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 forté 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.

Mudpie misbehavior, mini jitters

The “Outrageous Watercolors” class is done– ahh, free time at last! Its seven weeks made my schedule just a tad too full, but every so often, it’s worth it. Here’s why.

For a session or two, the class veered into delightful chaos as we spooned drywall mud on masonite, sculpting ridges that would later receive paint, dropped from above, slid wetly, spattered. We dragged classroom tables off the carpet and onto the tile, and made a tremendous mess, this group of middle-aged women plus Bob and me – but no: we were just kids that evening, stirring science projects, poking our paws into every drawer while the adults were away. We took turns pressing patterns into the mud, scooting pigment around with palette knives and fingers and rubber ribs, flushing the extra goo down the sink. Minor misbehavior, miles away from the stuffiness art can acquire through excessive judgment and competition.

My masonite abstraction, containing about four ounces of pure pigment, I reckon.

Over the weeks, I’d learned that many of my classmates are professional artists with impressive portfolios (like Janet Sullivan and Elloie Jeter). I’m glad I didn’t know this at the start. It would have intimidated, maybe paralyzed. But these skilled artists muddled around too, making every kind of mistake and experimenting with strange media. The results were often wonderful, but I wouldn’t necessarily have guessed at their expertise. Their willingness to goof reminds me to have no shame in creating something unframeable, repeatedly. It is how we learn. It is where the magic happens.

The last time we gathered, we brought fruit and desserts along with our paintboxes and tools. We arranged the sweets under bright lights, and recreated them with paint. For two and a half hours there was nothing but silence and the smell of sugar. At the stroke of 8:30, we packed up our brushes, and ate our models. Here’s all that remains:

cupcake3 cupcake
(Hmm, perhaps Bernice’s Bakery might like to sell these as cards…? I should do a few more, then bring them a paper smorgasbörd. Which would entail purchasing a few more delicacies, which J. and I would have to consume afterwards, I suppose… oh darn!)

Speaking of peddling art, one of these weeks I am going to get up an online gallery of works available for purchase. It is time some of these paintings found good homes where they can spread joy, or at least rhino appreciation:

The bird on his back is an oxpecker–it’s a symbiotic relationship.

Fortunately, one of the paintings that came out of the watercolor class is headed to a good home later this month. It is being donated to the…


…which is a silent auction to benefit the programs of the ZACC (Zootown Arts Community Center). The annual event is called {mini} because each piece is smaller than 12″ x 12,” including the frame. I’m excited to have had a piece chosen for the show! This time, I won’t tease you with just a snippet. Here’s the whole piece, called Counter Balance:

2 counter balance

My aim was to put as much motion as possible into a still life, to play with that paradox.

Tangentially, painting it wasn’t the hard part– framing was the challenge. Here’s a quick tutorial: First, buy a used shadow-box frame from Goodwill, tear it open and put the mass-produced, faux-Japanese art it contains out of its misery. Next, rough it with sandpaper, wipe clean, apply about fourteen coats of spray-paint (some will blow onto the glass, so factor in a few minutes of frantic scraping), and reassemble, making sure that not even the minutest speck of trail mix gets on the inside of the glass, which is a considerable feat in our apartment.

(Shout-out to Frame of Mind, the source of the beautiful, nubby green mat. Amy there is always ready with assistance and suggestions, and she gives a 10% discount to people framing their own art. There are piles of gorgeous, colorful mat scraps on the cheap, and blessedly, she matches prices from the big box stores, even when they have sales.)

The {mini} show could be a good chance to meet lots of artists and patrons… provided I can rustle up the courage. The auction occurs at a fancy gala at the Wilma Theater with a 1920s/”Chapel of the Dove” theme. As an artist donating 100% of the proceeds of my auctioned piece, I get to go. So now my task is to find a flapper outfit, go to the dinner and auction, and not hide in a corner all night. This is also a chance to practice watching my art be auctioned off without getting too emotionally invested!

For everyone who is not willing or able to cough up $60 for a ticket, good news: the donated works are not cloistered in the Wilma yet. Any ol’ ruffian can preview the art for free at the ZACC’s Second Friday opening on March 11 – that’s this Friday:


Hope to see you there!

P.S. Seriously, though, anybody local have flapper gear for the borrowing? Fresh-baked muffins if you do!

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. Touché.) 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!

Art Activism show + It’s electric!

As I hinted a few posts ago, one of my paintings was accepted into an art show. The opening is this week, so here are the details… I am happy to invite you to the Art Activism group exhibition at the ZACC!

Some of the pieces at the show...
Some of the pieces you’ll find at the show… (courtesy ZACC website)
Just a tiny little slice of the piece.
…and a tiny little slice of mine, as a teaser.

From their website:

“Join the Zootown Arts Community Center for the Art Activism Group Art Show that will be kicking off the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival.  Artworks take on a number of political, cultural, social, and environmental issues that are pertinent to the conversation today.  Enjoy an evening of thought-provoking art, ideas, and conversation– oh and wine!  

“Please join us in welcoming these moving and relevant artworks to the gallery during the grand opening February 12, from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. If you are unable to attend the show the artworks will be on display in the Main Gallery for the month of February. Please stop by during our open hours, 11am to 6pm, Monday through Saturday.”

The ZACC is just north of the railroad tracks, at 235 North 1st St West in Missoula. This will also be a great year to check out a few films in the coming weeks, support local filmmakers, and indie movie theaters like the Roxy, the Wilma, and the Silver. J. and I haven’t made it out yet, but this will be the year we start.

So… acceptance is nice. I admit to shouting in gladness upon learning that someone accepted my gritty, gooey painting made of oil paint, twigs, trash, seeds and moss to a show. But now that I’ve started putting things out there again, there is always the specter of rejection. I’ve taken it hard in the past: resenting a city art committee that picks anything with a moose, grizzly or eagle on it, no matter how garishly over-Photoshopped, over what I (foolishly) thought was a shoe-in. Or the time I donated a painted satellite dish to a charity silent auction, only to have it ridiculed by the stand-up comedian who provided the evening’s entertainment… ouch! The answer will not always be yes, and I have no magic shield for deflecting the arrows of No. Patience and acceptance are a few small tools. Also: art work is for life, for growth, for beauty. So do the work, and detach from results… right? Easier said than done, but it’s time to try.

My signpainting mentor (and life mentor) Jo Knox told me that artists should encourage one another, and rejoice at others’ successes. There is room for all of us, she says. Perhaps that’s another antidote for rejection: it’s another person’s turn to shine. Not one of us needs to be The Best all the time. We each just need space for one, and grace and gratitude for the rest.

Before I close, a few images from a different type of art activism: painting a wall in the new fifth-grade classroom at Home ReSource, for a program called the Zero Waste Ambassador Program (ZWAP!). Jeremy at HRS came up with a fun, comic-book logo…

…and here it is translated into a 7′ x 10′ painting using donated paint.

So, these pre-cynicism kids are going to learn about reducing waste– even eliminating it– and will help the Missoula community take action to join them. Each kid will sign the wall after taking the class, so there will be a visual representation of how many kids are ambassadors for this cause. What a privilege to be involved! It was also a lot of fun to meet the others working on the classroom: volunteer electricians, staff, interns. The whole building feels like a carpenter-artist’s studio, with a Little Free Library and a native plant garden out front, people making rainbow-colored drawers in one room, upcycling salvaged materials for sale in another, the upstairs floor made of an old bowling alley, and a guy making a sizzling, snapping Jacob’s Ladder in the back workshop. Each in our own artistic space, bouncing electric creative energy off one another, until it releases into the atmosphere… ZWAP!

The nifty, kid-height coat rack... pick your hook!
The nifty, kid-height coat rack… pick your hook!


Breaking the rules, and a gift from the Big Sky

Seven other students and I are taking a couple of months of watercolor classes with local artist Bob Phinney. He started as a freehand signpainter, so I feel a connection to that. He’s a fan of working fast and loose, sprinkling grainy stuff into your gesso, and knowing the rules… but also knowing when to break them. The other painters bring talent, encouragement, community, and a fondness for purple. Three cheers for the Lifelong Learning Center; Missoula is lucky to have one!

My first piece, still in progress...
Study in progress: un hombre cubano, with a stogie and a bass, da un paseo.

On the signpainting front, I joined the local barter network, WeTrade, because I believe in supporting alternative currencies and independent businesses. (Also, folks may be more likely to hire a plucky signpainter if they don’t have to pay her in cold cash on the spot.) Here’s a taste of the Cajun holiday art that I did as a trade with Café Zydeco, if you haven’t yet seen it on Facebook:

zydeco lobster

zydeco wreath lobster

zydeco balls

An uncommonly bad photo of one of my doodles
Blurry photo of a meditative doodle

Burnout is a concern, especially after several weeks of regular work plus art work on top. I am being gentle, taking days to just doodle and paint leisurely. Figuring out this livelihood and lifestyle includes making up new rules, not only breaking established ones: what to do next, what is important. It necessitates a bump in trust, in faith… which is good!

And fortunately, I’ve had little victories to keep me going. Some are self-created, like using goofy emojis to check off items on my art-to-do list. And others are external, like landing gigs: the next half-warm day we get, you’ll find me painting bluebirds and heart-shaped ribbons on the glass of a fine jewelry store smack in the heart of downtown. I so appreciate the people who hear my spiel and say, “Sure!”

Thanks to Janice
Like Janice, who hired me to do her hair salon in a fun, Art Deco font. Thanks, Janice!

And one more little victory: the Zootown Arts Community Center, in collaboration with the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, accepted one of my paintings in its Art Activism show.

Details, and more art, soon!

New year, new art

It’s really cold for painting outside. But as I walk from store to store along the icy streets, shilling my window painting services, I remind myself: today, January 5, boasts the lowest average temperatures of the year. Tomorrow, the average tiptoes up a degree. We have reached bottom, at 31 degrees F, and now begin the slow ascent into light and warmth. Also, my Christmas gift from J. was a pair of handwarmers made from his comfy old flannel shirt cut into squares, sewn up and filled with rice. Pop them in the microwave for twenty seconds, and I’m good to go for at least half an hour.

And in the long, dark nights, the kitchen table is spread with watercolors, Prismacolors, and Spectracolors, paper rough and smooth and thick and thin, vials of ink and water, rags and paper napkins, four kinds of erasers (including the kind my watercolor instructor’s grandson calls “poop erasers”– the delightful, knobby, kneaded ones). I spent eight hours rehabbing my Rapidograph pens, which I had inadvisably left full of ink EIGHT YEARS AGO. Penance done: five work again, one is away for repair, and the last is in Pen Limbo, awaiting its fate. (I threaten it with replacement by a less persnickety and less expensive Copic Multiliner when it seems to radiate spiteful stubbornness.) The only way to avoid such extensive maintenance in future is by using the pens, then wiping them clean with rubbing alcohol and cheesecloth every night… a shameless trick to instill discipline. Save the pens!

So I pound the pavement by day, and paint the paper by night.

Study of gourds in watercolor with charcoal

To what do we owe this current bout of dedication? Well, I decided to give art an extra push of late. And it seems to be allowing me to do so.

Producing lots of produce.

How to make it last? It’s fizzled so many times before, water on, water off. So… let’s try going gently, slowly, without pressure. Balanced with other activites. And at least half the time I’m making art, it must be without care for results, without fear of the recycling bin. As a meditation. Hence the coloring book. Nobody (except my dear Aunt Carol) is gonna frame coloring book pages, but they count. They do!

Watercolor on gessoed corrugated cardboard, soon to be entered in the ZACC {mini} benefit show.

Art-school questions can’t be looming in my head every moment: What does this MEAN? What is the artist’s responsibility to society? What message is she conveying? Though they are not unimportant, they may scare my little draw-er into hiding. I promise to think about them. And then sketch a couple of snakes eyeballing each other, coiled into question marks.

So in 2016, my fervent hope is that this blog will feature not only writing, but new art as well. Feel free to unsubscribe if you are only in it for the vicarious epic hikes– I won’t take it personally! (And conversely, but equally without pressure: if you see anything you like, feel free to leave me a comment or send me a message. I would love to make you up some greeting cards, a print, or even send you an A.K. original!)

By the way… I swear I don’t only do still-lifes. Deer, worms, and spiders are in the mix… posting soon!

P.S. I really hope the comics store and the sexy toy store hire me. Those empty windows may not know it, but they are simply begging for adornment. The ultimate would be doing next winter’s holiday windows for the adult store… can you imagine? “Santa’s got something in his sack for everyone!” –or maybe a languorously melting snow-woman.

O shopowners of Missoula, o committees of contests and exhibitions: kindly give a gal a chance!