Weekend thaw

The third week in March for the past four years has taken me to New York City for the Architectural Digest Design Show, where my latest work in product design with Rutt HandCrafted Cabinetry has been shown. As a benchmark of more than a year of intense collaborative work, the positive response of the design community matters a lot, and we pull out all the stops to make it happen. It's satisfying to see the work and enjoy the feedback, and it leaves me and my colleagues wrung out from the sustained effort.

Fatigued from a particularly harried show complicated by last week's snowfall, it was Sunday before I recovered enough energy to feel like holding a paintbrush. A portable easel and paintbox I'd bought more than two years ago had yet to see first use. I figured it was long past time. I filled a couple of jars with fresh water, loaded the box with a couple of old dessert plates smeared with unused watercolor paint, and lugged them into the woods along the river. Found the spot I'd sketched the previous week and set up in the melting snow.

I am a perfectionist, and that sometimes interferes with my enjoyment of doing art. The kind of work I like to do, energetic and immediate, takes a lot of practice and requires a set of skills I've yet to acquire with watercolors. Standing behind the easel, I struggled with dissatisfaction, frustrated with myself.

Then I noticed what had really pulled me out there in the first place, the quiet reflection of the bluff on the river's surface. The loveliness of late winter's morning sunlight and the cool blue shadows on the melting snow. The softness of a faint breeze in the thawing woods. I remembered that most of the reason I do art is to connect with my surroundings. I relaxed and let myself be grateful just to be out there.


Rush hour

I drove (yes I did) into Manhattan Wednesday afternoon for the Architectural Digest Design Show, this year frantically whipped together in the aftermath of an inconveniently timed snowstorm that clogged the city's normally hard to navigate canyons to near paralysis earlier in the week. With hundreds of exhibitors, thousands of attendees, and a full slate of events, sane thoughts of postponement are blown away faster than the driven snow. The Show must go on. And admirably against odds, it did and shall continue through the weekend.

All I had to do was get there, help tidy up this year's finished Rutt Handcrafted Cabinetry booth, meet for a Thursday evening dinner with the gang from Rutt and WhiteGood, and my new architect colleague Simon Jacobsen (who'd wisely opted to shuttle via Acela from Washington), then try not to embarrass him, my client, the PR firm, or myself at an early Friday morning presentation to a small group of designers and press.

Murphy's Law was in full swing when we walked into the show hall at 7:30AM. Although the Rutt booth looked terrific, the chairs for our audience hadn't been delivered, nor had the large screen monitor. The place was as hot as the Mohave Desert in August. People arrived late, cutting our presentation time. An army of shrieking vacuum cleaners and malfunctioning microphones conspired against us, and the remote controls didn't work.

Nonetheless, Simon gave a marvelously casual, witty and informative presentation of Jacobsen Architecture's ethereal work, and I did my best to follow suit with some images my own. Although there wasn't time for much conversation, our guests were pleased and entertained, and those with whom I spoke afterwards were glad they came.

After a quick tour of the show with my own guest between clearing out of our hotel room, conference calls, and shifting plans for the weekend, we retrieved the car and stored luggage. Ina drove up to check on her parents in Connecticut while I fought my way through crowds of St. Patrick's Day revelers and the rush hour jammed sidewalks to Penn Station to take the train out of the city's chaos back to quiet Marietta.

A block from the Eighth Avenue entrance, I was momentarily transfixed by the late afternoon sunlight gleaming off the Empire State Building and reflecting onto the lower facades on west 34th Street. For a few minutes, I stood jostled in the current of moving bodies on the street corner, madly scribbling in my sketchbook. Then I rejoined the streaming crowd and was swept underground, to re-emerge bleary eyed and sidewalk sore late last night in Lancaster county. New York is enervating and I'm always glad to have gone there. This morning though, I'm grateful to be once again ensconced at home alongside the peaceful flow of the Susquehanna.


Exit ramp

Late Thursday afternoon following a meeting in Washington DC, I met up with my companion and we walked thorough Georgetown's streets to a canal side bar. It was warm and springlike. Sat at an outdoor table and watched the sunset reflections flash and fade from the windows across the narrow channel as the old brick buildings grew dark in the dusk. We didn't need our light jackets as we strolled the lamplit sidewalks back to the car.

But early on Friday morning, the thermometer on my dashboard display dropped by one degree every seven miles as I drove north to Pennsylvania, and just past Baltimore, the rain became sleet then snow. By the time I crossed the Susquehanna at Columbia and took the exit ramp to head over Chickie's Hill, the barren trees wore white garlands, and the ground was mottled with light, fluffy snow. When I got home, I brewed a pot of coffee then sat down at my writing desk by the living room window, watching the snow swirl down on the hedge out in the yard. It didn't last long, but after it tapered off, the sky remained wild and torn with passing clouds.

When I left to drive across the county for a mid day meeting, a stiff wind was tossing delicate streamers of half melted snow from the treetops. Patchy sunlight refracted through the twigs and branches still coated in delicate translucent crystals. It took my breath away. Then it was gone.


exit ramp, 11 x 8, watercolor on wove paper


Morning by the river

I've been drawing for a long time. Mostly with pencils. It takes some skill to attain good results, but with pencil points, control is a matter of dexterity and focus. The medium is very direct, and results are predictable. I sort of know what I'm doing.

Watercolor, I'm finding, has put me humbly at the bottom of what looks to me like a very long learning curve. Spilling dyed water onto a piece of paper, pushing it around with floppy brushes and trying to control the outcome? Pretty different set of challenges, not the least of which seems to be letting go of the idea that I can be totally in charge.

Out in the woods this morning, balancing a pad of watercolor paper on my knees, it occurred to me that in that sense, it's kind of like adult life.

14 x 10, Windsor & Newton cake watercolors



Before their time

Magnolias were blooming in Washington, DC before the beginning of March. Like pink silk kimono in the morning light of a darkened room. Too early for these spring blossoms. Still, their sensuous beauty is irresistable. Anxiety yet enjoyment nevertheless.

8 x 11, Derwent Inktense pencils

Inspired by seeing the fabulous American Watercolor in the Age of Homer and Sargent exhibition last weekend at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Been thinking about making myself learn to paint for years. Can't learn anything that I just think about but don't try. Have start somewhere ... so I gave it a whirl. Now I wish I'd started years ago. But as goes the cliche, better late than never.

24 x 18, Windsor & Newton watercolors