“OH Duluth”

© John Michael Cook

Oh Duluth (Acrylic) 48″ X 16″ as seen from Canal Park Lake Walk.

Although I have posted this image on this blog before, it is timely to do so again as after many years of painting Duluth Minnesota I am finally going to have the entire collection on display at the Depot in Duluth come May, 2019.

Well I say the whole collection meaning those that are framed, 45 or so, but several that are not completed and a slew of unframed will not be making the cut.

Which brings me to the point. I have several that I wish to complete and decided to post and go public to give myself the push to get busy and just do it.

My last post was almost 2 years ago called Drip, (you can see it just below this post) and how appropriate it is to this moment.

So now I think I will post some new work as in progress to keep myself from corrosion and hold myself accountable.

If the postings are not interesting they will at least start to record steps taken, work done, and for anyone interested a place to point to for me to say, yes I am in forward motion.

Seven decades lived and eight decades observed.


Many things in life come one drip at a time. When that drip lands in the same spot, over and over, as most drips do, that spot is changed. If the landing spot is organic in nature, it will become enhanced by the addition of constant water. If the spot is inorganic it will become reduced by abrasion, rust or corrosion.


45 years ago, when acrylics were still emerging as a “new” medium I felt compelled to paint an acrylic memory of a water spigot from my childhood front yard in Arizona. Over the years since, one drip at a time, I have built and eroded and added and removed, often without notice, so many things made of small drips of divergent materials. some made of time, some of effort, some drip dripping ideas yet to be acted on.

The water spigot (faucet to us now-a-days people) became an allegorical encouragement to me over the years, reminding me that both time and my efforts were ever flowing.

Somehow as time flows out and away, progress and accumulation, in both materials and experiences, drips in. Some things become corroded, some become nourished. As I age, many things become easier to grasp and harder to carry. Ideas are like that, projects are also. Relationships become more nourished and more abraded as well.

As long as there is pressure in the pipe there will be the possibility of a drip, no matter how good or new the gasket, it will drip sometime. It will add to life, it will subtract too.

The more we lean to the natural side of things, the more the drips nourish.

This little painting has reminded me of my childhood one drip at a time, and now of my many years passing since I painted it. Drip drip drip.





Sometimes a word is worth a thousand pictures, or several words!  My son and I had set up to paint plein air in Canal Park in Duluth, Minnesota. There, a “dry docked” retired tug boat sat in an oversized “planter” on the sidewalk and became my subject for that day’s watercolor painting.


I sketched and began to lay out my painting, wet the paper and had just begun to wash in a sky when….these guys came out of nowhere, toting folding chairs and musical instrument cases. They set up right between me and my tug subject.  Rude!  You know they could see we were there first!  Not a word; nope, they said nothing, they just took out their instruments, looked at each other and begun to play—–the most amazing brass quintet I think I may have ever heard.

I did not know what to say, so I just began to sketch them into the picture, painting quickly as could be.  Soon a large crowd gathered around them and us; the band never looked up, playing one piece after another. They played for over an hour this way, long enough to roughly paint them when all of a sudden the very loud signal horn for the lift bridge went BOOOOOOOOOFFFFF announcing the arrival of a Great Lakes freighter.  The crowd (whom I had not had time to paint in), turned and ran to the harbor channel to watch the great ship coming in and leaving us and the musicians alone, and the band just played on never looking up.  Later in the studio at home, I added in the ship and the crowd and finished up the tug which is all I had wanted to paint.

After the band finished I did make the effort to go over and meet them and find out what this was about. They were all professionals in the medical field and met twice a year for a impromptu concert in a public place just to keep their skills sharp.  They practice all year for the events but never perform publicly except for these two concerts.  After a rude start, I felt privileged to have experienced this, so I named the painting, “The Band Played On.”




Snow comes when it will

(Or-Painting the “Tall Ship”)

Some of us love the snow,  some of us do not. It will chill or thrill, settling gently on upper surfaces of things gone unnoticed for years.

The Afternoon temperature had reached a good sixty degrees, though late in the fall, while trekking into the woods to retrieve cut firewood,  I was met with a sudden surprise beside the pathway, a larger than average mushroom. Those mystical fungus flowers that ferment into umbrella delights overnight are always a surprise. this large golden beauty was near a foot across, half a foot high, growing from under the side of a fallen balsam.


Stepping around it, making mental note to come back with the camera, it slipped from memory during the doing of tasks at hand. The thought of the large mushroom did not return to mind for two days. Snow!

Events pop up,  just like mushrooms,  Two days after discovering this golden colored humus dweller, when the snow came, some of the firewood lay still waiting and now was more needed. Another trek out onto the path for the firewood brought the mushroom back into mind. Six inches of wet snow would collapse such a soft large mushroom, and there was a feeling of regret that the camera had not been used.

Pushing a wheelbarrow over the slight incline and rounding a corner between two birch trees, there on the side of the pathway was a lump in the smooth white snowy surface. It was the bulk of snow on top of the mushroom.Could it be still standing? The lump was near a foot high in six inches of snow, and there was a black shadow slit running around its outer edge. Snow formed a smooth curved sweep over itself and into a blue black shadow void beneath the dome of the mushroom. The snow on top made a perfect umbrella shape and came down to within an inch of the snow on the forest floor. The slit of dark shadowy void ran all around the front of the shape and faded into smooth edges  filled with snow sluff near its back side. It was standing.

Getting closer and peeking in, another surprise “popped up.” Bursting from beneath the brim of the snow capped mushroom mound, I had startled a small field mouse, it skittered across a few feet of surface snow then burrowed quickly into hiding beneath the surface most likely making illusive unseen maneuvers to allude the giant.

Peeking back beneath the mushroom there was a dry grassy cavern like space. It looked comfortable in some sort of strange way. Half expecting a small light to come on and for just a moment there seemed to be a small wooden door opening up into the stem of the mushroom, it took a double blink to realize how much the imagination can meet the reality as what is before the eyes matches preconceived notions about something. Childhood tales of small forest creatures living warm and snug in mushroom houses has been a story element for several hundred years. In that moment of anticipation, my expectation had mushroomed into a moments reality.

It is not “actually” what is there that makes a great image.

It is what is desired to be seen – that needs to be in the picture.

Somehow when the little mouse jumped from beneath the mushroom, it called up a lifetime of expectations that would one day culminate in this discovery of a small mouse house in a forest floor mushroom. Why the lights weren’t on and the door wasn’t there was almost confusing. The scene was so reminiscent of a whole collection of images and my mind just filled in the blanks. I thought I saw a door, a light!

Winter came.

In my studio that week had been taken up entirely with completing a painting of a tall ship. After my mushroom adventure I wanted a “desired” image of an event from last summer. The arrival of the famous “Niagara” The tall ship,  coming into the port of Duluth Harbor. My Daughter and Grandson had joined me (along with ten thousand others) to welcome and see this special event.

Are there other tall ships? My grandson had asked after we had greatly raised his expectations of the coming ship.

Not so many any more, they are very old I replied.

I’m four, Grampa, how old is tall ships. Much much older I replied as I pondered the weight of his simple question.

As the ship was spotted, everyone began to chatter. For a half hour we photographed and watched both the ship and the crowd. The harbor was cleared for this traffic, the ship came and was escorted by many small water craft, mostly sail boats. We would point and say see the tall ship, look look. Remember this.


He is four, I will remember it, but he will remember something else.

He was impressed because we were impressed.. We were not so impressed with the ship , but with the privilege of seeing such an historical old ship,sailing right out of our childhood story books and into our sight. A tall ship that it came to our harbor, to our town. Others saw it, others saw us see it, we saw them see it too, and we shared it in a community sense. Witnesses that we had seen our past. It is important when one can see themselves seeing something. It is actually rare.

Being there is mandatory to understanding.

The ship was moored along side a docking area by the Convention Center, and an outgoing Great Laker cargo ship began departing the harbor. As it slid by it fairly dwarfed the tall ship. Is that a tall ship too Grandpa? my Grandson asked. No that is a big cargo freighter I said. It looks tall to me he said. Yes it is tall.

So it is a tall ship? No.  Is it old?

Not as old as this tall ship I said pointing to the fine old “Niagara” I was lost in my moment, and he was lost in his discovery. I was seeing the event moment, and he was seeing the entire world in front of him, to him all things in the harbor had the same interest and the same value, he was depending on us to help separate the worthwhile from the worthless, or to say even if anything was worthless.

For a moment I was four again, He was showing me the very nature of an artist. Any thing in the view could be a worthwhile subject, a topic, a worthy image, if looked at from a desired viewpoint. Regardless of age or value or size, to a child, all things start out equal. It should be so for an artist as well. Sometimes to understand something, one must look at it from several viewpoints.

It is not “what did I see when I was there” but what did I think I saw.

Was I looking again at a preconceived notion of what others thought we were seeing, Is the viewpoint cynical because of commercial propaganda about the event? Was I seeing every tall ship from my story books.

Or did I see the magical moment of the arrival of a great ship with sails unfurled, flags flying gliding silently past the light house into port beneath gathering clouds, as any great ship should arrive. Click Click, Perhaps I took a hundred photos for reference later.

In the studio as the research photos are laid out, I discovered the ship had come in with no sails up, the sky was just hazy, thinly clouded and pale blue, the water a deep grey green with choppy little waves.  The most memorable thing was it the memory of my Grandson saying “do all ships look like that?  I was sure the ship had “sailed” in, but it had com in under engine power!

It was his first real ship. Perhaps it was the first real ship I had actually seen too.

For a brief moment it was as if the mouse lived in the mushroom, for a brief moment it is as if the tall ship is all a ship ever needs to be, sails up and gliding smoothly into safe port before a storm, flags unfurled, waiving, arriving to fulfill our best dreams.

33-Shore-Leave_web  Shore Leave 24″x36″ acrylic on hardboard and gesso.




Blogging is a lot like exercising, you get benefits later and the work out now! A year ago I posted my fist effort and today I noticed that it is still one of the most viewed stories I have done. Is that encouraging or discouraging? Having spent the last two months building a .org site, (still not done) and feeling, at times like an old dolt, It gave me great pleasure to read an article about how we respond slower as we age because we have so very much more information to process (Article here).

So when I finished this little drawing above, I felt it fit this little story because of the age of oaks from the time of acorns, how many years they have stood and how wise they seem. Yes I know it is just a tree, but it is a universally accepted icon because wise old owls like to sit in them, right?

So as I work forward on my .org and work long on the .com I now feel more the acorn than the aged oak, and look more the oak than the acorn.


Sand buckets and the Writers Quill.

Downstream results, a lesson learned from making movies.

Sunset in the late summer on Pismo Beach, a windy Southern California beach, casts shadows eastward into timeless drifting dunes. Yellow highlights on the wind swept sand, blown from the crests, make the dunes look as if they are smoldering from the blasting sun’s rays. The eastern cloudless sky is dark early from loss of light, turning purple and mixing with sloped backsides of dunes dropping down into undefined darkness. The western sky is bringing in cloudy fog.                                           Wind is what happens when warm air rises and cool air rushes in to replace it. At the end of each day the heat rises off the dunes and the cool evaporating ocean air rushes in.  Crossing the dunes, the cool advancing air is heavy with salt and moisture feeding the sand grass and ice plants, the only things that can actually survive on the sand.  Plants especially adapted, drawing their water from the air and feeding it to their roots, anchoring themselves in the wind in some strange backward manner.  Sheltering small rodents, birds, sand crabs, spiders and bugs, and keeping the tops of the dunes from blowing away, making the dunes somewhat stable to catch more moisture.  A micro eco-system.

Dunes are like living things, always moving beneath the wind, always changing, and somehow always the same.  Lift is what an airplane wing accomplishes when forced through air.  A strong enough continuous wind will lift most anything not held down, shapes, large or small, even if it is not shaped like an airplane wing.  The tops of the dunes are domed; they push the wind up just as an airplane wing does, and on the back side of the dome is a downward slope lying in the downwind draft, and similar to an airplane wing there is a lift created, not beneath the wing, but behind the edge of the top of the dune.  It is this that makes the dunes move.  It is this that makes the plants choose to grow here which resists their moving.  It is a sand dune that is responsible for the first flight of man in an airplane.

Like most things in life, these elements don’t at first appear to be related, but when odd things come together they often come out even. Over a hundred years ago, on a sand dune on the east coast of North Carolina, a place called Kitty Hawk, the sun was rising, and the warming air began to rise off the beach, drawing in fresh heavy cooler air from the Atlantic Ocean.

It was this very effect that had brought the Wright brothers to that beach, that and the sandy landing field for their first experiments in flight. They had observed dunes to find out how lift worked; a stroke of their own genius, they had come to take advantage of the incoming strong wind, and the high ground of the dune tops.  They chose this location for their flight, and forever will be remembered for their first airborne flight from a dune into the lifting wind and across the sand.

75 years later on the west coast, the dunes at Pismo Beach, California were being used to film a re-creation of that historical event.  Not so much because they look so much like Kitty Hawk, but because they are so close to Hollywood.

On the day before the filming out on the dunes, the sun had almost given all its light, and there were flash light flickers coming to life down in the deep purple slopes behind the dunes. The heavy lights and equipment that normally accompany a film crew would not be on the location until the next day, and then only for one day as the permit to place things in the dunes was limited to three days of construction of small sets, with one day of filming on that particular set. People are required to remove everything they bring in every day. Cans, wrappers, chairs, even bottle caps, tooth picks and cigarette butts. This would limit any damage to the dunes.

These dunes are federally protected and also a state park.

Instructions had been given to all of us to remove any and all trash, tools, equipment and gear whatever, each day.  Leaving only the specially permitted movie set of the Wright brothers building, and a night guard posted providing around the clock attendance. The crews left, assuring the park ranger that all things, except the set, had been removed.  No tools, ladders, paint cans, ropes, cords, materials or supplies had been left.

It became too dark to see anymore.  No one could see the small toy sand bucket that had been left by my child who had spent the day visiting me “on the set” (I was the construction chief).  But it was there, it wasn’t far from the set, perhaps fifteen feet.  The set, positioned by the ranger, was behind a dune, out of the wind, but the bucket was just outside the protection of the huge dune; it was not a tool anyone missed, it was not materials to be accounted for, had not been noticed. He was only 7 and neither the ranger or myself caught this.  It was setting in a wind row down at the bottom of the dune. The wind followed its own path it had carved out for itself.  In these lines of wind drift, the sand moved little.  This location had been mostly undisturbed for perhaps decades.  The dunes are resting in their own self established equilibrium. But they do slowly move.

Long after all but the guard had gone home, and a little after the guard had fallen asleep, the Pacific Ocean surface cooled, the warm sand returned its heat to the sky, and the wind arose.  It slid under the mantle of stars across the water and onto the beach.  The domed-topped dunes lifted the air and the compression of wind against the dunes whistled across their tops, causing a slight vacuum on their backside edges, lifting tiny grains of sand from between the rooty toes of the sand grass and carrying them over the angle of repose on its backside down slope. At the bottom, the wind met new resistance where the child’s sand bucket now sat.  There the wind swirled about this foreign object, the bucket.  The lift of the little sand grains was lost.  They fell just behind the sand bucket, forming a new small rift in a half curl.  As night stars drift overhead, sand grains began to drift below.  Some free from their resting place for the first time in decades.  All through the night the wind pushed against the new riff in the dune floor, moving sand from beneath the bucket, moving sand from tops of the dunes now feeling new patterns of air and placing it on an ever-growing new small dune. Something had changed in the wind rows, something that affected every dune around it.  The wind was moving differently this night than last night.

As the bucket went down, a new dune went up.  At first it was inches, then it grew to feet.  By morning when the guard awoke, and the crew arrived the wind had stopped.  Sunrise was a beautiful, cool clear crisp day. There where the child’s bucket had been overlooked was a new hole almost a dozen feet deep and near thirty feet across and behind it was a new dune twice that size.  It had collected sand from dunes all around with every passing wind all night long.

How can there be a treasure in such a tragedy?  The set was wreaked, now tilting towards the new hole with sand piled halfway up.  The sand would have to be moved back into place before the next big wind storm or the entire dune range would be affected.  Fines would have to be paid, and the filming would be delayed, thousands, tens of thousands of dollars in damage.

Not only had the downwind effect on the little bucket had huge consequences on the dunes, it had changed the events of the lives of several dozen people. Long term, that spot in the dunes will never be the same. It was an enlightening experience.

We do not control the moving forces within which we live, but by placing something just so in any moving force we will greatly affect all things downstream.  A pebble in a stream, a word in a crowd, an insult, a compliment.  Whether by accident or by purpose, there will be an outcome.  The outcome cannot be predictable but there will be an outcome. It is the same with placing a word on a page, paint on a canvas, notes in a song; it brings irreversible change downstream.  We cause invisible dunes all life long.  Play, work, do, make a downstream outcome, even if it cannot be anticipated.  Life is a constant moving force, put your sand bucket in it, it will bring change to your life and like the dunes, whatever you do will find equilibrium.

That was forty years ago and the gift of knowing how things are affected by my actions has impressed every decision I have made since then.  For a day my son had the greatest sand pile ever to play in, and I am careful how I stand in the wind.



Sunset on Contemporary Resort Hotel Disney World (1972)                                                                                               Acrylic on Illustration board 8″x10″

Something To Say For The New Year

Here is a truth:  often a painting is done just so the artist can get to do a small favorite thing, or idea.  Entire paintings are done just to get to put highlights on a glass, or shadows on a lemon or sunbursts in the distance.  Whole landscapes are painted just to show a small flower in the foreground, or a water drop about to fall from a rose petal.  A moment of inspiration to render an idea, so simple a truth that it cannot be rendered simply, but surrounded by complexity of seeing our world, lest the idea be lost.  When done, often the original intention of the painting goes unperceived to the casual viewer, but it is there.

Every artist has something to say, even if it is vapid and shallow.  Many just love to paint.  Great masters labored to say things of worth, depth, with a genius and clarity.  Some masters did this early in life and some late.

As time passes, talented and developing artists gain a voice, learn some way to communicate in their work and contribute to the world wide body of work.  A few are late bloomers and decide to speak after many years of mumbling out their art.  Whether small or genius, the years usually have trained the work into an acceptable voice or even into excellence.

Once an artist learns that their work really is just their voice, applied to materials with tools, and that the observed perception rendered is in the mind of another, something we can not control, just influence, the artists begin to offer up a communication of worth.  Their art resides in the mind of the viewer as in the art itself.  The Mona Lisa is in the mind of millions of people, each with their own thoughts about it, no matter what Leonardo wanted.

Good art is common to the understanding of all; it is spoken of as if it came from the artist, but it did really?

It came because the artist was observing through time, things others have experienced and the artist spoke it out in an image remarking about that time.  Seldom if ever does an artist say something new that is actually profound or unknown, but really says something already known that is put in a new and perhaps original way; it is understood by the masses because they already have some understanding of the topic, subject or image. That can become a profound perception in the world.

A six year old child with a crayon can make you cry with their clarity of seeing and saying what you know; if that clarity remains, as skill grows, they become a master, an artist.

A sixty year old can pick up a pencil and start drawing for the first time and make you laugh, but if they have something to say, regardless of how poorly they might draw it, if it touches us all, it is art.  That is why cartoons are so powerful, they speak to us and about us all, and are often done by young artists who grow old in their craft.

A master does both, renders beautifully and has something to say. Saying something is the highest form of art, and saying it well is glorious.  Having accumulated the skills to render, it becomes very important in delivering the idea in its whole form, even if it is just a rose with a water drop.

This puts more artists to silence than any other thing, recognizing one’s own inability to say it well or even to know what to say.  Better to say nothing so they don’t.  So many young and new emerging talents silence themselves long before they discover they were actually on path to arrive, but judged wrongly their primitive learning as lack of talent.

Just because we, as artists, can see our own work path and struggles is no reason to withhold our work.  What has changed is the internet and speed in which we hear feedback.  We can post our images, and get comments; the pain and glory are instantaneous, and both are also fleeting.  The amount of really fine art work out there is astounding, access to visual resource is so huge it is daunting.  Both discouraging and encouraging.  It is still one person viewing one image one at a time. Perhaps hundreds or thousands or millions of people, but each one views it one at a time.  It is personal, it is a singular event and a singular response.  Not a crowd or audience of thousands, just thousands of individual observers with no crowd influence, no one watching them while they observe.  They comment, and it is powerful, it is direct.

So take a good idea, even a tiny one, and build a painting around it and show it, or write a new book and publish it, or take four notes and build a symphony around them and perform it.


If it were mechanical it would be easy!

So for months now I have wondered why incoming comments were sparse; was it my writing style . . . was it my postings?  Maybe bad art work and content?  Self-doubt reigns supreme!

I went out on the internet and looked at and responded to many great blog sites; it has been both fun and enlightening, and I actually have received some great comments, too.

I did not notice, however, all the comments I have received were from blogs I visited. I am kinda slow on this uptake!  Until yesterday when someone asked me where my comment box was?  It had disappeared, and I had not even noticed!  Well, cut me some slack as I am not a techie.  So back at the controls, might as well be trying to land a 747 after the pilot passes out and they ask for volunteers, “Hey, I’ll do it,” (better than not trying, huh?).  I know, it is simple, right, then you look at the dashboard and it is “deer in the headlights.”  Keep  aixelsyd (dyslexia) in mind here. Well, gladly we are on the ground and it is just the dashboard of wordpress.

So I will give it another try!



There is a place, a bakery actually, I really like to go in Duluth, MN.  It is in Canal Park and is called Amazing Grace Bakery.  It bears no resemblance to a bakery and it is within a renovated waterfront 8 story building.  First three floors are retail and offices, with studios and services on the next four, apartments on the top. The bakery is in the basement down eight stairs from the outside, with windows looking out at the ankles of passersby.  A stairwell, with wood handrails polished from heavy use, leads most of the way down to a wooden heavy single glass panel door, smudged from in and out wrong-side pushes.  The entrance is compressed with merchandise opportunities, weekly free papers, small bulletin board and a vending machine that does not fit the custom alcove built for vending machines because it shares the space with afterthought plumbing improvements.  It was once the doorway that led to the coal room that is now this bakery/coffee house/open mike stage/study hall for the local colleges/favorite place for artists to get a cup of coffee and not look different, but still feel different (or for some to look very different).

window_web     room-view_web     at-counter_web     guy-reading-2 Graphite on Drawing paper 6″x7″

It is not the coffee that attracts people, although without it no one would come.  It is not the bakery, either.  As bakeries go, it produces oversized cookies and muffins, and fresh bread that is used mostly for oversized sandwiches as off center as the exotic coffees.  The bread is sliced diagonally and too thick, making an assembled construction that must be disassembled to eat.

It isn’t the decor or the room appointments.  Nothing matches, save the three styles of chairs, and they don’t match each other.

The tables are rectangles and circles.  Rectangles are painted black on top as checkerboards.  Round ones are dressed with cloths as if they are the ladies of the room.  Each table, both square and round, has a small vase with a fresh cut wild flowers, embellished with a fern bow or babies breath twig.  Each vase is a different unique item.  The only common thing about them is they are all small, inexpensive and unusual.  They all have this one thing, each one is different, no two alike.  Some are jelly jar simple.  Others are chipped china porcelain.  Some look silver, some brass, others are handmade pottery.  Together they tell a story of someone who watches, someone who shares.  Sitting at any table on any day, the vase tells a story of being found, or saved, collected or gathered.  Perhaps some given because it is known that this place collects such things.  They match the customers, none of them match either.

Entering any place for the first time strikes at memories and comparisons.  We all do that, check out for telltale signs of comfort, safety, personal fit.  Scan the layout, read the menu, ask vapid questions about strange looking things behind the counter.  Usually within a few seconds we can tell if this place is for us.

So the waitress asks, “Can I help you?” – “I’ll have the house coffee,” I reply.  “For here or to go?” and the question raises a blush of doubt.  A regular would know if they wanted to stay, if it was safe to stay.  Besides, where do you take it to go, without knowing the neighborhood?  Others may ask for the café latte’, or Mocha, maybe the espresso two bean double.  A large cup of house coffee is a license to be able to take a table and look as normal or as strange as others in the room, to have a license to sit way too long at one of the tables and do one’s own thing.

Sometimes only a moment is embarrassing. “Let me know when you decide.”  She turns to the next customer who spurts out a string of coffee descriptions and names that ends in a double latte’.  It could be one cup or several, it is hard to tell for the unfamiliar, the uninitiated, regular coffee person.  The coffee machine makes grinding sounds against indecision.  She turns back, “So, you decided?” “For here,” I reply. “Small or large?” “Large.”

     Conga-drums_web     Flowers-and-vase-2_web

Graphite and watercolor pencil on drawing paper 6″x7″

Coffee is served in a large round-handled cup too full, too slippery for one-handed gripping.  She hands change right over a tipping basket, with a sign saying, “Big tippers make better lovers,” shaking the basket which becomes a familiar sound during a half quart coffee experience.

Then I realize, like the wild flowers and everything else in the room I, too, have been collected to sit among the eclectic and become part of someone else’s new experience.  I have sat and drawn and painted in Amazing Grace Bakery for years now, while taking my breaks from the plein air work in Canal Park, the streets, lake front and hills of Duluth, Minnesota.




How a simple sentence can improve your perspective on why we paint.

W.G.acrylic-trees_webForest Trees image 8″x10″ Acrylic – Painted in the style of W.G. –  the artist in the story below.
There are an untold amount of sentences that can be spoken which stir the very soul of us all. Many statements can be made into a sentence that makes a difference in our lives, change our lives forever more; once we hear it and understand it, internalize it into our own heart, we are never the same.Here is a story of how my friend said one of the most important simple sentences about being an artist I have ever heard in my life.  Ever!
W.G. is now a friend of mine; even though he is 20 years my senior we had met briefly and worked only professionally when designing for Disney Imagineering during the EPCOT years.W.G. had written and sold a screenplay for a bundle of money, the kind you can just about retire on.  His script got filmed and became a big Hollywood hit.  W.G. stopped working and slowly over a decade he used up the money being an artist and writing other works in hopes of a second hit.So, after some years, he found a need to return to work about the time his friends were all retiring.  That is when I ran into him again as he was working on the same project as I; actually, he had thrown my name into the hiring hat.We were both retained to work on a project for the Olympic Village in Korea.  The work was done in the L.A. area and W.G. lived there on the west coast while I live in the upper midwest.  So I was traveling out to L.A. and needing a place to stay for several months during the project. W.G. offered me a room for rent in his North Hollywood home, as he was now living alone because his family and most of his money had moved on to, well, that is another story.We traveled to work together and spent many lunch and supper hours talking art and design.  We went to the harbors on photo missions to get material for painting ships and sail boats.  Looked into every art show that we could get to.  W.G. Introduced me to other artists; mostly older, mostly retired, mostly still struggling even after very successful years of work.Each day was both different and the same. The work was always new and challenging, and W.G. had to drag himself through it.  He is gifted, talented beyond fairness, funny, a great writer, illustrator, and comic. But he had become lethargic.  Was this age?  No, he had more than enough energy when we went places.  He is overweight by twice, but I could hardly keep up.  He talked and joked and had a great time, until Monday.  I loved Monday because I loved the work.  He hated Monday and Tuesday and … and he, too, loved the work. It was a puzzle.A good friend and mentor to W.G. was a fellow named Bill.  Bill was eighty when I first met him.  He had worked as an illustrator for all the great magazines in the 20s, 30s, and became a studio set designer in the 40s along with Herby Ryman of Disney fame!  We stopped once a week for Mexican food.  Bill had been doing this for two decades, mentoring and befriending my friend W.G., as W.G. was now doing to me; I was privileged to join them every week while I was out there.  Bill said, don’t come unless you bring a sketch book and use it.  Draw, draw, draw.  He did, and W.G. did and so I did, too. They were really, really, really good; I was learning.W.G. would then grumble to Bill about work and having to work.  Bill would echo and grumble back.  He didn’t work any more, didn’t paint anymore, didn’t produce, but said he wished he would.  Not wished he could, he wished he would. They told compelling stories for hours, late into the evening, even though we had to work the next day.One night, W.G. focused it clearly:  “I hate working for lesser talents, budget-driven projects and ego centric climbers.  A profession littered with a confused self-image, using high skills accumulated over a lifetime, leveraged at a greatly reduced value just to get a seat at the table and to produce low demand processed outcomes.  Just for the money, arrrg.  Each job less than the last.”I felt both sad and frightened.  Frightened at perhaps seeing myself in a few decades.Both W.G. and Bill saw my countenance fall; did I mention these were sensitive and caring people? Artists of the highest degree accomplished over a lifetime!Bill said, “John, you don’t have to worry about this as long as you keep what you have now.”  Silence befell our dinner table.I thought, “What do I have that these two don’t have?  Both have an entire work history in place; I have hardly started.  They both have references to die for, portfolios of museum worthy images.They count as friends people I have only read about, like Maxfield Parish, Norman Rockwell, Walt Disney.  Both have illustrated for the Saturday Evening Post, Colliers, Fisk, and half a dozen others.  Bill has painted the portraits of at least two presidents.  I had only a couple small feathers and no hat to stick them in.  This was nearly thirty years ago; I was forty two and W.G. was sixty two then, and Bill was eighty. They had already worked through the end of the halcyon days of great artists and illustrators, before I was even born.I offered up my opinion,  “W.G., you have a direct inroad to publishing another hit script, why don’t you just do that?  And Bill, you mentioned your work is still in demand, why wouldn’t that give you pleasure.  Why not just do that?””You’re both better than any of your competitors, young or old; this is work you can still do!  With your experience, why don’t you just go and get those jobs instead of the lesser work, and solve the problems?  Why don’t you just do what you have to do and ….?”Bill put up one finger to his lips…shhhh …, “John, If we had what you have, we would do that.  Tell him, W.G………………..”Here it comes, that special sentence……W.G. turned to me and said,  “It’s hard to go hunting when you have no one to bring the rabbits home to!”It stunned me.  This artist/writer had summed up all of society in one sentence.The sadness and withdrawal of being alone; they never did any of it for themselves, they did it for moms and dads, wives and kids and friends, loved ones and on and on.  When that is not there, what is? They could not do it for themselves, they knew this.  I have pondered the power of this ever since.  I have what they don’t,  I have someone to bring the rabbits home to.  They held that higher than all their talent and experience combined, and they knew how to lead me to find it. Mentoring is very powerful. It was a gift.The most precious talent gift you can have, is to have and keep family and friends in your life.  The rest is just practice and pigment.jmc/emc
My-first-painting  My First Painting8″x10″ Oil on canvas board, 1954

Heads up – this is a 2100 word posting (longer than my average). My editor suggested breaking it into five short postings, but I couldn’t figure how to make the story flow so I put up the whole thing.  I would appreciate any comments to the article, both about length and content, or if this type posting is worth your reading time.

1-Paint on purpose

She was old and frail and beautiful.  She was fussy and gentle, regal and talented.  Even though she was frail she was magnificently strong in being there.  I was eleven years old and barely 5 feet tall and she was only an inch taller; she assured me she used to be tall and I would be one day (I’m still waiting).  She was Mrs. R, my first and only real art instructor.

Born in the late 1800s, Mrs. R. was a picture out of a story book.  Simply magnificent.  Always fully dressed in “going to town” attire, always ready with a story of meaning, never wasting hers or my time with trivia, yet always aware of the smallest of life’s tiny elements.  Her father, an older father than normal, served in the first world war, died many decades ago, she informed me of this at our first meeting.  He had been an architect and with failing eyesight he would ask her to sit at his drawing board and read off the calculations to assure accuracy. She would say this as if it were his excuse to have her visit with him.  “Subtleties,” she would say, “Are what make a picture, a story, and a life worth observing.”

There she was, sitting by my side, checking my accuracies and telling me about this.  Of this and other things, she would mix the instruction on a palette of colors and words.  “To paint a picture is not so important as to see it, and if you don’t feel anything it is because you’re not seeing,” and to see it before you paint it.

“Rendering will always leave you disappointed because no one can paint as well as they perceive.”  I would ponder this for years. “To discover your painting as you go is for amateurs,” she would say, “Not that you shouldn’t lean into happy mistakes or events, but to paint on purpose and arrive at that, well, that is being an artist,  To paint and discover, that is being creative but cowardly,” she would say.  “It fools the viewer but not the great art spirit.”

I realize now that I would rather say “This is what I envisioned,” instead of “This is what I discovered,” and most of us will never tell you which is which.  She would say “Paint on purpose or don’t paint.”

My next question was about doodling, of which I am a lifelong super fan. “Oh, doodling is the best way to stay pure,” she would say. “That is how you get all that discovery stuff out of the way.”  So I doodle a lot, I just don’t over-claim it as a vision or insight; it is a discovery process. So Paint on Purpose!

2-Look from your heart

Mrs. R would tell this eleven year old, “LOOK, don’t copy, LOOK,” she imparted that to see is to understand.  Look and understand what you are seeing, trust that what you feel about it, that is what others will understand.  She made it clear that one must copy to learn, but do not learn to copy.  You must trace to find true edges, but you will have no edge of your own if you trace.

I don’t remember every exact word she spoke to me almost sixty years ago, but I remember her exact self; she painted it into my memory with truths and caring and patience and love.

My father owned a steam laundry, was not really a fan of art, loved sports and hunting and expected me to be like my older brother (captain-quarterback of the high school football team), and to walk in his shadow.  I was born an artist. He agreed only to let me have art lessons at age 11 if I paid for them myself.  Perhaps he thought that would be the end of it.

But every week, I would beg a ride with the laundry truck driver (Floyd), to Mrs. R’s neighborhood, five miles away.  My lessons were scheduled by his delivery route, so he would drop me off.  She would greet me warmly, and set me up on her three season porch, there to pay my five dollars a week earned from working in the laundry after school and weekends.  65 cents an hour was a fortune to an eleven year old and in those days it was not unusual for a child to be working.  Do the math, hour and a half after school and seven hours on Saturday: $9.45.  My previous agreement with my parents was to save half of what I earned for school clothes, roughly $4.75, so I always traded with my sister for a couple of her work hours.

So I was working or in school or doing homework and chores all the time, but I was getting art instructions from a real professional artist born in a different century, wow!  In those days, that was held in high regard, and some of my happiest days.  I felt like a young man.  After all these many years, those times are what taught me to “see.”  Not the light drenched vista in front of me, but that within it is a story, a vision others, too, will recognize as a part of their life, their delights, or struggles, and of such pictures are made.  It isn’t just looking out through your eyes, but looking out through your joy and pain and experiences, then knowing that by seeing others you have seen yourself, too.  Paint what your heart sees, and the eyes of others will recognize it on some level.  So look with your whole self, then paint!

3-Time is more important to a picture than paint

Even back then, as an elderly woman sitting by my side, Mrs. R would teach me art as she knew it.  The image is made of canvas, a grounding coat, and a pigment mixed in a medium and all that mixed with time. “See the russet brown at the very edge of the leaves; use burnt sienna, it is there to under-pin the ocher and the hansa yellow.  It is the sign of the mid season of fall.”

She was in the winter of her life; I would learn that the fall is made of summertime being pressed into a dessert to munch on until winter could unfold its real beauty.  I did not yet understand this as an eleven year old or much at all then, not of depth anyway, but something unseen had made me insist on art lessons, something made me retain most of what she was saying for later understanding.  She would say things like, “Stop rushing the painting, slow down, it is doing that is joy, not having done.”  I didn’t understand but knew I wanted this.

It is today that I ponder how useful all the instruction has been.  It is today that I think how patient she was, sitting there with all her experience waiting for me to make a useful brushstroke.  She was still observing, still composing, still tasting the dessert from her seasons of life.  Teaching an eleven year old the proper use of materials, the placement of concept into perspective, the impact of tiny implications in brushstrokes.  Time taken to understand materials, processes, and looking.  It is the act of engaging human spirit into individually filtered communications that the artist may choose to employ.  This takes time to render, this takes time to see.  She gave me this; it was worth more than I was paying for.  Now I know why she gave lessons, she was having her dessert.

Time taken to experience and recall, to know others who look upon images you may create, well they are also seeking deserts of the mind and spirit to munch on as they too await arriving beauty of their own seasons. Time must be taken to carefully create this response and let others belong to that feeling as well.

Use time to make art, use time to share what we learn, and to have the courage to put it out there.  Discovery of your true self can be seen in the simplest of images if you take time to put it there.  Paint pigment mixed with a medium and time will make art.  Don’t get in a hurry.

4-Your work is yours – if you really made it.

Mrs. R would not show me on my canvas what she meant with her instructions.  Other people did – they would grab my pencil or brush and demonstrate their thoughts on my work, but not Mrs. R.  I would beg her, “Show me what you mean.”  She would then paint some example on her own canvas, but never on mine; the example she would use never matched what I was trying to paint. “If I touch your work, when will you know that it is really yours?  Will you lie and say you painted it, how will that feel?”  She would say that whatever I painted, well that is what it is.

She would show examples of great color treatments, or how things might respond, how to use the slightest thing for the greatest effect, but never put her tools in my paint or on my canvas.  She said personal integrity is more important than success.  You will always be able to say “I painted that,” or “That was my idea.”

To this day I do not paint on someone’s canvas; I have taught and demonstrated on sketches and others’ drawings with tracing paper layed over, then removed, but how will they know when the drawing is theirs?  The sooner one discovers what is theirs, the sooner they improve.  Most of us can see after we have made a mistake, that we did, that is called learning.  Don’t copy and call it yours, don’t trace and say that it is yours and don’t let someone “improve” your work; it not only ruins your work, it destroys that secret inside that is really your trying to get out and be an artist.

This is not to say that inspiration cannot come from trying on styles and techniques or taking good examples and research to build good images. Photos, sketches by others, ideas of others can all inspire our own work, but unless we keep our integrity as clean as our painting surface, we will lose creative self respect, and that shows up in the images.

5-Art is currency.

Art has value, and over time it has more value.  Styles emerge, trends and fads and pop culture comes and goes, building a mountain of untold amounts of images.  My art teacher, Mrs. R, spoke to me almost 60 years ago, “Being an artist, doing art, and being lucky enough to have talent is currency.”

Most of us fall prey to being commercial; this out of necessity, as I have done.  We sell our work, we sell our time and talent in exchange for the currency of the realm. When Mrs. R talked about commercial art she said, “It comes and goes in passing through your life but, being an artist is timeless; what you make is currency – it is timeless, when you sell it, well, that is commerce.”

When you look upon a piece of real art, do you not know that it has something of substance that transcends time, language, nationality or opinion?  The contributions, participations, even the musings of multitudes of artists expressing themselves somehow coelesce into an ongoing conversation that is felt over time by everyone.  Does the bottom grain of sand in an anthill do more or less work than a grain on the top?  It is an anthill; as a collective pile the hill has a separate identity from each grain of sand.  To the ants, it is the whole world.  The artwork of our societies creates a mountain of work and understanding in the arts.  The images from long ago only stand out if they have been kept as a visible outer shell of the overall effort, but the inward hidden art or art near the bottom, done by the unknown obscure artists of long ago, helps support the mound of images, too.  Art is a collective human endeavor, and it is an individual performance.

The most important thing here is to understand that it is art and artists are currency, the act of “artisting” produces value.

Being an artist, doing art or having art is understood in every language, every nation and can be converted to the currency of any local society, because it is its own currency.  If people want to buy it from you, well that is commerce.  No fixed value, just the perception of currency that is worth more than the coin of the realm, an exchange of currencies so to speak.

Mrs.R. said, “Good art is never merchandise, it is always currency.”

We should always see ourself and our work as currency, not as product or labor.”


Oh, Duluth
Acrylic on illustration board 15″x40″ 
An evening view of the city of Duluth, Minnesota.  

Can we really see?  All of us artists know (or should) that good painting is good seeing!  Looking at a moment framed in nature and also in man- made constructs.  That includes events and conditions and scenarios. We get taken away by our own thoughts in this and often overlook just what we are seeing and instead start thinking.  We see the inside of our own memories; interpretations of things, and that changes what is actually perceived out there.  Not that thinking is a bad thing, but not while seeing; just look, feel, then think.  After that, respond and remark on it in a painting, say something and think something and do something, share something, but look first.

Almost a decade ago I decided to do a series of paintings in and around Duluth, Minnesota.  I am still doing that.  It is worth mentioning how much one can experience walking around a city toting an easel, camera and paint box.  I did not expect to enjoy painting in front of people, and am much a recluse in such things, always thinking of myself as a “studio artist.”  I needed to try this, perhaps I am missing something, I thought. So I found my “floppy” hat and …

lakewalk-red-bldgs_web Boardwalk
Sepia Ink 8″x10″ on illustration board

What came as a first big surprise was that no one seemed to care, or notice very much.  The world is really busy with itself, or I was too busy with myself to realize that what I was doing really was only important to me.  I had been busy with my own personal fears and doubts about being out in public and having painting failures exposed with no studio to hide in.  At first, I found spots back out of the way or not well populated, but soon found myself drawn to places others wanted to be in also.  So, it soon became mostly comfortable to just set up and sketch, paint and write anywhere the muse struck.  When I became comfortable, the walk around world seemed to just vanish.  It seemed to send out a friendship signal that had not been there before.  Maybe body language, maybe the paint I get all over me, maybe just relaxing. And soon, friendly folks would stop and chat a bit, and all of a sudden the city looked different because of comments they might make. I was not sure if this new influence was a good or bad thing, but it was definitely a thing!

When this blog became more than just an Idea or a task off in the future, my whole intention was to get the Duluth collection posted. However, just like when I went out into the public to paint, I found fears in exposing my art online, and decided to learn how to post, make my mistakes and then slowly move into the building of an online gallery.

steeples-in-recession_webSteeples in Recession
Sepia Ink on 8″x10″ illustration board

Weather is a real challenge, more than self. (Of course, one must always have safety in mind, but that will be a different posting).

Then there was materials and techniques, of which are much easier in the studio.  But in the field, the choices to start with are the pencil, ink, water color, or colored pencils, and always if one can stand the mess, oils.  My favorite studio medium is oil, but my now favorite field medium is watercolor.  I started with graphite, does that say anything?

walk-bridge-fish_webBlue Walking Bridge
Graphite 8″x10″ on Illustration board

So now that I am developing the Duluth image section.  I will be making a place for it in the Gallery section, and post the images there.  Postings in general, art, fashion will continue here on the front page. Gallery updates as well!


I knew from the shape of the box that perhaps we had just received a new clock for our anniversary.  My daughter had given us a similar shaped box for my last birthday.  It was a special kind of clock, one she knew I would enjoy, a clock that chimes out a sound effect; the clock made the sound of a steam locomotive coming through a railroad crossing. It starts with the whistle, two long blasts and then the crossing bells start ringing dingaling-linging, then you hear cha-chug-cha-chug-cha-chug, the heavy sound old fashioned steam locomotives used to make, powering through the crossing.  Ah, but that is not all, it then goes ka-klack ka-klack ka-klack ka-klack for more than enough time to get the idea.  In all, the sound effects last for just over 30 seconds.  It’s quite audible, not at all understated – I mean it seems like it is really right there! Every hour on the hour, it offered a novelty that, well, surprised us and entertained guests, but not without comments such as, “How long do you think you can stand it?” or “I’ll bet you crack before I do!” We have heard it every hour on the hour, waiting for the living room noon express to pass.  Thirty seconds is a long time for a train to be in the living room, as our guests ask, “How long are you going to keep that thing on?”You have to love trains. I have always been a train fan, and my wife loves to sit and watch at crossings.  When the children were small, we went out of our way to watch trains at crossings, expressing great delight, hence I guess is the reason for the train clock gift. They just knew we would enjoy it and it would probably only need one set of batteries.  There is the responsibility to appreciate gifts given, no hurt feelings, show you like it by using it!That part must have worked because now on the table was a clock-shaped box, and just as we sat down to unwrap it, the one o’clock steam loco crossed the living room.  They (my daughter and son in law) smiled knowingly.  Sly little looks that confirmed my suspicions.  I wondered what sort this might be?  A clock with favorite explosions on the hour, or perhaps mating calls of gorillas in the rain forest, maybe sounds of a day at the drag races? Unwrapping it, I could see by just revealing the very corner of the box, sure clues that it was in fact a clock of some hourly surprise.  This one was aimed more at my wife – it was a clock of bird calls.  Sweet chirps and mellow chortles of songbirds.  There on the clock face are pictures of twelve song birds, and a light sensor so the birds will sleep after dark (unlike the midnight train which runs on time, as does the one AM and two AM express).


Batteries in, we had it hanging in no time.  The first hour proved too much with the train drowning out the tiny chirps of the chickadee, and we all agreed – we have to set one clock just a little different than the other.  We determined the train should be first so we could listen for the tiny, inoffensive new bird calls.

Every hour on the hour, after it is safe to cross the sound tracks, we begin jumping up and running over to see which bird makes which call, calling out, “That’s a Northern Cardinal,” or, “That was a Tufted Titmouse.”  Oh, such a big help in recognizing all the wonderful calls we hear outside our northern Minnesota rural home, and soon we would be able to amaze our friends with our expertise in at least twelve exotic bird calls.  I could just see myself, standing  in the forest saying to a friend, “Shh, listen!  Do you hear the White Throated Sparrow?” Looking so knowingly casual and a part of the whole earth.  It comes to mind I do need a new red plaid flannel shirt, too.

Weeks passed, the batteries came out of the locomotive and we still would run to the bird clock many times a day, gaining steadily in our bird call knowledge.  Except for that my wife pointed out the clock was a few minutes slow, the clock has been quite charming.

“I can reset it,” I said, and took it down, noticing for the first time a red button on the back from which you can depress and hear each call.  “Ah,” I mumbled as I pressed it and heard the now familiar call of the American Robin.  It was when I lifted my finger that I noticed the warning that if you press the button, the sequence is altered and you must completely reset the clock; a mere twenty minute process that proved difficult, in that the only call I was absolutely sure of was the Black-capped Chickadee (the bird on the eight o’clock spot, and as it was approaching 8 AM, I thought, “How lucky am I!”)

But at 8 o’clock, it was not the Black-capped Chickadee that sung to me, but the essence of Robin, or was that the House Wren???  It struck me that the only one I recognized for sure was not in the right spot, and whenever I had heard the little guy, I had not been watching the time. So, for several weeks, the birds may have been all jumbled!

I set my jaw and reset the clock; it would be eleven hours before I could be absolutely sure I got all the little birds back in the right order.  “Guess we will have to set an alarm for about seven forty-five,” I remarked.

All day, I ignored one bird call after another.  Every hour as I heard birds trying to call to me, “Come to the clock,” I couldn’t help hearing the now-silent train, still coming through my mind right on time.  I had insisted the light near the clock be left on so the birds in the clock would “know” to come.  At quarter till eight, I sat at the table sipping Red Rose tea, and waited in front of the clock with pencil and pad, just in case I needed to make notes.

Sure enough, at eight o’clock, the little song of the Black-capped Chickadee chirped-kadee kadee right on cue. We could relax and start learning all over.

I knew the rewards would be great; there would arise the opportunity for a payoff.  It came sooner than I thought.  As our daughter arrived the next morning for a visit, we greeted her as she got out of her car. Almost as if on cue, a familiar sound danced in from the forest.  With no hesitation, I called out its name “Aha, the four o’clock bird.”  My wife didn’t hesitate either to correct me and said, “No, that is the six o’clock bird.”  My daughter’s head tilted in that “huh” type tilt that says, “What has happened to my parents?”

She looked at us bewildered!  Then, right on cue, we heard, “Chirp-chirp-kakee-kadee-kadee.”We both shouted, “Black-capped Chickadee!”  “Huh?,” and my wife and I said in perfect unison, “The eight o’clock bird,“ and laughed, so proud we now had a handle on it.

I strongly encourage everyone to find an effects clock of your choice and give it to a friend or family member as it will greatly expand your relationship into new territory.

I have learned that there is much more to telling time than just knowing which bird it is, or if it is a quarter past the House Finch, but I’m still expecting a new red flannel shirt for my birthday.  I just hope none of the packages are ticking this time.




It was a late evening, company had finally left and I returned to my studio work area.  Conversation had earlier turned to crafting, as it often does amongst some of our friends and family; unbeknown to myself, someone had rummaged through some of their things using my big work table for an overflow parking lot for their junk, looking for some old treasure or another.  I had not paid attention, though I had put up a good appearance of it, as I had been busy showing off my own junk to our company.  It is irritating, you know the feeling, especially when you are expecting to get a little something done, and find the time you have left will be used to undo some other person’s mess.

It wasn’t even ten seconds of huff and snit while moving small things, that a bowl of buttons became unrested at the moving of all these little treasures.

Perhaps forty or fifty buttons slipped out of a white glass bowl that is not usually a part of my things on my table.  Falling buttons, making that little clack and ticking noise that only a button makes.  Heavy buttons and light buttons quick ricky tickity click, on the table, and against each other, ta plinkity tic tic tic and then, silence.  Something seemed to await my response.

I was stunned, totally taken back.  Unexpected was the flood of emotions that overcame that silence and filled my ears.  It felt like a cotton white muffle blocking out all other noise in the room.  There on the table, were the buttons from my own childhood.  How could this be, how could I remember them, how did I even know they were the same ones?

But there they were: One large black glass button with silver stripes lay on top of many smaller ones.  I could smell my mother’s perfume as if she were in the room.

That button had sparked a memory from over 60 years ago.  Lifting the black button I sniffed it to see if it were really emitting any scent.  No, it was only in my memory, but why was it so clear I wondered?  I separated out a few with a nearby letter opener, thinking how that movement reminded me of the pharmacy and the way they separate out pills, healing medicine, as if counting gold.  A smaller rounded button with a scottish plaid pattern jolted me to remember – see my sister in a 50s style sweater, hand-knit and buttons searched for from the sparce stock of our little town’s five and dime; I had been with my mom as she looked for the final touch of a handmade gift for my sister.

This was one of the extra buttons from the card, and beyond my belief, there was a small shard of the card still single stitched to the button loop, the rest had been torn away. “We will only need six buttons and there will be two spare; I’ll stitch one into the inside corner for insurance, and the other we’ll stick in the button jar,” I heard her speak as if she were in the room.  She had later torn off a single button and placed it into a large mason jar.

I sat there holding that very button. It was a very powerful moment to be sure. There were more buttons on the table than I could muster the patience to entertain, but I knew that this find had just become mine.  My wife would protest, but these buttons were destined for the memory shelf.

As days passed and the buttons sat awaiting a new container, I was repeatedly amazed at the power of small memories. I have taken individual buttons and held them for my wife, or grown children and told entire stories about a button memory.  My band uniform buttons, my father’s hunting jacket, my brother’s pearl white shirt buttons that were removed and re-sewn on more than half a dozen shirts as they wore out, one by one.  “People would never think to do that these days,” I would remark, “but genuine mother of pearl buttons were a real dress up addition.”  There, one mother of pearl button lay in the bowl, waiting for a new shirt as if it were ready to serve all over again.

It was also surprising to see the many shapes that seemed so normal back then. Oval, square, triangle, tubular, tapered at both ends, and then the holes, two hole, four hole, single hole looped back.  Materials, my gosh, buttons have been made from every thinkable material it seems.  But I loved the leather buttons woven in a four braid and attached with a leather lace, now that was a cool button!  Yup, there were three small shirt buttons of leather there in the bowl.

I recalled the smooth indented glass button that I had rubbed in the sixth grade; I still remember sitting in class and rubbing it as I listened to the lessons.  I found myself explaining to my children that I had only a few shirts and that it was not uncommon to wear a favorite shirt more than once a week for the entire school season.

A week after the great button discovery, my daughter came to visit with her 3 year old son and my 4 month old granddaughter.  As I held the baby, she grabbed for my shirt button.  Of course, and which baby has not done this?  Buttons are one of the first attractions and memories of our children.  Why I had not seen this before I’m not sure, but now it seems so obvious; I should have been collecting and scripting button memories all along.

Some things can be called back up to memory but many, if not most things are lost, just as my granddaughter will not be able to hold onto fleeting nibbles on buttons. But her mother will, because I now see an opportunity  for a perfect memory gift.  Past, present, and future buttons captured and contained.  Stitched to the cuff of time with story threads, and recollections that can be shared by both the recipient of the gift and those who surround them in their life.

A little aboutbuttons-title_web:

Originally buttons and button-like objects were used as ornaments and have been found in the Indus Valley Civilization dating back to circa 2800–2600 BC, and in Bronze Age sites in China (circa 2000–1500 BC), and Ancient Rome.

Some buttons were actually seals, rather than fasteners.

Functional buttons (like we still use today) with buttonholes for fastening or closing clothes appeared first in Germany in the 13th century. Soon they became widespread with the rise of snug-fitting garments in 13th- and 14th-century Europe.

Buttons can range from homemade wood to modern plastic, inexpensive buttons, or highly decorative and ornate buttons made of expensive and precious materials.

In some countries of our world, buttons are so highly revered, it is illegal to destroy a button.

They are historically an important part of the cultures of the West and Near-East, and are valued because of practical reasons, making them also valuable and lucrative.


Sugar Boat drawings inspired by the little sugar packets
Scooner-2_web   Scooner-1_web   sailboat-2_web
Graphite on Bristol board, 8″x10″
The small sugar packs were discovered at a coffee shop in Minnesota some years ago.  I was attracted to them as a really nifty image and short story that was momentarily entertaining.  Actually, I am still entertained by them.  Instead of using them, I collected them. Originally there was a dozen, but someone at home one time used them, not knowing I was collecting them. They discarded the paper packets and I have never seen all but four of these little treasures again.
I stumbled upon them a few years back and decided to act on them.  I do have one more to do, and lost one that I have done.  I started rendering my version of how I felt when I saw them; I did not match the images exactly, just acted on their inspiration.
It did occur to me that I like doing ship and boat pictures, and so do many others.  What struck me as strange is why a sugar company felt compelled to place both image and information about sailing vessels on a sugar pack?  Several of the packets showed racing boats and yachts, but most were of larger sailing ships and schooners, used for cargo.  I rendered a few and then became interested in the cargo schooners.
Upon research, I discovered that when these schooners were built in the latter half of the nineteenth century, they were actually specially built to carry sugar, and were thus named Sugar Boats, built for and by the emerging sugar companies. There were bean boats and coffee boats as well.
The sugar industry was a huge, growing industry and was opening up the South Pacific. These “ships” or “shipping vessels” were built at the height of the great sailing industry, just before the age of steam was in full blossom.  They have become both iconic in sailing and in art.  My graphite renderings are a first pass at some larger paintings of ships; after getting into the research, it became intriguing to do a more serious painting.
Rose-Buds_web Gather Ye Rose Buds Where’er You May 8″x10″ crayon on 20# bond paper. When “Artisting” with my younger granddaughters, I often do a simple sketchy drawing with crayons – a sort of sample to set the tone.  Over time, these drawings sit around and sometimes get worked on after the kids have left, and I find myself wondering if the sketchy drawing should find its way into a more serious piece? This is one that is now moved over to the drawing board for a more in-depth consideration.  When done, these become stepping stones for the young artist granddaughters to see how their work can be rethought and reworked.  They very often do take another go at it.  If not, they carry the experience forward until next “artisting” day.” jmc/emc crayons  Crayons “Artisting” with grand kids  8.5″x11″ Crayons on 20# bond paper. When my grand daughters asked what can we color? I answered color your crayons! I was just being funny, but they set about doing it, and so did I.  We did this with our pencils and ink pens as well, but this image is my renditions in crayons. It is really a challenging thing to render, more so than at first glance. After an hour or so they begin to copy and mimic the shadows and the positions and generally re-compose. I posted my version as I don’t have their permission to post theirs. We had some fun when we placed the art work flat on the table and mixed some “real crayons” with the drawing. Guess I should post that here soon too. It is good practice and fun to do with the kids. Below is the photo with the crayons on the crayon drawing, a little lighting and some shadow and contrast matching in the computer, REfining the drawn shadows to match the real crayons, but otherwise, the same image. crayons-photo2-web

spring-thaw_web Spring Thaw- watercolor on Illustration board 15″x20″ 11- LAST WEEK STORY:     Capture Time In a Bottle  8-9-10-STORY: Fancy Pears, Fancy Oranges, Fancy Bananas, Fancy  Grapes.   7 – STORY:   Kaleidoscope Butterfly & What does a butterfly see?  6 – STORY    Clowns and art supplies and the muse. Kingman Arizona.

 5 – STORY:   Doodle Ville , Where I live mostly!
 2 – STORY:   Dollar art Lake Havasu

Fancy-Apples_webFancy Apple  11″x17″ Graphite on 2 ply Bristol.


Fancy Pears Pair  11″x17″ Graphite on 2 ply smooth bristol.

                                                   What does a butterfly see?
Dye and watercolor stain on paper

14″x18″ Dye onBristol board



Sad & Blue

Sad and Blue.  Acrylic pallet knife on Upson board 9″x13″ 1969.

Acrylic on Upson board 8"x10" (1969)

Wooden Head

Wooden Head the Clown. 8″x10″ Brush Acrylic on Upson board. Painted in 1969.

B-tween Acts

B-tween Acts

Napping Between Acts. Oil on canvas 12″x16″. (1973)

We all look out from our garden pillars.

Red Pillar: Felt markers and India ink on bristol paper 8″x10″


Lighthouse at Canal Park, Duluth, MN 9″x15″ Watercolor. Painted on location (2006) following several b/w sketches. The lake is seldom this still and the colors are usually deeper blues or grey green. The light afternoon colors were a pleasant change. Painting on location is a real challenge with both weather and people as constant considerations. I like the people but working in watercolor, one cannot just stop and visit, often the distraction ends in disaster. Blue Walking Bridge


Graphite on Illustration board.

Blue Walking Bridge located in Canal Park in Duluth, MN and spanning the Minnesota Slip. 8″x9″ graphite on illustration board with “Iron Fish” insert 5″x5,” also graphite on illustration board.

Soon-web   “Soon” 16″x22.”  A watercolor painting on 90# watercolor paper.  Painted in 1990. Depicting a small dingy awaiting the return of its mother ship (yacht) to mooring buoy. The inspiration for this came from being a “boat jockey” (teenage summer job), parking boats at Lake Mohave Resort in Arizona.

Seed Pods Felt tip (Prismacolor) botany study 7″x7″  on Bristol 2 ply paper.   As I was cleaning up the drawing board desk, this image was stuck under a book that had not been moved for well, ages, and I felt guilty for abusing this rendering so I posted it as an apology. I find this type of felt tip art keeps the hand and eye sharp for larger works.  Felt tip can be tricky as it bleeds so quickly (bristol paper helps that). They become art pieces themselves, even though they are just studies.

Drawing 1: Flowers study.  Also felt tip pen and color pencils on bristol board 8″x10″ Botany for the Artist (a book) was the inspiration for this. Drawing from nature is a very involved process, and requires study and a steady hand. I have great respect for those who do this and accomplish proficiency at it. Me, I just like to sometimes paint a botanical image or two (more images in the Gallery). For more images, go to Gallery (top of page).

Purple flowers


Painting 2:  Wetland Sunrise (above).  Watercolor on watercolor paper 24″x30″. Minnesota in early April, before the leaves came out. The old saying “Red sky in the morning-sailors take warning,” held true. This was inspired from a view out “Effie’s window” at a northern Minnesota lake in early morning.

Wednesday in Duluth brings out the regatta

Wednesday in Duluth brings out the regatta

  Painting 3: Sailboats on Lake Superior (Watercolor on watercolor paper 24″x30″). For more images go to Gallery menu (top of page). For more postings go to All Posts (top of page) Studio painting from plein air sketches and observation on site. The small sailboats come out on Wednesdays and sail in a small regatta-style loop for several hours. It is a traditional activity they share and enjoy, and we the public can stand on the pier, watch and enjoy, and paint. It is known as “Sailboat Wednesday”! Every day is much more than just a new day. It is a door into tomorrow, a window into yesterday, and the beginning of a great new adventure for you to create!

41 thoughts on “HOME

  1. Cari & Greg

    Me and my husband just met you last night at Pier B on our balcony. I had to look you up after obtaining your name this morning. I knew you were special…and this blog proves it! You are amazingly talented in painting, drawing, writing, and conversation with strangers from South Dakota. Thank you for your time & the history lesson…we love it here and are thankful for having met you and your wife!

    1. eightdecades Post author

      Thank you for your kind words and for responding, and taking time to look up my blog. I too enjoyed our visit and hope you found your trip to the “great lake” and surrounding area rewarding. We have enjoyed our life here, cold weather and all.
      My apologies for not responding sooner
      Pier B was a pet project of mine as I did the early layout work for the resort and it’s design, and am busy with one of their next projects farther up the north shore of Lake Superior. Delightful to have met you and your husband.

  2. Kushagra Kumar

    Hello John,

    While searching for illustrators and sketchers in Duluth I came across your blog Storydoors and saw your profile. I was enthralled to see your gallery comprising graphite-pencil drawings, pen and ink, refined doodles, duluth paintings. I was mesmerized by OH DULUTH, MOONLIT GARDEN and THE BAND PLAYED ON, in particular.

    One of your lines from the blog “Something to say for the new year” caught my attention and I really liked it. “A master does both, renders beautifully and has something to say”. I have seen very few people who meticulously writes about their paintings too.

    I don’t know if you are the right person to contact but I was thinking of gifting my wife a handmade sketch (granite sketch) of one of her pics. I had been searching for a lot of places in Duluth but couldn’t find an appropriate place for having the sketch made. Then I came across your blog and saw some of your work. I would really appreciate if you can help me with the same.

    I am pinning my hopes on you.


    1. eightdecades Post author

      Thank you Sherri I enjoy greatly your postings and your comments. I have been so busy in the walk around world and am just now getting back to new postings. I do take time every night to read and check on others postings and am surprised how much I am enjoying the great work of others too. It is nice to be appreciated,
      Thank you!

  3. Mark Lanesbury

    Yes I shall return for the art and artistry in the writing of your blog. Loved the rabbits, and to be truthful I know how they feel, it is an interesting place to give, then I was shown unconditional love, now I can give even better by being true to myself. You have had, and still are, having a lovely journey and thank you for sharing. Namaste

  4. Seyi sandra

    I spent a long time reading through this piece of awesome work of art. I also love the story of Bill, W.G and bringing the rabbits home part. I had tears in my eyes then. I wonder where I can get your work to buy, do you sell or can I see where I can download some of your works?
    Cheers. 🙂

    1. eightdecades Post author

      If you look at the top of my blog page there is a menu with a gallery, some of my work is posted there but I am just now putting together a wordpress.org site so I can sell some of my work. I don’t have anything in that site yet but just have it up and running It will be storydoors.org you can see it now but nothing to show.
      I hope to have a beginning gallery started in there within a couple weeks.
      Thank you so much for expressing an interest and reading my posts, I feel I have been hiding in a closet for many decades, with the internet perhaps I will get this out there.

    2. Sherri Of Palm Springs

      Eight decades your stories are so wonderful, wonderfully written and interesting, I love your story of Bill and w,g, if it is ok with you I would love to write that sentence Its hard to go hunting..
      so true…thank you for the beautiful stories.

      1. eightdecades Post author

        Certainly! I did not invent the sentence, I learned it from WG. Thank you for reading my stories and commenting, it is so helpful to hear from you. Sort of — people out there are some of the reasons that make it easier to go hunting for a new story (bunnies), there is someone to bring them home to.

  5. quarteracrelifestyle

    So…I took a sneaky look at your blog and just loved this! As a woman who loves to paint but cannot ever get anything quite right and who has no confidence in EVER getting anything right! I found this really helpful and beautifully written. Thank you. And your art is truly lovely.

    1. eightdecades Post author

      Oh thank you so much. It is such fun to have a blogger comment while I am getting the next post ready. I truly enjoyed looking at your blog and appreciated the deeper story value of your postings. Thank you for the compliments, they are always helpful, as my very next posting will show.

  6. Shelley Wilson Art

    I’ve been perusing your wondrous site. I’m so glad. My cheeks hurt from smiling the whole time. They needed some exercise anyways. As I read about the clocks, I was right there with you. Thank you!

    1. eightdecades Post author

      Thank you so much too! As a fellow new blogger, I too am finding my way, finding new people and projects and a new direction for my own art. It is really fun isn’t it?
      I had no idea that blogging would be fun, I just thought it would be necessary work to get on the internet and move forward a bit. What a surprise!. Thanks for looking in, I too shall continue to look in on your site! Good work you are doing.

  7. Charlotte Hoather

    Loved your buttons post, my Mum keeps all the little packets of buttons and sequins off new clothes but she has so many when it comes to finding them we have problems :0

    We also use buttons in our card making, I used a beautiful red button that looked like a cherry for my GCSE textiles project to top a fabric, stitched cup cake, you reminded me of all those things fabulous 🙂


    1. eightdecades Post author

      Thank you. Yes keeping track and keeping small things useful is sometimes more work than worth merits. But it is like throwing notes out of a song, somehow buttons are notes in our lives, and they are hard to throw out because we think we just might need them again, like notes.

    1. eightdecades Post author

      Thank you so much for liking my blog. It means a lot to me to hear. I am working on so many parts of it sometimes it seems I am getting nothing done. But then someone comes along and says a nice thing.

  8. Coco Di

    Impressive sketches! Your blog is very interesting and informative! I love it, I even showed this to my students who are learning art. They’re all impressed however they cannot follow your blog as they’re not into blogging and WordPress and their English is very limited to basics only. Well done! All the best

  9. LadyBlueRose's Thoughts Into Words

    hmmmm and here you were concerned your blog wouldn’t be interesting enough!
    I came back to read again…but I need to go through it again…I didnot know glass was liquid, well I might have years ago,I crush and tumble glass for Faerie Paths and other things…
    it keeps about 90% of the dust away when you lay your dirt driveway with it…hopefully I can do that soon…
    I really like the learning that comes from your posts…
    I will be back in the morning….I hear Bandit fighting with Frankie and I need to break it up…
    yes I know…I should let them work it out they are cats, but Frankie is a sweetie and Bandit is a bully….
    Take Care…and Wishing you a rest-filled and dream-filled night!

    1. eightdecades Post author

      We too had a cat named Bandit once, he was a wonderful spirited cat (he needed all 9 lives). Thanks I will seek a rest filled dream adventure sleep.

  10. Julie

    /Users/juliestein/Pictures/iPhoto Library/Masters/2013/06/17/20130617-092001/0001xe.jpeg

    HAPPY FATHER’S DAY 2013!!! I hope this image shows up here for you. Otherwise I’ll try emailing it to you. It’s an original violin piece entitled “Blog’s a Chuggin'” dedicated to you. I’m so proud of your blog! Thanks for inspiring us all by being an awesome father.

    1. eightdecades Post author

      Thank you for asking, it has been a bit of a bumpy time just now. Too many activities and events at end of school year, 14 grandchildren all need attention.
      I am also learning how to do new things for the blog, getting new art ready and learning to lean into the digital world more deeply. Posting has gone slowly for past two weeks because of all this.
      Prepping a dozen canvases for a new set of paintings,
      so in all very busy, just not so on line, but I will.

  11. WordsFallFromMyEyes

    What delicate, beautiful artwork. I love the flower study 1 – that purple.

    Stunning work. And appreciated your banana facts – I didn’t know a thing!

  12. mybeautfulthings

    The regatta painting is very evocative of the coast around here. I like the lighthouse one too; the pastels, the light you have caught and the colours in the rocks. 🙂

  13. Tracey Preston Cook

    One of my favorite paintings by John Michael Cook is the clown with the hole in the bottom of the shoe (top of page). I saw this painting when I was a child. I didn’t understand why there was a hole there. I sure get it now that I have kids of my own. That clown is probably a father doing side work and can’t afford new shoes because he bought his children shoes. That’s what I get out of it anyway. What else I noticed is you totally nailed that foreshortening. Nice artwork!

  14. Julie

    I have looked at that clown painting my entire life and never ever realized there is a bird and nest on his head…..and I never realized he was wooden. Crazy how I brought that clown to life in my head.

    1. eightdecades Post author

      Well thank you Julie, perhaps it is a real clown with the name Wooden Head and the woodpecker is his clown prop. or it is a wooden clown, or it is hmmmm well, what ever you would like it to be. at any rate I just got it posted a couple hours ago.

      1. julieviolin

        Ok. I went back and re-read what you wrote as the description and you did clearly say his name is wooden. So funny still that I never knew that.

        I love looking at your paintings here on the Internet. That April Minnesota morning out Effie’s window is so much more beautiful to me as an adult than it was to me when you first painted it. It’s funny how time and age change your perceptions so much.

    2. eightdecades Post author

      Thanks for looking at my site again, I took an Easter break too, and am just now updating things. I have three other clown pictures I will post next week (If i can get them photographed good enough). ;-}

      1. eightdecades Post author

        The red pillar was painted in felt tip pens about 5 years ago, it was a late night doodle. I was testing old felt tips to see if they still worked. I didn’t know when I was doing it what the picture was, it started as a scribble, notice the leaves. There was just enough red in one pen to do the pillar so I decided to just empty it and it wasn’t enough to do the whole pillar, so i used up the rest of a grey.

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