The Empty Bottle. 9" x 6", fountain pen on paper.
Mexico has been much on my mind lately. In Washington, we have Obama making a bold executive order about immigration. In Mexico, continuing violence by the drug gangs, and massive public protests. Last night's anti-government-corruption demonstrations in Mexico City were peaceful, but I am worried: I've come to care a lot about this country and it people. The drawing wasn't a result of conscious thinking. For some reason we've kept this thick glass bottle that we bought in the Mexico City airport, intrigued by its name and design. Awareness of the Mexican revolution is still everywhere: in the street and building and monument names, in popular culture, in the murals. Spiraling violence, government corruption and increasing revelations of government complicity with the drug cartels have created increasing frustration and anger. After the recent killings of protesting students in Guerrero state, apparently handed over to a gang by the mayor of a town and his wife, who had ties to the group, public outcry has risen to its highest in recent memory. I'm the last person to condone violent revolution, or violence of any kind, but I greatly admire the spirit of the Mexican people and their tradition of protest, and I share their outrage. This week the image on this bottle (the paired guns, much larger, are also deeply impressed in the glass on the back) seemed ominously appropriate : the Mexican revolution was intended to give power back to the people, and they remember that. Today I saw a Mexican proverb posted on social media: "They tried to bury us. They didn't know we were seeds." How much we, in this rich country (where we buy the drugs and refuse their citizens entry) have forgotten.
Dish Drainer. 9" x 6", blue fountain pen on paper.
A very fast drawing made after dinner one night, intrigued by all the shapes and the complexity of how they fit together. This image would easily lend itself to abstraction, but I can't say that abstraction interests me very much these days. I seem to be drawn toward the concrete and the everyday.
Old doll in my Studio. Grey ink and wash on paper, 9" x 12".
I've had this doll ever since I can remember. She was given to me by a close friend of my grandmother's, a single woman who lived in New York City and traveled a good deal. I also have a small heart-shaped box with the same yarn embroidery that must have come from her as well, but I've never known what country's folkloric costume she is wearing. I've always thought she was from eastern Europe - maybe Hungary - does anyone know? Her dress is red with yellow and green embroidery and colored ribbons, and she wears a lace chemise and large gold earrings, and a long red headscarf. Her enigmatic, sideways glance intrigues me, and I'm hoping to explore other ways to use her more expressively in still life compositions.
Where are these drawings going? I don't know. Maybe toward paintings, maybe toward some larger charcoals where the relationships between objects are more developed. I figure eventually they'll tell me themselves. Right now, they are practice, and exploration.
On Thursday evening, after an appointment at the Jewish Hospital in Cote-des-Neiges, J. and I found ourselves wanting something to eat rather than driving home in the rush hour traffic. We entered a small Moroccan restaurant and sheesha bar -- not a usual place for us -- where we lounged on cushioned banquettes, ate delicious kefta and poulet grillades, drank mink tea sent to our table by the observant manager, and shared a sheesha for two hours amid the Arab men and a few women who were talking, smoking the sweet apple-soaked tobacco, drinking coffee, playing with their phones and computers, and casting an occasional eye at the Arab music videos on big screens. It was uncharacteristic for us, and deeply relaxing, and we thought about this cold city and mixed-up neighborhood where, as in old Damascus or Jerusalem, the Hassids and less conservative Jews and Arabs and Christians actually manage to live together in peace.
These are the last flowers that were blooming in a pot on our terrace, and I don't even know what they are - some sort of salvia, maybe? They're tiny and purple. I cut the last of them and brought them inside one evening earlier this week. Yesterday we saw the first snow flurries, so it won't be long.
And here's a jar of comb honey, some tea, and some almonds. I guess I just wanted to make things hard for myself - drawing thick honey with wax in it, or a cup of tea, using a fountain pen, is not exactly easy! Some kind of wonky circles here, but I like the drawing anyway.
I'm not interested at all in making illustrations, or worrying about accuracy: as a commercial artist and graphic designer I've done enough of that for one lifetime. What I'm after in these drawings is the impression of things, a feeling, and an interesting arrangement of shapes -- and the ability to capture that quickly and freshly, without making a drawing that looks labored or fussy. A true sketch. Looking back through my sketchbooks I can see a lot of progress since I started doing this regularly, a few years ago, as well as a lot of experimenting with different media and styles. Nothing feels "fixed" (and I hope that persists), except that the practice is becoming part of my life; I enjoy it, I'm happy when a drawing works out well, and I don't get upset when they don't. And I like having this different sort of record of my life. Drawings bring places, people, events and emotions back to me in a way that a photograph can't, probably because of the time spent doing them: there's an awareness of yourself as part of a particular scene that persists along with the marks that your hand makes on the paper. Anyway -- it's been worth the effort and a lot of bad drawings to get to a point where it feels like fun.
In my feed reader, the blogs I visit regularly are grouped under categories. Along with the literary and personal blogs I've always read, I've got categories for Art, for Style, and for Textiles and Crafts. When I've been working too hard and doing a lot of things for other people, I've noticed that I tend to spend more time looking at these: admiring people's ingenuity and creativity, fantasizing about projects, following links to fabrics, patterns, materials. It's one of my particular forms of escapism.
Recently a friend linked to a UK quilter's site, issabellathecat, and I was immediately attracted to the bright, vibrant colors -- like Mexico! -- and no wonder, it's getting pretty grey here in Montreal! Quilting, I thought, yes, that would be just the ticket: repetitive, soothing, not too demanding on my eyes or my head. Of course, it would be fun to buy a whole bunch of new fabric, but I thought maybe I ought to pull out my quilting bin and see what was in there. I laid out a bunch of uncut fabrics that I'd collected, and considered those, and then I unfolded this partially-finished quilt top, started at least twenty-five years ago. (Like Isabella, Manon was immediately "helpful.")
It would make the most sense to just finish this nice quilt, wouldn't it? Maybe I will, and maybe I won't. I did iron it, and lay it out on the floor:
My design and color sense has changed and gotten a lot bolder since I made the first blocks, the small blue ones. The last time I worked on it, maybe ten years ago, I added the strip along one side with the larger triangles, and started to think about how to complete the top asymmetrically. There's plenty of fabric to do it, it's just a question of whether I really want to, since these colors and this type of design aren't quite what I had in mind, although I still like them a lot. Or it could quite quickly become a large crib quilt for a new baby, rather than growing enough to fit our own bed.
The green fabric was an old dress of mine from the 1970s; the bodice is still in the bag with the quilt pieces, while the skirt has been cut up. Funny, all the associations and places this quilt top brought back: the art/sewing room in my old house; the small but special fabric store in Norwich, Vermont where I used to shop; the place I bought my first rotary cutter; the wall hanging I made from a similar triangular design, using some of these same blue fabrics, after my grandfather died. I thought about how much I used to sew, and how little I do now, but it wasn't with regret, just noting the fact. Life moves along and our priorities change, as well as how we allot our time. Twenty-five years ago, I had lots of time in which I sewed and knitted and grew my own food; now I live in a city, do different things with the same basic desires; our patterns have changed. That's fine. But it's also good to check back and notice why I had the urge to do something like this. Maybe I need to slow down, work on something repetitive and calming, without a deadline, something that's just for our home, for keeping warm, for the nest that we need as winter approaches. And maybe what I need to do is to buy some bright colors and make something completely different! It's actually OK, I've learned, not to finish certain things, but just listen to them.
(later: someone seems to be claiming it, wouldn't you say?)
Japanese Anemones, pen on paper, 18" x 6" (left side), 10/22/2014.
Amenone is a Greek word that means "daughter of the wind" -- an apt name for these flowers who do the wind's bidding; their common name is "wind flower." Ovid wrote in his Metamorphoses that they were created when Venus/Aphrodite sprinkled nectar on the blood of her dead lover, Adonis.
The Anemones are a large group of flowering plants within the buttercup family (Ranunculaceae): there are some 120 species. They're related to Hepaticas, my favorite spring woodland flower: something about this particular petal form, with its ring of stamens around a center, simply touches me.
I first discovered the fall-blooming Japanese anemones when a family friend brought a huge bouquet from her garden to my mother, that October when she was first ill. The white flowers were very delicate, moving with the slightest breeze. Sitting in a glass vase on her bedside table, their beauty and fragility seemed to affirm the truths of life itself. Along with lilies-of-the-valley - those spring flowers that bloomed at the time she died - these fall flowers became reminders and personal symbols for me.
Japanese Anemones, pen on paper, 18" x 6" (right side), 10/22/2014.
However, I had never grown them, and I had to search for a source. The more ubiquitous and tougher mauve/pink varieties were easier to find, and I also found out how invasive they can be: I now have a veritable hedge of them in my garden that has to be hacked back every spring. But it was the white ones I really wanted to grow. Finally I found a Japanese cultivar at Jardins Jasmine, a professional nursery here in Montreal. It's taken two years for the plant to become established, but this year it bloomed beautifully. I not only love the fully-open white flowers, but also the plant's form, with its tight round buds, and spherical seedpods that remain on the multi-branched stalks after the petals fall. Yesterday, after putting my garden to bed for the winter, I cut the last branches and brought them home; along with a few dahlias, they were the last plants blooming in my garden and would clearly keep going right up to frost. The flowers won't last long in the warm indoors, though, so I did a drawing, wanting to capture their essence.
A few weeks ago, the husband of that family friend died, in his mid-80s, and I thought again of the bouquet of anemones, and of those two long happy marriages. I hope the wife will find comfort in her garden and be able to make a new life for herself, as my father has: not forgetting, but still living, loving, creating, blooming.
This party was for the launch of Jonathan's new book How Many Roads?, but it was also, for us, a symbolic moment to celebrate our first ten years in Montreal and the sense that we have truly settled: we've never had an open studio party before, inviting our friends to see where we work and spend so much of our time, and for this party we really cleaned and reorganized the place, so it feels newly special to us too. Above, some of the guests are listening to Jonathan speaking about the project, and how grateful he was to everyone for being there with us to celebrate.
When I said a few words about myself and Phoenicia, I mentioned how I had never been the same as J. or some of the other guests who had always known from an early age exactly what they wanted to do with their lives -- mine has always been a question of trying to balance a bunch of different interests and struggling with the problems that created. It's only been since moving here, in the past decade, I said, that I've finally felt all the threads of my life coming together, with a sense of integration -- and it was quite wonderful to look out and see these friends who represent the different parts of my life -- artists, writers, musicians, gardeners, neighbors, family, friends who share a spiritual path, all of whom have come from many different parts of the world -- and to be bringing out this book from a publishing venture that also brings together many of the things I do that formerly felt separate. In the end, I said, it wasn't "success" that mattered, but giving yourself fully to things that you are passionate about, and sharing that with people you love.
J. gets smooches from our friend who blogs as Duchesse at Passage des perles.
Our niece came up from New Hampshire the day before to help us, and we couldn't have done it without her. We also had a lot of help from friends: here's some of the gorgeous food arranged (and photographed) by Priya Sebastien.
The author/photographer inscribes a book.
More food beautifully arranged by Priya, with a Middle Eastern flavour.
The guests devoured a carrot cake, iconic of the 1960s (that was in the absence of the even more iconic brownies of that era.)
And here we are with screenwriter Martine Pagé (Ni Vu Ni Connu) who helped hugely by handling the sales during the party. She and her partner Ed Hawco (Blork Blog), who took these and many other photos as a gift for us that evening, were our first friends in Montreal and we've stayed fast friends ever since -- not surprisingly, we met through blogging!
On Thursday we left Montreal rather precipitously, planning to attend a 2:00 pm graveside service for an elderly friend the following day in Washington, D.C. After two hours in solid rush hour traffic, trying to get out of the city, we headed down the Northway, but by the time we reached Albany it was already late and we were exhausted. So we crashed in a motel in Schenectady, and the next morning reassessed our plans; it was clear then (as it had really been the night before) that we just didn't have enough time to make it to Washington by early afternoon.
So we contacted our family and friends, explaining the situation and saying that we'd be with them in spirit (as one of them remarked, Jewish funerals and long-distance travel are a difficult combination), and instead made a right-angle turn onto the New York Thruway to go see my father.
As it turned out, we had a beautiful drive, both going and coming, and a wonderful fall weekend in the countryside that I love so much. After all the busyness of preparing for J.'s book launch, it was a restorative few days, with long nights of deep sleep, natural quiet broken only by the calls of geese and the chatter of squirrels and chipmunks, foggy mornings that gave way to bright clear days, the saturated color of hardwoods in autumn, and time for me to wander in the woods and along the lakeshore, and sit quietly looking out on the meadows. I had been wanting to go there very much; this felt like an unexpected gift.
Most importantly, it was a good visit with my father, who's doing very well. We had already shopped for a turkey, and bought a giant stalk of Brussels sprouts, a berry pie, lettuces, cranberries, and new potatoes at the local farmers' market on Saturday morning -- all the ingredients for a Canadian Thanksgiving dinner for my father, his girlfriend, and four guests. The next day Dad and I raked and hauled a lot of leaves, and then he went up on the roof to clean the gutters while I steadied the ladder and fetched whatever was needed. It was such a glorious day - crisp and bright - and I felt so happy and so much in the moment. In spite of his age, Dad was very nimble up there on the roof, and quite glad to be getting this task done. At one point he asked for a rope, and I tossed him a coiled clothesline, which he deftly caught. "Nice toss, eh?" I remarked.
He grinned down at me: "And did you see that catch? Left-handed!" and it seemed like twenty, or thirty, or forty years had just been erased.
He sat back on the roof and surveyed the shingles, and the trees beyond them that so faithfully shed their leaves to clog the gutters and the drainpipes. "You're going to need to put a new roof on here one of these years," he said, turning back toward me after a few minutes with a wry look.
"How old is it?" I asked.
"This one's original, and it's still OK," he said, gesturing toward the addition he and my mother put on in the 1990s. "The other one has been replaced once. I did it with Harold Shaw, long time ago." He shook his head: "I didn't like doing that work very much."
"At least it's not as steep as ours was in Vermont."
"Right. I went up there with Jonathan once - that was really steep. No matter what, houses are so much work, there's always stuff to do..."
"But it was fun; your mother and I had a good time building it, figuring stuff out."
He uncoiled the rope: "OK, Bethie, now go get me a bucket half-full of water, and let's see if we can get any of it to go down through the drain..."
Portrait of my husband, pencil on paper, approx. 14" x 10." 1988.
We've been going through a lot of old boxes and drawers lately, and I found a bunch of drawings that were nice to see, both for the art and the memories. I'm not sure I could even do a drawing like this anymore, or if I'd want to, but that kind of realism and detail were what I was into back then, and it was good training.
Thingvellir, Iceland. In the far distance you can see Skjaldbreiður, ("Broad Shield"), the prototype for all shield volcanos worldwide.
Standing in the main rift, Almannagja, which marks the eastern edge of the North American tectonic plate.
Three years ago, this past weekend, I was at Thingvellir, the great rift valley of Iceland. It was my 59th birthday, so I'll always remember the date. A lot happened that day that changed me. Even though we didn't witness an active volcanic eruption, we were surrounded by raw evidence of the earth being born in the not-too-distant geological past, and by a kind of beauty I had never before seen. Something happened that shook up my sense of time and solidity, and of my own identity within it. It took me a long time to understand why I felt so captivated by the strange forcefield that is Iceland, but one result was the reawakening of my own artistic creativity: not just because of wanting to express what I had seen and felt, but because I had a renewed sense of myself as an intrinsic part of the creation that is always happening, a link in the human chain of becoming, creating, and passing away that mirrors events in nature.
Three years later, I've got an unfinished but fairly extensive book manuscript, a lot of directly-related artwork, and seem to be back on a track of sustained drawing and painting. I'd hoped to go back to Iceland again by now (and we will, eventually, who knew we'd go twice to Mexico instead?) but, more importantly, it has become for me a kind of spiritual island, an Avalon in the middle of the far northern ocean, both real and mythic. I visit it in my thoughts, and feel sustained and encouraged by what I discovered there.
Lake Þingvallavatn. Charcoal on prepared paper, 30" x 22".
Notes below...you might prefer to watch the video in fullscreen mode.
The Lachine Rapids are a stretch of impassable water in the St. Lawrence River just upstream from the city of Montreal. Jacques Cartier was the first European to discover them, in 1535, and they stopped him in his search for the Northwest Passage.
Ships can now go around, via the St. Lawrence seaway, but the rapids are just as impressive and daunting as they must have seemed to the early explorers. Kayakers go down them, and tourists in inflatable boats...we saw both while we were there...but the risk of drowning seems very real. Fishermen are required to wear flotation vests, and visitors keep a close eye on their children.
There's a narrow path between the river and the still ponds on the opposite side, and a lot of native wild flowers augmented by natural plantings with species chosen to attract and support wildlife.
This park is a public area within a large migratory bird sanctuary that encompasses several islands in the middle of the river, and it's filled with bird life all year. Redwing blackbirds were very prominent while we were there, along with many ducks and geese, and of course many seagulls and other marine birds. We saw a dozen white egrets on the protected Isle aux Herons in the middle of the river.
We sat for a long while watching a flock of common terns feeding above this section of the rapids. They're one of my alltime favorite birds -- I love watching them fly.
It's pretty amazing to stand in the same spots where Jacques Cartier and Samuel de Champlain must have stood -- you can almost hear them saying "Merde!" The rapids can't have changed much at all in the five centuries since then, and the power and magnificence of La Fleuve remain undiminished.