Week 52: Endings and Beginnings

I have reached the end of this journey, and my 52nd collage is complete. For this final work in the series, I decided to pull together some of my favorite imagery from throughout the year, and create an essential distillation of My Suburban Life. This is my place and the things that I treasure. There is the map of the neighborhood, and images of the surrounding landscape where we live. I included the dogwoods, the rose bushes, and the pear tree in the front yard where the mockingbirds sing. The wild geese fly overhead, while seedlings sprout in the garden. There are themes of growth and flight, both appropriate metaphors for the work of the past year. My husband and son walk close by while I lean over my drawing board, secure in my place in the world, my love of creating, and my commitment to my work. This is a very different feeling from when I began the project, with that strange ambivalence and unease of living in the ‘burbs. Now things are different. I have not only made peace with my suburbia, I have made it my own. My identity as an artist is not defined by where I live, but how I live a creative life.

The Lego Spaceship was featured in the very first collage, and makes a final appearance here as well. This was from a small drawing that I made back in January 2012, when I first began the project, and had saved to use in a future work. Ever since my son Max flew his Lego Spaceship into my studio last January, it became a symbol of Art meeting Life. The spaceship hovers above the earth in the realm of the imagination, while simultaneously being a tangible domestic object, embedded in the material world. This magical child-like ability to bridge the gap between imagination and reality became my inspiration. My previous body of work had conspicuously avoided the realities of everyday life, preferring the escapism of imaginary lands. One year ago I asked new questions: Can I come down from my Ivory Tower and welcome the Lego Spaceship into my creative domain? Can I take the stuff of everyday life and transform it into art? Can I move freely between those two realms, with an openness and receptivity to both my own imagination and the intricate details of My Suburban Life? These questions led me to a place of greater awareness and compassion towards myself and my world, while continuing to challenge me to strive towards my best, most authentic work.

Endings and Beginnings, acrylic collage, 12 x 12 inches

Endings and Beginnings, acrylic collage, 12 x 12 inches

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Detail, Endings and Beginnings

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Detail, Endings and Beginnings

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Detail, Endings and Beginnings

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Detail, Endings and Beginnings

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Detail, Endings and Beginnings

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Detail, Endings and Beginnings

Weeks 50 & 51: Christmas Tree

Sled ornament from my childhood.

Sled ornament from my childhood.

Every year I look forward to unpacking the Christmas ornaments and decorating the tree. My family likes to pick out a large fir that goes from floor to ceiling and festively commands the room. As I place each ornament on the tree, it whispers a story to me. Some ornaments are thirty something years old and come from my childhood, while others are even older and belonged to my parents. The newer ones remind me of our newlywed years, or when my son was a baby. Each one represents a time and place that is conjured up again every Christmas. The tree becomes a shimmering display of memories that dangle amidst the evergreen boughs and twinkle lights.

Christmas Tree, acrylic collage, 12 x 24 in

Christmas Tree, acrylic collage, 12 x 24 inches

I enjoy the Christmas tree so much that I decided to dedicate two collage panels to this subject, displayed vertically one on top of the other. The ornaments in the collages were drawn from observation of our actual ornaments. A few were refurbished or re-created in the drawings to honor those favorites that were lost or broken. Most are from my childhood. There is a little white elephant who once lived inside a clear globe. One year the glass broke, while the elephant survived. Here I placed him back inside his protective bubble. There is a tiny snowman, a mouse on a red chair, a bird house, a cuckoo clock, and sparkly silver birds. There are red wooden sleds with the childhood nicknames of my sister and I carefully painted in white lettering, with a holiday greeting and the year 1980. I was nine, and Vicki was eleven. There is a gnome hiding amongst evergreens in a glass mushroom, a flat wooden soldier, and a beautiful Japanese Girl with a satiny red dress and silky tassels.

Detail, Christmas Tree II

Detail, Christmas Tree

My childhood favorite was a plastic Humpty Dumpty, dapperly dressed and sitting on a brick wall, grinning gaily, his hands in the air. While he might seem somewhat incongruous amongst the more traditionally themed Christmas ornaments, for me, it was Humpty who best expressed the joy of the season.

My mother had a special silver globe with a ballet dancer inside, and faceted mirrors that reflected the ruffles of the tiny tutu.

Detail, Christmas Tree II

Detail, Christmas Tree

Sadly, this treasured ornament was lost in a move, and I’m still not sure what happened to it. In the collage, I was able to bring it back. Another lost ornament was my husband’s childhood favorite, a stout little Viking man with a shield and sword. We don’t know what fate befell him. He too makes a come-back in the collage. Since he was lost before my husband and I met, I never saw the Viking, so my drawing is based entirely on Ken’s descriptions and my own imaginative conjecture.

Detail, Christmas Tree II

Detail, Christmas Tree

When we were first married, a dear family friend gave us a beautiful set of painted glass ornaments that included characters from The Nutcracker and other Christmas stories. These became very special to us. We had gone to see The Nutcracker performed by the San Francisco Ballet on Christmas Eve of 1999, the day before my husband proposed to me. I remember that experience each time I hang Clara, the Nutcracker, and the Mouse King on the tree. Another favorite from this same ornament set is a kindly Santa Claus wearing an elegant red cape and holding an evergreen garland. He’s one of the larger ornaments and always gets a prominent place on the front of the tree.

I asked my nine-year old son to pick out his favorite ornament so I could include it in the collage. He chose the bendable beaded candy canes which are fun and flexible, easy to hang, and impossible to break. A wonderful choice! He can enjoy these for many years to come.

The practice of drawing the ornaments was very painstaking. I fell deep into the process of observing every detail, noticing both the perfection and the flaws, the sparkly sheen and the dulling of age. Some are quite fragile, or near falling apart. Some will break one day in the future. Creating the collage was a way for me to preserve the ornaments and the halo of memory that surrounds each one. At the same time, there is something about loving them fully and completely through the process of drawing that will allow me to let go when the time comes.

Christmas Tree (top panel), acrylic collage 12 x 12 in

Christmas Tree (top panel), acrylic collage 12 x 12 in

Christmas Tree (bottom panel), acrylic collage, 12 x 12 in

Christmas Tree (bottom panel), acrylic collage, 12 x 12 in

Detail, Christmas Tree I

Detail, Christmas Tree

Detail, Christmas Tree I

Detail, Christmas Tree

Detail, Christmas Tree I

Detail, Christmas Tree

Detail, Christmas Tree I

Detail, Christmas Tree

Detail, Christmas Tree II

Detail, Christmas Tree

Detail, Christmas Tree II

Detail, Christmas Tree

Detail, Christmas Tree II

Detail, Christmas Tree

Week 49: Balloon Ride

I surprised my husband with a hot air balloon ride for his 40th Birthday. The wind was perfect that day. While we rose out of a field in the middle of town amongst strip malls and subdivisions, we floated across the highway to the Northwest, and soon found ourselves hovering above woods, farmland, and the Rivanna River, with the Blue Ridge Mountains anchoring the Western horizon. The colorful autumn leaves had fallen, but the winter landscape had a magic all its own. The bare deciduous branches appeared white and lacy from above, transparent screens that revealed layers of fields and forest floor. The dense stands of evergreens framed the open spaces of pasture, and the river carved its way through the landscape, reflecting a clear blue sky.

The balloon ride felt like a big adventure when we first took off, but once air-born, the adrenalin subsided and there was simply peace, quiet, beauty, and the love between two people. The whoosh of the gas flame was the only sound. The world appeared as a miniature train garden, every piece arranged just so. I loved the winter palette of ochres, blue-grays, and deep greens, displayed in so many different textures. When I began working on the collage, I was enthralled with the task of drawing the tiny details I observed in the landscape, while at the same time trying to capture the whole experience of floating above the panorama. I combined small drawings of trees and farms with broader painted areas of river and landscape. Drawing and painting, line and color, detail and whole, all come together here with wonder and joy.

Balloon Ride, acrylic collage, 12 x 12 in.

Balloon Ride, acrylic collage, 12 x 12 in.

Detail, Balloon Ride

Detail, Balloon Ride

Detail, Balloon Ride

Detail, Balloon Ride

Detail, Balloon Ride

Detail, Balloon Ride

Detail, Balloon Ride

Detail, Balloon Ride

Detail, Balloon Ride

Detail, Balloon Ride

Week 48: Flu Season

It’s Flu Season and the bugs finally caught up to my husband and I last week. (Yes, next year I will get my flu shot.) We spent five days groaning together on the sofa with body aches, stuffy noses and hacking coughs. Despite the discomfort of being sick, we did enjoy the extra time together. We watched so many movies we had trouble recalling what we had seen in our DayQuil-induced delirium. This was not exactly a fun week, but I admit it was nice having an excuse to stop frantically rushing around with holiday preparations. As I laid on the sofa under my favorite blanket, achy and miserable, watching the twinkle lights on the mantle and the fire flickering in the fireplace, my pains subsided just enough so that I could appreciate the beautiful silence and peace of just being allowed to rest. It’s too bad I have to get sick to justify such moments to myself.

For the collage, I imagined the flu virus floating around in the air above our heads as my husband and I snuggled down into our bed with our aches and pains and remedies at our sides. As I was drawing the bugs, they became more and more ornamental, suggesting a perverse version of the holiday verse, “while visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads.” I had a good chuckle over that connection, which was probably an effective strategy in combatting the illness. After all, laughter is the best medicine.

Flu Season, acrylic collage, 12 x 12

Flu Season, acrylic collage, 12 x 12

Detail, Flu Season

Detail, Flu Season

Detail, Flu Season

Detail, Flu Season

Detail, Flu Season

Detail, Flu Season

Detail, Flu Season

Detail, Flu Season

Week 45: Homework

Max concentrates on his Math homework.

Max started fourth grade this Fall. A regular part of our nightly ritual is sitting down at the kitchen table together to check over his homework, which hopefully has been completed before dinner. I love listening to him explain his thinking, or thoughtfully articulate a question. I remember the satisfying sensation of simple math, the security of knowing that this type of question has an answer that is either correct or incorrect. No gray areas, no lingering doubts, just the pleasure of watching the solution come to light.

A dramatic discovery is made.

And then there are other types of questions that require words and lengthy explanations. It is fun to participate in this spirit of open curiosity: What causes thunder and lightning? What is a hurricane? Where does rain come from? One evening I pointed out the beautiful moon, and was surprised to hear Max reply, “Mom, that is a waxing crescent.” He went on to explain the relationships between the sun, the earth, and the moon. Recently we studied the Geographical Regions of Virginia, the Weather, and how to write a mathematical equation from a “Number Story” or word problem. With each revelation, I remember when I was nine, and the world was new.

For this collage, I took a new approach, combining my drawings with Max’s drawings. I used fragments from his actual homework papers, including his writing, pictures, and the teacher’s grading notations in red pen. The collage became a nostalgic homage to childhood and school days in the Fall: We learn about the weather as the wind blows and leaves swirl in the front yard. The wild geese fly overhead. A football spirals through the air. The weathervane spins. A sailboat waits to take us away on a life-long adventure in learning, with the sun and the wind and the rain as our companions.

Homework, acrylic collage, 12 x 12

Detail, Homework

Detail, Homework

Detail, Homework

Detail, Homework

Detail, Homework

Week 44: The Black Gum

Black Gum

I have a favorite tree in our back yard. It was not planted to commemorate a special occasion, or in honor of a family member. It is not an exotic cultivar, or even an especially ornamental flowering species. It is a simple Black Gum with a simple story. Our landscape designer chose the Black Gum for two reasons. It is one of the first trees to change color in the fall– a brilliant red. This seemed reason enough, but there was something else. The Black Gum is characterized by a straight upright trunk, with sturdy branches that grow horizontally outward at right angles. Why might this structural feature be important?  “For a swing,” said the landscape designer.  As soon as this idea was released, it planted itself in my imagination. I had a tree swing when I was a girl. Now I could have another one! How long would it take before the tree was big enough to hold a swing? Ten years, twenty years? Would I watch my little boy grow into a teenager who would swing on that swing, or is it for me… and the grandchildren? Would I still even live here in twenty years? As soon as the tree was planted, it marked a moment in time from which I would measure the passing years. The tree became a slow stop watch. What can I create and accomplish between now and the time when the Black Gum is ready for its swing? The tree is planted at the top of a steep slope, so that when you swing out over the edge of the retaining wall, where the land falls away, you will feel like you are flying. Who will I have become when I sail through the air on that swing?

We planted the Black Gum three years ago. It was very spindly at first, with a sparse dotting of leaves. I fussed over it, diligently watering its roots each week. Tiny green aphids gathered on its fresh new growth in sticky clumps, which I crushed with my fingers every time I walked past, or occasionally sprayed with soap. The second summer the tree began to fill out with a fuller canopy, and the aphids moved on to weaker hosts. It went through curious growth spurts like a gangly child, where the top would shoot straight up a good twelve inches with no side branches, only to burst forth with a big bundle of leaves at its tip, as if it were balancing an outlandish hat on the end of a broomstick. The third summer it grew more handsome and sturdy, with a thick flush of deep green foliage, the glossy leaves turning a spotty red and gold in September. This Fall, Grandma and Max planted daffodil bulbs in the mulch circle around its base. Yellow and white blooms will appear in early Spring. Now I have something to look forward to that is not as far away as the swing. You know you are growing older when a mere five month wait feels like instant gratification.

This collage is about the passing of time, growth, patience, and how a landscape can tell our stories across the past, present, and future.

Black Gum, acrylic collage, 12 x 12

Detail, Black Gum

Detail, Black Gum

Detail, Black Gum

Detail, Black Gum

Detail, Black Gum

Week 43: Walk in the Woods

Detail, Walk in the Woods

Autumn in Virginia is a glorious time to walk in the woods. Walnut Creek Park is our favorite place to go hiking. Just south of town, and less than a half hour’s drive from our house, it is a nearby place that feels a world away. There is a beautiful lake for canoeing or fishing, and miles of wooded trails for hiking or mountain biking. My husband and I started going there together soon after we met. We would always bring our two Labradors, Toby and Maya, who loved running the trails as much as we did. Now 14 years later, we come with our Labradoodle, Holly, and our young son, Max. Life has changed a lot in this time, but Walnut Creek remains the same special place.

We also enjoy bringing visiting family and friends to Walnut Creek. My father-in-law, Papa Deak, and his partner, Papa Paul, were here visiting from California, and it was a perfect “Autumn in Virginia” kind of day to share with them.  The colors were just past their peak, but plenty of reds, oranges and golds still clung to the treetops, and a soft layer of dry leaves covered the paths. The air was cool, the sun was warm, and each step forward brought a gentle crunch through fallen leaves. There is a stillness to the woods that quiets the chatter of my mind, making room for a more essential understanding that emerges in its place: as we move through the colorful canopies of changing light, we are no longer separate from nature, or from each other, but merely different incarnations of one life, one love. Holly romps through the leaves, my boy laughs, I hear the click of Papa’s camera, a bird sings, three generations walk together, all different but the same.

Red Foliage Textures

For the Autumn collages, I began experimenting with different ways to create textures and patterns to represent the colorful foliage. I first tried this a few weeks ago in the Sunday Drive collage. Using charcoal and colored India inks, I filled up sheets of paper with leaf patterns that were then used to cut out shapes of tree canopies and individual leaves. I tried out different color combinations, as well as small and large scale patterns to develop a sense of distance and space. Once I had a good variety of pattern sheets to choose from, I was able to assemble the tree imagery in combination with the other small drawings and painted motifs. In this week’s work, I included a small illustration of my family ahead on the trail, my boy in a familiar gesture with his Dad, Holly following close behind.

We had a wonderful visit with Papa Deak and Papa Paul. They have always expressed an interest in my artwork, and continually offer their support and encouragement as I move along my creative path. They have also taken the time to read every single post of my blog and respond to each in the comments section. I am so appreciative of this! It was a lot of fun to show them the collages in person for the first time, after sharing them on the computer screen all year. I feel very blessed to have such loving and supportive people in my family. Thank you Papa Deak and Papa Paul!

Walk in the Woods, acrylic collage, 12 x 12

Detail, Walk in the Woods

Detail, Walk in the Woods

Detail, Walk in the Woods

Detail, Walk in the Woods

Week 41: Sunday Drive

The Blue Ridge in the Fall

On Sunday my husband suggested that we take a drive up to the mountains to enjoy the Fall colors. This is our favorite time of year, and it always seems to pass too quickly. The leaves had been rapidly deepening their Fall hues throughout the week, and we knew that this was the day to put any nagging chores aside, and surrender the afternoon to the joys of family time and natural beauty. My husband and I, our boy, and our dog, all piled into the car, and headed West. We stopped at our favorite country lunch spot, Greenwood Gourmet Grocery, and enjoyed an outdoor picnic of sandwiches and local apples, surrounded by displays of heirloom pumpkins, gourds, hay bales and cornstalks. This certainly got us in the mood, and soon we were driving down the Blue Ridge Parkway. As the panorama of mountains and forests opened up to us, it was hard to believe we were only thirty minutes from our suburban home. Shady tunnels of trees gave way to spectacular vistas overlooking the Shenandoah Valley. The mountainsides displayed their richly textured tapestries of orange, red, and gold. All my urgent To Do Lists and unfinished projects dropped away from my consciousness, and I had only the colors, the landscape, and the company of the people I love.

On the way home, my nine year old son got fidgety in the back seat and asked if he could play on my iPhone. I encouraged him a couple times to just enjoy looking out the window, before finally declaring, “This is a No Technology Zone!” Right on cue, Siri spoke up through my iPhone, her soothing electronic voice confidently instructing, “In 2 miles, turn right onto Rockfish Gap Turnpike.” Giggles broke out in the back seat. OK, so there is an exception for GPS!

Sunday Drive, acrylic collage, 12 x 12

Detail, Sunday Drive

Detail, Sunday Drive

Detail, Sunday Drive

Detail, Sunday Drive

Week 40: Wild Geese

Every Autumn I hear the musical honking of the wild geese, as they pass through Virginia on their way south for the winter. The sound always stirs something in me, like the changing golden light of shorter days and the burnt orange and red of falling leaves in October. The call of the geese weaves itself seamlessly into the fabric of Fall, my favorite time of year. The sound brings back memories from my childhood, when my father taught me to observe and listen to the natural world. We teased apart the honks and warbles of waterfowl and shore birds, and looked for the identifying white patch on the face of the Canada Goose. Our family liked to visit a nature preserve on the eastern shore of Maryland, Blackwater Refuge, where we climbed the observation tower to look out over the ochre landscape of cattails and marsh grasses, the wild geese calling to each other, flying in their characteristic “V” formation. My young mind thrilled at this sight. “How do they choose the leader? How do they know which direction to fly? How far is their journey?”

Thirty something years later, I hear the sound of the geese flying overhead, and remember that feeling of wonder and curiosity. Our neighborhood sits up high on a ridge, a small network of quiet tree-lined streets, cul-de-sacs, and well-tended lawns.  There is a spot where the entry road climbs the steep hill to our houses, cutting open a clearing that reveals a long view to a wilder place. There are layers of open field, farm, and woodland, the Rivanna River winding its way in between. As the leaves fall, we can see a widening band of the distant Blue Ridge Mountains. The Canada Geese congregate in the field at the bottom of our hill. Sometimes I see their tiny black shapes rising up in a graceful “V” through the clearing, other times they fly directly over our rooftops, calling loudly. I think of my son, who is inside playing on his iPad, and I remind myself, “Teach him to listen for the wild geese. Don’t forget.”

Wild Geese, acrylic collage 12 x 12

Detail, Wild Geese

Detail, Wild Geese

Detail, Wild Geese

Detail, Wild Geese

Detail, Wild Geese

Week 39: Fishing

Fishing with my Dad, circa 1980

Fishing is a tradition in my family. I grew up fishing with my father on the Chesapeake Bay and the Little Choptank River. I liked to sit on the bow of our boat, watching the sun’s quivering reflections on the waves, as we sped out across the water to where the river meets the bay. The open bay was so vast and beautiful, like the boundless presence of my father’s love. We spent many happy hours together on the water, side by side in our own world, casting for bluefish.

Another favorite fishing spot was in Georgia, where we would often spend a few weeks in the summer visiting my father’s relatives. The best part of the trip, for me, was fishing for catfish around a big pond with my Dad on his family’s farm. I loved to hear stories about his fishing adventures in the creeks and ponds of his own childhood. I was proud that I could absorb everything he taught me about fishing and I was never squeamish about holding up my little fish for the camera!

My boy on a fishing trip with his Grandfather

I loved mastering the flick of the wrist that sent the line flying out over the water. I loved the anticipation of patiently watching the bobber for any signs of a bite. I loved the thrill of reeling in a good catch, even if we tossed it back. Most of all, I loved being outdoors and spending time with my Dad. Now my father takes my son, Max, fishing, and I think Max loves it for all the same reasons.

This collage is a tribute to fishing, but it is not only about the catching of fish. It is about the special experience of being quietly absorbed in the rhythms of the natural world, and the connection to the loved ones with whom you share that experience. I included a treehouse in the final piece, which has been a recurring motif in my work, symbolizing childhood, sanctuary, and the possibilities of the imagination. In the quiet hours spent around a pond, love grows, ideas are born, and you just might reel in the big one.

Fishing, acrylic collage, 12 x 12

Detail, Fishing

Detail, Fishing

Detail, Fishing

Detail, Fishing