Gold Rush dancing and great news


Saturday night the fiddler had a gig in Columbia State Historic Park playing tunes for the annual Lamplight Tours. Docents dressed like they stepped out of 1849 give tours of Columbia, and players perform skits so that you can see what it might have been like when the West was still wild. Afterwards in Angelo’s Hall there was dancing, cake, and merriment. And beautiful costumes.

Waiting to Dance
Waiting to be asked

I am always amazed at the time and effort the docents take in creating their costumes. Corsets and collars, tucks and pleats, hand-crocheted lace and yards of trim: All the details are researched and historically accurate, I’m told. Right down to what’s under the crinolines. The ladies looked like flowers spinning on the dance floor.

I always covet these dresses. Someday, when I learn to sew…

Of course I had to sketch the dance (when I wasn’t playing tunes).

couple dancing
The Sailor’s Dance

I was off my game, though, thanks to the miracle of modern medicine. The previous day I’d had a procedure that would have been unimaginable during the Gold Rush. Thankfully the doctor gave me a two-year pass until the next time I need the test. I’m certified cancer-free! Yippeee! No wasting sickness for me. If I’d had a long dress, I’d have been spinning with the other girls.

But the drugs block the signal between my brain and hand. I could remember tunes, but my fingers wouldn’t play them. While drawing, I fumbled and erased a lot. But it was still fun to  capture an older entertainment with an even older technology.

Dance Teacher
Dance teacher

Really, more people should get out and dance. It’s a lot of fun.



Round the house and mind the easel!

Playing for Set Dancers

My band has been preparing for a gig. We recorded a tune, and when I listened to it, I was horrified to hear a tempo as ragged and floppy as an old stuffed bunny.

I play Irish flute, specifically dance music. I love the rolling beat, the pulse of the tune lifting and driving dancers through the set. The beat needs to be crisp and perfect to move the dancers.

But that what wasn’t what I was hearing in our recording.

So I’ve spent the last week practicing with a metronome, first lilting the tune in time with the flashing red LED, then trying to match my flute playing to that maddening strobe.

It’s amazing how that little pulsing light seems to slow down and speed up as I play a tune. At first I thought there was something wrong with the metronome, but of course, there’s nothing wrong with the electronics; it’s my playing that’s uneven. But gradually I’ve managed to tame my out-of-control tempo, and the tunes sound all the better for it.

Painting isn’t like playing a flute, but visual arts don’t exist outside of tempo. I think that paintings have their own internal tunes. My favorite paintings are those that make my brain feel like I’m seeing music. Sorolla paintings play tunes to me. Zorns are full of music. Sargent is something like a symphony. Surprisingly (because I prefer realistic work) Paul Klee paintings are like small pipes and fiddles.

I find that external noise while I paint influences a painting’s tempo. My most successful paintings are done in silence, when I really listen to the painting and pay close attention to the pulse that each passage requires. I listen carefully to hear fast strokes that are well conceived; slow shapes of color placed just exactly where they need to be; staccato or slurred edges; the pacing of high and low values. I’m always asking myself, how do I encourage the viewer to dance through a painting?

When I paint, there’s no steady tick-tock of a metronome, other than the drum of my blood and the deep sound a painting makes when it’s making my heart dance. Only if my heart is shouting “house Maggie, mind the dresser!” will I have a chance to let others hear that internal music.

The morning after St. Patrick’s day

St. Patrick’s day is over, and with it goes for another year the green beer, leering leprechauns, and the ridiculous and boorish kiss-me-I’m-Irish behavior. Thank God.

This kind of faux Irish revelry, while lucrative for Irish pubs, people who make green sparkly hats, and those who put green coloring in cheap beer, is like, well, like drinking cheap green beer compared to drinking Guinness.

The pure drop—traditional music, set dancing, singing and story telling—is nothing like the commercial event we celebrate in the States. It’s deeper, denser, more satisfying, and infinitely more fun. There’s a community built around it, and it’s going on all around, under the mainstream media radar, in pubs and pizza parlors, churches and granges, living rooms and back patios. And once you get involved in it, you’ll find more and more of it around you.

The best place to start learning about the Irish-American community is to listen to some traditional Irish music at a session. There’s a good list of sessions around the world at And once you’re tapped into this community, well, you may be housing round the set yourself someday. And when that happens, you’ll know what that last sentence means.

The short long pose

I dropped in on Linda Corbett’s life drawing class last week. I was at the Pacific Art League for a portrait class, but it had been canceled and Linda said, “You’re welcome to stay for my class. We have a ballerina for the model tonight.” And on cue, a beautiful young woman strolled in, a tutu under one arm.

Good teacher. She knows what kind of lure will catch a student.

The drawing I’ve posted above is a “long” pose—two 20-minute sets and two 15s. That’s not much time for me; I’m used to much longer poses at the Atelier. I have clocked in 20 to 30 hours on one pose. I haven’t drawn from short poses much in the last couple years.

It meant I had to manage my time more rigidly so that I could bring the entire drawing up to some small amount of finish by the end of the evening. I allowed myself only the first 20 minutes for the block in, 10 minutes into the second pose to check measurements and make any adjustments, then the remaining time to build up the form with pastel color.

That was an exciting exercise. At the time it felt like drawing like the wind. But now I can see all the flaws in execution. It felt good to draw that way, but I traded emotion for precision.

On the other hand, this sketch above was done in about 2 minutes as the model was tying on her toe shoes. Although the proportions are off, the sketch still has an energy and integrity lacking in the twenty minute sketch. Weird how that works. Sometimes a really fast sketch will capture the model better than a longer pose.

I decided to attend the rest of the class—4 classes in all—and concentrate on pastel portraits. I’m interested to see what happens when I only have one 20-minute pose to catch a likeness.

Drawing dancers


Saturday I ventured down a seriously narrow road in the coastal mountains to visit a folk dance weekend. It’s a private event that’s been going on for many years. It involves camping, eating, and pretty much round-the-clock dancing. My husband’s band, Harmon’s Peak, played for a contra dance and I went along with the intention of sketching.

I like dancing a lot, and I had to exert an enormous amount of self-discipline to pull out my sketchbook and get some work done. Of course I was shy to sketch around people I didn’t know (they might look!), but even when a man plunked down right beside me and took a good long gander at my sketches, I just kept drawing.

DancButterflytwirlers present the puzzle of sketching a moving target. When the dancers were flying across the deck, I could only scratch out the briefest of lines. So I mostly drew them as they stood waiting for instruction, and during the repetitive parts of the dance. I had to watch carefully to catch them as they returned to the same position over and over again. Then I’d tear into the drawing and get a few more lines down.

I started by drawing stick figures with the pen side of my Tombow Dual Brush-pen. Stick figures are a great way to get a gesture down fast. I start with the line of action so I’ve got a place to go, then over that line I draw in the barrel of the chest. That’s the most important part—it’s the visual clue about the torso’s inclination in space, and as Rob has told me millions of times in class, it’s all about the torso. When I’d got the torso down, all the rest of the bodily bits—hips, arms, legs, and head—could be attached with some success.  Last of all, I hung flesh and clothes on the gesture drawing using the brush side of my Tombow.

SingleDancerThe contra was short and sweet. Afterward, the dancing rounded back to Israeli line dancing, a style of dancing I don’t know. It was interesting to watch the dancers as they stepped and twirled. They didn’t have partners, as they would in contra dancing, but they did form a large circle and danced as a group. Each song had intricate stepping patterns and lots of whirling, and some dances had arm waving and gestures. It seemed almost meditational rather than social in the way a contra or a set dance is social. Without someone to tell me what I should be doing, I’d sure have to be meditating on what the heck I was supposed to be doing in that circle.

If you live in the S.F. Bay Area and want to find a contra dance, the BACDS (the Bay Area Country Dance Society) is a good resource.

There is evidently a large subculture of Israeli line dancing in the Bay Area. You might try the Sunnyvale Community Center.

Harmon’s Peak

Tombow brushpen and waterbrush
I drew this while Harmon's Peak sang Buffalo Gals, a song from the 19th century that's still a terrific song in the 21st century.

The best part of the Good Old Fashioned Bluegrass Festival was the jamming that took place after the amplified music stopped. There was music all night long—of course bluegrass, but also old time, blues, jazz, and a group of folks having a dance party while they played bluegrass tinged Beatles, R&B, and disco. By 1 am I was exhausted, and I drifted off to sleep under a nearly full moon, hearing banjos, fiddles, guitars, and stand-up bass in the campsite 3 spaces over. Sheer heaven.

The amount of talented folks in everyday life astounds me. People go crazy for superstars, but there’s a lot of people out there who are top-notch musicians. They might even be living next door to you!

The next morning my husband’s band, Harmon’s Peak played. They’re an old time string band, which is a different style of music, but it’s part of the roots of bluegrass. As you can see, they’re the best dressed old time band in the Bay Area.

Harmon's Peak
Harmon's Peak