Artist and naturalist Michelle Louis has a vigorous curiosity about the natural world. Her abstract landscape paintings document life, well-spent, in wild places.
©2019 Michelle Louis All rights reserved. Content and images are property of the artist.
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We all live with and depend upon the land, whether consciously, or mindlessly. I am curious about how I experience the land that surrounds me, how I feel it deep in my bones, how to express that relationship, and what I can learn from it.
Thanks to the land that sustains us, and to you for encouraging my explorations! Your kind words, likes, thoughtful critiques, and support mean the world to me.
It is not from ourselves that we learn to be better than we are.
See details from, Invisible Trails (Perception), here.
See details from, A Wild Delight, here.
See details from, Between Seasons, here.
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The calendar says it's late fall. Our first accumulating snowfall is expected tonight. I've put the gardens to bed, stowed the lawn mower, and located our bird feeders and snow shovels. On the surface, you'd think I'm gearing up for a cold, northern winter.
But that's not the whole truth. A chance, mind-blowing encounter with many thousands of monarchs, migrating through my own backyard in southern Wisconsin, still has me reeling a month later. I've never seen such a thing in all my years. I can't get it out of my head. What serendipity, being outside in the right place at the right moment. I am humbled and grateful.
Not usually given to representational work, these are a couple from my series called, "Fluttering Sky."
Update: Mother Nature brought us our first snowfall, as predicted, last night. It's gorgeous. And about a month earlier than average. Goodbye, butterflies!
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The Art World. Smart. Edgy. Elite. Select, successful talents exhibiting world-as-we-know-it-is-over kind of stuff. Who's hot? Who's not? Why? So much to respond to. And I appreciate that work.
But it's not my work. My work is anti-that. Standing in front of a big, blank canvas, silencing the stream of information, distraction, judgment, messaging, and tasking, just to see what happens, is my thing. Unplanned, spontaneous tapping of the well-spring. Trying to make something from as absolutely nothing as possible. Painting a picture made of unregistered experience, immediately unrecognizable as anything in particular. Attainment is variable.
To be honest, working this way sometimes feels un-American. I hear the anthems–How many paintings have you sold? What are you trying to say? How does it contribute to the Contemporary Art Conversation? I note self-doubt, guilt, and limits creep in just thinking about it. Shut up, already, you muse-slayers.
What I know is that for me, cultivating process over outcome is worth it. On that indeterminate, earthy trail, I encounter patterns, forms, and thoughts that are truer, deeper, and richer–the things that foster perseverance. And perseverance, not any single piece, or judgment, is what measures success. Anyone can make art, but will you do it again? And again? And again?
5 Steps to Becoming a Successful Artist
1. Take a risk.
2. Make something you want to see/experience.
3. Go ahead, be vulnerable and share it.
4. Listen, but don't obsess over response.
See additional views and details for the above painting,
Invisible Trails (Bee & Flower, Pink & Red) here.
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Honestly, I get all emotional walking through acres of restored prairie in late August. It's that plaintive, wistful feeling that comes from life bumping into skin bruised by grief and yet touched by grace. That longing that doesn't even know what it wants, but longs for it anyway.
Prairie speaks to me. I like to listen.
Cicadas buzz. Bluebirds gather. Unhappy to have her nut-burying extravaganza interrupted, a flustered squirrel is scolding my pup from the upper branches of an old oak.
July's peak wildflower explosion of colors is over. Now yellow runs the show. Silphium and Big bluestem tower overhead, dripping cool morning dew onto my face as I brush past. Red is just beginning to touch the leaves of the sumac.
Even though I'm not ready for summer's end, I can feel it coming. Here in this prairie, I can breathe deeply and give it a grateful and reverent goodbye.
Only a teeny, tiny fraction of our original, native prairies remain. Once the dominant ecosystem here, isolated remnants can still be found near old cemeteries, along roadsides and railroad tracks, and on steep bluffs, where accessibility, and plowing, is difficult.
The good news is–prairie restoration. Local, state, and federal governments, schools, businesses, and homeowners have been planting native prairie species and working to create larger prairie ecosystems. These prairies provide food and shelter for native insects, mammals, reptiles and amphibians. And the good medicine of solace and respite to humans spending time wandering and tending them.
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“Deep summer is when laziness finds respectability” – Sam Keen
Scent of clover rises as I tickle my way, barefoot, toward the garden.
Time-keeper cicada initiates a drawn out, mid-afternoon buzz, beginning the chorus.
Red Admiral butterflies float and flutter.
Long firefly evenings.
Lawn mowers. Mosquitoes. Construction zones. Dog sprayed by mulberry-gorged skunk.
In summer's humidity, paint dries more slowly. Lines are looser. Colors melt and flow. Or not. Cool concrete floor. Weeds and grasses so tall the studio window is barricaded in green.
Deep summer. Time to slow. Just sit and watch that tomato ripen.
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The summer solstice marks summer's longest day. In Wisconsin, that means 15 hours and 22 minutes of daylight this June 21st. Nordic myth has it that dew gathered on Midsummer Day, June 24th, brings youth to aching bones and aging bodies. Since ancient times, people in northern regions celebrate this time of year by enjoying the season's first strawberries. I celebrate with a breakfast of fresh-picked strawberries and a walk in the dewy wild.
In woods and hedges, thick tangles of green hide legions of eyes, young and old. Leaves and scented blooms twine up and up, to a sky full of floating and flying things. Mingled roots burrow deeper and deeper in search of nutrients and water. Walking in the woods, lost in profusion and plenty and opulence, thought finally stops.
Within the abundance of wild-living things, it is possible to become absorbed. Not absorbed in the sense of being mentally occupied and focused. Not communing in meditative oneness. Literally absorbed, in the sense of being drawn in, swallowed up, ingested by the wholeness of the visible and invisible world. Disappeared. A heart pumps, but it's no one's and the trees breathe–unyielding, devoted, and undaunted these longest days of summer.
"Summertime," detail views and purchase information here.
Price includes shipping.
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After a long winter's wait, my homemade sauerkraut and Wisconsin-made, Swiss cheese sandwich is piled with dandelion greens and garnished with violets foraged from our lawn. Yum. Along with our violet-ish lawn, bees buzz the daffodils and scilla, robins fill their bellies with emerging earthworms, and young squirrels are practically giddy with the abundance they've discovered their first spring.
Ground barely thawed, pesticide trucks started cruising our neighborhood a couple of weeks ago. I cringe every time I see one. It's hard to understand why people still spray so much poison in their yards. Disheartening—and stinky. Trying not to dwell on it, perhaps the most effective therapy is to thank those kind, bright folks who strive to avoid the stuff. Compliments and thanks doled out generously when dandelions are blooming go a long way.
In other yard news: we picked up a little electric lawnmower after our old gas push mower died its final death, my peas and beets are planted, and the arugula has sprouted. Simple things bring such cheer.
In the studio, things are buzzing too. You can see by the photo above—spring fever hit me hard. Wild painting, "Sunjoy," flew from my brain and fingers, taking me by surprise. I love its spunky, mod feel. And that our equally wild one-year-old pup was willing to sit still for a photo makes it doubly surprising! The two large paintings below are from the "Spoken" series I've been working on.
Here's to a simple and delicious spring!
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What a month! Here it is in 16 photos:
OUTSIDE MY DOOR--
AT THE OX CART PARADE--
AT THE LOCAL MARKET--
IN THE STUDIO--
Can't wait until next year!!
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Late February- the snow is deep and getting deeper. The past month brought sub-zero temperatures, blizzards, ice storms, rain, and even thundersnow. It's not over yet. Our patience and fortitude are being tested. They will be tested again when February's record-breaking snows melt and waterways rise.
Subtle signs that spring is tiptoeing our way are here- robins swooping in to finish off remaining high bush cranberries and crabapples, cardinals and finches singing their spring songs, and the woods have ever-the-slightest rose and yellow edge, indicating sap is beginning to rise. In the north, we understand that nature means change, even when it's not as swift as we'd hope.
The intersection of nature's reality and human imagination is seductive. The human mind believes in possibility, potential, and self-determination. Our behaviors, though, as those in all of nature, seem to follow predictable patterns. Discovering these patterns and how we, as part of nature, affect and interact with them is the life work of artists and musicians and scientists, nature lovers, engineers, and problem solvers of all kinds.
It surprises me to look back on photos I took on the trail during the time I was painting a particular canvas. Though the paintings are abstract and entirely unplanned, the canvases and photos evoke similar feelings in me, especially with the understanding that each painting is five feet wide and four feet high.
I believe the colors and marks that exit the end of my brush are a way of documenting Nature's complexity- data imbued with the power of revelation. When it's going well, paint barely clings to brush. It enters a swirl of color, pattern and form that records experience, maybe even thought, in a way as real as the brush in my hand- someone just needs to untangle the patterns to discover the algorithm.
In the meantime, I'm surely ready for a tranquil spring. How about you?
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Have you ever wondered what it means to see? Not the physical act that occurs via the optic nerve, but the seeing that, as artists, we are so keen to attain. In his classic 1972 text, Ways of Seeing, John Berger says, "It is seeing that establishes our place in the surrounding world." He continues, "The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled." It's the "never settled" part that pretty much sums it up for me.
Creative people achieve seeing in infinite ways. For me, it means de-cluttering the mind and unfocusing to take in the big picture- not just in the studio, but anywhere. I see by observing, futzing around, and by asking simple questions of myself and others- Why is it put together like that? What makes it work? or Why isn't it working? How is it connected to other things? Is it part of a pattern? How might it feel? How do I feel about it? Why? What is the evidence? What is my responsibility to it? What happens if I take this action? How does it change? How do I change?
Note to self: When you're defensively certain about something, chances are good you're probably not really seeing. More questions! More experiments! Don't be afraid to mess up!
In the studio, because I work with no fixed subject, and not from drawings or sketches, a large chunk of my time is spent looking and thinking- what's next? If you were peering in on me, you'd think, "What on earth is she doing? How long can she stand there, staring at those blobs?!" The answer is- a long time, as long as it takes. Time inevitably leads to action. For me, the action of painting an oversized canvas is physical, immediate, and energetic, while the act of creation moves like a snail.
Seeing merges the visual with the emotional and intellectual to make something new. My own seeing improves in direct correlation to the questions I'm asking and my openness to experiment. I keep asking, processing, messing up, and making new things.
You can see "The Moon is Pink" along with some close ups here.
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Closing in on the winter solstice here in the north, It's getting darker and colder by the day. Lack of sun has me a little loopy, so I'm working to generate my own kind of light into the studio - a recent painting, Making Merry, acrylic on canvas, thirty-two square feet of color and movement gone wild. Where darkness lurks, every tiny ray of light needs reflection.
Speaking of reflection, active and rewarding are two words that come to mind when I think back on my work in the studio this year. Thank you for helping me continue to strengthen my art practice and business. Encouragement and advice, looking, sharing, purchasing my work, or reading this blog - it all matters. I sincerely appreciate your support.
Happy Holidays & Joyous New Year!
To see more of what's up in the studio-
please like or follow my Facebook art page, Michelle Louis Art and follow me on Instagram.
Secure, online purchase of selected paintings, prices include shipping, is available at Saatchi Art.
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The last glacial meltdown, leaving enduring footprints in a gentle rhythm of moraines, drumlins, and eskers, borders the Driftless Area in the place I call home. Untouched by glacial fingers, the Driftless' lack of grinding ice spared dramatic geological features- bluffs, caves, sinkholes and springs. It also contains the largest concentration of cold water streams in the world. About 85% of the entire Driftless Area is in Wisconsin.
The Ice Age National Scenic Trail marks the boundary of the Driftless Area with the last glacial expansion cycle known as the Wisconsin glaciation. It is a work-in-progress, spanning about 1,200 miles.
Living within minutes of several segments of the Ice Age Trail, part of the National Park System, is pure delight. What a privilege- exploring this Ice Age juncture- earth process writ both large and soft upon the land. I am grateful to be a part of it.
Life here creates an indelible print on us. As an artist and naturalist deeply connected to place, I paint to honor my heartland- not specific landscapes or thoughts, but to capture energetic and emotional qualities while stimulating a sense of awareness and connection. It's about what lies deep in the bones. It's about balance and composition. It's about affinity and courage and luck.
Uncovering and honoring vestigial connections with life here acknowledges kinship to the natural world and begins to reconcile ecology ungraciously altered. It says, I'm listening, I care, and I am doing something.
The paintings on this page, and others, are available online here.
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After a summer of near constant rains and unprecedented floods, the skies have finally cleared and it's glorious to see October bring vibrant, intense blue to the world overhead. In that wild blue yonder, shimmering milkweed seeds float and fly with hope for fertile landing.
I always feel like things change fast this month- the angle of light, the intensity of color, even the feel of the air goes from cottony-thick to crisp as the natural world prepares for dormancy here in the north. Strategies for surviving a long winter necessitate change and adjustment.
For now, though, I think I'll just enjoy watching our 7 month old pup fly through the leaves without mention of last week's brief, white-out snow squall. Happy Fall!
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Sorting through a box of memorabilia my mom kept was a long overdue, bittersweet task. She was only 47 when diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer that took her life 3 years later. I still miss her- my best friend- every day.
Artistic joy and challenge flowed from her to me- she was an accomplished and enthusiastic painter. I sometimes imagine us sharing a studio, playfully critiquing each other, and most of all, laughing together. An old newspaper clipping she saved caught my attention. The "intent little artist," circled in ballpoint by a proud mother, is me.
Some things never change and some never stop changing. Thanks, Mom. I love you.
You can see more current work available for purchase here.
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Our puppy is closing in on the 5 month milestone. We've completed 2 levels of puppy classes, receiving the "Family Dog Extraordinaire Award" which the certificate says signifies "an impressive level of canine cunning and homo sapiens smarts." Enter adolescence. At around 37 lbs., he's officially a sassy teen. Suddenly deaf to our simple requests, even "sit" can become a test of boundaries. It began with the loss of needle-like puppy teeth a couple of weeks ago-- woefully, he's managing to hang onto his sharpest baby canines-- the worst offenders.
He and I were recently exploring the woods, just after dawn, on the Ice Age Trail. As usual, exuberance had his lanky legs tangled in the leash. I was bent over, untangling him, when three yards in front of us a healthy, young red fox leapt out and began to race down the trail away from us, looking back, seemingly cajoling the pup into a game of chase.
Rhombus took the bait, charging after the fox, leash flying, waaaaay faster than I could possibly run. My brain went numb with thoughts of losing him. I resisted the powerful urge to shout and chase after them, knowing that would make the whole game more exciting. I turned away and started to run in the opposite direction, using a musical, happy voice repeating come, come, come, and clapping- just like I had been trained in all those classes.
Miraculously, Rhombus turned to see what fun (and goodies) he might be missing. He made a choice. He came to me, trotting, panting, and smiling. Showering him with praise, I emptied a pocketful of treats, grateful for the human-training I'd received. It is about schooling the homo sapiens.
Five minutes later, in true teen style, he played dumb when asked to sit while I tried to tie my own shoelace. It's never too soon for the next level of human/canine classes!
Exploring wild places with my young companion is a considered part of my daily art practice. It cultivates a rich palette of experience, movement, color, and form ready for my brush. What each piece becomes in the studio emerges from the doing and the paint and the moment. My senses kick in- I paint touch, scent, sound, sight, even taste. I make things up. I remember, and I project.
PS- The writing of this post was interrupted by record-breaking rain and flooding here, bringing another aspect of Climate Change to our own front door. We are "high ground" inhabitants at the top of a tall ridge- at the lowest risk for flooding. Our yard is on the literal watershed divide between the Black Earth Creek and Lake Mendota watersheds. Flooding is the last thing we expected. The sheer quantity of downpour overwhelmed. Like most of our neighbors, we've spent days getting the slop and mess out of our basement. We were lucky. Our basement will dry, we'll replace baseboard and drywall, do some re-grading, and we didn't really need most of what we lost. Not so for many of our neighbors who lost homes, vehicles, businesses, crops, and most heart-breaking, a loved one. Since homeowners insurance doesn't cover flooding, monetary donations are being accepted for devastated Mazomanie Area residents here. Cross Plains Area residents here. The Red Cross in Dane County has three shelters set up with donated supplies and food to help those impacted by the floods. They ask that you donate through their website.
"Whether we and our politicians know it or not, Nature is party to all our deals and decisions, and she has more votes, a longer memory, and a sterner sense of justice than we do." -Wendell Berry
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You can see more of my available paintings here.
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About a year has passed since the death of our canine companion of 14 years, and he has been missed. The thought of replacing him seemed absurd because he was most certainly the Best Dog Ever. Bringing a new family member with a distinctive, unpredictable personality into our home was not an easy decision. We discussed and rationalized. But in the end, the plain, undeniable fact is this-- life is better with a dog. And we've welcomed a puppy into the family. He's a black, fuzzy, mixed-breed wonder, keeping his humans thoroughly occupied and half-crazy. He's got 3 speeds- sleeping, eating, and full-tilt blur of motion.
For the time being, painting has taken a back seat to re-training ourselves in how to care for a baby dog. But I've managed a couple of new pieces that I think capture the topsy-turvy mood around here. Painting time comes in short bursts because tearing apart packing materials in my studio is one of his favorite things. He sweetly believes that all of the world, everywhere, was created specifically for his entertainment.
I realize his learning process is not unlike my painting process- we both explore relationships between order and chaos, complexity and simplicity. We test boundaries. We find patterns and rhythms in the perplexing, take risks to delight in the surprises that appear with each step, and struggle to create a coherent picture of the world around us.
I love him already.
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I have no idea where Nature is, though I spout off about it all the time. I cannot define it in terms of place, or objects, or wild creatures found within its boundaries. Is it unaltered by humans? Can I find it on a trail through the woods? Is it a flower I planted in my backyard? Is it a bike ride to the grocery store? Is it a life being saved in a high-tech trauma center by a team of highly trained specialists? Or that aching back? Is it all these things, or none?
We tend to think of Nature as a place less touched by human hands. Less affected. Separate. But Nature is a funny thing that is not a thing, or a place, and certainly not separate from us.
Humans haven't come to terms with our place in Nature. It's just too hard to quantify. We give value to what we can label and understand. A label is what Nature is not- it is what Nature turns into when its process halts.
Where we fail to see ourselves, others, and the world around us as interdependent, suffering follows. Present day secular and religious dogma and practice is mostly anthropocentric, blind to natural process, and thrives on loneliness and fear even while fostering devotion, entrepreneurship, and innovation. To achieve balance, an inclusive view is requisite.
So how do we learn to value ourselves as part of Nature? We'll surely remain sadly out-of-balance until we learn. Being comfortable as part of Nature, as part of natural processes following the laws of physics, means accepting uncertainty and rejecting ego-driven fear. It means we don't know everything, but are open to new experiences and information- we explore, listen, respect, and take action. It means we are curious and want to know and have things, but aren't compelled to consume more things than we need. It means we open our eyes, hearts, and hands, to the experiences of all living beings on this planet.
At least one accessible process in Nature exposes the bigger picture- when truly immersed in the moment, the sense of "Self" vanishes. Thoughts, labels, emotions, cease. Focus is at once intense and diffuse. Finding ways to immerse oneself in the moment is the trick. For children, it happens commonly and often. When I was a new mother, it happened when gazing into my infants' eyes. Now it happens most often while exploring sylvan, wild places. Or when I'm looking up at the stars. And it happens while I'm painting. I recognize my unique interdependence and alliance in calm process with Nature.
How about you? Where do you find Nature? A gentle suggestion- put away that thing and be there.
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After a grueling wait it seems the soul-warming pulse of green that that spreads like fire across the landscape has finally begun. It's spring! We are not the only ones who've been waiting. The sight of starving migratory birds has many, including me, scattering raisins, mealworms, suet, and seeds in yards and nearby parks. Whether it makes a difference we'll never know. We do it because we can. We hope and imagine it matters.
The intersection of nature's reality and human imagination is seductive. Our desire to matter, to make a difference, is at once beautiful and egocentric. Our minds believe in possibility, potential, and self-determination. Yet our behaviors, as those in all of nature, seem to follow predictable patterns. Discovering these patterns and how we, as part of nature, affect and interact with them is the life work of artists and musicians and scientists, nature lovers, engineers, and problem solvers of all kinds.
I believe the colors and marks that exit the end of my brush are a way of documenting Nature's complexity- data imbued with the power of revelation. Is that hubris, or what? When it's going well, paint barely clings to brush. It enters a swirl of color, pattern and form that records experience, maybe even thought, in a way as real as the brush in my hand- someone just needs to untangle the patterns to discover the algorithm. Math and physics, physics and math. One day, who knows?
In the meantime, I'll keep feeding the birds until things green up a bit more. They've worked so hard to get here, it seems the least I can do. Predictable behavior? Yep- at least for me.
I hope you take every opportunity to get outside and enjoy spring. You deserve it!
See the above paintings and more of my available work here.
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Bring on Spring!! It's been a long, dark winter in more ways than I care to discuss. Good fortune has me working at an art residency in the tropical light of Costa Rica this month, and the coming equinox, with its 12 hours of light and 12 hours of darkness, draws my awareness to the importance of balance on earth and in our lives. Balance is transient, even in nature. It's a continuum, a cycle. Finding that calm center point where one feels no pull or push is a gift that with practice and intention can be opened over and over again.
Finding that point matters because actions taken from there build true emotional strength and resiliency. It's never felt more urgent to identify and choose the things we do in our lives that bring us closer to personal and collective equilibrium.
While physics might suggest that a low center of gravity and a broad base promote equilibrium, I find it most often by myself in the woods and in my studio- places where the pendulum stops swinging and the mind quiets. Solitude has been spurned based on the notion that collaboration and teamwork are the major building blocks of innovation. Nope. Overemphasizing teamwork to the detriment of private, distraction-free workspaces creates imbalance, physical illness, and groupthink. It takes healthy individuals to make a healthy collective and one way of assessing our mental health is by the amount of time spent in, and comfort with, solitude- being alone with yourself.
Alone does not mean lonely. And sitting by yourself in front of a screen does not constitute solitude. The ability to disconnect from technology, become completely engaged in something profoundly rewarding in itself, by yourself, is essential. Solitude generates ideas and activates creativity. Collaboration integrates ideas and helps bring them forward. One complements the other. Equilibrium.
When it comes to painting, finding center is not a given for me. It takes work and more work. I am fiercely protective of my studio time and space. For me, solo hours logged beat inspiration and collaboration almost every time. You won't get to see the long hours. You won't get to see most of the failures and do-overs. Those are private, they are mine, and that gives me great freedom. At its best, my mark-making is an act of faith and action that chronicles intuitive experience- the meeting of the internal with the exterior at that exquisite point of equilibrium.
It is not fail safe. Solitude and practice need punctuation with a mix of engaged human interaction and occasional boredom to keep things flowing- not easy with infinite distractions at hand. I have a sense that it's the same for many of us. Being deliberate in everyday choices can be a big pain in the wazoo- yet the equinox returns twice each year to demonstrate the grace of balance. It's an appreciated reminder. Practice may not make perfect, but, well... it genuinely improves things.
I suppose I should apologize for diving into the pedantic, but time and nature insist. So, then, if I may- what do you need to do to find your center?
Happy Spring- time to grow!
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"Love is a canvas furnished by Nature and embroidered by imagination.” -Voltaire
Some things about February are worthy of true love.
Between the 1st and 28th of February, we gain about an hour and 15 minutes of daily sunlight- something we can all love. In addition, the sun is moving higher and higher in the sky- about 15 degrees higher here in Madison, WI, USA. I love feeling the light grow more intense, don't you?
Alternately, the clear, crisp night sky is something to love in February. Toward the end of the month, we'll be able to view, without a telescope, Mercury, Venus, Jupiter, Mars, and Saturn at various times during the night.
Out in the woods, owls are mating and nesting while squirrels are raising their first litter of the year. Yep. The season of reproductive love has begun. Even migratory birds are beginning to make their way to northern breeding grounds. I saw my first robin just yesterday. It looked too tired and surprised by the snow and cold to be thinking about love.
Valentine's Day brings thoughts of love to our species. I'm given to the idea that Valentine's Day is more about love in the larger sense, rather than the guilt-love fed to us by sellers of chocolate and diamonds. Of course I love my spouse, friends and family. But I'm not stopping there.
I love the excitement of standing before a big blank canvas. Woo-hooo!
I love the process that accompanies abstraction, as opposed to more realistic work, because it most rouses my courage as a painter, and challenges your openness as a viewer.
I love what I do in the studio and while walking in wild places because it keeps me directed toward the sublime unknowable- the place of my heart. My artistic process is a progression of making adjustments and exploring the edges rather than capturing any sort of ideal. I hope you love it. It won't break my heart if you don't.
Enough about me. How do you find heart? Where do you find love? Things to ponder this sparkly, chocolatey, red, pink, and love-ly February 14th.
Happy Valentine's Day!
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“A lot of people like snow. I find it to be an unnecessary freezing of water.” -Carl Reiner
"You can't get too much winter in winter." -Robert Frost
Can you relate to one, or both of these quotes? Together, they pretty well sum up my own conflicted relationship with winter. I love the dance of falling snowflakes, but shoveling, not so much. The puffy birds clustering at the feeder are a delight, as are the neighborhood kids squealing as they sled down a small hill as if it were the Matterhorn. On the other hand, hooking up jumper cables in the still-dark morning and the "burn" of thawing fingers are majorly unpleasant, even dangerous. So, of course, during a recent cold snap when temperatures hovered around -1F (-18C), half-crazed with cabin fever, I bundled in appropriate layers. Finishing the ensemble with a scarf to cover my nose and cheeks, I'd convinced myself that there is no "bad" weather, only inappropriate clothing.
The wind gnawed hard at the tiny bit of exposed skin around my eyes as I squinted my way across the prairie toward the woods. Once in the protective shelter of trees, the immediate stillness turned my attention to the snow squeaking obnoxiously underfoot. Squeaking snow is a phenomena that occurs when it's below 14F (-11C). So today's thin blanket of snow, at a frigid -1, squawked raucously with my every step. I made repeated, fruitless efforts to walk soundlessly. Oh well. Stealthiness will not be part of today's mission.
I spied a deer path cutting through understory saplings. It was crossed by a multitude of racoon tracks leading to a gnarly tree. Following an imaginary path upward with my eyes, I spotted a hollow 20 feet up and knew who was inside. Over the next hill, an untrampled ground burrow, its dark outline barely discernible through the snow, brought visions of snuggled bunnies, cozy and warm in their grassy, fur-lined warren. Just steps away, I noticed coyote tracks, felt an involuntary shiver, and hoped the bunny rabbits stayed put.
The stories the earth reveals are enchanting- even in the cold of winter. Walking in wild places as part of my daily art practice piques my curiosity, and builds a palette of musings, colors, and motion. It also helps keep me fit and, especially in the winter, it tests my mettle.
As lovely as this particular set of encounters was, you will not see me intentionally paint about it. My artwork is not about re-creation of a specific landscape or memory. I have a camera for that. A painting, for me, is a a synergetic, non-objective bundle of individual moments. Since each moment is built upon prior moments, perceived differently by each of us, it leaves room for interpretation and subconscious banter. So in this sense, you are the one who finishes my painting when you view it. Just like you get to imagine the fate of the aforementioned invisible bunnies. Unless I learn otherwise on my next walk in their woods.
You can see more of my available work here, and Seeing Time 364 (Galloping Horse), here.
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Have you noticed how long your shadow is these days, even at noon? As the Earth's Northern Hemisphere tilts methodically away from the sun, we slide toward the heart of winter. This "tilt" affects the angle of the sunlight reaching the earth and is responsible for seasonal change.
December 21st, the official start of winter, marks this season's maximum "away" tilt. In Wisconsin, we'll take in around 6 hours and 22 minutes less daylight than the longest day in June. I don't know about you, but for me, that's way too short a day. But not to fret- from here, the amount of daily sunlight we receive grows as we edge toward spring.
Noting the Winter Solstice as both the night of deepest darkness and the return of light is more than an act of faith. For me, celebrating the celestial cycle honors ancestral longings- and abilities- to figure out the workings of the world around us, and our drive to continue doing so.
The usual pace of holiday celebrations dictates high energy - shopping, eating, drinking, and entertaining, This is the antithesis of nature's truest winter energy, which fosters stillness and introspection. It's worthwhile to observe winter rhythm by drawing inward and reflecting, even if briefly. Give your solo self the necessary and rejuvenating gift of peace and quiet- walk in the woods, curl up by a fireplace, or snuggle in with a good book. Just sitting and doing nothing for awhile is A-ok.
The above painting, Solstice (Earth Tilt), (30"x 24" acrylic on canvas) is one of my Series 2 pieces. Unlike the more abstract expressionist work in Series 1 and Series 3, these pieces are harder-edged and a balancing nod to the "other side" of Mid-20th Century Art, as well as my Nordic roots.
Though not apparent, Series 2 paintings are also "free" in the sense that they are done in the moment, without a preconceived idea, theme, or detailed drawing, usually with no tape or masking. The act of painting propels me toward an unseen destination. I started work on this piece with an open mind, red & gray paint, a canvas, and began by painting a few scattered shapes. They led me to Solstice (Earth Tilt).
You can see more of my Series 2 work here and here.
Happy Solstice & Joyous Holidays to you!
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Chronesthesia is mental time travel. I'm not talking science fiction or magical thinking. It's the idea that mental time travel, both forward and backward- allows us to be aware of our place in linear time. Chronesthesia, theorizes psychologist Dr. Endel Tulving, gives humans the exclusive ability to recollect past events and plan for the future. He claims, "The kind of culture that Homo sapiens have created over the past 40,000 years or so can be produced only by individuals whose intelligence includes conscious awareness of the future in which they and their progeny will continue to live and survive."
Things happen while I'm painting that tickle my inquisitive brain. I find these things irresistible - the centering I feel in front of a canvas, the transcendent moment when surface and paint and motion begin to meld into something that pushes me farther than I thought I wanted to go, the unconventional documentation of real experience in nature, and, the notion of "escaping" time. I look up, three hours have passed, and it felt like three minutes. Not exactly what Tulving was talking about, but it got me thinking...
Does the state we humans now find ourselves in prove Tulving is mistaken? How do we really use our intelligence, and how do we evaluate human versus animal intelligence? Without a long lens, it's too soon to know. My own mental time travels are just optimistic projections. But new research is demonstrating that dogs and other animals possess the same type of intelligence Tulving called "uniquely human." Perhaps we need to think more about learning from other animals rather than about how superior we are to them.
What I do know is that the days have become excruciatingly short. Trees are laid bare to the bones, and the harvest is complete. Like other animals, it's time for us to gather together. Not necessarily to migrate or hibernate, but to create an attentive "now" - to be active and grateful, to celebrate family and friends and food, and the abundant Earth that sustains us. Happy Thanksgiving!
The paintings on this page are a selection from my recent Seeing Time sequence. You can see more here.