Picture Today


June 24, 2018


Feast of Saint John the Baptist

Why Today?

John’s day is associated with Midsummer Celebrations on the solstice, so why his feast on June 24? Interesting stuff from CatholicCulture.org: 

“…The Church celebrates his natural birth by a festival of his “nativity,” assigned exactly six months before the nativity of Christ, since John was six months older than the Lord. As soon as the Feast of Christmas was established on December 25 (in the fifth century) the date of the Baptist’s birth was assigned to June 24.

The question arises of why June 24, and not 25. It has often been claimed that the Church authorities wanted to “Christianize” the pagan solstice celebrations and for this reason advanced Saint John’s feast as a substitute for the former pagan festival. However, the real reason why Saint John’s Day falls on June 24 lies in the Roman way of counting, which proceeded backward from the calends (first day) of the succeeding month. Christmas was “the eighth day before the Kalends of January” (Octavo Kalendas Januarii). Consequently, Saint John’s nativity was put on the “eighth day before the Kalends of July.” However, since June has only thirty days, in our way of counting the feast falls on June 24.

All over Europe, from Scandinavia to Spain, and from Ireland to Russia, Saint John’s Day festivities are closely associated with the ancient nature lore of the great summer festival of pre-Christian times. Fires are lighted on mountains and hilltops on the eve of his feast. These “Saint John’s fires” burn brightly and quietly along the fiords of Norway, on the peaks of the Alps, on the slopes of the Pyrenees, and on the mountains of Spain (where they are called Hogueras). They were an ancient symbol of the warmth and light of the sun which the forefathers greeted at the beginning of summer. In many places, great celebrations are held with dances, games, and outdoor meals.

Fishermen from Brittany keep this custom even while far out at sea in the Arctic Ocean. They hoist a barrel filled with castoff clothing to the tip of the mainsail yard and set the contents on fire. All ships of the fishing fleet light up at the same time, about eight o’clock in the evening. The men gather around the mast, pray and sing. Afterward they celebrate in their quarters, and the captain gives each crew member double pay.

Another custom is that of lighting many small fires in the valleys and plains. People gather around, jump through the flames, and sing traditional songs in praise of the saint or of summer. This custom is based on the pre-Christian “need fires” (niedfyr, nodfyr) which were believed to cleanse, cure, and immunize people from all kinds of disease, curses, and dangers. In Spain these smaller fires (fogatas) are lighted in the streets of towns and cities, everybody contributing some old furniture or other wood, while children jump over the flames. In Brest, France, the bonfires are replaced by lighted torches which people throw in the air. In other districts of France they cover wagon wheels with straw, then set them on fire with a blessed candle and roll them down the hill slopes.

As the first day of summer, Saint John’s Day is considered in ancient folklore one of the great “charmed” festivals of the year. Hidden treasures are said to lie open in lonely places, waiting for the lucky finder. Divining rods should be cut on this day. Herbs are given unusual powers of healing, which they retain if they are plucked during the night of the feast. In Germany they call these herbs Johanneskraut (St. John’s herbs), and people bring them to church for a special blessing.

In Scandinavia and in the Slavic countries it is an ancient superstition that on Saint John’s Day witches and demons are allowed to roam the earth. As at Halloween, children go the rounds and demand “treats,” straw figures are thrown into the flames, and much noise is made to drive the demons away.”

Saint John Baptist, decoupage on wood from an original drawing, 16 x 3.5 inches. Available on Etsy.


Picture Today


June 2, 2018

Coyotes By The PoolCoyotes By The Pool, Mixed media on canvas, 26 x 32 inches.

Paintings and Children

More Thoughts on the Creative Process

It is not uncommon for artists to think of their artistic creations as children they have birthed, raised and sent out into the world. Or wait, maybe it is uncommon. At any rate, it is the way I tend to think of them. Of course my paintings and my children, and my relationships with each are vastly different, but the small similarities are what interest me today.

Lately I have begun asking new owners of my paintings to send me photos of the work in its new setting, in its new home. After imagining and wrestling a work into existence (see yesterday’s post about the roll of time and careful listening in art making), it is a great joy to have a connection to a piece’s new life “out in the big world”.

The connection that I have to a painting after creating and living with it for some time, the reluctance I sometimes feel in letting it go, and the bittersweet realization that this is what I created it for in the first place, have got me thinking again about picture making and child raising.

Child psychologist Alison Gopnik has a book out entitled,

The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us About the Relationship Between Parents and Children

As the title suggests, Gopnik posits that parents fall into either of two rolls in raising their children. Carpenters set out to build a finished project and set about building responsible, caring successful adults. Gardeners instead focus on providing safe nurturing healthy environments for children to grow up into who they will become.

In an interview with NPR Gopnik states, “”I think the science suggests that being a caregiver for human beings is…much more about providing a protected space in which unexpected things can happen than it is like shaping a child into a particular kind of desirable adult.”

The author’s ideas on “parenting” as a comparatively recent invention and how a more natural approach to child rearing could have tremendous benefits for our children and for our society are interesting and refreshing. It is how these ideas relate to creating art that interests me.

“Art, fully realized, is too big for a maker’s preconception of it. We start the process with only dim shadows and blurred dreams of the desired end.”

The parallels between the carpenter/gardener approach to child rearing and picture making are obvious. The world in which I most often exhibit my art is one in which carpenters reign. Art Shows and Festivals especially, (in spite of the name) are focused on craftsmanship and well made objects as opposed to art.* Carpenters set out to make a finished product. They use their considerable skills to parent their creations into a preconceived result, a commodity. Gardener artists provide the environment of openness and reciprocity and use their skills to help a creation emerge. Art, fully realized, is too big for a maker’s preconception of it. We start the process with only dim shadows and blurred dreams of the desired end.

It’s a personal and arduous process, fraught with failure and doubt. But when there is some small success, some small but significant addition to the expanding universe of what it means to be human, well, then it’s hard to let go.

*see my post “What is Art?

Alison Gropnik’s book is published by Picador and is available in, or can be ordered by, fine independent bookstores everywhere.

Picture Today


June 1, 2018


Wildflowers, (work in progress). Oil and collage on canvas, 13 x 34 inches.

I’m not sure how I’m feeling about this one. The result isn’t what I envisioned when I started my journey with it. I’m now reconciling with its reality: what it wanted to be and therefore became.

A large part of the painting process is in this collaboration between the artist and the work. Sometimes the painter feels more in control, sometimes the work seems not to yield or only grudgingly. In my experience successful paintings most often come when a certain cooperation is achieved, the artist and the art working together in creation. Success can come too when the artist yields to the work, listening for its will and obeying.

On the other hand, success rarely or never comes when the artist imposes his will on the work. The victory in that case is a hollow one, and the result is formulaic, tight, uninspired or obviously forced. In my case I may like the painting when it is finished, pleased with my success. In time however, I will see the painting’s weaknesses and failures. In the end it will be recycled, repurposed or destroyed.

Time and distance are important in the process. First off, listening takes time as the picture develops. This is why passages that appear to be relatively straightforward can take so long to paint. I cannot attack the image with my preconceptions. Rather I must go slow. I plan and imagine and sketch and then suggest. I suggest and then I listen. I watch how my idea plays out on the reality of the canvas. Then I adjust and suggest again. All this takes time.

In addition, more time is needed after the actual paint wrestling has ended. There is more listening within the perspective that comes with enough distance from the struggle.

So, with these wildflowers, I’ve listened and struggled and been disappointed. I haven’t given up but I’ll give it a little more time and listen again. I’ll try to drop my ideas of what this painting should be, and come back to help it become what it is.

(For a fuller discussion of art and the creative process see the posting “What is Art?” in the menu above.)