Comic strip, freebie, + 7 things people say to painters

Here’s a web extra for everyone: my comic strip for the Missoula Independent’s annual Comix Issue. It’s in last week’s paper, plus it’s on display at Zootown Brew for the rest of May, along with a dozen or so others. But if you live far away:

I had a hard time with the theme, “Alternative Missoula Facts,” because 1) Must everything always be about Missoula? and 2) Must everything always be about politics? But eventually, I came up with the idea of creating an alternative female-centric history of a few local place names, illustrated it, and sent it in. It’s not my greatest idea ever, but I tried to make up for it with execution.

I urge y’all to check out all the comics in this issue. There are some great ones! Whimsical, unexpected and super-well-drawn. They’re online here.

Next up:

Potsketch is a benefit auction for the Clay Studio of Missoula. They really have fun with this event. They dress up in costumes and auction off big ceramic pieces– terrifyingly, volunteers prance between the tables, often in high heels, carrying the invaluable vase or whatever raised high above their heads. They also commission fifty or so local artists to create 5″ x 5″ drawings vaguely centered on the theme of pottery. These “potsketches” are sold in a silent auction while everyone’s munching crudites. (You can view this year’s amazing potsketches here.)

This year, I was excited to contribute a piece, a watercolor I called Lil Guy with Teacup:

I was painting at another job all day before the gala, and ran into the women’s room in the fifteen minutes between events, to speed-change and hope that nobody actually needed to use it for, say, peeing. I shucked off my paint-spattered grubbies and slipped into my wedding dress (hey, it’s multipurpose), a cardigan, and some flats, Cinderella-style but without the flowing locks. Then I hopped into the F150 and zoomed over to the University Ballroom.

I’ve been practicing detachment when I give items to charity events, ever since the humiliating experience of watching EVERY. OTHER. THING. sell except my art and some decrepit printer from 1994. But I do let myself enjoy it when things go well. That night, my little art piece got three bids, topping off at a $70 donation to the Clay Studio. So Lil Guy is now in an unknown person’s home, which is a satisfying mystery.

I thought that was it for my Potsketch contribution, but then the woman I randomly sat next to turned out to be a friendly, cool teacher at Willard, our town’s alternative high school. She had fallen for Lil Guy, but didn’t bid in time. “You know, I painted a bunch of studies for that piece,” I said. “Would you like one?” Yes! And that’s how Lil Guy #2 found a home. Bonus: the teacher wanted to pay me, but I demurred, so instead, she donated some money to the Clay Studio. I brought the painting to her classroom and had the chance to meet her students, who were the most welcoming group of teens I’ve had the pleasure of meeting. They even showed me their own artwork. 

A couple of days later, I got an email from her, mentioning that her friend, who was also at Potsketch, also loved Lil Guy. I’ve got more, I replied, let’s keep this diaspora flowing! So Lil Guy #3 went to live with the friend, and may eventually lead to an illustration gig down the road… fingers crossed. ūüôā

J. had also spoken for one of the Lil Guys, the one that I call Accidental Milhouse. See if you can spot him:

That Lil Guy is going to be framed and hang out on J.’s desk at Scariano Construction.

But did you notice: there’s still one more, the blue-hued Guy in the upper left. Want him? First person to contact me gets him for free!


On a similarly light note… I spend a lot of time on ladders and dropcloths in public places where people walk by and speak their minds. 99% of the time, I love this public element of window painting. The most common utterances are along the lines of “Good job!” and “Wow!” –gratifying, but uninteresting as list items. So I bring you…

Things people say to me, or about me, while I’m painting

(Responses, spoken or only imagined, in parentheses.)

  1. Do you ever misspell a word? (#1 most common question. Answer: not yet.)
  2. Mommy, what’s that boy doing? (This one makes me grin.)
  3. Can I help? (I would love to let you, little girl, but your parents would not enjoy the laundry afterward.)
  4. Can I touch it? [pretends to stick a finger in the paint] Ha ha ha! (You are a real Seinfeld, buddy.)
  5. Are you gonna make it look just like the pattern, little lady? (Yes. Yes, I am. And I doubt you would have questioned my ability if I were a man holding this paintbrush.)
  6. Careful on that ladder! (Again, something I doubt anybody would say to a man.)
  7. Did you know you smile when you paint? (Aww, that’s great! It’s partly squinting, but I’ll take it as a compliment.)


Lastly, some exciting news: I’m going to San Francisco next week, to take the Introduction to Brush Lettering workshop at New Bohemia Signs,!

Ughhhh, I want to be able to do this! So beautiful…

I applied for and received a grant from the Montana Department of Labor, via the Small Business Development Center, to help me take this trip. (Small businesspeople, I highly recommend meeting up with these folks! It’s free and so helpful!)

It may surprise you to learn that I know next to nothing about brush lettering, despite having done it professionally for years. Back in Georgia, when Jo Knox was teaching me her craft of window and sign art, she tried to teach me lettering with the quill brush, but I couldn’t get it somehow, so my lettering is completely self-taught. I don’t know how to mix the paints… how to palette the brush… how to draw a perfect circle, make a layout, what to hold my mineral spirits in, how to store my brushes in motor oil without getting grease on everything… the list is very long!

So I’m going to unlearn a bunch of habits, and try to pick up some new ones, plus absorb as many tricks of the trade as possible. It’s going to be challenging, and fun! I’ll come home with a new brush and a few beginner signs… and, I promise, photos to follow.

Enjoy spring, everyone!

Monsters and Spacemen

First off… as promised, here’s a copy of the comic strip that ran in the Missoulian‘s Comix Issue:

If you’d like to see¬†the rest of the comics, here is a link to the full issue online. I heard from an¬†editor of the Missoulian that the Hip Replacement Strip was one of people’s favorites. Given that many¬†of the comics¬†bent toward doom and gloom, thanks to the theme of “Missoula in the Future,” that’s less of a surprise. But still gratifying! And I loved having my strip next to that of Theo Ellsworth, whose super-creative illustrations are the bee’s knees.


In other news, it’s time to get furry, drooly and unintelligibly excited, because here comes the…

And who doesn’t love Monters?! [sic]
From the ZACC website…¬†“Originally conceived by nine year-old Asa Smetanka, this show is a collaboration between children and adult artists, working together to create monster art¬Ě based on monsters dreamed up by the children. Kindergarten classes from three Missoula County public schools will create original monster and assigned local adult artists will ¬†interpret the¬†child’s monster using his/her own unique style and medium. The results will be displayed in a September 9th, 2016, art show, featuring both the original child-drawn monsters and the artists.

“This project’s purpose is to bring more art into the public schools! In an effort to foster that, a minimum 50% of the earnings from this show will go towards bringing MCPS (Missoula County Public School) kids to the ZACC for art classes.”

So cool. As¬†one of this year’s adult artists, this¬†is my match, a¬†monster in need of a friend:


“Here are some facts about Monster 79: My monster likes to play with other monsters, feels like playing in the dirt, eats earrings, and thinks about playing in garbage.”

Oh fer cryin’ out loud. That is freakin’ adorable. How can I ever create a worthy pal to this rainbow rocket of teeth? My work is cut out for me.

By the way, it’s not too late to get in on the action, if you’re a Missoulian! Here’s a link to the art call. Have fun!


On the side,¬†I’m taking a “Drawing for Fun” class from Bob Phinney at the Lifelong Learning Center. He makes us draw something every day, so I’ve sketched¬†landscapes, Little League games, still lifes¬†(which I then¬†eat), and diners¬†in the GFS deli. (That last spot¬†is a great place to practice drawing from memory, wherein you look at your¬†subject for one¬†moment, then blink and let the after-image burn into your eyelids, then rapidly sketch as much as you can remember. Because nobody likes it if you¬†sit in the corner with a sketch pad and stare at people.)

A lot of the class¬†concerns¬†perspective drawing, something that generally comes easily to me. I finally¬†realize why:¬†as a kindergartener, I learned¬†the 3D drawing principles of foreshortening, shading, contour, surface, size, overlapping, and density… from, god help us, TV. It was a PBS show called The Secret City, starring a dude in a fake spacesuit, who called himself Commander Mark. Anybody remember it?

I sent away for the special kit with a cube eraser, some pencils, and a little guidebook. I think it was seven dollars. As a result, though I did not draw many monsters, I drew an awful lot of robots. It was a solid investment: despite not having formal art instruction until taking a couple post-bac classes at the University of Montana, I was on firm ground as a renderer.

The gaps, of course, were design and content. Pretty big gaps that I could spend my whole life trying to fill! That is the curse and the beauty of a good vocation. The more you learn, the more unknown spaces open up before you in every direction.


Finally, the latest sign work, a logo on the exterior of the new Drum Coffee on South Ave:

8 drum coffee complete

This is one cool coffee shop. They have a turntable and were spinning classic R&B and Prince while they brewed. The in-house bakers make delicious brioche and other pastries. The staff is awesome and took great care of me on the beautiful spring day when I was painting. This assignment was a new challenge, as it was on rather textured siding, eight to ten feet up. I decided to give myself a break and have Staples make me a giant printout to use as a template.

2 drum pattern
Is this cheating?

I cut out the shapes bit by bit and traced them onto the siding with a pencil. I washed the wall, then used Sherwin Williams Resilience paint in Toque White to fill everything in. Here are the results from below:

7 drum complete
Although at this point, “Coffee” still needs its second coat of paint.

Next challenge:¬†delicate, two-toned logos on curved oak barrels for the North of Broadway shops… and, of course, a certain¬†monster. Stay tuned!


Comix at Clyde Coffee

You know that test in elementary school, the one the teacher hands out when she has a half hour to kill and a told-you-so lesson to deliver? It’s only a page long, but the whole page is filled with¬†instructions, cross off this word and circle that one, sharpen your pencil, draw lines around paragraphs, etc. Instruction #1 is “Read all the instructions before you begin,” and the last instruction is “Ignore instructions #2-#18. Just sign your name at the top and hand your paper to the teacher.”

Well, I fell for it. Not in first grade, where I aced it, but just now. Often in social media culture, we only share the flattering. But not here. Thus¬†follows a comedy of errors, one hail-mary success, and an¬†upcoming¬†gallery opening. Oh… and a hornswoggling case of mistaken identity. (Spoiler: I actually¬†did not¬†meet R Crumb last month!)

So. A few weeks ago, my friend Karin forwarded me¬†a¬†call for artists’ submissions for the third annual Comix Issue of¬†our local indie paper, the¬†Missoula Independent. The Comix Issue is fun and well-read, featuring the art of lots of local heavy-hitter artists, as well as newcomers. Exciting! Gotta do it!¬†As my head hit the¬†pillow that night, my mind trawled dreamland for an idea. And it arrived —¬†at 3 am. (Why do they always¬†come at the cost of a good night’s¬†sleep? Ah well: worth it.)

Next morning, I laid out my story¬†in the precisely¬†specified dimensions, worked out rhymes,¬†sourced images, sketched a draft, sketched the final, and was just about to ink it… when I went back and read the directions.

All of them.

That’s when I discovered there is a theme¬†to this year’s issue: “Missoula in the Future.” What? How did I miss that? It was even¬†in Josh Quick’s¬†banner illustration:

Yeah, but that text is tiny, right?
Yeah, but that text is tiny!

My strip was a (non-morbid) story about the gravesites¬†of our four pet rats… charming, but definitely¬†not in the¬†future. I was back to square one, except now with only a day left before the deadline.

Fortunately, my brain netted two more ideas. I scrawled them out and field-tested them on my parents and my sweetie. One idea flopped despicably with everyone:

This isn't the whole thing, but suffice to say it made exactly zero sense.
This isn’t the whole thing, but suffice to say it made exactly zero sense.

The other got a thumbs-up from J., and crickets¬†from my folks, who are the toughest¬†crowd ever. So I went with it, even though it was a single gag panel, and not (as the submission guidelines further specified) a story with multiple panels. This way, I figured, at least I’d be rejected because they didn’t like my idea, not because I didn’t enter.

Amazingly, neither outcome resulted — the comic was accepted! Look for it in¬†the Comix Issue of the Missoula Independent, which will¬†hit the racks this¬†Thursday, May 5, and on the wall at¬†Clyde Coffee‘s gallery opening on First Friday, May 6 from 5-8 pm. Clyde is a great little spot on the Hip Strip, known for its avocado toast and locally roasted coffee.¬†It’s an extra¬†appropriate venue because the subject of my comic is the Hip Strip itself… which,¬†yes, I am only going to tease¬†for now. A¬†little suspense never killed anyone! Here’s a tiny excerpt from one corner of the first¬†sketch, which I actually forgot to include in the final strip, making this a web exclusive:

And maybe if I’m lucky, next year’s Comix Issue theme will be “pets” or “memories” or something I can use…


Aaaaand now the confession:

I did not meet R Crumb.

I thought I did, for three solid weeks. I could barely get to sleep that night, and the next day, I told practically everyone I knew about it. I blogged about it. I was so jazzed.

Until¬†last Thursday, when J. and I were downtown and decided to check out the¬†art once more. We waltzed into the DDC, and I noticed something I hadn’t noticed before: every piece of art was signed “Rich Lande.” Now, when Crumb had introduced himself as “Rich,” I figured that was a nickname for Robert. And I figured the show was under the radar because R Crumb is totally not a gallery art person. But was it perhaps too much that when we Googled Rich Lande we got a biography that included a birthplace of Missoula, and graduation from a school of illustration in 1989–far too late for R Crumb? Why would he manufacture those details, and actually sign the art with a pseudonym? Oh $#!+…

It turns out that when I walked in and assumed the blues and jazz portraits on the walls were the work of R Crumb, and turned to John and said, “Whoa, wouldn’t it be wild if R Crumb himself were here?” …John instead heard something like “Whoa, wouldn’t it be wild if the artist himself were here?” So his reply of “He’s right over there” instantly catapulted me into an alternate reality, in which I dwelled for a jolly long time.

This explains why “R Crumb” looked nothing like his self portraits. And all the things I did not say, in order not to be an annoying fangirl (referring to his most common works, mentioning his fame, etc.) also served to keep things vague enough that the truth did not come out.

So, ha ha. Funny, a little sad, a little embarrassing. John did say that Rich is a big fan of Crumb and works in the same vein, but still– I’m sheepish¬†that I did not discern¬†immediately that the works were not Crumb’s.

But here’s the thing. For three weeks, I derived as much pleasure from the deceit that I had gotten to talk with R Crumb as if I actually had. This echoes the¬†issue of forgery vs authenticity in art itself. Countless collectors proudly display art that brings them great joy–and which is not really what they believe it is. There’s plenty of murky morality in the business of counterfeiting art. One guy spent years making and selling forgeries and donated his proceeds to charity! That’s rare, but this episode of Shankar Vedantham’s Hidden Brain, goes into the psychology of more common fakery, and its effect upon connoisseurs.

Of course, Rich Lande is a real person who is making real art. He never represented himself as anyone else. The counterfeiting occurred in my head. That’s what makes it extra interesting: the art¬†never changed. So here’s a proposal:¬†maybe I should continue to relish¬†the experience of meeting one of my art idols. Maybe deception and reality can coexist, and as long as we are aware of the tricks of our minds, we can derive enjoyment and encouragement from both. What do you¬†think?

One thing’s for sure: somewhere, Rich Lande is walking around believing he has one hell of a¬†fan.

Starstruck / the path from here

Disclaimer:¬†It turns out I did not actually meet R Crumb! In a¬†bizarre case of mistaken identity, I was¬†fully convinced for several weeks that Montana artist Rich Lande was R Crumb. You can read about that foolishness here. But you should still totally check out Crumb! He’s awesome!


When you unexpectedly meet a celebrity, do you immediately think of what not to say? Such as…

  1. Can I take your picture?
  2. Can I have your autograph?
  3. Oh my god, you are just so great, I can’t even believe¬†you’re standing here, like, you’re unreal, gush gush gush…
  4. Oh man, I love [that long-distant thing that the person is known for and that they are probably extremely tired of hearing about].
  5. Hey, will you [sing/do an impression/perform like a trained monkey]?

It is much harder to think of what would not be stupid and annoying. This is on my mind because on April Fool’s Day, I met R Crumb. (If you are also my Facebook friend, you may have witnessed my explosive gushing about the evening. Sorry.) If you are not familiar with R Crumb, well, you surprise me – I thought everyone knew his work. He’s one of the founders of the underground comics movement, and a fine illustrator and artist. You may remember him as the creator of Fritz the Cat, Mr. Natural, and that ubiquitous “Keep on truckin'” t-shirt (the mention of which would probably fall under What Not to Say #4).

Everybody’s seen this, right?


In fact, the gigantic, locally owned health food store where I work was originally a tiny, hippie, health food¬†co-op known as Mr. Natural’s Good Food Store. His illustrations of Edward Abbey’s “The Monkey Wrench Gang” are sheer perfection, if you can find a rare copy – most editions, inexplicably, are text only. Lately he has made a serious graphic art version of the entire Book of Genesis. If you are curious, DO NOT google his images¬†at work, because a lot of¬†it is obscene. Do, however,¬†watch the movies Crumb and¬†American Splendor.

So, on First Friday, April 1, I was strolling past the Downtown Dance Collective and noticed that the lights were on and the place was¬†full of R Crumb original ink portraits of jazz and blues musicians. Weird. That venue wasn’t even listed as having an opening this month. There were only about seven people inside.

I spotted a guy I know¬†and said, “Hey, wouldn’t it be wild if R Crumb were here?” …and John says, “He’s right over there.”

I have to scrape myself off the ceiling. He is one of my art idols. I will kick myself forever if I don’t say hello, but all I can think of is What Not to Say. So¬†I just¬†look at the drawings¬†and pretend not to be having an aneurysm.

When I finally¬†summon the courage, he is very nice. “Hi, I’m Rich,” he says. He looks nothing like his self portraits, which often depict him as miserable. He’s laughing and talking with friends. We¬†talk about art and paper and jazz and hand-made stuff. I ask him about some thin goop on his portraits¬†that looks like white-out. He uses fine point Sharpies, nothing fancy. On a large scale, india ink with sable brushes. Sonny Boy Williamson’s¬†portrait, he shows me, is drawn on the back of the piece of glossy paper that comes with a ready-made frame – the page with the happy family printed on it. That kind of paper is less porous. Why let it go to waste?

He drew these musicians’ portraits so people will know where¬†the music came from. Everything comes back around, he says. We just don’t know how long it’ll take. I tell him that I paint windows and I have noticed that although vinyl sticker signs are convenient and popular, a lot of people want something that looks like a person actually touched it at some point. “Yes! Human¬†DNA!” he says. He’s hopeful for the future of hand-made. “Never give up!” he says. Awesome.

So perhaps R Crumb is not a celebrity by most standards.¬†But it was a thrilling evening for me.¬†And if you’re in town, his work is up for the rest of April and May – worth a look!


In other news, within two weeks, my main squeeze J. will be hitting the trail. Heading from the Mexican border to the Canadian border via the Continental Divide Trail. It’ll take him about four months, god willin’. He is¬†so excited and¬†ready to go, it is nearly intolerable. But it is also hard to give him up!

Deep in the planning stages.

Maybe I should include a bit about his progress when I write. It is likely that he won’t be keeping a trail journal of his own. He loves the privacy and undiluted solitude of long-distance, wilderness hiking. I think it is a joy for him to just live it, and a chore for him to write, though his writing is fine. So¬†perhaps I will spill what I hear. And he has promised to photograph some wildflowers…

Thus I’ll be¬†on a journey of my own this summer. My own solitude, albeit surrounded by friends and cityfolk. Missing one’s sweetheart sounds like great fodder for art, no?

Also a chance to hog the kitchen table even more than I already do.
Plus a chance to hog the kitchen table even more than I already do.

I plan to join him for two weeks along the way, as well as personally deliver a passel of delicious care packages once he hits Yellowstone and points north.

Au revoir, intrepid Zippy Morocco! May your hike be beautiful and amazing.


P.S. One more goodbye: the Brink Gallery is closing. What a gem it was! Not intimidating or stuffy or jargony, just friendly and fresh, and whoever chose the exhibitors was willing to go out on limbs. A person may not always like what’s in the Brink, but it is always interesting. I guess the woman who runs it wants to do art of her own, and now she will get her chance. I had very privately dreamed of one day having a piece in a group show there. That will not be happening – except that in a very minor way, it will: If you visit the Brink this month, you’ll see stacks of self-addressed, blank postcards. Take one, make something, send it back. All the returned postcards (Postcards to the Brink, ha ha) hang in the window, spinning slowly as the air moves.¬†So I took one home and inked a panther slinking off the edge, out from behind bars of dripped watercolor paint. “Slink off to stalk your passions.”

It’s not too late for you to get in on the action!

A riot of spring windows

Spring has sprung in Montana: yellowbells bloom on the stark crown of Waterworks Hill, western meadowlarks trill from every country fencepost. Baby lupine leaves and baby bluebell buds unfurl toward the sun.

To go along with this, here’s a crop of new art, made much kinder to paint by the longer days. Somehow every window I’ve painted in the past month has been botanical in one way or another. I think Montanans are thirsting for life after the winter…

cloth_crown_bothCloth & Crown is an upscale, downtown clothing boutique. The staff is 100% lithe, long-limbed and glossy-haired, to which I am an amusing contrast, blundering around with dropcloths and step ladders, bundled in four layers of baggy, spattered clothing. The owner adores succulents Рthere are clever pots of them all about the store, and a window box hanging outside Рso I had real models for these borders.

(As a glimpse into the process, here are the sketches I gave her for this job:

Please ignore the inkblot. Darn leaky Rapidograph...
Please ignore the inkblot.

Four possibilities, each depicted in half a window. I always give options, even if the client has something very specific in mind. At least half the time, they end up going with something slightly different, or upgrading to a more whimsical or elaborate design. The client can pick one option, or combine favorite elements from multiple panels– in this case, she chose the inner¬†contour¬†of design #1, but with the dense coverage of design #2.¬†Sketching isn’t public or glamorous, but I enjoy the¬†brainstorming and detail work it involves.)

Then Rich at R. P. Ellis Fine Jewelry asked¬†me to springify¬†his displays. It began snowing half an hour in, and intensified to the point of soaking by the end. Brrr!¬†But these glacier lilies, violets, bunchberries and trillium can’t possibly freeze:

That’s¬†a trick I learned from Jo Knox: always paint in¬†particular. No generic forms. Though it requires more research and time, three joys result. One, those who¬†know biology will appreciate the references, little inside jokes, wink wink!¬†Two, even those who don’t recognize the forms will still perceive¬†greater quality and variety. And three, it is a chance for¬†me as an amateur naturalist¬†to study¬†and remember each kind. Bingo.

Next, it was time for my winter painting on the following window, a snowlady with a bluebird on her branch, to come down. Janae at Très Chic wanted something floral but not green, as her interiors are already extremely limey. So: stylized poppies, outlined in metallic silver.

Poppies... poppies will make her chic!
Poppies… poppies will make her chic!

And finally, a couple Grand Opening windows for the new store Copperopolis, which is an interior decorating store bursting with elaborate, ever-blooming (that is to say, faux) floral arrangements. So I painted a few more faux flora to add to the deception: arrowleaf balsamroot, which will perhaps be blooming somewhere by April 15-16.


For my own pleasure, I’ve been painting little watercolors¬†of flowers from that thrilling read, the Alfred A. Knopf National Audubon Society Field Guide to Wildflowers, Western Region:

Desert poppy
Desert poppy
Shooting star, sierra primrose
Shooting star, sierra primrose

Having done six¬†of them, I¬†decided that much more field research is in order. Meaning… get out there and hike around, breathe it in, stare at the sky, and the dirt, and everything in between! Ol√©!

P.S. One more spring exuberance, though the painting is not new… here’s the ZWAP! logo put to good use as a backdrop for a crop of¬†freshly trained¬†Zero Waste Ambassadors. They all get to sign the wall after the class.

Also, goofballs.

Sequins and buoys

Full of nerves, I slunk into my outfit for the ZACC benefit gala. Why oh why did I sign up to attend a fancy dinner and art auction all by myself?

Because I’d meet more people without J.¬†at my side to whisper with¬†all night, that’s why. And because not going was not an option: venturing past¬†the edge of social comfort is important, just to remind us that we never really outgrow adolescence. Awkwardness means something’s happening. I had donated a piece of art that they had accepted into the silent auction, and wanted to see its destiny. And I wanted to learn a bit more about the Missoula art world. (Little did I know that not long after, I’d have another opportunity to feel socially inept, this time meeting one of my art idols, totally unannounced and serendipitously… but more on that next time!)

So far, I’ve mostly steered clear of the gallery scene, except for looking at other people’s art. Trying to “get in,” navigating egos at play, networking in loud, small spaces, knowing the vocabulary that makes one sound with-it… not my fort√© nor my interest. To boot, it’s an incredibly hard way to make a living as an artist, probably even harder than¬†hawking one’s goods¬†alongside fifty other people hawking goods at the People’s Market every summer Saturday. Supply and demand: the former far outstrips the latter.

But community is important. The fellowship of other artists and lovers of the arts is a string of buoys in a choppy sea. I believe we can all help one another, and rejoice at each other’s successes. Community, feedback, collaboration:¬†antidotes to burnout and other ills. So I signed up. And suited up.

Emi from work loaned me a fabulous dress that she owns thanks to her second career as a blueswoman, and Secret Seconds, the best thrift store in town (it benefits the programs of the YWCA), provided the accessories: my very first clutch, and a pair of remarkably comfy heels. From JoAnn Fabrics I obtained a length of silver cord for a headband, and sewed a fake poppy over one ear. And there it was: flapper for less than $15.


J. said I looked like Olive Oyl, in an affectionate way, and he was nice enough to be my chauffeur. It occurred to me as we neared the Wilma Theater that perhaps this was not a dress-up event. Was I gonna be the only person in sequins? I had just resolved to let my freak flag fly, when I saw people in expensive-looking outfits headed for the door. Whew.

Like a benevolent fairy godmother, whoever did the seating arrangement put all the artists together. This way, the high rollers who wanted to bid on sumptuous dessert platters as a table wouldn’t be dragged down by people trying to stretch dimes… and by people who have enough dimes, but still could think of several better uses for 400 of them than as a trade for¬†a couple of Le Petit Outre blueberry tartlets with spun sugar bird’s-nests on top, delicious as those might be. Even better, the clustering of artists, each of whom had donated a work to the silent auction, allowed us to meet one another. So, may I introduce my tablemates…

Ashley Mitchell, who crafted an adorable monster party scene made of felted animals sharing a felted pizza in the felted woods. The Clay Studio of Missoula sculptor Richard Smith, also unrepentantly attending alone. Candice Haster, whose date was her mother, and who seems to work in every medium, from clay to paper to cake:

candice_hasterAnd Lillian Nelson, who paints along wood grain to stunning effect:


I managed¬†to stay¬†detached from the fate¬†of my piece– another prerequisite for stepping near the flames of competitive fine art. It¬†did sell, to Candice, who bought it as a surprise for her mother, who had expressed a yen for¬†it just before we¬†met. Very sweet. I observed that¬†whether a work sold, or whether¬†a bidding war erupted over it, didn’t necessarily correlate¬†with its quality. A¬†gorgeous painting of light-shot glass marbles, mounted in a shadow box with a¬†real marble, did not receive a single bid. And of course anything with a bison on it or in the shape of Montana sold easily. That is the artistic equivalent of the culinary shortcut of¬†smothering something in¬†cheese or¬†bacon: not every dish¬†employing¬†such tricks¬†is bad, but even¬†if it is, nobody can resist it.

So we ate¬†catered dinner (tastefully not smothered in cheese or bacon) and watched other¬†folks bid on artwork, desserts, and vacation¬†getaways. Lillian’s fellow held up his paddle for the first bid a few times, just for the thrill. He was bound to be outbid, but why not play the game? I wandered¬†upstairs and found a¬†photobooth where happy couples were mugging. And why not play that game too? Who cares if it’s just me – I’ll¬†celebrate¬†the empty space to my left:


And then the volunteers whisked away the dishes, and the artworks¬†were packed up and paid for and taken away¬†to their new homes, and that was that. I texted J. to collect me, and was glad to kick off my heels and put on a sweater. Charity gala auctions aren’t my idea of fun, but I’m glad I went. I don’t know that I made any unsinkable friends, but the energy’s flowing¬†in the right direction. Baby steps¬†into the uncomfortable, sequins and all.

Village of dreams, city of colors

The Red Rooster is a shop¬†in Missoula’s¬†historic downtown, in an old building with creaky floorboards. There’s a hidden door to the basement, Harry Potter style, where I stash my paints and dream of the passageways and sidewalk vaults of¬†historic Underground Missoula. The store itself brims¬†with fine¬†housewares¬†arranged in pyramids¬†of formidable¬†height and balance. Who¬†is the patron saint of not being a bull in a china shop? Props to that saint:¬†it’s amazing that I don’t¬†shatter anything while carrying ladders back and forth, wider than usual in¬†four layers of painter’s clothes, or opening and closing the¬†hidden door, upon which hang about two hundred kitchen implements that chime more or less gently as one passes through.

Kim, Janae and Heather, the owner and employees, are a¬†creative, enthusiastic and friendly trio. Kim¬†hired¬†me to¬†paint a Beatrix Potter-style scene advertising their spring extravaganza, which–¬†I cannot even describe what they’ve done, but I’ll try. The shop is a world within a world. In every nook, there’s a¬†fully decorated miniature cottage in woodland style, with woodland denizens, each themed and detailed down to the tiny letter in the tiny post box. The roofs are thatch or twig or faux grass. In the big window, a four-foot tree house spreads its limbs, well-read¬†mice relaxing¬†within its plush library. Children can¬†visit and search for treasures, but I’m pretty sure adults would find it just as fascinating. It’s the closest thing Missoula may have to¬†the Thorne Miniature Rooms at the Chicago Museum of Art. Here’s a sample (click to enlarge):

IMG_20160303_122923126 IMG_20160302_172501034_HDR IMG_20160303_122905957

It’s even¬†more cunning¬†in person. (Viz.: the rabbit artist is painting a human nude. Touch√©.) Red Rooster will be open late for First Friday, so if you’re local, stop in during the¬†gallery crawl. The display¬†is¬†also visible during¬†regular business hours for¬†the following dates:


And. On the opposite¬†end of the spectrum from Victorian miniatures:¬†Red Rooster is also adjacent to¬†the Oxford Bar, a.k.a. the Ox, probably the diviest bar in Missoula. So while painting, I was a fly on the wall (an artisan on the ladder?) by¬†the Ox’s regular cast of the¬†troubled, the wandering, the addicted: a slew of¬†coughing humans¬†taking¬†shifts on its smoking bench, set kindly below an awning to keep off chilly rain. An astonishing¬†number¬†of scarred-lung¬†loogies were retched up and deposited on the pavement.

The men and women¬†chatted about where one¬†could sleep for a few nights without the sheriff finding one¬†and flushing one¬†from the bushes. They riffed on DUIs, grudges, long-ago origin stories.¬†There were occasional shouts¬†and slurs, but they¬†were kind to me. Maybe people respect an artist in working¬†clothes? The Oxfordians ambled over, wafting¬†second-hand smoke, and literally watched the paint dry. Many¬†people shared stories about their own¬†art, often with much (justifiable) pride. One guy learned horsehair¬†weaving in prison, making belts and headdresses. Another man¬†insisted upon gifting me a can of auto glass cleaner to help keep the windows nice.¬†The harshest jibe I got was “I hate to break it to ya, man, but that ain’t no rooster!” as I put the finishing touches on Jemima Puddleduck.



There were other passerby, too, the most charming of whom were a posse of Japanese foreign exchange students. They scarcely spoke English, but there was ample pointing, laughing, cooing, and photo ops. I like to imagine people looking at this small storefront halfway around the world. What a wide palette of experiences and challenges this work brings! Very grateful for the opportunities.

Next up is Cloth & Crown, the clothing boutique on the other side of Red Rooster, which requests borders resembling cascades of succulents. Another fun gig, surely involving more fascinating company, both inside and out!

P.S. A lot of you, especially out-of-towners, asked for a full view of “Water Fable,” the piece that was in the ZACC’s Art Activism show, so here it is:


The opening¬†was fun: a lively crowd filled the ZACC that¬†night, gazing at the artworks and visiting the companion show of art¬†against¬†domestic violence. The rooms brimmed with¬†improvisational dance, wine, music, and t-shirt silk-screening. Hence¬†my splattered old paint shirt now sports¬†a snazzy logo… though I realize that I gave it¬†to Patricia inside-out. Ah well: that means it will look just right¬†reflected in glass!

Free spirits and spectators

There’s a Sesame Street segment from back in the 1970s, maybe even the early 60s:

Children paint alphabet letters and animals on glass, and enthusiastically discuss the results. The camera films from the other side of the glass, so the kid watching from home sees not only the painting, but the child’s face and arm painting it.

As a five-year-old, I was entranced. (As an adult, I am also in love with that girl’s awesome cat-eye specs.) The transparency, watching forms appear midair, brush bristles wet and creamy with color, sliding around, only mostly controlled. I loved art already, but assumed that painting on glass was a craft reserved for children who lived in the magical world of TV.

That skit didn’t cross my mind for years, until the day I was gliding a rigger loaded with One-Shot in loops across a wide, clean, plate-glass window, and saw a kid looking through from the inside, transfixed. This happens all the time now… and not just with kids.

The spectator sport element is one of my favorite parts of being a window artist. It’s immediately rewarding, as passersby exclaim approval, strike up conversations, or watch quietly while trying to avoid my noticing that they are watching. (Doesn’t work, guys: glass reflects!)

This last foggy Friday, I was painting a Valentine’s scene of bluebirds unfurling heart-shaped ribbons around the jewelry display cases at R.P. Ellis Fine Jewelry. The store is right downtown, next to a peculiarly Missoulian institution, the coffeehouse/tchotchke shop/alterna-hangout, Butterfly Herbs. It was the perfect spot for engaging the early morning culture of Higgins Ave.

First came Paris, a Deadhead-looking guy in his sixties, sharing stories of traveling the USA with his buddies. “Just a couple of Fitch brushes in my pocket, and when we ran outta money, we’d find a store, say ‘Hey man, your sign looks like hell,’ and fix it up.” Paid by the acre, his friend would joke. “Like Woody Guthrie,” I replied. “Did you know that he was a sign painter during the Depression?” “No joke?” said Paris. Nope, no joke.

One of his drawings, I think an illustration in his autobiography
One of Woody’s drawings, an illustration in his autobiography, I think.

From there it was a string of commuters, wanderers and homeless people trying to stay warm via walking and coffee, and people with ideas for future window designs. You’d be surprised how many people know about this supposedly dying art form. “Isn’t it supposed to be 54 degrees out to put that stuff up?” (Yes, but if it’s seasonal, it’ll last just fine.) I’ve met pinstripers, tattoo artists, other signpainters, and lots of regular folks. In Americus, Georgia, I loved the company of older folks who had plenty of time to watch and chat. Sometimes it seemed they didn’t have many people to talk with, and it was good to listen to them as I worked.

After putting the finishing touches on the ribbons, I popped into the shop to check in with Rich, the owner. When I came back outside, a guy was pushing a shopping cart away up Higgins. Piled atop his load of possessions, probably all he had to his name, was my dropcloth, my mallet, and a quarter pint of red One-Shot. I went into autopilot: caught up to him, said “That’s my stuff,” and grabbed my supplies. He began hollering at me, called me every four letter word known to humankind, including, bizarrely, racial slurs: “You should be ashamed of yourself, you *@&^#! Stealing from a homeless person!”

The sad part was that, as a parting shot, he yelled, “You took my blanket!” And I realized he was talking about the dropcloth: damp, paint-spattered, none-too-soft. I almost gave it back to him, then reflected that he was cussing me out and had tried to make off with my gear– not behavior I would like to encourage. I don’t know what he wanted with the oil paint or the mallet, but no good could have come of it. He certainly was not in the frame of mind for a rational conversation. This was the first time in six years I’ve had any trouble. I dunno, friends… would there have been a better way to handle this?

As it was, I packed up my stuff and stepped inside Butterfly Herbs to thaw my bones. Their staff was kind enough to let me keep my paints warm behind the counter while I worked out in the cold. I wanted to give them a little business as thanks, and get something to warm me up en route to my other job. Lucas Phelan– an inventive, talented artist himself, also apparently at his other job– toasted a delicious cream cheese sesame bagel. Everything tastes better when you’ve been out all morning doing something you love. That’s a lesson learned hiking, but widely applicable!

Oh, and without further ado, here are the cavorting bluebirds:

r_p_ellis_fine_jewelry2 r_p_ellis_fine_jewelry

P.S. If you can’t get enough of the adorable children of Sesame Street giggling at glass, there’s another video here. Enjoy.

P.P.S. This blog has been brought to you today by the letter B.

The one beautiful thing in Reno

The bus diesels out of¬†the McDonald’s parking lot in Lone Pine, CA at six am, minutes after I creep¬†out of the room of sleeping women in the Whitney Portal Hostel. The first driver wears a cowboy hat and listens to classical guitar. The second driver growls at pit stop requests. “I think he has a case of the Mondays,” another rider¬†whispers. Oh yeah. It is Monday. We are reentering the world where the day of the week can foretell¬†mood, and heart attack likelihood. Because we are going home: a passel of assorted hikers, plus a few locals headed north¬†a stop or two.

The bus dumps its passengers in Reno, Nevada, which is the ugliest city¬†I have ever seen. Still, looking at¬†a six-hour layover, I am not just going to hang out in the airport. Here’s the¬†mission: find one Beautiful Thing here in Reno. Surely there is a redeeming sculpture, tree, mosaic… something beautiful both inside and out. Three weeks of natural beauty have spoiled me, and my tolerance for the products of¬†profit-driven construction is low. With a $2 city bus pass in my pocket, the¬†quest begins.

The riverwalk is¬†concrete, decorated with trash. The river itself flows¬†strangled and brown. Down-and-out people lie on the curb¬†or push along on canes. Bad junctions, hard living. The neighborhoods struggle.¬†I pace¬†the streets with a few tourists, the ones who can’t afford Vegas, shuffling between tacky casinos. The synthetic facades have¬†not been renovated since the seventies, which looks awful, but I may actually support this neglect: isn’t it preferable to¬†the endless facelifts of swankier towns, unneeded, superficial? You know what you are getting here. You can see all the way to the core.

NOT the One Beautiful Thing.
This goofball is not the One Beautiful Thing in Reno

I think about my trail trust that the right paths will unfold. They always have, if not immediately. But why? Reno is a reminder that this is not the case for everyone. I am not sure why I have been so fortunate. Having money helps, as well as other kinds of privilege, but some people still find themselves in bind after bind. There is no guarantee. How do the people of Reno see their town? Do they find beauty here? They must. You must find it where you are. Where is it? Can I see with Reno eyes?

The bus driver¬†is¬†kind, advising me on the best place to get off, but it’s not beauty. The begging man is kind, but it’s not quite beauty. In line at the post office to mail home my sharp objects, which cannot be checked through airport security, two people burst in singing happy birthday, carrying¬†helium balloons and neon cupcakes to a postal clerk’s counter. She reddens and won’t meet their eyes. Her manager¬†bounces on tiptoe¬†as she belts the refrain over-enthusiastically, and some of us in line faintly join in.

None of it is beauty, but all of it is human. Maybe human will have to do. So after my wanderings and a couple of street tacos, I surrender beauty and retreat to the airport sidewalk. I lean my pack on a bench near the taxi lot, and pull out a book to kill time.

But then: with minutes to spare, in peripheral vision, brightly colored cloth. A man’s voice, chanting. On the grass by the road, three¬†cabbies¬†are praying¬†toward Mecca. Their voices rise and fall over the traffic. They sing¬†for fifteen minutes, then rise and walk back to work, the older man with his¬†arm around a younger¬†man’s shoulder.

Okay, Reno, there is your One Beautiful Thing. The color, the song, the reverence, the brotherly love, the willingness to pause profit for spirit. It goes all the way through. Well done. You win.

And god knows, if Reno wins, we all do.


The care and feeding of transplants

Who could be calling from outside? Nobody knows us here yet…

But I opened the screen door of the attic apartment and saw Carolyn, our next-door neighbor, standing on the driveway below with a brown bag in her arms. We had met her the day before, our first full day in Asheville. Already, here she was, a one-woman welcome wagon of Southern hospitality, with two ripe tomatoes, a boxed loaf of pumpkin bread, a giant container of mixed nuts, and four gold apples obviously from a real tree nearby. She had noticed the Montana plates on our car, and told us how much she wished she could move there. Not only her gesture but her timing was perfect. We had just finished carrying our most basic possessions into the loft of the peeling old house, and it felt like being on a lifeboat at sea. As if the world were fluid beneath us, and our munitions were few. And here she was, a friendly little craft who knew our port of departure.

It had been hard to leave J.’s parents’ house, much as we were ready for a place of our own. This despite the fact that the primary occupation of our week and a half visit was neurotically cleaning, disassembling, reupholstering and reassembling our Mazda, in which green nasties had sprouted during the wet spring months of our absence. Between bouts of scrubbing, we took humble excursions to remind us that beauty is nearby, and so is peace, even when we return to the daily grind. You wouldn’t know to drive along the Cleveland Highway that just a few hundred meters away is the blue hole spring at Red Clay, the water source of the last home of the Cherokee people before the Trail of Tears (upon which the Cleveland Highway was later built).

We also took care of the animals while J.’s folks were away: two hypersensitive daschunds, one bouncy mutt, an elderly cat, fifteen chickens, five chicks, plus everything that the hummingbird feeder attracts. The hens were a small-scale throwback to our chores at Nuestra Finca, enjoyably so. Flo’s birds are the only truly happy ones I’ve met. They roam free in the big, green backyard, and have roosting barns with protective netting at night. Every other day, with a plastic extension claw, one of us retrieves eggs from underneath the power saw, where they nestle in a bit of straw next to a hollow green Easter egg, unless a hen has decided to sit on a batch, in which case she is allowed to hatch them. When their laying years are over, no axe awaits, only a long, verdant retirement. Hence they feel entitled to develop outsized personalities, like the rest of us. The animal scene at Fawa’s Cottage made us remember a deeper purpose than a life spent among only televisions or newspapers or websites can convey: to care for creatures, as we ourselves are cared-for creatures, and to see them through their shorter lives.

The day before we left, a beautiful chill entered the air. I walked the perimeter and snipped leaves and berries and dried bits of blooms past, and put them in jars of water around the house. Symbols of fall: of the brilliant energy of change and death and transformation. We all, but travelers especially, must perform such minor rituals to remind ourselves of the season, to remain grounded in cycles despite constant uprooting.

Despite the repeated transplants, from the Montana bed to the Appalachian Trail vine to the Costa Rican forest to the Georgia sanctuary to, finally, the rocky soil of Asheville, we ought not fret. The city is a new nut to crack, jobs and housing and culture and people, and our lifeboat, though cozy, contains a leaky toilet but not a smoke detector… but the drive to North Carolina was beautiful, valleys of trees inhaling the warm blue afternoon, deep gulps in preparation for the impending costume change. It’s an autumn transplant, both in the sense of it being hopefully the last one for a good long while, and in a more urgent sense of wanting to get situated before snow flies. But the world is full of surprises, and we sometimes remember to trust our higher power. We have reinvented our lives before. Sometimes I feel ancient, but we ain’t that old yet.

I miss awakening to dawns full of toucan cries and monkey talk, to air redolent of fruits and flowers. I miss knowing my task for the day is simple, the rhythm steady, the subtle variations pleasures to be savored. I miss feeling secure and content within the boundaries of a miniature existence, one wherein the Future and Income and Lodging are not concerns. But of course the seasons turn, and all things end, and we are living in a different chapter now. Carolyn’s gesture of hospitality spurred me to another small ritual: baking. Symbol of taking up residence, filling a small space with heat and domestic aroma. Which means acknowledging that yes, this is where we are now, might as well make banana bread. Might as well make connections: give a loaf to Carolyn, two big pieces for our downstairs roommates (whose oven we use, our upstairs having only a two-burner and a nuker), a slice for our landlord, and some for ourselves, a communion, however haltingly granted, of place and nourishment.

Perhaps in the next few days I will even see fit to snip some bouquets of wild, scraggly plants from the yard, to adorn our lifeboat, to mark it as, for now, home.