Friday, July 25, 2008


Sunday, July 20, 2008

Memories of Childhood

I was asked recently to paint a yellow chrysanthemum for a woman whose aunt used to grow them. She had such fond memories of her aunt and of her aunt's garden that it had contributed to her choice of career as a professional gardener. While I was uneasy about the subject (too many petals and an difficult colour on a gold ground) I loved the idea of painting something for sentimental reasons, so I accepted the challenge. It turned out to be a wonderful flower to paint with its swirling ball of petals and the Renaissance flourish of its awkward little leaves. I am very happy with it and hope that my client is too.

A few years ago my Mum wrote a book called "The Real Garden Road Trip" in which she and a friend drove across Canada interviewing gardeners whose gardens they found along the way. One of the things she learned was how common it is for people to choose garden plants that remind them of their childhoods. Many people were even unaware of their reason for choosing these plants until they were interviewed.

In my own garden I grow phlox because their musty, lovely smell takes me back to the Maritime gardens of eastern Canada where I was a child. I grow roses partly because their smell transports me instantly to the English gardens of my grandparents in Lancashire. I even found a David Austen rose called "Ambridge" which is named after a fictional village from the radio series "The Archers". I planted it for my wonderful grandmother who was a painter and who listened every day to "The Archers" after lunch.

Proust wrote about the visceral memories evoked by the smell of madeleine cakes and this kind of memory has become known as a madeleine. I'll bet that many, maybe most gardeners choose to include madeline memories and nostalgic plants in their gardens, maybe without even realizing why they do it.

What plants have you planted in your garden because they take you back to your childhood in a visceral or even unconscious way? What plant would you choose to commemorate in a painting if you were to honour some aspect of your past? These are two different things, arent they? The first subconscious. The second more cerebral.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Chickadee Update

While I usually try to post about plants and paintings, I have included news about my chickadee problem lately since it has taken over my life. The nest in a hole on my front porch is hard to ignore due to the constant scolding of the parent birds. The stress I felt trying to protect the birds from my cats has taken its toll on my nerves and has turned the front entrance of my house into a weird fortress of chicken wire and dismantled light fixtures and the inside of my house into a jail for howling cats.

It was with enormous relief and excitement that I watched these annoying and adorable birds fledge a few days ago. With cats locked securely in the house three baby birds jumped unsurely from the hole in the wall, crashed into the porch posts and huddled bleary eyed on the floor looking completely stunned. My nephew and I scrambled around with the camera keeping a protective eye on things and one of the babies even jumped onto his head.

We watched with relief as all three chicks flew into the safety of high branches where the parents continued feeding them. Happily they never came back to the nest, though I see whole family of five around the house, chicks with stubby tails and parents with beautiful long tails still feeding them. I saw them all this morning and felt such relief and pride and, of course, the worry that parents never stop feeling.

Umm... You want me to do what!?

Woaah...! Legs or wings...Legs or wings...?

Mum! Look at me - I fledged! Mum? Hey where is everybody?

Are you my mother?

What do you mean "crazy scientist hair style"?

Tuesday, July 15, 2008


This oil painting is called "Honesty" and it is a sort of allegory. The plant is "honesty" (or "money plant" Lunaria annua) which grows wild in my back alley near the studio. I think it is called honesty because the light shines through its seed pods revealing what is inside and I echoed this idea witht the sun shining through the rabbit's ears. Honesty is a trait I admire in people and the rabbit seemed a good embodiment of this. When we reveal our true emotions and thoughts we become vulnerable, like this little rabbit, but there is also great beauty and comfort in truth.
(Click on the painting to see it bigger. It measures 8"x10")

I grew these annual "bunny tails" from seed this year and they sit on the railing on my front porch, at hand level for easy stroking. They are lovely with the sun shining through them and the botanical embodiment of that phrase "warm and fuzzy". They are Lagurus ovatus if you are looking for seed.

Monday, July 14, 2008


Since this is partly a blog about gardening in Seattle I feel the need to make note of a very sad gardening story in the news here this week.

On Wednesday 60 year old James Paroline was watering his garden in the middle of a traffic circle on his street when he was assaulted and later died of a head injury. He had blocked traffic with orange cones to protect his garden hose and was verbally hassled by some young women. When he responded by yelling back and spraying them with water they called a male friend who arrived and punched James to the ground where he hit his head.

As I watered my plants this morning in the luxury of my secure and peaceful private garden I kept thinking of James. I feel so sad and sorry for what happened. I also feel sad for the women involved whose young lives have probably been so full of hatred that all they know is to pass it along. I feel sad for the man who did the punching who must have learned first hand about violence through his own young life.

I feel bewildered and out of touch with humanity, as I always do when faced with people whose life experience leads them to such rage.

It has been a very sad week. I hope that someone continues to water James' garden. I have a feeling that someone will.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Fun With Cherries

Opal and I had fun with cherries today. She kept stealing them out of the bowl as I photographed. We ended up rolling around on the floor.

This little painting is based on my own tree with some wishful artistic licence adding a few more cherries.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Peony Weasels

My peony weasel painting is finished! While I struggled with the peonies and had a hard time getting them to look luscious enough, I am pleased with the final result. The chiaroscuro (dark and light) makes them glow with some of the theatricality that draws me to peonies (Click on the painting if you would like to see it bigger. The original measures 2 feet wide or 65 cms.)

This was a commission for my friend Regan who had seen an earlier painting of dancing weasels and asked for one with peonies. These weasels have become more realistic than the old ones and the whole painting has taken on a carnival like feeling that I am happy with.

People who know me will understand that I am quite a serious person who worries about the world around me. (global warming, war, parenting, baby birds, flower pots crushing pill bugs etc.) so these weasel paintings started as an antedote to my worrying. Here is the first one which I painted a couple of years ago after a period of suffering the blues and painting depressing images of vulnerability. I needed a change and called this break-through painting (below) "The Dancing Weasels of Joyful Possibility". And they were. I have had a lot of fun with my painting since that. This new painting might be called "The Dancing Weasels of Gleeful Irresponsibility" which is a mouthful. They just look like they are a bit naughty, eating peony buds and dancing wildly. And they don't worry about anything.

Here is the inspiration for the original painting. It is from of a pair of iron gates in the Seattle Asian Art Museum's fabulous art deco building dating from the 1930s. The artist was Samuel Yellin from Philidelphia. Thanks SAAM. Thanks Samuel.

I hope eveyone has a joyful, gleeful, dancing weasel day.

Friday, July 4, 2008

cherries = happy

I have been a bit grumpy on the blog lately so here is a picture of happiness. This is a Rainier cherry, named after the volcano Mount Rainier that is visible from Seattle. The cherries are the very tastiest in the world! I have a harvest this year of four cherries and couldn't be prouder than if there were a pick up-truck full. I have only had the tree for a year so I am delighted to see these little red balls.

I posted this oil portrait of a branch of the same tree a couple of months ago. So many blossoms and only four cherries? I don't care. It was a cold spring, a young tree, whatever. I have Rainier cherries!

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Department of Chickadee Homeland Security

Since posting about birds a while ago I am pleased to say that we have had no more bird tragedies.

My house, however, has turned into a miniature version of this terrorist-wary country with my cats as the terrorists and the damn chickadees as the sweetly innocent citizens. I say "damn chickadees" because I am fed up defending them. Since they built their nest in an empty hole on my front porch, raised one family that got eaten by my grey cat and started a second brood I have taken action. I dismantled the light fixture on which my cat was perching (terrorist infrastructure), nailed a protective sheet from rail to ceiling (border wall) and am locking the cats in the house for most of the day. When my cats are outside I patrol the front porch area like an obsessed Minute Man, armed with cat toys to capture and re-imprison the marauders. All the cats need are tiny orange jump suits.

I have had enough. Fledge already. There were three chickadees screaming angrily at me yesterday so I thought that maybe one was a baby but this morning there are just the two parents dashing back and forth as I shake my fist at their feathery little asses.

I am not a chickadee hater. Someone who hates chickadees and the Impressionists, both, would be sent off on an ice flow (if there are any ice flows left). I have just worked so hard to keep them alive over the past few weeks and I don't want them to break my heart. I know I am projecting my own emotions about parenting onto these tiny little feather brains. Maybe because I feel feather brained myself half the time. Maybe because, when I trudge in the door laden down with bags of groceries to feed hungry children I see the chickadees outside trudging back and forth laden down with beaks full of bugs.

For now, I will keep my cats inside the house and put up with the chickadee scolding until the family has moved out. But then I am blocking up the hole and reclaiming my porch and my life.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008


I know that I sound grouchy about the Impressionists but I am tired of being the only living person who doesn't like their paintings. The wonderful Seattle Art Museum is doing a big show of their work this summer so I am bracing myself to make polite and appreciative comments. People look so shocked when I say that I don't like the fluffy landscapes and slapdash ladies with parasols. It is actually rude of me not to like them.

My feeling is that if I want to see impasto and vigorous brush work I can look at the abstract expressionists, who didn't confuse the issue by trying to portray anything. Hooray for de Kooning. Hooray for Pollack. (ok de Kooning painted women, but do they really count?)

If I want to see figurative paintings I look to the early Renaissance where the story mattered more than the brushwork.

The Impressionists are neither one nor the other. Their brushwork is hampered by painting descriptive scenes. Their descriptions are hampered by their hasty brushwork. They are a comfy middle ground in art history. Not pretty. But pretty enough. Not passionate, but passionate enough. Have I insulted your favourite painters? Sorry. Sorry. Really I am.

I felt this quite strongly, as you can probably tell, until last week when I re-tackled my failed peony painting in oil and realized that there are some things that are best expressed in an impressionistic style. Here is the original peony, which started out looking like it was made of wax. I fluffed it up a bit but it is not much better. Pretty dead actually.

And here is its companion, part of the same painting, after my revelation that I needed to tackle the petals in an impressionistic style. It is much more scruffy and peony like. Hey Manet, Renoir, Monet and the gang - when it comes to peonies, you guys rocked. On the other hand, flowers with more complex and powerful shapes like sweet peas, tulip leaves, poppies etc, seem to need a more precise approach. I will post the whole peony oil painting when it is finished, hopefully in the next day or so.

Henri Fantin-laTour 1874 - The king of the fluffy flower painters

Pierre-August Renoir, 1879

Edouard Manet (he got this exactly right, I think. Beautiful)