Friday, October 2, 2015

through fences and flowers

Finally finished! "Through Fences and Flowers" (90"x36" triptych) was a personal project I started a few months ago.

Over the past year I have really loved working on larger scale canvases... I like the challenge of sourcing a lot of material, choosing which images and paper will stand out and which will be smaller supporting details, and the physical work of stretching and moving around between areas of canvas. In this piece, I wanted to play around with different things I love about where I live: iconic landmarks, obscure buildings, hidden alleyways, the outlines of long-faded ghost signs and the contrasting geometry of an architecturally old city with new growth.

Juxtaposing my photographs against one another with several different collage techniques created an abstract city skyline that travels from my current neighborhood (Fenway) through the Back Bay, Financial District and into Fort Point/Seaport, framed by Commonwealth Avenue's famed spring magnolias and the derelict (but equally intriguing) chain link fencing that separates my street from the commuter rail train tracks.

At nearly 8 feet long it is full of layers, texture and details. It's on display at Flour in Fort Point near downtown Boston for the rest of October in case you'd like to check it out in person. If you see it, I'd love to know what you think!

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

on the road: coyote camping, joshua tree, the golden desert

Coyote camping!

(These blog posts have been sitting in my travel journal for a while now. Better late than never, I hope!)

I first heard the term "coyote camping" from one of the REI workers in Flagstaff, who mentioned that while the Lake Mead area was painfully crowded with river resort goers, her family used to pitch tents and swim right on the bank of Lake Mojave a little south of it... for free! So I headed west towards the intersection of the Arizona, Nevada and California borders, and between a helpful gas station attendant and a few sketchy Google results managed to find directions to what seemed like the right place.

Until you've driven through or flown over the American west it's hard to get a sense of just how much open land is out there: sprawling thousand-acre stretches of forest, open range and grassland unclaimed, unused and undeveloped for a variety of reasons. Mostly it is managed by the Bureau of Land Management for the ecological wellbeing of the land and enjoyment of travelers. Coyote camping, also known as dispersed camping, means camping for free in undeveloped areas of publicly owned land. It can be a specific area designated for boondocking and big enough for RVs, or just a single flat space alongside a road or trail, marked by a brown BLM sign and a few old tire tracks. These areas are further from populated areas and generally without facilities, hosts, electricity or other amenities you'd find at a commercial campground, so it's not for everyone, but when you're attempting a long trip or trying to budget, you can't beat free.

I have to admit that this first dispersed camping experience of this past trip started out a little scary. The directions to the dispersed area on Lake Mojave said to watch for a particular mile-marker and then take the next turn onto a 5-mile downhill dirt road. The road wasn't well maintained, had a few confusing forks, steep curves and washboard surface. Driving at only 10mph in quickly darkening dusk made it feel like I was on this creepy Deliverance-esque road forever. I didn't even get out of my car for this photo:

Twenty minutes and two coyote sightings later, just as I was kicking myself for putting so much blind trust in a website called "" while traveling alone, I finally reached Telephone Cove, a beautiful flat sandy riverbank dotted with trees and a handful of other cars and tents right up against the water's edge. There was one pit toilet, primitive fire rings along the water and a whole lot of nothing else. So perfect!

The sky is already purple; the first few stars have appeared, suddenly, as if someone had thrown a handful of silver across the edge of the world.” - Alice Hoffman

I pitched my little tent, cooked dinner and headed out with my lantern into the edge of Spirit Mountain Wilderness to try more star photography. Incidentally, coyotes howled off in the distance as I plodded my way through the dark among smoke trees and startled hares.

Facing northeast towards Spirit Mountain, with the far-off glow of Las Vegas on the horizon. It's not obvious in this photo but the spring constellations were absolutely on fire -- Orion, Cassiopeia and the dippers just blazed in the dark sky surrounded by a million pinpoint stars. I had the best night's sleep next to the softly lapping water, and woke up to a pair of ducks chatting outside my tent.

The only person awake on the shore, I waded out into the water and watched the buttermilk sunrise blossom in the cloudless bluebell sky before packing up. This would have been an awesome place to just relax for a few days or weeks (the BLM technically allows free camping up to 14 days per location, though I didn't see anyone enforcing that.) My closest neighbors were two older couples in an RV and a tent and I felt very safe, though there were more than a few empty beer cans and bullet-riddled signposts on the way out and one or two people obviously living out of their trucks off in the far reaches of the cove.

It's a trade off: incredible silence, unintruded nature and a feeling of adventure comes with a bit of unease and risk. There's a real weirdness vs. freedom judgement system in play when you want to travel cheap and alone, especially as a woman.

Up with the sun, driving out of Spirit Mountain Wilderness.

I wouldn't have thought for a second that southern Nevada would be so pretty. The combination of rolling roads sheathed by jagged stone mountains caught the sideways morning sunlight and bounced it off yellow wildflowers, low white sage and bare brush alike, causing the whole mountainside to glow warm and gold. 

Crossing into California (yay!) the land got flatter and longer, the sky bigger and bluer as I drove south towards Whipple Mountain, through the closed-diner-trailer-park-train-depot of Vidal, past long-scorched attempts at desert civilization.

West on 62, south on 177 and into the oasis of Joshua Tree, where I planned to spend the whole day and night. There is backcountry camping within the park, overflow (parking lot) camping at each entrance and a few questionable boondocking spots on the outskirts that all would have been free, however I managed to snag the very last camping spot in Cottonwood (and possibly the last in the whole park, as there was a sign at Cottonwood saying that all campgrounds north were full) so I took it with gratitude.

Unlike the northern campgrounds which are famous for their tent sites beneath enormous boulder formations, Cottonwood is wide and brushy, with a red mountain ridge to the east and not much but flat cactus-strewn desert land past the small fire pits and tent pads. I went on one loop hike that brought me back to the flowering cholla field next to my tent just before dusk.

During the hour before sunset, known to photographers as "the golden hour," the sun is low on the horizon and sunlight travels through the most atmosphere, getting diluted into a dimensional, soft glow. As someone who is familiar-but-not-great with my DSLR, I feel it's the best time of day to take the kind of photos that actually look how the moment feels, if that makes sense. It is the easiest time to get those vibrant but soft colors, backlit halos and dreamy, magical dimension. 

And then just like that, it's gone, Sun sets on Joshua Tree and it's time to prowl around the desert taking night photos and creeping out my neighbors.

(Just kidding. As I wrote back in Maine, I usually chat up neighboring campers when appropriate to make myself visible; families seem to appreciate knowing they're next to a quiet neighbor, even if she is wandering around in the dark, and in my experience having more of a presence actually leads to less unwanted attention. I have never felt unsafe camping alone but if there were to be trouble around, it's better to have people know you're there than to have tried to hide away. Even if it does result in a lot of "Does your boyfriend/husband/parents know you're here?" and resisting the urge to answer, I have my permission slip the car.)

Anyway, stars.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

in the studio, late summer

Some recent shots from a few different sketchbooks, paintings and projects...

Hopefully dropping this painting off with my photographer tomorrow and have a shop update a few days later. If it seems like I haven't been sharing much new work from my trip, it's because I've been working on this one huge painting for about a month. (Spoiler alert: out of nowhere, in the middle of "the loneliest road" I saw wild mustangs on my way back east!) I'm really happy with it.

First I played around with the image in my sketchbook, then worked it into a few small pieces, but each time it felt like it wasn't getting the love it deserved -- if anything deserves a big wide open space to sprawl across, it's wild mustangs and a prairie storm, no? -- so I hauled out a big 60" long canvas and just put every piece of western newspaper and prairie photo and layered texture upon texture and drip down drip and it became one of my favorite paintings of all time. I can't wait to share Wild Heart with you in greater detail.

Some vintage photos, a smudge stick of white sage and a piece of raw rose quartz, all from a small thrift/junk store in (I believe) Ely, Nevada.

The last step in this painting is sketching some desert prickle poppies on paper and then transferring them over onto the canvas. I was frustrated to find out that some "vintage" botanical illustrations I bought to collage with weren't actually that vintage at all, and thus I couldn't use them, but of course it ended up being more fun to draw my own anyway.

Some baby's breath in my favorite old ball jar from a weekend selling art in Gloucester...

The sad truth that sometimes a painting works out and sometimes you just have to start over.

Layering and more layering. I chatted up an antique dealer in San Francisco near (but not in) The Mission and got some interesting vintage Californian papers and letters to work with.

And bits and pieces of other sketchbook and artwork exploration late into the night.

Monday, August 3, 2015

on the road: traveling alone through the rocky mountains, great sanddunes, monument valley, route 66

Um.. wow. I have so much to share with you!

I thought that maybe over the course of five weeks and 10,000 miles alone on the road, I might have a few hours here and there to upload photos and write about each leg of my trip. But in reality there wasn't a moment where I wasn't moving, exploring, hiking, meeting people, sketching and just taking it all in. I camped alone in my little tent or in my car almost every night except for a few nights on friends' couches and in hostels, waking up with the light and seeing the sun set in a new place nearly every night. I cooked over a camp stove or a fire pit, or sought out a quick, cheap breakfast at the kind of diners that "don't do internet, honey." Doing anything electronic was the last thing on my mind; even at night when I went to bed early with the sun, there were books to read, or crashing waves to watch, or stars to photograph. And upon returning home I kept the feeling alive by diving deep into my sketchbook and paintings and just now coming up for air.

But I love this blog and I love sharing what's inspired me, so... sorry for the lack of posts, I hope these snippets of adventure will make up for it!

After a spectacular Kansas sunset, I folded down the back seats of my SUV, tossed my duffel in the front and laid my sleeping bag facing a good view of a lightning storm out the windshield in Limon, Colorado. In the morning I headed west on Route 86, a country road that heads straight for Denver and delivers wide sun-drenched fields of grazing horses, cattle, and the occasional pronghorn antelope before surprising you with jagged blue snow-capped peaks that appear suddenly on the horizon. The way America is flat for a thousand miles and then suddenly rises where the Rocky Mountains pierce the land is really amazing. I meandered around a bit just taking in the wide blue sky, interesting little towns and last bits of western prairie.

After a quick stop in Denver for car work I drove south to Colorado Springs, stopping at the Garden of the Gods, where the sun set over the Rockies and turned the sky twenty shades of soft blue and the massive rock formations faded from bright adobe red to a deep baked blush color.

The next day I was really excited to drive up Pikes Peak, one of Colorado's 'fourteeners' (mountains taller than 14,000 feet) which towers over Colorado Springs. Unfortunately a snowstorm rolled into town mid-morning and closed the mountain road. Attempting to escape the snow, I drove south to Pueblo and then west over La Veta pass, but the snow followed me and the drive turned into a frightening hour-long, white-knuckle drive down slick, winding mountain roads in whiteout conditions. After holding my breath for an hour my heart finally unclenched when I made it onto flat, barely-dusted prairie; Mount Blanca emerging from the storm was a beautiful and welcome sight.

Sunshine is delicious, rain is refreshing. Wind braces us up, snow is exhilarating. There is really no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather. - John Ruskin

Despite dreaming of it for months, I didn't really plan this trip very thoroughly. I knew I was heading west and south to California, and then north-ish, then back over the course of five weeks. I knew I wanted to explore, and do so slowly, and take every day as it came, and try to pack as much in as possible. I love the serendipity that brings snowstorms, or makes certain people seem approachable, or makes particular exit signs light up a little brighter and creates luck and possibility for us if we look for them.

So this surprise late-March snowstorm (that ended up dumping a foot of snow on Colorado Springs!) brought me down to U.S. 160, past the southern face of the Rockies and into the little town of Alamosa, where I saw a road headed straight for mountains and turned onto it: CO-150 towards Great Sand Dunes and Zapata Falls.

On the east side of this road the earth rose up into snow-capped mountains cupping the last of the drifting stom, and to the west, open range, rolling tumbleweeds and far-off rainstorms.

It was so cold on the dunes that there was only one other person there, walking in the distance beneath the shifting mountains of wind-whipped, horse-trotted, millennia-swept sand dunes.

The next day I headed west, but not before taking a quick swing up Route 17 to check out the UFO Watchtower, a combination art installation, parking lot campground and, obviously, geodesic dome UFO watchtower area.

I love these funny, random bits of the open road.

Through Pagosa Springs, Durango, over Wolf Creek pass towards the Utah border. Through the four corners and into the most majestic, surprising and jaw dropping area of the country I have explored so far.

At the entrance of Monument Valley, the winding desert road crested and my chest clenched up again, this time in a wonderful and full way. Out of the formerly flat Colorado plateau, the most surreal landscape played out in front of me: unbelievably enormous red monuments reaching into the wide blue sky, millions of years of rusty sandstone layers intricately sculpted down by wind and water, giant sloping piles of fallen boulders resting at their bases like sand from a slowly deteriorating sandcastle. In the late afternoon sun, the monuments took on rich blue and purple shadows, the haze softening their sharp points and spires. The overwhelming enormity of the land, contrasted by the incredible silence of the plateau except for gusts of wind scraping dust off the ground, was so unfamiliar to my senses and I was just blown away. As happy as I was to experience it, I was equally sad that Mike wasn't there to see it with me.

I got there a little too late in the day to go explore the monuments so I checked in at my campground and headed back out to catch sunset, surprised and excited by a couple wandering horses out on the open, unfenced range.

Trail rides and horseback guides are a popular way to see the monuments so I think these horses were heading home from 'work' -- they trotted alone through the sage and cactus, stopping to munch on plants every few feet, and then passed me in the direction of some trailers and loosely-structured paddocks about a half mile away. Monument Valley -- a Navajo Tribal Park, generally the equivalent of a national park, though operated by the Navajo Nation -- is sparsely populated and it was kind of cool to see these horses just meandering through the open range on their own.

After it got a little darker I tried a little bit of long exposure star photography. I'm getting better at it since I first tried it up in Maine.

What I thought was an unmarked dirt road (there were many) was actually the beginning of someone's quarter-mile driveway! I couldn't see it in the dark, but thanks to the long exposure you can see a glow on the right -- their house -- and six little dots in the center -- the moonlight reflecting off their ATVs. An older couple drove down the driveway and thinking I was stealing the tires off a car they had parked for sale by the road were very surprised to see a lone woman with Massachusetts license plates and a giant camera pointed at the sky. We laughed it off, they let me stay on their road and invited me to contact their son about a discounted ATV ride through the monuments.

Up in at 5am to see the sun rise over the monuments.

This spectacular view was from the visitor's center, run by the Navajo Nation. I think there's normally a fee to go in, but I got there early enough that no one was in the booth collecting money, so I just sort of wandered around exploring with a few other early birds.

More horses! This time lit by sunrise, lazily meandering around the plateau above the valley before work. At the sound of a man's whistle they trotted over to start their day on the trails and I sat down for a bowl of cereal overlooking a million years of mind-blowing beauty.

So... that tent in the background. The first pang of disappointment from not really researching this particular stop happened when I stumbled across a campground literally on the edge of the plateau, directly above the valley. The campsite I stayed at was in its own red sandstone canyon, giant walls of rock towering above a little road with tent and RV spots; very pretty in its own right, but still one of those places that has a laundromat and a gift shop and where it feels like you're out in nature until the RV next to you turns on its generator. This little cliff-side campground with not much more than flat ground and a bathroom was nearly empty except for two other photographers savoring the morning's light. In this case, 'winging it' and just hoping for fate to bring good stuff my way wasn't enough.

Next time, Monument Valley!

Even beautiful on the way out. Down Route 160 to Arizona...

... Route 66 across Arizona, in all its bizarre, vintage beauty...

... and into Flagstaff, where I picked up the best maps ever, recommended by my tent neighbors in Monument Valley. After five nights on the road I was really hoping for actual camping that night: not in my car, but in a tent, preferably somewhere pretty and definitely nowhere that offered electricity or ice delivery. Upon chatting with a few people at REI (including one salesgirl who actually called her mom to get her favorite local camp spots! I love you, REI.) I decided to try 'coyote camping' -- dispersed, free public lands camping -- for the first time. That is a whole, amazing day of its own that I'll share in my next post. Back to painting!