Putting up the New and the Good.

As an artist whose primary work is narrative, I’m constantly experiencing the world around us and integrating that experience onto the painted surface.  One of the appearing more and more in my paintings is that of the Stennis Flag, a proposed new state flag for the state of Mississippi.  Designed by a friend of mine, I love the visual elegance of the flag’s design, as well as the symbolism she’s put into the elements through her studies of vexillology (the study of flag design).  To read about the symbolism, go here: https://declaremississippi.com/stennisflagsymbolism-2/

As I’ve been traveling with my son this month, I’ve been away from the studio, so the painting I’ve been doing has been in my tiny watercolor sketchbook, with my tiny watercolor and gouache set.  I love this kind of work for pushing my brain and eyes to integrate the visual world around onto the two-dimensional surface.  

We’ve been traveling as a group of four - my son, his dear friend-since-toddlerhood, Ashleigh and I.  The four of us have had some great conversations.  Some silly and very in the moment, but we’ve also been doing a lot of talking about the state of the world.  Two adults and two young teens watching and listening to news, seeing pumper stickers of hop and hate, discussing confederate flags waved on private land, and asking why Mississippi still has a confederate flag on its state flag.  Such great questions come from my son and his friend.  And while we can participate and add to the discussions, we certainly don’t have all the answers.  

Next week we will celebrate our nation.  Flags will be waved and fireworks set off.  Families and friends will gather.  We will reflect on what this nation stands for.  And there’s so much good for which it stands.  There’s also so much to improve.  And some downright horrid.  These dear tender young men are viscerally horrified at the treatment of asylum seekers, the caging of children, the danger to friends of theirs, our fellow citizens, just in walking down the street, the crime of just having been born a person of color.  

In addition to our colorful discussions, and in addition to taking advantage of being in the midst of summer - swimming and traveling, and playing board and card games, they do often retreat into their screens.   They play video games, and watch really lame videos, and really I don’t blame them, but I would like to think we adults are going to work to give them some hope.  That we will take the image of treason and genocide off of our state flag.  That we will put up the new and the good.  

Challenging inclines, gorgeous views. I’m proud of us.

When I teach workshops my students find themselves challenged as I push them out of their comfort zones. I direct them to move the paint around this way, then that way, and then, just as they’re creating an image they recognize, I direct them to turn their paper upside down, cover the surface with a wash of dark paint, and start again. It drives them crazy, but I find that by the end of every workshop, they are pleased and proud. Pleased with themselves for pushing past their frustrations. Proud of themselves for trusting me, and their own ability, in the process of bringing their work to a stronger place. .

Last week I was going to be in a bit of limbo time out here in southern Oregon. I’d dropped my son off after our holiday weekend, and am going to pick him up a few days from now for our several summer weeks together. I’ve got folks I stay with and plenty of work to do, but before I left for this trip I started playing with the idea of taking myself into the mountains for a few days. I mentioned this to my dear friend Bob and he decided he could use a break from the grind and would join me. Wednesday evening, after an expensive trip to REI to replace some necessities the airlines had chosen not to send with him, we drove to a lodge close to the California border, and less than two miles walk to a trailhead for the Pacific Crest Trail. Thursday after breakfast we donned heavy loads on our backs and walked along the state highway to the PCT trailhead. Then for the next ten miles we followed the path we’d signed up for, up and up and up, until we were over 5000 feet and seeing amazing views including tall distant snow-covered peaks. By the time we found the perfect place to set up our tent, our feet hurt and our heads were fuzzy from the adjustment of swamp-dwellers to alpine air. We filtered water, cooked our dinner, stretched our achy muscles, and crawled into our sleeping bags. In the morning we packed it all up and did it again. 12 more miles of amazing views and amazing challenges, including a scarcity of water sources leading to our needing to carry many more pounds of water most of the day. We followed our map, heeded the guideposts, and put one foot in front of the other, pushing ourselves more and more past our comfort zone. It was glorious.

The third morning we awoke refreshed. We’d hiked further than we’d planned and had only a few more miles of trail to eat up before our meeting spot for our shuttle driver. We found a diner and ate richly while we waited, already planning more trips with more days. We had learned about ourselves and each other, and about our friendship. We’d gotten to know the landscape, and become accustomed to the rhythm of the trail. We were stronger and wanted more.

Certainly we had nothing on the thru-hikers we saw along the way, but that’s ok; we’re not thru-hikers. We’re an artist and a physician who love learning about and moving through the world in new and beautiful ways. We’re our own kind of hiker.

By the end of a class my students have grown and pushed and seen what they’re capable of. My workshoppers are their own kind of artist, and I’m always proud of them.

Sketchbook, journey, what is home? It’s all a process.

I write this on a Wednesday morning, far from home. Or can any space be home if you make that psychic leap? While it’s a good deep summer hot in Mississippi, I write this while wearing my down backpacking jacket in Oregon. I’ve just uploaded a small watercolor of Trinity Episcopal Church in Ashland, Oregon, here on the website. Trinity has been a touchstone place for me on my many journeys out here. And tomorrow I’ll go into the woods south of here to spend three days on the Pacific Crest Trail. A dear friend is flying in to join me for that, which gives me more chutzpah than I might feel doing it alone. I’ll take my watercolors on the hike. They’ll add weight but not too much, and having them with me always is a balm these days. A voice to record moments along the way. Places and souls whom I encounter as we go along. I don’t understand this journey I’m on, spending so much of my life out here in this far-away land away from my studio and my community, in order to be as present as possible with my now-teenaged son. What day did his voice start to change? When did those muscles start popping out everywhere? Is he making good decisions? Is he as funny and kind with his friends as I know he can be? Are they with him? Time was when I could be there every step of the way for him. I cut his cord, fed him his first bottle, and then his first “solid” food. I was there for his first steps, and his first tumble from a run. I taught him to swim and, and, and…. Then he moved. At age 11 his other mom moved him across the country. Our lives had been interwoven deeply, as are most parents and young children. A great big messy and wonderful canvas of connection. Now I carry my sketchbook, and my journal, and try to make home for him wherever I stay out here. Sometimes we’re able to drive the many hours to the northern part of the state for time with his cousins - my oldest brother’s family - and my dear old friend Kara. Sometimes Ashleigh is able to join us out here, which makes everything happier. Sometimes, we have a few weeks in the summer for some reconnection with his home. His other home? That psychic leap again. Making every space home. Not in a colonizing, entitled way, but in the spirit of we all belong. We are all community. We are all each other’s family. This earth is our island home to care for and revel in. And so I carry my sketchbook, and make notes and try to put it all together.