewood, that aged oak.

My Ichabod-Crane husband plied the roaring chain saw while I split and carried wood to our undependable old Chevy truck...and then I noticed the rounded end of one of those branches.  It shone with a rich polish, smoothed by years of cattle rubbing against it to ease an itch; it looked as though it had been sanded and rubbed with tung oil for generations.

At my request, my bemused spouse cut that end off for me and I carried it home, separate from the more mundane firewood--the rest of the wood burned merrily in our stoves, but that little piece has traveled with me down the decades, from house to house and life to life.

And polishing it again to restore its glow, I can still smell the aroma of cattle, the prickle of frost in my nostrils, the scent of my own woodsmoke on a snowy day. 


Funny that it took me close to 40 years to sketch it.  While we lived on the farm, I did some of my favorite paintings--of my double-bitted axe, of the barn door, of the goats, the woodpile, the watering trough in a nearby field, and the colander full of just-hulled peas.  I painted  the hand scythe in the barn, the bright jars of tomatoes on the woodstove, Harris tilling the garden, myself carrying wood into the house. I painted the beloved little house itself.  I even painted Ern, our elderly neighbor, making sorghum and wreathed in sweet, fragrant steam.

Winter Crow
Hand Scythe

Old Ern

But this homely bit of magic in its place of honor on my desk is what called up the memory of that one icy afternoon, in all its amazing detail. 

That's the magic of art.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Apparently I have a lot to say...

...I have 7 partial posts in the pipeline now...on issues of work and creativity, what encourages creativity and what kills it (for me, anyway), memory, simplifying, finding our own true path and more.

Whatever bubbles to the top first is what will appear here!

It's been good for me.  I need the balance.  I love putting words together, I love writing, I love THINKING, and I am doing so, here, with a passion!

I hope you'll continue to visit...

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Routine and Sacred Ritual...

...where is the boundary line?  How does one become the other?  How is it that something that seems so ordinary can become sacred to us?  And why, sometimes, does ritual--even the sacred--become routine, even boring?

I suspect, in my case at any rate, that it has to do with mindfulness.  Paying attention.  And with gratitude.

Our morning Dayspring--stepping outside to greet each new day, whatever the weather--is sacred ritual.  It feels good. I pay attention. I notice more.  I am ready.

I enjoy the small things.  I like chopping vegetables--for a tagine, a stir-fry, soup, whatever.  I like my old oak cutting board, stained with the rich patina of a thousand meals, and the knife that Joseph fashioned from a bone-handled 19th C. table knife.  It is sharp, it is useful, and it is beautiful.  It does what it was created to do--and isn't that a wonderful thing?

I like the quiet silky zip of the knife as it cleaves a zucchini or pepper, the chunk of the blade hitting wood at the end of the stroke  I love the colors and shapes and textures and scents of the vegetables as they tumble together into the old kitchen bowl.

It's a homely, comforting ritual, for me.

I used to enjoy ironing the fair linens for church, when I was with the altar guild; the touch, the scent, the silky smoothness of linen pleased me inordinately.

I like folding clothes.  I even enjoy the quiet whish-whish of my old broom on hardwood floors--till my back begins to ache.

Entering my shed studio in the morning has elements of the sacred, as well.  I made a mezuzah-like creation that hangs by the door that I remember to touch each morning with gratitude and attention.  It's made up of things that are meaningful to me, mounted on a piece of wood found in the yard--the comforting, eternal aspect of rocks and fossils, a spiral given to me by my late mother-in-law--I do love my spirals!--a tiny sterling sun-face, a crystal...

Below it hangs a tiny glass vial with tightly rolled scriptures, particular favorites of mine.

And yes, of course, one is from the magnificent Job 38.

Tea can be a very personal ritual, as can writing in my journal, or preparing to begin my work.

And of course, drawing can become meditative, contemplative, as I did in the drawing at the top of the page, or even the slow, careful drawing of a piece of our ancient plumbing, below.  We focus on something outside of ourselves, something other.  I can lose all track of time. (So much of our lives is on fast-forward, as if multi-tasking really accomplished much besides inattention--and tension!  Slowing down to draw--or to pay full attention to anything--is antidote to that scattered, harried, White-Rabbit state.)

My brother-in-law reminds me about walking meditation--and I find that when I walk mindfully, paying attention to the feel of my feet on the earth and the air on my skin and the coming and going of my breath, my knees don't hurt as much.

My life has a great deal of sweet routine, and I love it that way.  I've worked consciously to create those routines, and they are important to me.  Comforting.  (I try not to border on OCD, but hey...I DO like my colored pencils in a certain order, points up, in their box...)

When I rush through life without paying attention, when I'm thinking of ten things at once, when I resent what I'm doing and wish, oh, I WISH I were finished--then ritual is out the window and my beloved routine becomes truly routine.  Boring.  

And I must, on occasion, remind myself that "routine" is not the same as "rigid"...I try not to trap myself, or get anxious if the routine must vary from time to time.  It just does.  It's all right.  What is happening in this moment is all right, if I truly pay attention, if I honor it as this particular moment in time.  It's my life.  It's unique.  It won't return.  You really can't step in the same river twice.

And yes, you CAN teach an old dog new tricks.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Pulling on a Thread...a different look at social media

...and how we get to where we are in our lives.

Granted social media takes too much of my time, though not as much as it does for some others.  I've manfully (womanfully?) resisted Twitter, Instagram and a number of other communication options.  I took a different look at the 'net recently, in this post.

It IS interesting to think what a difference social media and the Internet have made in our lives.

I know my distant relatives much better than I once did, and treasure the contact.  My dear Jenny Hearn is even more precious to me than ever, and I love knowing what my godchildren are doing. I stay in touch with old friends, too, and get to see photos and even videos of their lives, as well as sharing my own.  I treasure that as well.

I am making most of my living with online classes and eBooks, now--15-20 years ago and more, that was not the case--the option didn't even exist.  I mostly wrote books, freelanced for magazines, and did in-person workshops, which latter are stressful and exhausting.  (Actually so is freelancing, and many of the magazines I worked for have disappeared in any case.)

(Needless to say, this working online option is wonderful for an introvert of "a certain age."  I can teach in my nightgown with a cup of coffee to hand, if I wish, and no dragging art supplies and suitcases through airports!)

My life online started, originally, with email, which I "didn't need."  Saw no point in it...but a friend talked me into it.

And I am endlessly grateful. (Thank you, Don Dickerson...)

Shortly after that I got involved with several online discussion groups--reenactors, history groups, historical costuming, art, photoshop...and ended up running the very big Revlist for Revolutionary War reenactors for almost 10 years.  (Great practice for learning communication skills, mediating, and calming troubled waters, those folks were PASSIONATE and often at cross-purposes.)

Revlist was a trip...and it's where I met my now-husband, Joseph.  I invited a number of clear-headed people to be my advisory board to help deal with the traffic on the list, incivility, sticky questions, and so forth; he was one of the best!  We struck up a friendship offlist, and the rest really IS history.

The involvement with reenacting spun off into Graphics/Fine Arts Press, where I've written, illustrated, and published a number of books of interest to reenactors, docents, museums and more (including one by my knight and partner in life, Joseph Ruckman, Recreating the American Longhunter.)

I was invited to join an eBay consortium, another Yahoo group, by my dear friend MaryAnn Harris, artist, editor, and delightful wife of one of my favorite writers, Charles DeLint,  and was very much involved in selling there (which I still do, though not with such frequency. Look for katestreasures!)  I remain friends with many of the people in that group...what an amazing gift, thank you MaryAnn!

My friends in the group told me they all had blogs and invited me to join them...so there I was, in the blogosphere.  I've met wonderful artists and writers here, and feel quite blessed and challenged by the experience.

I have several active art groups on Flickr...and belong to others...

I've taught online, on my own and in classes for Strathmore Papers and Danny Gregory's Sketchbook Skool, and I've taken classes as well...

...and then there was Facebook, where I've learned more about my beloved family than I ever could have imagined.  I joined, originally, to keep up with the godchildren...my, THAT certainly mushroomed...

So here I find myself...

...where I can teach without the stress and pain of travel or stage fright.

...where I can find answers to so many questions, large and small, and inspiration  and beauty and the assurance of our innate goodness, our humanity.

...where I can see my nephew Chris Busey's outstanding photos of the American West and my old friend Kevin Morgan's stunning pictures of our town.

...where I can see sketches and paintings from artists all over the world, and share my own.

...where we can plan my sister's memorial party or a family birthday celebration all of us on the same page.

...where I met the love of my life...

What if I had resisted that first email address...?

We are never allowed to know what might have been...but I find myself very, very grateful for where I AM.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Life's Little Ironies

Isn't it ironic that in search of simplicity--my ongoing Discardia and all--I seem to "need" more books about simplicity?  (Mind you, I have books on the subject I bought in the 1960s...and 70s...and...)

I am terribly tempted by "A Handmade Life: In Search of Simplicity"...and just got Breathing Room recently.  And glad I did.

And absolutely LOVING Andy Couturier's A Different Kind of Luxury:Japanese Lessons in Simple Living and Inner Abundance.

A lifelong interest in Japan, China, and India and other ancient cultures makes one that a natural...combined with the simplicity and creativity of the people in this book, I find myself drawn to ancient craftsmanship all over again.

Making tea on my little pottery majmar from Morocco, cooking in our tagine, binding books, culturing food, growing a garden, printing fabric, hand sewing, making my own art supplies...

And so, I am treating myself to reading breaks daily.  And find myself more and more inspired to get rid of excess Stuff.

Except books...

I am, however, going to be crowded out of house and home, and finding time to read all this is problematical.

Not to mention time to listen to my various meditation CDs...

Ironic.  Yes.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

TRUE obligations...mine, at any rate...

I have agreed to teach a class in Danny Gregory's Sketchbook Skool (and yes, my spellcheck cringes at that K in school, too) and some delightful people are signed up for it.  This is the third day of class and I am truly enjoying the interaction, the work, the responses and questions.

I am glad to finally be DOING it rather than preparing for it, which engaged my attention for months.

It is overwhelming, confusing, challenging and marvelous.

The platform we are using for the classes is much more complex than I'm used to, and I worry about missing questions directed to me (and as a reminder, there is a "Questions for Cathy" page at the end, and that's where I look, several times a day...otherwise I may not find a question.)

I do miss being able to hit a "like" button!  It would be nice if people knew I saw their comments without trying to comment on all of them, which is, in fact, just not possible.  I regret that reality, but there it is.  It would be nice to be able to reply to individual comments or questions, as you can on YouTube...but it is what it is, and with a class of thousands, it works amazingly well.

Interestingly, I ran out of time to do the one lesson I really felt closest to, finding a Heart Home...but that can be another day, another class all my own.

My obligation, in this case, is to the students who signed up for the course, and specifically to those dear people who are working through my week.  I do care, even if I can't keep up, or respond fully.  Time and age conspire to prevent that!

And I take time to remember that my other true and ongoing, eternal obligations are to God, to spirit, to my husband and our cats, to nature, to life, and to creativity itself.  Those things will be here long after Klass is over, and for that I am beyond grateful.  They don't feel like obligations, they are joy itself.  Gifts, pure and simple.

The gratitude list above--one of many in my journals--attests to that!

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Thoughts on Social Media...is it the new workaholic's trap?

Does blogging or sharing or putting things up on Facebook or Flickr or Yahoogroups or Instagram or Pinterest (the latter two of which I DON'T) become an obligation rather than a pleasure?  Do we become addicted to our "likes" and comments?

I journal for me, because I need to.  Response, exploration, celebration, learning, coping...

But scanning, tweaking, editing, uploading, and so forth, becomes, let's face it, a chore.  Several of my blogging artist friends and I have talked about that--and some have wisely cut way back or virtually disappeared altogether, at least in that format.

If I am not mis-remembering, even Duane Keiser, the father of the Painting a Day concept, eventually found he needed to simplify, to step back, to take his time.  To do larger works, and not be under quite so much outside pressure.

Living, creating, sharing online can indeed be a trap--a silken one, but a trap.  Creativity crack.  (And yes of COURSE I look to see if someone has commented, and what they said, and...I have an addictive personality, I'll admit it!)

People apologize for not posting--as if this were a promise we had broken, a job we'd fallen down on, an obligation unmet.  It's not.

What is important is that we create.  It is that which we have in common with the Creator.  It's what we owe ourselves.  We are given a great gift--whether we create a painting, a book, a good dinner, a garden, a piece of music, a decent life, order out of chaos.  We create.

And while sharing it can encourage others, and yes, it can be fun and gratifying and even edifying, it is not our job.  Imagining it an obligation and apologizing for our "failure" turns it into work and sucks the joy out of it.

Don't do that.

I'm trying not to.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Life, Creativity and Work

I'm a self-employed artist, a freelancer and have been for 30+ years--and I've discovered over those years a sometimes deadening tendency to turn almost anything creative into Work.  Not just painting or writing--but pottery, jewelry making, sewing, cooking, you name it.  Being broke for a substantial period of time has a tendency to do that to you.

I will admit that I'm a lousy employee.  I got fired from my first real job--after 8 months that had to be almost as miserable for them as it was for me!  I didn't fit in well...and I have almost no patience with make-work, arbitrary rules, or, face it, office politics.  Not just at that first job, but my subsequent ones as well.  Self-employment was a godsend!  It's tough, sometimes (thank God the 14-hour-days seem to be relegated to my past!), but at least I have no one to blame but myself for my slave-driver "boss."

Mind you, I have to work; it's part of me.  Bills must be paid, and although that is considerably easier than it was after my first husband died in 1997 without retirement or savings, still...I feel the need to work.  It's good for the soul.  I need to feel that I'm contributing--and that I have that freedom of choice.  I am independent, and it feels good.  Productive.

My beloved husband Joseph takes wonderful care of our finances now, and I will admit it IS a relief not to feel the need to say yes to every single opportunity that comes down the pike.

A HUGE relief. 

But still I do have to watch myself and my tendency to take on too much, to spread myself too thin, to say yes to things that really aren't me (I'm getting better with that one, and learning all the time!)  I have to make sure that at least some of my art (all right, most of it, in my journal) is simply response to my life.  Expressing my own personal vision.  Recording and responding and paying my respects to this gift I've been given--this Life.

I say that a lot to other people, because it's important to me.  To any artist.

And two of my favorite books reinforce that need, that truth--Nick Meglin's wonderful classic Drawing From Within, and a newer book by Mary Whyte, An Artist's Way of Seeing.  Neither are how-to books.  Both are pure inspiration, treatises on seeing and responding authentically, through the lens of our own experience.  Neither tell how to deal with perspective, what color to use for that distant hill, what brush or pen or magic pencil or brand of pigment to buy.

Because truly, that's irrelevant.  Basically, really, it is.  We don't learn to really produce our own expressive art by copying someone else, or by following rules.  We may be stifled by those approaches, in fact!  There is no magic tool...beyond your own soul, your own artist's eye, your discerning brain.  Your heart.

And no, I'm not saying anything goes.  I am saying I have to respond to my life.  That's why, when I write an art book or teach a class, I MUCH prefer to say "I chose this color because it expressed what I was after. I love a big juicy brush. I decided I wanted to change this or that..." instead of take this brush and dip in in that color and make this mark.  (Shoot me now!  Do not even SUGGEST I should say things like that.)

I like to encourage my students to respond to what they see or feel.  Choose a subject that speaks to them. Learn to really see.  And see the why, as well.  Why do we respond the way we do, why does that scene speak to us, why do we suddenly see the way the light bounces off that bird's wing, or the lavender or jade in that shadow?  Why do we notice some small thing that someone else might overlook?  What does it remind us of?  Why does it elicit an emotional response, and just what IS that response? 

Really, what else is even worth painting?  Dear God I hate to give assignments, yes I do.

And you know what else? I don't give a rat's patoot what the Color of the Year is.  I don't care what's selling in NY or Taos.  Those things aren't me, and there's no way I could paint them authentically.  Any works I'd produce under those circumstances might be technically adequate, but they'd be soulless.

Frankly, I'm too old for that.  Time's too short.  I'm going to live, thank you very much!


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