We Need to Talk


sketch of antique gun

“The Old Pistol”, mixed media by Kerry McFall

I made this painting last year in Tennessee, showing one of the keepsakes from my husband’s family which surfaced after his brother’s funeral.  In the excitement of my daughter’s Christmas wedding, I don’t think I ever got around to posting it here on my blog.  But today, the day after another slaughter of innocents here in my home state of Oregon, it seems appropriate.

We Americans need to talk to each other.  To communicate.  To think together.  We’ve got to figure this out. Not scream at each other, not shake our fists and our heads, not fall back on the old “tried and true” battle cries about gun control vs. constitutional rights, but really put our heads together and figure something out.  Nobody has to be right, nobody has to be wrong, but we are broken.  Here’s what I wrote to my U.S. Senators and Representatives this morning:

“Let’s talk about freedom and security, the concepts that anchor the Second Amendment.  Are we free?  Are we secure?  Security is really all about fear, so we also need to ask ourselves: what are we afraid of?

Do I feel secure because the old guy down the block has a couple of deer rifles in his closet, just in case some college frat boy gets so drunk he tries to go in to the wrong house?

Do I feel secure because the woman at the desk next to mine has a concealed carry permit and a small handgun in her handbag?

Do I feel free when I’m not allowed to take my wine corkscrew on a plane?

Do I feel secure when I go to the movie theatre here in little Corvallis, Leave It To Beaverville, and the teenage ticket taker asks to look in my handbag?  And what is she, all 110 pounds of her, earning minimum wage and with no relevant training, supposed to do if she does find a gun?

Do I feel free OR secure because I know that any bat shit crazy yahoo can go down to the gun store on the Highway and buy a semi-automatic weapon?  And walk into a community college classroom with it?  And murder – wait, how many innocent people is the count up to now?

You and I grew up with duck and cover drills, afraid of “The Russians” (who are still kinda scary).  My grandchildren are growing up with Lockdown Drills, afraid of … who?  Us.  Any of us,  all of us,  “Bad Guys with Guns.”  Not bad guys with knives, or corkscrews, or chainsaws.  With guns.  When we are this scared and angry and confused, none of us are free, and none of us are secure.

Let’s work on this.  Thank you.”

Looking at that old gun is instructive, especially today.  I think it’s probably one of a pair of dueling pistols.  I don’t know how old it is, several hundred years I imagine, but it was clearly intended to fire one shot.  If you couldn’t hit your mark in one, you were done. Pure and simple.  It is a work of art in its own right – silver, mahogany perhaps, polished to perfection, mounted on velvet.  It was revered by generations, passed along, cared for, exhibited with pride.   It was probably around when the 2nd amendment was written, when one of the worst fears of our forefathers was not being allowed to defend themselves against foreign armies.  Its one-shot original owners couldn’t have begun to imagine the destructive technology that holds us all hostage today.  We owe it to ourselves, and to them, to figure out how to cope with this monster we have created.

My Dad and my uncles were all soldiers and hunters.  I grew up around guns.  Old guns.  Buckshot was about as high tech as it got.  I’m realizing as the day goes on that the questions I asked in my letter, except the last one, are questions that on any given day I could answer either way.  At 4:00 a.m. with a big jerk in my back yard trying to pry open my emergency food supply, I might be pleased to see that old guy with his deer rifle, assuming the cops were busy dealing with the 9.2 earthquake damage down the street…  There are no easy answers.    We all need to be a part of this conversation.  Write to your legislators.  Talk to your neighbors.  Think.  Listen.


Arting in the Garden, SAGE style

"Multiple Crops". mixed media by Kerry McFall, 18 x 22, $125

“Multiple Crops”. mixed media by Kerry McFall, 18 x 22, $125

“Arting” with friends for a good cause (the Corvallis Environmental Center) plus a complementary gourmet dinner in the midst of a gorgeous late summer garden… life just doesn’t get much better!  I spent last Saturday afternoon happily absorbed painting bee boxes, pumpkins, and scarlet runner beans winding up stalks of ripening corn in the SAGE (Starker Arts Garden for Education) garden.

Painting “en plein air” adds several increments of excitement to what is normally a quiet and solitary process:  weather (in this case, sunny and warm, making the paint dry very quickly and making the light change every 15 minutes), bugs (bees and yellow jackets buzzing literally at my feet), and fascinating people.

"Bee Box", mixed media by Kerry McFall, 10 x10", Sold $100

“Bee Box”, mixed media by Kerry McFall, 10 x10″, Sold $100

I was thrilled when a man walked up and bought the first piece I finished (Bee Box)!  It was almost a cartoon, but I just HAD to draw something that colorful!  While I drew and painted at what was breakneck speed for me, I chatted with folks about community food webs, coping with stings and mean yellow jackets this time of year, and how to know when to stop painting.  Knowing when to stop is my biggest challenge right now, as you can see below in this series I did in the same garden as  a “warm up” for the event the week before:

If I had stopped at phase 2, without all the white highlights and blue tints I added, I would have been happier than I am with the “finished” piece.  Live and learn!

The pumpkin below was a “post event” piece, created from my photo taken on the day of the event.  This pumpkin was almost completely obscured by the leaves, which were ghostly with their coatings of powdery mildew.  I had my doubts about when to call it “finished” as well, but in this case I’m glad I added the dark outlines and took the background all the way to black (click the thumbnail to enlarge).

The “Multiple Crops” piece, “Cabbage Rose” and “Pumpkin with Ghost Leaves” are all for sale, contact me if you’re interested and half the proceeds will go to the SAGE project!  (Prints are available also)

Change: Mixed Use, Mixed Feelings

"Bucolic Barn OSU Campus Way Bike Path", mixed media by Kerry McFall

“Bucolic Barn OSU Campus Way Bike Path”, mixed media by Kerry McFall

The bike path from Oregon State University (Campus Way path) to Bald Hill runs through fields where the OSU Agriculture Department used to run sheep and cattle.  It’s still quite bucolic, but it’s changing rapidly, some good, some not so good.  Several of the old barns have given way to fancy new high-tech barns, and all but a few ragged old sheep have disappeared.  I miss them.  The barn I painted above is still standing, but I doubt for long, given it’s air of abandonment and open gates.  This time of year, I always pick blackberries along the edges of the path, but no, not this year.  The vines were scorched and thirsty, the few berries looked more like peppercorns.

Two of the old pastures are now  huge solar arrays, squatty faceless gray grids stretching on and on.  I took photos, but never have drawn from them – bo-o-ring.  U-u-gly.  But ecologically good, right?  Then again, I wonder what will happen when the thistles and ash tree seedlings grow so high that they shade the panels?  That much weedkiller would be horrific.  I read that the arrays are under scrutiny for alleged funny business with tax credits.  Tsk.  If I had known about them in advance, I might have asked about at least putting the panels up high enough for sheep to graze underneath them.  But OSU doesn’t ask for community input.  If you believe the banners hanging from light posts all over campus, it’s because Oregon belongs to the University.  As opposed to the other way ’round.  Tsk.

The pastures closest to the fairgrounds hold llamas and some intimidating windowless barn-ish structures.  There are bluebird nest boxes on many fence posts, and some good educational signage about wetlands down by the covered bridge.  A couple more pastures are being restored as wetlands or oak savannah, which is the least they can do given the adjoining acreage south of this area that was wetlands last year and is apartment buildings this year.  Not modest university housing, mind you, but luxury student condos… sorry, this is beginning to sound like a rant.

sketch of barn

“Not the usual bucolic stroll”, mixed media by Kerry McFall

After I photographed the barn, I stumbled upon the yellow jackets busily transforming half a mouse into a feast.  I took a quick photo and hurried to the other side of the path – yellow jackets are always cranky in the early fall.  (I wondered if the mouse fell out of the sky like a certain Herring…)  Around the next corner, a wasp’s nest hung ominously from a seedling tree, looking for all the world like a mummy’s wrapped skull.  I hurried across the covered bridge to try to beat the coming rains (for which we are all very grateful!) only to find turkey vultures hunched in the snag, watching me closely. Spooky.

Change is always unsettling.  The bike path is still a nice place for a stroll, and always provides glimpses of nature and food for thought.  This one was not the usual bucolic experience, but I enjoyed the challenge of painting the scary critters and the barn after I got back to my dry dining room table.  Once painted, it was interesting to examine the color palette that popped up when I saved the scary critters page – I would describe it as cranky.

Whoopie Pies & Other Maine Things

You can plan and plan, but sometimes you stumble on to a place by accident that simply demands that you stop and “be there”.  Fryeburg, Maine, was just a dot on a blue highway map, on the way to Somewhere Else, until we actually got there.  It was nearly lunchtime, and the driver was getting sleepy, so we pulled over at the farm stand and parked in the shade of an enormous old maple.  There was a convenient picnic area on the lawn in front of the store, so I sketched the barn and store, while my husband went sound asleep in the car.

sketch of farm stand

“Whoopie Pie”, mixed media by Kerry McFall

I left the foreground blank, thinking I would find a peach or something inside to add later.  Nope, no peaches in Maine in early August, BUT they did have baskets of intriguing little homemade treats called Whoopie Pies.  The young clerk explained that they were made from, “… like, um, cupcake tops, with, um, you know, stuff in the middle…”  Icing?  Frosting?  “Well, yeah, kinda but different.  They’re a Maine Thing.”  I have always thought that the whole point of a cupcake was the icing – in fact, when my kids were in school, I maintained that I could have re-used the same set of cupcakes for 10 years because kids only ever licked off the icing and threw away the actual cake.  Maybe these Mainers were on to something!  Taking off the saran wrap took some doing, but eventually we succeeded.  Whoopie!  It was like having a giant soft Oreo only with triple cream cheese filling, so you twisted it open, licked off the filling, and tossed the cake bits, which were stale anyway.  I never did figure out the “pie” reference, sorta like Eskimo Pie I guess… but it was the perfect pre-lunch post-nap snack.

The store had a lot of “Maine things” on the shelves; the ubiquitous maple syrup in little jugs that wouldn’t be allowed on the plane home in a carry-on bag, adorable knit baby socks and thick mittens that I have absolutely no need for, and much, much more.  I finally opted to photograph some of the unique produce and paint it later – who ever heard of yellow-eyed peas, or canned fiddle-head ferns?

sketch of canned goods and dry beans

“Maine Things”, mixed media by Kerry McFall

The pickled cauliflower sounded yucky, to be honest, but whoever prepared it had the good sense to stick a red pepper in the jar for visual appeal, so it wasn’t as bad as it could have been…  It took me three weeks to get around to it, but here are my slightly-wonky-perspective sketches from my photos.

On the checkout counter at the farm stand I had seen a donation box labeled, “Save Our Spire”.  A good idea, because we had noticed far too many little villages like this where the famous New England church spires were missing, leaving squatty little churches decaying by the roadside.  We left the store and looped back to the main street, where I had spotted the 302 Smokehouse Tavern.  It was a lively place, and a good lunch, and I was pleased to discover that the spire repairs were indeed underway across the parking lot!


“Fryeburg’s Steeple Repair”, mixed media by Kerry McFall

I read in a newspaper article that the community and church had raised $33,000 so far of the $186,000 necessary for the job – ouch.  I wish them luck – maybe Donald Trump will stop by in a generous mood…

Too Hot – Vamanos to the Libraries!

When it’s NOT hot, which is pretty rare lately, this is how I spend my afternoons.  Working from my photos or a still life like this bowl of fruit from my neighbor, I sit at my dining room table and draw and paint, getting up at regular intervals to let my demented old cat in/out/in/out/in because she’s pretty sure I haven’t fed her lately, the full kibble dish in the kitchen notwithstanding…

But most days this summer, it’s just too hot.  So rather than fry, I put the kitty and her bowls out back under the fir tree, and pack up my Art Bag and go someplace cool.  This last week I went to three libraries and a wine bar:  OSU Valley Library is the largest and seems to be the one with the oldest art books; Corvallis downtown, by far the most populous; and LBCC, which was small but has an interesting assortment of art books.  I didn’t want to drag my heavy old computer along, so I grabbed a random book from whatever was on the shelves, flipped to an interesting page, and pulled out my paints.  Since school’s out and there weren’t any students around, nobody seemed to mind or even notice.

The portrait of the long-necked lady was inspired by a painting in a book (I wrote the credits on the page).  My sketching friends (mostly from Sketchbook Skool – it’s a great online community) and I have been discussing online the relative merits and various approaches to learning from the masters – this painting was shown in a black and white photograph, so it left lots of room for color interpretation.  The Ansel Adams portrait was from a black and white photo taken by one of his friends – another opportunity for interpretation.

After the LBCC library, we stopped to see the birdhouse I painted last spring for them – it really is a nice concept, with a little book inside where people passing by have written poems or drawn pictures.  It was shady there in the quad, but not cool, so on to Albany.  The wine bar was in a historic brick building that was lovely and air-conditioned to the “just right” mark on the thermometer.  We chose a table that had a good angle on a mirror.  Since I had my gear spread all over the table, it was difficult to finish unnoticed.  Our server put the word out, so I had several admirers, and the owner wanted a photo when I finished – very kind and flattering folks.

Maybe it will cool off and I’ll be able to focus this next week and finish the travel journal sketches from New England, but if it doesn’t, at least I know that I can always hole up in the libraries to beat the heat… I knew there was a good reason for all those taxes we pay!

Herring from Heaven… in Maine

Our recent New England trip took us to Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Schenectady NY, and for one afternoon to Massachusetts. We drove like we were playing hopscotch on the blue highways to the Back of Beyond.  Good thing I had picked up a map from our local AAA office before we left because GPS coverage was spotty, and T-Moible coverage was non-existent.  So there we were a couple of weeks ago, strolling along the trail around Mac Worth Island, just off the coast of Portland, Maine… when a live fish fell out of the sky.  Whoa.  Not sure who was the most surprised, us or the fish.


"Herring from Heaven", mixed media by Kerry McFall, copyright 2015

“Herring from Heaven”, mixed media by Kerry McFall, copyright 2015

Moments earlier, a shadow had skimmed through the maples and pines above us.  Griff wondered aloud what kind of bird would make such a big shadow.  Three steps further, and there was a 12-inch fish gasping in the middle of the trail, a brilliant red puncture just behind its gills.  The trail was on a cliff, at least 20 feet above the ocean, and we were at least 10 yards from the edge of the cliff, so no way did it jump out of the ocean.  If we had been a few seconds earlier, we could have been conked on the head!

Another hiker appeared with his dog, and we all stood there puzzling over the wet, silvery creature.  No fish hook or injured mouth.  Beautiful blue and silver scales.  (I learned several days later that it was an Atlantic Herring.)  “An eagle must have dropped it,” the hiker suggested.  That would explain the shrieking we heard after the shadow passed, maybe an adolescent Osprey cursing his bad luck.  We left the fish there, thinking the bird might double back to retrieve its lunch.  A little later, past the fairy houses (read on, that’s in the next paragraph!) and at the end of the island, sure enough there was an osprey repeatedly diving into the ocean, but coming up with empty talons.  Glorious to see those dives, though!

So about the fairies… this island was clearly enchanted.  All along the eastern edge, there were tiny dwellings tucked into every nook in the forest.  Paths paved with snail shells, walls built from bark strips, elaborate woven twig roofs, each one unique and built of only natural materials.  You had to be sharp-eyed to spot them, but once we started really looking, we discovered dozens!  These were works of arts in themselves:

We met that hiker and his dog again as we finished the loop – he said he’d returned to where the fish was, but it had vanished…  herring for lunch after all?

Wine and Watercolor

We recently drove with my mother to King Estate Vineyards, where I told them that what they really, really need is an Artist in Residence… what could be better than spending your afternoons painting and drinking wonderful wines?  And I nominated myself, of course – now to persuade them!

"King Estate Patio" mixed media by Kerry McFall

“King Estate Patio” mixed media by Kerry McFall

We enjoyed a gourmet dinner on the patio, looking over the flowers and hummingbirds out to the Willamette Valley and it’s ever-so-green-and-gold meadows and hillsides.  I sketched and painted between bites and courses, concluding that hummingbirds are going to take some more practice.

Lavender blossoms send up their sweet scent all around the restaurant and winery, planted in every possible spot and at the ends of the grape rows.  As we left, I snapped a few photos of the shadows creeping from the big firs on the hill crest over the rows, undulating across the curved hillsides… you don’t see shadows this shape in most vineyard paintings!

"Lavender Shadows at King Estate Vineyard", mixed media by Kerry McFall

“Lavender Shadows at King Estate Vineyard”, mixed media by Kerry McFall

Angeles National Forest Artist in Residence 2015: Sketchbook Journal Project

Update 8/12/2015 0- here’s a link to an article about the program from the Pasadena news: 

“What’s an artist in residence?”  No one quite knew what to make of an art program in a Forest Service campground, until I pulled out what came to be known as my “arting gear”, including small personal sketchbooks, colored pencils, rubber snakes and toy bears, and invited them to join me at the shady picnic tables.

The campground families and kids hopped right in, choosing their favorite “model” and colored pencils, and about an hour later there were drawings of dragons and condors and landscapes and flowers, and lots of happy campers, including me!  The program gave all of us a way to simply be together in the woods, quietly sharing our insights about nature, looking more closely than we usually do, making drawings that will take us back to those woods for years to come.  The art sessions also gave families a way to keep the kids busy without having to organize a big expedition.  My two favorite participants were A.J. and Zack, the sons of the cafe manager and his wife.  Their parents were very hospitable, and their excellent food kept me from having to do much camp cooking and being able to just make art!

photo of instructor and children making art at picnic table

“Arting at the Campground”, Kerry McFall

Before I began this Artist Residency adventure a few weeks ago in mid-June 2015, I didn’t know there WAS a national forest anywhere near Los Angeles!  But there is, and it’s beautiful by any forest standards.   Mountains, vistas, forest, flowers, fresh air… but no water this year.  The drought is So Very Real…  However, the Crystal Lake Campground has an infrastructure of historic facilities built by the Civilian Conservation Corps back in the Depression era that give it an aura all its own – who needs water when you’ve got ghosts?  

"A Look Back", mixed media by Kerry McFall

“A Look Back”, mixed media by Kerry McFall

There are remains of the stone walls, fireplace, bandstand, and dance floor of a fabulous ballroom (or maybe a tent with a stone foundation?)  which was legend for big band events in the 1930’s – 1950’s, hidden in plain sight.  If you can’t hear the music and see the dancers at night, you aren’t paying attention…  but oddly, photos of that era are hard to come by.  I would love to do more research, but being off the grid up there at 5,500 feet, there weren’t many opportunities.  There are also plenty of ghost stories involving attacks by phantom bears back when the facilities were being built… gave me the shivers…

When I wasn’t “arting” with other campers or exploring the trails, I had full use of the welcome coolness of the Studio, an old building re-vamped for use by artists, to work on my own art.  Over the course of a week, I completed 20 mixed-media sketches in the journal that now belongs to their program – the sketchbook gallery below includes my favorites.  My husband and I hiked and wandered until it got too hot by Oregon standards, then I sketched and he wrote.  I worried about bears and mountain lions, and there was plenty of evidence of the critters, but all we encountered were lizards and blue jays and one horrendous spidery bug… I didn’t know whether to be relieved or just the tiniest bit disappointed about the bears…

The Angeles Forest has just been augmented by the newly-designated San Gabriel National Monument, and I got the first calendar slot for the new-this-year artist residency program.  The rest of the summer will bring nine other artists working there at different times in different media – it should be a terrific season!

Escaping to the Coast

sketch of children playing on shore

“Simple Pleasures”, mixed media by Kerry McFall

When the temp reaches 97 degrees in the Willamette Valley, plus a pollen count that’s off-scale even for here, it’s time to skedaddle to the coast.  Oregonians call it “the coast” because it’s not a beach… it’s a rocky stretch of sand scoured by cold wind and covered by clouds and fog.  It’s just not a place where you stretch out with your paper umbrella in your drink and your floppy hat covering your face from the sun.  Floppy hats must be anchored with elastic chin-bands, and drinks just make your hands colder.  But we love it.  You cross the center line of Highway 101 to turn onto the coast access road, and the temp plunges 40 degrees – no kidding!  The brave little souls painted above were having a marvelous adventure because they don’t know any different… I hope their hot cocoa was waiting for them when they finally were dragged away!

No trip to the coast is complete without a trip to Mo’s Chowder.  We sat out of the wind and enjoyed garlic cheese bread with our bowls of buttery chowder, and I had a perfect view of the dock and the Tsunami-bait homes out on the jetty.

sketch of dock

“View from Mo’s in Lincoln City”, mixed media by Kerry McFall

We stayed a few nights, had quite an adventure in the casino, and were ready to come home to a much more comfortable stretch of temps in the 70’s… whew!  Here comes summer!

Post-Trillium Sketches

The Trillium Project Residency left me with a camera full of images and a head full of things to ponder (click here for a look at the sketchbook journal I did during the residency, and more about the project itself.) So far those have evolved into two paintings – not Plein Air, mind you, because logging trucks (aka flying dragons) and artists sitting in the gravel at the side of the road don’t mix well!

sketch of old bike

“Spring Green”, mixed media by Kerry McFall

The first one was inspired by an abandoned rusty bike on Shot Pouch road, just west of the cabin.  I suspect that the bike may have had a close encounter with something on bigger wheels, the rear tire is actually wrapped completely around the back part of the frame… but the handlebars are pointing out over the spring greenery of the meadow in such an optimistic attitude.  Bittersweet.

The second was painted from a photo I took just outside the community of Harlan, up the road a piece from Burnt Woods and Shot Pouch road.   Harlan is one of those Oregon places that has been transformed several times, much like the little valley where one branch of my family settled.  At first, men fought the trees to the ground with crosscut saws and whipsaws. Once those Monster Logs were gone, the forests were bruised from their passing, but still, there was forest.  Technology changed – enter the chainsaw and the gasoline engine.  In the boom years, logs flew by on roaring trucks, huge logs, maybe only three to a truck.

meadow view of clearcut

“Harlan Legacy”, mixed media by Kerry McFall

I remember the first time I saw a logging truck in Georgia in the 1980’s, with dozens of piddly, skinny logs roped to the truck. I smirked, “You call that a log?  We have REAL logs in Oregon.” And then I flew back home, and saw the mountains from the air for the first time…  Industrial logging techniques  had morphed into clear cutting, and little was left but eroding scars.  A fringe of trees was left standing at the sides of the highways and on the ridge tops, leaving us down in the valleys with our illusions of forest.   The “real logs” were quickly becoming history, the forest had become “managed” timber lands.

That old clearcut above that little ranch in Harlan seemed so familiar, though I had never been there before.  It was beginning to green up as the red alder and blackberry moved in.  Life is returning.  But my gut tells me that every clearcut diminishes the potential for recovering the diversity of life in a forest, and the legacy of that land will never be as rich as it could have been.