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Innocence and Intimacy

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alexandra schaefers
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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.

Studio Update

Painting Journal

When I was visiting Corvallis for the last art walk I got to see one of my favorite artists Carrie Tasman. I talked to her about how I wanted to develop a looser illustration style but I also missed my old neat and tidy illustrations and she suggested in this delightfully matter-of-fact tone to experiment with new styles in my sketchbook. That is really what sketchbooks are for. Somehow I get overly pragmatic with my sketchbook, all studies and story boards, loose drawings of ideas but very little experimenting. I started a new painting journal with the hope that it would help me be looser and more creative.

In other news I’ve decided my experiment in making art a hobby is complete. I don’t know how to make art into an actual livelihood financially but I can’t deny that it is my livelihood in terms of purpose and meaning and fulfillment.

I feel very fortunate to be able to wait tables and have plenty of time to immerse myself in my art. I’ve started doing a little research into the idea of book publishing. I don’t really think of my poem books as children’s books but other people do, maybe that would be a more natural fit for me.


Finding a Lost Trail

When I arrive at Marshall park three varied thrushes scatter from around the trailhead into the trees. I walk down to the bridge, over the creek, past the playground and up the trail—hopefully on my way to Tryon Creek State Park. Last time I got lost and wandered entirely too far on a deer trail with the absurd notion that this trail, despite being on a map of suggested walking routes put out by the city of Portland, is simply not well used.

As I descend toward the creek again I see a trail on the other side I hadn’t noticed last time. I realize that this was the spot where the trail became thin and unreliable last time so I assume not crossing had been my wrong turn. This time I walk on the wide log over the creek and follow the trail along the water and up the bank to the intersection of Arnold and Boones Ferry.

A couple blocks away I find the North Creek Trailhead. I am elated to have finally made it here after one failed attempt! I haven’t been on this side of the park much. The woods feel open where the creek winds through a wide marshy area, especially without the leaves of the deciduous trees filling in the space.

I walk through the park on my favorite trails admiring the maple blossoms and budding leaves. I love the way the new buds spring up right next to the remnants of fall, old seedpods still hanging on the branches, leaves stuck in the cruxes. It’s been such a cold winter, I am especially eager for spring.

Above me chestnut backed chickadees sing to each other in a cloud of high-pitched chatter. I only get a good look at one who peeks over a mossy branch before darting off into the high branches.

I admire a wren hopping about in the undergrowth loudly defending its territory. Down the trail a ways I find a sunny bench to have lunch on. Behind me a barred owl sings occasionally and I watch people walk their dogs past as I eat the two bread heels out of a bread bag identical to the one my sandwich is in at home in the fridge.

On the way back I startle several more groups of varied thrushes. They aren’t a rare bird but I’ve never seen so many in one walk before and it makes the day even more enchanted than finding a lost trail on the other side of a log bridge.

I’m surprised to find varied thrushes have bold black and white stripes on the underside of their wings. It’s so striking as they fly off through the deep greens. As I watch a female perched next to a broken branch right above the trail I also realize their lovely orange coloring is the exact same color as the inside of a tree before it weathers. I stay very still, watching until she flies off. Up the trail a bit I spy two males on the other side of some bare brush. I watch them foraging alongside the creek until a fellow with a dog passes and the birds scatter.

After I cross the log again and head up the hill I notice this part of the trail is not stable. It is in a terrible process of erosion which makes it seem unlikely to be a city-sanctioned trail. When planning my route I had expected to walk on streets more then I actually did before arriving at Tryon.

I pass a fork in the trail with no signage. I had taken the wider path assuming the narrower trail went into the nearest neighborhood. Now I get out my map and find that this was actually my wrong turn. I was supposed to take the narrower trail to the street.

What a dilemma! I just discovered this enchanting trail but feel morally obligated to take a boring street route next time. If the bank weren’t in such bad shape I wouldn’t mind taking the unmapped trail but it’s not good for the creek and all the life it supports having the bank wash down.

It’s tough sometimes to balance out our rights as mammals to be close to nature with our obligation as stewards to make sure we stop ruining our neighboring species’ habitat. In my ideal world, we restore so many natural areas and effuse our cities and neighborhoods with so much plant life and other-species habitat that we don’t feel deprived when we shut ourselves out of areas that need to be restored.

I walk the rest of the way home and eat my sandwich finally. It tastes all the better for having been missed.

here’s a really great article about one effort to add more nature back to cities!

How to Start an Art Practice Without a lot of Supplies

I meet a lot of people who believe making art requires a lot of time, material, space and/or talent. Actually making art only requires one medium and a little passion. People make art just with their cell phone cameras these days and you don’t even have to be a photographer to do that. What interesting compositions could be made by framing one’s surrounds, what painterly moods could be expressed just capturing the light of a particular moment?

For more tactile people all one needs is paper and a pencil or pen. One could draw on the back of paper out of the recycle, buy a ream of copy paper, find a notebook laying around the house, pick up a sketchbook or notebook at the store, use the inside of paper bags.

My sketchbook is a ream of cotton bond paper, it’s more expensive than copy paper but its takes watercolor paint a little better and is still a lot cheaper than buying sketchbooks. I keep these in a three ring binder but no one needs to be that fancy even. A folder, manila envelope, box. One could scan their drawings onto a computer, post them (or not) on social media, a blog maybe and then recycle the paper copies.

Obviously there is nothing wrong with buying a nice sketchbook or having a lot of art supplies. I’m just trying to make things as simple and flexible as possible so anyone who is stuck inventing entry barriers for themselves may be inspired to let that go. Drawing is the best foundation for all art in my opinion. Even if what you want is to make giant oil paintings beginning to draw will take you about halfway to that goal.

Honestly, if you don’t start to draw you may never make a single painting. If you keep a drawing practice the stage is set. You will, sooner than you thought possible, start painting. Or get carried off in some other art direction more fulfilling than you ever could have imagined.

The particulars of one’s art practice are never as important as we imagine them to be. What is important is this question: are you engaging your passion? It is OK to be passionate about nothing else besides wanting to be creative, wanting to find one’s voice, wanting to find room for passion in one’s life.

So what are you going to draw on your little stack of paper or the notebook you just pulled out of the bottom of the desk drawer? Even if it’s a little uninspired notebook, half-empty, with lines and old to-do lists it’s going to become a magical art-book the moment you make one attempt to express yourself in it.

 

Drawings can be made in a few minutes, we don’t need to wait for a lot of time to sit down and draw. Commercials, waiting for someone to arrive or text back, coffee breaks. Every time we see a social media post that irritates us it should be like a drinking game but instead it’s our cue to put down the phone and grab a piece of paper.

Starting a new thing and finding time can be hard, I won’t deny that. We don’t have get mad at ourselves or our circumstances. Nor to we have to get mad at ourselves for getting mad at ourselves. The moment we notice we haven’t drawn for a few weeks is the moment to congratulate ourselves for giving passion enough of a presence to remember. The moment we feel frustrated at how many other things we have to do is the moment to have gratitude that we have a strong passion that is going to take us on an amazing adventure even if it seems a little slow compared to the movies we love to watch.

Some people know what they want to draw already. Faces, cats, dishware, shoes, gardens, boats, birds, abstracts…some people know what they love that they want to talk about with art. Go to it. Do not obligate yourself to be good, it is more important to try, to learn. Whatever your drawings look like, trust that they are beautiful because you took the time to make them. Because they are a product of and catalyst for your passion. Because deciding to make art without anyone else’s permission or approval is a subversive act of faith in the worth of your life.

You can worry about making your drawings “good” later. Even better, you can continue to cultivate your voice and discover more of your own beauty.

Some people don’t know what they want to draw, they just know they like art and want to make their own. No problem. Draw something near you. Draw something in your imagination. Draw something that seems like something you would like to draw. Doodle, scribble, put the pencil down on the paper and make some marks. Get to know the marks your hand likes to make. You can decide later what to draw, the important thing is to start. Let yourself start the thing you want to do. Let it be incredibly imperfect. Let it be a tiny seed that looks nothing like the grand oak you would like it to be.

Next time we’ll probably talk more about ways to draw and why drawing works even if we don’t make pretty drawings. If this post inspires you to start an art practice let me know how it goes!

The Exact Shape of the Sky

 

Ivy Hill was the first place I fell in love with when I moved back to Corvallis. A wide trail loops around the hill on one side ascending to it’s peak where one can stand in the bare meadows and look down on the charming city of Corvallis shrouded in its many trees. The unruly branches of white oaks and open meadows there have the most dramatic relationship with the changing weather. Fog writes intrigue with the silhouettes of twisted trees. Clouds lay heavy in their grey mist passing over the ocher grass. The blue sky shapes itself into jagged panes between each trailing branch. It’s impossible not to fall in love with Corvallis in the spring especially at the top of Ivy Hill.

I arrived in Spring and felt as though my heart was the exact shape of the sky above the contours of North Corvallis. I felt such peace being snugly back in its familiar hills, creeks, and the forested slough slipping into the Willamette.

Today I am here on a visit from Portland where I have spent most of my adult live. I head up the trail and miss the deep fir-filled woods that used to flank the sides of the hill before the oak release. The startling beauty of oaks against the skyline should salve my grief but I do not feel quite at home in the restored oak savanna.

Without ambition or binoculars I spot and hear several acorn woodpeckers, one of the declining species the oak release aimed to make habitat for. Even the oaks themselves were not doing well with so many evergreens crowding them. I didn’t used to see acorn woodpeckers this far east so I imagine this project has been successful.

I walk up the hill looking for the distinct white spots on the wings of the acorn woodpecker as they fly from tree to tree. I stop to admire a group of juncos crossing the trail together. A little grey bird I don’t recognize flits about in the branches alongside the trail with a patch of yellow on its sides. My best guess is that it’s an immature or female yellow-rumped warbler which the internet agrees with later at home.

At the top of the hill I spot a couple white-breasted nuthatches high in an oak, the first time I’ve identified them solo. A western bluebird flies by and I look out across the valley wondering if it will spark the same sense of home, the same sense of paradise and good fortune it did when I moved here. It doesn’t. Which is a relief because I am really enjoying my life in Portland even with its challenges.

I walk back down the hill considering the intelligence of the heart to make itself at home in whatever place it needs to be. It was so peaceful to be in Corvallis the first two years, staying with my folks on 11 acres along the slough, working two days a week at a cafe, riding my bike here and there in no particular hurry, painting in the woods. When I got a full-time job the small town charm instantly evaporated. Then they cut down the firs in Chip Ross Park, gathered the debris in piles all across Ivy Hill and burned it. I regretted the smoldering piles but knew it was right for them to do. I also knew it was right for me to be here with my dad at the end of his life. That the snugness of my heart had more to do with him than the hills. That I might end up back in Portland as if one of a species crowding out the devoted Corvallians.

I hear some hollow drumming as I walk down the other side of the hill blinded by the afternoon sun.

I shade my eyes and look up into the oak by the trail to see a Pileated woodpecker working away, striking in its size and brilliant red crest. I stay and watch it until it slides around the back of the tree, still pecking at the bark.