Monday, February 27, 2012

"God is not a bookkeeper, God is a painter."

Michael retired to the upstairs of his home in 2001 and took refuge in two rooms of his art studio.  “God is not a bookkeeper,” he tells me.  “God is a painter.”

While  writing Miss Ellie's Cafe, I stumbled on a painting by Luis Canizare in a restaurant on Old Brompton Road in London.  I am by no means an art connoisseur, however I was taken with this particular painting, Cambio de Tercio, and began to think of ways to incorporate it into the novel.  I had a painter as a minor character.  I needed to know more about the methods and what inspires painters, so I called Michael to schedule a visit.

Before you walk into Michael and Brenda’s modest home on Main Street, you are at first reminded of grandmother’s house in the early 1900’s; two story, white clapboard with a wrap-around front porch.  Once inside, however, you know that grandmother would never have allowed such things.  The walls are covered from ceiling to floor with large canvases and an assortment of serial abstracts.  In the middle of all of this sits a newly renovated kitchen with brass pots hanging from the ceiling and an antique cherry dining room table with silver tea settings on the buffet.  That’s Brenda’s world.  Michael’s world is upstairs.  “The most important benefit in my life (and strong goad to believe in Divine Providence) was to get the right wife,” he says.

Upstairs, paintings continue to hug one another frame to frame, and then you walk into “the studio.”  It is the desk of the great mathematician who has no time for organization, the desktop of the financial wizard who deplores folders or the philosopher who refuses to keyhole ideas into categories.  Surrounding me is a sprawl of acrylics, oils, pastels, brushes, oils, turpentine and, gasp - electrical wires.  A small heater sits in the corner of the room and a lamp from Michael’s boyhood provides light across a 6’x 6’ piece of plywood, used to create an extended table-top.

Having oriented me to the place he most loves, Michael proceeds to demonstrate a technique he’s developed call Line Painting.  Taking a pre-stretched canvas, which runs about $50 - $60 each, Michael uses an eyedropper to dip into small amounts of paint he has poured into plastic dishes.  As cautious as a surgeon, he releases two or three drops at the top of the canvas.  He slowly turns the canvas as the drops move to give the paint a bit of a sinuous curved.  When the  paint slows to a stop, he adds a few more drops to extend the line and continues to turn the canvas to accentuate the sinuous curve.  This is done several times before the line finally reaches its home base on the other side of the canvas.  That’s the FIRST line, mind you.  The first of hundreds more to come, maybe even thousands.

Michael warns me there are several things to watch for.  If the artist becomes impatient and adds too much paint at once the line may break and take off in an entirely different direction.  The paint must be the correct viscosity, thin enough to flow freely but thick enough to create solid opaque lines. “It’s all so simple when you think about it, and yet, I’m amazed at the number of unspoken assumptions I live by.”  A painting can start out as one picture and slowly develop into something entirely unexpected…sort of like life.

Line Painting is labor intensive and time consuming.  Each line has to dry before the next one can be added to make sure that the first and second don’t bleed into each other.  This requirement for patience can sometimes be excruciating.  “The Devil is always tapping on the window.  I have to constantly remind myself to honor my profession.”

Michael’s work can be found at Harbor Gallery in Norfolk, VA.  For more information regarding his paintings, contact me at  and I will gladly forward messages.  Bits and pieces of the information he provided are scattered throughout my novel, but unfortunately, far too much related to the talent and labor involved was determined to be unrelated back story.  Back story for a novel, perhaps, but the ingredients that create masterpieces in real life.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Doing the Research

Four basic tasks take up my time:  writing,  research,  critiquing,  and marketing.   One of the most pleasant surprises I’ve had is how much I enjoy the research.  I’m not talking about computer research, although I do plenty of that.  The fun lies among the people who’ve been there, done that, and will share what they know.  Their stories are the sources for the evolution of some of my best scenes.

While writing The Quaker CafĂ©, here are a few of the people who guided me through my research:  Quakers much more knowledgeable than I, an oncologist, a director at the Red Cross, a psychologist, an abstract artist, volunteer firemen, a hairdresser, a bridal shop owner, an Episcopal Priest,  an estate lawyer and a gun expert.

While working on my second novel I’ve put even more time into one-on-one interviews.  To date I have flown with a pilot who handed me the wheel in a Cessna Skylark,  driven a tractor, made several visits to a root doctor, gotten basic instructions on the handling and shooting of a Colt 45, arranged for a date in juvenile court, met with both a judge and criminal lawyer, spoken with  a drug task force officer,  and made my first of several visits to a free range turkey farm. 

I gather a lot of information, but often use only tidbits.  I cut an entire chapter on abstract art, which I regretted since the artist had so graciously spent several hours with me.  But I failed to tie the chapter into the arc of the plot, and too much background on a minor character can bog things down.

Similarly, an oncologist shared an abundance of his valuable time to exchanged phone calls and e-mails to help sift through a plausible progression and treatment of a deadly disease.  Most was cut.  Too technical.  The medical terminology slowed down the reader.

After visiting Doko Farms last week, I thought of the amazing story to be told around that farm.  Add a mystery somewhere in there, bones being dug up on the property, etc. etc. and there is a novel.  But, that’s not what I’m about at this particular time, and while I will definitely use some of the information to develop my character, there remain many unwritten chapters.

So, I thought on my way home, “Why not include some of these interviews in a blog instead?”  Therefore for the next several blogs, I am going to focus on some of the people involved with my research.  What links them together is the fact that each one is passionate and committed to what they do and their enthusiasm is contagious.