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Home from Orlando, Dreaming of Albuquerque

Last week my husband and I took our eight-year-old son on our first big out-of-state family vacation. When the boy was five and just starting his martial arts training, we promised him that when he earned his black belt, we would take him to Disneyworld. Three years flew by and lo and behold, it was time to go.

Our little man took his first airplane ride.

We went to the Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, and Disney Hollywood Studios…

Plus Legoland…

We swam in the outdoor pool, watched the palm trees sway in the breeze, enjoyed many interesting conversations with Uber drivers, and generally enjoyed watching our son have so much fun.

We came home to unseasonably warm weather in Michigan, though we know better than to hope it will last. And we’re getting back into the swing of things at work, church, and school.

But I find myself already looking ahead to the rest of the year’s travel. Zach to Israel, the boy and I to the Upper Peninsula, all of us to camp. And once more, in September, I get to head out to Albuquerque for the Women’s Fiction Writers Association annual retreat. The secret Facebook group for attendees has been opened and everyone is already abuzz with excitement! So I thought it would be a perfect time to work on the painting for the cover of this year’s retreat notebook.

Last year, I was flattered when our retreat coordinator and WFWA founding president, Orly Konig, asked to use the painting I did when I came home from the 2015 retreat as the image for the 2016 retreat notebook:

This year she asked me to do another. So this is what I painted today…

It’s the same lovely fountain, but much closer and from a different angle, and I composed the shot such that the background was easy to put text over and it is a portrait orientation. I’m very happy with how it turned out!

I believe I’ll get some good, professional scans done on both of these paintings so that I can make prints later, but I’m thinking about putting both of the originals in the retreat raffle. I’m also cooking up a new Etsy shop in which I can make my paintings available for purchase. They’re piling up in the house and I need to find them homes! Watch this space for more information about that in the coming months.

And Now for Something Completely Different

This week I read a great column in Writer Unboxed by Sarah Callender about navigating between hope and despair, and the part writers have in “disturbing the universe.” She used a line from T. S. Eliot‘s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, “Do I dare disturb the universe?” as a provocative jumping-off point, which reminded me how much I love that poem.

I was going to write that inspiring line down on a post it and stick it to my computer monitor. But that didn’t seem enough. So I thought I’d type it out in some interesting font, print it, and tape it up somewhere. But then that didn’t seem enough. So I concocted a little plan to do a painting. This is the result.

I’m not sure if it’s actually done yet. I may add another layer after this one is dry. But here is how I went about painting it.

First I typed up the line, chose fonts and sizes, and then printed it. I cut the words apart and arranged them how I thought they would fit on the canvas. Then I taped the pieces together and taped them to the back of the canvas so that, when a very bright light was positioned at the back, the black letters would show through.

Next, I painted over the letters with black gesso, which is a fast-drying acrylic medium.

Once I had all the letters in place, I let them dry.

I knew I wanted the corners to be very dark, so I sponged black gesso all around the outside, almost like a vignette.

I let it dry overnight, though I probably didn’t have to. When I was ready to paint today, I covered the whole thing with a coat of liquid clear.

Then I started to lay in the color. I chose only transparent or semi-transparent paints so that the black text would show through and I started with the brightest (indian yellow).

Now, as I tend to do, I forgot about taking any more photos as I laid in all the rest of the colors. But after they were on the canvas, I didn’t exactly like how they came together. So instead of trying to blend them together and hide the brush strokes, I swirled them all with a 2″ brush so that the brushstrokes would be part of the effect.

As I said, I’m not sure that I would consider this done at this point, but I think I need to let this layer of pain dry before making any further decisions about it.

This was a nice change of pace from landscapes and I got to use some very bright colors, which was fun. Of course, it doesn’t match any room in the house, so who knows what I’ll end up doing with it!

A New Literary Challenge for 2017

In 2013, I challenged myself to write one short story each month, format it for Kindle, create a beautiful cover image, and make it available to readers for 99 cents a pop. It was a fun year that stretched me and, in the end, resulted in one of those stories (“This Elegant Ruin”) being a finalist for the Saturday Evening Post‘s 2014 Great American Fiction Contest, and in the beautiful printed collection which you see on the side bar and on my Books page.

What was great about that venture is that it was completely self-directed and completely within my control. I would succeed or not succeed commensurate with my own effort and I could do everything on my own timetable.

In my writing life now, I do a lot of waiting. The submission process is out of my direct control and there is nothing I can to do speed it up. I know this, but the knowing doesn’t make it any easier to sit and wait. So I continue to write more novels in the meantime, working hard to have options should the first attempt to sell not pan out. But novels are gargantuan projects. And when they are done, they’re just going to get into line to wait behind the rest of their long-form kin.

So I’ve decided it’s time for another personal challenge that I can complete all by myself. This year I will be focusing on poetry, both writing new poems and gathering and editing old ones for a chapbook which I’ll produce myself. I believe I’ll organize it around the four seasons, since so many of my poems reflect themes of nature and the passage of time. I may intersperse some line drawings in there as well. My goal will be to have it completed and ready for purchase in late November. Chapbooks make great stocking stuffers, after all.

Today’s Painting: Rocky Mountain Spring

A couple Aprils ago, I had the great fortune to be able to spend a few days in Colorado with my childhood best friend. We went to Rocky Mountain National Park. It was amazingly beautiful. This painting is based off a photo I took there. It makes me want to go back.

The 130-Year-Old Surprise under the Stairs

In my ongoing quest to maximize storage as we remain in our house, I suggested to my husband that we should clean out the space under the basement stairs, build a custom shelving unit under there, and store hiking gear and luggage in a more efficient way. He was game and began the project a week or so ago, sawing and pounding and generally making it sound like he was removing the very foundation of the house. There were some things under there we expected to find — leftover paint, old area rugs that for some strange reason we had decided to keep even though we replaced them with other rugs we liked more, some things we used to have on the walls of our old apartment and I guess weren’t ready to get rid of, even though there was nowhere for them in this house, etc.

But there was one thing that surprised us — because we weren’t the ones who put it there and because the closed off closet under the stairs was so dark we never even noticed it.

When we first moved into the house at the end of 2005, there was a little shelf in the basement with the exact same design on it. We gave it to my in-laws because it didn’t quite fit our style. We knew it was either Eastlake or a later Eastlake-inspired piece. It would stand to reason, then, that this bundle of wood was a related piece. But just what was it, we wondered?

We brought it upstairs and started to unwrap it. It was partially packed with a September 1941 issue of The Detroit News (which I’ll show you all in a separate post because there was some great stuff in there). We laid out the pieces and started to ponder.

Some of our early theories were a mantle piece, a huge frame for a long lost mirror, or a headboard. A bit of putting the puzzle pieces together and searching for photos of Eastlake furniture online, this is what we came up with.

It’s a twin-sized headboard. It is missing at least two short pieces that would go vertically on either side of the darker piece of veneered wood in the middle. Whatever happened to those (and why the rest was saved even though it could not really be used again unless those pieces were present) will never be known.

What is quite interesting to me, knowing the history of our house, which was built in 1939, is that it is unlikely this 1880s headboard was ever used, or if is was, it wasn’t used long. The first resident of our house was a single female pediatrician named Frances Kenyon. If she moved in in 1939 or 1940, she would have used the headboard less than two years before packing it away with a 1941 newspaper (unless the paper had been around for a while before the bed was packed away).

I can envision her moving in with some hand-me-down furniture that she replaced with something more modern (perhaps something advertised in the very newspaper that was used to pack this old-fashioned piece away) when she had the means. And why did she keep the headboard she was no longer using? First of all, I know from a very knowledgeable friend of mine who is a historic preservationist that some bedsteads in past times were the finest and most expensive furniture you might own and they were passed down within families. But I’m not sure this was the case here.

More likely, I think, is that she kept it in case she might need it in the future — perhaps for a child? Frances Kenyon never married and she handed her house (my house) down to her niece, Sarah, who lived here until the early 2000s, when a young family bought it. That young family was transferred to another city, and that is how we came to own it. But maybe she wasn’t single by choice all her life. Maybe she had hoped to start a family and kept that twin headboard for a child who was never born.

And now we are left to decide what to do with it. It’s definitely been damaged while sitting on a basement floor for perhaps 75 years. It would need specially made replacement parts to again function as a headboard. And it’s just not our style. So we’re sending it to live with the shelf we already gave away. My clever in-laws will be thinking of a way to repurpose it in their home.

For me, the best part about my husband’s discovery of this artifact beneath the stairs was the pre-Pearl Harbor newspaper packed with it. I can’t wait to share it with you in a later post…

A Two Painting Day

I hope you’re not getting sick of looking at oil paintings, because I am having a blast making them. Today I executed two paintings based on photos I took while visiting a dear friend in Colorado.

PAINTING 1:

First the photo reference…

Then the painting…

I was quite happy with how this one turned out. I feel like the snow on the top gives these foothills to the Rocky Mountains a sense of dimension.

 

PAINTING 2:

First the photo reference…

Then the painting…

The angles on the hills could have been less extreme, I think. And the sky didn’t turn out exactly as I envisioned. But it’s all part of learning. I do like the foreground quite a bit.

The big problem I have now is that I have four still-wet paintings and nowhere else to put them to dry!

Today’s Painting: Spring Is Coming

Today I painted snowy mountains. It was a relaxing afternoon after two days of intensive learning, coaching, and teaching at Write on the Red Cedar 2017 (which was awesome, BTW). I did manage this time to remember to take pictures after each major stage, so here’s how this painting came together…

You start with the bottom covered with black gesso (let dry completely) then cover the whole thing with a thin coat of liquid clear. Then you put some black oil paint at the bottom as well.

The sky is next: prussian blue, a bit of black, and a bit of alizarin crimson, then fluffy white clouds with tinges of pink and yellow ochre.

Mountains are next, put in with the knife.

Highlight and shadow colors are mixed and laid on with the knife, and then comes the snow. Keeping the angles making sense took a lot of brainpower for me.

Then I added in a couple closer, shorter protrusions, which push the big mountain back a bit.

Next come distant pine trees and more snow.

Each layer pushes the last one back in your perception, and the fields of snow between help to keep them separated.

Next come Bob Ross’s happy trees. These are a little fuller than I wanted to make them, but I’m still getting the hang of it.

Add in snow beneath the trees, then pull it down with a dry 2-inch brush to make reflections. Voila! Instant water.

I ended up adding some bare trunks to make the trees less full, plus a couple more rock outcroppings because I thought there was just too much white snow all in the middle of the painting.

This one was definitely challenging, but fun!

Today’s Painting: Round Island Lighthouse

You’ll find this little lighthouse just off the coast of Mackinac Island, nestled between Michigan’s Upper and Lower Peninsulas.

I based this painting off an old photo I took back in film days.

Lots of knife work gives the flat scene a little dimension.

This is my first oil from a photo with no instructions. Had to figure out the color mixes and the execution on my own. The hardest part was trying to do the lighthouse because it’s so tiny and even with the small knife it was awkward. But for just my third time out, and my first time not following a teacher, I’m pretty happy with it.

Why I Don’t Think 2016 Was “The Worst Year”

Social media posts over the past 3-6 months would have us believe that 2016 was the “worst year,” if not ever then at least in living memory. A number of prominent celebrities died, some of them young, some of them tragically young. A fairly despicable human being was elected president of the United States and no one knows quite what to expect from him. Problems that I guess some people had thought were largely solved (though I can’t imagine why beyond wishful thinking) reared their ugly heads. Violence against people because of race, sexuality, and religion was too regular for our tastes.

Yes, some terrible things happened, and their impact was amplified by the frequency with which we saw them on social media and the 24 hour news cycle. Our parents’ or grandparents’ generation only had to confront such realities of life on planet earth once or twice a day in the newspaper or on the evening newscast, not every time they compulsively opened Facebook when they had to wait twenty seconds for their slow work computer to open a document or wait through the indecisive person in front of them at Starbucks.

But are our times truly worse than theirs? Is 2016 to be the new yardstick of calamity?

You’re probably thinking, “Geez, Erin, it’s just hyperbole. Don’t you understand simple rhetorical devices?”

Yes, I do. I also understand the power of putting our problems in perspective. And here’s just a little of that.

  • Between 1347 and 1352, possibly 50 million people died of bubonic plague, 60% of Europe’s entire population at the time.
  • In 1520, smallpox was introduced to the Americas and would eventually kill more than 60% of the native population.
  • Between 1769 and 1792, more than 20 million people succumbed to famine in India.
  • Adding up the deaths from starvation and disease during the deadliest famines in Russia (1601-1603, 1921-1922, and 1932-1934) and you get between 14 and 17 million people.
  • From 1861 to 1865, up to 750,000 Americans died during the Civil War.
  • From 1915 to 1924, 1.5 million ethnic Armenians were systematically exterminated by the Ottoman government.
  • In 1918, not only was World War I reaching its bloody crescendo, but a flu pandemic killed somewhere between 20-50 million people, depending on who you ask.
  • In July 1931, floods in China killed between one and four million people. In fact, if you look up the ten most deadly natural disasters ever recorded, you’ll find China in five of those spots, including the top four (in 1556, 1887, 1931, and 1976). PLUS, between 1958 and 1961, tens of millions of Chinese civilians lost their lives to famine.
  • Or perhaps choose any year between 1939 and 1945. In that span of time, 60 million people lost their lives (most of them civilians, 6 million of them to genocide) during World War II.
  • In August 1945 nearly 130,000 people were killed, tens of thousands of them in mere seconds, when the two atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, including 90% of the doctors and 93% of the nurses in Hiroshima alone.

And disasters, both natural and manmade, are not limited to the time before color film. I’m willing to bet that many of my readers remember these more recent events.

  • Between 1975 and 1979, 500,000-3,000,000 people died in the Cambodian genocide.
  • In the first half of the 1990s, 500,000-1,000,000 Tutsi people lost their lives to genocide in Rwanda. And let’s not forget places like Bosnia, Kosovo, Congo, and Sudan when it comes to recent genocides.
  • In 2004, an earthquake and resultant tsunami killed 280,000 people all over southeast Asia.
  • In 2010, 160,000 Haitians were killed by a massive earthquake.

By comparison to all this, even the tragedy of September 11, 2001, pales in comparison, does it not? And yet anyone alive during that time would certainly say that was one of the worst years they had ever experienced.

Yes, in 2016 there were a disturbing number of terrorist attacks, which are so unsettling because they are unpredictable and unexpected. Yes, in 2016 a number of Baby Boomers died of cancer (this is not so unexpected). Yes, a possibly fascist manchild with an itchy Twitter finger was elected president.

This post isn’t about belittling people’s feelings about 2016. Is is about helping us all sit back, take a breath, and appreciate what we’re NOT going through. The perspective we take on bad things that happen should always be informed by all of the things that aren’t happening that could be happening.

The world is a dangerous place. We are dangerous people. We do terrible things to each other and terrible things can happen to us, at almost any moment. But to let 2016 drive you to despair? What if your grandparents or great grandparents had let that happen to them when 60 million people — their sons and husbands and fathers, their daughters and wives and mothers — died during WWII?

The world will never be safe. We cannot fix all of this. We can do a lot, and that much we must do, but the world is the world. Bad things happen. And we must get on with life, striving to love one another despite our faults, and working toward peace and safety. And you know what helps in that noble pursuit? A positive attitude and a little perspective.

So stop dwelling on the past, which cannot be changed, and look to the future you want to make. Do the work, cheerfully, and maybe you’ll find in that future that 2016 was barely a blip on your radar.