A Painting Liar

black eucalyptus

“You must have so much fun, painting,” someone in the crowd at the gallery reception says.

How many times have I heard that? Too many to count, that’s for sure. How do I answer? Reflex takes over and I lie. I nod, I smile appreciatively, I give assent.

I lie because, no, it is not fun. It’s not following my bliss. It is what I do, it is a bred-in powerful sequence of systems kicking into action that mean when I am painting, I am possessed. It is the kind of prayer that wrings out the center and leaves it void.

I’m not in control, not guiding my brush, if anything the brush is taking me. For my part, I wreak revenge, I’ve been known to snap brush handles and break bristles when I paint, I hit the board or canvas with intemperate force and I cannot possibly paint fast enough. This possession is riding me, I am riding this possession, afraid to get off because like a tiger it might vanish into the grasses out there and I shall never find that particular tiger again.

Sunburst ii

You look at my paintings hung orderly in the gallery and they seem pastoral, the smooth curves of the persistent land, a sweep of one hill merging into another, transforming over the sequence from surge to fall. You look at the colors, balanced; even in my dissonances, there is a sense of one section or one extreme taking part with others so that each work pulls into a whole no matter how loud the tangerine of sun-soaked rise or cobalt-steeped dip.

Evening Flows Down

You tell me my paintings are pretty or even beautiful and I look humbly surprised and pleased. It isn’t humility, it is surprise, because I don’t really have a memory of making my work. When I say I am possessed when I paint, I mean I am no longer the self who sits here today and types out this attempt at an explanation for you. I have little memory of the acts of painting, only scraps at best. I do not choose what color comes next, I instinctively reach out, take what I need, squeeze my tubes in the middle to make them splurt out the colors my inarticulate need dictates. My hands fumble for the next sacrificial brush, trying to catch up to the idea that drives my hands. My hands, not my brain.

Funny because I have spent so much of my life acquiring techniques and honing skills. Adding everything I can to the toolbox, so that I have mastery over the options. But in the act of working, there is nothing temperate about the effort. Nothing civil or studied, nothing calculated by some cunning plan.

Unnamed Hills cropped

You know what I look like, a small dumpling of an older woman with silver-streaked black hair and thick glasses. Usually wearing a home-sewn jumper with thrift store blouses rolled up to conceal the frayed and splashed cuffs. Someone’s grandmother, decent, well-mannered, surely a gardener in her spare hours. But I am another thing when doing this work. I am the tiger, the tiger is me. I am predator after my prey, driven to take hold of it and rend it with all ferocious hunger, to remake as I feel it must be.

P1010815

The land I paint is complicit– it tells me how it wants to become onto the canvas and I channel that surge. Pastoral, what a word full of deception. Those mountains and hills, those waves ranging upon the sands are all savages with their own agendas, survivors, but never safe, they speak in terrible tongues of a drive to go on, to keep being, even though they will never be the same for more than an instant, that instant passing. All impermanent all doomed, all full of a fury at their dying moment. That is what they speak to me and when you praise the peaceful measures of my sloping hills, I smile, and I lie.

Yes, it was fun, I say, as you expect me to say.

Eucalyptus Glow

I wrote this because I just had a marvelous lunch with new friends who somehow prompted this rant out of me, and said I should, after all, tell the truth!

Looking down into Surprise Valley

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Off again!

We seethed about the Geology loading dock for a while, counting heads, listing names. Last call for the restrooms, then faculty, students and tag-along (count me) piled into the university vans. Our April 2017 Paleogeology field trip to Death Valley was off at last.

4 of crew good

How many years since I went on one of these trips? Too many. I went on one to the Goler Formation when our kid was in elementary school but she’s in graduate school now. Sure, we’d done summer trips to various sites but none had been quite like this, where you set off with a batch of strangers and after three days know each other well enough to be friends, or not….

We found a cottonwood camp site by a dried out arroyo, not a problem since each vehicle had several great jerrycans (bottles these days) of potable water–in fact we carried so much that we dumped several before we set off for home again. I’m sure the cottonwoods enjoyed that. Students had each brought their own tents and sleeping bags, or borrowed from the faculty before we set off. You can see that our own drawtight, a relic from a British arctic expedition, fit right into the landscape. Yes, we do possess something lighter weight and more modern, but in April in the Death Valley desert it can get pretty cold at night and this little friend of ours is a cozy construct.

our tent

My husband and I volunteered as camp guards. Outside of the national parks or official national campgrounds, there are of course no stations, no officialdom to protect your possessions, so we pledged to watch over the kit while the students and other faculty went off on site visits. The main purpose of the trip was to give these students a treat– let them camp in the desert and see pre-Cambrian and Cambrian trace fossils and real fossils. Think of burrow traces in mud, and stromatolites, with perhaps occasionally a trilobite in the younger strata.

on a spring evening copy

Wonderful group of students, all obsessed with mysteries of past life and ecosystems, all willing to recite at the drop of a pen, a list of favorite taxa. I have some familiarity with past life forms, but these kids could describe in passionate detail, creatures I’d never even read about. They were true fans. However I must say that later that night around the little propane ‘firepit’, (the safest source of a bit of warmth and cheer we could manage on a windy night,) the students veered off into realms of the internet, and left the faculty far behind. I noted it with a certain regret, for the other trips I’d been on with department students long years back had students so hungry for more science that they spent the night begging stories and illuminations from the faculty, because they realized that they had a unique opportunity to tap those older brains to their content. Nowhere for the faculty to run away while out camping!

For the first time I cheated over the dinners, and I’d recommend this to any of you going out for a very short trip like this with a sizeable and impatiently hungry group. I pre-cooked. For the first night I had a beef stew, long-simmered well–spiced beef until it was fall-apart tender, plus a load of yesterday’s soft-baked yeast rolls. That with salad, made for fast prep. For the next day I’d made and frozen a load of chicken curry, which with the swift boiling of a load of macaroni made for a good stomach-filler on the brisk second evening.

moon at eve copy

I’m not sure anyone, however tired, slept well that first night. The wind was a noisy companion, gusting and rising and falling almost all the night until dawn. There also came a mouse to our tent, scrabbling hopefully at one corner, so that we gave in and zipped the tent up. We came out of our tents at six thirty and everyone fed on good foods from bagels and muffins to instant oatmeal. Cups of coffee and tea, a scramble to make lunch sandwiches, and then the cry went out for a last visit to the bushes before take-off.

Again, my husband and I had set ourselves as camp guards, so all the kit could be left safely. Besides, husband had a lecture to write for the day after our projected return, and it was a gnarly one. I had paintings to paint, sketches to make, lizards and birds and insects to find, draw and identify.

For us it was an idyllic day. After the lecture was under control, we scrambled about the general area looking over the old mine sites with caution, eyes open for rattlers (I am surprised but we never saw even one, though I did spot some snake tracks in the soft sands of the arroyo.) Old settling ponds, deserted collapsed mine shafts and old slag, what had been the site of a town, and remarkable long views across desert and mountains. Phainopeplas whistled incessantly, and the soft wheep wheep of quail erupted with concern every time they came across us and realized we were alive.

The students and other faculty returned and we warmed up food for the team. Another evening around the propane firepit, less wind this time, then all fell into bed and had that good sleep that one often does the second or third night out.

Morning saw us packing out, but on our way headed out of the region we had a morning site visit to some outcrops that gave us all good views of some trace fossils, and an overview of a Tesla commercial being filmed. I noted that the photographer stopped at one point and took a few frames of us time travellers clambering about the slopes of rock. Maybe he or she was envious.

grand

Long drive home, all arrived safe and weary, but full of conversation. I know our vehicle’s talk covered everything from the ethics of diet and alternative medicine to the depiction of science in film.

I hope to work up a few paintings out of my notebook, and if I do, I shall hope to share them here.

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On the Road with Students

Last call for the restrooms then faculty, students and tag-alongs piled into the university vans. Our April 2017 Paleogeology field trip to Death Valley was off at last.

4 of crew good

How many years since I went on one of these trips? Too many. I went on one to the Goler Formation when our kid was in elementary school but she’s in graduate school now. Sure, we’d done summer trips to various sites but none had been quite like this, where you set off with a batch of strangers and after three days know each other well enough to be friends, or not….

We found a cottonwood camp site by a dried out arroyo, not a problem since each vehicle had several great jerrycans (bottles these days) of potable water–in fact we carried so much that we dumped several before we set off for home again. I’m sure the cottonwoods enjoyed that. Students had each brought their own tents and sleeping bags, or borrowed from the faculty before we set off. You can see that our own drawtight, a relic from a British arctic expedition, fit right into the landscape. Yes, we do possess something lighter weight and more modern, but in April in the Death Valley desert it can get pretty cold at night and this little friend of ours is a cozy construct.

our tent

My husband and I defined ourselves as camp guards. Outside of the national parks or official national campgrounds, there are of course no stations, no officialdom to protect your possessions, so we pledged to watch over the kit while the students and other faculty went off on site visits. The main purpose of the trip was to give these students a treat– let them camp in the desert and see pre-Cambrian and Cambrian trace fossils and real fossils. Think of burrow traces in mud, and stromatolites, with perhaps occasionally a trilobite in the younger strata.

on a spring evening copy

Wonderful group of students, all obsessed with the mysteries of past life and ecosystems, all willing to recite at the drop of a pen, a list of favorite taxa. I have some familiarity with past life forms, but these kids could describe in passionate detail, creatures I’d never even read about. They were true fans. However I must say that later that night around the little propane ‘firepit’, (the safest source of a bit of warmth and cheer we could manage on a windy night,) the students veered off into realms of the internet, and left the faculty far behind. I noted it with a certain regret, for the other trips I’d been on with department students long years back had students so hungry for more science that they spent the night begging stories and illuminations from the faculty, because they realized that they had a unique opportunity to tap those older brains to their content. Nowhere for the faculty to run away while out camping!

For the first time I cheated over the dinners, and I’d recommend this to any of you going out for a very short trip like this with a sizeable and impatiently hungry group. I pre-cooked. For the first night I had a beef stew, long-simmered well–spiced beef until it was fall-apart tender, plus a load of yesterday’s soft-baked yeast rolls. That with salad, made for fast prep. For the next day I’d made and frozen a load of chicken curry, which with the swift boiling of a load of macaroni made for a good stomach-filler on the brisk second evening.

moon at eve copy

I’m not sure anyone, however tired, slept well that first night. The wind was a noisy companion, gusting and rising and falling almost all the night until dawn. There also came a mouse to our tent, scrabbling hopefully at one corner, so that we gave in and zipped the tent up. We came out of our tents at six thirty and everyone fed on good foods from bagels and muffins to instant oatmeal. Cups of coffee and tea, a scramble to make lunch sandwiches, and then the cry went out for a last visit to the bushes before take-off.

Again, my husband and I had set ourselves as camp guards, so all the kit could be left safely. Besides, husband had a lecture to write for the day after our projected return, and it was a gnarly one. I had paintings to paint, sketches to make, lizards and birds and insects to find, draw and identify.

For us it was an idyllic day. After the lecture was under control, we scrambled about the general area looking over the old mine sites with caution, eyes open for rattlers (I am surprised but we never saw even one, though I did spot some snake tracks in the soft sands of the arroyo.) Old settling ponds, deserted collapsed mine shafts and old slag, what had been the site of a town, and remarkable long views across desert and mountains. Phainopeplas whistled incessantly, and the soft wheep wheep of quail erupted with concern every time they came across us and realized we were alive.

The students and other faculty returned and we warmed up food for the team. Another evening around the propane firepit, less wind this time, then all fell into bed and had that good sleep that one often does the second or third night out.

Morning saw us packing out, but on our way headed out of the region we had a morning site visit to some outcrops that gave us all good views of some trace fossils, and an overview of a Tesla commercial being filmed. I noted that the photographer stopped at one point and took a few frames of us time travellers clambering about the slopes of rock. Maybe he or she was envious.

grand

Long drive home, all arrived safe and weary, but full of conversation. I know our vehicle’s talk covered everything from the ethics of diet and alternative medicine to the depiction of science in film.

I hope to work up a few paintings out of my notebook, and if I do, I shall hope to share them here.

 

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A Few from the Show

Looking down into Surprise Valley.JPGTributaries.JPG

El Paso Mts Eve.JPGSunburst ii.JPG

California, full of light and darkness, in a show titled ‘change in the weather’ at Sullivan Goss, an American Gallery. Opening First Thursday, April, 2017.

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The Suitcases

two suitcases

They sent her overseas to save her life. A small-boned young woman just beginning her twenties, hair fashionably short in the American style swinging against her strong jaw, her black eyes proud and watchful, ranging over the seething common crowd of Chinese at the dock. She moved flanked by the black and white of two nuns, her protectors. I imagine her standing on deck while the vessel backed slowly out from the dock, clad in a slim navy wool coat, her gloved hand raised to shield her against the sunlight, controlled in every gesture, contained.

Her blood ran arrogant in her veins, and in the changing China they had none of them invited, my mother’s family feared she would not survive. Some day too soon, she would say a thing that would be unforgivable, in public, with the snap of authority, with the precision she had learned from tutors before she went to the nun’s school, and she would die for it. So they sent her away, with the two leather suitcases her father had owned during his years in the diplomatic service, and in time she came by ship to America. I see her small height strung straight, balanced on her tiny feet by the railing with perfect pride and defiance, her hair neat, her face wisely giving nothing away, her short gloves matching the jacket over her simple dress. She probably didn’t touch those leather suitcase handles until the end of the trip. Some ship crewman would have carried everything for her, carted her trunks packed with silk, cotton and wool, and her beloved books.

Today the two suitcases lie stored in our closet in America. I look at the imprint of her father’s name upon one, and I touch the stamped in letters. He was a modern gentleman who refused staunchly his mother’s pressure to have his daughters’ feet bound. He had them educated, and in the long nights they fell asleep to the sound of their cousins weeping at the pain of broken feet when they thought no one could hear them give way.

There are stories to tell that I will not, now, because I have one particular night upon my mind. All gold lights and black shadows, a blue so deep the sky seemed to fall away between the buildings and the leaning skyscrapers; a New York City night. The night I met my uncle by marriage, Xiao Qian.

My mother left family in China when she clutched those leather suitcases and went away. One of that family staying and studying in Beijing was a younger sister, who had the temper of a dragon, the patience of a tiger, the double cowlick that means these things, and when she fell in love with a writer much her elder in the torn China of those times, the family wrote to my mother and asked her what to do. My mother had by then married a New Hampshire farm boy–scientist and poet, and she said, it does not matter– if Margaret loves him, let her marry. Thus, younger sister Margaret married her beloved mentor, teacher and inspiration, Xiao Qian. He was of peasant origins, but had grown to be a writer of repute, and as the years passed he continued a correspondence of great liveliness with the English writer E. M. Forster.

My husband and I entered the New York hotel room to find several older Chinese gentlemen there to whom we were barely more than children, and my aunt Margaret. We settled to seats once the greetings had passed, and listened as my uncle spoke to his old friends and to us.

“You know it has been fifty years since we last sat together,” Uncle said, his round friendly face making his dark eyes look even larger. The lines of years of smiles marked his face, his alert glance moved from one to another of us. His quiff of silver hair gave him a look of humor, reminded me of a panda. “Fifty years, my friends! These were my students,” he said to us, gesturing at the gentlemen around him, and they murmured a deep note of assent and pride.

When the tide of the Cultural Revolution rose, E. M. Forster arranged a position for Xiao Qian in England, inviting him and his family to come and take up a new life. But Xiao Qian said “No, it is now, more than ever, that my country needs me, and I must stand by her and see her through these hard times.”

“I was such a fool,” Xiao Qian said, looking from one to another of us in the hotel room. “So proud of myself with my noble words.”

“My neighbors came to our house and they destroyed it, broke my daughter’s piano, smashed chairs, tore the books. Pulled us about and beat at us with their familiar hands. Stood us on the table and struck us, villified us. Our friends, the people we knew. That was only a beginning. I cannot tell you it all.

“They beat us into the street and in the days that came and went I fell into such despair. I didn’t remember my hopes for China, I could see only my own sufferings. There came a day when I decided to die rather than bear this, took pills I had hidden and swallowed them and my wife Maggie when she realized, went to beg the doctors for help but they were afraid. In spite of myself, and them, she made me live. Maggie, Maggie. My stubborn fierce Maggie,” he looked at her and she pretended not to be listening; she was like stone and fire, all the pride that she would not share implicit in the quiet lift of her head.

“They sent us to the country to tend the pigs. It was a hard life, but the abuse became less over time until it was only a hard life and no longer an impossible one. And the years passed.”

He paused, and I could not take my gaze from his homely face and huge black intense eyes. He made a little nod, a tender broken smile, a gesture of open hands.

“But you must understand this,” he said. “On that first night of our new reality when I looked upon my friends and neighbors, shouting and yelling in the night with their fists raised, with broken brooms and knives, I understood that if there had been any way to change places with them I would have been so glad to do it. I would have acted as they did, maybe shouted and hit harder whoever they gave me to strike. That old saying was true for me no matter how proud I was. How idealistic. There but for the grace of God would I have gone. Yes, there, I too, would have gone. There but for the grace of God. But the choice was never offered, that it was not, was all that kept me from being them.

“Now I am born again into the land of the living, of the remembered.” He gestured with his square old man’s hand and there was such liveliness and self-knowledge in his black eyes. “I am known now for the work I did long years ago, they do not even require that I write more. Here I am a guest in America, and I come with a message to you,” he looked about at his old friends, his former students. “You who are known as the overseas-Chinese…”

I had heard that term in my Chinese language classes.

“You are invited back to our country with honor, with welcome. None of your belongings will be touched or taxed, you will be greeted with joy for the knowledge and skills you have gained in this wide outside world. There, I have said it, and I will testify to the truth of it. Already I know families who have come back, many doubting, but they came home. So I bring you this welcome, I convey it to you all.”

“The letters,” one gentleman spoke into the silence that followed. “Your correspondence with E. M. Forster, what became of it?”

“A few years ago I received a letter from Cambridge,” Xiao Qian said, “enquiring that very thing. When I was first reinstated by the government, this letter came to me. But the letters E. M. had sent me were burned. My wife’s sister panicked when she saw how the neighbors behaved and she took all the letters from their hiding place and burned them.”

The men in the room caught their breaths in shock.

“But think,” Xiao Qian said, “for great though our sufferings were, how much more terrible would they have been if I had in my possession my friendship correspondence with an English intellectual? Treason, no less, all the arrangements he tried to make on our behalf to find us sanctuary in his land.”

“But let us talk of your lives and what has happened in them, and how you have been happy, my friends.”

Voices rose and fell, but I kept replaying his past words, looked over at my new husband and knew he did the same, saw how moved he was, his hand gripping the arm of his chair. Tears in his blue eyes.

“Yes, let us go and eat then,” my uncle agreed, turning to us.

“We will catch our train, we had not meant to stay so long, but this was wonderful. Thank you,” I said, and we nodded. We rose, but Xiao Qian raised his hand and such was his authority that we stopped.

“Share the meal with us,” he said. “This is a special occasion. This is once in a lifetime,” and the crowd murmured agreement. They swept us along, down to where a line of chauffeured cars waited, navy and black and gleaming, crowded on the street. One of these men it seemed, owned a restaurant in Chinatown and he had swept a table for his old teacher and mentor, Xiao Qian. I sat silent in the back of our limo, gripping my husband’s hand as the chauffeur wove us our way through the magic streets, and our throats were filled with tears.

second label

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Setting the Stage for the Interview Dinner

 

evewith-fireplace-and-cats-copy

Our geology department has faculty job candidates coming through and to hold down costs, candidates will not be put up in hotels but in faculty guest accommodations. The advantages? Casual discussions over coffee in the morning and with that a far better sense of what living and working here is like.

As I used to crack when I was involved in interviews for Resident Administrator positions, Attila the Hun could be charming for a twenty minute interview. One wants a lot more than an interview before we invite someone in to our geology family. The increased exposure, thus, is all good.

I’ve offered our house and food for interview dinners, as I have in some past job searches, so each candidate will come and share our home for one evening. Anyone familiar with the whirlwind of interviews knows what it is like to have a dinner interview in a public restaurant. Too-loud, inappropriate music that you have to shout over, polite and necessary but utterly derailing wait staff interruptions, problems with logistics and how to get everyone who shows up at the event a chair close enough to hear and be heard. Cross-chat inevitably ensues, the decibel level rises. The only really useful thing is if the candidate is rude to the wait staff, because if that happens, you know this is not a person you want in the family.

Home dinners can offer quieter conversations and reflection, plus time to observe the candidate when he or she or they are tired and have most guards down. This can be a chance to see personality. After nearly sixty years of meeting and greeting and talking, I would hire on character, not accomplishments. You can still make a mistake, there is no perfect method, but you’re less likely to end up lying awake in bed wondering when the knife will slide into your back. Metaphorically speaking, of course.

Now for the good stuff. Food. You bet there will be no caterer. I must make up a set of menus, not too repetitive, because many of the department participants will be coming to most if not all of these dinners. Five dinners, with leeway for the vegetarians among us. Only one candidate is a vegetarian, as if so happens, but I am well-aware that while most of the department are omnivores, some prefer to eat low on the food chain.

Color this picture with an oak fire in the fireplace and everyone sitting casually about in comfy chairs. Quiet light, no need for music or wait staff, for I always do these events buffet style. Anyone who leaves hungry has only him her or their self to blame!

So I’m thinking a North African meal, a vegetarian/pescavorian meal, a Middle Eastern meal derived in part from the Ottolenghi cookbooks, an Italian meal– polenta and mushrooms and then, perhaps a Thai dinner. Always enough vegetarian options so that no vegetarian may go hungry!

In the next few days I will share some specific menus, and perhaps even if you don’t want to make a batch of interview meals you may want to try one of these options for home and family.

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Cinnamon Cookies

Making dinner for the interview candidate and members of the department, I wanted something to go with my little custards in their old-fashioned pots. I had in mind a crisp cookie, strong on the cinnamon, a nice contrast to the creamy texture and quiet profile of the custard. Looking through cookbooks, I simply could not find what I wanted so this is what I made:

cinnamon-snaps

They were better than the custards. Hands kept returning to the bowl long after dessert was supposedly finished, to extract another and another and another. So here is the recipe.

R’s Cinnamon Crisps

1 cup butter

1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons white sugar

1/2 cup brown sugar

1 large egg

2 to 4 drops cinnamon oil depending on how you feel about cinnamon

2 cups flour

2 heaping teaspoons of psyllium husk, ground (optional)

1/2 tsp baking soda

1/2 tsp salt

2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

grated nutmeg to taste

——————————————————————

Cream butter and sugar, add and beat in egg and cinnamon oil. Add sifted combined dry ingredients remaining, about 1/4 cup at a go, until all is combined. Shape into 1/2″ high by about 2″ flattened logs, recangular in cross-section, about 10″ long. Wrap and chill about 3 hours, then slice 1/4″ thick and arrange on bakinf sheets. Bake in preheated oven (375 F) about ten minutes, but watch them because they burn quickly! Makes about 40 cookies to 50. If you like them un-crisp you can just barely bake them through. That works too.

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