Saturday, September 16, 2017

Switching Gears

It's been two years since I posted on this blog, and it's been a very busy two years. Although I am still painting (updates on that soon), I've also launched a new creative endeavor: writing fiction.

When I was six years old and was asked what I wanted to do when I grew up, I declared that I wanted to make pictures and stories. Somewhere I still have a copy of my first effort at an illustrated book about a blue jay, started when I was six. Now, nearly forty years later, I'm making another effort at a book.

I've made several false starts at fiction over the years, mostly during my teens and twenties. I've been successfully writing nonfiction for decades, and I feel very comfortable with it. Two years ago, I decided to try fiction again, this time using my nonfiction experience to help me make the creative leap. In some ways, I felt like my writing style was as constrained as my painting style: very literal, unable to depict the world of imagination or fantasy or emotion. Rather than bemoan this as a weakness, I chose to use it as a strength.

I excel at doing historical research and, thanks to my grandmother, I have an interest in genealogy. So in order to find a topic to write about, I perused the family tree and found a pair of brothers whose exploits during the Revolutionary War would make for a good story. But when the historian in me asked about their background, I discovered an even more compelling, and ultimately tragic, story about German immigrants in Maryland during the mid 1700s. I decided to write two stories: the first about the family's first two decades in Maryland; and the second about the two brothers during the Revolutionary War.

After more than a year of exhaustive research, including a wonderful research trip to western Pennsylvania and Maryland, I finally set about building a narrative around historical facts. Developing a loose outline was easy--it's the sort of thing I do very every writing project. I have an enormous "timeline" spreadsheet to guide me and to help me make sure I don't get the history mixed up.

Character development was a new exercise for me. Developing the protagonist was simple, as he appears frequently in historical records, allowing me to draw conclusions about his ambitions and values. His wife, however, was a mystery. She appears only once in the many records I found, signing off on her deceased husband's probate inventory. Similarly, other family members appear only once in the historical record, if at all (a newspaper article in the 1750s referenced eight children, but genealogists have identified no more than five possibilities). Fortunately, thanks to the gaming community, I found tremendously useful character charts online which helped me turn centuries-old names into fully realized fictional characters.

Two weeks ago, I was finally ready to start writing the first chapter. I had no idea what to expect, but what I've experienced is marvelous.

The biggest challenge is finding the time to write. I work more than full time, often getting home around 7:30. Even when I get home early, around 5, my brain is worn out. I had hoped to be able to write after work, but so far that hasn't happened. I'm not a morning person, so getting up early to write will never happen. That just leaves weekends, which lacks the frequency I had hoped for, but it does give me time to puzzle out what to do when I'm not sure which direction the story should go. This happened during my first week of writing. I knew what I wanted the next scene to be, but I couldn't visualize it, and I couldn't write it. Later, while trying to fall asleep one night, I tried thinking about at it from a different angle and realized it was the wrong scene, and the right scene suddenly came to me.

The most amazing thing is discovering how my brain works when writing fiction. When I write nonfiction, it's somewhat clinical. I piece together facts, attempt to draw safe conclusions as needed, and focus on sentence structure. Writing fiction is completely different. The information whirls around inside my head until it suddenly comes together and presents itself to me like a movie. I close my eyes and I can see the scene playing out in fast forward, slowing down if I need to hear specific dialogue, then speeding back up like an old VHS. When I'm ready to start typing, I feel like all I'm doing is describing the movie playing out inside my head. It's a really remarkable experience.

Equally remarkable is the way that the characters assert themselves within the framework I established for them, and the way that new characters suddenly emerge as a scene plays out. I can see why authors often speak of their fictional characters as being real to them. It's like the characters are creating themselves.

I've managed to write 4400 words in two weeks. If I can keep up that pace, I'll have the first draft of the first book finished in one year or less. I can live with that. The first chapter is now done, the second chapter is started. While I would, of course, be thrilled if the book turned out to be a best seller, I'm really writing it for myself, to prove to myself that I can do it, and to enjoy the creative process. At the end, I'll be able to say, here's a thing I did.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Old Skool Picnic Pavilion

After a two year hiatus, I am officially back in my painting groove. I had to relearn a few things and, as always, learned some new things along the way.

Old Skool Picnic, Lakewood Pavilion, 6 x 12 inches.

I forced myself to leave my comfort zone with this painting, deliberately tackling the challenge of painting deep shadows using only warm colors--no blues allowed! I went back to what I learned in 9th Grade (cool colors recede, warm colors come forward) for setting up contrast between the distant landscape and the foreground pavilion.

My next painting will be only slightly larger, 9 x 12 inches, allowing me to finish relatively quickly. I still feel like I need to "warm up" to painting. I want to do another 48x36 inch canvas--I have the scene for it picked out--but I don't feel up to it yet. Still rusty.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Back to the Old Easel

It's been almost two years since I posted to this blog, and very nearly as long since I've done any art. I was sidetracked by unfortunate family matters, but I think (I hope!) I'm ready to have art return to my life.

I'm about to start painting a scene from the 2011 Old Skool Picnic at Lakewood Park, using a photo I took as the source of inspiration. I laid out the sketch on the canvas a few days ago.

It's a small canvas, only 6 x 12 inches. A nice size for shaking off the rust from my brushes.

The challenge inherent in this painting is the dominance of shadow. As you'll see in upcoming posts, the figures inside the pavilion are in deep, cool shadow, while the distant background is brightly lit. I've always had trouble painting shadows, so I'm a little intimidated by this project.

I got all in a tizzy yesterday because my iPhone wallpaper, a painting by Alberto Pasini, clashes with the design of iOS 7. Aesthetically, the two things have no common ground. Then I realized that I was looking at the painting with fresh eyes, forced to think about why I like his paintings so much. Mostly, it's the brightness of the colors, the scumbling of the paint, and the way he depicts bright sun without washing out colors and forms.

Alberto Pasini, Yeni Valide Mosque at Eminonu, Istanbul, 1872.
Collection of Metropolitan Museum of Art, which has a terrible, overexposed photo
of this painting on their website, and no longer has the painting on view in the galleries.
Glad I took this image with my iPhone years ago!

By happy coincidence, Pasini's paintings which contrast deep shadows with brightly lit backgrounds are exactly what I needed to look at before going any further with my painting of the pavilion at Lakewood Park. I never would have thought to look at them if I hadn't been so cranky about the design of the iOS 7 user interface. Another example of how, sometimes, adversity can be a good thing.

Alberto Pasini, La Mosquée Moristan au Caire.
From Wikimedia Commons (which doesn't cite the owner of the painting)

Alberto Pasini, Mohohoudie Mosque.
From Mattia Melzi Fine Art website.

Alberto Pasini, Halte A La Mosque.

Enough procrastinating, time to paint!

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Capitol Women

I took a quick trip to Hartford yesterday to get a photograph of the Sedgwick statue on the Capitol building for an exhibit I'm working on. As I strolled around the building looking for Sedgwick, I couldn't help noticing that the building's artwork depicts nothing but Important Men from Connecticut history. Oh, those Important Men!

Sedgwick, on the south facade of the Capitol building.

Being a feminist, I immediately reflected on the total absence of women from the building--and then I realized that the women were all up top by the dome, mostly naked, and entirely fictional.

Back when the Capitol building was constructed, decision makers saw history through the lens of white men being "naturally" superior to everyone else. In that era, it was taken for granted that the most important events in history were all about white men.

The women arranged around the dome are allegorical figures, fictional women whose role is to passively inspire the great deeds of men or to represent concepts such as agriculture and commerce.

Just when I was beginning to feel very disheartened by the state Capitol, I discovered a statue of Ella Grasso tucked around a side of the building. Finally! An Important Woman from Connecticut history!

There are a number of niches that are empty, waiting for future Important People to be added. Hopefully they'll be filled with a more diverse group than what is already there.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Afternoon Sounds

Cars easing by, Doppler-style
Cars racing by, loud then soft
Dirt bikes revving their motors to impress
Music pumping
Children laughing
Children shouting
Dog barking
Sirens at a distance
Tree leaves rustling
Wind chimes tingling
The call of the mourning dove

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Dennis Harmon

Dennis Edward Harmon passed away suddenly in the comfort of his home on Wednesday, February 20, 2013.

Dennis was born on April 20, 1946 at the Doctors’ Hospital in Washington, D.C., the son of James and Elizabeth (Lord) Harmon. The family moved to Ann Arbor, MI soon after, and Dennis enjoyed spending much of his childhood exploring the local natural history museum.

He began studying horology, learning the skills needed for watch and clock repair, when he was 14, working as an apprentice in his father’s clock shop. Later, Dennis moved to Los Angeles and found watch repairers who allowed him to continue honing his craft as their assistants, until he was ready to go into business for himself. His first work bench was small enough to transport in the back of his convertible whenever he moved to a new location.

July, 1967

Through meticulous work, careful note keeping, sharp memory, and a brilliant mind, he quietly established a reputation as one of the best horologists in this hemisphere. He moved to upstate New York in 1978, developing a loyal customer base in the New York City region. In 1983, he moved to the Waterbury area, setting up his shop in Wolcott. Dennis chose this area partly due to its proximity to New York City, but largely because of the strength of the Waterbury region’s tool & die, watchmaking, and machine shop traditions.

In his free time, Dennis enjoyed “messing about in boats,” paddling his canoe along the Bantam and Shepaug Rivers. The few vacations he took were spent canoeing in the Adirondacks. He hoped someday to write a book about canoeing, and took countless photographs and videos while on the water.

He loved spending time with his granddaughters, watching birds and sharing the love and knowledge of nature that he had learned from his mother, who had learned it from her father. He shared that same knowledge with his daughters, and he encouraged them in their study of art. He also taught them an appreciation of fine craftsmanship. He valued doing what one loves, rather than doing something simply to earn money.

Dennis was a modest, quiet, gentle man who made friends wherever he went. He shared amazing stories about his life, the people he met, and the experiences he had.

He is survived by his daughters, Raechel Guest, of Waterbury, and Madelyne Salyer, of New Haven; by his granddaughters, Rosaria and Vivian Salyer, of New Haven; his sister-in-law, Nancy Majeske, and his nephew, Peter Harmon, both of Michigan; and by numerous cousins in Florida and Washington state. He was predeceased by his brother, Patrick Harmon, and by his parents.

Rather than holding a traditional memorial service, the family asks anyone seeking to remember Dennis or to commemorate his life to pick a beautiful day, sunny or rainy, and go for a leisurely stroll through the woods, or sit by the side of a stream, and enjoy the sights and sounds of the natural world.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Liar, Liar

This is something I wrote in 2010, and just rediscovered.  The drawings were done today, experimenting with computer art.

When I was five or six years old, living in our last home in Los Angeles, I started to develop my social skills. We lived on a street with many other children, and every day was spent playing in groups outdoors. On occasion, we ventured into one another’s homes and compared lifestyles. 

I remember marveling at a bedroom shared by two sisters who had not only their own record player, as I did, but also their own couch and small television. Imagine! A television in a kid’s bedroom! To me this was incredible, a sign of a truly luxurious life. When I expressed my astonishment, asking if their parents really let them have their own TV, one of the sisters replied “of course” in a tone implying that everyone in the world had their own television in their bedroom. 

I was acutely aware of how my life was different from the lives of my friends. Not only did I not have my own television, but there was no television watching at all in my home. One morning at school, I was sitting at a long table with several children who were excitedly discussing “King Kong”, which had aired on television the night before. 

I listened carefully and quietly as they energetically described their favorites scenes. I wanted to be a part of their interactions even though I had nothing to contribute, having never seen the movie. I laughed when they laughed, smiled when they smiled, pretending that I understood exactly what they were saying, knowing that I couldn’t possibly reveal the truth, that I hadn’t watched the movie, that there was no TV in my home. 

Admitting to being different would make me an outcast, an object of ridicule, a freak and a weirdo. I began to feel confident in my passive interaction, but then my pleasure was shattered. One of the boys, who had just finished describing his favorite part of the movie, turned to me and asked me what mine was. 

I was terrified. What should I say? I couldn’t possibly admit now to never having seen the movie. They would know that I had deceived them, and I would be deemed even more of a freak than if I had told the truth from the start. Gripped by terror, I could have frozen, I could have mumbled “I don’t know,” but instead, somehow, without any premeditation, I suddenly and enthusiastically mentioned a scene in the movie. 

The words spilled out of my mouth without my control. I watched their faces carefully, certain that I had just described something that had nothing whatsoever to do with the movie in question. I no longer remember what I said. Maybe I simply repeated what someone else had said minutes earlier. Maybe, in my panic, I managed to invent a sort of generic scene that occurs in most movies. 

Whatever it was I said, the boy next to me replied “oh yeah! I really liked that too!”  I was relieved, pleased, surprised, and confused. How did I pull it off? 

Maybe, just maybe, because we were all only six years old, the boy next to me responded the way he did not because I described a scene he remembered, but because I spoke with enough confidence to make him doubt his own memories, inspiring him to lie in response to my lie, so that no one would think less of him for not remembering something cool. 

I’ve never thought of that possibility until now, thirty-two years later, as I write this. I’ve never been much of a liar, never learned until well into adulthood that most people will believe anything they are told, so long as the speaker sounds convincing. 

Then again, maybe I really did just repeat what another kid said earlier.