Painting through My Year of 'Living Dangerously'

Painting through My Year of ‘Living Dangerously’

I have now painted through more than half of  my ‘Year of Living Dangerously’, painting mostly without knowing that I was ‘living dangerously’. The previous year was my ‘Year of Sorrow & Stress’ as I watched my mother fade away in both body & spirit. She passed away in January, leaving a very contradictory hole in my heart—much joy and relief that she was no longer in any pain, and terrible sadness that she was gone.

Detail of 'A Piece of the Northwoods'
Detail of ‘A Piece of the Northwoods’

I have focused pretty much exclusively on my art career this past 7 months. In January I started with 2 paintings – a botanical for our New England Society of Botanical Art show ‘From the Mountains to the Sea’ (currently showing at Duxbury Art Complex, Duxbury, MA) and a Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout for an ad in Gray’s Sporting Journal. Once those were finished,I started furiously painting new works for the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition (SEWE) in Charleston. I managed to finish 4 new works before leaving for Charleston on February 11th; a Screech Owl on vellum and 3 small wildlife works in a new technique called ‘the Mische Technique’, a combination of oils and egg tempera. (Click this link for a demonstration).

One of my Mische paintings travelled to Charleston taped in a box because the varnish was still tacky!
I love participating in this show—it is inspiring to be among your peers—we all go home with visions of new paintings in our heads! However, I only sold one painting at SEWE this year—one of the new Mische paintings, a bear. I spend a lot of my talking time educating about vellum—what it is, its history, and how to paint on it. I still need to create a video showing the highly detailed technique. It will help to show just how much time it takes to create even a small painting – and why my prices are higher than a similar sized painting done in acrylics or oil. I was also inspired to totally revamp my website, so when I returned home I spent a few weeks doing just that, choosing a new WordPress theme that I am happy to say I still like.
While in Charleston, I learned that I had been chosen to exhibit at BISCOT (Botanical Images Scotia) at Gardening Scotland in Edinburgh, Scotland at the end of May. I had submitted my request to exhibit in January having already been accepted by the jurying committee several years earlier. After being accepted, an artist has 6 years to apply for space to exhibit. Once accepted, you have to show a minimum of 6 paintings, preferably based upon a theme as that is considered more favorably by the judges. I had thought I would paint either wildflowers of Yellowstone, or the vegetables and fruit of Villa Palmerino in Florence, Italy where I stayed for a two week artist-in-residency program in 2009. Sometimes my careful plans and ideas are replaced in an inspirational instant with something totally unexpected. While in Charleston, I stay at the Inn at Middleton Place which is next door to Middleton Place plantation.

Camellia japonica 'Elegans'
Camellia japonica ‘Elegans’

During my week there, the camellias were in riotous bloom, taking my breath away with their out-of-control wild beauty. Instantly, I knew that the Camellias of Middleton Place were going to be my subject matter for the exhibit. I took many photographs, did color sketches and notes, and came home to start on my paintings. I was still painting on the 6th and final painting the night before I left for Scotland 15 weeks later!
I was only planning on going to Scotland for the show weekend, but my husband, Greg, graciously told me to take some time off and do a little traveling. Travel soothes my soul; it is part of who I am and what I love to do, a passion shared by my mother. In the latter part of her life, while she no longer was able to travel herself, she enjoyed traveling vicariously through her children and grandchildren.
I hadn’t really taken a mental break since she had passed, and this was just what I needed. I booked 4 days in my favorite place in Scotland, the Isle of Mull, knowing I wanted to stay put somewhere instead of my usual roaming. Coincidentally, my sister Lissa, her husband Bob, and my niece Kasey were planning a trip to Scotland the very same week! They arranged to stay 2 nights on Mull with me and I was able to share with them one of my all-time favorite experiences; the puffins on the Isle of Lunga, one of the Treshnish Isles. It was just as magical as the first time I visited! They continued on their trip and I immersed myself in the outdoors; hiking, photographing and sketching. Heaven! I was sad to leave the island and head to Edinburgh – where I had to set up my exhibit for the 3 day show. I love Edinburgh, but the people and traffic were a shock after the quiet of Mull where the sheep outnumber the people by a lot! I am pleased to say that I was awarded a Silver Gilt medal (in between a gold and a silver).

Detail of Camellia japonica  'Lady Vansittart'
Detail of Camellia japonica ‘Lady Vansittart’

The comments of the judges confirmed my own thoughts, I simply ran out of time to finish my paintings completely. All the things that I wanted to continue working on were what they pointed out as not up to par to the rest of the paintings and what kept me from receiving a gold medal. The paintings are back home and I intend to do a little more work on them…! Another bonus, since my sister, brother-in-law, and niece were coming to Edinburgh for the weekend, I was given the freedom of spending the weekend with them instead of staying with my paintings. We had a great time touring Edinburgh and visiting the pandas and penguins at the Edinburgh Zoo.

I came home from Scotland with a class to prepare. I had been asked to teach a class called ‘The Art of Composition’ at the New York Botanical Garden. It is a class that the Garden added to the requirements for getting a Certificate in Natural History Illustration. I had written the syllabus before I left for Scotland but now I had to prepare the lessons. It was a revelation for me; composition is not something I think about consciously on a day-to-day basis. In teaching my students the rudiments of composition I was re-learning the importance of being ‘mindful’ of it myself. I will post more on this in the future. It was another stone laid into the foundation of my new focus on my art.

And now here I am – 7 months into the year, 6 months after my mother has passed. The past few years I had been working on building up my business of handpainted yarns, spending many hours dyeing the yarns, traveling to shows, working on a website and website sales, all hours not spent painting. I told myself that I was trying to create a business that would have steadier cash flow than my art business. I pretty much only painted when I had show deadlines; certainly not a good business plan for my art career!

I have only attended two sheep & wool shows this year, and the time spent dyeing yarns for them was fairly minimal. I was painting pretty much non-stop on the camellias, 8-12 hours a day, 7 days a week. Somehow, I had made the unconscious choice to focus on my art instead of the yarn. A total flip-flop from the past few years. Huh? The last month or so I have been researching ways to market my art; to make my art a successful business. Along the way, I have finally admitted to myself that all the things that I had been doing instead of painting, were just a foil, a way to ‘procrastinate’ if you will, from embracing head on who I really am and from facing the fear that I will never become a ‘successful’ artist. I believe now that my soul came to a decision without telling me straight out, so that my brain couldn’t argue with it! That old right brain/left brain thing, practical (make money) vs creative (make art). After watching my mother’s life fade away and blink out, my subconscious could no longer let me fritter away my talent, no longer let me work at it in dribs and dabs, but compelled me to take it on and make it work, to merge the right brain/left brain argument in my head —to create my art and create prosperity at the same time. Perhaps my mother’s death made me face that old cliche, which is so true – that we are all mortal and we only have so much time on this earth. My time was a ‘wastin’ so they say. I have finally made the conscious decision to rid myself of the past’s baggage and to focus all of my energies on my art and creating.

I thank you Mom, for your one last precious gift to me – helping me to see clearly who I really am and what I need to do – live dangerously and paint.

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