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 – there are clever pots of them all about the store, and a window box hanging outside – so 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! Olé!

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 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!


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.

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!