Riff in a Plastic Cup


 It was just too quiet to paint one morning last week. I was in place on a scaffold at 6am, painting “alley art” just after dawn. My friend was painting at street level, but we are seldom close enough to chat because we are painting a mural on a concrete block wall that is 15' high x 47' wide.

The gradual crescendo of usual morning noises starts later - trash collection, delivery trucks, loud train whistles, and flikflak of loaded train cars on the nearby rails. The early morning quiet made the time drag - until a slight breeze picked up.  

The breeze puffed gently, sometimes only a whiff, other times with a bit more gusto, intermittently scooting a crushed plastic cup toward me on my high perch. It seemed as if nature and modern technology collaborated to improvise a rhythmic cadence as an accompaniment for us to paint. Even though accidental, the rhythm almost seemed organized. Perhaps Mother Nature studied the flams, ratamacues, flamacues, triple ratamacues, and paradiddles of rudimentary drumming. I was inclined to whistle Yankee Doodle between my teeth, but I needed to paint rather than join the band. At any rate, the plastic cup chatter served as my caffeine and set a livelier tempo for my brushwork - a miniature drum corps that approached from my left, clattered beneath the scaffold, and eventually exited to my right. I missed the sound when the breeze died, silencing the miniature parade.

I don’t know if the initial silence bothered my friend. But I did notice that after the rhythm of that plastic cup stopped, she started humming.  And before long the combined sounds of garbage trucks, arriving employees,  the slam of car doors, morning greetings, the train whistle, barking dogs, crying babies, a small plane overhead, and the gritty grumble of the train seized the day, overtaking both the simple sounds of a windblown plastic cup and humming.


Bigger Fish

My husband and I owned a simple lake cottage and small fishing boat. We would wet our lines from time to time but were really only fair-weather-fishermen.   For some reason, we thought the best fishing was anywhere other than the shoreline directly in front of our own cottage. Somehow we thought that the farther from  home, the greater the promise of catching fish. We would wave greetings as we met other boaters, going in opposite directions.

I was recently reminded of this when my friend, a wonderful artist and teacher, said she was disappointed that only two people signed up for her painting class in her home town.  This is baffling when every class she taught at a distance during this last year was enthusiastically received and filled to capacity. I can only surmise that she is perhaps “fishing too close to her own shore.” She inadvertently gave credence to the adage “You only become an expert 50 or more miles from home.”

Remember all the other boaters we waved at on our way to that elusive fishing sweet-spot? I am smiling now with the realization that most of them were lake residents from the opposite shore, coming across the lake to fish directly in front of our cottage! They too thought fishing was better away from home.

Ah, human nature!  I doubt that I can change the idea that the biggest fish is better caught far from home, or that an expert comes from more than 50 miles away.  I don’t intend to move, but perhaps I can inject more credence to the next watercolor class I teach if I have students paint people in a boat, fishing at a lake in a different state. Or perhaps have them paint a fish caught in a lake more than 50 miles away.

I had just finished typing this blog when my artist friend called to tell me there was some glitch in student registrations! There were more than enough eager would-be-artists planning to be in her class. So my friend meets weekly with her students  …. a mere 3 minute drive away from home.

And now that I think about it, we had a lake neighbor who owned a flatboat and would row a few yards from shore, drop anchor, and start fishing. I felt sorry for him, thinking he only fished there because he had no boat motor, and had to row his boat.  Even though I could see that he regularly landed enough fish for his dinner, I felt sorry for him because he didn't realize the biggest fish were at the other end of the lake.


Wheedling, Needling, and Pleading not Allowed 

Thankfully I didn’t stumble into a profession that required me to order products wholesale, fill a shop, and sell it all for a profit. I’ve never had my finger on the pulse of the buying public. Even in the art world, what is much revered and admired and therefore marketable is often baffling to me.  I’m aware that this probably puts me in the "unlikely to succeed in sales" column.

So when the title of a column in a recent magazine asked “What Sells Your Art?” it grabbed my attention. OK – what does sell my art? If only I knew I would stand to sell more paintings, and that would be most agreeable.  But does anyone really know the answer? Actually, I was nervous as I was poised to read the article, thinking the author would point out that I myself - an "unlikely to succeed in sales" type woman - am expected to sell my paintings.

I’ve read many articles with tips for artists to improve sales. An online gallery newsletter suggested I could sell more paintings if I were to foster a “relationship” with potential customers. You know -  meet for dinner, visit a gallery together, even educating them about art in a subtle way – all the while endearing myself to them and making my paintings irresistible. To me, this seems disingenuous, time consuming, and self-serving.  If a customer and I happen to become friends, that’s great. But my experience has been that some customers who relate to my art don’t necessarily relate to me personally, nor I to them. Frankly, it just seems a bit too “chummy.” And I’m already challenged to find enough studio time. So I’ll stay in my rut, forming a friendship because I really like a person rather than hoping to lure him into becoming a collector of my own art.

Author Robert Reed who wrote “What Sells Your Art?” for the Professional Artist magazine shared that “What people will pay for something is a measure of the pleasure it brings them. “ He goes on to say that sometimes the art brings a story to a viewer. Other times the viewer brings their own story to the art. However that happens, the more personal the story, the stronger the link between a viewer and the piece of art. That makes sense to me. A story, no matter how simple, allows a viewer to make a connection to a painting, and that is what sells artwork.

That reminded me of the experience of my friend Betty a co-owner of an art gallery that represented a popular artist. Every gallery opening for this artist was crowded, with a party atmosphere. The artist spoke with viewers about his work, telling short stories about each painting. Betty overheard a story about a painting the gallery had had for some time. After the event, Betty said, “I never heard the story about that painting before!” The artist smiled and confessed, “People love to hear something that gives meaning to a piece of art, and I sometimes embellish or even invent stories about my paintings.” Invent a story? I would never dare do that for fear I would be asked to repeat it in 6 months – or 5 years! I had better stick to the real deal here, easily remembered and repeated.  

I once spent a hot, dusty afternoon taking photos of local farmers staging an old style threshing demonstration 10 miles from town. I ultimately painted a rear view of three local “threshers” gazing across the fields and displayed it at a local art show.  A man looked at the painting only briefly before announcing, “I want to buy that painting.” I wanted to say “Wait wait! I want to tell you about these men!" Even though he had already said he wanted to buy the painting, I foolishly blurted “You might want to know that these local farmers are…..”  when the buyer interrupted me to say, “This reminds me of my father.” That day I learned that a buyer who finds his own story in my painting doesn’t need to hear mine.  I had nearly spoiled his connection with my painting by imposing my own story.

My efforts to sell are admittedly low-key. I think that a painting often sells itself. A customer will either buy it or not.  It might be best to be available, but stay out of their way. Wheedling, needling, and pleading might well make visitors avoid my space the next time. It seems to me that having good exposure, name recognition, and hanging my best possible work for display is more effective than a sleek sales technique. Being genuine, open, and approachable goes a long way toward putting viewers at ease so they linger at my display and stop again at my next show. In the meantime, I'm going to polish up on my story telling skills.



A friend saw a fleeting glimpse of one of my paintings as it faded away in a slide show on another website. Thinking it was new, he said was anxious to see the painting soon.  His inquiry made me smile, remembering what pleasure it gave me to paint it several years ago as a gift for my step-granddaughter, Amanda, in Florida. My friend will likely never see that painting, so I emailed him with details about it and attached an image, and I’m sharing it with you today.

“Amanda Takes a Cat Nap” is filled with many things "Amanda." She often napped on the sectional couch upholstered with peach brocade.  She would pull an afghan her now deceased grandmother crocheted over herself, covering all but her feet and the messy, but charming top-of-the-head ponytail poking out of a pink scrunchy. Pink was Amanda’s favorite color at that time - pink flip flops, pink nail polish, a pink scrunchy, and a pink cell phone.

Amanda is the consummate lover of animals – all animals. I admit that I can’t bring myself to share her fondness for tarantellas, or salamanders. I once saw her cry when a tadpole in her terrarium gave it up. I did appreciate the rabbits Amanda kept in a hutch at the side of the house. The list of family pets has, of course, changed due to natural attrition. But Amanda’s parents have been generous, allowing her to have one (sometimes two?) dogs and multiple housecats as part of the menagerie. The backgrounds of the various cats has always amused me.

Since this family has a long working connection with Disney World, many of their pets have Disney character names. Baghera, named after the black panther in Lion King, was the only black kitten in a litter that would simply have added too many cats to the household, so the family was finding homes for kittens near Halloween. They decided to keep the black one for fear someone would take him only as a Halloween prop and that he would come to a bad end once Halloween was over.

As an adult Baghera is the silkiest cat I've ever petted. He seems to have a fetish that amuses us. Near bedtime he feigns being aloof while he actually stakes out the joint, watching and waiting for my daughter-in-law Debbie to pull the scrunchy out of her hair and toss it on the coffee table. Baghera doesn't give himself away though. He waits until everyone has gone to bed and the lights are out before he nabs that scrunchy and audibly races all over the house, tossing the scrunchy here and there, rubbing his face on it, lying on his back smooching it. Yes, we've spied on him. He is in LOVE with anything scrunchy, and meows and purrs to it suggestively in private. Imagining what he is really saying to this scrunchy has given us a lot of laughs.

Then there are Otter and Potter. Disney there. They family allowed then little Mark E to name these cats purported to be twins. I myself have wondered how they can deduce that two cats in a litter are twins, but yes, they looked remarkably alike except that one cat had a most unusual feature - crossed eyes!

And regal Arthur was named after the Disney character King Arthur. This cat was very large.. When Mark E was born they laid him on the floor in his blanket and Arthur stretched out beside him for a nap. The pictures of this show that Arthur was appreciably bigger than the baby! Uh- maybe we should pick up the baby? Arthur could have ripped other household pets to shreds. Of course he never did any such thing, but his size made him impressive.

Equally impressive in size is the family parrot that measures 36" from the top of his crest to the end of his tail. He lives in a floor cage and I have no doubt if he were to bite a finger he would do serious injury. He converts a wood spoon to slivers in under 5 minutes for entertainment! So it was most amusing to me to find that Merlin (yes, the Disney Magician) learned to shout “Aaaaaarthur......AAAARTHUR!" in a threatening voice. Followed by a quiet "Heeeer kitty kitty kitty......" that was even more menacing.  Arthur is no longer with us, but Merlin still calls him.

There was also Anna, a smallish calico cat that had many litters of kittens. Dear Anna was such a love that we were all angered and saddened when it seemed that someone had abused her in some way. Amanda suspected kids on the way home from school had grabbed her by the tail and swing her around a few dozen times. Anna was injured badly, and could never hold her tail up again. Happily, other than that, she seemed to recover well and lived a very long cat life.

All of these cats and Amanda's white poodle Boo are in the painting with her. But when Amanda moved to her own space several years ago, she left her painting in her mom's house, knowing  how much her mom Debbie, who clearly loves the painting as much as Amanda does.  Debbie is a very giving person, never thinking of herself. She seldom gives me any idea of what she might like as a Christmas gift. But this year she told me her fondest desire was to have a reproduction of "Amanda Takes a Cat Nap." That it means that much to her pleased me, and she got her wish..

For those of you who ask me where I get the ideas for my paintings? This is but one example.


An Eight Value Plan

Fellow watercolorist and friend Judy and I have worked long and hard assigning values to squares in a grid as we prepare a painting project we will direct during an Interactive Art Evening on First Friday at Rehfeld's Gallery in Sioux Falls. We hope many visitors will paticipate in this group painting.

We will not reveal the subject of this painting, expecting that the image will reveal itself to gallery guests as ever more square inches are painted during the two hours of the artists' reception that evening. In order to make certain we have assignmed values that will indeed make the subject of the artwork apparent, Judy and I decided to first make a pattern 1/4 the size of the real deal. We squinted at it often as we worked on it. Once it was nearly finished, one of us sat across the room for a distant view while the other tweaked the values of selected squares to refine the image. We were at last satisfied. The finished piece of art will measure 40 inches high x 60 inches wide.

Judy and I both showw our work at Rehfelds' Gallery, and will be featured artists at that evening, bringing some of our most recent work to add to our displays during the event. We find guests are always interested in our work, and hope they will also be willing to add their own marks to the collaborative art project. One goal while planning tihs project was to make participation simple enough that virtually everyone would be willing to pitch in. Each shape will be numbered to correspond to numbered pens, so it should be foolproof.

Our newest paintings are nearly ready for display, and our pattern to the interactive painting is complete. It only remains for us to enlarge the grid to 2,400 square inches and accurately number each to indicate which value each square inch is to be.

I've provided more information about Interactive Art Night at Rehfeld's Gallery under the heading "Gallery Representation and Shows" on this website.

Please join us on March 1.