After a lifetime career of serving the United States overseas as a federal employee and the spouse of a federal employee Foreign Service Officer, I’ve lived through fatal pandemics, lockdowns, and years of nothing on grocery store shelves. My family made it through, and you can too. Here’s what I’ve learned.
We served in Caracas, Venezuela a few years ago, spanning the transition from Chavez to Maduro. When we arrived, things were pretty bad – in fact, worse than we’d be led to believe – and we were now in a country facing deep shortages and gripped by fear, uncertainty, and anger. When we arrived, economic issues were at the root of the pervasive violence: carjackings were common, as were muggings, home break-ins, and kidnappings. And when I say “common” I mean it. Everyone knew someone who’d been the victim of at least one of these, despite security measures…
We returned a few days ago from a 15-day trip to Portugal and Italy, during which time I was carrying a mini-art supply store with emphasis on watercolor paints. I only took them out once, on the riverbank in Porto. (In general, I confined my ambitions to pencil sketches, which familiarized me with the cityscapes I have been working on in different media after returning home.) My intentions to do more were good but we were literally always on the move: touring historic monasteries, having a cappuccino on the Parco do Comercio in Lisbon, visiting little stores in the Alfama district, exploring the Castle of St. George in Lisbon or the Pena Palace in Sintra, taking a tour of the ancient library in Coimbra, visiting the bookstore in Porto where J,K. Rowling got her inspiration to write the Harry Potter series, taking the funicular down from the heights of the fashionable Chiado district in Lisbon, and exploring the seaside area of Cascais, including the Boca do Inferno (Mouth of Hell). People from all over the world had the same idea; there were many tourists from Asia, Germany, Italy, and Spain, but in general the crowds were less than they are in the summer months.
Suffice it to say there is much to see in Portugal (and Italy, of course), so sitting for the requisite time to do a watercolor was not at the top of the list (admittedly) this time. There is much to cover, and if you enjoy walking, you can simply walk to many of the most interesting sights. There is a lot of history to learn, beautiful tiles to admire, great food to eat and wine to drink, different port wine to taste, markets to explore, and lots of steep cobblestone streets to climb. Another spectacular “mirador”–or lookout–was always right around the corner–unexpectedly opening up into a flat piece of terrain just when you needed a break–and here one could sit, have a drink (or a snack) and gaze at the view, enjoy the breezes, and listen to live music. There are kiosks everywhere where one can buy a beer, wine, or a port, and sit and watch the light change over the expanse of the Tagus River as the sun slides over the western horizon. Shops filled with bags, shoes, hats, placemats and other items made out of cork were everywhere, but usually the quality was good. The ubiquitous T-shirts were noticeably higher in quality that equivalent T-shirts usually available here due to their high-quality cotton content. For those who are thinking of going, I’d also recommend the Oceanarium in Lisbon and the Gulbenkian Foundation Museum. (There are many inexpensive options for places to stay in Portugal—safe, well-located, and even charming–as well as more expensive places to suit every taste, and public transportation, including inter-city trains, is a bargain.)
The light was almost always perfect for painting, with the flows of tourists manageable in September. It is a must for a repeat visit. (Our visit to Sardinia had just as special light and very different features, including turquoise seas, and windswept cliffs in a raw sienna hue reflecting the bright sunlight from far away. Really spectacular for the artist, the hiker, and the nature-lover, as well as people who love to sail.)
There is at least one excellent art supply store in Lisbon and it is located next to a fine arts university in Chiado. Online ordering has not yet taken off in Portugal, at least not as much as in the U.S., so the quality of the wares–especially textiles, baby clothes, ceramics, wood, wines and foods, as well as some stationery paper products–were noticeably good. For those who have the time and opportunity to get away and get different perspectives on our present, Portugal is a great choice.
Here it is already June! What do I have to to show for it being almost mid-year 2019? I’ve not been painting as much this year– due partly to some work-related priorities but mostly due to a combination of too many choices with regard to painting media and some news-overload paralysis, I’d say. Painting more frequently is absolutely essential to becoming more proficient and I’ve totally failed so far in that goal this year. I keep watching other painters’ blogs though, and am finding that some painters whose work I respect are rediscovering the value of working from reference photos (which means painting inside).
But we’ve had gorgeous weather beckoning me outside. And: I finally broke open a packet of watercolor paper I bought on the trip to Germany earlier this year–paper that’s hard to get in the U.S. (Being interested in paper, this is a sort of ‘me’ thing, I guess.)
Since we had a gorgeous weekend, I found myself down at the Georgetown Waterfront where there is an unbelievably tranquil park. Enjoying gentle breezes and the surprisingly wide-ranging discussion with me (immigration, climate change, human trafficking, mangroves, wetlands…and how they are all interconnected!! So very impressive!) of a young lady visiting from Utah, I created the following scene without spending much time setting it up. The paper is amazing and so thick it would be shame not to follow up and paint something else on the reverse side.
Earlier this year, I managed to get out and do other scenes of some parts in Washington, D.C. This city is famous for many things but people out of town may not be aware of how many absolutely gorgeous and well-maintained parks there are in this region, many in the heart of D.C. while others are in surrounding neighborhoods. It would be a shame to miss some of them no matter how short your visit. I’ve included below a few painting sketches from last year as well!
Here it is almost mid-May and it’s been a while since I’ve even done any art work at all. Mostly that’s been due to some work that needed doing, including sorting out the art room and emptying out a big storage room in the basement. It’s the sort of thing that many people do in the spring. In fact, my next stop today will be to a donation center.
I’ve been thinking about how to pursue some interests related to climate change in our chaotic world and it’s harder to thread these subjects around my art experiences than I thought originally it would be. I had hoped to fuse art with climate change into a book of some sort, but I find I need more space to collect my thoughts on the latter–for a book proposal I’m working on. Not everyone is as interested in this topic as I am so I won’t keep coming back to it here on this blog, which was–however–created to discuss surprises, anomalies, discontinuities and warning challenges. (The first posts in 2014 and 2015 do just this.) Instead, here’s a link to the brand new WordPress blog with one blog post–“Whale-watching and New Realism in Global Affairs” so far on it: https://wordpress.com/view/caroldumaine.com
If you visit my new blog, you’ll find that the first post is about….gray whales! “What do they have to do with climate change?” you might ask. That is, in fact, the point of this first blog post. We are seeing anomalies in the behavior and migrating patterns of these magnificent creatures and scientists who have studied them for many years don’t understand these anomalies. Imagine, the gray whale is a descendant of a whale that roamed the seas some 30 million years ago! If ever we’re going to see a signal of changes on our planet, it would probably be with a living creature with such an unimaginably long lineage. (There are many connections to art in all this line of thinking, some of which I’ve explored in previous blog posts; the main connection of interest to me is one of re-perceiving the world around us, in a way that overcomes “analytical” thinking that conditions us to see what we are prepared to see, and little else! Learning how to re-perceive our world may be central to the “security” of the human species going forward so, you see, that’s how I connect these disparate subjects.)
My interest in the gray whales was sparked nine years ago this week, when a gray whale was spotted in the Mediterranean Sea. Gray whales had not been spotted in the Atlantic Ocean, let alone the Mediterranean, up to that day in May 2010 for at least the last 300 years. Gray whales went extinct in the Atlantic for reasons still unknown sometime around 1800. No one was prepared to see a gray whale in this location, and it’s clear that they could barely believe their eyes. This was not really possible, said their minds, but their eyes said it was. This gray whale would have been from the North Pacific ocean most likely, so scientists wondered how and why it traveled to the Mediterranean. Scientists thought that perhaps gray whale populations had somehow reconstituted themselves in the Atlantic and no one had noticed it. However, almost a decade has gone by…and we still don’t know.
Today the sun came out after a somewhat overcast morning sky and, after various Saturday must-do’s were done, it seemed like the right time to go find horses to paint. I went for the first time in many years to a certain nearby park and before too long discovered I had truly overachieved. After sketching out the scene on my paper, I realized a major equestrian event was about to start literally right around me.
Illustration: “Frying Pan Park,” Watercolor, gouache, and ink by Black Elephant Blog author (2019)
Riders on beautiful horses waited their turn just a few feet away, and judges, photographers and a large audience were perched on a hill below some trees to my left. I couldn’t have planned this better since I arrived just beforehand. Fortunately my spot next to some conveniently large and flat rocks was not in anyone’s way. I managed to focus on the scenery and capture some of the horses and riders warming up on lower field before the big competition. The spring colors of the trees and fields were striking, but I also tried to capture some of the scene right in front of me. As usual, the master works of such scenes that I know best (from Degas or Dufy, for instance), are in oil paint, not watercolor, and I am thinking to try an oil painting of this scene before too long. Drawing horses can be difficult but the style of Raoul Dufy is quite loose and freeing, and that is probably what I’ll try next as an experiment.
Spring is finally here even though a chill wind creates little choppy waves and white caps on the lake near my house. But now, new blossoms around our neighborhood are blindingly radiant. They won’t last long so we’re trying to take it all in now. When we’re out walking, they bounce in the breezes overhead as if tossing folds of white and pink skirts to show off. Bright forsythia complete the color show. It’s tempting to set up an easel immediately but a quick check this morning confirmed that the temperatures are just above freezing.
Illustration: “Spring colors”, 15″ x 7″ watercolor, gouache and ink on Fabriano Traditional White 140# watercolor paper by Black Elephant Blog author
It’s hard to believe a year that starts off with such a gorgeous spring could be anything but fabulous (though, of course, sadly, there’s many more reasons geopolitically at least why it might not be–but that surely is for another blog post, and maybe even another blog). Art is a great way to escape from whatever is preoccupying one. Anyway, it’s time to get out the paints and the pastels, pencils and erasers, and experiment. No pressures, just to see what happens.
Illustration: “Bouquet,” hard and soft pastel on Claire Fontaine Ingres Pastel “Bright” paper, by Black Elephant Blog author (2019)
Here’s a bit of the latest work, including a pastel on a Claire Fontaine Ingres colored pastel paper made in France. (Note: this paper has a sort of grid imprint that shows up in one’s work, not an effect everyone is seeking, but I was using it for the background color.) I’ve found that I can make copies of these on a little printer and give them out as cards, when I need one.
Recently, over the weekend, we had a warm Saturday afternoon, so I set up a watercolor easel downtown in the driveway of an unoccupied ($8 million!) house opposite this cemetery gate. It was a great spot, just out of the way of the pedestrians with a direct view of the gate. I’ve been fascinated for several years by the famous Fauvist Raoul Dufy’s treatment of gates (he mainly painted in oils), so perhaps I’ll give this one another try. It’s the gate to the Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown, Washington, D.C. The cemetery was founded in 1849 and overlooks the Rock Creek Parkway.
Illustration: “Oak Hill”, watercolor, gouache, and ink on “15x “11 Arches 140# watercolor paper
I’ve just returned from a two-week trip to Germany and Austria, mostly to visit with family but also traveling with close family.
Illustration: “Sunset in Heidelberg,” oil on canvas by Black Elephant Blog author (2019)
This turned out to be the long-awaited time when I would return to Vienna, Austria and the international high school from which I graduated many years ago. It was so special to discover that I still recall the streetcar and bus numbers to get from the inner city to the outer district where my former school is. The weather cooperated throughout this trip, with snow flurries and cold suitable for January (but no worse). Lunch over in the neighboring wine district of Grinzing, with light snow falling outside and settling on ledges around the onion domes of a church across the street, finished off the visit to the outer district. Later it was back by the efficient streetcar system to the inner city and, from there again by streetcar, to the Belvedere Schloss to see Klimt art and other paintings. We had a hot drink in its warm gold and ochre royal cafe with the Belvedere gardens outside covered in snow and a blue-purplish early evening light seen through the windows.
In such weather, however, and in a group of travelers there is less incentive to stop and try to paint or, more likely in such weather, draw. Outside of Stephansdom, the main cathedral in central Vienna, one hardy soul was painting in oils in close-to-freezing weather. He was set up to sell them so perhaps had an incentive to paint in his fingerless gloves out in the cold, but the prospect did not hold any appeal to me.
My trip also took me to the Pfalz area for a memorable wine-tasting, to Stuttgart, Karlsruhe, Heidelberg, and much smaller towns along the Rhine; my early school years were in Bonn, Germany north of where we were on this trip. One can get most anywhere at almost anytime on the dense network of streetcars, inter-city railroads, and the faster ICE, and in Austria, the OBB trains. There was almost no need for a car (except for hauling all the wine home after the wine-tasting!)
Back home now, there is some time for reflection and recreation of scenes, including the memory of a sunset over Heidelberg in Germany, as this painted scene from the castle above the town recalls. A special book in German about Heidelberg fell into my hands during the visit there, recommending itself to me through the wonderful watercolor on its cover and on plates throughout its pages. It turns out to be a book by a former director of the city’s archives, chock full of history and insights. Also in Heidelberg, we visited an amazing museum which can be found by going down a quiet drive into a palace area off of the main pedestrian street: called the Museum of the Palatinate, it has excellent displays covering the history of the many peoples (Celts, Romans, various tribes) who settled in this area. If you need to get off your feet for a while, you can take a snooze here on a cushioned Roman bench in a recreated Roman dining area; signs in German encourage you to do just that, so long as you take off your shoes! (For artists and urban sketchers, it may be of interest that the LAMY headquarters is in Heidelberg and a new flagship store full of temptations is on the main drag in the old city.) There is something about travel, and seeking to restore a rusty foreign language ability, that awakens the need to create, to remember, to connect, and to imagine…so perhaps there will be more scenes from my youth coming to this blog.