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Coontie hairstreak, stinky leafwing, yucca, snout, et. al.

Ascia monuste

A New York Times review of a book about butterflies and moths, unfinished and never published in its author’s life, sounds as if it’s worth a look. I see there will be illustrations of leaves in it. I’ve been laboring with the job of rendering peony leaves in oil paint over the past couple weeks–it might do my morale good to see how someone else succeeded or fell short in the effort. But I’m interested in this fellow’s project on its own merits. A few days after my wife and I moved into our little A-frame-like gingerbread house in Utica, New York, back in the 80s, we found a cecropia moth slowly fanning its wings on a rock in the little overgrown garden left behind by the previous owners. It seemed more animal than insect. With wings spread, it was as large as my hand. The symmetrical patterns in those scaled appendages, intricate and abstract, looked like eyes or planets. And this, in turn, reminds me that I have yet to write a full response to the fantastic retrospective of Emmet Gowin’s photographs at the Morgan–this book of lepidoptera coincidentally echoes Gowin’s humble, obsessive two-decade photographic pursuit of butterflies and moths in South America.

The book described below, The Butterflies of North America, includes the drawings by a fellow artist/observer, Titian Peale (who seemed to be named after two earlier artists.) Anyone who undertakes any artistic project that stretches over decades is automatically interesting, yet the names of his winged insects alone are a treat:

. . . you’ll discover the Mexican dartwhite and the Pacific orangetip, the yucca and the duskywing skipper, the coontie hairstreak and the sunset daggerwing, the stinky leafwing and the patch checkerspot — not to mention the Eastern comma and the mourning cloak. There are moths here, too: the yellow-necked prominent, the white-marked tussock, the satellite Sphinx and the snout.

The book, unfinished and unpublished when Peale died in 1885, represents more than 50 years of work. The manuscript ended up in the rare book collection of the American Museum of Natural History, where it somehow languished after it was donated by a family member in 1916. All of Peale’s artwork and some of his field notes from the manuscript are being published next week as “The Butterflies of North America: Titian Peale’s Lost Manuscript.”

Peale, who spent much of his life as an assistant examiner with the United States Patent Office, could never have lived up to the original title; there are, after all, several thousand species of Lepidoptera in North America. But what he did leave us is revelation enough.

“Butterflies” features more than 200 works of art — in gouache, watercolor, ink and pencil — that through Peale’s sharp but sensuous eye show the life cycle of moths and butterflies, from egg to caterpillar to pupa to winged adult. These striking illustrations are complemented by notes, studies and sketches in Peale’s hand from his field books.

Peale “considered scientific description and graphic representation entirely commensurate and complementary modes of attention to the natural world,” the art historian Kenneth Haltman writes in the book’s biographical essay.

Each caterpillar, often paired with its preferred food, is precisely drafted. Peale takes clear pleasure in depicting each foot, bristle and segment in tiny strokes. “Walking, bending, and inching up branches, Peale’s caterpillars are a tour de force of observational art,” Tom Baione, director of the museum’s research library, writes in the introduction to the section.

We may marvel at the sheer biological persistence of the 17-year locust, but consider: Titian Peale’s lost illustrations are finally seeing the light of day after a metamorphosis lasting nearly 200 years.

Sketching in the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument

Sketch from "Hike & Learn" Field Sketching Class

Graphite on drawing paper
Done in Sarah F. Burns “Hike & Learn” class with the Friends of Cascade/Siskiyou National Monument
Just off the Pacific Crest Trail, south of Hobart Bluff Trail Head, in the Soda Mountain Wilderness

Greetings!  Yesterday I took part in a fun sketching class.  Sponsored by the “Friends of Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument”, the class was part of their “Hike and Learn” program.  The instructor was artist Sarah F. Burns.  You may have noted from previous posts, I’m taking classical drawing from Sarah.

I find landscape drawing challenging.  Sarah gave a demonstration on how to create a drawing, focusing on lights, darks and shapes.  She talked about how one organizes based on big shapes and aerial perspective.  She makes it look easy.

When faced with my own blank paper, I set about the business of sketching in the manner Sarah presented.  At the end of the session, we discussed my efforts.  I learned about drawing what I see and how it might differ from drawing symbols of what I see.  I had not noticed this tendency of mine.

The Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument is not far from the Rogue Valley where I live.  It was a good experience.  I’m excited to go out again.

PS.  The “Friends of the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument” have other Hike & Learn sessions.  I think they are a wonderful way to get to know this special place in southwest Oregon.


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New brushes from Dick Blick

New brushes from Dick Blick

Hope and confidence both. Can’t buy me love. Can’t buy me faith. But I can buy a little accessory to hope. Is there anything more like a fresh start than a set of new brushes? For a painting I started in May, granted, but I’m getting that campfire in the gut while working on it.

Weekly Autumn Writing Group

Autumn Writing Group

Weekly Autumn Writing Group Forming Now!

It’s the season of new notebooks, sharpened pencils and fresh starts. What better time to begin a writing group? A six-week workshop is forming for Thursdays, October 8 – November 12 at the Medford Library. (One week we will meet on Wednesday, Oct. 21).  Come join us for inspiring prompts, new exercises and a supportive, encouraging environment for every writer.  All writers and all genres welcome.

The cost is $125. If cost is a barrier, student rates and scholarships are available. Please contact me at [email protected] to apply.

Register at  

Art and life

picasso 2

I think I might become absorbed with my tomatoes in tough times as well. The divide between the work and the life is something a lot of critics can’t get past. The personal life is inconsequential compared to the achievement. From The Paris Review:


What happened to your biography of Picasso?


I quit. I didn’t like him. I thought I would do him as an event, the Krakatoa of art. He changed the way we see; he changed the imagery of our time. But then I realized that strictly in terms of what would work for me, his wasn’t an interesting life.

There’s an old writer’s adage: keep your hero in trouble. With Truman, for instance, that’s never a problem, because he’s always in trouble. Picasso, on the other hand, was immediately successful.

Except for his painting and his love affairs, he lived a prosaic life. He was a communist, which presumably would be somewhat interesting, but during the Nazi occupation of Paris he seems to have been mainly concerned with his tomato plants.

And then his son chains himself to the gate outside trying to get his father’s attention; Picasso calls the police to have him taken away. He was an awful man.

I don’t think you have to love your subject—initially you shouldn’t—but it’s like picking a roommate. After all you’re going to be with that person every day, maybe for years, and why subject yourself to someone you have no respect for or outright don’t like?

Embracing Gray

I’m evolving.  I’m embracing gray.

Once Upon A Time…

About 12 years ago I was called a “colorist”; I took it as a compliment.  I still do.

I had several paintings hanging in a gallery and it was Art Walk night.  A gentleman came by and we were chatting.  He observed that I was a “colorist”.  And, indeed, my paintings were colorful.

A Little Art History

To explain, a “colorist” is an artist whose focus is color instead of something else like gray tone.  Painters like Matisse and Bonnard created colorist works.

A “tonalist”, on the other hand, is an artist whose focus is on the tones: lights, darks and various shades of gray.  Whistler is an example of a tonalist painter.

Colorful Beginnings

I have been studying color as long as I can remember.  I bet you have too.  Remember crayons?  Did you ever layer reds and greens to make black?  Or, consider color choices when getting dressed in the morning?  Or, decorating?

My father taught my siblings and I the primary, secondary and tertiary colors.  He told us about opposite colors and how to mix them to make grays and browns.  Still, it was colors like red, blue, yellow, pink, rather than gray that caught my attention.

Red Hen And Eggs, color as symbol ©M Stermer-Cox

When I started my development as a painter, my approach was as a colorist.  In a colorist manner, I tended to use color opposites next to each other to achieve color harmony.  This works as long as both colors are used at the same strength.

My watercolor painting “Red Hen and Eggs” is an example of a colorist approach.  I used green and red as my color scheme.

Over time, I have accumulated more knowledge about the properties of color.  Slowly, I’ve added mixed dark colors to my paintings.  Still, I would characterize my approach as a colorist; colors are the focus.

Gray Evolution

As I said, I’m evolving.  I’ve been studying the classical academic approach to drawing and painting under the instruction of artist Sarah Burns.  The process is drawing, gray scale painting, then color.

Naturally, when I come home from class, I have to practice and experiment!

Embracing Gray:  Coffee Cup w/ Swedish Candle

Acrylic over Watercolor
d’Arches 300lb RP Watercolor Paper

I’ve been working on this small acrylic still life painting.    I decided to try to incorporate lessons I’ve learned from Sarah’s class.  I purposely used grays in my set up and my painting.  I liked the way the gray helps the red in the candlestick glow.

Bottomline.  I’m happy I’m embracing the gray side.  Its like having more tools in the tool box!




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Bruegel redux

Dan Witz, Agnostic Front Circle Pit, 48" x 82", oil and digital media, Jonathan Levine Gallery

Dan Witz, Agnostic Front Circle Pit, 48″ x 82″, detail, oil/digital media, Jonathan Levine

Pieter Bruegel, Peasant Dance, detail

Pieter Bruegel, Peasant Dance, detail

Mondrian’s dahlias

Piet Mondrian, Red Dahlia1907, Opaque and transparent watercolorover graphite on paper.12 7/16 x 9 7/8 inches Morgan Library

Piet Mondrian, Red Dahlia, 1907, (detail), Opaque and transparent watercolor over graphite on paper. 12 7/16 x 9 7/8 inches Morgan Library

I discovered this watercolor of a dahlia by Piet Mondrian in the Morgan Library’s current retrospective of Emmet Gowin’s photography, a small show that was both astonishing and humbling when I ducked in to see it on my way to JFK on Friday. It’s so great I almost didn’t want to sully it with words, though I’m sure I will soon. Instead, I wanted to stay and study it for a few days, make myself at home, but I had that late flight back to Rochester at Terminal 5. The catalog lists everything on exhibit, but doesn’t offer images of more than a fourth or a third of it, and I was disappointed not to be able to revisit, in the catalog, many of the startling and powerful pieces, reaching back centuries, from the Morgan’s vault that Gowin chose to include in the exhibit. Since I’ve been growing dahlias for nearly a decade and painted many of them, this little revelation surprised and pleased me, especially since it’s so well done, but also because it demonstrated how artists can’t really stick to one thing for long, and how polarities can energize their work.

I had no idea that, while he was realizing his identity in his famous primary-colored grids, Mondrian continued to draw flowers, work that represented the exact opposite of his oils, in formal terms. Nothing could be further from Mondrian’s career-making grids than this dahlia, yet maybe these flowers are precisely what sustained his investigation of the spare music he found in rectangles and squares. (Frederick Hammersley’s dialectic of working in both geometric and organic shapes comes to mind.) Gowin shifted gears a number of times himself and was intensely absorbed by opposing, contrary states: light and dark, harrowing desolation and domestic rapture, butterflies from the rain forest and craters from the wastelands of nuclear testing. I will save for a future post what he communicated to me with these images toggling between garden and gehenna (to adopt the Biblical mythology Gowin absorbed young and then deployed as a foundation for his mature artistic vision and for this show.) His deep immersion in William Blake’s writing and visual art is what drew me to the show, and he’s a worthy heir to Blake in his own photography, an earlier genius who drew from Gnosticism as the foundation for a deeply original vision. Two of Blake’s best, from his illustrations for the Book of Job–both of which I saw previously, in an earlier show at the Morgan–are included alongside Gowin’s photographs.

Gowin is a great soul, and this exhibit is a profound experience, a major discovery of the breadth and depth of his sensibility, and it’s impossible to do justice to it in a blog post. But maybe, if I can respond to this show the way I’d like in a little while, I can encourage a few to see what he’s done, because of the quality of work Gowin produced himself, but also because everything in the show appears fresh and new in the context of this photographer’s long and slow curatorial excavation of art from the Morgan’s permanent collection to pair with his own photography. As the curator of this show, Gowin has put together a visionary work of art itself–everything you see feels as if you’re glimpsing something for the first time. More often than not, it was literally my first look at the work. I felt regret simply pulling myself away from one image hanging on the wall in order to see what was mounted next to it. With the time available to me after a day’s working visit to the city, I picked the one exhibit that could not have been equaled (in the artist’s reverence, awe, decency and quiet authority) by anything else on view in New York City right now. Apparently, my luck continues to hold. And so does my mournful hope that quiet, deeply humble art, grounded in genuine wisdom and an affirmation of all human experience, can prevail. Gowin is a sage. Joseph Campbell would have loved this show.

Breaking Rules – Birthday Card

"Twins" - An example of breaking rules.

Watercolor & Colored Pencil
By Margaret Stermer-Cox
Birthday Card for Michelle A Stermer

In drawing and painting there are “rules” or suggested conventions that help artists organize their creations.  I find many of the rules useful, though I find it helpful to remember that rules change with time.  Also, not everyone agrees on the rules.

In this small painting, I have broken a rule that I generally follow.  I usually do not put a white shape on the edge of a painting.  The reason involves some of white’s optical properties.  White advances in relation to other colors and tones.  Plus, a white, advancing shape at the edge leads your eyes off the edge.  There are implied things happening off the image.

So why did I break the rules and create a composition with a white shape on the edge?  I liked it.   My intention had been to paint the white cat shape a lighter blue.  But, while I was working, I liked the white and it supports my “story”.

The story?  This is an image on a birthday card for my twin sister Michelle.  We are fraternal twins.  She is blonde and I’m brunette, or we were before we started to turn gray.  Our personalities are different too, sort of like night and day.  The kitties represent us.

Back to the rules.   The wonderful thing about rules in drawing and painting, they’re not set in stone.  An artist is free to break the rules and make rules of their own.  And, if the composition works, so much the better!

I enjoyed creating my “Twins”; please enjoy!


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Hsin Wang, on starting over


Hsin Wang, No. 24, pigment injet print. From I Love You Bedford, 294 Bedford Ave., Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Aug. 6-24. From the artist’s diary:

” eventually
everyone will
leave me.

I will leave

everyone will
everyone. “