Suddenly agoraphobic, I pulled down all the blinds and paced around that lovely century-old house, wondering what on earth possessed me to throw myself into this imposing patchwork landscape. I am not a landscape painter; that's my dad's bag.
Plus I came by plane and an eight-hour car ride, so even if I did want to paint, I didn't have my usual large stretched canvases and totes of paints. I did bring a few of my usual travel essentials: embroidery hoops, needles and floss — and an old bed sheet. I knew there was just a couple of stores in town, and none would be selling art supplies so I packed a tiny travel set of liquid acrylics, a few brushes and a pad of mixed-media cardstock.
My sketchy plan involved, well, sketching with my father, who has spent some of every summer in this tiny town of Eastend ever since he filled the Stegner House with his landscape paintings 15 years ago.
We were quite a pair: me, not at all comfortable with the whole plein-air tradition, and him, increasingly unfamiliar with his life's work of painting that involved biking into the country to sketch then returning to his basement to paint in the heat of the day. (Actually we were mostly a trio, his wife acting as facilitator for whatever this was, supplying us with water bottles, sunhats, sketch pads and willow charcoal, and generally getting us on the road.)
We circled around this vague idea of mine as we circled around this dead-quiet, struggling little town every morning. But the awkwardness turned to anguish back at my studio as I undertook the tedious pursuit of finding some interest — or even the point — in painting puffy clouds and dun-coloured hills.
A week later and out of sheer frustration at my lack of landscape-painting prowess, I resorted to dropping diluted paint on a taut scrap of bedsheet in an embroidery hoop just to watch it bleed. I threw the first painted scrap away and did another, with a little more intention, then threw that away too. Within a couple of hours I figured out the right water-to-paint ratio to create a slightly controlled bloom with each stroke. A lot of other distracted behaviour (baking apple crisps, walking by the river, venting via text to my artist friends) meant that each additional stroke was added to a dried layer and by the end of the afternoon, a landscape was emerging on a miniature stretched canvas. That one I didn't throw out. But it was still a little hazy. That's when I thought about using my stash of embroidery floss for final line work.
I sat in the cool of the front screened porch that evening and embroidered some more information onto the painting. It was a clumsy first effort but soon I was enjoying the daily practice of biking in the morning with my father, painting something inspired by the ride in the afternoon, then embroidering some details in the evening, inviting others to join me for stitching sessions on the front porch.
I did this every day until I had 12 little paintings, each a progression from the last. I saw them as blocks for a future quilt, which led to a well-attended culminating exhibit, "Scenes from a Quilted Landscape."
But now I'm viewing them as something beyond a quilt and beyond the horizon. I'm calling them Points of Interest: something to build on and build with.
As with all creative pursuits, forcing solutions is futile. My original idea of coaxing my father back into his painting studio by getting him to share some of his process with me was a non-starter. These days he finds everyday joy in the moment, whether that is spotting a hawk while biking the backroads, playing a languid rendition of The Girl from Ipanema on piano in the hot afternoons, or watching the town's many cats on the prowl from the front porch of the Stegner House while his wife and I embroidered the summer evenings away.
I'm not sure if he knew it but he passed on to me the most valuable lesson for painting a scene: You have to actually see it.