“What’s the purpose?” my father asks.

An aloe plant gone wild

My father suffers from Alzheimer’s, a man who read constantly and wrote poetry every day while on the train to New York City, walking through the woods or sipping coffee in his easy chair.  A carefully folded piece of paper and a mechanical pencil were in his shirt pocket ready for the words that needed to escape from his brain, expressing his experience of the world and the beauty surrounding him.  Now his shirt pocket is empty unless I remind him that he may want a pencil handy during our day together.

Up until a month ago Dad was still able to find a few words to write on the carefully folded paper I tucked into my sketchbook for him.  I sketched while he struggled with words.

On a Walk In The Woods

Chris looks to her Dad for poems

Pencil and paper are even on hand

Imaginative phrases would really be grand

The breezes are silent

The shadow from waving leaves do beckon

But the words being sought are oblivious

Nowhere at all to be found.

But wait, did I hear a couple just now?

I had better write them down.

They just might work, somehow.

His poems expressed the difficulty he was having, searching for a part of himself that felt distantly familiar yet unreachable.  As I drove home after our Thursday together I consoled myself with the fact that he was still able to write a few words, he was able to speak, to walk and to know who I am.

The blank page

In mid October, after thirty minutes of searching, Dad’s paper remained blank.  I decided to try something new.

“What’s the purpose, Chris?” he asked as we ate our Bronx Bombers and Chili, pencils in hand, sketchbooks open.

“Why am I doing this?”

“To brush the cobwebs from your brain, Dad.”

“But what’s the goal?”

“To coordinate your eyes and your hand.”

“Why would I want to do that?”

“Maybe it will wake up parts of your brain that are starting to fall asleep.”

“What’s the purpose?”

“To have fun, Dad.”


He smiled, rearranged his lunch, looked me square in the eye and said “I wouldn’t want to try and do anything simple…”

Writing a short poem or just a couple of words on a piece of paper had become too difficult and too frustrating for both of us.  I decided to try tricking his brain by teaching him how to draw.  I thought that if he focused all of his attention on following the light and dark shapes on an object, it might force another part of his brain to kick in.  I learned how successful this technique can be when my son and I did exercises morning and night to reprogram his brain so that the words on the page would align themselves properly and he would be able to read.  Mike is now a rocket scientist.

I am not expecting Dad’s brain to stop shrinking.  He is eighty-eight years old and has lived a life that should have protected him from suffering the horrors of dementia.  He walked five to seven miles a day, danced three to four nights a week,  read constantly, ate relatively healthy food and was an active member of his community.  His body is strong and healthy.  Perhaps it is for myself that I want him to continue communicating with me and with his loved ones.  He appears to be content to sleep all day.  He forgets that he forgets.

“What’s the purpose?”

I forgot the point I originally wanted to make when I started this post which was to say that in searching for answers to Dad’s question, I realized that I had lost track of why I draw daily contour drawings of one sort or another.  I told Dad that by not looking at your paper, you draw what you see rather than what you think you see.

Last night my eyes were tired when I finally got around to my contour drawing.  My subject was the monster aloe plant that lurks beside me now that it’s too cold for it to live on the front porch.  I lost concentration almost immediately and began to draw what I thought I saw rather than what I was really looking at.

“Do you draw like this, too?”

“Every day, Dad.”

“Why?  You already know how to draw.”

“It’s more about learning how to see, Dad.  There is always a new way to see things.”

The memory of the little magnifying glass that my father carried in his pants pocket came to mind.  Each morning before he left for work he would take a walk around the yard exploring leaves, stones and bugs with his tiny magnifying glass.

“There is always something new to explore, Dad.”

Drawings: Drawn first with fountain pen filled with heart of darkness ink, followed by watercolor washes.

I am reading Ramachandran’s Phantoms In The Brain.

Reflections, Pen and Ink study

How often do we ( I am assuming I am not the only one ) perceive an object in the road ahead to be something that it isn’t?  How often have we puzzled over an object’s use when we have not encountered anything like it before?  Why, when a room full of artists are asked to draw a still life of a tea set as realistically as possible, is there such variation in the shape of the teapot? Some are short and fat, some are tall and thin.

Picasso Guitars is currently at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.  Why, no matter how Picasso deconstructed the image of a guitar, do we recognize it as a guitar?

“If you look straight ahead, the entire world on your left is mapped onto your right visual cortex and the world to the right of your center of gaze is mapped onto your left visual cortex.

But the mere existence of this map does not explain seeing, for as I noted earlier, there is no little man inside watching what is displayed on the primary visual cortex.  Instead, this first map serves as a sorting and editorial office where redundant or useless information is discarded wholesale and certain defining attributes of the visual image — such as edges — are strongly emphasized.  (This is why a cartoonist can convey such a vivid picture with just a few pen strokes depicting the outlines or edges alone; he’s mimicking what your visual system is specialized to do.)” quoted from Chapter Four of Phantoms In The Brain.

Most likely, if someone has not ever seen a guitar or a stringed instrument similar to a guitar, that person will not recognize the subject of Picasso’s exhibit as a guitar.  The objects I drew in the above study will be recognized by some, but not all.  My children might recognize all of the objects because they saw them almost daily before they went to college.  My simplification of the objects combined with the brain’s simplification of the information I have drawn will be understood by some, but not all.

No wonder there is such a struggle for some viewers to accept abstract art.

As artists we must simplify shapes, colors and values.  Our eyes perceive far more than our pigments are capable of expressing.

Be forewarned, this entry is disjointed, triggered by a Tom Waits song that mentioned the “one-eyed Jack”.

My first ribbon painting, watercolor

The image shown is the first of the paintings I did that exposed the ribbons of my brain.  I had learned a watercolor glazing technique at a workshop I attended back in the 80’s.  I find it a bit interesting that I used my least favorite complementary color combination of green and red.

Several month ago Kathleen asked me if I have songs constantly running through my brain as a background to everything else.  No, I don’t.  I have ribbons of color and light constantly running as a background to everything else in my brain.

Since that conversation with Kathleen I have asked several of my musician friends the same question.  The reply in most cases is “yes”.  That appears to be one of the main reasons that many musicians don’t have music going as a background sound while they are at home.  The music on the stereo system is constantly in conflict with the music that is running through their brains.  Though they can choose the music on their ipods or stereos, they have no control over the music that runs through their brains.

I’m thinking that the reason I want to listen to music is that I don’t have it running through my brain.  Watching the ribbons dance through my brain makes me feel deaf when there’s not music to accompany them.  I watch the movement of the ribbons, wondering what they are dancing to.

Painting to live music is expressing the physical manifestations of some of those ribbon movements that are my constant companion.  Perhaps that is why, more than any other paintings or drawings, I feel connected to those quick little paintings.  It’s as if my brain can finally spit out a bit of what it’s been watching forever.

So then, why aren’t more of my paintings like that?  Hmmmm.  Good question.

Back to the one-eyed Jack….

As a young child I spent hours combining dominoes, checkers, chessmen and playing cards on a masonite checkerboard, inventing stories of adventure and romance.  I found the two one-eyed jacks (the jack of hearts and the jack of spades) a bit scary.  The jack of diamonds and the jack of clubs were much friendlier and far less intimidating.  I would generally settle for the less intimidating jacks to be the chosen mates for the queens.  I’ m not sure why the kings were never chosen. The queens, however, became bored quite quickly and ended up thinking about the one-eyed jacks.  I ended the game before the queens ever had a chance to shake up their lives.

I’m not sure what the connection is to the ribbons, but I know that right after the memory of the childhood games was triggered, the ribbons of light became extremely intense in my brain, coming to the forefront rather than staying in the background.

The question to all of you is “What is it that runs as a constant background in your brains?”

Yesterday’s Morning Warm Up: watercolor and fountain pen (Medium nib Cross pen, blue black cartridge.) Ink contour drawing with watercolor washes.

Florida Room with Paint Cans and Storytelling Lantern, watercolor sketch

I glanced at the clock. The morning had been swallowed by bookkeeping.  I hadn’t done my morning warm up paintings and time was running out.  I had fifteen minutes to either paint or make my lunch.  I opted to paint. Not having enough time for two paintings, I locked my left brain in a closet and handed those precious fifteen minutes over to my right brain.

It’s not obvious to even a careful observer that a small, red lantern is in the center of the table.  It is the family storytelling lantern.  No longer used for storytelling, it is kept handy to use during our frequent power outages.  The paint cans have taken up residence in the Florida Room during the prolonged project of painting the kitchen cabinets.

Morning Warm Ups:

Sketch #2 - watercolor & ink

Even when I was in excellent physical condition, running daily and having the strength and flexibility of a young body, I didn’t fall into a blissful rhythm until I broke into a sweat at the three mile mark.  My morning warm up watercolor sketches remind me of that experience.

Sketch #1 - watercolor

The first sketch is dreadfully stiff and overworked.  More time does not always lead to  better results. With extra time I manage to paint the spirit right out of the object.  My goal is two-fold.  I want to develop the skills to paint what “is” and I want to use those skills to paint what the object “is to me”.  The first goal calls forth the left side of the brain while the second depends on the right side of the brain.   Once I’ve given the left side of my brain something to be frustrated about (the first morning warm up), it goes off to sulk somewhere and leaves the right side of the brain free to be playful (the second morning warm up).  I prefer the second.