Christmas in Florida

Coming from Minnesota I wasn’t sure what Christmas in sunny Florida would be like when I landed there last month. Certainly I knew not to expect snow, Christmas sweaters, Lutheran choirs, or even the rich meals that usually accompany our winter gatherings. But what would I find instead?

On Christmas Day, it was Thai and Turkish food (yum) and a mellow vibe. As I was introduced to the towns, lakes, and parks, my mental templates of Christmas melted away, and new images emerged—often more layered and subtle than those of the frozen north. Here in Winter Park I found my Christmas “evergreens.”




storm snaps

I’ve gotta say, don’t you just love cellphone cameras? They allow us to capture so many things that only a few years ago would have remained only in our mind’s eyes, if at all.

Here are a couple recent scenes which made me happy I had my cellphone along. The first was during my commute home, when a storm was darkening the sky less than a mile away, while the sun shone brightly from the other direction. The freaky contrast was delicious.

farm w storm behind

The photo below was taken just about 9 p.m. as Mike and I crossed the Hennepin Ave. bridge into downtown Minneapolis for the all-night Northern Spark festival. As the sky suggests, it was to be a very rainy night. I suppose both images are pretty representative of our wet and stormy spring!

Minneapolis at Northern Spark sm


“Where is the Water in White Bear Lake?” is Here

Exactly three weeks ago, my video “Where is the Water in White Bear Lake?” had its premiere. Some of you might recall my post over two years ago, when I first started filming for this project. The work actually began in the fall of 2011, when I requested and later received a grant from the Suburban Ramsey/Washington County Cable Commission to create a program about the low water levels in White Bear Lake, the centerpiece of my community.

When I first visited Minnesota over 25 years ago, I “discovered” and fell in love with the astonishingly beautiful and varied freshwater here. Later, after working in public health and contemplating what might be the most personally meaningful and impactful issue I could work on, I decided to focus on the sustainability of water. It’s critical for all creatures to survive and thrive, yet in so many ways and places it’s under threat. I saw the situation of White Bear Lake as an opportunity to learn about and explore different aspects of a water crisis in the making, and to engage others in this process as well.

Working on the video, I talked with scientists, attended presentations, studied maps, and was present for different hydrological monitoring activities. During the drilling of a well over 600 feet down into the Mount Simon aquifer, I witnessed a cross-section of geological layers progressively brought up by the drill. I felt humbled to see how interconnected we are to past millennia, through water.

As I talked with different people, I got a sense of the politics, social dynamics, and varieties of personal meaning the lake has for people locally and regionally. For me, working on the video was like spending precious time with an ailing friend. While recognizing how the face of the lake has changed, I’ve continued to feel that White Bear Lake has a unique and delightful spirit. I was happy to have an excuse to spend time together. In fact, I typically had great fun when I was out by the lake with my video camera, capturing images of the water and meeting new people who were open and generous with their thoughts, stories, and time.

As I gathered more and more information—and hours and hours of footage—I struggled greatly trying to decide how to tell this story. I wondered how much technical and political and social information to provide, how much of my own voice (both figuratively and literally) to include, and how to end my story in the midst of an evolving situation. During months of “writer’s block,” and months chipping away at editing, I was helped along by feedback and encouragement from friends, associates, and a documentary filmmakers group I belong to. A friend willing to help with camera work, and others who provided sound and animation expertise all generously lent their time and skills when there were things I couldn’t manage on my own. Now I’m relieved to find myself at the other end. Completion is sweet.

Yet, the completion of my video is also what I hope will be the beginning of a shared conversation among us, and new or expanding relationship between you, water, and White Bear Lake.



Around Labor Day we made a brief excursion to the North Shore with some good friends. Our lovely cabin in Lutsen was right on Lake Superior’s rocky shoreline. One of the things about these rocks and boulders I find endlessly exciting is the beautiful lichen. I’m like a kid in a candy shop!

Lutsen lichen rock 1

I painted these using a small kit I’d put together for sketching, consisting of cigar box with duct tape hinge, small plastic spice jar used as water container, and some paint brushes with ends broken off to make them fit in my bag.

Companion animal: Least chipmunk

Lutsen lichen rock 2




Amazing tree

Fall has come very late to Minnesota this year, and we’ve have many days of warm weather and near-blinding sunlight. This has made most everyone very happy, including plein air painters!

In the parkland near my house, I have a favorite tree that I can see across the grassland during my regular walks. This tree continues to amaze me – its heartwood is absent, presumably scorched away by lightening and perhaps fire years ago. There is also a hole in its bark one can see right through. Yet the tree stands strong, alone on the hillside, always with a full, healthy display of leaves.

Here are a couple paintings I did over the past week featuring this tree, along with a quick sketch of the adjacent treeline and wetlands.

Companion animals: garter snake(s), deer ticks

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save our symphony!

Last week I was busy shooting video, once again for Barbara Britain and her documentary program featuring Elden Lawrence, a Dakota Elder, which I have written about in a previous post.

One of the places I filmed Elden was at the Minnesota History Center, at a new exhibit called ‘Then Now Wow!‘ This exhibit contrasts how things used to be in Minnesota with how they are today. It’s the first exhibit the Center has designed especially for children.

I also had the opportunity to make this video for Save Our Symphony Minnesota, a group formed just a couple weeks ago to give voice to all who want to see the end to a management lockout of the Minnesota Orchestra musicians, which has lasted for nearly a year (coincident with a similar crisis at the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra). The Orchestra’s board, after raising $50M for a renovation of Orchestra Hall, has been seeking to make radical cuts to musician compensation, shrink the size of the orchestra, diminish the Conductor’s artistic authority, etc., and musicians have been scrambling to make ends meet during protracted contract negotiations. There’s a lot more not to like about this situation and I refer you to SOSMN’s website and Facebook page for more of the ugly details.

When I reflected on what I was capturing this past week, I realized that, with orchestras facing an uncertain fate in Minnesota as well as many other places globally, our two world class orchestras in the Twin Cities could be candidates for inclusion in the ‘Then Now Wow!’ exhibit in the not-so-distant future.

Imagine that: Two orchestras in Minnesota that used to regularly perform classical music of the highest caliber, allowing the public to hear major works played by the best soloists and interpreted by the best conductors in the world, both live and through recordings. Two orchestras with musicians that served as teachers for those who wanted to learn to play the violin, the bassoon, the tympani.. and experience the pleasure given and received in playing. Imagine that they are a thing of the past. Gone. That all we have left are recordings from 20 years ago, and that there are hardly any musicians left who are able to play the great classical works of music.

I can’t quite believe this is really happening, but it is.


under Manitou bridge

I’m posting this painting largely because I wanted to share something about the experience of painting it.

Manitou Island lies in the middle of White Bear Lake, MN, and is connected by an old wooden bridge. When I was there with a painting class last week, I set up under the bridge partly to avoid the bright afternoon sunlight, and partly because I was drawn to the way that light cast a glow on the bridge’s foundation.

As I painted, I heard many kinds of bird calls. There were swallows flying about, but I also heard an unusual clacking sound I didn’t recognize. As the afternoon went on, the source of the sound became visible. A small bird I’d never seen before picked its way toward me through the grasses, and hopped from rock to rock in front of me. Her body was upright, with little in the way of wing or tail feathers – kind of like a partridge. As she moved about I soon saw that she was not alone – at least five fuzzy black chicks were hovering in the thicker reeds and grasses and following her down concealed trails. One bold chick came out into the open with his mom, right in front of me, following in her footsteps.

I was mystified as to what this bird could be, but after several days of searching, identified it as a Virginia rail – elusive birds that frequent marshes.

One of the reasons to paint outdoors is to experience things we wouldn’t otherwise. Standing in one place for hours at a time, Nature is always making itself known, and has a way of coming out to meet us. Most often this is through the intensity of the elements, or through insects that must be fended off. Or the evolution of clouds in the sky. Or sometimes it’s times  like this – animals never before seen. I love being surprised by what appears.
under Manitou Br


Hjørdis at dock

If you’ve ever been to Grand Marais, MN, you may have seen the schooner Hjørdis which sails out of the North House Folk School. Her green hull, sienna-color sails, and Old-World profile are distinctive as she traverses the harbor.

Last month when I was in Grand Marais painting during Todd Voss’ plein air class, we were down by the harbor near the Folk School. We’d seen the Hjørdis earlier in the day sailing about, and now she was safely back at dock. As a light rain passed through, I took cover under an overturned boat on a storage rack. (My paints are water-mixable oils so they start to run when it rains!) I set up a little 4 x 6 canvas, and painted the Hjørdis which was directly in front of me. Since I had to finish the painting later, it’s not an exact representation, but I hope it captures some of the feeling of the Hjørdis and its home.



agate bay

A couple weeks ago we were on our way up the North Shore, and stopped as we often do at Agate Bay.

Not far from Duluth, the bay contains traces of days when iron mining, shipping, a railroad, and a plethora of saloons made the town one of the busiest ports on Lake Superior. Now largely empty, the area around the bay is at once forlorn and, perhaps in part because of that, strangely attractive. Tourists come to look at the fenced-in lighthouse and comb the beach for agates. Locals walk along the bay and its shoreline footpaths. Seagulls call, and an occasional mournful horn blast from the taconite loading docks breathes out over the water. Nature is cautiously filling in the spaces where no one else lays claim. That afternoon, it was this apparent no man’s land, bordered by the obvious attractions, that I was most drawn to.

While I was there, vendors were quietly setting up for the weekend’s Heritage Days festivities.

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under construction

As the lingering spring rains have given way to summer in Minnesota, I’ve been getting outdoors to paint. Trying to find my way around the canvas again, I’ve done a number of unremarkable paintings. Over the last week I had the opportunity to take painting classes with two great plein air painters which helped me get back on my feet again and move forward. For the second year in a row, I took another excellent weekend workshop with Todd Voss up in Grand Marais, and started a multi-week class with Christopher Copeland.

In yesterday’s class, the heat was so intense that our class decided to meet indoors at the new White Bear Center for the Arts building. Fortunately our room had a large window, so I was able to paint a view of the patio which is still under construction. Chris initially assumed that I would focus on the more “natural” vegetation in the distance, but I loved the odd assortment of building materials, with their varied colors, shapes and textures.

Christopher is quite a fluid, energetic painter, and I felt encouraged in my desire to be more loose and spontaneous with my own painting.

WBCA courtyard construction

One thing Chris said was that painters are most distinguished by their brushwork – it’s like handwriting. I’ve always loved to draw, but have had trouble translating that sense of ease and directness into painting. His statement really helped me experience my relationship to the brush in a different way.

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