Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Strange Evening at Church Rock

Church Rock  8" x 10" Oil on Canvas Panel
In June, I visited some people I know in the little Four Corners town of Blanding, Utah. I've been there a number of times, but this time the trip home was a little interesting. Normally the full moon doesn't cause me any concern. Actually, I rather enjoy it. Things started getting a little weird on that drive home, though.

I stopped at Church Rock to do a painting. This solitary sandstone formation with it's enigmatic rectangular opening has tugged at my curiosity every time I have driven past it. The first thing I wanted to do was explore Church Rock a little, so I hopped the fence and walked down the red dirt road to the man-made opening in the rock. The opening doesn't go very far into the rock; it's not much deeper than it is wide. A concrete foundation at the entrance, with remnants of 2x4s show that the front of the chamber must have been walled off at one time, with a door built into it. A steel corral gate wide enough fit across the opening was sitting off to the side instead. A few nesting birds took off when I stepped into the room. Inside, the walls are covered with graffiti. Disappointing, but not too surprising. Names and dates, this person + that person, etc. Nothing seemed unusual about the graffiti. A few empty beer cans lay in the dirt on the floor, with an empty pop can. A few "Ave Maria" candles sat on the left side of the wall foundation. I've never seen that before. Outside, I explored around the base of the rock and climbed on the red slickrock a little.

There were prairie dogs all around the place. They must not get shot at very much here, because some of them allowed me to get as close as 30 or 40 feet away before disappearing down their burrows.

My tracks were the only human footprints in the dirt up to that point, but as soon as I headed back to my car, several youngish touristy types came down to explore the place, too. Up at the parking area, I met a man who asked about Church Rock. He said he was originally from Moab, and had heard people there talk about a "satanic church" that used to be held in a rock. He asked me if this was that rock. Astonished, I shrugged my shoulders and said, "I dunno." I mentioned the Ave Maria candles and said those didn't seem very satanic to me. He guessed that maybe it was another rock in this area, indicating there are more than one of these rocks with rooms drilled and blasted into them. (Thinking about this later, I suppose the candles could be used for any purpose anyone wanted. Maybe I should have looked at the graffiti closer.)

I set up and painted in the roadside parking area. A pleasant couple from Australia stopped and chatted with me for a few minutes. A bunch of retired looking French (or maybe French Canadian) motorcycle riders stopped to visit. One of them spoke English, and translated for the others. They snapped some photos of me painting, asked if they could mention me in their emails, or email me, I'm not sure which, and headed on their way. A nice visit, really.

My finished painting didn't look very satanic to me. Actually, I'm kind of happy with it.

On my way home, for some reason, I felt like listening to a CD I have of Eastern European folk music. Enjoyable, but kind of melancholy. The CD is produced on a label called, "Songbat Records." The singer explains on her website, "Why 'Songbat'? A songbat is a creature who requires songs to live, as a fruitbat requires fruit. This creature can't help but do things a little differently, and spends a lot of time upside down; furthermore it doesn't mind darkness a bit and in fact rather prefers it. That's all the explanation I can provide since there isn't any more."

So far, I have a full moon, a possible satanic church, melancholy Eastern European folk music on a label that has something to do with bats...

It's a very buggy night. As I drive, I need to stop at every town I come to just to wash the bugs off my windshield. The last stop I make is at the Shell station in Helper. When I begin to wash the bugs off the windshield with a squeegee, I notice something stuck on my car's radio antenna. I look closely at the object trailing off my antenna like a tattered flag on a pole. It's a bat's wing! Really! It was severed at the shoulder and was somehow attached to my car's antenna at the severed shoulder part! I use the squeegee to try and get the bat wing off my antenna, but it doesn't seem to want to leave. I squeegee it down the antenna. When the wing finally falls off the antenna, it's soaked with window washing fluid, so it sticks to the fender. With a final swipe of the squeegee, the washer fluid soaked bat wing splats onto the pavement. Driving away, I pop the Eastern European folk music CD out of the CD player and pop in something more upbeat. It's not Halloween, is it?

I feel bad for the poor bat. Somewhere between Green River and Helper, a bat met it's demise from a 1/8" wide piece of metal cutting through the night air at 65 to 75 miles an hour. I also feel bad because bats are endangered, and here I go inadvertently smacking one out of mid-flight. There's been many a time I've sat in the afterglow of a fading summer's evening and enjoyed watching bats flit acrobatically through the twilight. Rest in peace, poor bat. I can't explain how the bat wing stuck to my antenna the way it did.


Since I first wrote this in an email, I did some research into who might have cut the opening into Church Rock. As the story goes, the organization that used the rock might or might not deserve the reputation indicated by the man I met in the parking area there, but it certainly was strange. The organization was an Utopian society called The Home of Truth, run by a spiritualist named Marie Ogden. I was going to include some links about it, but decided that proper research into the group and their leader is beyond the scope of this post and would distract from what the post is really about. But you're welcome to look it up yourself.

Another note: Since that time I've enjoyed listening to that CD of Eastern European folk music on other trips with absolutely NO weirdness! 

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Back to the Little 8 X 10 Paintbox

This was originally posted on a plein air painting forum. It was in response to a question someone on the forum had about how to hold open the lid on a homemade pochade box they were building. My suggestion received positive feedback, so I'm posting a slightly expanded version of it here in hopes it might be helpful to others.

There are many different ways to hold a pochade box lid open. This little thumb box uses a sliding catch with a knurled nut to fix it in place. It's sturdy enough, compact and easy to use:

Unfortunately, the only lid supports of this kind I could find were made for large wooden chests, and seemed like overkill on a small pochade box. They're way too bulky for what I wanted.

Here's an underside view of a box with hinges that have wire stops built into them. They are easy to use and aren't bulky, but they don't hold the lid firmly open in windy weather:

There are other means of holding a pochade lid open, but no commercially made hardware I could find would fit the bill. So here's how I made the lid support for a box I built. This is an 8" x 10" pochade box, but I used the same idea on the smaller ones I built. The hole in the lower part of the box goes through the side. The holes in the lid only need to go partway through. One of the holes in the lid holds the top open slightly past 90 degrees. The other hole holds the lid open at a wider angle. (I rarely if ever use the wider angle, so it may be unnecessary.) 

The holes in the side of the box are sized so the bolts on the support can easily slide in without excess play. The bolt holes in the support arm are sized for a tight fit to hold the bolts firmly in the arm. Here's the box open:

And a close up:

The support can be made to go on either side of the box, depending on whether your pallet slides open or lifts out, and whether you're left or right handed. This is a close up of the inside of the box showing the wing nut that secures the support:

Here's all there is to it: a piece of wood, a short screw, a longer screw, and a wing nut. When not in use, the lid support is detached and stored inside the box. That way there is nothing sticking off the box to snag on things inside your pack or carrying bag.

Some advantages are that it's very simple and easy to make, and absolutely positively holds the lid firmly open - wind won't slam the box shut on you like it does on a commercially made box I bought. Some disadvantages are that it holds the lid open at only a limited number of fixed positions. It also has loose parts that can get lost. If you decide on this kind of lid support, be sure to carry extra wing nuts!

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The West Desert

Springtime on the Sevier, 11" x 14" Oil on Canvas Panel

The Basin and Range area of Utah doesn't have the abundance of superlative landforms other parts of the state do. Some see it as empty and useless, fit only for radioactive waste dumps or to be run all over by ATVs until the sparse desert vegetation is gone. The land has it's beauty, though, and is far from "wasteland." The West Desert, as I like to refer to it, is a place of broad sagebrush valleys, hills and mountains, many with scattered patchworks of juniper trees. It is a land of sandstone mingled with basalt, lava, and jumbled rounded outcrops of granite. The landscape varies from gently rolling hills and low mountain ranges to jagged barren mountains that look like they're from a different planet. The hills and mountain ranges are separated by wide open valleys that draw the eye across vast distances. The scenery changes for the traveler sometimes subtly, gracefully, sometimes jarringly. Water is very scarce. Wildlife includes pronghorn antelope, elk, deer, antelope squirrels and kangaroo rats, curlews, ravens and horned larks, gopher snakes, rattlesnakes, tarantulas and horned toads. Human communities are few, small, and very far between. The West Desert is a land of subtle hues; golden summer grasses, blue green sagebrush, the bright yellow blossoms of late summer rabbitbrush, the earthy warm greens of juniper trees, and an endless variety of grays, ochers, muted reds and blues. It is a land full of light, and a land that exudes mystery both day and night. It is among my favorite places to explore and paint.

The painting pictured at the top of this page is of the Sevier River in Sage Valley. Sage Valley is a middle-of-nowhere place of hills, bluffs, and river plain, covered with a scattered patchwork of juniper, grass, sagebrush and greasewood. 

As I turn the car from pavement onto the winding dirt road, I'm greeted by the sparkling glitter of abundant mica mixed in with the tawny-gray dust of the road. The sparkles in the road accompany me for many miles. On one trip, two dazzlingly brilliant white birds spring from the top of a juniper tree as I drive past. I brake to a stop to see what these glorious angelic-looking things are. As they rise above the tree and begin to turn, their dazzling brightness darkens and they turn into ravens. The angle of sunlight had been just right.

On another trip, I parked where the dirt road terminates at the river. From there I hiked over red bluffs on the outside of a bend in the river, and crossed a grass-covered ox-bow to another river bend. Setting up by some greasewood near the river's edge I painted the Sevier at dusk, finishing before it became too dark to see the colors on my palette. Cleaning off my palette, I was startled when a little upriver a coyote suddenly began to howl. Walking back in the dark, I stopped at the red bluffs for a few minutes. The sky was cloudless, and an abundance of stars began to take over the evening sky. The Milky Way stretched from horizon to horizon, as it always does on clear moonless nights like this in the wild, and as it never does in the city. Standing on the red bluffs, I looked down into the clear, dark waters of the Sevier River. The river's placid waters reflected the stars back to the sky, and to me. I had to resist the urge to step closer to the edge of the bluff so I could see deeper into the river's dark mirror. The ledge is soft, undercut and could crumble, dumping me several feet down into the water. During the day the dirt road had sparkled in the sunlight, and now the Sevier River sparkled in the starlight. The West Desert doesn't have the abundance of dramatic landscape that the Wasatch Mountains or the red rock canyons of Utah have, but who can deny that it is beautiful?

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

What's in the Bag?

Hiking allows me to get to places to paint I can't reach any other way. Besides, I enjoy hiking. It's an important part of learning about the landscapes I paint, and about myself. The leather bag pictured above will hold any of my 6" x 8" or 8" x 10" pochade boxes. You can read earlier posts about my pochade boxes here and here. This bag is made from chap tan leather. Along with that, I carry another leather bag with additional plein air painting equipment. Here"s a picture of that bag:

Small pochade boxes only hold so much. What won't fit in the box goes into the other bag. Here's what's in the other bag:

This is the same photo with numbers added. The following list has corresponding numbers and tells what all the items are. Remember, you can click on any of these pictures for a larger image:

  1. The bag.
  2. Paper towels in a plastic bag.
  3. Apron. Keeps paint off of my clothes...usually.
  4. Plastic shopping bags to use for trash bags. I keep a few of them on hand.
  5. Extra paint solvent. This has saved my painting outings more than once!
  6. Walnut oil, if ever I use it.
  7. Liquin. I rarely use it.
  8. Brush washer with paint solvent. Gets used a lot.
  9. Small container of brush cleaning soap.
  10. This slides into my homemade 8" x 10" pochade boxes when I want to paint in a vertical format instead of a horizontal one.
  11. This screws onto a camera tripod and holds my little Julian thumb box, which doesn't have a tripod attachment.
  12. 4" x 6" canvas panel. Fits in my homemade 6" x 8" pochade boxes.
  13. 6" x 6" canvas panel. I keep these tiny panels for the rare occasions when I want to paint smaller than 6" x 8".
  14. Hook for hanging brush washer from a pochade box or easel, and a spare. These are made from a coat hanger.
  15. Collapsible mahl stick made from an antenna from a no-longer functioning boom box.
  16. Small plastic bag which holds spare hardware for easel or paintbox, rubber bands, extra business cards and whatnot. Not sure I need the whatnot.
With these two bags slung over each shoulder, a day pack with every thing I need for a day in the mountains, a camera tripod in one hand and granola bars in my pocket, I'm ready for a day painting in remote places. For me, pochade painting and hiking go hand-in-hand. Maybe I'll have a future post about hiking.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Little Silver Frogs

A Little Dollop of Frog

The term landscape has many uses. Landscape can mean a wide open view of scenery. It can be used to mean a painting of a particular scene. Landscape can refer to the orientation of a writing or painting surface. It's how some people busy themselves in their yards (not something I'm likely to do.) The term can even be applied to intangible things; an extensive mental view, outlook or prospect. It's a very flexible word.

Stretching the meaning of landscape maybe a little more, I like to apply it not only to the physical qualities of a geographic area, but I'll also include the living things that inhabit it, the climate and other things that influence it, and experiences had there. A landscape can even include time.

The kind of experiences I mean are like gifts. The kind of things that change thinking and modify behavior, whether in subtle or dramatic ways. You have to be patient with these gift experiences, if you want them. They come on their own terms. They are most often unexpected and even unimagined. You will not have them if you never venture into the wider landscape. They cannot be artificially induced. To try that would be to change them from gifts into exploitation.

In future posts I'll try to explore the influence landscape and experiences there can have on those who allow place within themselves for it.

I've had experiences so unusual and so unexpected that relating them to others sometimes seems to just cause skepticism. Some have even asked what I've been smoking, or if I've been nibbling certain mushrooms, or licking toads! But this time, I have pictures! 

Hiking up a desert canyon with my painting gear one day, I came to a series of small pools. Some of these pools are interconnected by a very small stream. Several of these pools had many different kinds of tadpoles, which varied in size from about 3/8" to over 3" long. Stuck to the rocks and ledges here and there around the pools were small frogs, around 2" long. They seemed quite common in this little area. Frogs in the desert is a strange enough thing, but there's something even more surprising about these frogs. They are silver! Their pale, silvery complexion shows up brightly when the frogs swim through the water, but they still seem to know how to disappear when they want to. The little silver frogs seemed to like sitting out in the desert sun in the bottom of this canyon, their feet tucked underneath them.

I amused myself with questions like: If I had continued further up canyon, might I have come across golden frogs? Or platinum ones? Are they really little space aliens staging in preparation for an invasion of the rest of planet Earth? 

But experiences like this really do get the mind working. Why are things different here? What kind of clues do these kinds of experiences provide? How are they connected with the way Earth and the rest of the universe work? How do these things affect the way I think, and problem solve? The answers usually come slowly. I'm still waiting for some. The effects of the questions, I suspect, influence me long before the answers do.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Another Pochade Box

Marsh Canal, 6" x 8" Oil on Canvas Panel

Here's another of my pochade boxes. I built this one out of cherry:

This pochade box is different from the one I wrote about here. This box holds two 6" x 8" panels in a panel holder that can be detached and rotated 90 degrees to allow painting in a vertical format. The holder can be secured in the vertical position using a rubber band at the top.

The panel holder can also hold 6" x 6" and 4" x 6" panels, although I rarely paint that small. It also keeps wet paintings separated and protected for transport back to the studio. 

The palette is made out of clear Plexiglas, and lifts out of the box. It might be better to cover the back of the palette with an opaque neutral gray, but I don't care. A clear palette doesn't bother me. Like my other paint boxes, it can be closed without messing up paint left on the palette. Underneath the palette is the usual: Oil paints, short handled brushes, palette knives, medium cups (if ever I use them,) and a few other small items. The emphasis is on small. Except for the white, the paint tubes are 20 ml, instead of the more familiar 37 ml size. This box can also be attached to a camera tripod.

It can be challenging to fit something so large as a landscape onto a panel so small. I have to guard against making any paintings that look like they might belong in a doll house. Such small paintings, though, have their place when done right. They are well suited for more intimate views of the landscape. Small paintings also have qualities all their own. There is almost a gem-like quality to them. They are simply neat things.

Some pictures will only fit on larger canvases. But for what they are best at, small paintings are enjoyable on their own level and in their own right.