Just Getting Warmed Up Over Here

It’s been a cold and snowy week over here. A blizzard swept in last Tuesday and dropped snow on the prairie, but the biggest drop by far was the temperature; I woke to the local NPR announcer saying with near-glee that it was one degree above zero, not counting windchill (it was around -25). We were snowbound.

The temperature this week in my (unheated) basement studio hovered slightly above freezing. I could paint for about an hour before my toes dropped off, to be taken upstairs, thawed out and screwed back on. Going anywhere in this mess was out of the question; roads were icy, snow blew sideways and starlings huddled against the side of the house like whinging orphans in a Dickens novel. I baked ginger-bread men, popped popcorn and made hot tea when I wasn’t running downstairs, brushing on paint and returning upstairs to warm up. The painting is moving forward slowly but surely. I am breathing tropical air in my very active imagination as I push this baby into being.

On Saturday we finally got out- Norman’s one snowplow finally made it down our street- plus it rose above freezing and the roads were suddenly awash with slush and running water. Ant Man and I drove to the YMCA like hounds to the hunt. Did anyone else have the childhood trauma of getting dropped in the deep end of the pool by a well-meaning grown-up? That sink-or-swim thing? I think I was about three years old when it happened to me and-huge surprise- I sank. Naturally, I never learned how to swim or had any wish to get back in the water.

That changed last year when I was nominated for a Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship. It’s a three-month grant that gives an artist close access to the Smithsonian’s facilities and people. I knew that whatever I proposed would connect me with Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute’s field stations in Panama, along with other sites in Central America and the Caribbean. I proposed to study (and draw and paint) tropical structures: the architecture of a rain forest and its scaffolding of looping lianas (woody vines), some of which can grow three kilometers in length. I wanted to look at the way a hermit hummingbird’s long bill slides into the delicious arc of a heliconia flower, and I wanted to describe the coral reef as a parallel to the tropical rainforest’s canopy. I envisioned those flashing tanagers and euphonias as ecological equivalents of clownfish and moorish idols. Isn’t a parrot a little like a parrotfish, if you sort of squint?

I spent time thinking this over, reading the literature (among others, Joseph Connell‘s Diversity in Tropical Rain Forests and Coral Reefs, Science, Vol. 199, 1978) …..I saw that one could draw parallels between the two ecosystems, especially if you draw to begin with. I even found an artist in Australia who sketches coral reefs underwater, wearing SCUBA gear. I traded emails with a researcher who studies sponges off Belize. She draws underwater, using plastic sheets as a drawing surface, and was very encouraging. Experimenting, I learned that graphite lines stay put when submerged. I was ready to dive in and try it myself. One hitch. I couldn’t swim.

My next step was to join the YMCA. I took a few lessons and got a lot of water up my nose. Other swimmers grew concerned when they saw me thrash through the water. But I persevered, and finally learned enough freestyle technique to get me to one end of the pool and back, slowly.

Before I could enroll in SCUBA school, however, the Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship was awarded to someone else. Although it was a great honor to get nominated and I was grateful, not to mention pleased at having learned how to write a grant proposal, I was secretly a little relieved I didn’t get it. I felt I was, quite literally, in over my head. So what did I do? I wrote a new proposal, for another fellowship at another institution, and this one, astonishingly, was accepted.

In the end I have learned to love swimming and have kept going with it. Yesterday I swam a solid 50 laps, over a mile and a half. I try to do that a couple of times a week. My speed is up, too: on good days I’m even faster than the big guy in the next lane who’s walking. That’s progress.

I may not have gotten the Smithsonian Fellowship, but I applied for- and got- another one. One that will return me to beautiful New England and Harvard Forest. I can’t wait to tell you all about it.

It's still big, but it's getting closer to being done.

7 thoughts on “Just Getting Warmed Up Over Here

  1. Kathiesbirds says:

    Hey, if you are coming this year, I am still here and near Harvard! I would love to meet you! The New England forest is wonderful also and it has been so long since I have lived here that I am seeing all the birds with new eyes AND seeing birds I never noticed before! I heard about your bliazzard and wondered about you and T.R. Ryan. I found out he escaped just in time to CA! I so emapthize with your cold toes! I hope you and them are finally thawing out! I wandered aimlessly around Michaels’ craft store today looking at art supplies. I have felt like painting recently but have yet to pull out the canvases and apply the paints!

    BTW, I love to swim and I applaud you for learning and conquering your fears!

  2. Ken Januski says:

    Just the other day I was thinking I should have taken you up on your offer, at least I remember it as an offer, to write down the palette you used last time you were doing those great watercolors at Harvard Commons. So rather than request an old palette I’ll just request that occasionally you include the colors you use in the new watercolors. I really did like those watercolors!

    I’m looking forward to seeing what you come up with on this visit.

  3. Harry Mitchell says:

    Most of us are lucky to occasionally progress from novice to gifted amateur status. Then there are those renaissance men and women who take up the banjo and become gifted musicians, pick up a pencil and brush and become amazing artists, decide to learn to swim and are soon 40 laps beyond my personal best. You are indeed a source of wonderment.

  4. Dinah Sanders says:

    Debby, this reminds me of me the past six weeks traveling to places with snow – in which I had so little experience I didn’t know it was squeaky when you walk on it when it’s fresh – and working on my novel set on a primarily tropical planet that hasn’t had an ice age for 100,000 years.

    Imagination!

  5. 100swallows says:

    Debby: I liked to see you laying in the background paint. Now I wonder how the leaves came to be green? That doesn’t look like the same thick acrylic Is it watercolor? I liked those black tips on the leaves. Reminds me that in the jungle not everything is green and sprouting—that there is as much dead and dying.
    I clicked on the zeladoniac backlink of your comment at my place and WordPress said your blog had been deleted. You should have seen with what anxiety I hurried to click on my own motmot blogroll link for confirmation.

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