Blackberry Jam: Understanding the Cosmos
A number of years ago I was working on a very detailed series of large watercolor paintings – (32 x 22” and larger) when a disaster threatened to destroy a very important painting. This painting, that I had been working on for about 40 hours, was due at a juried show, and the unexpected catastrophe nearly cost me my place in the exhibit.
The painting was one in a series that told my concept of using quilts as an analogy for the Midwest. The premise was that the Midwest with its patchwork-like fields, sometimes very geometric, sometimes crazy-quilt like—had many characteristics in common with actual quilts—and vice versa. For example, both carried the traditions of the family who worked them, they represented Midwestern values of hard work, family, respect for materials, and thriftiness. They both endured for generations. On the other hand, they both could be at the mercy of outside forces—many a disaster could befall either and virtually within an instant they could be gone—tornadoes, floods, financial ruin.
With that as a premise, I created a concept to represent these parallels and risks by including in each painting elements of a quilt – but including an element that has blown apart, become deconstructed. Then I also included an iconic Midwest scene, frequently a flower—such as an iris, sunflower, black-eyed Susan. Or I included a building such as a grain elevator. Or a bird (red-winged black bird). Or a crop (like the corn shown in my painting included here in this post).
Part of the drama and the conflict within the painting was that there was this visual tension between the traditional pastoral depiction to the Midwest icons, and a hard-edged, bold graphic abstract intensity to the quilt block elements of the painting.
I had finished the “keystone” painting in the series, a painting with sunflowers, bold “Marilyn Monroe lipstick red” colored quilt blocks and an intimate depiction of two young sisters on a tricycle in a mid-1950’s era. The painting had taken hours and hours, and now was complete. It needed to be framed and go to a gallery for an exhibit the next day. Since a painting takes about 24 hours to dry completely, I had finished with minutes to go. So, I decided I needed a celebratory snack. A piece of toast with blackberry jam sounded ideal. With snack in hand, I sat examining the painting laid on a low table in front of me. The corners of the quilt blocks had to be absolutely crisp and perfect–difficult in watercolor. The washes in the subtle blends of the sunflowers had to be brilliant, clear and transparent—also a mark of an accomplished watercolorist.
Somehow as I was evaluating the painting, the toast with blackberry jam, launched itself from my left hand and landed face-first (jam side down) on my painting. Absolutely aghast I was completely speechless, stunned, incredulous and dismayed. As someone who gets quiet and strategic in the face of disasters, I took a moment to compose myself and then strategize as to how the heck I was going to get blackberry jam off the face of this painting.
Needless to say, I learned a lot about:
- Disaster as a motivator to creative problem solving.
- Understanding in watercolor, you go with the flow and allow the materials to tell you how to solve a problem.
- Inventing techniques to resolve a creative/design opportunity.
- Avoiding panic when a plan will get you out of the “jam” so to speak.
- Appreciating the cosmic sense of humor.
It all worked out, the painting won an award and now is residing in a private collection in Bethesda, Maryland. But to me, the underlying lessons were: expect the unexpected; you are not done with the painting until it is hanging in the gallery; expect the cosmos to have the last laugh.
Since the point of this series of paintings was in part to call attention to the fact that a disaster could at any time hit the Midwest or a quilt– or apparently a painting of a quilt and the Midwest– the irony was not lost on me.
Ah yes, oh mighty cosmos– I get it. I get it.