We Are Not Begonias. We Come Back.

September 5, 2013





Maine. So far away. So unknown (at least to me). Yet, once experienced, delightful and seductive. So many artists wax rhapsodic when it comes to Maine and art making. Yet for me, it was a land of limited and distant associations. My primary association with Maine dates back to when my mother taught high school art in Queens in the 1940s. She had two very dear friends, two sisters, Sarah and Emma Bernhart.  The sisters Bernhart summered together in Maine where they read and sent us post cards. From the viewpoint of my childhood universe centered in suburban, semi-rural Los Angeles, Maine was about as exotic as it could get for me. Woods, cold oceans, lobster, blueberries, probably a lot of bears. Who knows what else was lurking in those north woods?

B. had offered me the use of her house in the Borough of Waldo, on the middle Maine coast on various occasions. But either the timing was not quite right.  Or there was someplace more dramatic to visit. And it was a terribly long drive.  But this winter, with few obligations filling my dance card, B. invited me again and I said yes.

Her house had been her parents’ home.  A sweetly restored 1790 “cape” on an ample stretch of fields and woods.  Capes are noted for looking small on the outside and being quite comfortable on the inside. This house was no exception. Gracious. Sensible. Wide wood floorboards. Large fireplaces. A wood cook stove in the kitchen. Lovely views of the fields, distant trees, a geriatric apple orchard, a llama barn.  There was a screened gazebo for summer dinners which offered protection from the voracious assault of the local mosquitos humorously referred to as “the state bird” by many Mainers. There was also a functional and stocked studio that had been B.’s fathers painting studio, waiting for me, and, a marvelous library that had been B.’s mother’s. I could have read for a year in that house.  I dipped into Arthur Rimbaud, Colette’s diaries, The Alexandria Quartet, Paradise Lost, even Restoration Drama.  And then there was the shelf of bodice rippers for wanton escape.

Before my migration up to the North Woods, I had conceived of an ambitious series of large canvases, that would somehow each be  independent and complete but would also link together to form one monumental  painting.

In preparation for my summer’s handiwork, I ordered nine 5’x7’ canvases, and spent several months preparing modulated, layered backgrounds on which I could paint when I was in situ.  My studio preoccupation while up there was to create a series of floral and foliate images, which when dry, would be shipped back to New York to receive further scrutiny and adjustments.  My initial intention was to paint a series of tree branches, translating the green leaves of summer into the fiery spectrum of autumn hues.  I assumed that I would encounter some early harbingers of fall color.

Not so.  The summer had been very wet and most conducive to growth. All the trees had remained resolutely GREEN. Everything was green.  As I wandered around the property, my initial concept started to shift.  I began to collect clues to its history as a gardened space, now somewhat gone to seed:  A large circle of Rosa rugosa, wild roses;  A dazzling row of hurt-your-eyes cadmium yellow day lilies, planted and tended by B.’s husband, C;  Phlox, honeysuckle, and branches of apples ripening on the more than mature orchard trees. I began to link these diverse garden elements in my mind and came to a respectful admiration of these plants’ ability to survive not only Maine’s long hard winter, but to fight off invasive weeds, Japanese beetles, and even the merciless blades of the lawn mower.  I had recently been thinking about what it takes to keep making art in one’s 60s, 70s, 80s, and beyond; what it means to survive with creativity alive and vital. With lots of time to think, amidst the quiet and beauty all around me, I began to link these botanical survivors with the painting lives of my friends and me.  It is a marvelous virtue in each of these plants to quietly survive and return blooming gloriously, bearing fruit even while untended.

Whenever it gets too comfortable and predictable in the studio, I try to shake things up a little bit, sometimes in big ways, but more often in smaller steps.  In this case, I had grown a little tired of the relatively supple lines of my Japanese brushes and so I took up my very old dagger stripers (small brushes with very long hairs) used to paint long straight lines on cars or signs.  Dagger stripers also drip all over the place, and have a mind of their own.  They are like the dachshunds of the brush world.
I also increased the scale of the flowers until one blossom might extend to four feet in diameter.  What with my semi-cooperative brushes, a new palette of color, and the freedom of being in nature day after day, a new sense of drawing came alive for me.

The studio was just big enough for one of my large canvases. One at a time, I could put a canvas on the floor, put my painting bridge over it, then, by grasping and dodging the work table and the heater, I could get to any corner of the painting.  Often, I had to shift the canvas six inches this way or that to get to a hard to reach corner. With the radio playing baroque music and birdcall outside the studio, I enjoyed this daily dance.  Daylily done, off it went into the llama barn to dry.  One by one, I found
my subjects. I had to beat off the constant gnawing of Japanese beetles to get a good Rosa rugosa bud.  I waited through the heat wave and the week of rain for the honeysuckle to re-bloom. The phlox were as elegant and dependable as they always are. A small purple bell like flower came into bloom, escaped beetle devastation, and made it into one painting. I did not know its proper name, so I keyed it out on-line with a wild flower identifier. This lovely spike of purple bells is either Roving Bell Flower, which would make it Campanula rapunculoides—a lovely mouthful for a weedy volunteer—or else it is Creeping Bell Flower which would make its Latin name:  Adenophora confusa, which I like even better.

I conceived of each canvas as an informal portrait. Some of these flowers I have painted many times: Queen Anne’s lace (a weed really, but one that is often encouraged in certain gardens), Daylily, Black Eyed Susan. And there were some I have not painted on such a large scale: fern, honeysuckle, apples.  I tried to combine the slightly out of control aspect of the dagger striper lines with the more nuanced curves from my more familiar Japanese brushes. The colors of the plants seemed to merge effortlessly with the pre-painted backgrounds.

While working on the large canvases, I also drew on a series of pages from an 18th century book. Large, elephant portfolio pages of handmade paper, each sheet 24”x17” hand printed with hand set type.  The pages were textual documentation of paintings and ancient sculptures from the Pio Clementino Collection which is now part of the Vatican Museum. The book had been published in Rome in 1791.  The house in Waldoboro was built in 1790. I enjoyed imagining the difference between Rome in the late 18th Century, and rural Maine at the same time:  The vastly divergent concerns of the farming family trying to create and sustain self-sufficiency and the urbane aesthetic realm of contemplating ancient busts.

I feel that the specificity of the environment affected the paintings. Although the house was near the ocean, I could not see the water. But within a short driving radius, there were always views of land against inlet, islands, and lakes.  When the painting was not connecting, there was the car and the option to go for a swim, or a walk, or a gaze. And then there was always the thought of when I could next have lobster. Many rainy days lead to days of glorious cool, crisp sunlight. “If you don’t like the weather in Maine, wait five minutes.” And then there is the light.  By nature, I have never been  a landscape painter, but I can easily see how one could become one up here. The light seems to settle and scintillate on the trees and the grass. The mist becomes poetic. The clouds ever-changing. The storms awesome.  I wake up early, so I can enjoy the sunrise from my morning seat.

As I worked, I continued to think about the many ways that these tough but elegant flowers were the survivors of the previous owners of this garden. How different they were from the armies of impatiens, geraniums or marigolds that are set out, Victorian style, every spring, only to meet their quick demise, destroyed by the first frost. The perennials and shrubs I was painting were all sturdy, resilient  New Englanders—very real survivors.  I began to think of an overall title for the series. With the help of another plantsman, A., I came to consider:  “We are not Begonias. We come back.” This is my working title for this series.

As of now, the paintings are still drying in the barn. I will bring them back to my New York studio in October when the oil paint has set up sufficiently for them to be moved.  And then the next phase of art making will begin. I will decide over time whether and where to add gold or palladium. Perhaps this decision will necessitate a stripe of black to balance it and bring the floral form further away from the ground. Change this. Balance that. My mental badminton game will go on for at least the next six months. For now these photos serve as a progress report.

Thank you, Maine.


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