Artist and naturalist Michelle Louis has a vigorous curiosity about the natural world. Her abstract landscape paintings document life, well-spent, in wild places.
©2020 Michelle Louis All rights reserved. Content and images are property of the artist.
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Listening, processing. I believe change for the better is coming.
But first it's going to get much more uncomfortable as we reckon with centuries of injustice, pain, and fear. That's why I need to keep my eye on the good that will follow.
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See details from above painting, New Wings.
See details from below painting, Sun 1 (Flowers).
See details for below painting, When the Lilacs Bloom.
This is my "social" veggie garden. It's planted along the street. Passing neighbors stop to ask questions or chat. Favorite moment so far this year–a 4 year old neighbor gleefully shouted from the road, "You look like an old farmer in that big straw hat." His dad quickly interjected, "Not OLD farmer." with a wink.
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Is COVID-19 distancing giving you a boxed-in feeling? I have a positive suggestion–take a moment the next clear evening to take a look at the night sky. Worldwide industrial shut downs have led to drastically improved air quality and clarity so stars are looking brighter and more numerous than ever. It's heart-stirring to imagine this singular moment and our place in its vastness.
I was a child when the first Earth Day was celebrated 50 years ago this month. I remember a tattered copy of Silent Spring on the coffee table, though it would be 12 years before I read it. Its author, Rachel Carson, became one of my heroes. I'd tell you about her, but I can't do her the justice that Maria Popova does in her Brain Pickings article, The Writing of Silent Spring: Rachel Carson and the Culture-Shifting Courage to Speak Truth to Power. I hope you'll take time to read it, and maybe even Silent Spring, in celebration of our unique and magnificent planet Earth.
As artist and naturalist, thoughts about my place on this planet and in this universe are undercurrent to all my work. I've recently been working on a series of paintings in honor of Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, and Earth Day. I've included several on this page. Learn more about my paintings, Sense of Wonder, Among the Beauties and Mysteries, Spring After Winter, and Spring after Winter 2.
Thank you, Earth, and Happy Earth Day! We best remember that every day is your day, so that we may continue ours. Be well, my friends.
A few of my favorite quotes by Rachel Carson–
"Why should we tolerate a diet of weak poisons, a home in insipid surroundings, a circle of acquaintances who are not quite our enemies, the noise of motors with just enough relief to prevent insanity? Who would want to live in a world which is just not quite fatal?"
"There is no drop of water in the ocean, not even in the deepest parts of the abyss, that does not know and respond to the mysterious forces that create the tide."
"Those who dwell, as scientists or laymen, among the beauties and mysteries of the earth, are never alone or weary of life."
"If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children, I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life."
"There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature -- the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter."
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While social distancing, desperately hoping to “flatten the curve” I've been craving more time in the woods and prairies and less in the studio. If you've gotten outside at all, it's hard not to notice that other species are in spring frenzy mode. Thank goodness it's March. Imagine if it were November, with holidays to be spent in isolation and many dark, cold months ahead. A small thing to be grateful for.
A couple of mornings ago, I was wandering a half-frozen, marshy area full of artesian springs and was nearly overcome by the smell of skunk. My young dog was pretty interested until he figured out it was just skunk cabbage. Did you know skunk cabbage makes its own heat? One of the first blooms of spring, it emerges even when the ground is still frozen. Warming themselves up to 70 degrees Fahrenheit, they melt surrounding snow and soil. The stinky spadix (see below photo), or flowering body, attracts early hatching flies and carrion beetles.
We'd found skunk cabbage paradise. Next to a gurgling, crystalline spring.
My small observation is that the rest of the environment is managing our human pandemic rather well, so far. Lack of air and highway traffic means air quality worldwide has seen drastic improvement. Lack of boat traffic in Venice has brought back water clarity. Not since 9/11 has science had such an opportunity to gather environmental data, and hopefully, turn it into strategies that foster resilience.
As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day next month in the midst of a global pandemic, it's become glaringly obvious that human existence on this planet is part of a delicate balance. "Oh, no!" moment: Just before hitting "publish" this morning, I nearly choked on my coffee when I read that the EPA "temporarily" suspended enforcement of regulations because of the virus.
An added observation: OMG. "Never waste a crisis" taken to a whole new level of lunacy.
Politics and corrupt economics are killing us in this very moment. Some would say that's nothing new.
But I'm not giving up. Adversity can be the best teacher, if we're open to learning from our mistakes. It's about building on what history has shown us, guided by science, to cultivate a flexibility that is not afraid of diversity, knowledge, and expertise.
Maybe then, next time the tiniest things in the natural world lay siege against us, we'll be armed to fight back with our strongest evolutionary weapon–our brains.
Be well. Be smart. Get outside to enjoy the spring while maintaining proper distance. And please, VOTE.
See details of Early Light 2 and Early Light 1
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Animals living in areas where cold is a seasonal norm survive using a broad set of adaptive mechanisms. They insulate, hibernate, store food, synthesize anti-freeze in their circulatory systems. They pupate. They gather together for warmth. They prey on those weakened by winter's harshness. They store fat to burn during leanest times.
As a painter, these cold days I'm thinking about survival via the power of adaptation. Broadly speaking, to adapt means making adjustments to meet variable conditions or situations. Because I work without expectation or subject, and not from drawings, photos, or sketches, painting an oversized canvas is a strange exercise in adaptation based on experience.
Abstract expressionism in process, my painting is physical, emotional, immediate, and unpredictable. When it's going well, it feels wild. Every brushstroke creates a new path, to which whatever follows will totally adjust. Sometimes the whole thing goes kerflooey. If it doesn't go kerflooey once in awhile, I know I'm not pushing my boundaries. So kerflooey is good.
I'm well-aware that painting is not a matter of life and death in the larger world. It's not saving the life of a gunshot victim. It's not fighting fire, or being a foster parent to traumatized teens. But even after decades of practice, painting continues to teach me new things. In incremental measures of letting go, facing fear, asking questions, messing up, and making new things, I find joy. Painting helps me be a positive presence in a world that can feel pretty dim.
I am one lucky human animal in the middle of this cold northern winter.
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I don't know about you, but this getting-dark-early thing gets old fast for me. It's kind of not good when the sun sets at 4:22 pm and my hypothalamus is signaling, "Bedtime!"
December 21st marks the longest, darkest night and the official start of winter.
In Wisconsin, we'll take in around 6 hours and 22 minutes less daylight than the longest day in June. But not to fret- from here, the amount of daily sunlight we receive grows as we tilt toward spring. Something to celebrate!
Our well-used, wooden stepladder has become part of the celebratory tradition. Three years ago, the long-time family ritual of cutting our own tree morphed. Born of an effort to minimize consumerism, and supreme laziness, the Christmas Ladder now blesses our home with light and joy. And it's beautiful. Thanks to our neighbor, Beth, for the inspiration.
In the studio these days, I find myself oscillating wildly between monochromatic grays and vivid brights–a form of compensation? Or celebration?
Happy Solstice! Bring on the light!
View additional photos & details of below painting, "The Chase," here.
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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.