Tuesday, January 30, 2007

I Remmy Niss (Similar to a Niss on the Kose*)

I was looking at some old photos, probably brought on by Moomin Light's Roadtrip! post.

I ended up reminiscing about this incredible run of pumpkin fields. We saw them again on the roadtrip to Danville and beyond - but they looked bare, and you'd never know that this October they were full, hill after hill, of pumpkins waiting to be picked up.

I walked in awe down into the fields to get these pictures, the family patiently waiting for me in the van on the side of the Blue Ridge Parkway.

*("Niss on the Kose" is a Thingummy and Bob expression - an act of comforting and reward for deeds bravely done. For more information about these little people or "The Pittle Lockets" read Finn Family Moomintroll.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Roadtrip - Danville

Yesterday we took a much needed break from the stress of routines and work and packed lunch and rolled away. We went north on 86 and hung a left on 58 in southern Virginia. Danville is right where the two roads connect, so we drove into the old downtown to see what it was like. We were rewarded by a glimpse of a glorious Victorian past on South Main St. I took numerous shots of beautiful old houses with very ornate and one-of-a-kind facades.
But my favorite shots were from the weird undercroft of a Methodist church done in Spanish style.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

The Church of the Great Outdoors

A lovely Southern gentleman I know was talking with me once about church. The church where his wife is quite active has some heavy-duty politics, and it wearies him to be around it. He remarked to me, "I feel closer to God standing here in these trees looking at my cows."

My recent experiences of church have left me needing air and room to think, and I found myself often quoting that line about trees, cows, and God. Being dismayed at how much of what goes on in churches seems to be about perpetuating the stuff that goes on in churches, I needed some quiet to think, and I found myself drawn to open spaces, sunlight and birdsong. I began to speak of my church affiliation as "The Church of the Great Outdoors." It's got a fine building, designed by the best Architect available, and the choir is pretty good, too. The liturgy is very simple.

"For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands." Isaiah

Sometimes I feel a bit like Samuel, just living in the house of the Lord, listening. I don't listen all that well, but I find I listen better when I'm not whirling around doing too many things. I've never belonged to a church and not had it rapidly become too many things.

When this drawing got started I showed it to my kids. They immediately said, "The Church of the Great Outdoors"? My wife got it, too.

So sometimes I think of myself as unchurched (like unseated from your horse) - but more often I think of myself as under the sky, quiet and humble, grinning simply at all He has done for us. Sometimes I picture myself "looking at my cows," and other times I picture myself contentedly looking back from under shaggy brows, ruminating.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Coming Home from Kentucky

We had snow in Ashland, KY, which was a surprise even to the locals. (While it's not a snowy photo, you can get a glimpse of downtown Ashland here thanks to Houseofboyd and Flickr.) After visiting our client the Wink and I drove out in a "wintery mix" that thankfully was not sticking to the roads. I-64 takes you quickly into West Virginia, with Ohio visible on the left, just over all the wonderful steel bridges.

We stuck to the highways until we saw the route 52 sign, right after the long tunnel under the mountain that divides West Virginia from the Old Dominion. Knowing it was the same road we have taken countless times to Winston-Salem, and knowing it was actually a short-cut, we had to check it out.

I should have known better. It started out OK, but then got incredibly steep and narrow as it wound its way up to the shoulder of Big Walker Mountain. Still no ice or snow on the road, or I would have turned back, but plenty on the shoulders, where it had obviously been ploughed. I paused at the very top and Winkycat and I checked out the observation deck and strange rope bridge and fire tower at a closed down general store. The photo is the view from the little observation deck.

Once we got back into the valley we came to a tiny park beside a stream in the Jefferson National Forest. A dirt road, a trail through the woods, a narrowing track beside the stream, the muddy edge of the bank as I climbed over fallen trees and dodged greenbriers... Still in suit pants and bowtie, I finally got my fill when it looked like the next devolution of the trail was swamp. With the camera threatening every frame to shut down for lack of juice, I got a few shots. I call this one, "Suited Fool in Woods," or "Have Bowtie, Will Travel." At least my field jacket kept me relatively warm. Poor Kitteywink had to stay parked beyond the closed gate. "Foot traffic welcome," said the sign on the gate - but not her foot.

Winky and I parked in the lot of a country church, and I prowled around in the cold wind to find the best way to capture it against the wintry sky, finally deciding the best view was up the white pine lined driveway.

Just before sundown, and back on I-77 to make some distance, we crossed the New River. An interesting stone tower on the left caught my eye and we got off to investigate. Another closed gate, but this time a sign a ways up the road announced that the grounds were closed from Nov to March. It's a shot tower - used to let molten lead fall through a screen to harden before plunging into a tub of water at the bottom (I read it was a shot tower - the rest I know from books). I wonder if it was used for the Civil War or the Revolutionary War.

Around the bend from the Shot Tower Historical Park was the New River Trail State Park, and the lovely little hamlet of Foster Falls, named for a rapids in the New River. I used up all the remaining batteries getting shots of this beautiful little park. The horse offered her nose for a stroke.

The rest of the trip was uneventful and mostly in the dark. I had music in my head, so I didn't use the tape player or radio at all on the entire drive back. It was a good little voyage. On many business trips there is little time to sight-see - so I was grateful the timing on this one allowed some time to experience the countryside.

I lost my cell phone somewhere in VA. I had used it for several business calls on the way, getting things started for those customers. I had checked it often, though reception was bad in the mountains, as usual. I didn't leave the car once I left Foster Falls, so my best guess is that it came off my belt, clip and all during the 45 minutes I walked about taking photos. It could be just about anywhere, but I like to picture it still on the shore of the New River, where I skimmed a stone before turning back.

East Kentucky

The Kittywink (my Toyota Camry's name - long story) and I went on a road trip for business. I was visiting some important clients in East Kentucky. After driving through snow, salt, coal mining areas and considerable road construction, Winkycat (her nick name) is now out in our NC driveway looking pretty gray. Some parts are salty (I'll have to give her a wash-up soon) and other parts are covered in a thin coating of Kentucky clay. You can hardly see Cwab (her pet stuffed crustacean) through her rear window.

On the way out we drove part of route 58 through the southern tier of counties in Virginia. 58 might be one of my favorite roads anywhere, and when it got closer to Kentucky it got even more interesting with coal mining and processing facilities.

It was a fascinating trip. We had to dodge coal trucks (though more often they roared past after dodging us - see one in photo). We got to drive home through West Virginia in the snow (I want to go back and photo all the railroad and bridge arrangements in Charleston). I noticed that East Kentucky seems frozen in the late 80's, with almost no new construction since. The economic boom of the 90's and the last few years even took hold in WV (Huntington and Charleston, at least) but not in East Kentucky. I felt out of place in my suit and bowtie - this is a land of hard working, outdoor, truck driving people. I liked everyone we met. Like most of the people "between the mountains" they are real and comfortable in their skins in a way that seems more rare on the coasts of America. G.K. Chesterton wrote about this decades ago, and Laura and I noticed it on our trip to Colorado and back in 1987. It's still true. The coal mining towns of East Kentucky (and West Virginia) remind me of the coal mining towns in Western Pennsylvania. Hillsides lined with rows of neat box shaped houses, not enough color in the winter, not enough trees, barely enough money to get by.

In the afternoon I drove from Whitesburg, KY to Ashland, KY. On that drive I stopped and ate some sandwiches while walking a dirt road (see photo). A road trip is not complete without a stroll down some narrow dirt track. I must have been an odd sight carefully maneuvering between the large puddles in my dress shoes and walking carefully to keep the clay off the cuffs of my charcoal suit. The bowtie was the crowning incongruity. The only other vehicle anywhere in site was a mud encrusted muscular pickup that was probably black beneath it all. I parked Kittywink near it for company while I took my walk.

On the way back from visiting the second client, the next day, Wink and I dilly dallied and got off the highways more - but that's another story.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Sun Junkie

My dear wife's theory is that cats suffer from Seasonally Affected Depressive Disorder. They are drawn to sunny spots even at peril of their gingeriffic furry hides. Here Tamlin cat takes his life in his hands and lays once again on the fobidden kitchen table.

Notice in the close-up how tense he is, how concerned that every moment in the bliss generating bombardment of yellow shifted photons might be his last. Can't you sense the coiled up springs of worry set to spring him high off the table the minute he hears the dreaded water spray bottle...

...or maybe not. The sound of the camera didn't get so much as a twitch, and when I walked up closer he just looked up at me and yawned.


Over twenty years ago (might be over 25) I made Faw, the first of these sock puppets, to play with my girlfriend at the time. It's amazing what a sock puppet can say for you that you might not be able to say yourself. I didn't let Faw propose for me, though - I handled that without him.

Later the puppets were a hit with our kids. Faw (the lion in the photo above) and Tiger came on camping trips. Tiger spat out Necco candies (after you guessed the color of the one in his mouth). Horse came along later and had eyes that would move every which way, like a chameleon, or Marty Feldman. Then snake was made with all sorts of glue on items, from wooden stars to lentils.

This Christmas I got an urge to make another, after over ten years. Nicker (photo here) was the result. His eyes are like motley, one black on white, the other white on black. He claims to be part dominicker chicken (an old checkerboard patterned breed George Washington might have had around Mount Vernon) and part scrambled egg.

Who knows when the next sock will transcend the sock drawer and join the menagerie. To see more of these critters, see the "Silly" page on my art site SJEmery.com .

Thursday, January 18, 2007

The Dinosaurs among Us

Let's imagine for a moment that we're the top creatures on the planet (that's not hard) and we're large and because of that life is pretty easy. We have to eat all the time because of our bulk, but food is plentiful and no one much bothers us, and we live a placid, easygoing life. Would you trade the security for something new like being able to fly? Flying would mean you would have to be a lot smaller, have more fragile bones, and you'd be more vulnerable (except you'd have a great new way to escape a predator). And you'd still have to eat all the time, because of the huge energy requirements of flying and feeding the furnace of a power plant that your heart would have to be.

That's more or less what dinosaurs chose over hundreds of generations. Or nature, rather, chose those individuals that moved towards flight, even if that meant coming in a smaller package.

To me the great fascination is to look at birds and realize they are what's left of the dinosaurs, and to wonder what of their habits and social order is still like those ancient ancestors.

And then I consider how many times evolution has favored flight, and in completely unrelated lines of animals. Insects, reptiles (into birds), mammals (like bats), even some fish that can fly for short distances (and who knows where that will lead in millions of years).

And then there are birds that evolved back out of flight? Kiwis, moas, ostriches, emus, rheas, domestic turkeys. OK, I guess that last one is clearly a case of anti-evolution, or an example of how evolution changes when nature is doing the selecting through human values.

And if everything is trade-offs of some sort, what are we giving up and what are we getting right now as we change all the rules with memes taking precedence over genes? What more ancient bulk might we be shedding, and for what new sort of flight?

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Irises at Reynolda

This time of year I find myself hungry not just for colors, but for flowers, and the sights and sounds of spring and summer. I can almost hear the water trickling into this long pool from the lion head, just out of sight on the right, and I can imagine myself walking through that open door into the greenhouse at Reynolda Gardnes in Winston-Salem, NC. These irises have my favorite iris shape and to me no color shows off shape better than white.

I have been wanting to post this photo since last summer. I had to rotate it a few degrees, and I only got a tool for that in the last few weeks.

Amazing Ackland

The Ackland Museum, in Chapel Hill, NC, is one of the best small museums in the country, and they have nearly the entire Ackland collection available for view on-line. A massive effort went into scanning and cataloguing all those pieces. Browsing them is fun, and can be done many different ways. Be sure to check the little box to "Return only objects with images." Enjoy.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Abstracts - Why?

"Any kid could do that."

"Wow. Maybe I should get some paint and slap it around like that, too, if you can earn that much money doing it."

"I don't get it."

A lot of people don't understand what they call "abstract" art.* If the art isn't about something they have no way to relate to it. I understand this, and I sympathize.

On some level, though, all good art has form and structure that could exist separately from the subject. The shapes, relationships, colors, rhythms, spaces, silences, sounds, etc. can all work without depicting anything we recognize. Modern art finally broke free of subject and found ways to work more directly with these aesthetic forces.

For those of you who love classical music think of it as being a bit like Beethoven's string quartets. Some of them get pretty weird, if you compare them to the large conventions and forms used in his symphonies and other works for mass audiences. He was experimenting more freely, without constraint, in the quartets - and they sound more modern as a result. I'm not saying his symphonies are "objective" or about anything - but his quartets are somehow purer ventures into the forms of music.

I recall a Christmas shopping trip to Albany, NY when I was about 16. I was able to leave the rest of the family and meet them later. After shopping I ventured out into the huge mall that runs under the four buildings that house NY's state government. The walls held a few dozen enormous non-objective paintings, the first I'd ever seen. I went back and forth for what I recall as nearly a half mile stretch, staring at them. I did not understand them, but I felt like I was trying to read a language that I recognized as my own. They scratched an itch I'd always had and hadn't known could be scratched. They were messages in a bottle and while thousands of fish swam through the same waters with me, I seemed to be the only one stopping to pull the cork and look at the paper inside. How could everyone else just walk past these - I wanted to stand and watch them like an incredible sunset, or some virtuoso performance. It was one of the moments that eventually led me to become a visual artist.

For me the struggle is that without real things I slide towards boring shapes, over simplifying everything so there is no energy on the page. So my non-objective pieces usually ARE abstractions of real things. Eventually I push the painting so far I can't find any trace of the original object, and I work hard to keep any other objects from emerging.

I've started a group of watercolor abstracts, using tape to mask areas and paint in layers. Eventually some areas have four and five layers of masking and painting done, so the surface gets fairly interesting.

Each of these is, for me, like a visit to a place where people don't live. I have to become something else to go there. Something lighter, as if I have to leave my body behind. And words don't work there. That's how I recognize that it's the same silent country where all my artwork grows, but it's higher into the hills. The air is a lot thinner and colder there, but the stars are brighter, and I can almost fly.

* When people use the word "abstract" they usually mean art without recognizable objects or subjects. Abstract correctly means that real objects WERE involved, but they have been simplified to their most general traits (abstracted), so they might (or might not) be recognized any more. Some non-objective art actually starts without anything recognizable, and thus it is not "abstracted" from anything. So not all abstract art is non-objective, and not all non-objective art is abstract. Non-objective describes the piece, abstract is more about the method used to get there.

In the Company of Men

From older blog 12/23/06

I have only a few close male friends, but those relationships are very important to me.

They are all also men who can share their deeper feelings (and that's rare enough that it might explain why I know so few) but there are some significant differences in the way most men share feelings, including myself when I'm talking with them.

First, men are more guarded, and with men I am, also, even with friends. At a recent lunch with some dear old buddies, men and women, I managed the buffet trips to my advantage. I find it impossible to really visit people in a crowd, and even with just seven of us it was hard to really connect in conversation at the table. So my trips to the buffet shadowed the others, one at a time as often as I could manage it. And I noticed something, perhaps because the last post has been forming in my mind. The women could connect while in line, in just a few sentences, and I knew how to go there with them and even how to initiate the trip. But the men, even knowing we have a strong fond friendship, took far longer to gradually open up and talk. And I was no readier to rush than they were.

Men have to sort of push and shove and test themselves against one another, first. Neither wants to get sentimental or soft first; if we're going towards discussing feelings, we have to go there together. So it takes time and a number of steps. We start with the strong brisk grip of a handshake, which I think is all that remains of an old ritual of butting heads and trying to throw each other on the ground to feel each other's (and our own) strength. I really enjoy a good firm handshake. Then there is loud talk about how we are, how good business is, how healthy we are, etc. Then we talk about a few things that have happened, tell some stories, and during that stage one of the guys could choose to take the conversation onto more thoughtful ground. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don't. It depends on the amount of energy and time I have.

Because that's another difference. I might share feelings more easily and more often with women, but I share some kinds of feelings, and a certain male part of myself only with other men. There is a part of being male that can't be understood unless you are male. Since I connect this way less often, and it's harder and requires a greater degree of trust than to open up with women, it takes more energy and time.

And of course there are ways men enjoy each other's company that don't involve words, or are around and under the conversation. Some of our neighborhood poker games can reach this level, where men are just relaxing and being men. It might mean drinking and swearing and lying and poking fun and laughing too loud - or it might not. Either way, there is a silent shared celebration of what it is to be a male animal, a man, maybe a father - potent, confident, comfortable in your hairy hide, sure of your place in the order of men. It feels terrific, like baking in the hot sun after spending a long time indoors. Like feeling your skin getting tanned and healthy golden brown. There is no substitute for this, and time spent with women, while intoxicatingly wonderful, can't produce the simple intensity, the wattage, of a male/male connection. And while the most intense encounters I will ever have are with the love of my life, even those are a different color than these moments with men. The moments with men are like the heat and glare of the desert sun.

I'll gladly acknowledge that I'm a feeling introverted guy, and I live and spend my most important moments in the oasis, where the women usually are. But part of me needs and loves those moments on the sand, standing with a good comrade, sizing each other up and feeling our oats. We might kick up some dust, we might flex some muscles, but we don't really have to. It's already understood. We're already there.

In the Company of Women

From older blog 12/22/06

I never hated girls. Oh I played at giving "cootie shots" to immunize us boys from the girls, but frankly there was nothing girls could give me that I wasn't actually pleased to get, from kisses to kicks in the shins. I have always loved girls and been happiest in their company.

Green grow the rashes, O;
Green grow the rashes, O;
The sweetest hours that e'er I spend,
Are spent amang the lasses, O.
(Robert Burns)

G.K.Chesterton, who was a man's man and dearly loved the comradeship of his male friends, wrote that men were made civilized and human by the women they love. And he knew it was hard work for the ladies, and he was grateful. I know it was hard with me.

I find that I lower my guard and share my thoughts most easily with women, probably because they are less guarded than men. The chief sharer, of course, is my dear wife. But even with women who are just acquaintances or even strangers in a check-out line, I feel an ease of sharing thoughts and feelings. Being a man who likes to talk about feelings (a rare enough beast) I have found women to be the easiest company.

But beyond the ease and openess, there is also a loveliness about women that I still find amazes me as it did when I was five years old and I loved every little girl on the school bus (many of them let me kiss them) and every little girl in class. Women are beautiful, and the older they get the more beautiful they become. I'm grateful that is so, as I grow older myself. I know many men seem fixated on girls in their early twenties - I don't understand this, because the most attractive women have always been the ones around my age, from five to forty five. Part of me is always a little more alive around the ladies.

So I'm happy that women share their thoughts and feelings as they do, and that they seem willing to do so with me. Out with some women friends from work recently I was surprised how the conversation changed when the last male left beside myself. When I asked the ladies why they felt OK discussing (with me participating) thoughts about how men treat women, the most outspoken laughed and said, "Because you're one of the girls." I laughed, too. I felt this no threat to my masculinity (I might have years ago, but lately I feel my maleness and my attractiveness as a man are comfortably in my control) and I took it as a compliment that I was able to hear and share things most men find uncomfortable. My life is richer for it.

Robert Burns felt so too.

Auld Nature swears, the lovely Dears
Her noblest work she classes, O;
Her prentice han' she try'd on man,
An' then she made the lasses, O.

Seasonal Issues, Light, Color Sweet Tooth

From older blog 12/18/06

What a shock. These last few years I've been helping my lovely wife and my beautiful daughter with their seasonal depression ("Did you use the light box today? Taking your fish pills? Get a walk in the sun this afternoon? Need someone to listen?") and in the middle of Christmas Explosion II Laura grinned and told me I had it too. I was jerked up so short all I could do was the mental equivalent of a fish making "o"s.

So many things made sense in a rush. The frustration I felt when the Daylight Savings bill was going to phase in the expansion of Daylight Savings Time, instead of getting it going NOW. The way I treasure and grasp at every last ray of sunshine in the last hour of the day, like someone sopping up every drop of gravy with bread. The way my inner artist in the winter gets even more of a sweet-tooth, and I can't prevent all this yellow and orange from getting on everything. Neon pencils. Ultramarine blue to make the oranges and yellows go shrieking off the page like a flare, signalling the sinking of my emotional ship as Christmas approaches and with it the shortest days of the year.

Check out Gallery 2 and see "Wake Up!" which is my latest. The camera blue-shifted it - in life the blues are so French and lovely deep, making the tangerine and sunbeam colors sing. Looking at it I can smell citrus.

So Christmas Explosion II was shut off as suddenly as the needle skidding off a record. With my jaw dropped open I realized with huge relief that there is an explanation for the self destructive tendencies. Later Laura brought me a glass of water and a fish pill. (I'm not sure who makes them but they are big enough to look like they belong in the other end.) Most of the day we spent outside in the sun, enjoying that warm weather that makes Christmas seem a mirage, but that makes NC winters so lovely. We could almost imagine that spring was only a few weeks away. We grilled (I tried air cured sausages from Billy's in Wallace, NC for the first time - MAN are they good) and sat outside until dusk.

And today, except for the familiar emotional nose-dive at sunset, has been a much better day. Sometimes a demon is easier to handle it you know its name.

Ollie's Bakery

From older blog 12/10/2006. Can bread be art? We found a place this weekend that I feel raises the whole process of baking, and the place it's done, to the level of art. This place has a clarity of purpose and a consistency of craft combined with a sense of identity that many artists might envy.

And the bread is terrific. We went there for lunch when our previous plans fell through (we found out Cafe Piaf is no longer at the Stevens Center). What a pleasant surprise! Another "real place" to add to our list.

We ate there in the tiny French feeling space before the counter, and left after buying still more loaves and desserts. The Pain au Chocolat is some of the best we've had anywhere. And the brioche...

Ollie's Bakery in Winston-Salem, NC (300 S Marshall St, just south-southwest of down town) is named in memory of a small wise dog. There is a fund in his name, as well, that helps people pay for the care of sick or injured animals. Somehow the love of a dog is also perfect for a French bakery - the French might be dogs' most ardent fans.

We visited Ollie's on our way to see the Nutcracker at the Stevens Center. That's another story you can read about at Moomin Light.

House of Frames - 12/05/06

From older blog - 12/5/06

I stopped by House of Frames in Durham, today. I like being there. It's like the best of hanging around with art students, talking shop, looking at work on their walls, seeing the word "Rosehips" written fairly large on a piece of matboard and recognizing it as Ippy Patterson's hand and asking and having that confirmed. That last item made me feel like I'd blind tasted a wine and gotten the grape, region and vintage correct. But Ippy's hand writing fascinates me, so it's easy for me to spot.

John was there and had actually dropped into our gallery, recognized me as someone who showed there, asked my name and what work was mine, and when I mentioned the graphite "Central Florida" that I have down there now did my ego a lot of good by recalling it immediately and having nice things to say about it. I wonder if I wanted to have a few drawings to hang at "House of Frames" if they would consider me?

Anyway, Jim met me there, we settled the question of glass, I decided to do the UV glass to give the best protection to the colors on "Hounds," and it was all worth it for the feedback on my art and the opportunity to talk to Jim while driving him home. Having him along even made the Costco stop an occasion (he even pushed the cart while I tossed large items into it). Traffic was bad getting onto Greensboro Rd and we still got to his house way too soon.