Winter storm and crying in the snow

Bench in snow
Snow ghosts looking over the valley filled with white

1:50 am Saturday morning

The storm woke me.

Well, really, anxiety woke me. My nerves shrieked like a bad actor chewing the scenery while an orchestra of winds howled around the house. With it’s ever-present sub-text of grief, my brain wouldn’t stop the reel-to-reel predictions of doom, of tall trees crashing through the roof, of branches flying through windows, of chaos and destruction.

I always worry about heavy wind in the Sierra. Trees surround our house. Big trees. Trees weakened by drought, anchored into the earth with withered roots. And the earth, sodden by days of rain and ten inches of melting snow, tends to give way easily; picture trying to stand a spoon in a bowl of pudding.

This is the second series of storms that started Friday evening, when the first storm dumped snow on us and wrapped the world in white in less than an hour. I barely made it to the gate of the development where I live; once through, my car—a flat-lander car sans chains or 4-wheel drive—wouldn’t climb the hill. Instead, I parked the car and walked the last mile to my house, through fat wet flakes that obliterated every step in minutes.

For whole minutes at a time, while I slithered up the slushy highway, while I slid the car to the side of the road, while I broke snow through the front yards of neighbors, while I marveled at the darkly luminous night, I didn’t think about my mom. Small mercies.

Cedars in snow
Cedars weighted with snow. I mourn while the trees expect to shed the heaviness when the weather warms.

Voices in the snow

Next morning, when the light rose slowly, a heavy fog curtained trees that were lumpy with snow, and more snow—flakes now like soft cotton squares—drifted down.

All day Saturday, between bouts shoveling and extricating my car from the side of the road*, I walked miles through the snow, enjoying the crunch under my feet, the freshness of the air, and the smell of snow that is a non-smell, a fresh scent, blue and sharp and nothingness. I thought perhaps I could exhaust myself so that I would sleep through the night.

Wet black oak branches curled and scribbled against the white landscape, scrawling hieroglyphics that I tried to read. A grove of horse chestnuts looked like they were dancing a slow circle-dance. Cedars drooped under the weight of the snow, and ponderosas stood like snowy sentinels. It was like a National Geographic photo. Reflexively I thought, I’ll call mom, or send her some pictures of this. She loves to watch the weather so. I though of her at home, sitting on the couch reading the charts and diagrams in the newspaper every day, imagining the atmospheric conditions that affect her kids and grandkids in their far-flung homes.

And just as reflexively I thought, I can’t call her. She’s not there. The phone would ring and the answering machine would pick-up, or my father. And he will no longer say, “Let me get your mom. She’s right here.” Although my dad and I talk twice a day now, holding each other up as we wade through our grief, the absence of those words, “you wanna talk to your mom?”  makes me ache.

I began to cry as I walked down the deserted street. I called out, “Hello mom,” and the memory of her voice reverberated.

“Hey, sugar,” I imagined her saying.

“Momma, where are you?” I said out loud, and her voice in my head said, “I’m here.”

“I can’t find you,” I said. “Come home. Come back. I miss you.”

And I remembered that she can’t come back. Her body is ash now; it fills a box hidden in the closet in one of the bedrooms; we can’t stand to look at it. Her voice in my head faded, drowned perhaps by my sobs, ugly in the snowy stillness. I cried noisily until I passed a man in a blue track suit shoveling snow at the bottom of his driveway. He looked at me, leaning on his shovel and scowling with discomfort.  I choked back my tears; it’s a small community and perhaps I will soon get a reputation as a crazy lady.

Chestnut trees
Horse chestnuts circle dance on a hill.

Dramatic break? Not so much.

By midnight on Saturday, strong winds blew in, and the keening as they knifed by the house woke me. In a bad fantasy movie this would be the dramatic break: overwhelmed by grief, I run out into the storm, nightgown plastered fetchingly to my body as I wander aimlessly but with great emotion through the lashing winds. Trees rock and roll, then crash down, barely missing me, and I sob in the mounds of greenery until a strange old woman finds me, leads me to her little house and feeds me hot drinks so bitter they sting my tongue but bring sleep until morning sun breaks through mullioned windows. There’s a denouement. I’m still sad, but healed, and able to walk through honey gold sunshine into a brand new life.

Feh. My life is boring. There aren’t any mysterious, magical old women living in cottages near by; just retirees and working moms. I’m too much of a wimp and too old to be an ingenue scampering helter-skelter into a storm. Instead, I took an anti-anxiety pill and sat in the little room we call the library, writing this post until the medication smoothed the jagged edges of my nerves and grief. They are small white lozenges the doctor prescribed when I told her that I suffered severe panic attacks after my mother died; I don’t like taking them, but the doctor explained they are medicine, so I take as directed when the anxiety shouts too loud. Outside the storm still rages, but an hour after taking a pill I don’t care as much. My nerves have settled down, writing helps quiet my mind, and eventually, around 4 a.m., I’m able to sleep, despite the winds rocking the cedars and pines and shrieking around the house.

*I want to give a big shout out to my neighbors, G. and his son, K., who helped me shovel snow and free my car. You know who you are! Your kindness touched me deeply. Small gifts like that are amazingly helpful to soften grief. Thank you.

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A new path for life, a new blog focus on grief

snow in grief
Snow of grief

For some time I’ve been meaning to change the direction of Mockingbirds at Midnight, but was unsure where I’d take the blog. Then my life changed. It’s a weird thing about life; sometimes pathways appear when you least expect them. Sometimes you are dragged onto a cold, hard trail kicking and screaming NONONO!

On the last day of 2016, my mother—my security, my rock, my best friend, my biggest fan, my confidant, my conscience, my guide, my momma—left this world. Since then I’ve been wandering a dark landscape, lost amid sucking holes of anxiety and panic, stumbling through bogs made of tears, and falling into deep swally holes of grief. As I wandered, I did find one path that seemed to be semi-solid ground, and that is the path of writing and sharing this first year of loss on this blog. I hope it will help me; I hope, if you are grieving, it might give you some comfort too.

Over the next month, I’m going to be migrating my art related content to my website, MargaretSloan.com. That’s where you’ll find articles on how to make a light box, how to paint teeth, and how to pack art materials for a car trip. Plus other assorted articles and blogs about art, folklore, and the world as seen by an artist. I’ll still be working on happier things, but I won’t be doing that here. Head on over to MargaretSloan.com and explore my website as I develop it, sign-up for my newsletter, or follow my blog to keep up-to-date on more upbeat topics.

But Mockingbirds at Midnight, for the next year, will be about grief. About how it feels to be left behind. About how it feels to say I’ll never see my loved one again. About all the rituals, stories, and myths surrounding death, because that’s what I need to share with the world right now. And it will be about how we might heal, if that’s even possible, after great loss.

And it will be about my mother, as much as possible (I do want to protect the privacy of my family), and my gigantic love for the amazing woman she was and continues to be in my heart.

I understand if you don’t want to read this kind of stuff. It’s not for everyone. But if you think you  might find comfort in these words, I hope you’ll stick around.

Learn to paint watercolor portraits

watercolor painting
Fiddler in Watercolor

Watercolor Portrait Class

Januray 20, February 3 & 17, 2016, 1pm to 4 pm

I will be teaching a watercolor portrait class at Town Hall Arts/Gallery Copper in Copperopolis, California. These classes are small, with no more than 6 or 7 students, so I can give personal attention to everyone, no matter what their level experience.

Watercolor is the perfect medium for painting translucent, lifelike portraits of faces. Learn how to choose a photo, draw your image, and paint a face in watercolor.

I have been painting in watercolor for 15 years, and am excited to help you learn to use the sometimes difficult medium of watercolor.

Using demonstrations, practice exercises, and  fearless paint slinging, I will teach you to trust in your paint, brushes, water. And most importantly, I will help you trust your own intuitions as you memorialize your favorite photos, and make personal remembrances of photos of your loved ones.

Bring your watercolors, paper, and some photos that you’d like to translate into a painting.

To register, call 209/785-2050 or email Larry {at} TownHallArts {dot} com
To find out more about Town Hall Arts/Gallery Copper, visit their website: http://www.townhallarts.com

I also teach private classes at my home studio. For more information, email me at Mockingbirdatmidnight {at} gmail {dot} com.

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Learn how to paint watercolor portraits

Portrait of Lee
Portrait of Lee

Watercolor Portrait Class

November 4 & 18, 2016, 1pm to 4 pm

I will be teaching a watercolor portrait class at Town Hall Arts/Gallery Copper in Copperopolis, California. These classes are small, with no more than 6 or 7 students, so I can give personal attention to everyone, no matter what their level experience.

Since the holidays are coming up, we’ll be talking about the best way to take portraits at family gatherings, as well as drawing and painting.

Watercolor is the perfect medium for painting translucent, lifelike portraits of faces. Learn how to choose a photo, draw your image, and paint a face in watercolor.

I have been painting in watercolor for 15 years, and am excited to help you learn to use the sometimes difficult medium of watercolor.

Using demonstrations, practice exercises, and  fearless paint slinging, I will teach you to trust in your paint, brushes, water. And most importantly, I will help you trust your own intuitions as you memorialize your favorite photos, and make personal remembrances of photos of your loved ones.

To register, call 209/785-2050 or email Larry {at} TownHallArts {dot} com
To find out more about Town Hall Arts/Gallery Copper, visit their website: http://www.townhallarts.com

I also teach private classes at my home studio. For more information, email me at Mockingbirdatmidnight {at} gmail {dot} com.

New paintings available at Calaveras County Artist Studio Tours

Portrait of girl
The moment the mask dropped
Watercolor on Aquabord
© 2016 Margaret Sloan

Tomorrow is the big day! First day of Open Studios. I’ll have some new work there, including this watercolor, which I just finished.

 

Saturday and Sunday, September 24 &25

10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.

6814 Michel Road

Mountain Ranch, California

209/754-5650

Calaveras County Artist Studio Tours

Asian elephant
Nicholas the elephant
Available in my Etsy shop and at open studios

 

I’ll be exhibiting with two artists this weekend in Mountain Ranch as part of Calaveras County Arts Councils Artist Studio tours. I’m working feverishly to have some new work, things you haven’t seen yet, plus I’ll have prints of old favorites,  so if you get a chance, come up the hill to visit. Each artist has widely different styles, so it should be interesting to see all of them together.

Saturday and Sunday, September 24 &25

10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.

6814 Michel Road

Mountain Ranch, California

209/754-5650

 

Abstract art
Fledgling
By Gayle Lorraine
Acrylic on canvas

Gayle Lorraine paints intuitively, and her black and white canvases speak of hidden landscapes, barely seen truths, and unknown dreams. Her website: www.gaylelorraine.com

 

Landscape painting
House
Painting by George Allen Durkee
Oil on canvas

 

George paints landscapes full of color, energy, and life. He’s been a painter for all most of his life, and his new paintings distill a scene into just what needs to be there and no more. His website: www.gadurkee.com

Girl with garland
Maiden
Watercolor on Arches #140 hot press

Watercolor Portrait Class

September 16 & October 21, 1pm to 4 pm

I will be teaching a watercolor portrait class at Town Hall Arts/Gallery Copper in Copperopolis, California. These classes are small, with no more than 6 or 7 students, so I can give personal attention to everyone, no matter what their level experience.

Watercolor is the perfect medium for painting translucent, lifelike portraits of faces. Learn how to choose a photo, draw your image, and paint a face in watercolor.

I have been painting in watercolor for 15 years, and am excited to help you learn to use the sometimes difficult medium of watercolor.

Using demonstrations, practice exercises, and  fearless paint slinging, I will teach you to trust in your paint, brushes, water. And most importantly, I will help you trust your own intuitions as you memorialize your favorite photos, and make personal remembrances of photos of your loved ones.

To register, call 209/785-2050 or email Larry {at} TownHallArts {dot} com
To find out more about Town Hall Arts/Gallery Copper, visit their website: http://www.townhallarts.com

I also teach private classes at my home studio. For more information, email me at Mockingbirdatmidnight {at} gmail {dot} com.

Listening to the sounds of the night

Fox
Grey fox study from a photo by Orphie Barella on Paint my Photo
Watercolor on paper
Margaret Sloan

Last Thursday night, I skipped my normally early bedtime. I was hopped up from watching a movie and stayed up late scrolling the internet for reviews and opinions. Because it wasn’t enough that I watched the damn movie, right?

Honeys, when you get older, don’t mess with your schedule, especially if you already suffer from insomnia. It doesn’t pay. At 12:30 am, I was still staggering around the house, trying not to waken the fiddler while I did half-hearted yoga poses that had been advertised as a natural sleep aid. I was starting to feel drowsy when the barking started.

It got my attention. We live in a neighborhood with rather strict rules about barking dogs. You might hear them bark for their dinner; or to greet their people; or at other dogs during their evening constitutional. There’s one lonely hound who howls in grief if his people leave him home alone for the evenings.

We almost never hear barking dogs after midnight.

But something barked. It was an odd bark, different from the single punctuation of a pet’s ruff-ruff-ruff. These barks came in two parts, split like a semicolon, the first bark short, the second longer. I was pretty sure it wasn’t a dog.

But what was it? I’ve heard coyotes. I know their yipping and yowling, the jostling of voices during the coyote gospel of call and response. This barking was not it.

After a few minutes, another animal answered, this bark coming from the northeast. For around 15 minutes a series of two-note barks traveled back and forth across the valley.

Then suddenly there was barking all around, as if a chorus line of animals were running through the dark. The sound echoed and chuffed; amplified, it filled the spaces between the houses with reverberations as dusty and crisp as old lace.

I live in one of those wildland-urban interfaces that suburbanites prefer when they move to the country. It’s just a regular housing development, with rows of houses along a wide, gently winding road, but trees—oak, pine, cedar—punctuate each lot. We’re surrounded by woods. To the south, a valley grows helter-skelter wild. National forest spreads north, south, east.

We live among wild animals, but they stay hidden. Oh sure, we see and hear the smaller ones, creatures that don’t mind humans for neighbors: scrub jays, acorn woodpeckers, squirrels, quail, jack rabbits. I know deer frequent our gardens and byways, and occasionally someone sees a mountain lion or bear slinking about in the trees. But to my disappointment, this neighborhood hasn’t been the Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom I thought it was going to be when we escaped from the ‘burbs.

Still, mountain lion sightings and critters chorusing in the wee hours are not trivial. A few minutes after the barking ended, in the distance to the east, something started repeatedly yipping, high-pitched and resonant. At intervals a call would ring out, a chord of overtones that rose and fell like a wave.

The sound was clearly canid, dog-like. I’ve had friends who live more rurally point out the call of foxes, and of course, YouTube was right there in my hand to do a search on fox calls. I’m pretty certain that early Friday morning, for about 2 hours, gray foxes were calling to each other, to the mountains, to the sky.

Some might think that foxes are bad omens; I’m not one for prophecy. I don’t believe that animals portend disaster or success. They are just animals and some of us are fortunate to share our world with them.

So bark on through the night, gray foxes. I’ll probably be awake to hear you.

 

 

 

 

How to paint the figure, no pencil included.

The gallery below is from a life drawing session. Click on an image to see them at larger size.

Nearly every Thursday I go to Town Hall Arts/Galerie Copper in Copperopolis for life drawing. (It’s uninstructed, but if you live near there, you should attend. It’s a great group and we’re all happy to help if you’re a beginner.) I’ve been doing this for nearly 2 years. Life drawing really helps sharpen my drawing skills. Plus, it’s just plain fun.

For the last 6 months I’ve been trying to figure out how watercolor can work for me in life drawing. Last Thursday I didn’t use a pencil at all. It was just me, the model, and brush, paint, water and paper.

There are so many things to juggle in my head when I’m painting this way. Not only am I trying to get the proportions right, but I also have to think—all at the same time—about negative space, value, shape, and what trouble the water and paint is going to get into when it hits the paper.

I’ve been thinking a lot about giving up my attachment to my end product. Painting this way is a little like I imagine jumping off a cliff in one of those crazy wingsuits would be like. Terrifying and exhilarating. Although if I make a mistake painting, there’s only a pile of chewed up paper and my bloodied ego in a pile on the floor, rather than a broken body.

Following the advice of fellow artist, Gayle Lorraine, when I start, I whisper to myself, “Let’s just waste paint and paper today.” It gives me the freedom to screw up, which also means that I work more intuitively, letting what I already know drive my hand.

There’s something else about that attitude: I make more work, which means I’m practicing more, entering into more conversations with my materials.

And as my mom always told me, practice makes perfect. Although I’m not so worried about perfection.

Which is perfect.