How art is helping a community heal the burn scars of the Butte Fire

Fire sculpture
Photo: Will Mosgrove
When the Music Stopped
Sculpture made with salvaged objects from the Butte Fire

Sitting on the blackened earth, she took a moment to cradle the clarinet’s skeleton. She ran her fingers over the burned through wall of the bell, the pads fused closed, the jagged end where a mouthpiece had once been. —Cynthia Restivo

Pieces: A Community Healing Art Project

Yesterday I attended the opening for the show called Pieces: A Community Healing Art Project. It’s a show of art, poetry, and prose exploring last year’s tragic Butte Fire.

You should come to tiny San Andreas in Calaveras County and see this powerful show.

If you don’t live in the Sierra Foothills, let me remind you what happened. Last September, a fire ripped through rural Calaveras County and fried over 70,000 acres. More than 800 structures were destroyed, better than half of them homes. Places where people lived. Places where people had their lives.

It happened so fast that many residents fled with little more than their clothing, their pets, and not much else. When I say that buildings were destroyed, I mean the houses and everything in them were reduced to nothing but ashes. If Grandma’s china and your mother’s wedding dress were left behind in the mad rush to escape, they were incinerated. Not to mention your pots and pans, your favorite chair. Your studio, your art supplies, the artwork you created that marked the course of your career, your life.

I know, it’s been a year since the fire. Old news, right? Calaveras County has fallen out of the news cycle. With our tragedy eclipsed not just by other wildfires, but by election foofery, Olympic flick-flacks, and (your choice, readers) celebrity name + visible body part, my community is trying, with little publicity, to recover from last year’s tragic Butte Fire.

You need to come to Calaveras Country and see this show.

The artworks, including paintings, collage, sculptures and photographs, are in response to the Butte fire.  They are testaments to the bravery of the artists who lost their homes,  who still reel and stagger in various states of balance. Framed poems and artist statements speak with stark gulps of grief, yet also wobbly words of hope and renewal.

Perhaps the most powerful pieces are the sculptures made of items scavenged from the ashes: A clay hand, missing all fingers but the charcoal-stained thumb. A ceramic pot, still intact but too firestorm-fragile to be touched. A weed eater, unrecognizable until you read the card next to it. The remains of a manual typewriter, with glass slumped into a form that resembles a hummingbird buzzing at the side of the keyboard.

When your life has been stolen, how do you know the manner in which you should move forward? But you do move forward, if only because time stands behind you and treads on your heels whether you advance or not.

Art helps you move your feet; it’s the great healer.  Art is how we process things; Art is how we make sense of the world; Art is how we find ourselves when all other maps become meaningless and we are wandering in a charred wilderness of blackened trees.

Come to Calaveras County and see this show. Because the artists there teach us how to salvage our lives from tragedy; how to navigate loss; how to begin traveling on the slow switchback trail of recovery. It’s a small show, to be sure. But it’s powerful in a way that you won’t forget.

In truth, we all walk through life on a paper bridge that could, at any moment, melt in the rain or crisp in a stray flame, plunging us into a gully. We need these messages, these semaphores and telegraphs and murmured communiqués from artists spooling their own ferries across their inner landscapes. They teach us how to grieve, and how to heal.

Pieces: A Community Art Project will be on display at the Calaveras Arts Council Gallery in San Andreas through September. 22 Main Street (Off Highway 49)

Click here for local news station coverage of the exhibit.


Celebrate your sister on National Sisters Day

Watercolor on 6″ x 6″ Aquabord


These two sisters are for sale. It’s a small painting on Aquabord, 6″ x 6″, and is unframed. It’s been sprayed with a UV-protective varnish, so you don’t have to put it under glass (although it will need to stay out of sun and bright light so that the colors don’t fade). It’s on a hard board, so you can lean it up on a picture ledge, or frame it.

Email me at mockingbirdatmidnight at gmail to purchase.

Your artwork sucks: 5 tips to defeat criticism and learn how to be a better artist

Painting of girl
What to do when the monster of criticism attacks.
Detail of painting “Reeling for the Empire”

When a friend lobbed a few critical words at my life drawing skills (something I work hard at and am proud of), all my self-puffery deflated like a sat-upon whoopee cushion.

We all know the sting of criticism. And artists—sensitive lot that we are—tend to become derailed by the smallest hint that our work is not up to snuff.

The criticism came from an artist I respect immensely, so it stung especially hard. I was ready to crawl into a hole, learn Microsoft Office and reemerge as an office lady. Why would I even think I could be an artist?

I’ve seen a lot of talented people give up their love because of a few off-the-cuff critical words.

But I can’t do that. Because to not paint; to not draw; to not tell stories? That really hurts. If criticism is like being stuck with a hat pin, not working at my art is like being eviscerated with a dagger.

Yes, really.

So I’ve developed 5 ways to deal with criticism. They aren’t foolproof, but they do help keep me from sinking into despair.

1. Consider the source. Did a yayhoo in a beer hat just say my painting sucks, then shows me a watercolor his great-grandmother did of two Labrador retrievers in a pond?

Wait, what? Those are ducks?

Unless he then tells me he’s a professor at a prestigious art school, and then goes on to offer me a free detailed critique of my work, I smile, hand his phone back to him, and go on painting. Everyone’s entitled to an opinion.

If, while sipping his beer, my hypothetical art professor goes over my languishing painting and tells me where I’ve gone wrong. I listen. And here’s where the last three bits of advice on my list come to play.

2. Don’t take it personally. I am an artist, but my art isn’t me. The art I’ve made in the past just shows the road I’ve been traveling. Sometimes that road is rocky and I stumble on a rough track, sometimes it’s smooth and I zoom like a sports car. But that journey doesn’t define me; I like to think that it’s the potential art I might make that defines me.

3. Consider the criticism. This is hard. Because it hurts a little to admit to myself that my carefully crafted work is never going to make it into the Guggenheim, even as outsider art. It hurts a lot to find that my peers think my art sucks.

But I force myself to take the criticism in my hand and examine from all sides. Is any of it valid? If so, what bits can I keep and learn from and what bits can I put in a mental drawer and forget about for now? And if it’s not valid, I file it away in my mind anyway, because it could be that I’m just not quite ready to hear it.

4. Consider your options. If the criticism is valid, what steps do I take to make my art better? Do I need to learn more about composition? Do I need to learn more about color theory to clarify muddy color? Do I need to work with another media for a while to loosen my arm?

My art is about communication, and if I’m not doing a good job of that, what will it take to improve my skills?

5. Keep working. Like a traveler on a pilgrimage, I keep putting one (metaphorical) foot in front of the other. Art (and life) is sometimes a slow trudge, and I’m learning to take help from even hostile territory.

The fiddler tells a story about his martial arts teacher, who said, “People ask me how I got so good at martial arts. I got so good because I got beat up a lot.”

Because even when criticism is meant to draw blood, you can learn something about the battle.



 Addendum: Wow, I want to thank those of you who read this column and then came to my defense! That means a lot to me. 

But really, I was not fishing for anything. I was trying to talk about the hurt feelings that artists all have at some time. I honestly wanted to share how I deal with those hurt feelings, in hopes that it might help others in the same situation.

Keep on creating, whatever you do! And if you have any tactics you use to survive and benefit from criticism, share it in the comments section.


The world on fire

Red Sun Watercolor on #300 hot press Arches
Red Sun
Watercolor on #300 hot press Arches

The fire started on Wednesday, but the severity of it didn’t hit me until Friday afternoon when the sun turned red and the sky began raining ash.

The Butte fire is ravaging Calaveras county; we’ve been on advisory evacuation orders this whole weekend as the flames galloped towards us. Thanks to the nearly 5,000 firefighters, police officers, and other responders (and we are so unbelievably grateful to these brave people who risk their lives to save ours) the march of the fire is slowing. But it’s still moving, and we are in its path.

Fire Watercolor on #300 hot press Arches
Watercolor on #300 hot press Arches

Today I had to paint about this fire.  I can’t see the fire from where I live, but I’ve seen so many photos, so many videos, and my nightmares are inscribed across my mind. I needed to unpack my fears of losing my own home if the firefighters can’t hold the line. I needed to process my sadness for my friends who have lost their homes. And I wanted to try to capture the energy and savagery of this beast that is consuming California.

And I want to be of some use. I can’t help directly. I can’t go bulldoze firebreaks and cut brush, but I can bring this to your attention, dear readers. If you are able, please donate to the Red Cross to help the fire victims across the West. We are burning, burning. So many have lost their homes, their possessions, their businesses and livelihoods. Help if you can.



On the stems of the Calaveras tomato and the importance of observation

Field sketch of Vogliotti tomato Graphite and watercolor in Stillman & Birn Delta Series sketchbook
Field sketch of the Camalay tomato
Graphite and watercolor in Stillman & Birn Delta Series sketchbook

Two weeks ago I spent the hot summer morning sketching amazing tomatoes at Taylor Mountain Gardens, the farm that supplies much of the fresh produce found at the Outer Aisle Farmstand and  Restaurant in Murphys, California. (Read about why I am drawing at this farm here.)

Owner Eric Taylor was understandably proud as he showed me the rows of these magnificent tomato plants, as well grown as everything else on this farm. The vines were big healthy mounds bearing nearly perfect classic tomatoes from pearly green unripe knobs to glowing summer-red fruits.

Originally bred by early Calaveras County Italian settlers (who had been friends of Eric and Christine Taylor)Camalay tomato is a big girl (according to Marianna’s Heirloom Seeds it can reach 2 pounds), is a pure clean red, and according to Eric, is completely suited to growing in Calaveras County.


A tomato such as this deserves its own artwork, and I’ve been working on a finished illustration to honor it (and use as a portfolio piece). I had my field sketches and a couple of blurry iPhone photos to work from.

As I designed the picture, I grew suspicious about this part of the field sketch.

Tomato_StemHad I seen that knobby structure on the stem correctly? Was it really so big? How exactly was it attaching to the tomato stem?

This week I returned to that row of big green plants and looked more carefully.

Field sketch of Vogliotti tomato stems Graphite in Stillman & Birn Delta Series sketchbook
Field sketch of Camalay tomato stems
Graphite in Stillman & Birn Delta Series sketchbook

Indeed, the tomatoes are attached to the plant by burly stems and hefty knobs; the fruit is heavy and so needs secure support. Now I wonder, do all big tomatoes have these odd knobs? I’ve never before looked that closely.

But that’s what’s so wonderful about drawing from life. Slow, careful observation reveals what is hidden from the impatient eye. Direct observation creates space for discoveries, and those revelations not only make my life so much more interesting, but they help me feel connected to my world.  Plus, my illustrations feel so much richer for being correct.

Gentle readers, your assignment for today is to look really hard at something familiar. Try to find something about it that you never before noticed, and note that in your sketchbook or journal.

Then slice a sun-ripened tomato (a Camalay if you can find one), sprinkle with salt or sugar, and while enjoying this summer treat, ponder what you’ve learned by observing what most people ignore.

In the Central Sierra look for Camalay tomatoes (as well as other varieties) at Taylor Mountain Farms booths at farmers markets throughout Calaveras and Tuolumne Counties. In Murphys, check out the Outer Aisle Food Hub or the Outer Aisle CSA.

30-in-30: Watercolor portrait from life


Watercolor portrait
15-minute portrait
Watercolor on really terrible paper

I began this painting in the life drawing session on Thursday. But since the models (us!) only posed for 10 to 15 minutes, I didn’t have time to A. Catch a good likeness and B. apply much paint. So I brought it home and played with it in my studio. I admit, I cheated a little bit. I started it on Thursday, but finished it today. (I didn’t have time to start a personal painting today, as commercial work fell in my lap, and you know how freelancing goes: work when you’ve got it and starve when you don’t.)

This is paper that, even though it wasn’t cheap (although not at the top of the food chain either),  is even more unsatisfactory than the really cheap stuff. I was sorely disappointed in this paper, and have never really used it for anything much at all. It looks like it should be a wonderful paper, but when you start applying washes, it gets very strange speckles all over it. And you can’t take any of the paint off; scrubbing gets you nowhere. I won’t tell you the brand in public (I don’t like to kiss and tell), but if you really want to know, I can tell you privately.

Maybe I haven’t learned how to coax the best from this paper. Eventually I guess I’ll learn as I still have a whole pad of it.


Slumming with cheap watercolor paper isn’t as sordid as you thought

Figure drawing in watercolor
15-minute poses on cheap watercolor paper

Dear Reader, I originally thought to warn you about using crappy watercolor paper. If you’ve been studying watercolor for long, then I’m sure you’ve heard advice to use quality watercolor paper.

Before I got so snobbish about paper, I actually bought a pad of the cheap stuff. And people have given me pads over the years. So I’ve got quite a bit of it. I’ve never  used much of it because I got all highbrow early on in my watercolor journey. And it is hard to work with; badly sized, this paper sucks in the paint and leaves dull, lifeless washes that look sort of speckley. It buckles as soon as you add water, fights with me like mad racoon, and generally leaves me feeling like this pose.

But I’ve been using this cheap stuff for quick life-drawing warm ups, because then I don’t feel like I’m using up the precious resource of my luscious #300 Arches. And while the buckling, the disappearing paint, and the overall junkiness of this paper really frustrates me, in the end, I put in a lot of brush time on it, and work out a lot of solutions that I remember when I paint using the “good stuff”. So if you limit your painting experience because you’re  afraid to use up your fancy-schmancy, double-sized, extra-heavy oo-la-la papier, grab something cheap at your local art and craft store and get some mileage on your brush.

(Brushes, however? Get the best you can afford.)

Drawing a candle holder for beginning a watercolor painting


After all those eggs, it feels good to be painting something else besides eggs. Well, and eggs too.

Graphite on paper underdrawing for beginning a painting
Graphite on paper underdrawing for beginning a painting

This is how I start a drawing; by measuring the angles, horizontal lines, and vertical lines. It’s kind of like using a grid. For subjects that aren’t so man-made as this candle holder, I can often hold the grid and the lines in my head, but for this I needed to make sure that my horizontals were level (I tend to drift down when I draw horizontal lines), and that my verticals were really straight up and down. Before I start to paint, I’ll erase many of these lines, and lighten the rest. I’ll also erase lines that need to be soft edges, so that I don’t forget when I’m in the heat of applying pigment.

I’m not quite done with this drawing. There are a few area I want to perfect. But it’s pretty close. It’s been for this image that I’ve painted all those darn eggs.

Now I’m going to get to paint something else, and I’m eggs-cited.


30-in-30: Watercolor still-life painting in a low-key color scheme

Milk Creamer and Eggs Watercolor on #300 Arches hot press
Creamer and Eggs
Watercolor on #300 Arches hot press

I’m still painting eggs this January, but I decided to add another element.

I know I’m not handling these white subjects in a traditional watercolor fashion that’s light and delicate and high-key. I’m trying to find a way to make a low-key painting with watercolor because A. The high-contrast Dutch and Flemish genre style master paintings (think Vermeer and Rembrandt) set my brain on fire, and B. I’m trying to push my watercolors to be more.

I like the work in the pitcher spout and the eggs.

Milk Creamer and Eggs (close up)
Milk Creamer and Eggs (close up)

But there’s still not enough contrast between the pitcher and the background. So after I scanned this painting, I went back for a quick, devil-may-care splash at the easel. What the heck. I wasn’t happy with the painting anyway.

Milk Creamer and Eggs (State 2) Watercolor on #300 Arches hot press
Milk Creamer and Eggs (State 2)
Watercolor on #300 Arches hot press

After washing the background with several layer of ultramarine blue, terra rosa, and some dark greeny-blue that has no name in my palette,  the contrast is working better. And now I’m starting to get a more textured background, which I also like. I’ve sanded the background twice with a rough grit sand paper, and applied multiple layers of paint, but it wasn’t until I started to put more paint on the paper that things started happening.

Sometimes it pays to have courage with watercolor.

This is part of a series exploring one 1-hour painting (nearly) every day in January as part of Leslie Saeta’s series, Thirty Paintings in Thirty Days. To see my experience with the entire series, click on the category, 30 in 30, at right.