The Art of Home

I’ve always enjoyed drawing. As a kid it was a way to recreate the machined elegance of Spitfires, Mustangs, and other warplanes. I never quite mastered landscapes; people were right out.

Later, I took up photography with my dad’s Minolta XD 5, and haven’t let up on that hobby, though it loses some charm when we all have a fine lens in our pockets.

More recently though, my wife (who has always enjoyed painting and all things crafty) has become quite the watercolor aficionado. She’s really quite good, and she’s gotten the rest of the family into it, too.

The impetus for this turn has been the co-op school our older two girls attend (and where Rachel tutors part-time) which draws on Charlotte Mason’s educational ideas, including observational learning from nature. As such, each student is encouraged to keep a nature journal where they can paint or draw the things they spot in the world around them. We’ve adopted this habit as a family, and I’ve been amazed at what I’ve found in taking up the brush.

It starts off simply enough, it’s just drawing with paint, right? Except that’s not it at all. Learning to work in a medium to its strengths takes practice.

The milky paint acts like the water it is, seeking its level, finding the crevices in the paper like micro-arroyos, absorbing in to fade and spread colors. If you mix it thick enough to stay put, all of its liveliness shuts down, leaving you with flat, smeared lines.

To represent what you see, you have to paint what you don’t, laying down layers of color, slowly fading from light to dark to get things just right. The brush has to be held like a scalpel, the pressure, angle, and part of the tip with which you first touch the paper is going to set your course for good or ill. And once you’ve done something you don’t like, trying to fix it will only make it worse.

Watercolor has been a humbling learning curve for all of us, but perhaps for me—self-assured and overconfident as ever—most of all. You have to come prepared to shift along with it. The art takes you where it wants to go, and if you resist, it pushes you out of the picture.

During this time of pandemic and shutdown and quarantine, we’ve found some bursts of creativity. For me, that’s taken its usual poetic turn, but the watercolor has brought life, too. Because we’re stuck at home, we’ve looked closer at the world close at hand, watching and waiting as the magic of spring and the circles of life unfold in our 1/4 acre yard. We’ve been forced to slow down and open our eyes.

The past several weeks have been more of the old normal for me—working too hard on projects for my job and writing papers and studying to wrap up another semester at seminary. But I’m ready to stick a pin in all that and start to paint again.

Is it coping? Perhaps, but it is also exploring. Learning to know a place deeply enough to see it as it is. Pain, beauty, joy, anxiety, and anger swirl about in every breath these days, and we wait, brush in hand for what may happen next.

In the Interests of Public Health

Stay at home, and please,
Whatever you do,
Don’t let your house go
Wandering away
With or without you.
Shelter in place,
Even if that place
Happens to be a
Bathtub or closet
Or a nearby ditch.
Keep working from home—
Electricity
And the Internet
Or a place to sit
Notwithstanding.
To help your neighbors
In their hour of need,
Please don’t employ your
Chainsaw, tarps, and tools,
But stay far away.
Don’t let the germs have
A chance to run through
The erstwhile forest
To sow disaster
And reap the whirlwind.

Image: Tornado Damage, Hamilton county, Tennessee, April 2020.

Window watching

What do you do to fight the rainy-day blues,
To push through the mud, the flood, and thunder
When it’s always spring but never Easter?

At the window watching lightning flicker—
The power, too—feel the pane as it shakes.
What do you do to fight the rainy-day blues?

New life for flowers, snails, mushrooms, and you?
You search in hope for new growth but it seems
That it’s always spring but never Easter.

Each drop’s surface tension is soft heartbreak,
Alone, trapped from within and without, but
That’s how life is with the rainy-day blues.

Like March, love warms and cools and warms again
And the future is clear as mountain fog
When it’s always spring but not yet Easter.

Glory in the mundane. Praise faithful work.
Do the next thing. Rest in what’s done for you.
That’s the way to fight the rainy-day blues—
For right now it’s spring, and soon it’s Easter.

Image: Redbuds, Walker County, Georgia, March 2020.

Reasons to Paint in Quarantine

Each courtesy I am accustomed to
Becomes an act of thoughtless violence,
Posing threats to all save a trusted few.
Streets and schools become a pool of silence.
To stay at home and read a tome or play
A game or bake a pie or pause to cry
Or break a dish or eat a fish or pray
Makes no change to the gray and lukewarm sky.
Lenten paths of mourning lead to brooding,
Rustic joys like bread, butter, and laughter
Keep a light on, my soul now concluding,
“Look up, beauty is now and not after.
What is true is sad; what was good is bad,
Find some fearful symmetry or go mad.”

Image: Fungus, Branch, Moss, Snow—Hamilton County, Tenn., + original watercolor, February 2020.