I'm having a hard time getting back into the swing here. Looking back through my photos last year, by this time I was building a chicken coop, making bark beer, foraging nettles, raising chicks, transplanting elderberry cuttings, baking a cake, making empanadas, throwing pots and making a ceramic seed sprouter..... holy shit. I've been having a hard time getting off the couch since I've been back this year. I don't know if it's the vaccination wearing me down (got it two weeks ago), or age, or my health condition. I just don't feel like doing much of anything, and its frustrating. Sometimes you just need to remember to be patient with yourself.
It feels good to be back in my studio with all of its space, even if I'm not actually making anything yet. It's nice to come back to my art supplies, my books, my collections of interesting things, my room to spread out.
The space does inspire me. Sometimes it just offers itself as a place to be in and do nothing, which feels like incubation. I can feel the potential there, but don't feel the pressure to push and make something happen. It's waiting for me to be ready.
The girls were very glad to be back home and see their friends. Everyone got vaccinated so no more social distancing. So far they've shared exotic beers they discovered on their journeys, played Scrabble, and had art night.
Looking Back Out the Back Door
Last week, after a 7-hour drive from central Arizona, I stopped about 30 miles south of Moab, Utah on the edge of Canyonlands National Park. The canyons were formed by the Colorado River over millions of years. I’ve been to this region many times before to camp, bike, or visit friends and family.
I drove up over a ridge and the view of miles upon miles of canyons spread out to the horizon took my breath away, even though it isn't new to me. There is just nothing like this place.
Whenever I’m here, I am always struck by a sense of deep time. The Colorado Plateau covers parts of Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. This chunk of land wasn't squished and deformed and covered up the way that most of the mountain west was as it was created. Several oceans have come and gone, continents collided and parted, mountains formed and eroded and formed again... it's amazing. I mean, the sand in these sandstone rocks I'm standing on started out as part of a mountain which eroded and turned into sand on sea floors which became sedimentary rock which was eventually uplifted and formed into mountains again which eroded again. One little grain of sand! I'm a total geology nerd, sorry not sorry. I love rocks. Come on, who wouldn't be excited by this? There are frickin' rocks in the bottom of the Grand Canyon in Arizona that are almost 2 billion years old. That's about half of the Earth's lifetime!! You can touch those puppies with your bare hands. So when you stand on the rim of one of these canyons and look down, you are literally looking at layers of time. This is mind boggling. Beautifully, overwhelmingly mind blowing. At least once in your life, you gotta visit this part of the world, you'll never forget it.
Outside the boundaries of Canyonlands are miles and miles of BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land. So, unless otherwise posted, anyone can enjoy our public lands, which includes finding a sweet little spot to your liking and setting up a camp. Isn't that amazing? I found a beautiful rock (small mountain?) and had it all to myself. I walked all the way around it several times while I was there, and crawled part way up one edge. I was intensely curious about what was on top but I promised my Mom that I wouldn’t’ climb it while I was alone. They call this kind of sandstone slickrock. Its great for biking and hiking; feet and tires almost stick to it (so it should be called stickyrock). (Moab is one of the premier mountain biking spots in the world.) Climbing up is easy, but coming back down is always scary if its steep. Scooting down on my butt or belly feet first is the preferred method.
I didn't boondock alone in California or Arizona because it didn't feel safe. It does here. Most people in this area are tourists. When I chose my site, I parked where I had a clear view of the only road leading in, and I could see the main road in the distance. I dropped a pin and sent it to my mom so someone would know where I was. I feel safe camping alone because I pay attention to these kinds of details, and always have a strong sense of situational awareness.
Desert light is amazing, constantly changing throughout the day.
My daughter Ana and her tattooed clan took a vacation on a house boat on Lake Powell in southern Utah last week. On their way back to Colorado, they stopped and camped with me for one night. I hoped to see her longer, but they were understandably anxious to get home. I thoroughly enjoyed the short-lived company.
Phone and texts worked OK at my Big Orange Rock Camp, but internet didn’t. I got bored. I painted, I read a book, I played my mandolin, I went on several short walks. But I was bored. Without constant online distraction, I came to the realization that I was lonely. After spending a few days completely alone (other than Ana’s brief visit) and with no internet connection, it hit me hard that I'm tired of being alone. When Alec is around I don't feel lonely, but I do miss other people. I want to share my experiences with others. I want to squabble over playlists and podcasts while driving. I want to cook with people. I want to share the excitement of new discoveries, little observations, and awkward moments. It's been a great winter season, but definitely time to head back.
the girls' last adventure of the season
Making Bad Art
I was so enamored with the view at the Canyonlands overlook that I started a gouache painting. I was very dissatisfied, and decided to abandon it partway through. But I didn’t feel good about giving up. I don’t like quitting, even though I decided that even if I finished it, it wouldn’t be a good painting (because of the composition and such). It reminded me of how limited I am and how much I have to learn. Landscapes just bore me and I don’t know how to paint them. I came up with a new strategy to cut it into two pieces to reorganize the composition and make two smaller paintings. After taking that approach and continuing, I still wasn't happy with it. I broke out my brand new box of crayons and finished up with them. Even if I ended up not being happy with the art, I still had the satisfaction of opening a brand new box and using virgin crayons. That's always a satisfying experience.
The northerly migration has officially started. We're heading back to Nebraska on a roundabout route, the first stop being at Bumblebee Arizona, north of Phoenix. I love this place because it is a little green rocky valley that cuts through the desert. There are tons of species of cactus and desert plants and a lot of wildlife. It's already late spring here, the cottonwoods, willows and grass are in full splendor at the bottom of the canyon. It's on BLM land (Bureau of Land Management), managed by the government but open to public use.
You can't swing a stick without hitting a mining claim (basically an official federal sign telling others that it's illegal to look for rocks on the claim). People still prospect here, and anyone can stake a claim. I don't think much gold comes out of these hills, but small-scale prospecting is a fun pass time, a lot like fishing. Personally, I'm more into hunting for free-range rocks. I try not to take very many home. It's more like catch and release unless I find one I just can't live without.
I’m looking forward to going home and moving forward with my plans. Last year I got my ducks in a row to have work in galleries and exhibits in 2021. I’m excited, but a little bit anxious. I sat down with myself and explored why I feel apprehensive. I think its coming from a sense that I don’t really belong anywhere, and putting my art out in the world has always been unsettling. There's a push-pull going on. Do all artists experience this? Why do we do it? Just sitting alone in a studio producing art is essential, but not wholly satisfying for me. It needs to go somewhere, to be in action. When I was younger, I wanted to be recognized for my skills and gifts. I needed a sense of identity as an artist that was acknowledged by the world so I could find my place in it. I no longer feel a need for validation and admiration. I'm pretty content on the outside at this point in my life. Frankly, it makes me a little uncomfortable to be the center of attention at gallery openings.
So why do I keep going back? I had a very insightful experience a few years ago at an opening of a solo show. I was able to observe as people walked around and looked at my artwork. I got to see the process of a few peoples' immediate visceral connections with the work. I witnessed love at first sight as I watched my art provoke deep emotion. It was then that I realized that getting work out there isn’t about prestige and money, but rather sharing something bigger than that. My job isn't to paint pretty pictures. Its to lift the veil between the worlds of flesh and spirit. The role as an artist is to be a modern day shaman, a conduit of profound human experience. When people connect with art, something is activated; magic settles in and the spheres of the universe begin to hum. I want the art on the wall to be a little doorway into an alternate dimension of experience. One where people get goosebumps from the muses’ breath on their skin and sense the electric smell of being.
I’ve been painting a little bit again, letting whatever inspires me lead the process. Recently its been garden vegetables. Must be spring fever. At this point I'm more inspired to paint vegetables than plant them. For the first time that I can remember, I’m not drooling over seed catalogs and planning a spring garden. Last year gardening was exhausting. We fought to just get seeds to come up, and by the time the season was over, not much came out of the garden. Mice took over at the beginning and weeds took over at the end. As each year passes, my energy becomes more finite, and I need to choose where I spend it wisely. I still want a garden. I don’t want it to make me miserable.
When I first moved to Nebraska, I went crazy with the wide open spaces, abundant water and rich soil. This year, I’m retreating to my Colorado gardening techniques. I’m only going to plant in raised beds (some old stock tanks filled with dirt that I found around the farm). They're already set up to be low maintenance.
Part of my strategy to my artwork 'out there' is to sell prints. These cute little 5"x7" veggie paintings seem like a good starting point.
The past few weeks we've been playing a lot with my partner’s 4x4 rock crawling machine. Besides traveling around the desert to find big crazy boulders to crawl over with it, we go to a few off-road events each winter. Alec’s cars are…. well…… totally outside of the box.
If you asked me to describe them, Dr. Seuss’ inventions come to mind. Some might say that Alec is like a combination of Dr. Emmet Brown from Back to the Future and Hayao Miyazaki’s Kamaji from Spirited Away . (BTW, one of my fav directors. If you haven't seen any of his films, you just have to.)
Although he doesn’t describe himself as an artist, a huge amount of creativity and ingenuity go into everything that he does. He has a passion for building and inventing, and has built a multitude of things over the years, from tank vehicles to airplanes. Part of his satisfaction comes from operating them at their full potential, but the creative process is what he lives for.
Alec Yeager - Inventor
Me: What is your favorite color and why?
Alec: Fuchsia green. I think Chrysler called it Sassy Grass Green.
Me: Why is that your favorite color?
Alec: I don't know, I’ve always liked that color.
Me: What is your art?
Alec: My art is using metal. I take an idea and create it out of metal. It’s always mechanical.
Me: What’s your process?
Alec: My process started back a long time ago. Growing up on the farm, we built or rebuilt most of our own equipment. I always liked custom harvesting because the machines that we harvested with were very complex, with a lot of systems going on at once. I enjoyed seeing the interaction of a multitude of systems that do completely different things, all interacting together. So I would always take it to the next level, because there was always room for improvement. It was about improving, making it more functional, or to make a machine do more things than it was designed for.
Me: You’ve made a leap from just building something that has already been designed or conceptualized. You come up with ideas that nobody has ever thought of before and then create them, and make them work flawlessly. What’s different from what everybody else has done and what you do?
Alec: That probably came from growing up very isolated on a farm. My parents didn’t’ keep me busy 24-7 with things like Little League and all these other things that people think kids have to do. I had lots of time to do my own creating in my own brain. When I saw mechanical devices I always thought of other purposes or ways to incorporate things in machines that they weren’t necessarily designed to do. I still do that when I see a piece of equipment; I think of how I could make it do what I want it to versus what it might have been originally intended for. It's always been about thinking outside the box.
I learned something important very early on, which was to look at something from a totally flipped perspective. Turn it over 180 degrees. So if it was designed to go a certain way, I’d turn it around in my head and think it through completely backwards. You flip it and look at it working in reverse and also a mirror image. I found that very useful in creating new ideas because then you could eliminate the trap of going down only one path and being limited.
Me: What is your favorite part about your creations?
Alec: One of my favorite parts is the creative process, it doesn't cost anything to think up 100 different vehicles. Let's say you have 100 ideas then you start narrowing them down and then narrowing them down. That's the fun part - you weasel and weasel it down to about the 10 best ideas that you can think of. And then comes the work, because then you have to start making decisions about which one is the very best. Well, there's a lot of ways to skin a cat. There are multiple ways of approaching the same problem. There's not one best way, but a decision needs to be made. Then it's time to start spending money on iron and motors tires and all this. Once you make that decision, it’s pretty rewarding because then your brain kinda relaxes and you go, “Okay, this is how we're going to do it.” And then you spend a big ol’ pile of money and then become stressed again. The last car I made, I drew it out and did lots of measuring and so I was pretty confident that everything would fit.
Me: Do you design your machines on a computer first?
Alec: I'm not a computer guy or a digital guy. I'm an analytical guy, but I need to grab a hunk of iron and start going at it to see how it will fit together. I do sketch things out, just not in detail, I sketch a general concept. Then I get my hands on it and build in the sub-structures after the main items are there.
So that's pretty stressful because you’ve got to make the decision eventually to poop or get off the pot, you’ve got to put things in the right place. And once they’re in you have to live with it. The more cars I build I get better at knowing the direction I'm going as I build. I want to avoid the, “Oh, crap that shouldn't have gone there now I can't work on the piece that's behind it”. A lot of engineers don't worry about that because they don't fix their own stuff, they just build it. Then when other people like me are trying to repair it, we go, “A stupid engineer put that there.” I have to fix my own stuff so I’ve learned to pay attention.
Me: What advice would you give to aspiring creators?
Alec: Don't quit because it doesn't work the first time. It’s like the story about the best baseball player of all time. Babe Ruth had hit the most homeruns. And come to find out later, he also had the record for the most strike outs. But then Hank Aaron comes along and beat his homerun record. Well, turns out he also beat the record of striking out the most. So me, I was just too stubborn to quit. I have a whole yard of scrap up home from things that didn’t work. Instead of going to engineering college, I paid my tuition in scrap metal. It's not always knowing the ways that something will work. I know a lot of ways that don't work. A lot of other inventors do that too. There's precious few ideas that work really well. The more ways you know that won't work, the more likely you are to come up with something that does.
If you want to see roXdawg (his latest build) in action or hear about his other machines or projects, I’ve posted lots of video on our YouTube channel. Most people looking for 4x4 videos want to see rollovers and horsepower, and we don't quite fit that niche. But we have several thousand subscribers who seem to be interested in watching his unusual cars, and watching him describe his building process on this and other projects. We’re also on Facebook and Instagram.
I’ve been struggling for awhile now to create art and write. After working at such a furious pace, some fallow time is necessary. The creative well needs refilled. This usually happens around this time of year, especially after I've had a productive winter. It starts with a sense of emptiness and boredom when nothing appeals to me and I don't look forward to any projects. I marinate in ennui (a feeling of weariness and dissatisfaction). The creative juices always comes back eventually, but I really dislike this. The challenge is to sit with the discomfort and just let it happen, and not try to force something that doesn’t want to come. I know my muses will find me again, they always do. I just have to have faith in the process. So while waiting this out, I decided to continue to explore, searching for that elusive Art with a capital 'A'.
Island State Park
Continuing the solo adventure, I ventured out of my comfort zone. I stayed at a campground in a small State Park along the Colorado River, which defines the border between California and Arizona where it snakes through the desert and high volcanic mountains. The river is about half a mile wide at the park, lined with palm trees, vacation homes and RV resorts. I knew it would be good for me to be around all these people. I fought the urge to bolt for the open desert, but reminded myself that I didn’t have to talk to anyone unless I wanted to. I ended up using my rusty social skills a little and it wasn't too painful. Most of the campers were retired couples, and many of the men sat most of the day in camp chairs, drinking beer, watching each other, and talking to their little lap dogs the same way one might talk to a child. My neighbor (a grandmotherly woman) saw that I was painting and told me about her watercolor journals and the classes that she takes online, constantly mentioning that she was no good at it. I looked at her pictures and listened attentively. I didn’t feel compelled to tell her that I was an artist, or to mention where I showed my work. I had no desire to build myself up and feel important. I just wanted to share and encourage her enthusiasm. In retrospect, I think I made her feel a little uncomfortable because I didn't return the banter by talking about myself. Social skills aren't like riding a bicycle, I guess.
I went for a hike one morning, even though my Chronic Fatigue symptoms were flaring up. (Sometimes I feel dizzy, off-balance, faint and suddenly tired. I’m used to it, and normally push through rather than letting it keep me down.) I decided to be safe and tell the camp ranger which trail I would be on and when I planned on returning. I began with the intention to stay on the trail, but it wasn’t well marked, and it was hard to tell where it started. I hiked up an arroyo (dry wash) and then to the top of a low mountain to look out and find it. As I topped the first ridge I found that there was another ridge, and then another, and I kept going, despite the fact I was nowhere near the trail where I said I would be. When I finally made it to the top, I found myself surrounded on three sides by cliffs lining tall red plateaus. The river and campground were down in the distance on the third side. Seeing no trail and only dead-end canyons in three directions, I backtracked down the rocky slopes to the roadway, thinking that I really should find the trail and stay on it since I felt a little faint and off-balance. Down at the bottom, I found several side washes with cool rocks, and so wandered down those for a while. Every time I bent over to pick up a rock I told myself to stop doing that because of the dizziness it caused, and every time I saw another cool rock I bent over again to inspect it. Finally, I found the trail. I followed it like a good girl, until it came to a bend where it went up a steep ridge. I was already tired from my earlier slog up the mountain, and a beautiful narrow canyon with colorful cliffs on both sides invited me around the bend away from the path. At that point, I realized that it is just not in my nature to stay on a trail. Off I went, telling myself that I would stop after the first bend in the canyon. And then the next. Before long I saw a lone cottonwood tree and lush cool greenery that stood out against the warm earth and rock. There was a seep spring coming out of the side of a cliff, and approaching I could sense the sweet smell of water. Sitting down in the middle of this little oasis in the shade of jagged canyon walls, I ate my lunch and was finally content. I didn’t realize that I needed to be in this exact spot at this exact moment until I had found it. As much as I wanted to continue to follow the canyon, it was getting hot and I knew that to go much farther would result in making myself sick and having to spend at least a day recovering. Someday I hope to come back to my secret little oasis and continue up this shady little canyon.
The next day, I drove an hour to a remote area downstream from the crowded riverfront and found the Blythe Intaglios. This mighty river has attracted people to the area for thousands of years. The Mohave were the original inhabitants, and much of the river is on the Colorado River People reservation, descendants of the Mojave. The intaglios are 150 – 200 feet long figures of humans and animals etched into the ground on flat arid mesas overlooking the river, recognizable from above. The figures were made by removing the darker rocks and exposing the lighter colored material below. No one knows when they were made or why. As I hiked between the figures, I wondered about the people who made them. Was it a group effort? A sacred act? How long did each take? How did they conceptualize creating these large works of art made to be seen from above? What inspired them? I assume that they were made to communicate to a higher power of some kind. No one is left who can answer these questions definitively, so we are left to let them speak to each of us individually. I was moved by a deep respect for the artists.
"The Last Free Place"
The next day, I headed west again into the California desert, detouring a few hours out of my way to Slab City, a remote enclave of desert drifters that has grown organically on public land. A permanent Burning Man, perhaps? A social experiment in anarchy? Since the 80's, its become a community of squatters, artists, snowbirds, RV dwellers, migrants, survivalists, homeless people and hippies, with very little structure or law enforcement. The negatives of a lawless place are evident; drug abuse, theft, conflict, lack of resources for the poor and mentally ill. But there is also a great deal of freedom and potential for human good. The people here have left even the fringes of society to avoid a civilized world. Most people move on before the summer heat sets in. Still, even the seasonal inhabitants are extremophiles. There is nothing easy about living here. No water, electricity, or basic amenities of any kind other than what is hauled in. The community is scattered with experimental art, live events, performance art, music, murals and sculptures. Slab City as a whole is a Salvage Punk installation. There are a few Air B&B's and hostels for intrepid travelers, and a few very rudimentary eating establishments that are reminiscent of those found on the back roads of impoverished countries.
I stopped at "Salvation Mountain", a huge installation that a guy spent years building and rebuilding as a tribute to his god. Though they look nothing alike, I was struck by the parallels between this modern construction and the intaglios a hundred miles away. In both instances, human beings were trying to connect with or to celebrate or to express themselves to something larger than themselves. Walking around both of these large monuments and contemplating their makers' intentions was yet another meditation on what art is.
And finally, I need to make a nod to the movie Nomadland, which I haven't seen yet, but I already recognize some places and sentiments from the trailers. I will make a point of watching it and report back, and if you've seen it, leave a comment and let me know what you thought. I've seen a wide range of reactions on womens' RV social media sites that I follow. Some people loved it, some hated it. I'm excited to see if it wins any Oscars.
I finally got tired of sand dunes, wind and empty desert. My partner wanted to stay in that region of Southern California, and I needed a change of atmosphere. We parted ways for a few weeks. I packed up Priscilla and left the Sonoran desert behind, heading to the Mojave in Arizona. Did you know that there are several distinct desert environments in the U.S.? Where the Sonoran has limited plant and animal life, the Mojave is at higher altitude, has relatively cooler temperatures and more precipitation. Compared to where I was, the Mojave desert is lush. It’s still dry, but there is a much more diverse ecosystem, including the iconic saguaro cacti. I’m parked at a friend’s property outside of Salome, Arizona. He and his family have spent the past few years slowly improving an old shack on this land that he bought for the airplane landing strip. It used to be a cattle ranch, and an old windmill looms ever present. I have access to water and electricity, and a lovely porch with a work table in the shade. My friends come by a few hours each day to work on the house, which, besides my partner, is more interaction than I’ve had for almost two months.
Going for walks by myself is a lot like my artistic process. No straight lines from point A to point B. I don’t like to walk on roads, but prefer to follow game trails. I wander off after jack-rabbits or birds, or follow the trails to dried up watering holes and poke around for tracks and other signs of life. Every once in awhile I come across an old encampment littered with rusted tin cans and broken glass bottles. In this region, they are most likely from cowboys tending herds or gold prospectors.
The other evening I crossed a coyote trail and saw one watching me from several hundred yards away. They call to each other after the sun sets. I've noticed a pair of ravens that patrol this area a few times a day. One in particular is recognizable because it constantly talks to itself as it flies.
There's a few coveys (flocks) of Gambel's quail. They hide in the bushes, and you wouldn't even know that they are there, but when you get close they start making lots of racket and fly or run out in several different directions, including straight at you, making a squeaky toy noise. They come in from the desert really close to my camp. Even as I sit here typing in the hammock on the front porch, the little guys are on all sides of me. Every once in awhile I hear little feet patting furiously along, and a quail or two go running past, almost close enough to touch. The question marks bobbing on the tops of their heads makes them seem particularly comical.
It occurred to me the other day that I’ve become feral. I enjoy seeing my friends here, but interacting for any length of time tires me and causes anxiety. One had some interesting perspective about this. We were talking about my life-long conflict of a desire to be outgoing, but how interacting with people is painfully awkward and exhausting.
She's a retired literature professor, and mentioned the conflict of the protagonist in American literature, torn between conforming to society and being true to their authentic natures. Classic American literature doesn’t end with the same tidiness of European literature, where the hero delves into their inner conflict and resolves it in the end. In contrast, the American hero ultimately returns to their conflict and to non-conformity because to do otherwise would be inauthentic. She said, “You are an American Hero!” This paradigm shift somehow gave me a sense of peace, knowing that at least I am true to myself.
This morning I stopped at a roadside mercado to pick up some fresh vegetables. A man with a long black ponytail and warm piercing eyes sold me a bag of emerald green avocados, giving me a few extras that were perfectly ripe. As I sat alone in my camper, relishing the creamy lusciousness smeared on a tostada with a dash of salt and chili, I wondered about the man. I've seen him several times through the years that I’ve returned here. Always the same old van, always the table set out by the road, a hand-drawn sign taped to the front simply stating, “Avocados and Oranges”. I wonder if he is also an American hero. I wonder if he has dreamed of a world outside of this hot windy desert, or has left and come back again to his life here selling perfect avocados on dusty roadsides. I wonder if he is content or conflicted. I wonder if I will ever become sociable enough to ask him.
The Adventures of Frida and Kathrine
Frida has gotten interested in photography lately. She asked Kathrine and I to pose for her. I think she did a nice job with this shot.
We've been tucked up against a remote sand covered rock of a mountain for over six weeks now. Extreme isolation in the desert has left me exposed. Emotional layers of scars and callouses have been gently worn away by the same eternal wind that blows the sand into dunes. Defenses built up over a lifetime are unnecessary. I find myself exquisitely aware and sensitive to my environment. It's safe here with my partner, away from the overstimulation of humanity and civilization, easy to be vulnerable.
My body has become re-sensitized to certain stimuli, uncovering past trauma that’s been buried in layers of indifference and numbness for decades. One example is that an awareness has emerged that I don’t like my sides to be touched. For 45 years I’ve ignored and buried that discomfort. I know exactly where it came from. Tickling is a uniquely socially acceptable act of torture. Most children enjoy a little bit of tickling. But to be pinned down by those you trust, crying and screaming and begging for it to stop, not being able to breathe, and then being scolded for not being a good sport. Reading peoples’ moods and hiding when danger is sensed. The words, “We’re playing. You’re too sensitive.” If there was one phrase that could sum up my childhood experiences, it was “Stop being so sensitive.” I tried, certain that there was something wrong with me because I was ‘so sensitive’. I was convinced that if I could suppress or even extinguish my sensitivities, I would be accepted and able to function in an overwhelming world.
We've all learned coping mechanisms to survive. How many beautiful spirits have sacrificed authenticity for acceptance? The pain of hiding one’s true nature deep down in order to be able to function is familiar to many of us for our own personal reasons. Numbed years went by when I grew up, with a vague sense of unhappiness and not knowing why or where it came from. Resignation to the ‘supposed-to’s’. My life-altering epiphany came when I was searching for help and support for my own young daughter who was struggling socially and emotionally. I wanted desperately to be able to help her to become an authentic person who didn’t have to hide from anyone. So instead of ignoring and glossing over her signs of distress, I did research. I contacted professionals. I got her help. And in doing so, I discovered deep truths about myself. One of these was the concept of “overexcitabilities”. The pieces began to come together about why I was the way I was and most importantly, that there was nothing wrong with me.
“According to pioneering psychologist K. Dabrowski, there are five forms of overexcitability. These five forms are psychomotor, sensual, emotional, imaginational and intellectual.
Psychomotor: Overexcitability is a heightened excitability of the neuromuscular system. This manifests itself in a capacity for being active and energetic, a love of movement, a surplus of energy and an actual need for physical action.
Sensual: Overexcitability is an intensified experience of any type of sensual pleasure or displeasure emanating from one of the five senses, i.e. sight, smell, touch, taste, and hearing. It manifests as an increased appreciation of aesthetic pleasure such as music, language, and art, and delight from tastes, smells, textures, sounds, and sights. Conversely, extreme pain and disgust are experienced upon exposure to sensations perceived as unpleasant.
Intellectual: Overexcitability manifests itself as an extreme desire to seek understanding and truth, to gain knowledge, and to analyze and categorize information. Those high in Intellectual overexcitability are commonly seen as intellectually gifted and have incredibly active minds. They are intensely curious, avid readers and keen observers. They frequently love thinking purely for the sake of thinking.
Imaginational: Overexcitability manifests as an intensified play of the imagination, causing a rich association of images, invention, fantasy, use of imagery and metaphor and elaborate dreams and visions. Often children high in Imaginational overexcitability do not differentiate between truth and fiction, or are absorbed in their own private world with imaginary companions and dramatizations.
Emotional: Overexcitability is characterized by heightened, intense feelings, extreme experience of complex emotions, identification with others' feelings to the point of actual experience and strong sentimental expression. Other indications include physical response to emotional stimuli such as stomachaches when nervous and obsessive concern with death and depression. Emotionally overexcitable people have a strong capacity for deep relationships; they show strong emotional attachments to people, places, and things. They are empathetic, compassionate and extremely sensitive.”
I can emphatically check all of those boxes. When I began to see my “overexcitablilites” as a unique blessing rather than a curse, I was able to begin my journey toward self-actualization. And I joined in my daughters’ journeys of cultivating and celebrating their sensitivities and differences.
Do any of the overexcitabilites resonate with you? If you want to explore in more depth, this is a good article to start with.
Home of the Brave
I came across this 10 minute video about an intrepid person who left her own familiar world to start an artist residency in a deserted town in a remote corner of Utah. The video itself is well done, and the story is both inspiring and a little unsettling.
Think you might be interested in a pilgrimage of your own to this isolated artist enclave? Apply here.
I’ve shifted my paintings away from the desert critters toward a very different motif. I’m taking vintage photos of daring women doing trick riding and performances and painting them on my old maps. They are fun, beautiful, and powerful all at the same time. Now that I feel like I have control of the gouache, I’m playing with it and having fun.
“The big question is whether you are going to be able to say a hearty yes to your adventure” - Joseph Campbell
Have you noticed that, when strange little coincidences appear in front of you, it feels like the universe is whispering in your ear? The trick is to be ready to change plans when magic is at the door. In order to collaborate with the muses, one has to be ready to grab a jacket and dash out at a moment's notice.
I’ve learned to say yes when they come knocking. For example, when I left my studio in Nebraska last fall, I didn’t know that I would be painting mostly with gouache over the winter. I originally planned on watercolor. But I pursued gouache because I wanted to do something challenging. Last weekend I stumbled across something that once again shifted the direction of my work. We went to visit a friend who was cutting down trees around an old home site. I found a shed that was overgrown by the trees, accessible only by crawling through the underbrush away from the harsh desert sun. They were to be demolished in the following days. It was shady and cool in the growth by the shack, and in entering this strange little bubble my curiosity was rewarded. I love coming across old forgotten things and gently sifting through them, looking for hints about the lives of previous inhabitants. There was a suitcase full of maps of the western U.S., some of them dating as far back as the mid-40’s. They had been safe inside the shed for decades, and the dry desert air had left them intact.
This brings me back to the coincidences. A month ago I found myself thinking about art forms that speak to what I am doing currently (specifically, traveling). I thought it would be really cool to use old maps as a background for paintings, and thought of the box of old geological survey topo maps back home in my studio. I was bummed out that I didn’t have them with me. So when I opened that suitcase last weekend and saw the maps, I was struck by a sense of serendipity, and felt that little knock on the door. It was my muse again. I wasn’t about to ignore it just because I already had plans for my next project. No, sir. At that point I was still fascinated with jackrabbits and was immersed in painting them. So I painted them on the maps.
And another serendipitous coincidence is that, when I was at the art supply store in Boulder a few months ago I bought exactly what I needed to make this work. I didn’t know exactly why I needed transparent watercolor ground when I picked it up off of the shelf. I was just certain that I did. It’s used to prepare surfaces for water-based medium. Exactly what I needed to prepare these maps to be painted on with gouache.
I finished a few little jackrabbits on pieces of maps. My next projects will also be painted on the maps. It incorporates where I am and what I’m doing right now... not just traveling, but exploring. The vintage western maps create a sense of nostalgia, a possible portal to adventure in a big, exciting world. They speak of potential and what one might find out there. It all comes together in this beautiful kismet-infused creative tangle. I couldn’t make this stuff up even if I wanted to. I love it.
Do you allow happenstance to influence your creative work? Wish that you did? I’d love to hear about your experiences, and how serendipitous events inspire you!
The Adventures of Frida and Kathrine
The ladies are enjoying their desert vacation, and have concluded that clothing is optional. They recently decided to make a movie. Based on the trailer (posted below), I’m not sure how far this project is going to go. But they’re having fun with the process.
We’ve been parked in the same place for three weeks now here in the southern California desert. Normally, Bureau of Land Management officers would have told us to move, because there is a two week limit for dispersed camping on public lands. But the pandemic has changed the rules. I’m not sure exactly why, but the BLM isn’t policing open spaces this year. Being a government agency, they might have furloughed their employees to avoid contact with the public. And they might have decided to give people a break who have no home to go back to. I’m guessing a little of both.
Being completely immersed in this landscape for such a long time has done something strange to my brain. By constantly studying the light, the shapes, the near and distant mountains, the play of shadows and clouds, I’ve shifted into that proverbial “seeing things with an artist’s eye” mindset. But it’s become more than that. I’m slowly blending with the landscape, and at times it’s difficult to know where the outside world ends and where I begin. We hiked up the nearby dunes the other morning to reach the rocky outcropping on top of the mountain. I had been staring at this part of the dunes and mountain each day from my window, and have done several sketches and paintings of the view. As we started up the first dune, I had a trippy experience that I was walking into a painting. The flat two dimensional plane was broken as I entered it. Walking through the sand, I imagined that each grain was a particle of pigment. It made me dizzy and disoriented for a few moments before I shook it off. My senses have shifted and become attenuated to subtle shades of color that play on close and distant surfaces. Mountain shadows and the night sky no longer appear black to me. They pop out in pure ultramarine blues and deep violets. I paint obsessively almost every day.
Following the Footprints
It would be easy to assume that there was no life in this arid and desolate desert, but we see tons of animal tracks on our daily hikes. And if you look closely at them, each set of tracks tells a complex story. You can see where an animal slowed down, stopped, or sped up. When they were trotting, loping or hopping quickly in a straight line or meandering around foraging. Every once in a while you can see where the violent and abrupt intersection of predator and prey took place. All of these tracks inspired me to do a series of paintings of the unseen animals in our midst. The internet has been a great source of photos to work from, but I have also incorporated the tracks into most of the paintings because they are part of the narrative of the artwork.
I've read that kit foxes are endangered but they seem abundant here. There are footprints everywhere, including around our camp. We set a game camera up for a few nights by a kangaroo rat hole in front of the camper. Not only did we see the cute little rat that looks like a gerbil with a long tail, but a kit fox was also visiting the hole at the same time every night. I wish I was patient enough to stay up and watch them, but once the sun goes down I crawl into my own den and fall asleep.
After a few paintings, a funny thing started to happen. After I finished the foxes, I decided to paint the ravens that sometimes cruise around the nearby abandoned campsites. That morning, as we were walking, we came upon a pair of ravens poking around an old fire ring. I thought to myself, “I hope they come and visit our camp site, I would love to see them up close. Come on by and see us, guys!” And you know what? Early that afternoon I looked out the window, and there they were right in front of the camper. I smiled and got my paints out.
I decided on a jackrabbit for the next painting because I love their big ears and expressive eyes. I thought, "Well, I haven’t actually ever seen a jackrabbit for the past eight years that I’ve been coming out here, but this is their habitat so I’m sure they’re around." As we drove down the dirt road toward town for supplies that day, guess who burst out from behind a creosote bush? Yup, the first rabbit I've seen here.
Now, I am not making any of this up. You can make of it what you will. When you're deeply connected, without distraction, to your surroundings, the universe opens up and you yourself become a part of its rhythm. The proper reaction is humble gratitude. These are gifts that I pass along through my artwork.
The Adventures of Frida and Kathrine
I tried sledding down the dunes, too. The girls made it look easier than it really is.
Camper Life – Original Tiny House Living
Living in the desert in a camper forces one to simplify and refocus. With limited space, objects get prioritized and weeded out. Organization is essential. Resources are also prioritized and life revolves around them. Water is finite- the tanks will only hold so much fresh water. Bathing and hair washing becomes a ritual. Bodies are perfectly capable of staying healthy and balanced without a constant barrage of shampoos and products slathered all over them. Dishes can be washed with minimal water. Without a connection to a sewer, grey water and black water tanks have to be dumped at dump sites. All trash has to be carried out. We live in a closed system.
Space for food storage is limited. We have a lot of canned food, including pork and chicken that we butchered and processed from our own farm. The refrigerator is small and the freezer smaller. Even during non-pandemic times, we only went to town once a week, and now once every few weeks for supplies. I eat very little processed food, and I take the time to cook and prepare my meals as part of my daily rituals. Because we have an excellent solar charging system, electricity isn’t a big issue. But for those without solar, a fossil fuel-powered generator is the only option. For heat, we use an electric heater run on solar energy, and sometimes propane when the skies have been overcast. The challenges and rewards of independence and a small footprint are worth this complicated lifestyle.
Always the Art
With art, one thing always seems to lead to another. I started out with the intention to just dabble in gouache for awhile until I got a feel for it, and then switch back to watercolor. But it lead me down a path toward a fuller understanding of my own artistic process.
I have never liked painting landscapes. Traditionally, most of the subject matter that I’ve painted has been pretty subjective, bordering on illustrative. When I was a kid I spent countless hours drawing animals, particularly horses. I thought that if I could draw them perfectly, they would come to life. I worked tirelessly to find that soul through perfectly imitating what they looked like in life. (Only much later did I discover that art can often capture a feeling or spirit through a few brush strokes, or certain colors, and don't need to be photographic to convey deep emotions.) Landscapes bored me. Man-made objects never inspired me. I come from a line of illustrative artists, and my daughters continue with that tradition. I recently found an illustration that my great-grandmother did of tree anatomy for her 1920's-era high school biology class. It's breathtaking.
A few years ago I decided to push myself out of my comfort zone and challenge myself with landscapes and new mediums, specifically watercolor (and now gouache). After dabbling with landscapes with gouache and feeling frustrated, I decided to go back into my wheelhouse of illustrative animals (desert animals since I'm here). It's been fun and feels good to be back doing something familiar in order to get comfortable with the medium.
Last year I had a conversation with my sister about feeling stuck and frustrated artistically. She gave me the book, “Big Magic”, by Elizabeth Gilbert. Now that I've read it, I pass on the recommendation to anyone who feels held back from their creativity.
"I believe this is one of the oldest and most generous tricks the universe plays on us human beings, both for its own amusement and for ours: The universe buries strange jewels deep within us all, and then stands back to see if we can find them. The hunt to uncover those jewels- that's creative living. The courage to go on that hunt in the first place- that's what separates a mundane existence from a more enchanted one."
Artist, homesteader, teacher and adventurer. Turning over every literal and figurative rock that I can find, living curiously and creatively outside of the conventions of the common world.
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