Our time here in Mexico is drawing to a close. Two months has slipped by effortlessly, one day after the next. Cold nights have turned to cool and are trending to warmer. The air has become even drier as central Mexico heads into the zenith of its dry season. We will be home during those punishing months of April and May before the blessed rains start, God willing, in June.
But what a time these past two months have been! Construction on our outdoor sala and shower began in earnest back in January, soon after we arrived. We have finally been able to move to completion a project seven years in the making. Our dream of a modest place for more outdoor living, perfect here in year-round moderate temperatures, as well as a place for art workshops, morphed into something more elaborate with the added bonus of an outdoor shower space. But then things rarely turn out the way you plan.
One question we get is, Why an outdoor shower? Well, that was a dream since staying at a small hotel on the north shores of Bali back in 2005. Our modest room, that was more like a north woods cabin complete with high rafters and plank built-in closets on one side of the room, had a small bathroom with sink and toilet at the back with a door that opened to an enclosed area open to the sky. It’s “floor” was the ground covered in small river rock, and on the outside back wall of our room was a shower head with a squat stump of wood just below for you to stand on while you showered. In that little courtyard open to the sky there were a few tropical plants and overhead were trees and the blue tropical Pacific sky. Dave and I fell in love with it and vowed we’d make something similar some day if we had the chance. And so we do, and so we have built our own rendition.
During our time here in Alcocer I’ve completed a commission that I obtained back in November. This from a dear friend who has always admired my work. I enjoy doing commissions, but this one was special to create something as a treasure for my friend, something that she had envisioned from one of her many trips abroad.
I also have envisioned a new series which I will begin in earnest once we are back in Paducah. I’ve submitted a couple grants to assist with the series as it will be a long-term project which will need some outside backing. Wish me luck. Watch for previews as things progress.
I love taking walks on nature trails in the woods, parks, or desert scrublands. I recently was in Tucson, Arizona and had the good fortune to explore some of Sabino Canyon, an arid natural area on the northeast side of the city replete with trails for walking, biking, and hiking. I was visiting with friends who likewise enjoy getting out in nature, though they aren’t looking for artistic inspiration. I love the fresh air, the trees, the play of clouds across the sky. I love being out in all of it strolling along looking for whatever new or exciting thing awaits me. I’m not looking for big vistas. I’m looking for the details, the color changes, the unusual. I’m trying to find what others might have missed, or if not, at least provide a different perspective on the ordinary.
It was a beautiful sunny day as we meandered along the dry walkway through the canyon. Cactuses were just beginning to bloom and the snow melt from the Santa Catalinas were providing a torrent of water through the arroyo, cascading over a spillway that usually formed a trickle. The air was fresh and warm. My mind was half tuned to the conversation while trying to explore the images in front of me. The Palo Verde trees cast shadows on themselves from a rising sun, thin elegant branches shaded onto their smooth olive green bark. Saguaro pointed skyward and outward, people in disguise. I wasn’t used to their playfulness so I kept smiling at their poses. My friends caught the mood and we posed in front of several to become saguaros ourselves.
Being creative doesn’t have to be serious.
The cactuses seemed like natural subjects. Beyond the saguaros there was so much variety – a host of chollas, prickly pear, bunny ears, teddy bears, Arizona fishhook. Their colors and shapes dotted the otherwise barren earth, providing food and shelter to a whole cast of characters, mostly unseen, there in the desert. We saw unidentified birds flitting about in the Mesquite and Palo Verde, and others like the common Road Runner scuttling about the underbrush. But there was a lot in hiding, like the mountain lions and bobcats we’d been warned about. And rattlesnakes. Low lying signs at the edges of the paths cautioned us to beware. I kept watching but I never saw one. I’m sure they knew better than to show themselves with all the daytime hikers and bicyclists about. But a girl can dream.
Before we left I heard an insistent cascading call from a clump of trees. Sitting on a high branch at the top of the mesquite was a thin shiny black bird with a pronounced crest and skinny long ebony tail. He kept up his calls and seemed unfazed by my slow movement in his direction. He looked nonchalantly upward and side to side in apparent disinterest at my close proximity. A quick search on my phone told me he was a Phainopepla, a northern representative of the mostly tropical silky flycatcher family. They feed mainly on mistletoe berries, which we had seen in abundance. I lacked the right kind of camera and lens to get a good close up of this fascinating little bird, but I noted his name, delighted to have added him to my list.
These are the kinds of experiences I long for to feed my creativity. Even if I don’t get a lot of pictures, as happened this day, I feel renewed by the presence of so much wonder and beauty around me. Especially in those places we least expect it.
It’s been a while since I taught a watercolor workshop, but a couple weeks ago I sat down with 8 willing and eager participants at Ephemera Paducah to help them navigate the idiosyncrasies of all things watercolor. Thanks to Kristin Williams’ superior market skills at Ephemera, my two-day class was full with a small waiting list.
This workshop, like the ones I’ve conducted in the past, was for anyone with an interest in learning more or trying their hand at this challenging media. I’ve been at this for nearly 40 years, and I still learn new ways to make watercolor work its magic. Even I have my challenges, one of which is becoming a more adept teacher. I lean heavily on my experiences with past teachers who taught me in workshops and classes as I was starting out. And then I’ve picked up some tricks that I found to work well for me.
We started the first day with practicing wet-on-wet washes to get the hang of handling brushes and how much paint to apply versus water. The key is learning that balance – too little water and the paint won’t flow, too much and you either lose your color or produce “blooms,” thin areas of color with ruffled edges. Both extremes are things you want to avoid.
From there my eight charges followed along as I demo’ed a tropical beach scene with a rocky outcrop just off shore with waves crashing behind it and three palm trees in the foreground. I love this picture because there’s a lot going on in terms of technique. Apply some salt at the bottom edge of the blue sky wash and you get the effect of wild spray. Crumple a piece of Saran Wrap into the wet wash in the foreground and you have gentle beach waves once the paint dries.
The second day I introduced a more challenging subject to learn more about painting wet-on-wet as well as how to paint reflections. Again, I provided the step-by-step demo as they followed along, guiding them through the process.
It really is true that when you teach something if you’re doing it right you come away learning as much as your students. Demonstrating forces me think about the techniques I’m teaching, and giving them voice helps to reinforce them in my own mind. At the completion of the lesson I also love seeing my students’ results. It’s always amazing to me to see their interpretation of the image I start with. Each painting has its own style and feeling. The tonality, movement, expression, in spite of starting from the same vantage point, are all unique. That’s one of my favorite things about doing workshops.
Stay tuned for more – I’m planning my next one for early Spring 2019.
Our little town has recently become embroiled in a discussion about the importance of the arts and what impact they have on our community. Specifically, does the designation of a UNESCO Creative City benefit its citizenry, or is it just an excuse for officials to junket to far-off lands, enjoying the perks of travel and cuisine offered at these host cities? There was lots of weigh-in from our local television station, a few visitors, and many others in the community involved in the arts. Among those comments, I was most surprised by one from the president of Paducah Economic Development, who stated that there are not a lot of “art companies” targeted to relocate here and he considered that the arts make up a minuscule part of our economy.
Paducah received the coveted designation as one of three UNESCO Creative Cities in the U.S. back in 2013 for the City’s important role in the connectivity of cultures through creativity. We were the 7th city to receive the UNESCO designation of City of Crafts & Folk Art, a prestigious honor for any city but especially for one with a population of 25,000 like Paducah. But what does it mean? And maybe more importantly, what does it get us, especially those who live here who aren’t part of the arts community. Why should they care?
Paducah has the same struggles of many small towns in rural areas – attracting businesses, unemployment, aging infrastructure, retention of youth. It sits in an area of high poverty and unemployment with fewer economic resources and opportunities than more populous urban areas, such as Nashville, Tennessee or Louisville, Kentucky, a mere 2 or 3 hour distance, respectively, from Paducah. Its officials work to ensure quality schools and healthcare, opportunities of higher learning through a local community college, a growing business presence, and a vibrant city to attract businesses for growth and opportunity.
One of the things Paducah decided on many years ago was to bet on the arts. They looked to the arts as a way to make their community stand out, as a way to enrich the lives of its people. From that support came a local symphony orchestra, a regional performance center that attracts national musicians, performances, and traveling Broadway musicals, an expanding theater group active in the community and schools, an independent cinema with an annual international film festival, and a national quilt museum with two week-long festivals annually attracting participants from around the world. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. There are dozens of other arts related organizations with a prominent presence that impact the community artistically and add value to this area. I think that conscious decision is what makes this city I adopted more than 10 years ago stand out from others of its size. It’s devotion to the arts was one of the major attractions for me and David when we came here in 2006 to check out the Artist Relocation Program, designed as an economic jumpstart for a blighted historic neighborhood on the fringes of the downtown. Had Paducah not had that emphasis on the arts we wouldn’t have given it much thought as a potential place to transition to as a base for our art careers.
As the arts grew in our community, especially with the Artist Relocation Program, Paducah’s presence as a creative place attracted national attention. It was featured in a number of national journals and publications, such as The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, and Condé Nast Travel. People traveled here to see its Lower Town Historic Art District, home of the Artist Relocation Program, the National Quilt Museum, its historic downtown, the newly opened Paducah School of Art and Design. Artists, such as David and I, contributed to the community, starting arts-driven organizations that produced annual award-winning festivals and artist-in-residence programs that garnered both national and international applicants. With each new activity, each new program, we attracted people to Paducah who became enthusiasts and champions of our community, marveling at the richness of our little river town, this gem on the Ohio River.
So it was not by accident or fancy writing that UNESCO awarded Paducah its designation. The Paducah Convention and Visitors Bureau, CVB, knew well the role of the arts in the community and its economic impact on the city. The CVB recognized how the arts elevated us as a creative place worthy of recognition, that attracts others, and that had value for other like-minded communities of culture and art. That vision sparked the opportunity to invest in a wider community that would likewise enrich our citizenry.
Art is all around us. It is in our building design, our home furnishings, the plates we eat off of and the utensils we use. It shows up on our phones, our cars, our clothes. Our cityscape and parks spring forth from its vision, and our monuments stand in recognition of its presence in our lives. Art is more than some extracurricular fluff to fill up our time; it plays an intrinsic role in our lives. After all, we could just as well sit on a plain wooden box if utility was all that was required in a chair, or wrap ourselves in cloth if we only needed warmth and modesty. Art and design speak to something quite basic to who we are as humans. The impulse to embellish, to record our existence, to create is proof through the millennia of human life as evidenced through archeological artifacts.
Because community is more than economics. Community is derived from quality of life, and the arts have everything to do with that. People and companies tend to gravitate toward communities with not only good schools and jobs but also those places with rich culture, a deep involvement in the arts, and activities that enrich their lives. The arts help us to define ourselves, enrich us beyond our means, and bring joy to our lives. Paducah’s place in UNESCO’s Creative Cities, I would argue, benefits everyone by sharing with the world what makes us unique, attracting interest to our creativity, and using that creativity as a strength in building our community. As the saying goes, “A rising tide lifts all boats.” I believe UNESCO is a tide that has the potential to make our ship sail.