Friday, February 25, 2011

Stop then Go

A friend I know in real life posted on Facebook that she was going to start painting again after a long hiatus. Glass had been her medium of choice for years and she was experiencing some trepidation about returning to painting. Most responses indicated not to worry...everything you do is great. Personally, I wouldn't find that very helpful. If you jump into it waving your paintbrush around like Harry Potter with his wand expecting some magical connection between your brain and brush, you're just going to end up turning yourself into a toad and wondering how things went so terribly wrong. Clear the cobwebs first and don't get disappointed if the first few forays aren't quite perfect. I went through this firsthand.

When I first started painting again after nearly 7 years of not painting, I was somewhat terrified. Questions plagued me. Can I still do this? What medium should I use? How big? How small? What style? What subject? What if I fail?

That was the real fear…what if I fail. I think my personal identity had become so entangled with my artistic skill that if I failed, who would I be? No matter what subject I became interested in as a kid, I was always still an artist whether I realized it or not. I wanted to be a marine biologist, so I read books by Jacques Cousteau and drew dolphins and whales. I wanted to be a veterinarian and drew all kinds of animals. I wanted to be an archeologist or anthropologist, so I drew hieroglyphics that I saw at the King Tut exhibit or drew the evolutionary stages of man. I loved the science, still do, but I loved drawing and painting more.

I had continued to work as a graphic designer or freelance illustrator, so it wasn’t as if I had stepped away from art all together, but staring at a blank canvas was not the same to me as staring at a blank computer screen with a given set of elements to work with…the product, the copy, the marketing goal. The blank canvas allowed for an infinite number of choices. Choices that were all mine to make. Making the wrong choice terrified me. You might be thinking, “there aren’t any wrong choices in art,” I wouldn't agree and in my mind every mistake is permanent, non-erasable. When I have made a mistake, I beat myself up more than anyone else ever could.

I think much of my problem was that I always knew who I was. I never HAD to explore or try new things to figure out what I wanted to do. I had never really floundered in any part of my life. I had never spectacularly failed at anything. A painting professor I had in college told me that most of his students were like sponges, trying out all the styles or suggestions he offered, but I wasn’t. I integrated into my work what I thought fit and disregarded the rest. He was neither complimenting me or criticizing me, merely pointing out a characteristic I wasn’t consciously aware of. I really hadn’t been aware of this trait in myself and I think I missed out on new discoveries or personal revelations because of it.

I did finally choose a medium, realized that I hated canvas and preferred to paint on hard board, and decided not to limit myself to one particular subject. The fear of failure still hovers above me. It’s just part of my nature, I can never really banish it. I have discovered that the paintings I wanted to throw in the lake at some point during their creation are usually the ones people respond to the most. It seems that the more I push myself and do struggle the stronger the result.

I have learned more about myself through my art. Setting up a challenge and working through the struggle is how to grow as an artist and as a person. I try not to become complacent or paralyzed by fear. I’m learning to take chances. My art is still completely tangled up in how I perceive myself, but I think I like it that way.

About the Painting:
"Mini Iris 2"
Acrylic on Board
6" x 4"
note: dimensions are unframed size-comes mounted in black floater frame
These miniature irises are blooming in my garden right now. The first sign that spring is on its way.

Friday, February 18, 2011

The Arts and the Brain

From cave drawings of animals to pots decorated with lifestyle scenes or abstract icons, to sculptures of mother earth figures, art was always an integral part of the human experience. Initially, most of these objects were for utilitarian use or to convey vital information for survival, but evolved to incorporate decorative or stylistic elements that could only be used to induce visual pleasure with no practical application and these are only the objects that have survived the ravages of time. Storytelling, music and dance were likely just as important to define us as a species in the ancient world as they are now.

One again budget shortfalls in Texas have brought to the forefront the old argument of the arts versus the sciences in our public schools and the arts always takes the hit. Why? Many believe the arts to be a frivolous pursuit that doesn't contribute anything concrete, tangible, or necessary to our everyday lives, but what we are learning in our modern technological age is that belief is very wrong.

Over and over studies show that art, music and dance directly link to our ability to process language, understand math and even enhance our overall memory. Actual, measurable, physical change takes place in the brain. This is especially important in the growth of the young brain when neural connections are being formed. Drawing, singing, dancing are natural activities for young children that allow them to process and connect the increasingly complex ideas they are exposed to. This doesn't change as we get older. There is a reason that art has always been with us.

Examples: These are just a few of many studies showing the act of engaging in art directly enhancing learning ability.

Students who took arts classes had higher mathematics, verbal and composite SAT scores than students who did not take arts classes. (More than 10 million American high school students were compared) Also, the more art classes taken, the higher the SAT scores.

Creating visual art increases the ability to form images of the real world or a fictional one in the mind's eye. A person with this ability can often quickly work through many possible solutions to a problem without needing to implement each one in the real world to see the outcome. Scientists James Watson and Francis Crick attribute this ability to visualize as directly contributing to their solving the mystery of DNA structure in the early 1950s with a huge impact on scientific study and subsequent break-throughs in disease treatment.

Listening to music for 10 minutes improved students ability to form mental images from physical objects and see patterns in time and space (known as temporal reasoning) for an hour afterward.

Spatial reasoning skills improved 34 percent for preschoolers who received as little as 15 minutes of piano instruction 2 times a week. Older students given 4 months of piano training scored 166 percent higher on proportional mathematics (fractions) than those with no music training. In another study, students receiving ongoing music training did twice as well in math overall and history and geography scores increased by 40 percent. Verbal memory improvement was found to be retained a year after students had stopped taking long-term music lessons.

Background music improves eye-hand coordination. Perhaps why artists often listen to music when they are working.

My generation saw the beginning of Sesame Street and had SchoolHouse Rock. To this day I can still 'sing' the pre-amble to the constitution and know 'how a bill becomes a law." Learning should be more than strict memorization of facts. I did well in school, well enough to receive a full academic scholarship to college and I attribute the fact that the arts were a huge part of my life from its earliest stages to my overall success. Now is not the time to handicap our children in an increasingly technological world. To succeed, they need a well-rounded, multi-disciplined background in school. Cutting the arts WILL do long-term harm and keep many students from reaching their full potential.

About the painting:

"Calm Grasses"

Acrylic on board

12" x 16" (unframed dimensions)


Thursday, February 10, 2011

Needles and Spines

The ambient sounds in the large tiled room suddenly cease. Everyone was listening. At first you could barely make out the whistling, but soon smiles could be seen on most of the patients sitting in the turquoise chairs. Even some toe-tapping. The tune was familiar to everyone. Someone at the far end of the room was watching The Andy Griffin Show. As the last note fades, the voices regain strength. More people arrive to fill the chairs. The smiles, however brief, are welcome and needed. Most of the people sitting in the chairs are quietly engaged in battle. Most are fighting cancer.

Often the first one here, I always sit by the window. There are roses outside in warmer months. My feet dangle in the chair, not quite reaching the floor. My shoes slip off. I feel a bit like a child here; dependent on the staff that bustles around reacting with efficiency to the beeping of the machines calling out to them. Would I like a blanket, a pillow? Something to eat? No, I'm fine. I'm here once every 3 weeks. It provides me with a unique perspective about people and about life. I have a treatable, but not curable blood disorder, a primary immune deficiency. IVIG, an expensive blood plasma product, boosts my immune system and helps to control secondary autoimmune diseases. It's also the only treatment available for my illness. We are hooked up to individual machines. Mine is giving me infection fighting antibodies. Theirs essentially pumping poison into their bodies to kill invading cells. A man comforts his wife. Talking in quiet whispers. It's only her second time here. Some patients just want to sleep during their treatment. Others are compelled to talk, desperate to make a connection with someone who understands. I've heard about all types of cancers here. Of people's marriages breaking up while they are still sick. Right now the man next to me is discussing a dog that recently came into his life. He didn't want it. He thought he hated dogs. Now he is grateful for its affection and that it has given him something to focus on other than his cancer.

In some ways I feel like fraud being here. I've been asked more than once what kind of cancer I have and I actually feel bad explaining that I don't have it. I also envy these people. They have a shot at getting better, of never setting foot here again. This is a life sentence for me. Every 3 weeks, forever, hoping that my veins hold out, but self-pity is not something to cling to.

There is another group of people who come here. I wonder at their life story, but I can't speak with them. Hands and feet in shackles, flanked in front and rear by armed guards. All heads turn as they are marched through the room and placed in their own section. For a minute the rest of us forget about our struggles. They are the incarcerated, the prisoners, also here for treatment. I imagine the trip and time here is something they look forward to. I imagine it's better than day after day in a cell.

A sign on the wall proclaims, "Live. Laugh. Love." We all deal with our personal disease differently. Some overcome with sadness or anger. Some pray. Other stoic and practical, realistic about the odds, but we are trying. All of us. We understand more than most that each day is a gift not to be wasted.

About the painting:
"Prickly Pear Cactus Flower Trio"
Acrylic on Board
11" x 14"
note: dimensions are unframed size, painting arrives framed

Sometimes I liken myself to a cactus. I'm not the most approachable person in real life. Quiet and reserved. Often with my 'spines' out for protection, but if you get to know me, you may find the flower hiding inside.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Snowmaggedon...and you thought you had it bad...

In honor of Snowmaggedon, I'm posting "Jack in January Snow."

I've been stuck in the house since Monday evening when the ice storm followed by snow hit. I know many of you are in the same boat. We knew it was coming and prepared by buying groceries on the way home from work (day job as a Senior Graphic/Web Designer in Ft. Worth). I got the last of the broccoli and carrots and 2 of the last 5 red bell peppers and was surprised those were on people's must have list. What we weren't prepared for was that our relatively new furnace would cease functioning.

At 10 pm Tuesday, we suspected we had a problem when the inside temp dipped noticeably. Did I mention the ice storm? No one from the Heat/AC company was willing to venture out to help us. I dug out a couple of electric heaters and a heating pad. Our main worry was the parrots. At least the dogs and cats had their own personal fur coats. The receptionist, who the Heat/AC company phone was forwarding to, sitting in her nice WARM house, says nothing could be done. We moved the parrots to the bathroom and left the overhead heater running and got the temperature up to near 60 for them at least.

Wednesday morning the house was at 44 degrees and I had 3 cats sleeping on me. Within minutes the power goes off. Crap! What is going on. Now we think this is even more serious than just the heater. It's off from 7am to 7:15am, oddly precise. I turn the TV on as soon as we regain power to find out that we are experiencing rolling brownouts because several power plants failed overnight and the remaining ones can't cover the dramatically increased load. (Note: The majority of Texas is it's own self-contained power grid. If you'd like to read "why Texas has its own power grid" visit

Another call to the Heat/AC company, toasty warm woman answers and is reluctant to do anything. We knew one of their techs lived somewhere in our neighborhood, my husband asked (just short of demanded) his phone number and got it. The man said he was unable to navigate his driveway, but he did talk my husband through checking several possibilities to no avail. Everything seemed fine. My husband (who grew up in Kentucky and thinks that all Texas drivers are wimps when it comes to winter weather) drove over to the tech's house, brought him back to our house and made him a cup of coffee to help keep warm. The dogs were thrilled with the visitor and insisted on 'helping' him. At least the running around was keeping them warm. The outside temperature was in the single digits and I was unrecognizable with my 3 layers of clothes, a coat and hat, plus a blanket draped around me.

The issue was with a couple of pressure valves "that never break." Of course they needed to be ordered. Why stock something that never breaks and no one was at work there either to place an order. He did give us a small space heater to add to our collection. After several tripped breakers, we finally figured out what we could plug in where. The dogs pretty quickly found that the prime spots were in front of the heater and I had several cats vying to lay on me with the heating pad. Still freezing, even with the heaters, we called Home Depot to make sure someone was actually there, "please come buy something" was the response. I just wanted to get in the car with the heater cranked all the way up. The roads, weren't really all that bad. The bridge over the lake on 51 was significantly ice free. The landscape was lovely as were several frozen fountains we passed. Unfortunately, Home Depot only had 3 propane heaters left, which we didn't really want. Next stop Lowe's down the road. They were in better shape and we came home with 2 ceramic heaters.

We set the new heaters up in the bedroom. The only place in the house without a vaulted ceiling. I put the smaller, borrowed heater in the adjoining bathroom and we gathered up 3 parrots, 5 dogs, 5 cats and us and went into the bedroom. At least we tried to. This was a little too much closeness for a few who have now chosen to stay in the colder parts of the house, though we have forcibly made them stay in the room long enough to warm up periodically through the day. Plus the oldest dog, seems to be having a bit of a gas issue.

We're in good shape to wait this out, right? Husband tries to take a shower, I try to paint in my normal area, which is not in the warm bedroom. Another rolling brownout rolls in. Husband walks back to where I am. I think he's waiting for the power to come back on. Not it...the shower drain is frozen and the water just fills up the basin. Sigh...really? Really! How did we offend thee lady Karma. I try to paint once the power is back on, but numb fingers and toes make it quite uncomfortable. It's time to call it a day.

39 degrees in the house Thursday morning. I wake with a Border Collie and a German Shepherd wedged between me and my husband. My intent was to brave the ice and go to work to warm up, though the local news was still adamant that people should stay off the roads if possible. Schools were still closed. We decided that the birds would freeze to death and/or the pipes would freeze if we turned off the space heaters and we certainly didn't want them running if we weren't here. Since the clutch went out on my car on Friday, we didn't want to leave one of us stranded without transportation, so we both stayed home.

"Oh, well we can't very well send someone to Carrollton to pick up the parts with ice still on the roads. It will probably be Monday," says the unsympathetic woman who I now wish was trapped in her house with the thermostat stuck at 100. It's 39 degrees in our house! She wouldn't last 10 minutes over here. Sooooooo, do you think you can have them overnight the parts directly to our house instead of waiting for the roads to be better to send someone? She'll see. Grumble. Grumble.

So I can't watch TV, because that room is freezing. I can't paint comfortably. I can't take a shower.

Yes, something else can still go wrong. You guessed it, the toilet drain is frozen. If you wait, the bowl will drain, liquid...eventually. Not paper...or other things. Husband makes a bathroom run into town. So I sit here on the bed. Currently 3 dogs, 3 cats and the 3 parrots. The number of furry creatures changes at least once every 30 minutes as someone wants in or out. We feel like hotel doormen, but the parts should arrive sometime tomorrow and I will be waiting anxiously for the delivery driver on Friday. I thought snow days were supposed to be fun.

About the painting:

"Jack in January Snow"
Water-Soluble Oils on Canvas Board
11" x 16.5" note: dimensions are unframed size comes framed

See all of Rebecca's work at