Archive for February 2022

More Cheerful Note – Owls! Little Cars!

February 28, 2022

From “Bug Cars” / Karin Gustafson/ All Rights Reserved

On a more cheerful note–here’s a pic from a children’s picture book that I am working on tentatively called “Bug Cars.” Do check out my other books! They can be found here on Amazon, and here on Blurb, and include such immortal titles as “Does Melanie Like Melon?”, “The Road I Like”, “Snail Taxi” and “ABC Mobile” as well as “ABC Goat.”

This February Week

February 26, 2022

“May you live in interesting times” is supposedly a Chinese curse.  Even before this week, our times felt accursedly “interesting,” and then came the sorrowful invasion of the Ukraine. 

It is hard to know how the world will ultimately react; whether, in other words, there will be a will to stick to sanctions.  A lot of Americans (and others) likely don’t feel very close to the Ukraine, and sadly, the only way that attention may be garnered or maintained will be through terrible human losses.

I too know little of the Ukraine. When I think of it, a Ukrainian neighborhood I once lived near coes to mind, one with wonderfully warm restaurants, windows fogged with the steam of delicious soups; plates stacked with challah french toast which shone like slices of sun.

One such restaurant had a tree growing up through the ceiling and the roof. We loved to see the waitresses and waiters scoot around it. Customers on the way to the teeny restroom also had to side step its slender, yet muscular trunk—you know how certain trees look actually muscled, with that wiry kind of muscle, the kind developed through life, not gym.

The Ukrainian-American I best knew was a pre-school assistant teacher at my daughter’s nursery school who somehow managed to rescue my daughter from potentially deadly situations twice in one year, once in a swim class, one from a lunchtime sandwich.

She had spiky (naturally) blonde hair, laughing blue eyes, and emanated perseverance, a strong sense of making do and making good. She was also decidedly not Russian.  I don’t know how this came up—maybe it arose in a discussion of the church in the neighborhood, which I may have wrongly denominated as Russian Orthodox 

I remember too my parents visiting Kiev, on a trip to the old Soviet Union, and their telling me of conversations with someone on a park bench telling my Dad, as he practiced his halting Russian, that they were Ukrainians in Ukraine, not Russians.  

I remember too all the talk of Ukraine being the bread basket of the old Soviet Union–one can readily imagine what will happen to their agricultural, mineral and consumer goods, if occupied.

All of this is anecdotal, of course.  But I worry that many Americans will, at some point ,simply shrug, vaguely convince themselves that Ukraine somehow belongs with Russia, especially if sanctions cause a rise in gas prices. (I hate too by the way the insanity that Trump would somehow have stopped this.  Sadly, Trump made autocrats around the world feel like “geniuses,” while also making allies doubt our allegiances.)

I don’t purport to know best next steps. And I do know that all of us have to look away from the world stage at times—it is too overwhelming–but at least we should recognize that a sovereign nation should not be invaded and occupied simply because another country can.

ps – the picture above was not intended to be about Ukraine, but when I was looking through recent drawings this morning, it made me think of the suffering there, and what I fear will be the rest of the world’s reluctance to accept the economic pain that may be a fall-out of sanctions on Russia. 

Lucky Tea

February 17, 2022

I have taken a little break this week and gotten myself to an apartment where there is a baby who seems to have magically trained herself to sleep through the night. (Yes, I know–hopefully, writing of it won’t jinx it.)

I am very happy for the loving parents.  Unfortunately, however, I seem to have trained myself to wake up in the extremely early morning, at which time I pant, in Pavlovian fashion, for strong tea.

It is quite a spacious apartment, but the guest room, the parents’ room, the baby’s bassinet, the roaring kitchen faucet and a kettle that tends to scream are all in close proximity.

And so I wait in the darkness. Yes, I meditate a little, but then just wait, dry-mouthed, for murmurs.

Life is so amazing.  Here and here and here. Persistent. Smiling. Tea-full. (Soon enough.)

I have recently been working on a poem whose first line is “Step Aside, Sorrow.”  The reason I’ve not posted it is that every time I revise the poem, I end up with a completely different one. (There are just so many ways to tell sorrow to step aside, honestly; a ton of rhymes for it.) ( And in the versions, I’ve written, Sorrow always gets invited back in at the end, because of its ties to memory.)

But when you are in an apartment with a healthy baby, Sorrow simply steps aside. Without being told and without bothering with rhyme. There’s just no room for it: a baby is little but fills the space.

Anyway, it is nearly 6 am now and I may try, at least, some very quiet stepping aside of my own, that is stepping aside of doorways, tiptoeing into the kitchen, hoping that the kettle already has enough water for a cuppa.  And maybe if I stand right by it, it won’t scream….errr… whistle…. (For some reason, my family members have frequently complained of my poor attendance of kettles–)

Or maybe I can just wait here a bit more, rely upon the baby, and dawn—

(The above is a drawing supposedly of a kettle pouring four-leaf clovers.  I’ll settle for Yorkshire Gold.) 

Sitting, Mornings

February 16, 2022

I am a great believer in meditation, maybe not as great a practitioner! Though I do sit every morning, and give it priority, in that it is the very first thing I do. Though I don’t do it for any great length of time, and with no formal structure.

But what does it mean to say you believe in meditation—it’s hardly even a grammatical sentence.   Shouldn’t I say I believe in the power of meditation: i.e. how healing it is, how peacemaking, how good for your brain or heart.

Of course, I do believe/hope meditation will help me clean up my head. And act.  But what is most powerful for me is when it simply allows me to feel my connection to the universe. This sounds grandiose, but it isn’t really.  My sense of connection to the universe doesn’t make me feel particularly important, simply not alone.

It is kind of a savior, that connection.  In the midst of the of the wind in the chimney, the brief turning on of the heating system, grief over those I have lost, remorse over what I have done, the wish for a warm hat, gratitude for the warm hat that it is in fact just next to me (then on my head.) (The room where I sit is quite cold.)

 In the midst too of weeping (meditation can do that to you) over what feels overwhelming, or simply over, there the universe suddenly is, the universe saying “dear one, I am here with you.”  

I am lucky that the chunk of the universe where I live is particularly beautiful, forested in the distance, limbed up close, frosted right now, big-skied.  

There was a full moon last night, and there seems always to be some star or planet to the East in the chill Winter morning, some brilliant orb whose name I’ve been meaning to find out, without embarrassment that I don’t already know it.  

Just this minute, the snow to the west glows pink. 

But I am not meditating right now, so I can see all of this beauty. What is so great (or one of the great things), is that when you sit in the soft (and sometimes hard) space of meditation, it doesn’t much matter if the universe around you is pink-snowed. 

Hopefully, where you are, however, the universe is a little warmer.


PS – I’m not sure that the above picture really goes with this post—it is from my recent drawing marathon with Peter Hristoff.  It is a dandelion in a boat with a chair.  I don’t happen to meditate in a chair, but I think they are quite suitable for meditation, only the wings might be distracting.

The picture below of a figure with a shadow is simply one I like. AS ALWAYS, THANK YOU.

Have a good day. 


February 13, 2022

The room I stood in may be 13’ by 13’. May be. It’s hard to size this room, because it holds a grand piano, and any non-grand room holding a grand piano (even a baby grand) seems doll-house size. 

Yet, in addition to the grand piano (don’t ask), the room manages to hold a bed, bedside table, two chairs, a tray table (kept, when not in use, with several alternative pairs of soft shoes under the piano), small book shelf, extra clothes, extra heater, humidifier, and the splayed green leaves of what was, a couple of weeks ago, a stunning Amaryllis. 

I have mentioned that I am helping to care for a family member with cancer right now, and this, for various logistical reasons, is the room she is staying in. 

As I stood by the grand piano, I was (in my mind) keeping her company while she ate, digested, got ready for the night. But I was also taking a zoom drawing class (in this case, Peter Hristoff’s wonderful drawing marathon, in which participants attempt to do over 100 drawings in approximately three hours).  

Obviously, this was not ideal.  My drawing pad was on top of the piano’s lid, wedged between small stacks of card/letters/ tax documents, clothes, framed photos, and various small bottles and tubes sent home by the hospital staff an emergency stay this week.

But my ill family member has a huge reservoir of patience and I have a probably oversized amount of determination.  

What am I determined to do?  Well, I would like to learn how to draw better.  But lately, I feel that a part of my determination is oriented simply towards self-care.  We all need some these days, what with the ongoing illnesses of the pandemic, our body politic, our planet.  Plus February! 

In my case, of course, there’s also the specific illness of my dear family member, which I don’t feel is wearing me down, though it is stressful.  (Chemotherapy is chockfull of nasty surprises.)

And then, on the other side, there’s art!  (Also, of course, nature, family, friendship!) 

But I write of art right now—of how nurturing it feels to draw with both focus and abandon on a newsprint pad on the top of a grand piano.  Especially when doing it in a community of other draw-ers, and with a kind and inspiring teacher.  The engagement of the teacher, the group, and one’s own activity, can be felt through the air waves, and is itself a wave.

Yes, I felt guilty!  Squinting into my phone to do one-minute drawings of various models, no matter how wonderful they are, while in a room with a cancer patient feels immensely selfish! But there is a fair amount of monotony in illness (despite the nasty surprises), and overhearing the energy of people drawing and talking about drawing, without worrying about their germs, animated our small room in a way that, thankfully, did not seem to bother my ill family member.  (My hope is that she even found it kind of interesting.) 

And, of course, I did stop drawing at times in the three hours. In fact, I partly justified taking the drawing marathon by a self-pledged willingness to interrupt it at any moment, to step away for what was needed, and to take care not to rush those needs (no matter how my head was racing.  Rather like the portrait of the lady with the beehive above, who keeps her face insouciant despite the bees swirling around.) 

But the whole weird experience, of drawing at the crowded piano, of knowing that I might be called away at any moment, actually allowed for a certain freedom. No. The urgency of the experience did not allow for freedom, but rather mandated it,. Knowing in advance that I might have to stop at any moment made me feel that if I was going to do it at all, I should try to do it, as Peter urges, boldly.  

At any rate, thinking about the experience later gave rise to a few specific “lessons”:

The first is to be grateful, if you are taking care of someone ill, that your someone is very sweet. (Honestly, gratitude is a boon in any difficult situation.)

The second is to keep in mind your hope that your caretaking will be a marathon, not a sprint. (This wonderful comparison is from my daughter.) Again, this relates to my ill family member, but it could apply to the illness in our society too.  Difficulty takes time; it is important to figure out how to keep going.

Third, half a loaf is better than none!

Fourth, the benefit of just “showing up.”  This one seems especially important if you are someone interested in making art, or who is nourished by making art (of whatever kind.) 

It is hard to put ink to page. Not just to find time and space, but also to find belief that what you’d like to do is worth doing, and you are worthwhile enough to do it. 

But you can’t make anything if you don’t simply start; and the act of starting, “just showing up”, can be very very hard.

Having a structure–a class or a group–is of course helpful. Thinking of this afterwards brought up my father, and the way he would drag us to church when we were children. (Please read on, even if you are anti-religious!) 

It was very difficult to get my working mom out of bed on a Sunday morning, and my brother and I would try to use (i) her slowness to move, and (ii) her perfectionism about what she was going to wear (my mom was not a half-loaf kind of person) to avoid the whole process.  

But my father would persist, and often, eventually, would get us to that little neighborhood church, albeit the service might be half-way over by the time we tiptoed in.

And he’d absolutely grin for a little bit. He didn’t really care if we were particularly attentive (he himself would regularly nod off.) He was just happy that he’d gotten our feet through the door.

I am not a regular church-goer, but I am quite religious in my own way, and I am sure this is in part because of the resonance of those Sunday mornings, particularly of the service’s closing benediction. (We always got there in time for that.)  The part about may God bless you and keep you, make His face shine upon you and give you peace. 

Words like these are so important when you are with the unwell. 

I don’t know exactly how all this relates to Peter Hristoff’s drawing marathon.  Or to the use of time.  But I do know that believing it is worthwhile to at least  “show up” for an activity or a person—even when you doubt your capacity to do whatever is needed in full—can be far more resonant than one surmises.

With or without a grand piano. 

(Apologies for the length of this post and thank you, as always, for reading. The image above is from a word prompt Peter Hristoff gave in the marathon. I post a few others below, some based on his wonderful models. I will likely post more in coming days. Thanks again.)

Attempted-Art Therapy

February 6, 2022

A crazy couple of days/night here.  I may not have mentioned that a close family member is going through chemotherapy right now, and I am helping to care for her. 

It is a brutal course of treatment.  I suspect that years from now, current cancer treatments will be viewed like wound care pre-antibiotics.  (I.e. back when amputations were your best bet.)

Even being a witness is quite painful.

Which brings me to the benefits of art!  Of course, simple distraction can sometimes help with stress. Online shopping, word games, scrolling, can certainly use up time one might otherwise devote to worry. But there is nothing like art for true relief.

The word “art”includes all types! The appreciation as well as the making!

But, for purposes of this post, I write of the simple therapy of attempting to make art. Attempting to make art within the structure of a class, which can be a special balm, simply because you have a specific time for it, and can’t give in to procrastination (as in, online shopping, word games, scrolling.)

For me, my zoom drawing classes with Peter Hristoff (of School of Visual Arts) are particularly wonderful, as (i) Peter has an encouraging, thoughtful, and yet, “let’s get on with it, shall we?” presence, and (ii) no one can see what you are doing!

The class I am taking right now is the Vigorous Figure. Peter arranges for the class to have one or two wonderful models, who typically adopt one-minute (or shorter) poses.  Peter and the models are separate from each other but are used to working together, and Peter suggests various moods, positions, tropes, and sometimes, props. (In the case of the class below, the props were a couple of large palm leaves.)

The speed of the class is both difficult for someone like me (who is extremely unskilled), but also reassuring.  (In the sense that when I later look at my garbled drawings, I can always say that I only had a minute to do them in.)

I use an iPhone for the class, which is obviously sort of weird for figure drawing, but I have the kind of poor vision that works better super close.  And the phone is somehow important here. Any Zoom experience is surreal. One can’t help but be aware that each participant has their own, individual life on the other side of their little screen–their own drama or tedium–their own background, both physically and metaphorically. This sense of other’s lives is particularly strange when experienced through the little postage windows that the iPhone makes.  

Part of the wonder of it is an awareness that all the little postage stamp windows are focused for a couple of hours on Peter’s voice and the model’s vigorous figure.

I was extremely tired last week, but I tried to use that tiredness to my advantage. First, to really look at the pdfs of other students’ work that Peter highlighted. Honestly, this is the type of thing that, in the time squeezes of modern life, can sometimes make me fidgety, but I let myself really look, and appreciate, the different styles, materials and approaches.  It was inspiring and freeing.

Then, we got to doing our own drawings, and I tried, because I was so tired, to absolutely let go of results. This was not so difficult as, given my low skill level, I am very clear that I am taking the class to learn, and have no expectation of “keeper” drawings.

And one thing I decided I was interested in learning last week was not to look at my drawings as I drew, but rather to focus on the model. To keep my eye on the ball, as it were. (Sorry, male model!)   I mean this in the sense of the baseball player, who looks at the pitch rather than the bat. Or like a touch typist, a pianist reading music–it is so helpful in these activities not to look at your hands.

Admittedly this meant that some of my figures were quite awkward, often started in places where the whole body could not be fit on my paper. In that case, I just drew the legs separately, or made my figure kneel!  (I sometimes tried to tell myself how much I love Greek sculpture fragments.)

As the class went on, I changed materials, going from pencil (whose precision always makes me feel naked) to charcoal to thick charcoal. And that was great as the darker, less precise implement allowed me to be more gestural as Peter also sped up.

Of course, even in the focus of the class, I could not be heedless of the family member we are trying to look out for. Nor would I want to be. 

But in the same way that one realizes in just drawing what one sees, how perspective works—how, for example, a hand held straight in front of a model is drawn differently when you draw what you actually see rather than what you think you know–so, personal space opened.

That last bit is confusing, sorry! What I mean is that when you sketch a figure model in the complex postures Peter encourages, and speedily, you realize you are best drawing the shapes as you see them–the big hand in front, no forearm visible, perhaps a partial round of shoulder, nose.

In contrast, my normal, non-looking, way of drawing would be to try to depict everything I think is there. But drawing what you think you know, rather than what you actually see, can make perspective impossible. 

You cannot draw an outstretched hand, for example, unless you see, and give physical importance to, that outstretched hand.

So, below attempts at figures, perspective, space.  Sorry for the length of this post and the many klutzy drawings! (I am hoping to encourage others to try!) Have a good week!