Thursday, December 31, 2009

Twenty-eight Degrees

Twenty-eight Degrees (Frozen Pond), oils on canvas panel, 11" x 14." Contact artist for price.

Being off this week, I drove down to southern Maryland to spend a few days with my artist friends in Accokeek. They had a bit more snow down there than we had here in Columbia the previous weekend, and some of it still lingered in their shady preserve.

On my first afternoon there we went for a walk at Piscataway Park. It was bright and sunny, but the 25-30 mile-an-hour winds made the chill so extreme at the exposed river shore, that I was dissuaded from attempting anything outdoors. We set up a still life and painted in the studio instead. The weather was about the same the next day, so again we worked inside while another friend posed for us.

Although cloudy, by yesterday morning the wind had died down. My car's thermometer registered twenty-eight degrees, but I was determined to paint plein air--this would be a good test of my hardiness. I loaded up my palette and gear, bundled up and drove down to the beaver pond to paint at the place Patrise had indicated. I pulled the ear flaps of my Tilley hat down and trundled over a snow bank to this spot. I had a bit of trouble tying my apron with gloved hands, but managed without exposing any bare skin to the elements.

Two-thirds of the way into the painting, my hands had become so numb from the cold I had to take a break. Getting in the car, I took my gloves off and warmed my hands with my breath, lots of massage and clapping, then put the gloves back on to continue painting until I had the entire panel covered and the val-hues balanced.

By that time both my hands and feet were completely numb, so I deemed it prudent to pack up and go back to the house--frostbite is not something I want to deal with. It was a bit after noon and the temperature had risen to a balmy thirty-two. It took an hour and lots of hot tea and soup for my hands and feet to thaw out completely. Relying on memory (I'd forgotten my camera), I put the accents and finishing touches on the painting later, indoors.

Am I the only one that finds it amusing that a Cuban like me, better adapted to the tropics, would be motivated to paint in freezing weather while my two friends, raised in Michigan, stayed indoors? But alas, today I am paying for my madness with a case of the sniffles.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Our First American Christmas

Our family at my house celebrating last Christmas--we were a total of 26!

Whenever I think times are tough, I like to remember what our first Christmas in this country was like. My sisters Beatriz, Silvia and I had arrived in Miami as refugees from Cuba on March 29, 1961, under what later became known as Operation Pedro Pan. After a couple of weeks in a refugee camp we were sent to Albuquerque, New Mexico, to live with American foster families and I was separated from my two sisters.

A few days after we reached Albuquerque, the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion began, breaking all communications with the island. For a month we had no idea of whether our parents and family in Cuba were alive, or if we would ever see them again. After a month, calls were resumed and much to our relief, we learned that none in our family had been arrested and taken away, though there had been mass arrests throughout the island during that Week of Terror.

My mother and youngest sister Cecilia arrived in Miami at the end of August, leaving my father behind. For three months my mother looked for work and just as it seemed hopeless, a teacher at St. Vincent's Academy, where Bea and Silvia attended school, became too ill to finish the school term. My mother was hired as a susbtitute teacher and Catholic Charities sent two one-way plane tickets for her and Cecilia. They arrived in Alburquerque at the end of November, and moved into a tiny casita near Old Town that the local agency had found for them.

Catholic Charities had paid the rent for two months, but unfortunately they had expected my mother to arrive earlier and by the end of November, the second month's rent was almost used up. Mom had to pay December's rent and utilities with her first paycheck, leaving us with next to nothing to live on. Bea, Silvia and I were so anxious to be reunited with them we moved in right away.

It was hard for the five of us to fit in the ramshackle house we nicknamed "el gallinero" (the chicken coop). Silvia and I shared a double bed in the converted porch, so small there was just enough room to turn around between an armoire and the bed. Bea and Cecilia shared another double bed in a slightly larger back bedroom, and my mother slept in the fold-out couch in the living room. The house had only one heat vent located between the living and dining area while ice formed inside the windows of the rest. The bathroom had a broken window pane that let the icy air in, and there was no place to store most of our things. It was a huge step down compared to our comfortable, well-ordered house in Cuba.

Albuquerque's historic Old Town was a few blocks away so we could could walk down to see the old plaza and San Felipe Neri Church decorated with the traditional New Mexican luminarias. We looked at the beautiful displays in the windows, knowing we couldn't afford a single present, not even a string of lights, much less a tree.

Putting creativity to use, I made some silly drawings for my sisters as Christmas presents. And, applying my recently-learned sewing skills to a found scrap of fabric and a bit of black lace, I made a tiny coin purse for my mom. This little gift would turn out to be iconic--my mother kept it with her always. Many years later, she told me the irony was that at the time she had not so much as a dime to put in it.

In fact, had it not been for the kindness of our friends, there would have been no Christmas dinner or much food on the table those two weeks of Christmas break. The Davis family, Greek immigrants who helped us greatly during those days, gave us a Christmas basket full of staples and a small turkey, and the family of my classmate Pat Duran invited us to share their feast on Christmas day. But as the week before classes were to resume came to a close, the larder grew empty--we were down to the wire.

Mom thought to search her suitcase, hoping that perhaps she might find she'd dropped a quarter or two in there. There, in a pocket of the suitcase, was a twenty-dollar bill! She had forgotten that one of her friends in Miami had insisted on her taking the money just before she left for Albuquerque, in case of an emergency. Nena Segura, for that was the lady's name, to this day, is blessed in our family--her sacrifice, for she must have been having as hard a time as we, saved us.

It's been forty-eight years since that memorable Christmas but it's still very close to my heart.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Big Snow

Big Snow, oils on canvasboard, 12" x 9," $150 unframed.

Yesterday we had a big snowfall in our area. Herb and I had gone out to dinner in Frederick the night before (a rare treat for us thanks to a gift from our nephews & nieces). On the drive back tiny flakes started to come down and a number of snow plows were already on the road. By the time we reached Clarksville, the snow was starting to stick and the roads had become slippery. There were State Troopers near our house where someone had already run off the road.

By the time we got up in the morning, there were about eight to ten inches of very dry powder on the ground. Not a creature stirred outdoors, and no evidence of any plow on our street. It was a good day to hibernate and paint indoors.

The way the snow weighed down the branches of the firs and the evergreens around the porch was so lovely! I wanted my painting to give a sense of the depth and weight of this snow, so I chose a view of our street looking out the front door. It was too cold to keep the door open, of course. I took down the sheer drape of the sidelight and set up my easel in the foyer so I could peek out.

The composition was really hard to bring off, because the horizontal lines of the porch railing and snowy bushes in the foreground made it difficult for the eye to enter the painting. I eliminated the railing, but ended up reworking the big mound in the front repeatedly to get the shapes of the branches and shadows to work, keeping the eye moving. I had to pile on the paint in that area to cover up my numerous reworkings, but I think the thick brushstrokes add to the feeling of the massiveness of the snow.

I asked Herb to measure the snow on our deck in late afternoon for this photo (over sixteen inches here). By the time the snow ended later in the evening, about twenty inches had accumulated. With any luck, the snow will last long enough for us to have a white Christmas this year.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Snow from my Window

Snow from My Window, oils on canvasboard, 10"x 8," $100 unframed. SOLD

The first snow of the season came yesterday, loaded with big, wet flakes that stuck to the branches. There is always a bit of magic in every snowfall that thrills the child in us, particularly at this time of the year, when the strains of that old carol, White Christmas, are heard perhaps a tad too much.

Gobs of snow were sticking to the delicate branches of my Japanese maple, giving the effect of blossoms on the branches, while the dried leaves on the oaks beyond carried the only hints of color. It looked so lovely from my studio window that I decided to set up my easel right there to paint it. Darkness came too soon, obscuring my view.

After dark the sky cleared and a waning moon rose over the back yard, but by then the snow had dropped from most of the branches and this beautiful effect vanished. I went out on the deck with my tripod to take some photos anyway, in hopes of capturing the primal mystery of a moonrise in the snow.