Saturday, July 26, 2014

Read Any Good Books Lately? Here Are a Few I Enjoyed....

 
The Blessings (Grand Central, 2014) by Elise Juska is beautifully written novel about a sprawling family from Philly. The tone here is delicate, emotionally rich and somewhat elegiac, reminding me of Alice McDermott. The Blessings are a closeknit Catholic family and those that marry in must get with the program. All holidays and family anniversaries will call for a gathering of the clan. In the first chapter we meet Abby, the youngest daughter, a college freshman who is home for Christmas. She has pined for her family. Yet being home them makes Abby realizes how much college has changed her. She suffers "an unsolvable ache. When she is away, she'll miss her family; when she's with her family, she'll miss herself."

Every chapter drops readers deeply into one or another family member's life: a young widow whose husband dies young, a troubled teen, a pre-med student. I had to get used to that ever-changing character rhythm, but the end result is a richly nuanced family portrait. Abby's older brother John dies when his two children are young. This tragedy marks every family member in a different way. The Blessings will gather together every year on the anniversary of his death. In times of sickness and death, the family shows up with casseroles, babies to rock and hands to hold. Maybe that sounds like a Hallmark movie, but this novel is much more richly complicated than any tv movie could ever be. I did at times feel a shade too sad reading about various Blessing family struggles, no matter how soulful some of the resulting epiphanies were. Then the last chapter brought me full circle. I felt uplifted, and that I could say goodbye to the Blessings with a full heart, trusting they would thrive and persevere. In fact, I would love to red another novel about the Blessings! May it be so....     
 
  
Life behind the scenes of a rather staid Manhattan literary agency emerges colorfully in My Salinger Year (Knopf, 2014), well-told by English major Joanna Rakoff. Her starry-eyed innocence about her employment at the agency does not last long. Her boss is a dragon from hell, and although this is the 90s, there are no computers in sight. One of her boss's writers is none other than J. D. Salinger, "Jerry", whose fan mail and phone calls Joanna often fields. Eventually she gets to meet the man, and even further on into the memoir, she finally reads all his books while her no-good boyfriend has gone off to a wedding without her. She is amazed at how much she loves his books and becomes a die-hard fan. I so enjoyed this literary bildungsroman; it really hit the spot. One read-alike comes to mind: Summer at Tiffany (Morrow, 2010) by Marjorie Hart. The last memoir I read and enjoyed that had anything to do with Salinger was At Home in the World (Picador, 1998) by Joyce Maynard.

 
The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry (Algonquin, 2014), the eighth novel by Gabrielle Zevin seems to be on everyone's 2014 must-read list. What's not to love when a somewhat curmudgeonly widower/bookstore owner adopts a toddler named Maya who is left in his store and subsequently reaps the healing powers of love? I enjoyed every moment of this quirky tale, its Alice Island, Massachusetts setting and sometimes whimsical characters. The bookstore ambiance is irresistible and short book reviews/book talks (actually letters to his daughter) written by A. J. at the start of every chapter enhance the verisimilitude. Truly a must read novel for bookaholics.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Learning to Paint is Torture....

I took a 4 week Acrylic Painting class at Leisure Learning last month. We painted some color charts and then by the end of the second week, it was time to start on our 16 x 20" canvas (a bigger size than I might have expected). I spent way too many hours fooling with mine. I learned a lot, but am so very tired of the whole thing. I am walking around feeling quite tortured because I spent so many hours on it and it is still not finished, but I have learned a few things.
 
What exactly have I learned?
 
1. A little about mixing colors, especially that often the complimentary color is the one you should use to make new shades of a color. Example: add a little blue to orange to deepen it.
 
2. Pick the right brush for the task at hand. Unfortunately I suckered myself into a design that required the teeniest, tiniest brush I could find. I liked getting a blob of paint onto the end of that brush and then kind of pulling it along to make wandering lines to outline my shapes, but I also had to get acquainted with bigger brushes. I learned I really don't know much about the proper use of brushes yet....
 
3. Acrylic paints dry quickly. So at first, I tackled that problem by using a retarder medium, but when I learned there was something called a wet palette, I tried that. Basically, it is a tray with a sponge soaked in water over which you lay a special sheet of palette paper. Then you throw some paints on there and they stay wet. Unfortunately, they also tend to get a little thin, so I am still finding my way with that technique.
 
4. The quality of your paint matters. I already had a hodgepodge collection of different brand acrylics. If I am going to keep painting, I will buy some top quality paints. The cheaper ones are not as thick or richly pigmented.
 
5. Paint your background first. At first I laid down the wrong shade of blue, which meant I had a lot of corrections to make later on.
 
6. Think carefully about your design. Sketch it out or find a simple photo to start from. I should have picked an easier design for my first go-round. 
 
I really don't know what compels me to share the painting here (see below) because I do not consider it finished (especially the orange shapes; they still need more definition). But I think it is time to give it a rest and move on to some other projects. My intent was/is to learn more about how to combine paint with collage. Maybe in time that will happen. I never took painting in college (SUNY Plattsburgh), probably because I felt I couldn't afford the paint supplies, but also because my head was turned by ceramics and jewelry-making, not that I've continued to do either of those..... I have used a little paint in the backgrounds of my collages and painted plenty of walls and furniture, including one Art Chair for charity.
 
I may ultimately throw this painting away. Painting on canvas for the first time taught me a lot and I would be satisfied just keeping a photo of the thing. It started with a photograph of a cracked tile floor in a semi-demolished building I took years ago in downtown Houston and evolved into a strange design that is vaguely topographic.
 
 
A section from Peter Heller's novel, The Painter (Knopf, 2014) comes to mind:
 
Nobody, not even artists, understand art. What speed has to do with it. How much work it takes, year after year, building the skills, the trust in the process, more work than probably any Olympic athlete ever puts in because it is twenty-four hours a day, even in dreams, and then when the skills and the trust are in place, the best work usually takes the least effort. Usually. It comes fast, it comes without thought, it comes like a horse running you over at night. But. Even if people understand this, they don't understand that sometimes it is not like that at all.

To see my thoughts about The Painter, click on over to my Goodreads review. If you want to walk in the shoes of an extremely tortured artist, that is the book for you!

PS (07-14-2014) I did end up tearing this canvas off the frame... Since then, I have reapplied myself to collage and felt a huge measure of relief. One of my collages got into the Sixth Annual Juried Exhibition at Archway Gallery and two others are currently on view at the annual Students and Teacher's Show at the Jung Center. I am also taking a collage class at the Art League with artist Kelly Alison. Learning some new techniques! Once an art student, always an art student......