One summer day my three-year-old stomped from our backyard into the kitchen in a huff. With one hand on her hip, the other pointing up toward the telephone line attached to our home, she declared, “Mom, those birds are talking about us!” Twenty-five years have passed, but her perception made such an enduring impression on me, that I have used bird imagery frequently in my work ever since.
But it was something that I wrote in a letter on June 14, 2000 that sowed the seed for the artwork in my “Gathering” exhibit. It was sent to my friend who was dying of cancer. Immediately after our last conversation, I sat down and wrote to her all of the things I thought about after we hung up the phone. My last line read, “…if I ever take a day in my life for granted, I hope Heaven allows you to direct a pigeon to drop poop on my head.” Marylee died a couple months later. At her funeral we sang “On Eagles Wings”, one of the songs she chose as she helped to plan her passing from us.
During the following days I directed my grief toward making a drawing on fragile rice paper, which now hangs above my bed. It is of a robin holding a worm in her beak, perched on a telephone line above floating red leaves. And I began to pay close attention to the mourning doves perched on the telephone wires along my route to work.
pencil on rice paper, 25 x 33 inches
This uncomplicated reason struck me as if I’d been suddenly enlightened, and I wondered, why hadn’t I realized that before? I continued to take more notice of the comings and goings of the birds in my neighborhood and, in the Fall of 2002, wrote this poem entitled “Gathering”:
on our road one autumn day
Chuck would not have said,
“They are gathering.”
Had my neighbor been less tall
I would not have glanced up
to see over his brim those birds
parked in a row.
I might have flown through
another half-century unable
to grasp the customs and
rhythms of gathering.
But this nomadic traffic that
lights on my telephone lines
compels me to focus on going
and coming home.
photographing birds that were gathering on the lines and in the trees in my neighborhood and along the country roads that I pass on my daily route.
Descriptions of the development of the individual pieces for this exhibit follow:
Anyway, I marked off the space with a grid and painted many layers on to the tiny blocks trying various color combinations.
But ultimately, I let the grid go, and covered the sky with pale green.
acrylic on board, 7 ¾ x 11 ½ inches
Last Spring my husband and I trailered our boat down to Red’s place – an old resort on Hamilton Lake in Arkansas for a week’s get-away. One afternoon I was stretched out on a chaise lounge staring up at the intensely blue sky and the clouds that floated overhead shaping and re-shaping. A bird flew into my view and landed on a telephone line. I grabbed my camera and snapped a picture before he flew away. That is the picture I used to compose this piece.
I added a second border with doves painted in silver acrylic flying around it.
thread & acrylic paint on fabric; quilted to canvas; 20 ½ x 31 ½ inches
Several years ago, while browsing in Chattel Changers, a consignment shop in Milwaukee, I came across a religious reproduction framed in gold and matted with three cut-out arches. I purchased it because I was drawn to the arches. When I recently pulled this out of storage to make use of it, I found that the frame had fallen apart.
I salvaged the matt and covered it with fabric. I used pastels on paper to create the scene of the telephone lines connecting.
Pastel on paper, 18 x 30 inches
In the beginning these paintings were positioned vertically with the tree branches on the left margin arching over the profile of a woman. I decided to paint out the women in both compositions and lay the trees down. Then, using a ruler, I blocked off the space like a brick wall.
At this time, I was reading The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying* and came upon this principle: “For what happens at the moment of death is that the ordinary mind and its delusions die, and in that gap the boundless sky-like nature of our mind is uncovered.”
And so I painted these bricks as sky.
These paintings sat on a ledge in my studio for many months in this bleak phase before I decided to sprinkle the space with nests and birds gathering – one as mid-day and the other as mid-night.
Acrylic on paper, 18 x 24 inches
Sogyal Rinpoche, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, New York: HarperCollins, 1993, page 12
While vacationing with Kathy and Toodie in Florida, I came across an art shop selling a tiny triptych with religious Byzantine reproductions on cardboard. I brought it home and painted white gesso on the panels. The composition was designed by using my photos of telephone poles and birds on lines.
I used a dental tool to dig along the lines into the cardboard. I filled the resulting crevices with red ink and used acrylic paint to build up the surfaces.
Graphite, ink & acrylic on board, 8 x 15 ½ inches
I inserted the outside of Ruth’s old handkerchief around the padding to provide an accent between the fabric and the surrounding canvas.
To print the design on the canvas, I rolled ink onto a sheet of plexi-glass and drew lines across it with a chopstick to make a grid pattern.
I placed this inked plexi-glass plate on my printing press bed. On this I laid a piece of canvas with the center cut out. I piled several press blankets on top, and rolled it through the press to transfer the ink from the plate to the canvas.
Much of the ink did not pull off of the plate, so I lightly sprayed water over it. When the canvas was rolled through the press a second time, not only did all of the ink transfer, but the wetness caused a cloud-like effect amidst the grid pattern.
This was a happy mistake, for now it appeared as if sky surrounded the tiny tree painting.
I sandwiched batting between the canvas and backing, machine quilting along the grid lines. Then I painted birds flying toward the center. To this I attached a border of fabric to mimic the handkerchief material in the center.
I added a thinner darker border to finish the edges.
acrylic & mixed media on wood & canvas; quilted, 22 ½ x 18 inches
A few years ago, my parish provided a labyrinth for anyone inclined to use this for meditation and prayer. I didn’t know anything about this practice, but I went to find out. The path of the labyrinth was lined off with tape on the floor of the fellowship hall, which was dimly lit with votive candles. The atmosphere was hushed with only a few walkers deep in their own thoughts. I was moved by my experience that evening to write this poem:
Panic pushes me to step over the line;
I enter from where I am.
Stocking feet step carefully, quietly
One in front of the other.
Inside the contours we stir around
Turning back, re-circling silently
Moving past one another.
After ten minutes of this endeavor
I pass “go” – the starting point
Marked by a box of tissues, and I think
Isn’t that just like my life?
Timing, which is everything, keeps me
Too far ahead and so far behind.
Once again I begin this journey
Pretending to know how.
My lives pass before my eye and
Pound inside my inner ear,
Tracing imprints on layers of my chaos – Uncoiling and clarifying all that was
And all that ever shall be – Oh,
The uncertainty of all those choices!
I think of my family then and now
And stop in my tracks.
Waiting for balance – then moving
Steadily again aiming for the rose.
In the center I exhale through a smile.
I can’t think of anything I need right now.
Wanting to dance and stifling my giggles,
I re-track my steps and find my way out –
Not wanting to disturb this pensive
Prayerful path for others.
To stop the viewer’s eyes from circling around and around, I hand-stitched gold thread from the center button to the bottom corners. These lines make this piece more grounded.
acrylic & mixed media on canvas; quilted, 19 ½ x 19 ½ inches
Ink on fabric; quilted, 14 x 17 inches
Using a photo of a telephone pole in my neighborhood, I plotted out a pattern, cut pieces of fabric and sewed them together.
The telephone lines were stitched with my sewing machine.
As I began experimenting with free-motion stippling*, my stitches were jerky and erratic. Then Jamie loaned me her grippy gloves, and I went crazy all over the piece with circles and zigzags. The gloves provide much better control for moving the fabric under the needle. I used up all of my thread on hand and then restocked with extra large spools.
*detail photo showing stippling
Quilting for me is like painting with fabric and drawing with thread. I love the way the stitching tames the puffiness of the batting, giving the design texture and rhythm.
acrylic painted on buttons & fabric
quilted to canvas, stretched on wooden frame
24 x 20 inches
There is a tree near Milwaukee’s shoreline that has always caught my attention because of its odd shape. I painted my rendition of its twisted form on a small, framed block that I found at a second-hand shop. I dabbed at this painting for a long time before I finally added the tiny gold birds on its branches to bring it to completion.
acrylic on wood block, 8 ½ x 7 inches
The mourning dove
Working from one of my photographs, I painted a watercolor study of a scene I view most mornings on my way to work. It is of a mourning dove who sits alone on a telephone wire above the west side of the road less than a half mile from my home.
After laying out this composition on the canvas, I stained the frame with Paynes gray. Then I dug into the lines crossing through the sky with one of my dental tools from Janie. Finally, I built up layers of acrylic paint on the surface.
The mourning dove
Acrylic on framed canvas board, 10 x 12 inches