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Settling for an Old Adage

watercolor forest painting from Upper MacCleay Trail by Alexandra Schaefers

Monday afternoon, it’s 80 degrees as if summer already. I’m walking into Forest Park via Lower MacCleay, one of the most popular trails in the park. It follows Balch Creek and connects with the Wildwood where one can go north away from the city or south to Pittock Mansion and Hoyt Arboretum.

When I lived in NW I walked this trail almost daily. It was such a comfort. Now I hike it a few times a year when I’m in the neighborhood for other things.

I used to be familiar with every section of the trail as a distinct entity mostly based on landmarks of the creek. The place where the creek runs along a wide gravely shore just a tad lower than the trail. The place where one looks down on the creek as it flows between narrow banks and forms a small green pool between sections of rock. The place where the creek is flanked by a high rock wall covered in ferns. The stretch of creek with a wide, flat rock in the middle.

This trail has seen me through some break-ups. I almost feel destined to love it more than any partner but today I feel the same deep familiarity and utter strangeness as when seeing an ex. There are plenty of landmarks I recognize but they are interrupted with unfamiliar foliage, reconstructed bridges and obscured views. I feel like a tourist by the time I cross Cornell.

This section of the Wildwood brings back other memories. I never walked this far when seeking solace, exercise or a daily reconnect with nature. I came here in more adventurous moods. As I walk I feel suddenly and viscerally at home. It’s rush hour. I can hear the constant rush of traffic on the road below but I am filled with peaceful belonging.

Do we have a specific, unchangeable home? A preordained place we belong despite any roots we have set down elsewhere? Is our birthplace our only true home that we shirk off in the name of opportunity and progress? Or do we create home wherever we care enough to get involved, to invest, to explore and appreciate our surrounds, to fall in love with the place and not just our doings?

The latter seems logical. Yet having spent four years in Multnomah Village and another ten working there, having walked all over the neighborhood and it’s parks, having felt great love for its foresty beauty and quaintness I still feel like a traveler. Do I simply need another 4 years? A few more broken hearts to salve on the trails. Given all the “Stop Rezoning” signs my neighbors have staked in their yards it’s possible I need to become wealthy enough to buy an actual house here to be truly welcome by the community.

I pass the Cumberland Trail which reminds me of my first love. I know a lot of people don’t think Sasquatch exists but I’m pretty sure I dated him. I never asked, I just assumed that as cameras became more prevalent he shaved, moved into a basement studio in the West Hills of Portland and got a job in a medical office. He’s a sensitive soul, maladapted to city life but he loved to wander in the woods as much as I so we got a long for a bit.

We met on the lower MacCleay Trail. Of course we broke up there too. He’s long gone but the Cumberland Trail still leads to his old street.

I hike to the Upper MacCleay and take a right, I’m too hungry to hike all the way to Pittock Mansion but I stop and sit on a bench admiring the gentle way the Oregon grape plants that cover the slope move in the breeze. I listen to an orange crowned warbler, juncos, jays, and pacific wrens all making their distinct songs the way each plant along the tail has its own distinct shapes of leaves.

When I think back to my most innocent self, home is where there are bluebells, daffodils, rhodies and hydrangea bushes, Doug fir, white oak and big leaf maple, the songs of robins, red-winged blackbirds, Bob White quail, jays, flickers, nuthatches and chickadees. Home was where I was expected to be even when I was the only one who remembered.

Expecting myself at a particular address seems to be the extent of my sense of home now. But this feeling of belonging while walking through Doug fir and Oregon grape today is a deeper thing than simply being happy to arrive at my doorstep knowing everything will be as I left it. I want to fit somewhere on a molecular level.

I consider the Chinook, the Cowlitz, the Atfalati who were violently forced from this land even though their molecules and the molecules of the place are one in the same. I feel disrespectful for dwelling on these lofty questions of home, for wanting stolen land to be my rightful, fated place. Being the descendant of settlers I’ll have to settle for the old adage home is where the heart is.

There is no question my molecules belong on earth. Choosing love over ambition and getting to know the bus schedule so I can leave my gas-powered vehicle parked may provide more belonging than navel gazing.

Sasquatch was not good with money and often predicted future homelessness for himself. Every so often I check the internet to make sure he’s still alive. He doesn’t exactly share his data there the way the rest of us do. The first time all I found was a marathon finish time buried in the local paper. Since he loves to run, that seemed like enough.

Book Making!

Here’s a video of me illustrating a book 5 years ago. I use the same illustration technique I’m going to teach in my upcoming artist book class at Sitka Center for Art and Ecology. Illustrating a book is surprisingly easy if you start all the pages at once on a large sheet of paper.

When I make books for print I illustrate the pages individually but I love this technique because it teaches one how to make creative compositions, have a consistent aesthetic throughout the pages and quickly cuts through the intimidation factor.

My illustration style has developed tremendously since I started making books and I believe that this technique was critical in my development. Also, it’s really fun! I love art techniques that have an unpredictable element in them!

My next greeting card book is actually going to be a revised edition of The Gift of Birds, you’ll get to see that soon.

There’s still some spots in Artist’s Book Illuminated. Hope to see you there!

Unremarkable

This is my first time at Riverview Natural Area. It is like a neglected patch of woods behind someone’s house—growing over with ivy, criss-crossed with ill-planned trails. I expect to see a few tree-houses and forts but they’re absent. At least the city took the time to number the trails and mark them with laminated paper stapled to stakes.

I walk into the park feeling out-of-touch, quite a bit like a neglected patch of woods overgrown with the desire to not feel my own reality after heartlessly severing a six-year friendship because it housed an on-and-off romance that functioned like a cumbersome, worn out, bug-infested sofa-bed during a move. It doesn’t fit through the doorway of my future. No one can blame me for not wanting to bring the bugs along.  If I’m honest it doesn’t belong anyway. But the memories. The cozy moments. Then again how many time can one try and fail to be heard?

It’s nice to be out under the trees even if everything seems unremarkable in the light of my mood. I cross a log so wide I just sit on it and swing my legs over. I stand up to find a big, wet spot of fresh bird poop on my camel-colored corduroy skirt. This would normally be funny. A bird-lover is eventually going to meet with bird excrement, it’s required. But it’s squishy and I feel oddly embarrassed about walking the trails and riding my bike home with a poop spot on my skirt, as if people will know and assume it’s my own.

I pour most of my water bottle out while trying to rub the debris out of the soft ribbing in my skirt then keep walking, unconcerned that I might now look like I peed on myself.

The trail starts to head steeply downward toward Macadam and I consider that I just rode my bike up this same slope through the cemetery, that I had to rest a few times along the way and that I may not be happy arriving at the bottom to have to climb all the way back up again.

I turn around, resigned to an unremarkable walk getting acquainted with a new place. Getting up to date on my requisite encounters with bird poop. Doing the best I can to to reckon with the edges of emptiness around a pain in my heart, that will slowly fade in the recognition that the hardest way isn’t always the most noble.

Greeting Card Books Explained

In The Slough, Greeting Card Book by Alexandra Schaefers

I picked up In the Slough from PaperJam Press yesterday, it is now available in my new WooCommerce shop under the “Books” tab. I’m really excited about making more Greeting Card Books. It seemed like a good way for me to be able to do what I love most—illustrate my own nature poems into little books—while also providing something genuinely useful to others.

These days we are rightfully tired of clutter, wary of collecting and gifting unnecessary junk and we want to reduce our negative impact on the environment. I’d like to think that Greeting Card Books provide enough content to be seen and felt as a special gift while using very little extra resources than a traditional greeting card. They are presents for people we love who really don’t want more stuff. They are for people who love to give gifts but want responsible options.

These are printed on 100% recycled paper. I rode my bike to the shop to look over the proof and took the bus to pick up the finished copies. I even rode my bike to the post-office this morning to send out my first orders. I am going to try my best to keep up the alternative transportation theme so these books can have a hint of environmental stewardship added to their value.

I have a 50% off sale to celebrate the opening of my shop and the completion of my second Greeting Card Book, it runs through May 14th. I’d love to know what you think of this idea!

Delicate

watercolor illustration of crows flying through spring trees by Alexandra Schaefers

The scent of Magnolia blossoms draws me along the trail into their grove. Some trees have already leafed, some have yet to bloom and there’s every stage between.

The blossoms form colored clouds around their home trees and layer against each other, against the green adding a murky aliveness to the quivering air. As if the oxygen molecules are moving to make room for the bursting buds and pin-prick sized rain droplets.

One crow forages alone at the edge of a large grassy slope punctuating the intense green. When I look down the trail I see flashes of other crow slipping between the trees. The cloud cover deepens their black feathers so they look like oil dripping through the woods.

watercolor illustration of a crow at the edge of a green slope by alexandra Schaefers

I sit on a bench here, a picnic table there, reaching into the lace of bird song for the familiars: scrub jays, yellow warblers, dark-eyed juncos, spotted towhees, crows. A woman walks past so engrossed in her phone her steps seem suspended, in slow motion, a Tai Chi practice perhaps. I do not think I exist in her attention or peripheral vision and for that moment I feel how a forest creature might while hiding in its own stillness watching the brash world of humans pass.

The rain drops become larger as I write in my sketchbook so I get on the trail again and head for the picnic shelter wishing I had brought a pen with waterproof ink.

A spotted towhee darts across the trail from one brushy cover to another. It is so funny to watch birds run even in situations where flight would be unwieldy. I feel as though my whole life is the same sort of comic but necessary dash. Somehow this inspires me to photograph the rusty hues of dead salal leaves and draw a few buds from the spray of spring twigs along the trail.

sketchbook drawing of spring maple buds by Alexandra Schaefers

A loud truck rumbles down Burnside. On the drive over I was preoccupied thinking about the importance of generosity in relationships, in art, in work. There are too many small things I am mad about that keep me just as small and ungenerous.

Now I feel almost aquatic in this dense plasma of life, snuggled on all sides in all moments by the world’s exhale and the viscosity of ions exchanging—green things sending ripples of freshness across the air as they turn light and water into fiber.

I came here to admire magnolia blossoms and end up with fish-sense, critter-sense. This seems like a bargain to me. What do I remember about the blossoms anyway? How delicate and soft the petals were even on blossoms larger than my hands.

watercolor painting of a magnolia blossom by Alexandra Schaefers

I get to the shelter but it’s almost time to go.

Can a person decide in one day to stop minding their worries, their frustrations—to let them fuss like small children while one goes about the business of enjoying life anyway?  I will find out. There is no reason today can’t be the day everything changes.

A junco flies in and hops around the rivets of the shelter support. Another lands on the trash and peers into its dark opening. He sees nothing of interest and flies off.

Innocence and Intimacy

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I’ve been researching the phenomena of Instagram influencers lately after developing a fascination with the reality that women can make a lot of money just posting photos of themselves online. I’m sort of a curmudgeon when it comes to fashion and beauty. I love clothes and a little make-up but I feel like it’s supposed to be a fun, light-hearted thing, not something that takes over one’s life unless it is one’s livelihood, financial or otherwise. What I found in my research is that women are in fact, making a livelihood of it.

I felt judgemental of people going to locations just to take photos of themselves without actually enjoying the place. Now I realize they are modeling. They aren’t going there to pretend it’s part of their life, they are going there because it’s a good place to take a photo shoot and they are, or want to be, fashion models. This may be obvious to all of you. To me it was a revelation. I could not figure out why anyone would follow an account of photos of one person in different outfits. It turns to be the latest version of looking through the Sears and Robuck catalog which I loved to do when I was a kid.

I feel it’s neat that women have greater access to make a living being stylists, art-directors and photographers. I do wish our culture could move to deeper places of creativity where it’s not about creating the appearance of a perfectly styled, trendy life but about living a deeply passionate, interior-guided life, but this is an antique problem.

My hope on Instagram is to connect with anyone who might enjoy my art, I don’t really need to do fashion shoots for that. I do get wound up more than I’d like to admit about how to best use my account. Sometimes I want to post only finished work. Sometimes I want to post photos of the adventures I have going about my life as an artist. Sometimes I want to post everything I make even if it sucks and has nothing to do with my current body of work.

The photo album I posted above are photos I took when I lived and worked in a tiny studio apartment on NW 20th in Portland when I was in my mid 30’s. This was before Instagram. I in no way considered myself a photographer. I was just enamored with having a little camera on my Nokia blackberry and I was enamored with the vintage charm of my apartment. Being a painter, it was fun to make compositions with the phone screen and no resources were wasted as they were when we used film.

When I look at them now I am struck with the inadvertent intimacy they create as a body of work. I feel nostalgic for the innocence of taking pictures solely for my own pleasure. I never arranged things for the pictures, I just recorded what was already there if it struck my fancy. It never occurred to me to change the decor of my home to improve my photos. I never even edited the photos. I don’t know if I will ever experience that again. It is challenging in the age of social media to celebrate the beauty of our lives without wanting to improve them, without seeing them through the eyes of a judging audience.

I want to do more research on how advertising usurps art and our experience of beauty. I would love to hear of any articles or resources you know of on the subject.


Neighborhood Trees

watercolor painting of neighborhood trees in Sabin, Portland, Oregon by Alexandra Schaefers

Today is a warm, sunny, blossoming day. The first day of spring, in fact. I am lounging outdoors on my friend’s porch in Sabin. My ankle is a bit sprained which I could be depressed about, but this porch—surrounded by neighborhood trees and blue skies—is so decadent I don’t miss the hike I would normally be on.

Don is currently in his room programming LED lights. I’ve been reading a book and feeling guilty about using this injury as an excuse to be really unproductive. But isn’t this the life I always wanted my productivity to lead me to? Enjoying the day exactly as it is, untailored by my expectations. Occupying—fully—my place in the elements, in the biosphere, in my own skin.

The wind rushes through the tall fir with the spray of ocean sounds then rattles the branches of the blossoming deciduous trees on the other side of the block, then rushes through the fir again.

watercolor illustration of crows flying by Alexandra Schaefers

Dead leaves scitter across the driveway. Crows pass over now and again calling to each other. The traffic, the chirp of sparrows and goldfinches, clatter of a cyclist, a man shushing a baby, pushing the stroller down the sidewalk.

A soda can cracks open in the house. Don comes out to check on me. I show him my sketches with unhinged enthusiasm. He talks about mini computers, knobs, switches and 3D printed brackets for LED lights. I absorb every twelfth word and feel bad for my poor friendship skills.

Meanwhile finches sing in the treetops while people rearrange things loudly in their backyards. Kids holler at a nearby park occasionally invoking the sound of a violent death.

watercolor illustration of a bird shadow by Alexandra Schaefers

Car doors slam. Shadows flit back and forth across the porch, the old green couch, my lap. A bird shaped shadow sails across the light. I look up to see two sparrows hopping about in last year’s wisteria plucking bits of twigs then flying off.

A breeze cools my face. A leaf skitters down the sidewalk. An insect passes. I look up and see their light bodies hovering here and there in the open air of the porch. Crows again. The screen door creaks on its own. Wind chimes tinker. A car whooshes by.

A little hair blows in front of my own face and I remember myself separate from the warmth, from the peaceful goings-on of eternity as it tends to its everyday chores here on the block. Each time I slip into the richness of the world like this I see clearly that I have been doing everything wrong; thinking myself into a person, into a purpose, a quest to find beauty even though it is exactly where I left it.

The chimes pick up again as the ocean sings through the fir while car stereos add beats from two different directions. I sneeze and wonder what’s next.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying One’s Studio

painting by Alexandra Schaefers in fluid acrylic of a sketch made at Jackson-Frazier Wetlands in Corvallis Oregon
from a sketch at Jackson-Frazier Wetlands in Corvallis, Oregon

I watched a few episodes of “Tidying up with Marie Kondo” with my mom and sister a month or two ago and when I came home I was beside myself with the desire to pile all my clothing on the bed and sift through it based on what sparked joy. I must admit if I had followed Kondo’s advice literally I would not own any pants. Nor would I have any clothes suitable for work.

I would have 12 pairs of socks, 3 dresses, 2 dressy winter coats, 2 flannel shirts, hiking shoes and no underwear what-so-ever. The idealist in me would love to take everything else to the thrift store to experience the reality of only owning things that spark joy. The part of me that hates shopping and would rather buy art supplies than apparel nixed the idea.

I did get rid of some things I know I don’t like or need and I bought Kondo’s book, The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up, hoping it would shed light on this tangible spark of joy that is to guide one’s selection. It didn’t but I went through all my health and beauty products and appliances next anyway and was quite impressed with how lovely and spacious my bathroom was after-the-fact.

I tackled some other categories, all the while dreading what it would be like to Konmari my studio. I questioned whether or not that was even a good idea. Kondo believes one should have as few papers as possible and my art practice believes one should fill up as many pieces of paper as possible.

I know she isn’t talking about art when she says, strive to get rid of all papers. But I’ve always had an urge to dump all my past unsaleable work and trust my present art-making abilities to function without any history shoring me up. I do cull my studio regularly because I’m sensitive to clutter but I find it hard to let go of things I’ve created even if it’s just a loose sketch of a crow on copy paper.

In addition to all the other categories of miscellaneous stuff I used to guide my sorting I had: studio tools, art mediums, notebooks and journals, sketches and experiments, framed paintings, loose paintings, installations and artist books.

I mostly used common sense with my tools and mediums since holding these items all had the same sense of familiarity and appreciation that didn’t make a big emotional splash. There were things I know I don’t like to use that I am afraid to get rid of for no sensible reason, tools that are similar that I don’t need two of, tools I used to use and imagine I may use again someday. These are the things I got rid of, occasionally something would present an emotional attachment and I’d save it for the sentimental category Kondo recommends people tackle last. Her question, do I want this moving forward? was more useful to me than joy sparks.

Going through my drawings and experiments was the most challenging and rewarding part of the process. For this I got rid of things that weren’t exciting to look at which was as close as I got to experiencing sorting things by joy. What was left I sorted into piles: drawings that would make good paintings, studies I can still learn from, artifacts–aka experiments and paintings not good enough to sell but too good to throw away, historical pieces that I am attached to just because they show what I was doing way-back-when.

I put most of these into separate notebooks. I then made two paintings from old sketches, (one pictures above and one below) which seemed to immediately validate the worth of this tidying project.

I put all the studies I could still learn from into a portfolio which I’m using to inform my new painting journal, sometimes by painting them into the journal and then recycling them. Or sometimes by pasting them into the journal. This has been super fun and gives me a nice break from my endeavor to make good art.

I haven’t finished the entire Konmari method yet but I do think it was useful to apply it to my studio. It feels great to have a work space with only the tools I need and to have all my papers organized into collections that are useful to my creative process. I’d like to think I’ve been more productive.

Today I am laid up with what appears to be a sprained ankle. It didn’t seem like my rolled ankle was going to be an actual injury until I went to work at the restaurant and it gradually became very uncomfortable to walk on. Today is day two of resting and elevating it as much as possible. Tomorrow I hope to get back to some normal activity.

In the meantime I tinkered with my web-site a lot, revised my post about creative responsibility after a friend told me the original was heavy handed to say the least. Now I’ve written this post which I’ve been thinking about for a while. I know I should post pictures of my “new” studio space but the internet is so saturated with things like that I’d rather just post these paintings I made post-Konmari.

If you Konmari your studio I’d love to hear your thoughts about it!

watercolor painting of a Northern Harrier flying over Bald Hill Natural Area in spring by artist Alexandra Schaefers
Harrier at Bald Hill in Corvallis, OR


Creative Responsibility

I’m having a lot of complicated thoughts about art and creativity today while being depressed about the shooting at Christchurch. That the killer used a GoPro to film his acts adds a whole new layer of disturb to the violence.

I love documenting my work and sharing it on the internet and somehow I feel that all of us who obsessively post our accomplishments online need to consider our responsibility when someone uses the same platforms and technologies to perform and share a really brutal and violent version of this shared obsession.

I’m not trying to imply we are responsible for what happened, but that we are responsible to consider what we might do moving forward to create a social media climate with no room for hate.

The platforms themselves need to be better at preventing content like that from spreading and from allowing hate-groups to organize on their sites. We need to think about how it was that this shooting was discussed in a chatroom ahead of time and didn’t get reported, how a violent person is able to get a hold of such powerful weapons and why we have a president who endorses racism and xenophobia.

But also, what have we created? So much of social media is divisive or a grand feedback loop inciting envy about how glamorous and charming everyone else’s lives are. It is a tool to connect and has been used to do some amazingly positive things but is the overwhelming reality is that it creates alienation? What else could spur such violence besides a very deep seated sense of alienation?

Culture follows creatives. We have an opportunity to have a profound impact on how people use social media. It is easy to get bogged down in how to earn a living in a society that doesn’t do a great job of making opportunity for artists but we can make some space to consider what direction we want to set for culture.

Do we really want to spend an hour setting up the perfect scene to photograph so that it looks like our morning coffee and laptop session is a Paris vacation? Or do we want to spend that time creating a beauty people can relate to, that they can find and celebrate in their own lives?

I’m not saying we shouldn’t share the beauty of a morning coffee if we are so inspired but there is a big difference between sharing the beauty we find in our lives versus staging a glamor we want other people to imagine we have and envy.

I may be off-base here, perhaps it is all the coaches and would-be influencers that are filling social media spaces with manicured lives. But they’re taking their cues from creatives so we still have an opportunity to make glamor passe and authenticity actually authentic.

I also believe strongly we need to avoid reproducing violent images in the name of drawing attention to a problem. I know it’s heavy-handed and judgemental to say so, but I think that’s the easy way out in most cases. I believe it is better to take the time to develop a body of work that states powerfully what we want it to without feeding more violent images into the minds of humanity. One artist who does this brilliantly is Nina Chanel Abney.

I’m not trying to be a Pollyanna. Beauty, as I understand it, can encompass all types of human experience and aesthetics but it doesn’t create alienation. It is a shared experience we all have access too if we aren’t side-tracked by a constant invalidation of our worth.

Even as an artist who paints trees and birds I get to choose whether I create with an intention to share or to aggrandize my own ego. I don’t expect that in one day I can revamp my entire personality but I do intend to pay more attention to my intentions, to try to connect to beauty more and worry about status less.