Too Many Variables

Oriole drawing/painting

Mr. CheetoHead, Oriole

My daughter recently reported seeing a bird on the patio that looked as if he had stuck his head in a Cheetos bag.  I thought maybe a goldfinch had dropped by to tease the cats.  But then, a few days ago I saw a photo by Christine Paige on FB of a bird she labeled as an Oriole, did a bit of research, and was amazed to learn that Yes!  Orioles do show up in San Diego!


It seemed like serendipity had a hand in all this because I’ve been taking an online class from John Muir Law via Audubon about drawing birds.  Christine was kind enough to give her permission for me to use her photo as a model, et voila:  Mr. Cheetohead.  A bird this colorful sends my brain into overdrive, I must admit – too many variables to capture without getting fussy.  His hairdo looks a bit like a Victorian dandy, parted in the middle, with that silly little Van Dyke beard beneath his beak, which clearly was not a beak intended for drinking nectar from a hummingbird feeder but apparently that happens a lot.  And in this picture, I couldn’t figure out what to do to suggest a tree in the background, and the feeder is a completely different drawing style than the bird and/or the background.  But, variables be damned, here he is in all his orangey yellowy glory.


…speaking of orangey yellowy: It sounds a bit like I’m fiddling while Rome burns, focusing on avian beauty while the country and much of the world writhes in agony… But au contraire.  Painting and drawing helps me focus.  I give a lot of thought to the issues with each mark I make.  And I conclude that too many variables confuse and overwhelm us all.  COVID19 is the Big Invisible Variable, but so far we have no way to remove it.  However here is my suggestion for shrinking the number of remaining variables: remove the current US president from office.  He is the Big Visible Variable.  Predicting what he will do next is like predicting the trajectory of a squirrel.  A squirrel on meth.  A squirrel on meth dragging an AK-47.  Unlike the virus, there is a way to remove him.  So in between paintings and webinars, I contact my representatives and senators, and express my views and values, over and over.  I encourage everyone to do the same – we’ve only got a few short months before November.  And above all else that you do in the next few weeks and months, be sure you vote in this election.

Sketches and Links

I’ve also done these drawings for the class:

Click on the thumbnails to enlarge.…/bird-drawing-classes

Back in the Saddle Again (figuratively speaking)

It’s been a little over a year since I posted here.  I’ve been painting and drawing this whole time, but life got complicated.  After the end of cancer treatments, a major relocation to California, and a couple of surprises including pandemic pandemonium, I’m going to try to pick back up here with my art and stories.

Photo of neighborhood fence   

  1.  Photo of fence                        2. First watercolor pass

3.  Mixed media final version – “Morning Plunge”

Down the street a ways, there is a tall fence where the morning glory pours over the top like a waterfall.  I love the riot of color, and I recently noticed (because what else is there to do when your favorite beach boardwalk is closed?) that the vine has two completely different types of leaf.  Pretty sure that’s not possible I told myself, so off I went down Uncle Google’s Rabbit Hole and sure enough, there is such a thing and it’s called Ivy Leaf Morning Glory.  It has the expected valentine-shaped leaves, plus 3-pronged ivy-ish leaves.


I enjoy reading how other artists achieve their special effects with different media, so I’ll try to remember to include these notes.  For this painting I used some of the leftovers from our move: two types of plastic shelf liners, one with parallel grooves and one with a lot of little holes in a pretty random pattern.  I painted the areas where I wanted the texture, placed the plastic over it, covered it with a book to weight it down, and left it to dry.  Once it’s dry, I sometimes paint over it, draw over it with ink, or shade it with the side of a colored pencil.  The pencil technique seems to bring out the edges of the textures.

Turns out the holey one wasn’t the best choice for a sky area, but I think it could be nice for shady forest backgrounds, and I like the parallel effect for wood grain.


Effervescence & Jubilation

Posted April 26, 2019 by Kerry McFall

painting of lilacs

“Jubilation”, mixed media by Kerry McFall

I borrowed a stem of lilacs this morning from my neighbor to the south.  Much like daphne, lilacs beg to be picked and brought indoors, inhaled and celebrated, and I am not one to deny them.

I also snapped off a few stems of salal from my neighbor to the north.  They won’t mind.  They probably won’t notice.  The ajuga is my own, a hardy little vine that refuses to succumb to being trampled by our front entry.  Into my favorite simple round vase they all went, plunked on the dining table to be properly adored.  And painted and petted and stared at and re-arranged.

I used the term Jubilation when I titled my painting.  Because that’s what lilacs smell like – unabashed joy at being in bloom.  Joy at being lavender with rosy edges and tiny golden middles.  Joy at dripping big fluffy blossoms over the sidewalks and lawns of the latitudes lucky enough to host their beauty.

Then I thought better of that title as I added the final touch:  a few spatters of paint, just because!  Because it’s spring!  Because the sun is shining!  Because I have paint and I have an old toothbrush and I can see bubbles in the vase water as if it were champagne!!  Effervescence would have been a better choice, but too late…

Jubilation will do in a pinch, however.  May Day is only a few days away – go forth and jubilate!



Everything & Nothing

Or: Why Make Art?

Posted March 26, 2019 by Kerry McFall

After I finish a painting like this, I set it on the piano music rack, and go across the small room to sit on the couch, and just look.  And look away.  And look back.

pink rhododendron blooms

“OSU Rhododendron”, mixed media by Kerry McFall

It makes me happy to see a finished painting or drawing.  That is enough, to smile and be happy as I look.  Yes, I learn something with each one.  Perhaps that leaf should have been angled a bit more.  The border needs work.  Or not.  I walk past it the next morning, and smile again.

But there is more to the looking than fleeting happiness.  There is Everything.  And there is Nothing.

I look at the background, the greens and yellows, the darkness and light and shapes and lines that fade into each other, the suggestions of leaves behind the shining blooms, of other stems and plants behind the rhododendron, of the building behind the plants, of the university behind the building, the town, the mountain range, the ocean, the universe.  I know all of that is back there, in the background.  Everything.

I look at the blossom, the pinks and purples and reflected light, the stamens and anthers, the net of veins and arteries and chlorophyll, the life juices, the splashes, the water, the waves, flowing to the endless sea.  It is there in the foreground, all of that.  Everything.  It is right to be on the music stand, this painting, my painting.  It represents to me the music of this day, the tunes behind all those brush strokes and drips and washes.

And yet I know it is merely pigment on paper, paper made of chewed remnants of dead trees, pigments extracted from rocks and soils and brushed on with bits of fur from dead animals, a crude compilation of marks shaped by my hand as I endeavor to make sense out of the world around me.  The world behind and beneath and around my marks is filled with voices that shout about physics I cannot grasp and politics I cannot stomach, wounds I cannot heal and pain I cannot divert, and how can I deceive myself that my simple marks begin to touch the harshness of that reality?  I know the painting will become as nothing the moment I turn to the next page of the sketchbook, forgotten, out of sight and out of mind… Nothing.  Until.  Until in a few weeks or months or years I go through the book again, page by page, remembering.  Looking.  Touching.  And once again there is happiness.  There is Everything.  And the page turns yet again, and there it is again, memory, happiness.  Everything.

And that, I think, is why we humans make art.  Mostly Everything.

Shadows of Spring

shadows of oak tree on path

“Bald Hill Shadows”, mixed media by Kerry McFall

Oregon doesn’t have a lot of bright sunshiny days when the trees are bare, so it took me a while to realize why I was so fascinated by these shadows: the old oak trees produce some rather startling shapes, shapes we rarely see on the ground because it’s usually cloudy for months as soon as the leaves fall!  When the sun does make its rare presence known, it looks as if the tree and its ‘shadow roots’ are mirror images of each other.  With any wind at all, it becomes a giant undulating octopus-like creature, or a winking many-eyed presence reminding us that we are not alone in this meadow.

Vernal equinox, here at last.  It’s been a long, difficult winter, a winter of slow healing.  Now every day brings another small flower, another reason to be glad, another promise of strawberries.  Right now I’m celebrating small victories, like no more daily hyperbaric oxygen therapy, no more awkward vacuum bandages on the surgical wound, maybe just one more surgery will finally close the radiation-damaged chest wall.  Onward and upward!

The Evolution of Cabana Man

man walking out of waves with fancy drinks

“Cabana Man”, mixed media by Kerry McFall

Cabana Man is a Cabana Boy all grown up.  He has been very helpful in my healing process, serving up healthy blood pressure readings for the past several months.  When I was stressed before an HBOT “dive”, the nurses and technicians would invoke his presence in my head, and lo and behold, I could hear the waves gently lapping on the sunny beach, and the readings would respond!

The first time he showed up, one nurse said, “Just imagine you’re on a sunny beach…”.  And being the smart-ass that I am, I added, “…and here comes the cabana boy!”  She was a quick study, and in just moments he was conjured up carrying a tray with a lovely fruity drink garnished with flowers and a tiny paper umbrella, striding out of the surf, strong and smiling.

HBOT is the abbreviation for hyperbaric oxygen therapy, which is now used to help repair the damage done to previously-radiated tissue.  It’s science fiction to my mind, but it seems to have worked to heal my chest wall, so whatever works.  Someday maybe I’ll post my record of the whole bumpy road of my cancer journey, but for now I just want to express how grateful I am for access to such good care by such caring people.

As for the “man” himself, portraits are not my strength and his eyes are kinda wonky… he is not a real person (duh!), but he was a lot of fun to put together, drawing from various photos on the Internet.  Incidentally, searching for “cabana boy” on Google Images will suddenly result in any number of ads on your Facebook feed for T-shirts referring to cabanas and … well, you get the picture.

It’s Gray o’ Clock in Oregon

Posted February 20, 2019 by Kerry McFall

So far this February, it’s been gray o’ clock almost all day every day.  Last weekend I laced up my hiking boots and braved the colorless cold for a little exercise, hoping for maybe a bit of early wildflower action at Bald Hill.  Nope, no flowers.  Silly woman.  But there were rewards!

sketches of pussy willow and newt

“Bald Hill Trio”, mixed media by Kerry McFall

The first was the whitewater rapids just off the parking lot, where usually there is a sleepy creek — on many days the gray has included a lot of rain.  The second was a lake fed by another rapidly running creek, where last summer the beavers had thought they were engineering a modest little pond.  And the third was… could it be?  A Mud Puppy! aka Rough-skinned Newt.  Haven’t seen one of those for years.  It was obviously a very cold newt, moving at the speed of “molasses in January” as my Dad would have said.  The vibrations of my footsteps must have warned it to stop moving and blend in with the lichen, but its’ bright orange “fingers” and underbelly edges gave it away.  I stood over it protectively for a long time to discourage bicycles and strollers, until it finally crept in comic slow motion off the asphalt and into the dead grasses.  Funny how such an encounter makes the whole chilly trek worthwhile!

There were also a few brave pussywillow catkins peeking out from their reddening stems, begging to be petted, urging me to find a place to step where I wouldn’t sink to my ankles in the ditch.  It was worth the jump and the stretch to feel their kitten-soft silver fluff under my cold fingers.  I think that’s as close to spring as we’re going to get for several more weeks!

Giggles and Hats and Cuddles with Cats

The Evolution of Friendship – posted February 7, 2019 by Kerry McFall

painting of glove, moon pie, and cream pitcher

“Evolution of Friendship”, mixed media by Kerry McFall

“When would you like me to drop off the tea glove that I embroidered for Corey?” my friend Tracy texted.  “It’s your turn.”

I had no idea what she was texting about.  I called to ask my daughter.

“Remember when she sent a glove to me for the wedding?  I carried it with my bouquet – it was one of the little gloves Kayla and I used to wear to our tea parties when we were little girls!  You know, ‘Something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue?’ “ 

Pushing back through the mental fog of four tough years to the hubbub of my daughter’s wedding, I almost remember the glove.  Going back 20 years further, though, I definitely remember the tea parties – best fun ever!  Life was so much simpler.  Tea cups to sip from, sweets and savories piled into baskets, lacy table cloths, chipped pink polish on tiny fingernails hidden under soft gloves, giggles and hats and cuddles with cats, and puppies and bunnies and chickens… 

We moved on from tea parties at home to fun at the county fairgrounds.  Our girls quickly learned how to care for the bunnies and chickens. Then we taught them to quilt and sew and make costumes for the Renaissance Fair.  We showed them manners and courtesy and affection, and how to be strong and speak their minds.  We showed them many things, but especially how to be friends.

And then our little girls grew up, as little girls do.  They kindly accompanied us to Quilt Guild meetings through their Middle School years, then firmly moved on to activities that did not require the presence of their middle-aged mothers.  Sigh. 

Now they are strong women, and good friends though living far apart.  The four of us are still able to put together the occasional tea party, usually for a cup of Christmas Tea.  My daughter will be Matron of Honor soon for Kayla’s wedding.  So last week Tracy delivered a gift bag, with the little glove on top of a tissue-wrapped threesome of delectable Moon Pies (specially ordered from Indiana*,) because that’s what good friends do: they see your need, they bring you treats, they make you smile!

The little glove will soon be passed along to Kayla, with perhaps a few added embroidery stitches (in pink?), along with a copy of this essay, and my sketch.  It is my turn.

*  For hand-crafted Moon Pies go to

Wild Swans and Dragons

Posted December 12, 2018 by Kerry McFall

2018 has not been a banner year for me.  But Mother Nature has gifted me with a bit of natural magic: wild swans in what is essentially my back yard!  I’ve never seen them at Finley National Wildlife Reserve before, although I have heard rumors that if you are lucky you will be there during the few hours or days each year during migration that they grace us with their presence.  

We go to Finley every autumn to hear the choirs of geese (the Canadian goose is my spirit animal, and I’ve got the tattoo to prove it), to watch their flights, to hear ducks cackle and joke, to see the occasional bald eagle soaring over the flocks to take inventory.  But this year – swans!  They are huge and there are lots of them, startling white on the shallow water.  Seeing one land is like watching Baryshnikov dance: appearing suddenly out of the heavens, silent smooth approach, perfect touchdown, elegant plume of spray, gentle stop – breathtaking.  Literally. 

I drew three different dragons earlier this fall for my grandsons, and had great fun with their spiraling bodies, sharp skulls, and scaly skins.  As I painted the swan arching his neck and showing off his glistening feathers, it occurred to me that swans could be dragons reincarnated.  They have feathers instead of scales, but the underlying structure is pretty similar.  Okay, it’s a stretch, but it’s a fun stretch! 

Pandora’s Recipe Box

Posted by Kerry McFall December 3, 2018

Christmas is upon us, time to make fudge and cutout cookies, so out comes the old recipe box.  ‘Dusty’ doesn’t do justice to the accumulation of oily residue and fingerprints and smudges on it as I wrestle it out of its position as honorary bookend on the cookbook shelf, resulting in the usual cascade of books and 3-ring binders off the shelf and onto the floor.  Dang.

sketch of wooden box and recipes

“Pandora’s Recipe Box,” mixed media by Kerry McFall

I pry up the lid of the box, and there is “Kerry from Dad 87” etched into the inside top with a woodburning tool.  He made it for me during his Woodworker Phase, one of many oak-and-walnut projects, including my pepper mill.  Utilitarian and one-of-a-kind, both my Dad and the box.

The box is packed so full that opening it makes me wonder what keeps all those cards and papers from literally jumping out.  The dividers, printed in my hand-writing on blue cardboard, are frayed and stained.  Given the accessibility of recipes via the Internet, this collection doesn’t get as much use as it did back in the day, so it’s been several years since I really paid any attention to it, but I’m on a mission: the fudge recipe on the back of the marshmallow crème jar just doesn’t look right.  Didn’t the marshmallow jar used to be way bigger?  Wasn’t it the large can of evaporated milk, not this itty bitty thing?  I need to find my old “original” recipe, THE recipe that actually results in creamy, delectable fudge.  As opposed to gooey chocolate sauce with walnuts sunk to the bottom…

As my fingers “walk” through the categories (two of my favorites are “Front Burner” and “Tea Treats”), I am remembering when I discovered the hard way that just because my mother gave me A recipe didn’t mean she had given me THE recipe.  I had tried for years to make Parker House Rolls during the holidays, but they were never as light and fluffy as hers, which I couldn’t understand because she had copied the recipe for me.  And then one day, she said smugly, “Well, I see you still can’t make them melt in your mouth like mine!” The light dawned.  I compared the two handwritten 3 x 5 cards.  She had written “1 package yeast” on my card, hers said “2 pkgs yeast.”  She had written “let rise” on mine, hers said “let rise, punch down, knead lightly, let rise again.”  Oh for crying out loud!

I put that memory behind me with a low growl, and finally coax out the recipe in Mom’s handwriting that says fudge.  And sure enough, the label on the jar is different in several places from this old yellow chunk of legal pad where she copied the recipe, so I’m going to have to call my sister-in-law.  She’s got Mom’s old originals now… but then I realize that squeezing the recipes back into the box is not going to happen unless I get rid of some of the never-used bulk.  In my head I hear the words to “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie…” echoing: “…he’s probably going to want a glass of milk…”

But it can’t be helped, they just refuse to be jammed back into the box.  I start at the back.  There is the 3-hole-punch version – with hand-drawn X-rated illustrations – of “Fricasseed Boar Balls” from a once-young man who shall not be named… I’ve always thought this could be used to great advantage in a blackmail effort given his affinity for public office, so clearly that has to go back in the box!  There is a page of graph paper with a recipe for a potato casserole, in French, from someone named Devismes – nope, recycle.  But I wonder who that was?  Is that the family I stayed with on my first trip to France?  A double-folded card spells out a complex process for a casserole from the mother of the husband of my husband’s ex-girlfriend, with a sweet note at the end: “When you take the first bite, think of Ursula and Christmas 1993 in Corvallis”.  Aww, what a sweetheart.

And so it goes.  I find my long lost recipe for Hot Buttered Rum squirreled away under Vegetables.   There are pages and pages of typed gourmet entries (which means the main ingredient was cream of mushroom soup) from my Aunt Muriel, who loved to entertain – I never tried most of them so they go into the recycling, but a few are now family classics.  Most of the recipes are on 3 x 5 cards in the handwriting of the cooks who shared them with me, with unintentional samples of most of the ingredients spattered here and there – those are very hard to part with.  Ultimately I was able to recycle just enough so that I can close the box – but this little exercise was thought provoking.  When I google a recipe, it comes with no memories, fond or otherwise.  It comes with no evidence of little helpers in the kitchen with peanut butter on their fingers, no notes from friends, no reminders of co-workers who organized recipe exchanges, no clippings from ancient newspapers with ads on the back for honey at $.59.  It’s faster, yes, but it is SO not personal.

I wipe down the recipe box, and try not to think about how much shelf space I could regain if I took the time to sort through the cookbooks before I smash the books back into a row and wedge the box back on the shelf.  The fudge ingredients are calling my name…  I’ll save the cookbook shelf “weeding” for another Mouse and another cookie on another day.  Besides, I had to write about this while it was fresh in my head, and after I make the fudge I want to do a watercolor of all the ingredients and the recipe box… Time Flies!

(No surprise, finished the painting, still haven’t gotten around to the fudge or the cookies or the cookbook shelf.  What the hey – Christmas is still WEEKS away, right?)