Perhaps it seems silly to take this Count so literally – counting each of the watercolors I paint at my desk this winter. But I promise you, for someone who has struggled her whole life to commit to her own creativity, counting is a very powerful tool. Tangible proof that I keep coming back to my desk: to look closely and observe, to mix colors on my palette, to experiment with different ways of loading my brush and touching the paper, spending time connecting with the natural world.
And so I offer for your perusal…Winter Count paintings 15 through 21.
The main project has been to paint objects from my Nature Altar, signifiers of absent inhabitants, just these singular, amazing forms isolated on the page. Christine and Catherine Creedon spoke about ‘nature altars’ in the first class I attended of Christine’s, at the temporary John Jermain library space on Water Street. They spoke about how so many of us solitary walkers share this common practice of tending a ‘nature table’ at home. (I prefer the more sacred ‘nature altar,’ and ‘tending’ is a word borrowed from Christine that evokes both the sacred and the domestic.) They spoke of organizing an exhibit like this at the library, paired with student writing. Perhaps our Winter Count work is the perfect occasion? in their new library space? (yes!)
The latest in the ‘Nature Altar’ series include this intact bivalve shell of the Blue Mussel, Mytilis edulis… (edulis is Latin for edible)…a container for secrets:
And my third attempt at reproducing the battered wing of an American Lady butterfly, Vanessa virginiensis – only the dorsal side has been completed here, the ventral underside is still awaiting completion.
But because of the close attention, slow pace and detailed brushwork required for my Nature Altar series, I feel myself ‘tightening up,’ contracting rather than expanding, growing fearful of touching the page. So to counter this, I have invited in other practices. Is it the same with writing? Somehow the fear of losing something irrevocably with writing seems less of a danger. But I wonder about similar limbering-up exercises with writing…
One approach has been to simply keep a sketchbook journal of more off-the-cuff, in-the-moment studies. This candle burning after dinner was finished…I was happy with its simplicity, its pared-down attempt at accuracy: (click, then click again, to enlarge)
…Or trying to capture the fleeting sensation of a scene or landscape from my day. This series of sunsets, remembered and noted, rather than painted on the spot. Sunrise this time of year coincides with getting my son off to school, so I usually can’t sit down to paint at this fleeting time of shifting light & color. (click, then click again, to enlarge)
And then I tried returning to an old practice from my former oil painting days: the free-form, let’s-just-push-some-paint-around-and-see-what-happens approach. The first one pleased me with its surprises: a forest echoing the forest outside my desk window, a suggestion of faery dust blowing through the trunks, of mossy elves’ hillocks around their bases.
But the next one reminded me of why I stopped oil painting entirely —
I was painting mostly without external reference – and I realize now, I simply don’t find imaginary/imagined spaces as interesting as attempting to represent real space in the world. If only I’d stuck it out long enough to discover this when I was painting earlier in my life….instead, I just gave up. But I’m back now!
And finally I have an experimental project: painting a ‘personal medicine wheel’ I created for myself. I researched traditional Native American medicine wheels, but they didn’t always correlate with my own experiences. I also drew on the pagan Wheel of Life, and the wheel that pairs up menstrual cycles with the moon phases. Each quadrant, or ‘direction,’ has personal significance for an area of my life, a stage of development. Associated with each direction, is a color and an animal totem and an element, a time of day and time of year, corresponding too with a time in my life. Gazing at this made-up medicine wheel, I feel centered and confident in my path. My life history has wholistic sense and sacred meaning – rather than feeling like a random series of half-finished projects and failures. It has power. And so I feel empowered. I feel it is a shamanic practice, where arranging physical objects in the outer world, affects the state of things in the inner world, and vice-versa. One day, I would like to teach a workshop about this, so that others might learn to do this for themselves, too. It reminds me of our Winter Count workshop, in fact, where at the end of the day, we composed ‘road maps’ for ourselves, of the project which lay ahead.
So here are the colored directions in my journal, where I have been tweaking and rearranging meanings
And here are my studies for the animal totems associated with each direction…Yellow-Shafted Northern Flicker in the East, of Fire, daybreak and the renewed energy of springtime, associated with Glowing Yellow, and Physical Vitality…
Eastern Cottontail Rabbit in the South of midday and the fullness of summertime, associated with Loamy Green, and the Earth element, and Nature…
Great Blue Heron in the West, associated with the Water element, with Autumn, and the Indigo Blue hue of crepuscular hours, the solitary ‘Wild Woman’ of Creativity…
Missing still is the ghost of Snowy Owl in the adamantine Air element of the North, of nighttime lit by a full moon and of deep Winter, associated with white and pale violet, the Wise Woman of Spirit.
The presence of so many birds in my Wheel has brought me to Terry Tempest Williams’ book When Women Were Birds, but I have not yet delved in….so much more exploration and work to look forward to!