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musings from the studio and beyond ~

dawn chandler’s reflections on art and life. . . .

 

a quiet stark beauty

One of the things I most appreciate about being a painter, is that it has honed my ability to notice beauty — color beauty — just about anywhere. And so it was last month when I drove across the Great Plains of eastern Colorado and western Nebraska. Many might find the late winter landscape of brown flatland to be drab, but I found its earthy tones to be luscious in its closely hued subtleties. (I always think of these colors as “Vuillard colors” for they remind me of the palette of French post-impressionist painter Edouard Vuillard. Which is kind of funny, since Vuillard was especially known for his paintings of cozy interiors. But this earthen palette, no matter its subject, calls up “Vuillard” in my color memory.)

As I shared in my previous post, my time in Nebraska was book-ended each day by the breath-taking drama of sandhill cranes moving to and from their nighttime roost in the Platte River. The bulk of each day however was spent with a paintbrush in hand, as I drove country roads and painted Great Plains farmlands from the front seat of my car.

We in New Mexico tend to feel a bit superior to the rest of the country when it comes to natural beauty. Okay, we’re unapologetically smug. But let’s face it: The Land of Enchantment sets a pretty high bar when it comes to landscape.
That’s a given. And it’s frankly why I’ve made New Mexico my home for 20+ years.

And yet . . . I found the flatland of Nebraska in late March to radiate a quiet, stark beauty. Though some might find the unbroken straight line of the horizon uninteresting, I was fascinated by the geometry everywhere of parallel lines shooting off into a sharp chevron of a vanishing point, every corn field a perfect study of one-point perspective.

And fog! such a rarity to my sunburned eyes. I’d forgotten how its grayness subdues yet intensifies color, softens edges, and somehow brings everything in closer. As I sat in my car and mixed my colors, I found the Nebraska sky was ever-changing, the calligraphy of cranes ever curling, the gnarled twists of winter cottonwoods ever haunting.
My goal was to come home with fifteen plein air paintings. That was unrealistic, when one considers the daily need for coffeehouse letter-writing, occasional** craft-brew sampling (I am my father’s daughter, after all), and — most important of all — afternoon naps (I am my mother’s daughter, after all), fifteen paintings was pretty much out of the question.

In the end, I came home with nine paintings. Nine celebrations of Vuillard colors of a starkly beautiful landscape. Not bad.

Here they are in order of their creation:

‘Nebraska Springtime, I’ ~ by Dawn Chandler ~ oil on panel ~ en plein air ~ 8″ x 10″ ~ Day 1 ~ My first Nebraska painting, and one of the few paintings I’ve done with any kind of architecture. From the first parking area at the Fort Kearny State Recreation Area, looking south. Note the dots of cranes grazing in the field.

 

‘Nebraska Springtime, II” ~ by Dawn Chandler ~ oil on panel ~ en plein air ~ 8″ x 10″ ~ Day 1 ~ My only painting of the Platte River, this at just about high noon (so not much in the way of shadows) from just beyond the footbridge near the Ft. Kearny Rec Area. Painting en plein air is challenging, and painting water is especially challenging.

 

‘Nebraska Springtime, III” ~ by Dawn Chandler ~ oil on panel ~ en plein air ~ 8″ x 10″ ~ Day 1 – from the parking lot of the Iain Nicolson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary. Before leaving on my roadtrip, I had stained a bunch of painting panels dark purplish; you can see the color bleeding through all of these paintings; here it adds depth and shadow to the stubby fields.

 

‘Nebraska Springtime, IV” ~ by Dawn Chandler ~ oil on panel ~ en plein air ~ 8″ x 10″ ~ Day 2, afternoon and the clouds were churning rapidly, changing shape endlessly in the time I painted this. The land was mainly in shadow until the very end when a streak of light cut across the field and also illuminated that distant gold tree.

 

‘Nebraska Springtime, V” ~ by Dawn Chandler ~ oil on panel ~ en plein air ~ 8″ x 10″ ~ Day 2 ~ somewhere near Rowe Sanctuary. That was the darnedest cloud, appearing almost flat, but deep purple grey. I loved the contrast/complement of cool purple-blue in the sky with the warm ochre and gold-browns of the field.

 

‘Nebraska Springtime, VI” ~ by Dawn Chandler ~ oil on panel ~ en plein air ~ 8″ x 10″ ~ Day 2 ~ from Elm Island Road, looking north to the cottonwoods of Rowe Sanctuary. Just beyond those trees lies the Platte River.

 

‘Nebraska Springtime, VII” ~ by Dawn Chandler ~ oil on panel ~ en plein air ~ 8″ x 10″ ~ Day 3 ~ along Elm Island Road, there’s a pull-off and a huge wood-paneled blind, just beyond which lies a marshy spot with gnarled cottonwoods, and small pond where herds of cranes gather during the day. How to capture them? I tried small dabs of blue-grey. . .

 

‘Nebraska Springtime, VIII” ~ by Dawn Chandler ~ oil on panel ~ en plein air ~ 8″ x 10″ ~ Day 3 ~ here again, along Elm Island Road . . . last evening in Nebraska. That house or barn on the right was actually white, but shaded, so it was hard to get the color. I struggled with it over and over, and finally, with great frustration, wiped the whole thing out and — voila! Loved it like that. The color may not be literally or realistically accurate, but it completely works for me.

 

‘Nebraska Springtime, IX” ~ by Dawn Chandler ~ oil on panel ~ en plein air ~ 8″ x 10″ ~ Day 4 ~ Last morning in Nebraska . . . just had to get in one more painting, and especially try to get some sense of that fog. What color are trees in fog? (I’m still not sure). How many shades of grey can you mix (a lot more than 50!) And how do you capture dozens (if not thousands!) of birds in flight? (I opted here for scratching a pencil into the paint, at least for those smallest most distant cranes in the sky).

 

** I’m pretty sure this is the first time in 50+ years I’ve spelled this word correctly on the first go of it.

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some unsolicited advice from me to you

 

Forgive me, but I’m going to give you some advice.

Well okay — it’s stronger than that: I’m going to tell you what to do. I’m going to implore you. Entreat you. BESEECH YOU to do this, now:

Go to Nebraska.

Yes, Nebraska.

If you simply can’t get there now, then get it on your calendar and get there NEXT year. In March. You’ve got to go in March, in the first days of Spring. If you wait much longer, you’ll be too late.

Go there — go to Nebraska:

Make your way to the Platte River, near Kearney.

Get there before sunrise. Or sunset.

Bundle-up — it’s cold.

Stand, facing the water, and wait.

Be quiet. Be still.

Listen.    Listen.    Listen.

Keep waiting.

And prepare.

Prepare
to have a small Grinch part of your heart that’s been shut down for months, maybe even years, open up and expand as it takes flight
with 100,000 pairs of wings.


Prepare
to be awed — staggeringly awed — by the sheer density of grace. Grace like you’ve never seen before. Grace like you’ve never imagined.

Prepare
to feel a piercing in your throat and a welling in your eyes as you realize that in all your years of thinking you knew something, you realize that you’ve known nothing.

Prepare to feel small.

Prepare to feel your heart made huge.

Prepare
to go to Nebraska

Now.

Because what’s waiting for you in the middle of the Great Plains is this: The annual spring migration of sandhill cranes. Thousands upon thousands of sandhill cranes. Half-a-million. That’s one elegant winged being for every person living in Albuquerque. Or Sacremento. Or Tucson. Or Atlanta. For a span of about three weeks in March 80% of the world’s crane population — 80%!! — fills the Nebraska sky in elongated clouds of grey stitchery. Come evening, they seek the river — shallow water,  just 6” deep — to roost for the night. For unlike herons, they can’t roost in trees. They must have shallow water.**

Come daybreak, they begin to stir, and soon rise in magnificent flocks, as they spread out to the surrounding fields, to fill their half-million small bellies with grain, grubs, insects and seeds.

They are here to rest and refuel, having departed their southern wintering grounds some weeks earlier. Soon they will continue on their journey. By the time they reach their nesting grounds far, far north in the extreme reaches of Canada, Alaska and Siberia, they will have traveled some 4,000 miles.

Can you or I really even fathom that? That distance? That effort?

Doubtful.

The Annual Sandhill Crane Migration { map via the Grand Island, Nebraska website visitgrandisland.com/ }

One of the things that surprises me most about the cranes is the fact that I never even knew about them til last year.  Here I am an avid outdoorswoman, who prides herself on knowing a thing or two about Nature and the environment. Who likes to think she has an awareness of and is attuned to the seasons and creatures of the wilds a bit more than most people. Yet as I’ve written before, I don’t think the cranes were ever even on my radar till about a year ago. Though I’d seen cranes before, I had never really seen cranes before. And I certainly had no idea that one of the greatest, most epic natural migrations of the world occurs right here, just a day’s drive from where I live.

How did I miss this for so long?

I guess it’s because, as with so many things, we don’t see the cranes until we’re ready to see them.

The cranes can’t find us until we’re ready to be found by them, ready to have our hearts enlarged and lifted by their cooing trill, their black-tipped wings, their perfect awkward elegance.

I’m just grateful I was finally ready to be found by them.

Are you ready?


All the photographs pictured here were taken by Dawn Chandler in the first week of Spring 2017 in and around the Iain Nicholson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary, near Kearney, Nebraska.

 

**The Platte River has diminished considerably in the last few decades, due to modern demands. “Since the mid-20th century, this river has shrunk significantly. This reduction in size is attributed in part to its waters being used for irrigation, and to a much greater extent to the waters diverted and used by the growing population of Colorado, which has outstripped the ability of its groundwater to sustain them.”

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revealing the open pages of my wallet

It’s all in a book, a little bigger than my palm.

Book of Collage, Vol 01 by Santa Fe artist Dawn Chandler

 

When I shared The Book with an acquaintance, her voice fell silent as she slowly turned and considered the pages.

 

Book of Collage, Vol 01 by Santa Fe artist Dawn Chandler

 

“I feel,” she said in a near whisper, carefully turning each page . . .

 

Book of Collage, Vol 01 by Santa Fe artist Dawn Chandler

 

Book of Collage, Vol 01 by Santa Fe artist Dawn Chandler

 

Book of Collage, Vol 01 by Santa Fe artist Dawn Chandler

 

“. . . as though I’m paging through your diary… or looking through your wallet.”

 

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That was 25 years ago.

The Book holds within its leaves my first focused foray into collage; my first really satisfying immersion into abstraction.

Until The Book, I had been painting colossal canvases — some 9′ x 3.5’ — trying to abstract landscape with oil paint. My efforts were frustrated — I didn’t really know what I was doing. But then a seminar with one of my mentors in the Art of Collage, coupled with a brief encounter with a mathematician/closeted-artist, who kept a small blank book in which he glued the minutia of his days — matchbook tops, wine bottle labels, chocolate wrappers, ticket stubs, notations — lead me one spring afternoon to find my own small blank book and set about filling its pages.
You know the concept of “Flow” — where you are so completely focused on the task at hand, that you seem to rise outside of yourself and glide effortlessly through the effort? That is what I experienced in the making of The Book. For days I sat on the floor of my graduate school studio, surrounded by baskets of papers and cloth and dried teabags, prints and paint rags salvaged from studio rubbish bins, and every sort of paper trash blowing in the Philadelphia April wind. I remember being utterly joyfulmesmerized with the delight of discovery — as I explored color and texture and design and visual weight and volume and boldness and delicacy and balance and. . . and. . . and. . . it just seemed like I was discovering Art for the first time. Completely consumed in the act of creating, I glued bits of this and that and that and this onto the pages of my tiny book.

Instagram grid of collages from The Book of Collage, Volume 1, by Santa Fe artist Dawn Chandler
When finally — and rather gingerly — I shared my small fat volume with another mentor, he, too, fell silent as he, with his huge hands, gently turned from one tiny collage to the next, quietly considering each:

“This feels like a prayer book . . .
It seems like, until now, in order to express yourself, you have felt like you need to lace up your hiking boots and yell. But what this tender little book tells me is that instead of wearing your hiking boots, you should put on your bedroom slippers . . . and whisper. . .
You’ve found your voice here.”

 

Books of whispers.

I went on to make several in the months following that first excursion.
They’ve all been tucked away in a little box in a trunk.

Recently I’ve sought them again.
Turning the pages of these small visual diaries fills me with deep satisfaction. Indeed, they fill me with desire to whisper into small pages again . . . .

Hmmm. . . .

If you’d like to root through my “wallet” and see all of the pages of that first book of collages — The Book of Collage, Volume I — come, tune in to my Instagram account where I’ve recently posted close-ups of each page: instagram.com/taosdawn.

Soon I’ll share Volume, II — and perhaps even recent whispers . . . .

 

Instagram grid of collages from The Book of Collage, Volume 1, by Santa Fe artist Dawn Chandler

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where art lives . . . .

 

What art offers is space — a certain breathing room for the spirit.
~ John Updike

 

 

Who doesn’t love venturing into an artist’s studio? Even I — myself an artist — love visiting other creative’s studios.

 

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Artist Francis Bacon’s studio; photo by Perry Ogden.

 

I delight in seeing the arrangement of materials — some tidy, some chaotic explosions — and the variety of colors, and textures of STUFF, the weird and amusing found objects, snippets of scribble, spills and splatters, dinged up boxes and boards, worn furnishings, rusted bits of whatnot, papers and things piled and pinned and taped and thrown.  It’s like looking into an artist’s wallet or their diary or their bedroom or — dare I say ? — their soul.

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Artist Markus Lupertz in his studio.

 

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Sign on my studio door.

There are times when I am happy to welcome people into my studio, and other times when I want to keep it private. The latter is usually when I’ve got a lot of experiments going on. At these stages I’m still feeling my way — trying to find my voice — and feeling perhaps a little vulnerable, unwilling just yet to open myself up to the rest of the world for comment.

Funny, as I write this, a studio memory has surfaced: I was in grad school in Philadephia, and a distant relative — some half-cousin removed to the nth degree, whom I did not know — got in touch with me. It turned out his office was just a few blocks from my studio. As I recall, he had a vague connection to art — had studied architecture or urban planning or some such at Penn some years back (he was a bit older than I).  And so hearing through the family grapevine that I was nearby, he called to ask if he could come by and see my work, and then perhaps we could have lunch together.

A few days later he came by my studio, and, after walking around and looking at my paintings — all works in progress — he started verbally critiquing my work, and doing so rather negatively. Arrogantly. Pompously.

What?!

I couldn’t quite decide which I felt more:  offense or incredulous amusement!

Stunned by his ill-breeding — surely a trait of the other side of his family { sniff } — he was never invited back.

Good riddance!

 

Meanwhile, I kept on painting.

 

THAT, however, is not the studio story I intended to share just now. Rather, I want to share a studio story from a couple months ago** which is this:

One day in late October I received an email from Kimberly Conrad, the Denver, Colorado artist and editor of Where Art Lives Magazine — the richly illustrated digital publication featuring artists of the extensive Where Art Lives web hub.
Turns out she was going to be visiting Santa Fe to meet and photograph several Santa Fe artists and their studios, and wondered if she could perhaps add me to her list. It was all very last minute, as she had originally assumed — based on my website “taosdawn.com” — that I live in Taos. Unfortunately her tight schedule wouldn’t allow for a Taos visit. Lamenting this to our mutual friend and art sista Joan Fullerton, Joan informed her, “Dawn doesn’t live in Taos anymore; she lives in Santa Fe!”Where-Art-Lives_Dec-2016_Cover_px
An email here, a phone call there, and next thing I know I’m busy vacuuming clouds of black dog hair from my white studio floor, and straightening dozens of crooked pictures on the walls, as I prepared for the arrival of Where Art Lives.

QUITE the opposite of my grad school visitation described above, my visit with Where Art Lives was most pleasant. Kimberly and her entourage are clearly as enchanted by artists’ studios as I am, viewing an artist’s space with a mixture of  reverence, curiosity, awe and delight, whilst inquiring about paintings and materials, work habits, processes sources of inspiration, and more.

While she said my studio and I would be highlighted in the next issue of Where Art Lives, never did I imagine to see my studio and living space spread across 8-pages of a cool art magazine!

Please help me thank Where Art Lives Magazine by checking out their December issue here (my studio is featured on pages 158 – 165).

[And the January issue just came out here ]

Meanwhile — thanks to Kimberly Conrad and Where Art Lives — here is one place where art lives in Santa Fe:

Where-Art-Lives_Dec-2016_.DawnChandler_01-02_1000px

 

 

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——————————————————————————————————————————————————————————

** If you subscribe to my groovy Studio Art Notes newsletter and read the late autumn ’16 edition, then you already know this news — and to you I say: 1) THANK YOU for being a subscriber! and, 2) apologies for the redundant news!

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my hard new year heart

Walk along the Santa Fe River, and most of the year you’ll be walking in dust. Either that, or on pavement. I don’t know if its ever been a continually flowing stream, but I do know that human intervention has changed it considerably from what it once was. When I first moved to New Mexico some 20+ years ago, the river seemed a sad joke, desolate with litter, scraggly weeds and dry dirt.

Lately though there’s been an organized effort to clean up and return the river to a natural life dawnchandler_santa-fe-river-june_1000pxforce. The river banks have been reinforced, weeds pulled, willow and cottonwoods planted, and a paved rec path now winds along much of its length.

Mostly though the river remains dry, as do so many of the waterways out here. It’s an intermittent stream as I learned back in my map & compass days. Meaning the riverbed fills with water only occasionally, as in springtime with the mountain snow melt, and in summertime with the afternoon monsoonal showers. When the river does flow, it flows briefly. Magically. Forcefully.

But these days it’s dry.
On New Year’s day we walked in the riverbed, my pup and I, drumming up slight clouds of dust, and darting through fans of red fronds, our explorations secluded within walls of willow and banked earth.

New Year’s Day is a day I normally feel upbeat. The turning of the year always inspires me, ignites me with desires and goals, destinations and journeys. But these days with so much conflict, so much distrust and destruction and disillusionment in the world, I’ve been struggling to feel optimistic. The beautiful, blissful mindfulness I found on my long September walk flew with the November west wind back to The Green Mountains. Sometimes it seems that in its place a dark cloud of smoke has started piling up just at my doorway, constantly churning and threatening to seep in through the cracks of my quiet world.

As the smoke of my mind churns, I catch myself —

Breathe.

Look around you.

There ahead on the left is a long ledge of a rock, jutting out of the south bank like a grand piano. Waist-high, it’s flanks are water-worn, with long chipped and rounded shelves. Something about it is strange though. . . . there are all sorts of little rocks on it, configured in an unnatural, even decisive way.

 

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I step closer, as my eyes adjust, and exhale a small cry of of recognition and delight.

 

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Dozens of heart-shaped rocks line the ledges.

Every one is different.
Different colors, different textures, some smooth, some rough. Some more perfectly shaped, others misshapen. Some minuscule, others enormous. Yet all the same. At their core, all related.

 

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And each placed here by hands as various as the hearts they held — and hold.

I walked away smiling, for the first time all day.

On my way home I found a heart-shaped rock near the sidewalk and placed it in my pocket, and then — once home — by my door, so that later that day, when we returned to walk again, I could place my own heart beside the others.

Clouds and spitting snow and sunshine passed, and some hours later we returned to the heart shelf and I smiled again. But OH! I forgot my heart rock!
I so wanted to add one to the community of silent hearts.
I looked around along the river banks, a wee bit desperate to find another heart.

AH! Here’s one!
But the Perfectionist designer voice in my head said, Are you kidding? That hardly looks like a heart at all. You can’t put that up there — you need to find a better one.

Deflated, I looked around for another moment, when it struck me — Are YOU kidding? Your heart is perfect, just the way it is.

 

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And I nestled my perfectly imperfect heart among the others.

 

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I thought this little story might end there.

But the next day we visited the river heart shelf again, and, as I studied the menagerie for a moment I gasped a small breath of surprise and irritation: One of the large heart rocks next to where I’d placed mine was missing.
GONE!

 

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Just within the span of a few hours, someone had TAKEN one of the biggest, most special hearts!

I can’t believe someone would do that! How could someone do that?!

 

And then it occurred to me:

Maybe someone needed a big heart just now.

 

I know the feeling.

 

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