on a cold and cloudy day, the colors are muted. it is stunning. the trees have reached out and caught the snow as it flew by. the branches have held onto it, inches of white topping a narrow spectrum of greys and taupe, some tree trunks black in the dim. it’s quiet. we are – on most of the trail – first there, save for the deer and squirrels and rabbits who have left behind evidence of their passing. gorgeous. i am not cold, though the temperatures have plummeted. i feel wrapped by the woods, embraced. the paradise of winter is not on some beach somewhere. it is right here, in the middle of fallow.
it occurs to me that the colors there – in the woods – are the colors in our living room. i see now why – both – they are the colors we have chosen and why they feel so peaceful. the woods is in our living room.
i turn out all the lights – each lamp – the standing lamp, the side-table lamp, the lamp in the window nook, the lamp on the secretary – but leave on the twinkling white lights on the tall branches. they light the room just enough. they are the outside, brought in, a branch from the cherished tree in the front yard, a branch from the woods. they rise high above the old wood floors and bathe this room with starry light. they do not hold the snow as it falls any longer, but they hold memories and profound reminders of the rhythm of nature.
this is, yes, i suddenly see, why this is the palette from which our living room has evolved. it is muted, a quiescent slate from which anything can grow, in which any burst of new color blossoming is celebrated, a serene woods any time we need it.
and they dreamed dreams and waited in the woods…winterberries with visions of becoming maraschino cherries in their mind’s eye…actualizing with starring roles in traditional wisconsin brandy old-fashioneds…
no, no. do not put winterberries in your old-fashioned. they are completely toxic. but they are striking and unexpected. and the color in the woods is intoxicating. gorgeous red punctuating a dim brown-grey, save for a few evergreen, they are clustered beautiful.
it had been a while, what with the freezing temperatures and snow. we finally made it out to our favorite trail and it was – truly – a breath of fresh air. there is nothing quite as restorative as hiking, surrounded by stillness and the sound of wind rustling through the tops of trees. we needed to get outside. we slogged through the trails, getting a better workout than usual. the mud splashed up onto the back of our jeans, like when you ride your bike in the rain. we reveled in it.
the deer tracks went across the path. they hadn’t been there the first time we passed through. it was early in the day, early for the deer to be moving around, but we started looking through the brush.
her sweet face was staring right at us, her body blending into the scrub and trees around her. we stood, gazing at each other, none of us moving. i slowly took my phone out to capture what i knew would be hard to discern in a photograph – this deer in the woods, this shared moment of time. she didn’t move, but her tail wagged and her ears pitched forward and back, listening. i was hoping she could hear the words i whispered to her – telepathically, a little dr. doolittle-ish. her continued gaze at us, grace for our presence, her head held high, no obvious fear. unexpected.
she never left the spot while we were standing there. she took a few steps but didn’t flee, as so often happens when you start to move in the forest. we blew her a kiss and continued on, feeling lucky to have seen her and to have spent a few minutes with her.
we passed more winterberry holly as we hiked, laughing about old-fashioneds and marveling at our new deer friend in the woods.
we exited the trail, none too anxious to leave, wanting to just linger.
“sometimes,’ said pooh, ‘the smallest things take up the most room in your heart.” (a.a. milne)
what they don’t realize is that we are really tempted to do it: get in big red and start driving to south dakota.
their message was gracious and full of light – they wrote to tell me that they loved one of my pieces and that every time it comes on their dish music channel they clap their hands and feel happy. this tiny gesture was a heap of wow for me; i am always astounded when someone takes time out of their busy days to pass on kindnesses like this.
i wrote back.
and then THEY wrote back. it was suddenly communication between real people. two people who live on nine acres in south dakota and us, here in wisconsin.
they extended an invitation for a meal, great humor, a glance into their wild turkeys and red fox and deer and songbirds, a gesture from strangers-no-longer. we felt that we’d-love-to-be-friends feeling. the black-and-white text of their email blurred to color.
we were masked-browsing last spring at one of our favorite boutiques in cedarburg. i picked up a canvas purse i had been studying and studying and studying, strapped it cross-body and walked to where the mirror was (because, if you are unaware, a mirror is necessary when purchasing a purse).
two ladies were shopping in that neck of the shop and seemed amused at all the questions i was pummeling at david. they joined in, nodding at each of my queries and looking at him with great anticipation of the sudden enlightenment he would have re purse-buying. eventually, they joined in the fray and we all started laughing and comparing pocketbook notes and requirements and successful handbag finds and great disappointments. the laughter was just utter joy and the temptation to suggest meeting-them-in-a-couple-hours-for-a-glass-of-wine was powerful. our day’s commitments didn’t allow the extra time or we would have. the black-and-white of strangers in a store shopping had blurred to color.
if we could have a party and invite people right now i am quite certain i know some of the newest envelope-addresses we would send to: kevin and his wife, the water utilities engineer. steve and his wife, mechanic of brilliance. the two shopping-ladies at lillies. and our friends in south dakota.
first glance would suggest this is a black and white photograph. an image taken through the window over our kitchen sink, a view i have seen first thing in the morning about 12,000 times and the last minutes at night just before turning out the kitchen light and moving into a time for sleep, about 12,000 times. and any time inbetween, in the day as morning marched into noon and noon glimmered into midday and midday waned into evening. each time, gazing out, about 12,000 times.
that is likely paralleling how well ansel adams knew the american west, images of wild and rugged yosemite etched into his heart. how many times this maestro of his art must have studied those vistas, photographing morsels and overviews, contrast and shading in all seasons. striking focus, his work inspires adventure-out-there-juju and, more importantly, an environmental awareness in these times of climate crisis. without color, the attention of the aperture pivots to grandeur, is not distracted, but is challenged by shape and line and form and composition.
taking a photograph through a window is different than taking it without some kind of membrane between photographer and subject. it gives space for other kinds of interaction. the play of reflection, the underside of raindrops, never-minding the swipe of window-cleaner-rags. opportunity to see, a unique peek into the familiar, wherever you might be.
this is not a black and white photograph. it is the stuff of october days heading full-steam toward november. it is the drear of rainy and damp and cold. it’s wishing 65 degrees was not vanishing into the calendar.
and yet, having looked out of that window maybe over 100,000 times all told, i know that the view, framed by a painted cornice, kitchen cabinets and our old porcelain sink, is different each day, that the days are not identical and never really the same, that change is always a constant. and that some days, when i point the camera out the window it will capture intense color, vibrant sun, blue sky, leaves the colors of fire and rust and squirrels running on the wire.
“not like my mom at all,” she said, talking about decorating in an exquisitely joyful conversation. she described her template, “the colors of a desert sunset.” i was instantly in a different place, watching the sun go down over canyonlands and high desert. i can sooo understand surrounding yourself with the divine colors of these moments; i can sooo relate to taking them with you.
as a person who has surrounded herself with rocks and sandstone and sticks and branches and feathers and pinecones of the high mountains, i get the connection to these places and the desire to live within them, even if you are not there. she went on to describe the colors, a template that made me want to immerse in them, like a favorite quilt. i lingered in every word she spoke, this beautiful, creative daughter of mine, trying to remember each one just as she described it, store them away in the kaleidoscope of treasured bits of knowledge.
i walked around our house after that. black and white. a little bit of flour-tortilla. green plants. old clay pots. old wood floors. there’s a certain ochre in our sitting room and in the stairwell going upstairs. and there’s some barn red in the bathroom. it’s kind of a cross between the extremes of ansel adams’ color palette or sheet music tablature, golden sunrise moments, a new england farm, deep woods in the mountains, canyonland red rock.
the photographs i take everyday and everywhere vary. but lately, i have found myself drawn to these small canvasses of almost monochromatic still-life outdoor paintings, just waiting on the side of the trail, waiting in flower gardens, waiting in the woods. nuances of shade, a tiny pop of color … nature’s natural inclination to visual cohesion. i’ve been especially seeing the greens in the greens, really delicious shadings, no competition for spotlighting, just color intertwined and inclusive. i’ve noticed even more distinctly the genius of a single bloom, petite berries, nestled in all the verdant green.
i came home from such a hike one day recently and took out the 1940s opalescent aqua blue hobnail glass vase that was my sweet momma’s. it reminds me of sky and water; it reminds me of grocery store flowers my dad always bought my momma. it doesn’t go with our house, i had thought, going through bins and boxes. and then, i placed it in the window seat of our black and white and flour-tortilla living room, a gentle nod to days spent in the grass drawing with clouds and on long island beaches with coppertone floating in the air. a “yes” to my daughter.
she is right. the colors in our home aren’t the incredible desert pastel spectrum, the intensity of sage peacefulness our girl described – the sunsets she holds close to her soul. but it is as particular to the desire to surround oneself with that which is meaningful, to what resonates inside, to what gives you serenity, keeps you still in all the whirling world, brings you contentment, is part of the nirvana of tranquility, is your sanctuary. it’s decorating with true heart.
“sometimes beauty is that unpredictable; a threshold we had never noticed opens, mystery comes alive around us and we realize how the earth is full of concealed beauty.” (john o’donohue)
a simple errand. we needed to pick up some furniture to transport in big red for a friend. destination: ikea.
there is something magical about ikea. we hadn’t been there in ages and were relieved to find few people there and everyone masked properly. vowing to hopefully come back soon and browse a bit, we pulled the boxes off the shelves on our pick list. pushing our cart to the front checkout lines, david, more than once, had to re-focus me away from the enormous displays of product. iphone in hand, we wove our way through the covid-floor-circles-disney-style line, waiting our turn at the cash register.
every where i looked, we were surrounded by interesting color, repeated pattern, textures that begged to be touched. david, more than once, softly called my name from the other side of the pushcart, gently spurring me out of the threshold-of-alive-mystery-of-concealed-beauty, snapping pictures with inordinate joy. “k-dot,” he would quietly prod.
the spatulas called my name too, repeating patterns of red-mama-dear-lips making me smile. spatulas are usually not mysterious creatures, but their color, design, stacking lures you out of ordinariness, opening that threshold, the place for glitter to be seen.
it wasn’t just the spatulas, though. i was victim to the lint rollers, the stainless steel utensil holders, the cork trivets. hidden beauty everywhere. i could feel my sweet momma and poppo cheering me on; they were likewise entranced by ikea.
if safety allows, we will return. there are a few small things on my own pick list i’d like to consider purchasing. but mostly, i just want to wander the aisles with my camera, noticing the unpredictable beauty.
yes, not a bad way to spend any day. noticing the unpredictable beauty.
peter max, a pop-art-expressionist, popped into my mind when david showed me this sketch. add bursts of color to this and it’s the happy full-spectrum pieces of the 60s and 70s, full of rainbow and light.
one of the presents i received for my birthday this year was a coloring book and colored pencils. at the time i was unable to use it, but i put it aside for when my broken right wrist might cooperate and i might be able to lose myself in good-old-fashioned coloring.
i dropped david’s sketch into photoshop and started to peter-max it.
the more i worked on it, the happier i became. it was so messy. but it was just so – fun.
color – this infinitely wide range of possibility – fills the lines, goes out of the lines, overlaps and bleeds into the next, reminds me that life, even in these very times, times of chaos and unrest and pandemic and exponential worry, is not just black and white. and, surprisingly, not just the blurry grey in-between.
life is much more peter max than that. messier. more color.
which brings me to this: while it is easy, particularly right now, to sort to grey, perhaps an answer to the myriad of questions is to open the delicious tin of 50 premium artist pencils. and just color.
yes. as dear jeff used to say, “that’s the ticket!”
early on…just a little bit of color…and infinite peter-max possibilities
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at a time when i couldn’t afford paint and knew nothing about painting, i painted. i was drawn to big canvasses and the household cans of black and white paint in the basement workroom. there were housepaint brushes on the workbench, many with twisted brushhairs and dried wall paint from previous projects on the handles. they felt good in my hand. i didn’t know what i was doing, but i was compelled to do it.
and so, my paintings are black and white. layers of white on black and black on white and white on black on white and black on white on black. i brushed on paint; i stood back and spattered paint. i kept going until i felt “stop”. when i ran out of canvas i taped off a rectangle, ventured out with the leftover from a can of khaki interior paint, and painted on the wall, later framing the box with a clearance frame, broken but not obviously so.
in that time of a compelling need to paint, to preserve emotion-in-black-and-white-on-a-canvas, i wonder what my paintings would have looked like had i access to all the colors in between? where would i have gone with mountain meadow green or razzle dazzle rose or canary or cornflower or atomic tangerine or fuzzy wuzzy brown?
anyone who has merely stood outside and looked up at the sky knows that the colors of life are as transient as breath. they morph and change in the moments that go by. capturing color is like capturing the wind. one cannot see color without light reflections, refractions, wavelengths, shadow, absorption. they work together so we might see the twilight sky, rainbows and unicorn horns.
is black black without white? is white white without black? is cerulean blue without scarlet? is any spectrum complete without all others in the band of light, without all the wavelengths? any spectrum at all?
do we actually realize that none can exist without the other?
“all colors are the friends of their neighbors and the lovers of their opposites.” (marc chagall)
like many of you, i have laid awake many nights now. exhausted when i lay my head down and then, voila!, wide awake. the middle of the night has many monsters these days. it used to be that as i lay awake and would get hungry and hungrier, i would convince david that the perfect thing, rousing him from sleep, would be to have a 3am bowl of cereal together. since we went dairy-gluten-free i’ve substituted and have chosen a banana in the wee hours. somewhere i read that bananas are sleep aids, so waking david up to have a banana seemed like i was helping him. but now, we have no bananas.
we need to go to the grocery store. but it’s complicated, with disinfecting wipes during our trip there and being absolutely careful upon our return home to wash everything or store it for a period of time. it’s important, vital. we step back from the person who is a personal-space-invader. we make room on the walking path for those coming the other way. we marvel at the recklessness of large numbers of people still gathering in spaces. we weep for those who have succumbed to a disease that is apparently sorely underestimated.
this painting, eve, is a beautiful landscape of color and shape. eve, religiously historic as the first woman.
is it possible that the apple of eve and adam, the one in the story from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, could now be seen as a casualness toward the spread of this pandemic, a cavalier attitude, a lack of regard toward social distancing or the peril facing citizens, medical personnel, workers at essential businesses? the apple that, in the story, changed everything, for all time?
you have to admit – the first set of stripes is way more interesting than the second. the first set. in the woods. the color combinations. all alive with hue and subtlety. the second set. static. no air. no depth. no variance.
this weekend, on a warm-day hike along the expanding des plaines river, the colors were spectacular. the blue-purple of the water late in the afternoon. the fresh-baby-grass-green of the small island across the river. sky blue, white clouds, golden sunlight. it wasn’t capture-able on film. you just had to stand there and breathe it in. stripes, patterns, shadows, delicate light, elusive dark.
by hiking often on the same trails, we can see the minor changes along the way. we take note of them, commenting on a felled tree or more water in a pond or a new nest high in some branches. there’s more mud, there are goslings, the daffodils are in full bloom, the groundcover is rich. the earth coming back out of fallow. winter’s rest is over; spring’s explosion has arrived.
for us, these winter-spring-summer-fall hikes are necessary. they allow us to see, outside of ourselves; they allow us to process good earth growth and change and color. for us, these hikes are like a security blanket. they soothe worries, sort problems, wrap gently around us.