Last night I was on the phone with my dad, explaining the thought process behind a recent project of mine. There is a certain magic in family connections, you see, and there is a conversational magic that I learned from my father over years of following his threads of storytelling. He has the unique ability to connect anything in a logical manner, through seemingly disconnected stories. A notable memory of this is the time he took me from Beatle boots, to Britney Spears, to World War 2 and back again over the span of a 4 hour lunch date when I was 14. I still couldn’t tell you how we got to any of it, but I can tell you that it made perfect sense. So here I am, looking back at our conversation last night and realizing that it is indeed all connected, my new easel, my Grandmommy, my upcoming class in San Antonio, and the bird’s eye view from my new office space.
Let’s start at the beginning, or is it the middle? Who’s to say. What got me on this thread was that I recently built myself an easel for drawing on a table top. I already own 4 or 5 table top easels, and a couple of drawing boards, and truly, they get the job done fine enough. Really, the easel I built is not for me, because of the aforementioned 4 or 5 perfectly satisfactory easels I have lounging around my studio apartment. I built this easel as a prototype for my students next month. As I prepare for my class (on how to draw realistic faces in graphite) I have come to the realization that art supplies are always more expensive than I think they will be, and providing 20 tabletop easels comes then with 3 options:
- Option 1: Buy 20 of my favorite easel that I use on the regular, spending the equivalent of a couple months of a yoga membership at a hip studio in town.
- Option 2: Buy 24 bulk easels that will undoubtedly scoot across everyone’s desks, collapse, and generally drive people insane (and provide 20 drawing boards for said easels, that will be too heavy for the easel to support, and will, again, drive everyone insane), for the price of a new (second-hand) fall wardrobe.
- Option 3: Build my own damn easel that will not scoot, and does not require a separate drawing board, because it IS the drawing board, for the price of a really good trip to the grocery store and some elbow grease.
Obviously, I chose Option 3, because I am crafty and stubborn, and I really want to spend my money on clothes and yoga, while also providing the best possible easel that will not drive my students insane. This brings us back to the phone call with my dad, where I was explaining why I had to build the easel myself (and why I need to build 19 more). I explained that invariably, in a graphite class, a few of my students will be pushing way too hard with their pencils, so I need the most stable easels possible, because as much as I would like to teach them to use a soft touch, 4 hours is not enough time to change a lifetime of artistic habit- so the cheap bulk easels are out, and the stable custom ones are in. Now this is the interesting part of the conversation- my dad paused and said something to the effect of, “Mom said that exact same sentence, we had this conversation about her students, and she said the same thing”.
When my dad refers to ‘Mom’, he means my Grandmommy, who was a fine artist and an art instructor in Los Angeles. She passed away when I was a little girl, 4 or 5, and yet somehow I have found my artistic career shaped by hers all the same. From what I remember, and what I have been told, I can absolutely see my grandmother sharing my frustration with people pressing way too hard with their pencils- I just know it is absolutely unnecessary and better effects are achieved when you lighten up, and here I am, knowing that she would say the exact same thing, probably in the exact same exasperated tone. As if this is just common knowledge all humans are born with, don’t you know? You just don’t have to push so hard.
You just don’t have to push so hard.
The above is now not just advice about pencil grip, but about life, see what I did there? I’m taking the thread and running somewhere else with it. In art as in life, I’ve found any situation I am truly struggling against would go much easier if I just lightened my grip a little bit. Over the past few months, for example, I had myself in a tizzy over a possible-maybe job opening across the country. I was so focused on that possibility that I was completely neglecting to see the opportunities in front of me in Portland. I had such a firm grip on what could be, that I was blinding myself to what is. Anything I was accomplishing, creating, or doing seemed to pale in comparison to what things might be like, if I had the other thing. Then I got hit by a car.
That line is mostly for laughs (my car was hit, with me in it), but really, it’s incredible how your perspective can shift when you’re forced to look at things differently. In early May I was suddenly ejected from my usual routine by physical limitations that took me by surprise. Very soon after the accident I made the decision to loosen my grip on the other thing and focus on my life in Portland, I wanted to see what I could do about accomplishing my goals, here. It doesn’t hurt that the sun is finally out. Portland is a truly glorious place in the summertime. The thing was, when I took a good look around, all of the things I was dreaming of having somewhere else were already here for me, if I would choose to see them. I can do the things I want to do with my life here, too. Once I stopped banging my head against the wall, I realized there was an open door right next to me, basically.
Loosening up also meant that I needed to drop my usual stoical schtick and accept some help for once. My dad and I have talked about this, it seems to be a trait we Andersons have in common, he blames our Norwegian ancestry. Whatever the reason is, I’m typically loathe to let anyone do anything for me. I despise not feeling self sufficient- which is not helpful to me when I just can’t be (because I’m human like everybody else, and sometimes I get hurt and just can’t do the things I want or need to). Over the last month I let someone else do my dishes and laundry. I let someone else carry my camera and lights. I ordered cat litter via delivery instead of lugging it 10 blocks from the store, which is more expensive, but I have to say, absolutely satisfying. I also took some odd jobs that I wouldn’t normally do, because they were all I could do.
One of those odd jobs brings me around to that bird’s eye view I mentioned in the beginning of this post. In an odd quirk of fate, besides in my own home, more of my artwork by quantity lives in a couple of coworking offices in Portland than anywhere else. They currently have 5 large abstract pieces of mine that would be completely unrecognizable to anyone who knows my portraiture style. The owner of the space, and so of the paintings, is a friend of mine. Recently he asked me to do another painting for the space, on site, so I packed up one of my many tabletop easels, a drop cloth and some paints in my backpack and walked downtown to make something ‘quirky and fun’.
While I was painting, I was also admiring the view. The office sits on the 11th floor of a building that looks out at Burnside on the westside of Portland (including Powell’s, the famous city-block sized bookstore). I found myself staring out the window and thinking about how much I like working in downtown and how I hoped I could do that more, as this was my second gig this spring to put me in a high rise with a choice view. Usually I work from a cafe, or at my dining room table, with a view of 2 backyards that don’t ever seem to be occupied.
I created a painting inspired by that morning’s surprise downpour, which I got caught in on my walk to the cafe and was soaked from my knees down (I am uncool and carry an umbrella). Other hapless walkers and I watched as 23rd Avenue become a swift moving little river, and I appreciated how whimsical the first day of summer in the Pacific Northwest can be. I didn’t have a plan when I sat down to paint, and at the end I had not only created one of my most favorite recent paintings, but I somehow also made an agreement to become a member of the coworking space. It felt like making a wish and having it immediately granted, and it was easy. No pushing involved.
This morning I got up, grabbed a quick cup of coffee at my favorite cafe, and then rode the streetcar downtown to my new office to write. Once I got in and set myself up (and locked myself out once), I realized I had no idea what I wanted to say, so I decided to update my portraiture portfolio. For over a year I’ve neglected to add my graphite portraits- which are what I am basing my class on next month, so I realized I should probably let people know, I do that too. While I was updating the gallery, I dragged in the drawing I did of my Grandmommy, which became the step by step demo in my book, Achieving Realistic Faces. When I saw her smiling face, I thought about the conversation I had with my dad last night, and how she and I had shared the same frustration about pencil pressure, and I thought about how she shaped my art career. I thought about a story my dad has told me many times, that usually makes me tear up a little bit.
When my Grandmommy was ill at the end of her life, I remember my dad taking my brother and I to see her in what I assume was a hospice center. I remember it was surrounded by orange groves that were home to little white butterflies. While my brother and I were being led through the orange groves, my father was having the last conversations he ever would with his mother. He told me that he wanted to ask her what he should do with my early propensity for art, even as a very small child I was drawing and painting all the time. He wondered if I should be enrolled in some classes, should someone be chivvying me along this path of the artist. She shook her head and said simply, “Let her rip.” She didn’t seem to think I would have to be pushed very hard if I were going to be an artist, it would just happen, and she was right. She also had a question for him, “Will they remember me?”- my brother and I were still very small, and not totally aware of the gravity of the situation. When I say I tear up a little bit when I think of this, I mean I am absolutely sniffling through this paragraph. It makes me cry because I know we could never forget her. Not a day goes by in my life that I am not reminded somehow of her influence on my life, no matter the number of days we physically shared together. Her voice is with me in everything I do, right down to deciding to build a couple dozen easels because no matter what we do, people will insist on pushing too hard when all it takes to make an impression is a soft touch.