Stronger than the Storm

We kept singing the New Jersey jingle, Stronger than the Storm, when I visited Long Beach Island last weekend. Small businesses on the Jersey Shore are back.

The beach is beautiful. The Atlantic Ocean is freezing, 59 degrees, but there’s nothing the board of tourism can do about that. The ice cubes in the ocean didn’t stop us from dashing in. And dashing out, victorious, refreshed.

Every one rides bikes on Long Beach Island.
Every one rides bikes on Long Beach Island.

This stronger-than-the-storm theme applies to my life – raising my rambunctious teens, hanging tough with Chris, working on a novel, freelance writing, and all the while, procrastinating on the much-needed workout.

I admit some of my life’s storms I seek. I am a storm chaser. I could take the easy way out of town. But I like a challenge. It feels like starting my own biz is a perfect storm. But one that I can ride. I don’t think it will swamp me.

Sometimes, I avoid the storm, hunkered down in a safe sanctuary. I plug in my ear buds and wait for the storm to pass. I read a book, escape through literature.

Sometimes I seek safe sanctuary by making art. I started making collage art again. Making a collage is like creating and resolving your own storm. You get caught in the whirlwind of creativity. My teacher Mariano says, you can’t make a mistake with collage.

The Atlantic Ocean refreshes you.
The Atlantic Ocean refreshes you.

I rode out Hurricane Sandy last fall. I was leading a writing weekend in the Adirondacks. I was alone in the Big House.

Outside the third floor bedroom window, a big tree rattled the window screen. The scraping of the branch sounded like the knuckles of a witch trying to get in.

I beat it back to the hunkered-down city rather than stay alone in the mansion. I made it back to my wild and restless kids, my somewhat overwhelmed husband, my weathered city. I stayed stronger by rushing back home.

I should know I cope by rushing in. Just like I rushed back into the Atlantic weekend, though the waves hit me hard and the water was an ice cold bath. Life is all about rushing back in.

The Blank Page

One day at the Art Students League, my teacher was late. The art teachers there always wander in late and bleary, as if awakened from some brilliant art-making reverie only to remember that they have to teach a bunch of art-starved students.

Since the teacher was late, the proctor, a middle-aged woman with uncombed red hair and bright eyes, sidled over to me.

She told me, “Tape your paper to the board and just get started. You’re not afraid of the blank page, are you?”

“No,” I laughed. Not me. I’m not afraid of the blank the page. The blank slate. The tabula rasa. Every time I go to blog, every time I start to write or paint anything, there it is – the blank page. And I’m not afraid.

I am so not afraid of the blank page that I have to excise it immediately. I must do away with it. I must X out the blank page using any old black font on the white screen. I must not pause. I must not stop. I must let my fingers fly.

gesso-ing my art journal

In art class with Robert Burridge at the Holbein Art event several years ago, Burridge instructed me, my sis, and my dad to prime the heavy paper with acrylic gesso. Gesso is that heavy white, chalky paint that makes the next layer of paint stick. Then, my dad, or maybe Burridge, said all that gesso-ing is just a way of smearing your DNA on the page, making it your own.

My problem with gesso-ing the page is that I have to wait for the page to dry. Once I gesso, I want to get right in there and go. Slide the brush around the page.

Yup, that’s me. Not afraid of the blank page, but impatient for the creative process.

For creative inspiration, check out Bob Burridge’s website.

My New York City Weekend

I stayed in the city but I felt like I went to camp. I have been preoccupied with myself, winding down from my day job and gearing up for my small biz. So I got out of my writing head and into my artsy, theatrical side. I had such a restorative weekend in New York City, a ménage à moi.

There are so many creative, fun, and cheap things to do in the city. As a mother of three, I am always looking for fun and cheap activities for my kids, but I found fun and cheap stuff for myself.

On Friday night, I saw Shakespeare in the park — Riverside Park —  Hudson Warehouse’s Richard III. It was a magical, bloody, funny, professional production. (cost: free)

Richard III, the Hudson Warehouse production in Riverside Park

When you see theater outside, you are at the mercy of the elements. And there is room for serendipity, like the lamp posts flickering on at the magic moment. Or when a family looking for a picnic spot crosses in front of the stage with their stroller and grandmother. (That was very funny!) Also, you can’t go wrong with the backdrop of Riverside Park — breathtaking — at sunset.

On Saturday morning, I took my favorite collage art class with my favorite teacher Mariano Del Rosario. I learned that my life drawing teacher Anita Steckel had died. Sad, but she was getting up there.

There are so many brilliant men and women who teach at the Art Students League, many of them ancient. When you take art, it doesn’t matter how you look or what you wear or how you think. What matters is getting into the zone of creating and making something out of nothing. (cost: about $18)

Last night, I attended Sunday Night Improv with Tom Soter. I love improv. I believe in the, “Yes, and…” philosophy. Say yes and then move the story along. The one-hour class went quickly. (cost: $10)

After a scene in which I was making a ton of offers to my partner, Tom gave me a bit of advice, “You don’t have to work so hard.” Wow! He also advised the class not to try to be clever, but to “Say the simple thing.” Brilliant. I’m going back.

Check out:

Hudson Warehouse for Free Shakespeare

The Art Students League


Tom Soter’s Sunday Night Improv

And no NYC weekend is perfect unless you have a slice. Mine was from T & R Pizza, my local joint. (cost with a soda: $3.50)
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advice from my art teachers

My art teacher Naomi Campbell at the Art Students League said to do these three things:

1. Make it strong
2. Keep it simple
3. Edit it down

Is this brilliant or what? She advised us to start with a big solid shape. To convey a gesture, make a strong line.

I love this. I’m a dip-my-toe-in kind of painter but this advice gives me permission to be bold.

Speaking of permission, Robert Burridge, my teacher at the Holbein workshop in Vermont, begins his class by passing out permission slips – bright magenta slips with the word “Permission” printed on them.

And whatever question you ask him, Burridge said, he will always answer, “Yes.”

“More blue?” “Yes.”

So one smart aleck asked, “What if I ask, ‘Does my painting stink?’ Will you say Yes?”

And Burridge said, “I’ll say, ‘You have permission to start over.'”

And that’s kinda what Campbell said today too when she said, “It’s only paper. Don’t try to make it perfect.”

This guy was eating lunch and smoking at the same time, sitting outside the Art Students League today.

Art Students League of New York

The Art Students League smells of oil paint.

The building is an absolute gem on 57th Street.

I have taken two Saturday classes there over the years. They’ve been taught by these wonderful  women of quite an advanced age, (one of whom Hilda Terry is no longer with us.) Last month’s watercolor class was taught by Dale Meyers who is still creating, teaching, thinking, and sharing. The other students’ work can be amazingly technically proficient or incredibly primitive (mine falls into the latter category).

It is exceedingly relaxing to be in a room where everyone is painting. My watercolors tend to be an embrace of negative space with a loose and splattered messy style. It’s hard to summarize. But fun to make.

I’m taking a Literature of Art Class with Ephraim Rubenstein on Thursday nights – he is so passionate, smart, provocative about the history of art. On Thursday we discussed the difference between Nude and Naked. We had read (or in my case, skimmed) Kenneth Clark’s “The Nude.” The Greeks, Rubenstein said, had a love of nakedness. Their gods were big and beautiful, not like a formless Yahweh.

We talked about how beauty in art gives one a shiver. That innately and physically we respond to art. We talked about philosophy — how when you think “bed” you have an ideal of “bed-ness” in mind, according to Artistotle. Is that “bedness” more ideal than the artist’s interpretation or an actual bed itself?

We discussed idealism. How, as Americans, we have a love/hate relationship with idealism. Is the nude who comes to model for art class a disappointment? Is he or she any less perfect or ideal than the Victoria Secret airbrushed model?


When I had inquired with the Eastern European woman security guard at the art school on Thursday whether class was cancelled due to snow. She told me that the school’s motto is Nulla Dies Sine Linea or “No Day Without a Line.”  “We are always open.”

The classes at the Art Students League are so cheap and so good. My daughers took a kids’ class with Martha Bloom. They just had a show in the gallery and the hallway outside of the cafeteria.

Yes, there’s a sweet, funky, good cafeteria and a tiny art shop in case you need supplies. The Art Students League has it all. Everyday.

Admiring Starry Night

If only Vincent could have had a thicker skin. If only the church valued his contribution. If only there was medication for his manic depression. If only there was a support group for self mutilators. If only he’d hung on a little longer.

If only.

He was so young, so passionate, so troubled, so smart, so hard-working, so confident, so insecure, so religious. Vincent van Gogh was such a good writer as well as a great painter.

For my Literature of Art class at the Art Students League taught by Ephraim Rubenstein we read Vincent’s letters to his brother Theo. They break your heart. He writes to his brother with enthusiasm about the first sermon he preached. Yet the strict religiosity of his father failed him. He did not have the proper degree and could not obtain it. His father was an arbitrary, withholding, judgmental preacher. Vincent converted his religious zeal into his art. This schism of art and religion is a theme in his life and letters.

Vincent became itinerant. Though he lived in extreme poverty; he was always hopeful that the next place, person, teacher would help him. That good was just around the next corner. He died at 37. His best work happened in just 10 years.  If only he had hung on a little longer.

The savior of his work and legacy was his sister in law, Theo’s wife, Johanna Gesina van Gogh. She kept his letters and his paintings together. Would you do that for your husband’s mentally ill brother?

I doubt I would. There was so little to indicate that his work had value.

A current running through van Gogh’s letters is a desire to help mankind. To be useful.

And another theme is the way he prods Theo to admire other writers and painters. It’s true. We do not admire each other enough.

Admire as much as you can; most people do not admire enough.” God. So true. I admire van Gogh for his writing and his art, but not for his life. I do not admire him for giving up on himself.

I was at the MoMA last week. After reading his letters, it’s amazing that his work persists. His Starry Night, (see above) it can suck you in.

In my water color class, I tried to paint like him on Saturday. The teacher told me, “That tree or that bush, or whatever that is, that’s too big.” She did not see the resemblance of my work to van Gogh’s. But I see it.

Train your eyes to see and to admire.