Idiots, Kimonos, and Hoop Skirts

Posted Monday, July 25, 2016 by Kerry McFall

Sketching in a cool museum on a hot day.  Does it get any better?  The Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, California holds “Sketch-It” events once a month, and I was able to attend one yesterday.  A young art educator (as she called herself) offered a folding chair, paper, pencils, and encouragement as a couple dozen folks sketched in the glass exhibit.

I had hardly walked into the first big room when I knew what I wanted to sketch – a life size translucent glass kimono, lit from everywhere and nowhere, bowing slightly.  The aqua glow that emanated from every edge and fold made it seem ghostly, effervescent.  Somehow she had created this work in three large chunks, lighter at the top and the bottom part darker.  And as a bonus, there was a young girl sketching on the opposite side of the sculpture, so I had a brief opportunity to include another sketcher on my page.

I haven’t done much with pencil for a long time, and although I like the flexibility of being able to erase, all the smudges make me crazy.  Shiny grey patches on my hands, my clothes, my pages… but apparently this museum has experienced idiots actually drawing on the paintings and other exhibits with ink, and paints, etc.  Grr-r-r-.  So they limited us to pencil.  I wanted to paint that aqua light so badly…  Even so, what a privilege to be in the presence of such creative force.  I fiddled around with some color in Photoshop after I took a photo of my sketch, not the same as watercolor but it does give you an idea of the color.

"Boy Sketching at Crocker", pencil by Kerry McFall

“Boy Sketching at Crocker”, pencil by Kerry McFall

This is a free program, and anyone over the age of 5 is encouraged to draw!  During the two hours I stayed in that exhibit, there were about thirty people brave enough to give it a go, folks of all ages.  The educator came through now and then to see if we needed anything. I have found in my own work  as art educator that it is usually the kids who are eager and absorbed, and the adults who tend to be fussy.  She fielded admirably the question from the whiner next to me who demanded, “What did I do wrong?!  This is awful!  I just can’t get this sleeve to work!!”  I was glad it was my day to simply keep drawing.

sketch of ballroom, Crocker Museum

“Hoop Skirt Settee”, pencil drawing by Kerry McFall

I moved to the historic ballroom of the museum after a bite of lunch in the cafe, and began to draw a Victorian settee designed to accommodate women like those of the Crocker family who wore hoop skirts or bustles.  Oddly enough, the public were actually allowed to sit on this one — go figure!  Another benefit of staying in one place so long: I got to hear several historical tidbits about the family and chuckle at people’s reactions as docent tours come through.

I would gladly go back to this museum on a weekly basis, but our stint as pet-sitters here in Hot North Central California is about up.  Cue Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride music!







That Awkward Phase

Posted by Kerry McFall on July 22, 2016

"That Awkward Phase", mixed media by Kerry McFall

“That Awkward Phase”, mixed media by Kerry McFall

Pet sitting for cats is very different from pet sitting for a mini-parrot.  Parrots are way easier.  They don’t leave half-dead lizards right outside the patio door.  They flap and squawk if you’re not behaving just as they wish, but they do not bare their fangs and hiss.  But this too shall pass, I’m sure, having been around many cats.  Cats are contrary.  That’s what they do.  And eventually, even Drama Queen Cats warm up to me.  That’s why kitty treats were invented.

Today, just after I finished these not-quite-flattering portraits, Stinker Pot decided to let me pet her.  Not just three times, but not five either.  Not anywhere but behind her elegant ears. And just so I don’t get too confident, she let me know that social time was over with a no-nonsense hiss.  Little by little… we’ll be friends soon.  Rosco is a little more mellow, having already donated the tip of one ear earlier in his long life – he just wants his food on time and in the proper quantities.  It’s up to you if you want to pet him, he doesn’t mind, but you’re going to probably get stuck by some of the burrs under the fur on his belly.  Hopefully I’ll be able to do more flattering  portraits in a day or two!

National Treasures – “Democracy is an Ongoing Project”

sketch of Betty Reid Siskin

“National Treasure”, ink sketch by Kerry McFall

National Treasures: name three.  Are they parks or forests?  Works of art or architecture?  Constitution?  I think I would have answered with names of places, until last week.  That’s when I heard Ranger Betty Reid Soskin speak at the Rosie the Riveter park in Richmond, California.  Now she’s at the top of my list of National Treasures.  And two of my aunts are numbers two and three.

A friend recommended that we make a special effort to go to her presentation.  It was so worth it.  She spoke calmly and confidently about tumultuous times she’s experienced during her 95 years.  (I would have guessed she was 70.)  She described the years of WWII in detail, with an assist from some film clips that somehow got left out of my Baby Boomer education.  I hadn’t really understood before what the “Rosies” did and what they were up against, or that two of my aunts had worked in the shipyards, one an electrician she now explains proudly, and I need to research more about the other aunt.  Just like the men in our family who went to war, I never heard them describe their experience in any detail.  They would say they just did what they had to do.

Betty is a park ranger now, and active in Richmond and California state government.  But as a young woman she was turned down to work as a “Rosie the Riveter” or a “Wendy the Welder”.  Young women like my aunts were grudgingly hired back then to work in the shipyards, and fought hard to prove themselves capable, but as she so graciously phrased it, that was “not my experience.”  She was put to work as a low paid accounting clerk for the war effort.  She spoke for over an hour to a spellbound audience on many topics, without notes or prompts, about opportunity and involvement and learning to communicate and prejudice.  And leaving anger behind.

For me, the most important thing she shared was her conclusion that democracy is an ongoing project, and we can take nothing for granted.  Nothing.  Not our jobs, not our safety, not our privilege, not our freedom.  She urged us to learn all we can, to vote, to stay engaged and involved, and to remain optimistic in spite of all the current insanity. And she had just had a big dose of that insanity – she was mugged and beaten in her own apartment the week before.  “I’m a survivor,” she said calmly, “not a victim.”  Her voice never quavered.  The bruises didn’t show until she walked out of the small auditorium into the daylight.

I had been feeling sorry for myself of late.  Overwhelmed by sadness about all the bloodshed every time I turned on a screen, wondering what to do about my aging mother, the frustrations of dealing with insurance companies, feeling helpless as fire gobbles up the California landscape, trying to keep up with the realities of life in our times — when all I really wanted to do was draw or read cozy mystery novels… and then this tiny woman stepped onstage, and I felt like such a Wuss (whoa — now there’s an interesting comment on how women are perceived in our society – look that up in the urban dictionary for an interesting read, and think about the history of our language!).

Pass it on –  Listen.  Think.  Learn more history.  VOTE.

The Vagabond Lifestyle

Posted July 13, 2016 by Kerry McFall

"Bay View from Mira Vista", mixed media by Kerry McFall, $25 print

“Bay View from Mira Vista”, mixed media by Kerry McFall, $25 print

We’re in our second week of house/pet-sitting in Richmond, California.  We’ve been on the road for five weeks now.  Here are some thoughts on being a vagabond:

  • It’s not really vacation, although everyone thinks it is. True, there are “vacation opportunities”, amazing views to paint (like the one above, seen from the field at the end of the street we’re on), places to visit and things to do that we can’t do at home.  But just like home, the trash has to be taken to the curb, the dishes need washing, that third tomato plant needs a bigger support… the list goes on.  And Griff is still working away at his “real” job via Internet, and I’m still working at being an artist.
  • It’s not really a job either, because there’s no “pay”. We do get to stay for free, but there is a heightened sense of responsibility for every little thing.  What is routine at home is kind of a big deal here where we don’t know the ropes.  Trash, for instance, in this warmer climate, cannot be forgotten or post-poned until next week… besides, what will the neighbors say?  And wait – before you pull that up, is that yellow-flowered plant a weed or a perennial herb?   (Turns out it was Bristly Oxtongue – it’s nasty stuff!)
  • "Princess Cleo Lost and Found," mixed media by Kerry McFall, pet portraits start at $100

    “Princess Cleo Lost and Found,” mixed media by Kerry McFall, pet portraits start at $100

  • Speaking of neighbors – Why does everyone keep their blinds drawn all the time?  Where did this adorable little Chihuahua (above) come from?  And what do we do with her now?  (Turns out she is an Escape Artist from just up the street.  She only speaks Spanish, but sandwiches and balls appear to be part of the Universal Language!) Where do you park during street sweeping hours?  Hey, you with the sprinklers running – don’t you know there’s a drought?

The Vagabond Lifestyle is a trade-off.  For instance, we’ve traded a trip to the San Francisco Exploratorium for warm summer evenings chatting with friends and neighbors in our own front yard.  The Exploratorium event was of course wonderful – we had dinner on the waterfront, then I met up with Urban Sketchers and enjoyed making art with them about the StrandBeests exhibit there.  On the BART ride back to Richmond, though, we were a bit nervous about the two vagrant-looking young men with bikes in our compartment.  We were all very quiet and watchful, until the train lurched and their bikes broke loose and nearly landed in our laps.  As we untangled legs and pedals and chains, we wound up exchanging funny stories about our travel adventures!  Another reinforcement of the “Don’t Judge a Book by its Cover” rule, for all four of us.  We got over their dreadlocks and tattoos, they got over our middle-aged whiteness, and a good time was had by all.

That being said, we still miss our friends and our little front yard.  And this is all possible because we know we have home and friends to go back to.  We are so fortunate.


Posted July 10, 2016 by Kerry McFall

The simplicity of caring for a caged bird has a definite appeal in recent days.  There are no “breaking news” posts in the bottom of the cage, just tidy little poops and empty seed hulls on the plain white paper.  The biggest event in the 8 days we’ve been here as “pet sitters” was when one of the perches somehow got dislodged and it fell across the other perch.  No one was injured, although some rather strong “language” was heard from Mojo.

"Mojito", mixed media by Kerry McFall

“Mojito”, mixed media by Kerry McFall

Every day I clean and refill his dishes, replace the papers, and sit and talk quietly to him.  It’s a bit like babysitting an infant, he even seems to enjoy my singing!  I’ve been bringing my morning coffee into his room, which has the best view in the house.  Together we watch the steam rising from the oil refinery across the bay, or the fog beasts roll over the hills and into the water.  In the evening, the sun flashes silver off the waves, and I enjoy my wine while Mojo crunches his seeds companionably.  Simple pleasures.

Sometimes I wish he could fly out the window to join the purple finch who sits on the neighbor’s lemon tree, but Mojo is not mine to set free.  So I spend these quiet times with him, admiring the tiny miracles of the brilliant lime green feathers on his head, and marvel at the perfection of wing construction.  And I wish more people in this troubled world could do the same.  Escapism?  Definitely.

Nowhere in Particular

Posted by Kerry McFall July 6, 2016

When we set out on our Vagabond Summer Adventure, I mentioned on Facebook that I felt like we should be playing the theme song to Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.  I just listened to that little ditty on YouTube, and I’m pleased with the analogy.  We are definitely in ”Merrily, Merrily on our way to Nowhere At All!“ mode.  (The back story: we were surprised by a generous offer for renting our house via AirBnB for the entire summer.  That inspired us to try house-and-pet-sitting via and gradually work our way down to San Diego to visit our kids.)

After visiting my Mom long enough to drive each other crazy (Stomping Grounds), we hit the road and began winding our way through the Redwoods, stopping at places like Confusion Hill (seriously, it’s a place!) where we purchased ‘Elusive Chipalope’ postcards.

chipmunk with antlers

“Elusive Chipalope”,by Kerry McFall, ink and colored pencil

My mother pointed out when I called a few days later that she’s pretty sure chipmunks don’t grow antlers, although the postcard photo did look very real, and how DO they do that?

Continuing south, we visited a dear friend in a small town which shall not be named on the Pt. Reyes’ Peninsula, where residents took down all the road signs so no one could figure out how to get there.  Really, they did – we saw one hanging proudly over the bar in the (only) restaurant.  It’s a great little town, and I see why they don’t want to be overrun by all those tacky tourists.   Plus, they have whales!

"View from Mt. Tamalpais Summit", mixed media by Kerry McFall

“View from Mt. Tamalpais Summit”, mixed media by Kerry McFall

Next we spent a few days in Sonoma with my Aunt Hazel, who calls me by both my first and middle names at all times, making me feel like I’m eight years old again and wondering what I did this time to be in trouble…  At age 91, she is still the Supreme Commander of her Domain, and gets around quite well with her walker.   It was hot in Sonoma, much to the locals’ dismay, but I found a shady bench and managed to sketch the Old Barracks, circa 1830’s, during a re-enactment event about the “Bear Flag Revolt”.  My concept of California history at that stage is based mostly on Zorro movies featuring Antonio (sigh) Banderas, but I’m guessing the fiesta flags weren’t flying when the soldiers were in residence.

"Sonoma Barracks", mixed media by Kerry McFall

“Sonoma Barracks”, mixed media by Kerry McFall

Now beginning Week Four, we have embarked on our house-sitting/pet-sitting gigs, and we find ourselves in Richmond, California.  Richmond is a major contender for the Nowhere in Particular designation.   You can’t really tell when you’ve arrived, although you do notice that you’ve come to the end of a very Big Bridge.  The fact that the festive banners beside San Pablo Avenue (the main drag) begin to mostly say “El Cerrito” is a clue that perhaps you’re out of Richmond already.  We keep winding up in Berkeley, because Berkeley happens when the El Cerrito banners end, so right now I mostly have Berkeley sketches…

"View of Tilden Park", mixed media by Kerry McFall

“View of Tilden Park”, mixed media by Kerry McFall

We originally signed up to care for two chickens at our current spot, but they partied with a raccoon a couple of nights before we arrived…  Turns out that a dog named Sculley and a parrot also live here, but Sculley already had plans for Doggie Summer Camp with friends.  The parrot decided to take pity on us to keep us from being lonely, so we’re getting acquainted with Manilo the Mini-Parrot (I call him Mojito for short, and also because I can never remember his real name), whose best (and apparently only) trick is bobbing up and down on a stick while doing can-can style kicks with one foot.  Think Patrick Swayze in Dirty Dancing… no, make that the Scarecrow in Wizard of Oz!

Stirring the Soup and Watching the Whales

Posted June 23, 2016 by Kerry McFall

“Oh, sure,” I told our friend Brett carelessly out on the deck the day before, “I’ve seen whales before.”  To be honest, off the Oregon coast, I’ve seen what might have been whale spouts a time or two, in between rain squalls that would choke a frog.  I’ve never really been able to just stand and watch because it was always freezing and/or windy.  But this!  The spouts came one after another, playful sprays, now here, now there, now two at once!  I squealed with delight and wonder, over and over, even seeing the glistening of huge bodies breaking the surface!   We all watched from the deck the first night we were here, marveling as the sea breeze calmed and the warm scent of eucalyptus trees floated up to us.  I stirred a thin spot in the bottom of the soup pan last night because, again, I just couldn’t stop watching.  Whales. Real whales! Close!  Whoa.

"Whales in Bolinas Bay", mixed media by Kerry McFall

“Whales in Bolinas Bay”, mixed media by Kerry McFall

"View from Mt. Tamalpais", mixed media by Kerry McFall

“View from Mt. Tamalpais”, mixed media by Kerry McFall

This place, this peninsula off the California coast, is magical.  Any time I’ve been here, it has revealed enchantments like nowhere else I have ever been, with the possible exception of Botswana.  I feel so fortunate to be here.  Brett chuckles at my painting, saying that the scale of the spout might be a little off… as if a 200 foot redwood had sprung suddenly from the sea.  No, that was exactly how big it was in my mind!

The Old Stomping Grounds

Posted June 18, 2016 by Kerry McFall

The origin of phrases is just one of the sources of my “squirrel brain”, i.e. a short attention span.  As I typed the above title for this post, the squirrel zipped off to and was gone for quite awhile.  During the interlude, I learned about stomping, stamping, and congregating.  This same syndrome used to happen any time I picked up a dictionary back in the day, an old-school time sink.  But I digress…

"Willamette River from the Footbridge", mixed media by Kerry McFall

“Willamette River from the Footbridge”, mixed media by Kerry McFall

I made this watercolor sketch in a “hurry up it’s going to rain” interlude after a stroll in the Rose Garden across the Willamette River from Valley River Mall on the footbridge.  I went to highschool and university in Eugene, so this is part of my old stomping grounds.  In the days when shopping malls were the bees knees and downtowns were dying.  Eugene downtown tried to “revitalize” before it even died.  They weren’t just early adapters, they were pro-active, but to their detriment.  By making a  pedestrian mall, and an “Overpark” (multi-story parking garage)  and park blocks to attract shoppers, they managed to shut down the  downtown for months with the construction projects.  Aside from the fact that the finished Overpark terrified women – who was lurking there in the dark? – you couldn’t drive your Chevy or your Olds and park right in front of the store like you always had.  So, you braved the freeway overpass, drove further to the mall, parked in the mall lot (way far away from the shops in a cookie-sheet-hot parking lot in summer, or drenching wet in winter), and considered yourself quite modern.

"Red Tail Hawk over Laurelwood Golf Course", mixed media by Kerry McFall

“Red Tail Hawk over Laurelwood Golf Course”, mixed media by Kerry McFall

Sometimes going “back home” reveals things you hadn’t noticed way back when, or just never got around to.  The hills south of the University, for instance, offer much more than dead end roads where couples with amourous intentions can park… but that’s a story for another time.


“Spencer Butte”, mixed media by Kerry McFall

Case in point, this week we found Laurelwood golf course, a public course with a terrific view of Spencer Butte, Eugene’s iconic mountain.  Bonus: they have a pub, serving really excellent food, and they are happy to let you sit for several hours out of the rain or hot sun while your spouse plays golf!

The More Things Change…

Posted June 12, 2016 by Kerry McFall

"Pelargonium," mixed media by Kerry McFall, 8 x 10 prints $25

“Pelargonium,” mixed media by Kerry McFall, 8 x 10 prints $25

Crystal vases send sparks of color and light in every direction, confounding all I’ve learned and observed about figuring out which direction the light source comes from…  which is an apt metaphor for this phase of my life.  Just when you think you’ve got it figured out, the rules change.  Or, it turns out that there are no rules after all.  Suddenly instead of painting the simple vase of flowers before you, you’re dealing with refraction issues from sunbeams originating from a skylight that you had forgotten was up there…

As a young woman, I never gave a moment’s thought to what my life might be like when I was beyond 60.  Life whizzed past, and I grew older, but I didn’t waste any energy on planning for actually BEING OLD.  I planned for the next family meal, the next quilt, the next grand travel adventure, the Big Earthquake (no heavy framed art above the bed, keep the gas tank full, and a garage full of bottled water and granola bars!).  When friends began dealing with cleaning out the homes of their deceased parents, I decided I didn’t want my children to be faced with file cabinets and cupboards and bookshelves full of my past – so I planned for my actual demise by downsizing and simplifying.

But who can plan for a future that only existed as science fiction?  I’m sitting here at my mother’s dining table, in front of a tiny computer that even George Jetson didn’t anticipate.  The universe has expanded a billion times since Carl Sagan introduced us to black holes decades ago.  A woman has just won the Democratic presidential nomination.  It’s all amazing.

That being said, the more things change, the more they stay the same.  The rich still get richer.  Babies still need to be held and cuddled and sung to sleep. Geraniums are still beautiful and complex.  My mother still reloads the dishwasher after I put the dishes in, and she still refuses to consider using a cane, removing her throw rugs, or leaving her home and moving to Assisted Living.

Planned for or not, if you manage to stay alive, you’re going to get OLD.  And sitting there feeling old, you’re going to be surprised by a skylight somewhere that sends sunbeams through crystal. and there you are, completely unprepared for the result.  I hope that I will always be able to adapt, to learn, and to revel in the challenge presented by rogue rainbows.


I wandered through Mom’s garden in search of a subject.  The geranium begged to be chosen.  I picked a sprig, chose a small vase out of the china cabinet, and found a lovely pale linen tea napkin to set it on.  I began this piece using watercolor, and a little gouache for the linen; no pencil first.  Next a .01 ink marker for details, a bit of colored pencil, and a bold outline using a .03 ink marker.   Enter the rogue sunbeam… an AHA moment!  Use the Force, Kerry – the Photoshop Gradient Tool force.  With a few other little tweaks and warps.


Ice Pink

painting of pink poppies

“Ice Pink”, mixed media by Kerry McFall, prints $25

June is a riot of color in our neighborhood, underscored by green that makes your eyes pop right out of your head.  Even artists become almost immune to it.  What caught my eye a couple of days ago, though, was a subtle icy pale pink.  I know, we don’t usually think about pink being a cool color, but the poppies down the street stood out just because of their cold, frosty aloofness, nestled calmly in the fuzzy jungle of their own leaves.

My husband moved slowly behind me as I began this piece at the dining room table.  I could tell that he was doing his “risk assessment”, trying to decide if he had enough bonus points built up from making my coffee that morning to offset the potential trouble from commenting on a painting-in-progress.  He evidently decided he was on the plus side of the scale, so he said quietlly, “Aren’t poppies supposed to be orange?”   My reaction clearly conveyed that the coffee had not been that good, and the next morning was going to require cinnamon rolls to make up for his gaffe.  He quietly backed away.  Smart man.


The background texture was a fun experiment.  I had dripped laundry detergent onto the shelf liner in the laundry room cupboard, and as I was cleaning up the mess, I thought that maybe this chunk of plastic textured liner could be used as a sort of stamp.  I spread watercolor over it, then laid it carefully onto the paper, pressed it down, and pulled it off – cool!  It looked kinda like faint text from an old book.  I was afraid that painting over it might smear it, but that didn’t become much of an issue.

My textile art often used a “page layout” approach, incorporating vignettes or geometric components separated by borders of varying widths.  That happened here also, as if I was pasting graphic pieces into a page of text.  The little patchwork in the corner is something I do sometimes as I prepare an image for posting online, a way to emphasize the palette used in the piece.  Once a quilter, always a quilter!