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Sunday, August 14, 2016

Summer Daze

The summer is in full swing.  Our little orchard on Saturna Island has already given us plums and its first crop of figs. The earliest veggies are up from the garden -- not the tomatoes, yet. And the sailboats are out on the sunshiny water, with ferry boats travel loaded with tourists.

I'm home ... but I still seem to be living in two places at once. Part of me remains in Umbria where a local cultural Festa is delighting residents and visitors (click to see). It's in Acqualoreto, a hub of a town within walking distance of the one I'd lived in. The festa is a tribute to and celebration of the abundance of this lovely region -- visual art, music, poetry, food, wine, and more. The visual art, for example, includes an international roster of famous and emergent artists associated with this region (me happily included), as you can see.


The part of me that isn't in Umbria is here, on Saturna Island, where we've just finished our local Art Saturna Artists' Studios Tour weekend. It was fun too, on a different scale. Though my Saturna Island studio is off the beaten path, I had some very enjoyable time with interested visitors, and some paintings found themselves new homes. For example, here's a threesome that took off:
paintings by Janet Strayer



I returned to Canada just in time to set up my lovely studio here after 10 months of life and art in Europe. I had to hit the ground running to get the grounds cleared and the studio in shape to store the art I'd brought back, hang the paintings to show, and ready the space for visitors.  It was a bit harrowing to get it together by the deadline, given all the other tasks needing to get done despite my struggling though the disorientation of travelling through time and space. Mornings still leave me foggy with questions like: Which country am I in? and Where's the bathroom from here?"







I think of my paintings having lives of their own. Remembering some that sold in Europe, I wonder for each of them what their new surroundings are like, what's being said around them, and in what languages How would it be different for them here? I do believe it makes a difference who buys a painting and how it is treated. Oddly animistic, I know, but I think dimly of paintings bought for investment only, isolated in vaults where their state is preserved -- a state of suspended animation -- and few, if any, enjoy interacting with them.

Not even half the things on my "must do right away" list have been done. Time works differently for lists than reality. Have you noticed? So my lists go through multiple iterations of repeated items, and "right away" becomes a movable moment in time. 

I tell myself life will get back to normal soon, whatever normal is. Routines will take hold, I will get on track rather than continue ambling en route. But each new day upsets my to-do list and I really don't know when "soon" is.






 

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Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Home But Still En-Route

Now back home on Saturna Island after my eventful 10 months of life in Europe, I feel I'm still En Route. Like my other Artist En Route columns (duplicated on this blog), I feel charged with the energies of the place. Though very sad to leave my life in Italy, coming back to Saturna has its own special qualities.

Like the Open Studio Tour next weekend. The Gulf Islands are a prime destination spot for visitors during the summer months, especially. So, perhaps I'll see some new faces during your visit! 





Keep with the spirit of creative adventure!

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Saturday, July 9, 2016

Some Wonderful Natural Things

I'm writing this just before getting on a plane routed for home: Vancouver, Canada.  
I want to say goodbye to some things. Not only the people I've met, but some wonderful things I'll remember as special to living here in Umbria.

These are some wonderful and natural things. I've limited myself to noting just five of them -- a very small and idiosyncratic selection from the much larger set of natural things awaiting any timid or intrepid explorer here in this Italian countryside.
 
http://www.birdforum.net/opus/Eurasian_Hoopoe

Hoopoe
Going up my very rocky road and onto the flatter path of loose gravel above, I saw two unusual birds walking together on the ground. They made me smile. As I approached, of course they flew away, rather erratically, like butterflies. It was just enough time for me to see a wild pattern of black and white stripes on their bodies and a flash of orange around their heads. I'm not a birder and had no idea of what kind of bird they could be. But a visiting ecology student and avid birder knew. The bird was a Hoopoe, and he said I was lucky to have seen them. There are none in America, only in southern Europe, Africa, and Asia. 
 

Tartufi
Not notable for their good looks, the culinary treasure known as tartufi (truffles), abound in this region. But they're hard to find. In the forests, of course, but no one will tell you where. They're worth their weight in gold, literally it seems. A very smoky, earthy taste. Good shaved on well-made pasta. Or in eggs. It's not just we humans who like them. 


Cinghiale
So do the cinghiale (wild boar) that live here. You can see their hoof markings in the muddy trail after a rain. Their strength is notable in the large rocks and rooted plants  they've overturned to get to their food.  It's not unusual to spot a live one, though they keep away from people. Good reason: they are actively hunted for their meat. Salumi made with cinghiale is a specialty of the city of Norcia. And so are truffles! I took this photo of a stuffed cinghiale outside a shop in Norcia.
porcupine quills
 
http://wonderopolis.org/wonder/can-porcupines-shoot-their-quills














 Porcupine Quills
Porcospino, or porcupine, inhabit my little neck of the woods here. Every time I come, I gather and save the quills I can find. They're like talismen for me. They're so well-made (thank you, nature) and a a pleasure to see and so smooth to hold. I've even painted with them. 
 This time, and for the very first time, I also saw a porcupine in full display. I was driving home at night and my headlights must have startled it. 



Balthasar, the Donkey
Balthy, as I've named him, lives in the open field sloping down from the small piazza in the little commune in which I've lived. I've written about him before. And he's worth saying goodbye to again.

More wonderful things will likely crop up after I've posted this. Like the stunning wildflowers of Castelluccio that blanket the isolated terrain north of here. And the wild asparagus of the wetter weather, now past. But I'll stick to my limit of five. 

In the meantime, many happy trails to you. 
  
Arrivederci. Ci' vediamo.


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Monday, July 4, 2016

Approaching Night


This is my final week in idyllic Umbria. I'm torn between a reluctance to leave and, after all this time away, a wish to be back home. 

The friends and acquaintances I've made here have been such welcoming and remarkable people, each in his or her own right -- both native Italians and transplants from around the world.  Each could write a book (and some, indeed, have)! Writers, poets, journalists, farmers, lawyers, architects, cooks, entrepreneurs, teachers, professors of diverse subject-matter, and artists. Each creative in her or his own way. 


It's hot now and the air is still. Too still. No birds. No wind. Not much wish to explore in this hot, unmoving air. But, as night approaches, a transformation occurs. Sitting outside and watching the reflected sunset on the terrain, it's a dramatic moment.

painting by Janet Strayer, click here to view in detail
This is my abstract-expressionist painting, modernistic in style and emotive of approaching night -- with its high contrasts of dark and light, luminous forms and active shapes that change with  shifts in interpretation. For me, this is the extraordinary moment when daylight changes into night. 


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Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Go Fly a Kite! in Italy

Summer has suddenly burst through with hot, sunny days after a long spell of thunderstorms, rain, and chill.  Spending my final weeks here in the beautiful Umbrian hills, I'm taking in all I can of my surroundings... while rampant mosquitoes get their fill of me. Reciprocity. 

An Italian friend invited me to an unusual event in a nearby village of Toscolano. It was to be a slide-illustrated presentation on kite-making, followed by a luncheon for all attending. YES! This was just the kind of out-of-the-ordinary event to round out any conventional ideas that might be creeping in about Italian life. That the invitation came from a rather reserved and distinguished, mature Italian woman made it all the more charming. 


We drove together to the event (me silently remarking on how competently fast she took the hillside curves, compared to my foreign driving habits). A small, 15th C. chapel was open near the venue, with some semi-restored and original frescoes lining its walls. As I've said before, there is always something remarkable in almost every locale you set upon here.
chapel in Toscolano, JS ph
After being introduced to the organizers (friends of my friend), we joined about 50 other people of all ages seated together at long tables. Not only were we to hear a presentation, we were also going to make and decorate kites ourselves! What a kick for adults who'd never thought to play like this! My rather reserved friend was, at first, a bit embarrassed by the idea, but  then got fully into it. Good for her. And what fun to see the transition of all of us into child-like seekers and makers of objects that would fly.
my kite in progress
We were given the materials and instructions while the rather wonderful history of kite-making flashed on the large screen. Everyone set to work, everyone earnest in their playful attempts to make a kite that might fly... and one decorated in our own way. A fine novel, the Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, came to mind, along with thoughts of the meaning and value of kite-flying in human history. Leonardo, Benjamin Franklin. Kites in all cultures of the world, especially as featured in China and Japan, throughout the far-east, and elsewhere. Their transformations.

When our kites were finished, with streamers and string attached, we went to a nearby field to test them for real. Would they fly?

It was a hot sun beating down on the field. I took off my shoes and tried to run with my kite in the grass. Seeing my lame attempt to get my kite to fly, a young boy came over and asked if he could fly it. Indeed, yes. And so he did! Around and around he ran, delighted. And delighted me.
and so it flew...
The importance of play, of exploration, of seemingly unimportant things. Of friends and new acquaintances. You never know what may fly.

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Saturday, June 11, 2016

Getting Lost (and Found) in Italy


painting by Janet Strayer
Today was a good day for a hike. After many thunderstorms and much overcast weather, today's sunshine encouraged my decision to explore the hills around my Umbrian homestead. My destination was a solo hike to the chestnut grove across the ravine into the deeper part of the forest.

Not hard to find if you know the way. But then, nothing is-- if you know the way. I had good directions from a visiting neighbor who'd already explored  the area. Being a student of ecological history, he told me that these chestnut groves in Italy were at least several centuries old,, having been planted by ancient communities to forestall famines in other foods.  And, the chestnuts are still harvested today

Do you know how lovely it is to come upon a chestnut grove in the midst of a forest, especially when you don't exactly know where you are? It's a special spot. The tree branches are magnificently broad and heavy with leaves, while the brown ground is clear and soft. Enchanting.

After three happy hours exploring, I thought I should head back home. After five hours, however, hiking around and around, in and out of the beautiful chestnut grove, I was officially lost

I have a talent for getting lost. Like Hansel and Gretel, I should have brought something (more durable than breadcrumbs) to lead me back home. Ironically, all the trail signposts  that pointed in different locations were printed with the same location name. My cell phone didn't operate in the woods.. Besides, who would I call given a recent thunderstorm had knocked out landline phone service in my home territory (in which there's also no cell reception).

You can see the view from where I got lost in this photo. I can almost see my house in the leftward distance
photos by JS

So, I trekked another time around the woods to take another trail. It lead to an asphalt road. Aha! Better than a lone night in the forest when friendly trees can turn monstrous, not to  mention the wandering wild boars. I stood by the road and stuck my thumb out at the first passing car. No luck. How many cars travelled this rural route? But I was turning in circles back in the forest. So...

Like a fortune's fool, I waited and held my hands up prayerfully at a car coming from the opposite direction.  Yes, it stopped! I sputtered in Italian to explain my situation and the kind driver, named Basilio, drove me home. I learned he was from a neighboring village. I told him I went to Cesare's hardware store in that village. He told me he worked for Cesare. And so it went. And so it goes... in Italy.

It would have taken another 45 minutes for me to have reached my village on foot along that road. But I didn't know that, and my feet were already blistered.

I reached home, gulped a liter of water, and ate the cold chicken and pesto salad I'd prepared the day before. Thank you, Basilio. Thank you, Italy. Thank you, good fortune.
 
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Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Staying On In Italy

Good fortune. I'm staying on in Italy (Umbria, to be exact) for another month. The weather has been odd for this time of year: many thunderstorms, lots of cloudy days and rain. But I'm happy. 

I even met a new cheese with the strange name of squacarone: makes me think of a duck. It's good, though. Rather runny, so you scoop it with a spoon. Nothing like it I've tasted before. Another memorable thing from here. 

And art continues. I've met several artists here among a very interesting group of local and international residents. There's going to be an art show in August to showcase the known (yes) and as yet unknown talent living in these hills. I'm pleased to have my painting be a part of it, though I'm not sure which of the new work it will be. By then, I'll be back in Canada and missing being here. 

As I continue to be en-route in my abstract paintings, I've looked back to earlier work I did in a very much more realistic/illusionistic manner. I continue to love painting people in imaginative ways. And I love learning from the masters of the humanistic. To remind myself why, here's a charcoal I did of Judith's face, based on Caravaggio's painting.
Recalling Judith, charcoal by Janet Strayer, based on Caravaggio's painting



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Friday, April 29, 2016

Artist-En-Route: Umbria, Italy (article appears in Art Avenue magazine)



It's April as I write from the Umbrian countryside, midway between Florence and Rome. We live in a tiny village in which nothing happens. The bells jingle on new lambs in the pasture up the rocky road from our house. Wild boar hide in nearby forests, as do truffles. The bees are out, and the silvery olive trees are growing fuller. The birdsong is absolutely operatic as I walk the 6km to and from the nearby village, looking for wild asparagus along the way. The view is spectacular coming up through worn paths overlooking rolling green hills and patchwork agrarian plots typical of this region. Walking here each day I'm sure Leonardo developed his sfumato technique from these smoky landscapes that soften edges and blend contrasts. Except for some hard winter months, it's been idyllic.

A visiting friend wants to go on the Piero tour (click here). I'm glad to oblige this pilgrimage for a local boy from a neighboring Tuscan village. Piero della Francesca is high on my list of Renaissance masters. His sense of serenely sculpted light, of physically solid yet beyond-real forms in space, of emotion perfectly contained yet dramatically expressive remains remarkable to me. 

As for artistic tours, you could pick any of your favorite Italian Renaissance masters and plan an interesting tour of Italy just by following the trail of their displayed works. Following the trail of Perugino, for example, will take you to Perugia, home to delicious chocolates as well as equally sweet and highly decorative paintings by his associate, Pinturicchio. Like many ancient towns in Italy, there is so much to see and enjoy just by walking around and looking, and often there are festivals to add to the celebration. 

Nearby in Orvieto are the muscular and fascinatingly original Last Judgment frescoes by Signorelli (from whom Michelangelo learned a thing or two). In the other direction there's Perugia (of the famed chocolates), where you can also savor paintings by Perugino, the town's namesake. And lovely painted ceramics in Deruta to take home with you. Go eastward and there's Le Marche, with Crivelli as its local wonder, whose paintings provide an odd mix of Renaissance perspective and Medieval decorativeness. The treasures continue, with fresco-lined chapels by the vigorously emotive Giotto (Padua and Assisi) and the sensitively ethereal FraAngelico (Florence, with some of the most personal on site, as they were painted, in the Convent of San Marco). Pick your favorite early to late Renaissance master: it seems they're all here.

What's especially impressive is when you see all these artists' works in the settings for which they were painted. Even Leonardo's crumbling Last Supper retains much of its gravitas in the actual chapel in Milan whose architecture it replicates! I especially enjoy scouting for treasures in relatively lesser-known places. But who'd want to ignore the big showplaces of art-filled Italy? Rome, where the ancient Colosseum nods to Renaissance feats like the Pantheon and Brunelleschi's dome derived from it, the dizzying treasure troves of the Vatican, and unsurpassed Florence. Art is everywhere in the architecture, statues, fountains, museums and public works of such cities.

 
Two duomos/cathedrals that I like especially are some distance apart. Milan's is staggering. Coming up from the metro station, it's a filigreed vision in honey-white marble that took nearly six centuries to build. It hardly seems real in its intricacy and apparent weightlessness. The best of it for me (sated by now on church interiors, no matter how magnificent) was walking outdoors on its huge, multi-tiered roof. It was stunning being surprised by gargoyles, fanciful architectural flourishes, statues standing on pillars in the air, and vistas across the city.

In contrast, Orvieto's duomo seems to me more humanly appealing in size, proportion, and narrative flourishes. Sitting outside on stone benches built into buildings lining the piazza, you watch as the sun glints on golden mosaics illuminating biblical narratives and assorted statues on its facade. Inside are the Signorelli frescoes I mentioned and, to top it off, in this piazza is the best gelato I've tasted. 

Surprises and delights abound: just keep your eyes open and venture on!



 Contemporary Art and Tradition
What I've noticed about recent contemporary art seen throughout my travels is that it's much the same everywhere. That is, trends seem global rather than regional, with influences like Twombly, Basquiat, and Richter variations everywhere, especially in abstract painting. Yet, major if not as well-celebrated modern Italian painters, like Morandi in still life and (my favorite) Burri in uniquely abstract works, have pushed new stylistic boundaries. 

No longer apprenticed to guilds or schools, emerging artists now seem to gravitate towards their preferred international icons. Historically, however, Italian art has shown recognizable regional stylistic variations and "schools", like Perugino's in Perugia. Tradition remains important here where people live with centuries of art history at their doorstep. The great humanistic emphasis of the Italian Renaissance, especially, is a tradition that endures even in contemporary paintings. For example, look how many figurative works are included in Saatchi's recent online Focus on Italy.  

Old Artists and the Avant Garde
Visiting the Sforza castle (Milan) and seeing Michelangelo's final and compelling Pietá emerge unfinished from stone, I thought about his spending his final decade on earth working, on and off, on this sculpture. I wondered why some master artists turn away from their attained mastery and refinements to produce, in their old age, something apparently more raw, unsettling, dramatically different, and far less popular with their contemporaries -- but seeding the future avant garde. True of Rembrandt, Turner too, and others, this development runs contrary to the too common clichés for old age.

Practical Matters: Art as a Way Not a Brand?
When I left Canada more than half a year ago I thought that, while I travelled and lived in Europe, I'd settle my continuing argument with my painterly self to move along one track instead of many and do what art-marketeers advise: develop a brand. I haven't. Instead, away from the marketplace, I've decided this isn't for me. Not for lack of self-discipline or indeterminacy in directions to take, Instead, it's a genuine preference for working and learning that is broad in scope. I don't think I'm alone in this struggle. But I've come to regard (and respect) this as a stylistic preference in how one chooses to explore, experiment, learn, and bring things together in order to create. Away from the usual influences at home, it seems clearer to find one's own creative direction.

Looking back over the art I've seen, the art I've done, and the life I've had here, I hope to have shared some enjoyable and useful facts and personal insights with you, whether you're en-route in similar or different ways.  I see the artwork I've produced here (it's been plentiful and surprising to me), as fitting into several unpredictable "series" resulting from new ventures into fluid painting and mixed techniques (if interested, click Saatchi Online). A practical note: I tried to mail a sold painting to the US from Italy, but the duties on both sides were prohibitive.    
            
It's been a remarkable journey, with a month remaining before returning home. This way of life has become 'home' now --- travelling from place, setting up one's life anew in each place for awhile, learning the necessary, exploring, making do. Never long enough to lay down roots ... or ruts. The only constant has been one's own sense of continuity and of change throughout this voyage. I haven't finished. I'm not ready to "go home." I want to find a way to take some of this way of living with me, even when returning to all the comforts of home, friends, and family.
                                
This trip has been about lots of things, both external and internal. Learning to do without the familiar, reassessing priorities, decisions, needs, and desires. A bit of a juggle between making and making-do, keeping to a plan or letting the winds decide, moving on or staying safe. Living away from home provides opportunity to re-examine decisions and expectations, to re-align oneself without the supports, stimulation and constraints of family, friends, and the familiar buzz of art shows and fellow-artists wanting to get their work noticed. It's been an opportunity to expand, to break out of molds that need breaking, and move in ways that feel authentic and rewarding, whether or not they are applauded by anyone else. 

 My artwork has taken different directions, depending upon where I've been: inside and out. I've met with local artists, seen shows, visited sites, museums, and galleries in each town. Everywhere I've been I've keenly felt how art, whatever form it takes, is a vital part of living life. How this is personally vital for me is the lesson I'd like to take home with me ...  plus a few gallons of gelato.

I hope, in reading these articles, you've shared in this sense of adventure, each of us being artists-en-route in our lives and in our work.



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Friday, April 15, 2016

More Monochromes

I keep wanting to do more of these. They seem to be just lying in wait, like lots of little fish in the ocean you hardly notice, except when the light strikes. I'm trying to figure out why they keep circling around me. One reason seems that I'm travelling...  and these seem to travel with me, available for work with limited tools on paper. Yet, even when I'm settled in my studio spot in Umbria and creating new paintings in full color, these monochromatic ink-paintings keep bristling at the edges of my consciousness, wanting expression. So:

Here's another little slideshow.

...
 You can see more of this work by clicking here,

Keep swimming in your own favorite ocean! 

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Sunday, April 10, 2016

Sometimes You Get Lucky!

Here's a true story for you. We've been living in Europe for over 7 months. It's been a great experience  but, as you might have been reading here, not all has been positive. For example, I haven't yet mentioned that a wallet was picked out of pocket, literally (in Marseilles). Despite many forewarnings about such things, they happen even with many precautions. And they happen in all places in the world.

It happened here in Italy, too. My iphone was stolen. I know where: somewhere from the train station in Umbria to the main one in Rome. It was awful, given all the personal stuff one typically loads into such devices: info and pictures plus itemsI wanted for my art articles, etc.

cartoon credit click here


Despairing, I still went through the motions. I activated the Find My Phone app from my computer and saw it was in Venice! I've never been to Venice on this trip. But I supposed my phone was enjoying it. I went to the local carabiniere. That's an experience in itself.

The carabinieri would have dismissed me immediately after I said I didn't have the serial number of the phone because it was on the  phone that was stolen. Catch 22! Despite my clear evidence that it was stolen (a copy of the screenshot of it in Venice), I got  no help with getting anything from them. Good that I had a friend with me who spoke far better Italian than I, and she persuaded them at least to file a report I could take with me for insurance back home. This took all morning to accomplish.

I was imagining how it could have happened.  So were they. Nothing was going to happen. Imagining a nefarious thief (perhaps the same one who took the wallet in France: they're all of a kindion in one's imagination, arent' they ), I directed my evil eye at them. This has not been known to work previously.

Absorbing the blow of my lost iphone, I purchased a relatively cheap local replacement phone using the same phone number. Some days later I got a text message on my new phone saying the iphone had been found! What an incredible piece of luck, I thought. Then, some cynicism made me check online for "iphone found scams". Indeed, several were noted and admonished. Does stealth never sleep?!

After some to-and-fro messaging with the texter, and a direct phone call, I was assured this was a one-in-a-million real human being who just wanted to return my iphone. She said she'd found it on the the train to Venice (that I hadn't been on, so someone may have tossed it or ... whatever). The message on my now-blocked iphone was still on, activated in the  "Find My Phone" notice I'd written to call if  found.

What turns out to be a lovely young woman  went to the trouble to text and phone me several times, work out postal arrangements with me, and return my phone by mail. 

Now I've got my phone. Thank you Jessica! The world is strange. Bad things happen. But sometimes people, especially strangers, are humane and considerate people. Sometimes you get lucky!  

 
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Saturday, April 9, 2016

Letting It Flow

As the days lengthen, my time here in Umbria grows shorter. I'm growing bolder and experimenting with free-flow paints. Poured directly onto canvas, they flow themselves into a painting. The challenge is to catch the flow in the way you want it. Aha, like the big challenge of life! It's messy. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn't.


 



One on the left is "Nexus". One on the right is "Dispersion". Each is  36"x20"
multi-layered on canvas . After the initial pouring, I added some deliberate touches by brush and other implements.












Soon, I'll post a blog focused on Italy, with more info and photos on my latest Artist En Route article for Arts Avenue magazine.

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