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Friday, March 16, 2018

The Bourbon Trail

Our national identity is to be found in diners and city parks, cypress swamps and little towns, local church services, at Home Depot, on city streets and lonely country roads.

I may have the wrong footwear for Buffalo...
As much as I like overseas travel, I’ve never felt the urge to teach in another country. Landscape painting conveys a deeper shade of intimacy that I simply don’t feel when visiting other places. I enjoy them, but I don’t love them in the same way as I love the US and Canada.

I took this trip to pave the way for a workshop in the Deep South. Why didn’t I just head to the more familiar eastern seaboard states? I’m familiar enough with them that a road trip wasn’t necessary. The central south has been calling to me for a long time, although I’m still not sure what it’s saying.

I usually approach Kentucky from the north. It seems very southern compared to Ohio. This time, driving up from Mississippi, it seemed northern, its drawl flattened out to a midwestern twang. Either way, its identity is confused. This is where the great antislavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was set. When Eliza struggled across the frozen Ohio River, she was literally leaping from slavery to freedom.

One-lane road, central Kentucky.
And yet, nowhere was ‘brother against brother’ truer than in Kentucky. The state tried to sit out the Civil war, but its self-declared neutrality was ignored by both sides. Eventually, it cast its lot with the Union. But southern sympathies were strong, and a group of citizens formed a shadow government that joined the Confederacy.

I came to love Kentucky when I did art festival in Louisville. Now I take every opportunity to shun-pike through this state. It has beautiful farms, lovely steep hollows and hills, and the biggest known cave system in the world. But I was being a serious driver yesterday, intending to get from Bowling Green to Buffalo, NY in one shot. That meant sticking to the Interstate system like a burr on a saddle-blanket.

Dogwood and distillery.
Maybe it was the knowledge that there was snow ahead, but I couldn’t resist veering down the Bluegrass Parkway. This runs east to Kentucky horse country. These are the most manicured farms in America, and the horses—even the ones free to graze near the road—are beasts of singular beauty. The spring grass is in, and the horses were gamboling in the sun.

Before I got that far, I saw a sign for Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail. That eventually put me on a series of one-lane roads. The blind corners, cropped hedges and small-town distilleries reminded me of the Isle of Skye.

Most of us, when we say we’ve ‘been to’ a place, mean we’ve driven through on the Interstate or we’ve flown in, gone downtown, eaten at trendy restaurants and seen a few tourist sites. You really don’t learn much about your country like that. Our common ground is to be found on the old Federal routes, at diners and city parks, in cypress swamps and little towns, at local church services, or talking to the guy at Home Depot. We should all do more of that.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

This line of country

Google maps makes it possible to play cat-and-mouse in your car.
Parke County, Indiana, from an earlier midwest painting trip.
Most of my kids have Google maps location sharing set up. This feature tells you where a cell phone is. If I had younger kids, I’d insist on it. However, my children are all adults. I don’t have them tied to my apron strings; it was something my husband was tinkering with and we never turned it off.

It’s very useful, especially when someone loses their cell phone. “Mary,” I can say from across the country, “it’s at your house.”

Chapel of Faith, by Carol L. Douglas
I met my eldest and her family in Mobile, Alabama. Since then we’ve been traveling in parallel. They amuse themselves with tourist activities while I paint, and we meet up afterwards.

Location sharing has limitations. It updates periodically, not instantaneously. You can set a route to the last destination the phone was in, but you can’t track the other phone in real time. It will be less fun when they fix that.

Parke County, Indiana, from an earlier midwest painting trip.
My kids were poking along the gulf coast while I was in Langan Park with fellow painter Cat Pope. Rather than call them to meet up, I decided to track them. It was an exhilarating game, for they were moving as fast as I was. Time after time, I pounced, only to come up with thin air—they’d moved on. Finally, they entered a cul-de-sac. “Ah!” I said. “I can cut them off at the entrance.” But, alas, another car pulled up behind me, preventing my neat maneuver.

A warning, though: you’re driving a real machine, not an imaginary video-game car. Pull off to the side of the road to use Google maps, just as you should when doing anything not driving-related.

My son-in-law likes to drive at night. They headed north while I got a hotel room in Mississippi. I’m a poor sleeper. I noted they’d stopped for a while at a rest stop in Tennessee. In the morning, they were at the Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, KY.

Wabash Bottom Lands, by Carol L. Douglas
Rather than retrace my steps through Virginia, I decided to head north after them.

They’d stopped at a lonely country intersection south of Birmingham, Alabama for gas, about 40 miles from where I’d been in Marion last week. There were two service stations. The first was devoid of life, except for a big ol’ junkyard dog. Arthur lost his favorite cap running back to his truck.

At the second station, there appeared to be a party in progress. There were trucks everywhere, but nobody was buying gas. Nobody seemed to notice him. “They were like zombies,” Arthur told me. He decided to go back to the first station. The dog was gone and the pumps were on, but the station was as ghostly and abandoned as ever.

As he headed back to the interstate, he saw something in the road. “That’s my hat!” he exclaimed. It was full of bitemarks. He left it right where it was.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Goodbye, New Orleans

I had to leave you because of the beignets. We were developing one of those Southern Gothic relationships where they were trying to kill me.

Live oak branches, by Carol L. Douglas
I have to wear a fitted dress on Saturday, so I’ve been scrupulously careful of my diet on this trip. Even in New Orleans, it wasn’t terribly hard, until the very last day.

Left to my own devices, I could have ignored the siren call of beignets, but other people kept handing them to me fresh from the deep-fryer. They were impossible to resist. When I realized I’d eaten three of them in one day, I struck camp and headed out of town

“You should go to the county fair more often,” my son-in-law told me. Beignets may ‘just’ be fried dough, but they taste somehow better here.

A fast sketch to understand the live oak's branching pattern, which is chaotic.
I spent the morning painting the branches of live oaks at Audubon Zoo, which is in another beautiful old city park. Here the trees don’t have Spanish moss. Unlike City Park, Audubon Park has no meandering creek. According to a local, Spanish moss prefers to be near water.

Most trees spread their branches in some kind of regular pattern, including the white and red oaks of the north. Not so with their southern cousin. The live oak’s branching pattern defies visual organization. It’s as sinuous and baroque as everything else down here. Eventually, the branches end up dipping right back down to the earth.

My friend's former home on Arabella Street.
I drove down Arabella Street to take a photo for a friend. She once lived in a lovely small house here and was curious to see what it looked like today. I’d say it was spruce and pristine and gentrified, although they’ve taken down her porch swing. A Whole Foods now occupies the site of the derelict bus station from her day.

The streets in New Orleans are atrocious. On Magazine Street, I narrowly missed a giant pothole that was deeper than my wheel is tall. A local had helpfully made a big sign on a cardboard box: “F’ing Huge Pothole!”

Spanish moss in City Park.
That afternoon, I went for a long walk through City Park to stretch my legs. There’s so much more to paint in this city, including the shotgun houses and Creole cottages. Next time I paint here, I’m staying for a week. Now, however, I have to be in Buffalo on Saturday. It’s time to put my sneakers back on and head north. I hear there are four-foot drifts in my driveway.

One of my tasks for this trip is to try out sketchbooks for my Age of Sail workshop. (Materials are included.) I like the paper in this Strathmore one, but the binding is making me a little crazy.
On my way out of town, I stopped at a Winn-Dixie in Slidell, Louisiana. There I bought carrot sticks and hummus. Oh, and some beignet mix for when I get home, just in case.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

This painting isn’t as bad as it looks

Actually, it was pretty much a failure, but I will try again today.

Gator pond, Gulf Islands National Seashore, Ocean Spring, Mississippi.
When I was in the Bahamas in 2016, I was fascinated with palms, a family of plants with more than 2000 members. I meant to be fascinated with them on this trip, too. Instead, the southern live oak has captured my heart.

These are not true evergreens. Rather, like young beeches and oaks up north, they drop their old leaves immediately before new leaves emerge in the spring. The difference is that the old leaves remain green right up until the swap, whereas our northern ones dry up and rattle in the winter wind.

This week, the new growth on New Orleans’ live oaks is emerging. That leaves the branches denuded of their characteristic heavy, dark covering, allowing their parasites to dominate the scene. These include ball moss, Spanish mossresurrection fern, and mistletoe. The trees seem to tolerate them, but they make them look more gnarly than they actually are.

Spanish moss at Mobile Bay. (Photo courtesy of Douglas Perot)
There are countless examples of ancient live oaks here in New Orleans. They have weathered terrible storms for many decades.

On Sunday, we made the drive from Mobile to New Orleans through a heavy rain. My intention was to paint at Davis Bayou at Gulf Islands National Seashore in Mississippi, but the rain drowned all visibility. I did this little sketch of a gator pond before the lightning drove me away.

Louisiana 's wild alligator population is estimated to be around two million. Apparently, that’s not enough, because there are an additional 300,000 farmed alligators here. That, I think, means you’re likely to see one anywhere there’s water. I imagine they’re relatively torpid right now. Daytime temperatures are the low sixties. Still the sun—when you’re in it—is hot, and reptiles love sunbathing.

Live oak and folly (unfinished) at City Park.
I set up to paint in City Park. This has a wonderful botanical garden, great swathes of trees, meandering creeks, and the additional attraction of the Morning Call coffee stand in the old casino. It was, however, unwise of me to choose a backlighted tree with a domed, columned folly behind it. I spent the morning cheerfully drawing the building and trees and started to limn in the colors when two things occurred to me. First, I was unbearably hot, and second, the light had turned. My backlighting was no more.

Fewer beignets, more painting time!
I gave it up and decided to go down to the historic district to find some lunch and the waterfront. What I thought might be a two-hour jaunt used up the remainder of the day.

“During the week, especially in Manhattan, the pace is so slow, you often feel that any mode of transportation might be as fast as any other—you could walk, drive, take a cab or ride the subway and get there about the same time—so we choose our transport more on aesthetic grounds,” Garrison Keillor once said.

The same seems true of New Orleans. I raced my traveling companions back to City Park—they on the trolley and on foot, me in my car. We arrived back at exactly the same time.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Monday Morning Art School: how to draw windows and doors that fit

 The South sure loves its Greek Revival pillars, doors and windows. Here’s a little trick to draw them evenly.
My painting of Siloam Baptist Church from last week.
The South also observes Blue Laws. That meant I wasn’t able to get a replacement sketchbook at Hobby Lobby yesterday. I drew these on tissue paper; the quality is terrible.

Earlier, I taught you how to draw a door in basic perspective. The door makes a shape called a trapezoid. (Don’t be frightened; that’s as mathematical as we’re going to get here.) When drawing buildings, most people get basic two-point perspective right but then mess up in spacing windows and doors. Here’s a technique you can use to divide the face of any building into regular units, no matter what angle you are looking at it from.

Dividing in half

Just draw an X from corner to corner. The vertical line that runs through the middle of this X is the center of your building. This is very useful for buildings, because if there’s a pitched roof, it almost always comes down from that center point.

Dividing into thirds

Draw a star shape, starting from the bottom outside corners and running to the top-middle and the top-outside corners.

Do the same thing, upside down, so that you have a six-pointed star.

The points where the lines intersect are the thirds.

Dividing into fourths

This requires that you figure out the middle of one side of your trapezoid. Then draw a line between it and the middle-point. Now you have the horizontal center-line. It will not be level; it should hit both sides at the mid-point.

Draw your star-shape again. The points where it intersects the center line are the quarters.

Dividing into fifths

This is the most complicated and fun of the divisions. Start with a horizontal center-line as you did above.

Now you’re going to draw some crazy diagonals:
  • From the bottom left corner to the top middle.
  • From the bottom middle to the top right.
  • From the top left to the right middle.
  • From the middle left to the right bottom.

The points where those diagonals meet are the 1/5 divisions.

In practice you can divide and subdivide these units to figure out the placement of windows and doors pretty quickly. Here is my division of Siloam Baptist Church, above (yes, the bottom line was wrong; I fixed it after I took this photo):

And here is a fast division of my first drawing. I just broke the units I had into smaller ones using the same principles:

Which I then extrapolated into this purely imaginary facade of a house:

I didn't do any of this with a ruler, but with another piece of paper as a straight-edge. Once you learn these divisions of space, they take only seconds to do. They are much easier than guessing and erasing.