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Archive for September, 2020

What Now? Just Keep On Keepin’ On

Seven months with three cats, two dogs and a husband, and no place to go, gives you some time to think. That’s one of the luxuries of the coronavirus threat. The first thing that occurs to you is how superfluous a large part of your life has been. You begin to think about what’s important, what keeps you afloat, what’s worthy of  your time, and what will keep your spirits up during this atypical experience.

The first thing I did was to sit down. I found myself stuck between confused and despondent. I just wanted to stay sitting down. I picked up a book and started reading. I started with Tolstoy. After 20 pages of War and Peace I couldn’t believe I hadn’t discovered him sooner. A couple of hundred pages later I realized that he had not only  introduced me to Napoleon, he had lifted me out of the doldrums. I was back. So much to do. So many more books to read, and so much more.

My first new project was sourdough bread. It took me about a month of experimenting to get it under control. But it was never tiresome. It was full of suspense, fascination and the joy of seeing the bubbles come to the top of the brew. Then the bread. After a few inevitable failures I started making proper bread. Then superior bread. And there was a delightful side benefit: sourdough pancakes. Every morning. With different homemade jams. Can life get any richer?

I soon found that I had more time for the house and–gasp–my studio, which is on the hillside just below our house. I made some watercolor sketches around the garden–which always reminds me of Monet, doing some of his most wonderful paintings of the pond in his garden. I began to see things clearly again. Was it Tolstoy or Monet helping me? Or both? In the evenings around sunset Mike and I like to sit overlooking the valley and watch the wild ducks flying upriver to the reservoir where they spend their nights. Occasionally we have a bonus and see a big heron (garza real) flapping sedately by. Yesterday evening we saw a peregrine falcon sail-hunting high over our valley. That is an indelible experience, a true luxury that doesn’t require a limousine or precious jewels. It’s free.

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Reading, Cooking, Nature, A Sense of Humor

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Sketching Is Less Like Work

I don’t know about you, but for me the sketchbook is where most of the magic happens. It’s freer, more spontaneous, less ponderous that putting paint on canvas or etching a plate. It’s actually fun and if you mess it up it doesn’t matter. By the way, the day you least expect it you can turn some of those sketches into paintings.

My latest creation is a little herb garden in that flat pot that had the pansies in it (see photos). It’s only been going for about three weeks and already we’re harvesting minute amounts of fresh coriander (chopped and sprinkled on top of Mike’s chili con carne) and basil (place the delicate little leaves on top of any pasta dish). It makes for a better life. With a few packets of seeds you can make three or four herb gardens to give to your favorite people. I also enjoy seeing the fulfillment Mike gets from working on his blog, Trump and All the Rest. He takes it seriously and has posted 175 essays over the past three years. He says he’s doing his part to help set the United States on the right track.

María José, my old friend (more like a daughter actually) and assistant in the studio, arrived back from her family summer on the beach a few days ago and we sat down in the studio and plotted together. She’s been prodding me for years to do a particular project and we’ve finally decided to get started on it. (Was that due to Tolstoy, Zola or Mark Twain? I’m not sure, but I’m eternally grateful to all of them.) Now I’m also feeling the need to start some big work. Painting with big brushes on big canvases is exciting, especially when you’ve got those sketches as roadmaps.

What Does the Future Hold?

The future holds what it’s always held: work, play, progress, surprises, setbacks, joy, sadness, disappointment and lots more. But the most important thing, whatever lands on your plate, is what the Spanish call “ilusión.” That’s not illusion in the sense of trickery, magic or mystery. It’s more about joyous anticipation. Here comes the future! Bring it on! So, what do you do? You do what you have always done. Trust your serendipity and be creative.

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And They’re Not Over Yet

The past six months have reminded me of my two favorite Spanish sayings:

  • “No hay mal que por bien no venga.” Nothing bad ever happens that doesn’t bring something good along with it.
  • “Todos los días son días de aprender.” Every day is a day to learn something.

It was the end of February and I had just had a group in my studio of 18 art students from The American School in Switzerland (TASIS). I worked with two assistants, María José and Carmen (bottom right in the photo), which permitted us, in addition to teaching, to produce a volume of work, enough to mount a show when the students got back home. It was a print production experience and it worked wonderfully well. Everybody was delighted with their prints and I was ready for a rest.

This TASIS class was the largest group I ever had in my studio. In fact, some of them worked in the Gallinero on the long workbench and outside on the terrace. Martyn Duke, the art teacher (far left, glasses), and Frank Long, the photography teacher (far right, top), two great people to work with, walked the students from the hotel over to my studio every morning. Afterwards a great grandfather sitting on a bench under a big plane tree in the village plaza said it was like the old days when shepherds would herd their sheep and goats through the middle of town on their way upriver to the mountains.

It Was a Long Rest

I didn’t realize then that we were in for a six-month–and counting–rest, as the coronavirus lockdown started shortly afterwards. Life changed radically. No more escapadas to our favorite fried-fish-and-chilled-white-wine bars. No more visits to and from friends and family. No more students. What day is it? What is the meaning of life, anyway? Are we going to get out of this alive?

Essentially I think the most important tool for dealing with dramatically unexpected circumstances is creativity. I’m always saying that creativity is not just about modeling clay or putting paint on canvas. It’s about everything we do in life. It’s our most important resource, especially in tricky times.

How to start? First of all, reading. Mike bought me an ereader for Christmas and downloaded tons of quality books. I started with Tolstoy–what a revelation–Mark Twain, Dickens, biographies of Caesar and Bonaparte, among other greats. (Conclusion: Nothing has changed.) Then cooking, first spending a month nurturing sourdough bread and pancakes (Mike says sourdough is an extraterrestre.) We’ve almost eliminated meat from our diet, replacing it with dozens of variations on different kinds of beans. Then cakes and baked apples. Oh, I almost forgot the big homemade jam selection. Our son has a fruit orchard. That helps. It’s creativity you can spread on pancakes.

As it turned out, we were lucky. We weren’t totally locked down, The regulation had a loophole for people to walk their dogs, so Diva saved our health and sanity. We would take her for walks along the old Sierra Nevada tram line or the river walk almost every day.

Another bright side: They say adapting to change keeps you young. So, when the initial shock began to wear off I decided to go back to painting. Painting was my first love, but I hadn’t had much time for it since the late 70s when I took up printmaking. Now the time was right. I even had oodles of paint and canvases I’d been buying over the years for a future when I could paint again.

Sometimes Mike Would Take a Camera

What’s Next?

Next is to keep on coping. To continue dealing with changes, surprises, alarms, disappointments, simple pleasures, polishing one’s sense of humor. If adapting to change makes you young we’ll be 10 years old before this is over. And that’s a good thing, as President Trump says Covid-19 doesn’t kill anybody… except old people.

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