Saturday, June 18, 2011

I'm Home

I'm Home. Now, that's a title with a double entendre if I've ever heard one. Was my arrival in Israel reason for exclaiming "I'm home!"? Or was it my return to Zeke and Indianapolis that inspired me to breathe a sigh of relief and say "I'm home!"?

Two weeks ago I heartily joined in the applause when the plane touched down in Israel. I was so excited to be back that I pushed through the crowd exiting the plane to get out that much quicker. It was clear from the moment I exited the gate that the country had changed in the 15 years since I had last visited, 16 years since I had lived there. Ben Gurion Airport, once a dusty, third-world-kind of place where planes happened to take off from, was now an impressive gateway to a thriving country.

I took the train north to Nahariya, a 90-minute trip that allowed me to survey the country from the comfort of my seat. I was intrigued by the graffiti on our way into Tel Aviv that was scrawled in English. Gleaming high rises, too many to count, had mushroomed since I had last been in Tel Aviv. In fact, that mushrooming isn't reserved for Tel Aviv alone. It is everywhere. I saw new high rises in various stages of construction along the coast, on the rims of cities and on the outskirts of towns. No matter where I looked, orange cranes soared into the sky. The recession dominating the news and our lives in the United States seemed to be worlds away.

My first foray into Nahariya later that evening was not a pleasant one. I was eager to get out and explore the main street of this coastal town. I wanted to fall in love with the place. Instead, I felt threatened by the dark men hanging out on the street, shouting at one another in groups, sipping coffee in cafes and smoking in front of storefronts. I was afraid that if I stopped for too long, I would be approached by a sleazy guy in cheap clothes and false charm. So I kept moving. The storefronts are forever stuck in the 50s. The fashions are tawdry. Window displays look tired and dusty. Falaffel stands smell oily. Flies buzzing around the vegetables and birds pecking at the pita bread turned my stomach. How could I have ever called such an awful place home?

The next morning I arose with the sun and dashed out of the hotel for a run along the beach. The Mediterranean Sea is so magnificent and the early morning air is as fresh as one would want it to first. As I ran up the coast toward Lebanon, I encountered a whole range of odors. Yes, there was the salty smell of the sea. Pleasant wafts of a flowering bush of some sort punctuated the sea smell and then, on occasion, the putrid odor of sewage would overcome everything else.

If I kept my eyes peeled above the ground and in the direction of the sea, the view was breathtaking. If I looked at the beach to my left or the buildings to my right, I was reminded that not all of Israel is sparkly and new. The beaches are strewn with trash and dog feces. The lack of respect for nature and public spaces baffles me. So much beauty is spoiled by trash and unnecessarily so. There are trash cans along the beach every 20 feet. Nobody uses them.

To the right I found tangled up security fences and the kind of buildings I will always associate with Israel.

These buildings are boxy apartment complexes with shuttered windows festooned with lines of wash. The patchy stucco surfaces - darkened over time in some places and simply missing in others - are crisscrossed by loosely hung wires of all sorts. As unattractive as these buildings are, they are so familiar to me from every town I have visited in Israel. They all seem to have been thrown up in haste to house refugees and Zionists flooding the country 60 years ago.

The warm feelings for this country I once called home were slow in coming. The trickle began with that first breakfast after my run. The hotel had laid out a colorful spread of luscious tomatoes, crunchy cucumbers, avocado slices (!!! who can afford avocados in such abundance?) feta and the infamous Israeli "white cheese," tangy labane, hard-boiled eggs, yogurt, fruit, olives and a variety of homemade breads and pastries. I love Israeli breakfasts! I ate everything and washed it all down with the ubiquitous cup of Nescafe with milk and sugar. It was food that began to melt away my apprehensions.

The warm feelings continued to spread because of the wonderful people I met through my colleagues at Partnership 2000. These meetings were my reason for being in Israel two days before the rest of the group of artists arrived for the artists' residency program. My new friends' exuberance for life in Israel is typical of what I have experienced with most Israelis. They love their country. Yes, Israelis argue and bicker incessantly about politics and even the most mundane of topics. To the uninitiated, it always sounds like they are shouting at one another and are generally pissed off. Israelis, in general, are passionate people. They love their country fiercely. They are proud of what they have built - which was very apparent as I was feted about the Indianapolis Partnership region of the Western Galilee - and they live life with gusto. The familiarity of Israeli-style passion was oddly comforting.

The warm feelings became secure for the rest of the trip and probably for my lifetime as my mind wrapped around the cadence of Hebrew. In short time I was understanding conversations. By the end of my first full day in Israel, I was speaking Hebrew again just as well - or as poorly - as I did 16 years ago. Despite everything I wrote above about the disappointments I first experienced, I understand in my heart why I can still call Israel home. With two passports in my name, I take pride and find comfort in having two emotional and spiritual homes.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Roll It Up

When I signed off the last blog posting, I thought I was done with the painting but for a signature.

We lived with my creation stapled to the wood board for another couple of days due to a busy work schedule, but really, more so because I wanted to coexist with the painting without fussing over it. Just as I used to walk by the raw white canvas when it was stretched in the garage, I walked by this painted version with a casual glance, at times, and a more studied gaze at others. Something was missing.

The painting celebrated Chipper's life. I felt that strongly, but it lacked finality. For those who understand the painting, there is sentiment in every brush stroke. All that sentiment needed to add up to something. It needed to culminate in the final goodbye to my beast. I consulted with friends because the words I wanted to choose for this final tribute had to be the perfect expression of my feelings behind the creation of this memorial.

B'goaguim l'Chipper: Missing you, Chipper, painted in the sky, arching off toward the edge of the canvas, exiting the scene but existing somewhere out there.

I first painted the Hebrew letters above the desert mountains in white and then over-painted the white with silver 2 times to give the letters a shimmer.

The airplane in flight at the beginning of our story (remember, we read the canvas from right to left), the bow of the John Hancock building in the middle of our story...

... and the arc of the Hebrew letters at the end of our story all lean in the same direction taking the viewer, you, me and Chipper out of the scene, off the canvas and into eternity.

The one element in the painting that did not change from the very beginning is the abstraction of heaven or atmosphere or stratosphere - however you want to think of it - at the top of the painting. I liked this area from the moment I put it down and, while I may have touched it up here and there, it remains pretty much the same since those first strokes. It reminds me of William Blake.

Zeke helped me remove the canvases from the board and lay them flat. The last thing I had to do that involved paint was sign the painting. 

There. Finished.

All along I had planned to unite the two canvases by lacing cord through grommets, sort of like a shoelace. Some of this was out of necessity (the art store had only two remnants instead of one long canvas, so I was being inventive), and some of it was because the art festival where this piece will be exhibited has a stated theme this year - Point of Contact - or something like that. It did nothing to inspire me. But, should someone ask, "where is the point of contact in your painting?" it will be pretty obvious - it's in the lacing together of the two canvases. Works for me.

This next photo shows the lacing, however this is not the pattern of lacing I will use when the painting is displayed. Because it was difficult to reach behind the painting while it was pinned to the board, I just looped the cord through the grommets for effect. When the painting is displayed on the fence, it will be easier for me to reach behind and get a more attractive lacing pattern. But here's the idea...

My painting, entitled "Bringing You Home," is now complete and ready for its journey. My bags are packed and the painting is rolled and boxed up for the flight. Zeke even crafted a way for me to carry the box since I have to transport it from the airport to the train and from the train to the hotel in Israel. It's a very Zeke-like solution.

The last thing to do now is enjoy the late afternoon and evening with Zeke. That's always easy to do, but tonight it has more meaning. Tomorrow when we part at the airport, it will be like old times - Zeke back to his "bachelor ways" (yes, the refrigerator already contains a few of his old favorites and stand-bys) and me with the beast. Chipper is here, in the necklace around my neck, close to my heart.

Yes, that really is my chest - I never knew it could look so large. Yet another one of Zeke's talents.
I thought this might be the last blog entry because it is the end of the journey. I have conquered the canvas. Not only have I conquered it, I have enjoyed every moment of the process. I have pushed myself outside of my comfort-zone in terms of the medium I used, the size of the painting and even the subject matter. Every time I thought, "I can't do that," I pushed a little bit and found that yes, I can do that. I like to think that this is yet another gift Chipper has given me by being in my life. 

In many respects, the journey is just beginning because yes, I can do that.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Last Details

Over the course of the last several weeks as I had been working on the canvas, various ideas for details had come to mind. Some I dismissed, but others I felt were relevant. This weekend I put in close to 6 hours of painting, with my primary focus being the details. Talk about sweating the small stuff - these little details take more time to paint than the big, sweeping backgrounds.

I found comfort in working with my small brushes, my nose up close to the canvas. I was reminded of my high school art teacher, Mr. Dunow. Mr. Dunow would set up large still lives in the middle of the studio - mind you, they always featured a skull or two - and we would each find our place in the room and begin painting. I always gravitated toward my teeny tiny brushes and went straight for the details. Mr. Dunow told me it looked like I was painting with my nose.

"Work big," he encouraged me. I didn't know what that meant. So he had me construct a canvas that was over 5 feet long. The thing was huge and I had to walk all around it to apply the gesso. As soon as the gesso dried, I sat down at a corner of the painting and began painting with my teeny tiny brushes. Some things don't change.

So, with my teeny tiny brushes, I painted a kong dangling from the troublesome tree. This is a detail of notable signicance because there must be at least half-a-dozen kongs hanging from trees in Evanston. I never could throw a ball, or catch one for that matter. I learned that tossing a kong wasn't any easier.

If there was a kong hanging from a tree, there was a dog below it barking, jumping and essentially going crazy that I had thrown yet another kong into a tree. The scene would not be complete if it did not include Chipper - this is her cameo appearance in the painting.

I am not going to fool myself into thinking this looks just like the beast. That would not be doing her justice. But, it is a reasonable enough approximation of my girl. In fact, it is the best I have ever been able to render her. That's not saying much for my other attempts, but I am glad I did well enough to leave her likeness in the painting.

Another important detail presented itself when I was observing my handiwork one day. The grassy knoll in front of Eagle Creek Reservoir seemed like a very tranquil, sacred place. Sacred space figured prominently, not only at the end of Chipper's life, but also at the end of Lucy's life. Lucy, better known as "the Beagle," was Zeke's beloved pet. Several months before Lucy died, she took to sleeping in Zeke's prayer room in front of the Buddha statues. We both found it to be unusual when we first started finding her in there. When she became very ill and died, we were taken with the timing and meaning, perhaps, of her chosen sleeping spot.

Fast forward a year and a half, and we couldn't find Chipper one morning. She was not at the foot of the bed where she usually slept, or in the other bedroom where she occassionally slept. Instead, we found her in Zeke's prayer room. This happened time and again. Zeke closed the room off with a Japanese screen, and still Chipper found a way to wiggle her way into the space. The significance of this was too painful for either of us to utter, but it was understood. Chipper died shortly thereafter. Buddha appears in my painting, the last detail, because this being represents Zeke for all of his compassion and kindness, and because he - no matter what my beliefs or inclinations may be - comforted my pet in the last months of her life.

This is where I will end for today.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Nitty Gritty

We're getting down to the nitty gritty. I have a few details in mind that I would like to add before leaning back on my heels and saying, "Finished!" We're not quite there yet.

For one, the desert sky was too dark. So, I introduced some white and glazed it over the blue as well as swirled it to create some atmosphere. It works for me.

I eyed the canvas and am questioning the darkest mountain in the range. It just might be too dark, but I was in no mood to mix up that crazy concoction of colors I came up with to hit the rosy hues of the desert. Sometimes you just have to be in the mood for color, and I wasn't in a rose kind of mood tonight.

There was something I needed to tackle. In order to get into the mindset to push myself outside my comfort zone, I needed some music to smooth the road ahead. I set my iPod to Karunesh. Take a listen - I cannot get enough of this guy: Karunesh. His music penetrates deeply and is so soothing. I can almost drink it.

Karunesh, whoever he is, and I returned to the far right side of the canvas. From the very beginning, I had wanted to paint an airplane in this Mediterranean scene. The last flight I made from Israel to Chicago was pivotal. That was back in the day when I could walk onto the tarmac and place Chipper in her dog carrier directly on the conveyor belt leading into the belly of the airplane. Can you imagine such a thing today? After I watched her crate disappear into the abyss, I returned to the terminal, boarded the plane, and popped a Tylenol PM in my mouth as soon as I fastened my seatbelt. I could not bear thinking of her alone in the dark belly of the plane. Her tranquilizer was good for only 10 hours and we had at least that much time in traveling ahead of us...I knew she would wake up mid-flight, alone in the dark and frightened with all of the noise. I simple couldn't bear thinking of it. So, I tranquilized my dog, and then took one for myself.

The plane was important to include in my painting. It is what transported us from there to here, literally. When I ordered my paints,  I already had this in my mind, so I ordered a small bottle of silver paint. One doesn't have the option of painting with silver when using oils, so if I have to use a medium I'm not so crazy about, I may as well as take advantage of some of its benefits. Silver paint sounded like fun.

I painted in the airplane's shape in a very transparent white. I had to rework it a few times to get the proportions down - and some might say I still haven't gotten them - but I was satisfied. And then I got out the silver paint. Nice. It had a nice creamy texture and the sheen came through even when I mixed in other colors. I enjoyed this little interlude...but not enough to convert me to acrylics from oil.

This session lasted just shy of one and a half hours. Zeke came home from work while I was painting and plopped himself down on the couch behind me with his iPad. At no time since January when I gave him his birthday present, has this iPad left his fingertips. What you may not know is that Zeke is an artist too, and here is proof of it. This is a drawing he made on his iPad with his new stylus. I assure you I was painting while fully dressed, though you would never know it from this drawing. The only thing I can say about that is, "MEN!"

Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Horse Smells the Barn

I leave for Israel two weeks from today. Now I am excited. I'm on the home stretch. This being the weekend of the Kentucky Derby, it is only fitting that I use an equine metaphor. I have 9 more days of work left before my departure and there is much to do to leave my ducks in a row. I have begun a packing list and setting items aside that I know I will not use now but will want on the trip. I have been in contact with an old friend, Ayelet, an archaeologist with whom I spent a lot of time when I lived in Israel. I will spend my last weekend with her and her family in magnificent Zichron Ya'akov. I could not be happier about having been able to make these arrangements. I hope to see other friends, but seeing Ayelet is a priority.

As much as the trip dominates my thoughts, the canvas demands my attention. It has been easy for me to sit down at odd times and just start working. I know what I want to do, I know what I need to do, and I just go about doing it without fretting. If there is one thing I must say I like about acrylic paints, it's that it is so incredibly easy to clean up following a session. Oils are a bit messy and cleaning brushes requires a lot of care. But acrylics? Quick and painless.

Saturday afternoon after running in the park and then running errands with Zeke (including planting in our raised bed in the community garden at the JCC), I got down to business at the easel. It was time to make Eagle Creek sing on my canvas. Even though I had already painted most of it in, it still took over 2 hours to rework the trees, reflection and the lake. After laying in the ripples on the lake surface, I knew I was done. I just brushed in some grass in the foreground and called it a day. It was a good session.
Today, Sunday, was devoted to the desert, the only place in the world that tugs so hard at my heart that it can bring me to my knees. The first time I traveled to the Negev Desert, it did just that. The sense of returning home was overwhelming. Call it what you will, but I know I have wandered those hills and valleys for many a lifetime. Even Chipper was of the desert. I saw a wild dog scampering across the distant hills on a desert camping trip and could have sworn it was Chipper...until I saw her sitting quietly beside the tent.

Last night I had spent some time going through old photos and pulled out all my pictures from my many trips to the desert. The crevices and the cracks and crannies of the granite mountains are so distinctive, and my photos had captured them. So I had to paint them in. I like the results - compare the pink blobs I originally painted to lay in color to the finished mountain in the photo to the right. It took quite a bit of time to paint the foreground mountains and the wadi, which is Arabic for valley. I still have the mountains in the background to finish up, but even with the work I have completed thus far, I can tell that I like the way the desert frames the left side of the painting.

I am looking forward to returning to the canvas tomorrow. I will be able to finish the purple mountains in the background and then there are some more details that I am contemplating whether or not to add them to the painting. Stay tuned.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

It's All About the Fence

I have worked every night on this painting for the past 2 weeks. It's crunch time. I haven't taken the time to blog after each session because, well, I might be getting bored with myself. Now that there is finally something notable happening on the canvas, it's time to blog again.

I just came to the realization that for all of the work I have put into this painting, I really don't care for it. It's definitely not anything I would hang in my living room. Zeke, my wise, loving partner, put it into perspective. It's not for the living room, he reminded me. It's to hang on a fence. Right - that makes a huge difference. This creation is for the Fence Festival in Israel. It will hang on a chain link fence surrounding a kibbutz in the western Galilee and people will stroll by it. It's not a museum piece - it's hanging outside with grommets punched into it and subject to the weather and whims of people. Okay, I feel a bit better. But I still do not care for it.

Lest you think I am lying about all of the work I have put into this, Zeke took some photos of me at work, both in front and behind the canvas.

Nice toes, eh? I never knew my love had a foot fetish.

Whether I like this painting or not, I am on a mission to finish this project that captures the places and times of my 16 years with Chipper. I am sort of curious about how folks in Israel will react to this painting with the seemingly unrelated vignettes of times, places and seasons. When they learn it is a celebration of a dog's life, they might think it's a bit weird. Oh well, so be it. It has taken this many years of living and suffering through angst to finally reach the point where I don't care what people think. How liberating. Next thing I know I'll be wearing a purple hat and not caring about that either.

One of the hardest things an artist has to do is come to peace with the realization that something that had been painstakingly and lovingly painted onto the canvas just isn't working and, oh horrors, needs to go. I had a yellow, snow-covered storefront extending to the left of the John Hancock building that was a continuation of the Evanston snow scene to the right of the building. Adorable? I thought so. Working? Nope, it was getting in the way of everything I was thinking about compositionally. Finally, yesterday, I mustered up the courage to paint over it with white. It's gone. No going back.

The area to the left of the building could now be devoted entirely to Eagle Creek. The grassy knoll I had painted previously in this area looked like a grassy takeover of the canvas. Once I stopped thinking of the yellow building as precious, I allowed myself to recognize that this knoll alone was not enough to represent the importance Eagle Creek has played in our lives. I have focused my life around Eagle Creek Reservoir since moving to Indianapolis. I wouldn't want to live anywhere else in the city. Zeke feels the same way and Chipper just loved being on the lake and in the woods.

There is nothing like the reservoir in the autumn. As the sun comes up, the trees on the west side of the lake ignite in color. The first time I saw it while walking the beast early one morning, it took my breath away. The next time I saw it I was prepared. I came with camera in hand, shot a bunch of pictures, and then painted my first complete painting independent of a class. This was back at the beginning of my return to painting and it was a big deal.

Even though I never liked the fence I painted in the foreground, the framed scene hung in our living room for almost 3 years.

We recently replaced the Eagle Creek scene with a more recent abstract called "Wednesday Evenings." All good things must come to an end.

So this over-sized homage to Chipper's life will contain a similar autumn scene of the lake before transitioning to our return to Israel and the desert. I brushed in the beautiful rose hues of the desert mountains the other night and will return to them after finishing the lake scene.

After working on the lake tonight, I decided I do not care for the color and will go back to rework it this weekend. The treeline is fine - I am pleased with that. The reflection in the water is a little too stark. I will soften that as I rework the water. So, while most of the composition is mapped in now, there is still a ton of work to do...and I need this to be finished by one week from tomorrow. This is where I am today after a 2 1/2 hour painting session tonight.
I am still noodling what to do about the tip-toe-standing tree, by the way.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Just a Little Pressure

As soon as the page on the calendar flipped from April to May, it hit me - I am leaving in 3 weeks! In that time I must finish the composition in the last 1/3 of the painting, go back and correct mistakes in the first 2/3s, add some details I have been holding off on, and solve a problem or two to try to make the whole thing work. I have to do all that, actually, in less than 3 weeks because I have to deliver the painting to my friends at Fast Signs on Michigan Road to put in all the grommets prior to my departure. I have work to do!

Last week, one evening when I was feeling tired and not too interested in much of anything, I sat down with a small brush and some paint to clean up some edges and transitional areas. I ended up with white paint remaining on my palette after I thought I was finished. Well, not being one to waste anything, I decided to use the white paint and paint in the snow on the Evanston shops. Voila! A snow scene appeared in one evening without even thinking much about it.

I spent a good 3-4 hours painting on Sunday. Zeke is safely back from Colorado and is as relaxed as I have seen him in a long time. Nothing like a week of the mountain wilderness with a good friend, good scotch and infrequent showers. Sounds like a ball. But he's happy. We spent the day together doing "stuff," and even though I visited with the canvas at various times throughout the day for painting sessions, we were still together.

I worked on the purple background around the John Hancock building. That allowed me to add the towers this evening.

I also painted in the street in the foreground. To me, this represents where we live now. The street is a dominant feature separating us from the beach. Chips used to walk very pleasantly on her leash until we rounded the corner and then she saw the street. At that point it was every man for himself as she lunged and tried to dash across that boundary between society and nature. More likely, it was the freedom of the open space and the preponderance of goose poop that were the main attractions.

Yesterday afternoon Zeke did something that even exceded himself. As wonderful, sensitive and supportive a life partner that he is - unfailingly - he took my breath away this time. For no reason at all he handed me a note that said he thinks he has an understanding of how important this trip is, and he wants me to have something for it. Inside a small box was a silver chain with a beautiful shiny cylinder pendant dangling from it. It almost looked like a mezzuzah. But no, that's not what it is. At the bottom of the pendant is a small screw that opens the tube so one can pour a tiny amount of ashes into it. This beautiful pendant will allow me to take Chipper to Israel with me...and then to leave those precious ashes behind at the Mediterranean Sea when I find a few quiet moments to spend there with her and my thoughts. The last time I cried this hard is when she was dying on the emergency room table.

Tonight I worked on problem solving. I trimmed the width of the orange tree (still need to lay in some of the umber color), reduced the weight of the green bushy mass to the left of the Hancock building, repainted the yellow ground around the tree, and removed the circle at the base of the tree and added some roots. Now, instead of levitating, the tree looks like it is standing on its tip toes. I'm laughing at myself, but honestly, I am perplexed as to what to do with this tree. I'll sleep on it.