Have you ever taken a nap with your eyes open?

That’s pretty much what sketching was like today. I was gently focused on what I was doing, and at some point I thought. “Yeah, I think I’m done.” (Wow, I wish you could hear how I enunciated that ‘yeah’—it was more like ‘yehhhhh-aaaaaah”—it had about four syllables.)

When I finished, I took a picture of the painting, and took another of what I’d been looking at, and it really did feel like waking up, like coming out of a trance. And if you do it right, it is also a mood lift.

“You said ‘Do it right’—is that a technique?? I collect techniques!”

You wish! No, it is not a technique, it is a change of eyeglasses, a whole new perspective. ‘Doing it right’ is giving yourself the same space, the same elbow room, that any musician has when they practice a riff over and over, or they simply practice scales in different keys, over and over, mindlessly. They are working on hand coordination and muscle memory and building up those really tiny muscles in our hands that otherwise don’t get used. Practicing scales is mindless, you just do it. And if your sketching skill is ever going to improve, you have to think less, and cut down a lot more trees.

It’s the opposite of what you think: You are aiming for Quantity, not Quality, isn’t that a relief!

As a beginner you simply can’t afford to be invested in the results of your time spent sketching. Later on, you also can’t afford to be invested in the results, but for some odd reason (wink wink), the results will improve on their own.

So sketch often, but not long

Try not to work on a single sketch for any longer than 30 minutes. This is for two reasons.

  • One, there is less chance of overworking it.
  • Two, if you’re anything like me, if you lose all track of time, you might also lose your ability to move. Honestly. At my age, when I get so into it that I forget to move, I have trouble unwrapping my crooked sitting position and I forfeit any semblance of grace in trying to stand up again. So remember. move!

Today’s Adventure

Today I had an errand to run (a reason to go outdoors), and it was a beautiful cool/warm day, so I donned appropriate clothing, visor cap, sunglasses and my face mask, and ventured out with my brand new, never-before-used art-kit: the one I didn’t need, the one that initially gave me buyer’s remorse, and yes, the one that I now love with a passion.

The main new item in the kit is the canvas organizer itself, from the wonderful Maria Coryell-Martin at Expeditionary Art in Port Townsend, Washington. Let me walk you through everything.

The Art-ToolKit: I bought the empty version of the large canvas kit because I have a huge stash of supplies already (many previously bought from Maria). She also offers the two sizes in fully ‘kitted out’ versions as well. The canvas is high quality, rugged, well-constructed, and I know it will stand up well with respectful use.

Sketchbook: I have learned I prefer to use a nice 5″x8″ (A5) size sketchbook (like the beige one shown here) instead of anything smaller. It gives me a place to rest the heel of my hand, and a place to attach a palette if I like.

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The tools:

 in the above photo, from left to right are:

2 watercolor pencils, grey and brown

1 water-brush

1 regular drawing pencil and eraser

1 Pocket Mister to moisten the paint as well as pre-mist the paper for large washes

(My sketchbook is tucked in the big pocket underneath)

On the right side, from top to bottom:

3 little clips to keep my pages secure in the wind

a refill syringe, (needle-free!), helpful to refill my water-brush from my water-bottle

a Pilot G-2 gel pen

a round travel brush, about size 10

little bits of scrap watercolor paper for notes and color testing

In the large pocket underneath I have:

my collapsible water cup

my wrist sock for wiping off my brush as I paint

The Palettes:

my 2 Palettes from Expeditionary Art: Pocket and Demi size (the ‘larger’ Pocket Palette is exactly the size of a business card holder- amazing!)

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From ‘Bag’ to ‘ToolKit’

Truth be told, before today I simply carried most of these same supplies loose in a 7”x12” canvas zipper bag which I then rubber-banded to whatever sketchbook I was using at the time. It worked perfectly well, except for breaking pencil leads by mistake, fumbling looking for things, dropping some of them, and the bag occasionally spilling out entirely. Also, it was easy to forget and leave something behind, because there were no designated ‘empty spots’ crying out, “What about me??” Like the time I was psyched to watercolor, and the only thing I forgot was a paintbrush…

The old canvas zipper bag worked fine, but not fine enough. Because the #1 obstacle to creating an enjoyable sketching habit is…

Lousy Momentum.

Another name for Lousy Momentum is “Giddy-Up-Whoa Syndrome.” Imagine you have a real itch to go outside and sketch but, um, which palette? Which sketchbook? Do I even want to bother with color, or should I just take a pen and paper? Which pen? Aw, forget it, there’s another Miss Marple series on Britbox I haven’t finished watching yet…maybe I’ll go outside tomorrow.

The magic moment is lost.

Not so with a really good artkit, especially one with designated slots for all your favorite tools. (I can’t help but picture all the garage workshop walls that have the ghost outlines of every hammer, wrench, and tool spray-painted on the pegboard. You instantly know what is missing!)

When I organized my kit, I first decided I wanted the two tools that stay filled with water (the water brush and the mister) to store vertically so leaks are less likely–that’s why they are on the left. (See photo above—notice that my Mister has lime-green tape wrapped around the cap, making that precious piece of clear plastic harder to lose!)  After that, I just added everything according to instinct. I may switch out one pen for another, one pencil for another, but the Pen Slot and the Pencil Slot will probably remain in the same places. I have only used my Art-Toolkit once, but I was up and running surprisingly fast, instead of fumbling around wasting time making decisions. A palpable difference.

The best part of having a kit all set to go is, well, that you actually go. You get out of the house on a whim and really put your kit through its paces. You might decide you need little changes, so you jot yourself a note on one of those little scraps of paper that reads, “Replace this water-brush, it is clogged!” or “Add a pan of buff titanium.” These are things you will never figure out at home, you figure it out on site, en plein air, on the go.

Finally, the only thing better than a sketchbook is an illustrated journal. I enjoy doing the artwork first, then on the facing page I ponder. I ask myself, what worked and what was difficult? What surprised me? I have a chat with the sketch I just completed, and we compare notes. That way I am left with a story that captures more than just a picture, more than just a collection of words. It becomes a time-travel recording, available anytime, anywhere, right at my fingertips.

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So here’s your challenge: If you are already a Facebook user, consider joining my Facebook group, Drawing Attention NH. It is open to anyone pursuing this life-changing humble habit. Check it out, and after you join, I hope you will become a frequent contributor to the ongoing conversation.

As always, let me know how you got on.

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Periwinkle Pleasure. Can you spot the flowers?

Posted in Art-Making, Cafe Wisdom, Pen and Ink, Sketchbooks, Sketching tools, Urban Sketching, Watercolor | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Random thoughts on being fidgety

This will probably read like a ‘letter home’ in answer to the question, “What have you been up to since your virtual trip to Wales?”

It has been ten days since my last blog post (that suddenly sounds like a formal blogger’s confession), and I admit the well has not refilled quite yet. I have been editing rough drafts for my memoir collection, and have enjoyed revisiting those original journals which contain familiar handwriting yet describe bumps in the road that I have long since forgotten.

Why on earth would anyone bother writing a memoir?

Good question. One delightful reward is perspective, because sometimes I catch myself thinking I have wasted much of my life, and that simply is not true. Like everyone, I have kept busy working on things that weren’t planned. Having a family ended up not being in the cards. My professional life didn’t end up in a tidy package called a Career— instead I had a series of Jobs. I worked full time throughout my life, often with no inspiration other than paying the rent and having continuous health insurance for a chronic medical condition. I moved every few years, either because the home situation became unacceptable, or a new job drew me to live elsewhere. A good example of ‘unplanned’ is the time I was in a perfectly lovely apartment, very contented until a chain-smoker moved in next door and his smoke wafted from his balcony and windows to mine every day, all year ‘round.

I sometimes moved because of work. As an office staff member working for very small businesses, the work environment could easily become overly intimate, or when working for a non-profit, the funding would simply run out and I would have to seek work elsewhere. That is both the upside and the downside of having transferable job skills. You can go anywhere, but you are also expendable.

On the subject of ‘moving’, it sounds like it refers to Moving Day, right? No, that is the easiest part of the job by far. The rest, no matter how few possessions you have, is a long tedious process of sorting, making trips to the recycling center, trips to Goodwill, downsizing as you go, then wrapping and packing all the breakables and books, swearing all the while to never move again, at least not for a while. I just counted up, I have moved 18 times in the last 53 years, on average every three years during my adult life. No wonder I’m tired! Luckily I collected a lot of stories along the way as well, and packing tales is a joy.

Music to my ears

On a brighter note, I recently invested in a piece of equipment so I could transfer 1980s homemade cassettes to my computer. It is wonderful to once again hear the voices and humor of the singer-songwriters who were such a big part of my life back then. For years I lived in a folk-music-centric world, happily attending open stages, and participating in some of them as well. Today I loved listening again to the banter and the jokes which were the glue that held it all together. Best of all I heard Comradery in the air, even richer than the music itself.

What I miss now, despite being fairly content…

I miss my cafe! I’m sure you know what I mean. I miss having a place to go when I have no place to go and no reason to be there.

Every Tuesday morning pre-Covid-lockdown, I used to pack up this cheap little tablet computer and even cheaper wireless keyboard (possibly a sketchbook too), and head up the street to my cafe. There I would indulge in a few of my favorite things: a large cup of freshly brewed coffee, an elegant cafe-made oatmeal raisin cookie, and the luxury of writing in public. Sometimes the writing came easily, but other times, when nothing came to mind, I would simply sit and ponder…and eavesdrop.

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A sketching date with myself, at White Mountain Gourmet Coffee, Pleasant Street Concord NH, in early March 2020.

Unfortunately, a few months ago, people-watching went out the window along with hugging. I look forward to my next chance to hang out with people I will never really meet, and I will appreciate the experience as I never did before.

People are most relaxed when they think no one is watching (have you noticed?), and you just can’t get that ambience in a Zoom meeting, no matter how beautifully staged the background environment may be. There is still you, sitting right there in the middle of the grid (Hollywood Squares or Brady Bunch, depending on your perspective), and every urge to twitch is self-monitored carefully. I have been known to turn off the video and mute the audio, just so I can stretch and yawn and mutter and scratch my nose unobserved.

Zoom life is odd, there’s no getting around it. It’s not like sitting in a room with a bunch of friends, even if they are your friends, because the body-language is so limited. Online we interrupt unintentionally way more than we used to do in person. We sometimes even raise our hands if we are of a certain age! I notice when I am a bit bored with the conversation, my mind has a field day, making up stories, planning grocery lists, wandering far and wide without moving a muscle. I look at all the other people on my computer screen, so many of them sitting absolutely motionless, and I wonder, “How do they do that? Are they still there? Is that an avatar? Did their computer freeze?” Then I smile, thinking, “I wonder how many of them wish I would stop touching my face, stop fidgeting, stop nodding and smiling?”

Can you imagine if we all had cartoon thought-bubbles over our heads in all these video chat meetings? To have buck-naked brains would be way too much information, but it’s fun to think about it when you’re not paying attention. Perhaps you too are doing that already, watching the imagined bubbles overhead. Once again, cartoons are the way I make sense of my world.

So that brings us all to this curious place called “in the meantime.” This is where we are, a place where we can make loose plans, because firm plans are ill-advised. This is the time to consider possibilities, since all the certainties of the past seem to have vanished. It is either an insecure time or an exciting time– depending on your perspective, which of course belongs 100% entirely to you.

My advice as always, is to be well, keep doodling, and keep making stuff up. It’s the way of the future, a path some call resilience and creativity.

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One of my cartoons from years ago, when words were just not enough…

Posted in Cafe Wisdom, Cartoons, Journaling, My Story, Sketchbooks, Views from Aloft | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

Episode 11/11…wherein I return home to 2020, and ponder next steps

I always experience a bit of emotional jet-lag at the end of a long trip, and this time is no different, despite having done all this travel sitting right here at my laptop in the living room.

It was exhausting at times. Each of the ten episodes took over six hours to create (research, writing, editing, drawing, and painting), and I know each one took about five minutes to read! That is why, every single day, I made sure I was still enjoying myself, despite the work involved. If it isn’t a labor of love, it’s not worth doing. Like so much in life.

(Before I forget:  Here is the link to the Road Scholar Adventure that was the basis for the tale I just spun for you. Feel free to sign up, and see how much of it I got right, or not!)

What’s Next?

In the past, when I have arrived home from a trip, I felt cured of wanting to see a suitcase for a very long time. Today I feel a bit ‘cured’ of the need to write for hours on end every single day, but I know that will be short-lived. In a few days I will continue writing this tale, but more privately, as I write about the next leg of this imaginary trip, next in England in 2022, to visit five wonderful women who actually do exist, who live in England, Scotland, Belgium, and Germany. These are ladies I met through our friend Michael Nobbs whom you met in Episodes 6 & 7. Who knows what trials I will put them through before I am done with them!

I am also eager to get back to ‘studio painting’: painting on nice thick watercolor paper, making big juicy messes with all sorts of experiments, without the pressure of an impending one-woman show.  As some of you know, when I started this virtual journey through Wales, I had just come off of several months of working diligently in ‘direct watercolor’, creating over two dozen framed 10 x 14 paintings. To go from that to doing small watercolor-and-ink sketches in a book with fairly flimsy paper for this Fake Journal Project was an adjustment!

Having said that, I don’t want to abandon the quick shorthand of sketchbook art. Studio painting and sketchbook art are exciting in such different ways. I became so comfortable with this simple approach while working on my Wales sketches at home, that I actually ventured outdoors in April, right here in Concord NH, to do some ‘urban sketching’ in the style I have done for years now.

I have been 98% house-bound since early March (I am in the high-risk group for Covid-19), but nevertheless, I suited up one day in mid-April with hat, sunglasses, mask, coat, gloves, and an outrageously flimsy notebook, a Pilot G-2 bold gel pen, and a water brush, to see if I could remember how simple it can be. And I did!

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Seriously, cars?? But just to be outdoors, sketching anything, felt good.

Other future plans

I want to establish a more normal, healthy rhythm (where I am not glued to my computer chair for hours on end every day), and incorporate stretching, strength-training, and a bit of cardio into the day, even if I don’t go outside.

I want to return to studying watercolor techniques with the amazing Lois Davidson, whom I support on Patreon, and whom I recommend to anyone who wants to see their watercolor work go to a higher level of loose, inspired semi-realism.

After a bit of time has passed, I want to also go back to my ‘Wales Tale’ and flesh out this 10-day journey that you have just read, by creating a few more characters, adding more interactions and conversations between them, as well as sprinkling in an unavoidable mishap or two! If it seems like it has gone well, I will look into ways to offer this funny little story as an e-book and as a small paperback, as I mentioned in Episode 10.

Why the heck am I telling you this?

Isn’t this blog supposed to be about “celebrating words and watercolor”? Well yes, and no.

It is about creating a life that is well worth living, and for me personally, that does include words and watercolor. I spent decades just surviving, and now during this pandemic it is more important than ever for all of us to remember to tuck little bits of joy into every day, and not wait for later when there may actually be no time left.

All of this is to say that if I can do it, you can do it. Exercising your imagination is as important as exercising your biceps. Otherwise, how will you be able to move aside the boulders, real or imagined, that may fall in your path in the future?

What we’re after here is resilience, every possible kind of resilience, and it is built one gentle, frequent stretch at a time. Stretch your muscles and stretch your mind. The imagination you use in writing fiction, and drawing from online photographs during this pandemic, is the same brilliant imagination you will have at your fingertips later when you need it to create a new world that is far better than the one we left behind a couple months ago. I need your imagination as much as I need my own.

We are all in this together. Get sketching. Or writing. Or, oh heavenly day, both.

Posted in Art-Making, Cafe Wisdom, Fake Journal 2020- To Wales and England, Life Insights, Sketchbooks, Travel, Travel and Storytelling, Views from Aloft, Watercolor | 6 Comments

Episode 10/11…wherein we explore all of Wales, in just one place

Sunday the 10th of April, 2022

Hard to believe that by the end of the day we will be at our final destination, a hotel near London’s Heathrow Airport. Along the way though, we will dawdle and wander and smile in appreciation at all we have learned together. It is fitting that our last stop will feel very much like a country-wide sweep, as well as traveling through centuries of time, landing us at St Fagans National Museum of History, a.k.a. the Museum of Welsh Life, four miles outside the capital city of Cardiff.

This morning, for the first time ever, we were all at breakfast on time, our suitcases stowed on the coaches, with time to spare. (Third time we’ve done this, finally getting the hang of it!) After breakfast we settled in our coach seats for the next-to-last time and were off for a two-hour trip from Lamphey to Cardiff. The first hour or so was quite scenic, along lovely country roads, then we crossed over the River Loughor and joined up with the M4, a major motorway that will take us first to Cardiff, then later on to our hotel near Heathrow.

My sketchbook went on a little tour of its own this morning, making its way all around my coach! This happened once before, at the end of my 2016 English Gardens trip, when a number of my travel-mates wanted to see what I had been doing hunkered down with my sketchbook, while they had all been running around snapping pictures! It was fun to hear them exclaim and laugh as they looked through it. I wasn’t self-conscious about them reading my notes as well as looking at my sketches, because I cleverly had also carried a separate little notebook for all the entries that were ‘for my eyes only’!

My friend David, the retired professor from Houston, had become a great chum over the past ten days, and when he read my cautious comment about him on our first travel day together, he laughed out loud. “You had reason for concern, my dear,” he smiled. “I am grateful for the folks who  took turns looking after me!” He was right, for some reason this lovely group of travelers were natural shepherds, keeping a watchful eye on each other so there were no strays, no need to call out the search party for lost souls.

So my sketchbook was passed around the bus, people took photos of pages they liked, and many vowed to bring a sketchbook with them the next time they travel. Some of the ‘nature folks’ (the ones who always travel with binoculars) had actually begun sketching with me yesterday in Cardigan, using their tiny photography notebooks. We sat scribbling away, while our traveling companions scrambled about the neighborhood, making sure they didn’t miss a thing. Great self-directed fun for everyone.

It’s funny to think that, in a way, each of us has had a unique experience of this program here in Wales. There has been a nice amount of ‘free time’ built into many of the days. The more of these RS programs I join, the more I am impressed by the planning that goes into making each itinerary  flow seamlessly. Road Scholar programs are about learning, as much as they are about travel, so no time is ever wasted in boring tourist traps full of souvenirs made in China. Never! These adventures are also designed so that the detail-oriented folks, as well as the big-picture gazers, are all happy at the end of the day.

On to today’s travelogue! Around 10 am we arrived at St Fagans, and gathered for a brief talk by our Study Leader Kevin. Then we were given 3 full hours to explore this immense 100-acre parkland and open-air museum. What fascinated me was the variety of full-size, original buildings, from various historical periods, that had been brought here from all over Wales and reassembled in this one place.  The forty buildings include farmhouses, barns, cottages, a craft workshop, a castle, a 13th-century church, and much more. Each structure had been on the verge of demolition at its original location because it was too far gone to be worth restoring. The buildings lucky enough to be selected for this massive Museum of Welsh Life were painstakingly moved from their original locations and reconstructed here, preserving not only the buildings, but the stories that went with them. The signage everywhere was interesting and clear, so you could easily learn the entire back story of each landmark building as you wandered the grounds. I later discovered the website  for this Museum is equally brilliant.

The place where I decided to sit and drink in the details was here, at the iron-ore miners’ house, the Rhyd-y-car Terrace, originally built in 1795 in Merthyr  Tydfil, some 23 miles to the north.

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The final Herding of the Road Scholar Sheep (that’s us!) was done swiftly at 1 pm, and as we boarded the buses we were each handed a packed lunch (a sandwich, fruit, and a drink) to tide us over until we reached London in late afternoon. The final ride was about three hours, through gorgeous countryside we had not seen before because 10 days ago we had landed to the north, in Manchester. Now we were departing from London further to the south.

Riding on the M4, and especially crossing the River Severn, I was reminded of the TV series “Gavin and Stacey” which I really enjoyed watching way back in 2020 during the stay-at-home quarantine. What a great show, light and funny, right when I needed a laugh. Today I kept glancing over to see if James Corden was racing along in the car beside us. We traveled through the beautiful rolling hills of North Wessex Downs, an officially designated “AONB”, or “Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty”. Honestly, how wonderful is that?

By around 4 o’clock we arrived at the Radisson Blu Edwardian Heathrow Hotel located near the airport, checked in, and had a bit of free time before our final meet-up downstairs. At this ‘last supper’ together, I know many of us were remembering our first supper only ten days ago, when we were exhausted from traveling, did not know each other, and were wondering what sort of odd bunch of folks we would have for traveling companions. Now many of us feel like we really are old friends– how on earth did that happen!

When tea, coffee and dessert were served, we followed the Road Scholar tradition of a round-robin sharing time. Each of us told one funny or poignant story (hopefully brief but not always!) about a special moment during the trip. With two dozen of us, it took over an hour to get all the way around the room. Well worth it, lots of laughter and a few sentimental tears as well. The microphone came to me near the end, and thanks to everyone’s encouragement, I announced that after I am home again and have some time to catch my breath, I will start my next project: turning my travel journal, complete with stories and sketches, into a little book that anyone can buy online, either as an e-book or small paperback. My new friends cheered and I blushed—now I have to actually do it! Exciting new learning curve, I am eager to start.

Since tomorrow morning will be a blur, with all of us leaving at slightly different times on different airlines, tonight was the time for goodbyes. The only farewells I will have tomorrow will be with our two wonderful Group Leaders and my roommate-now-friend Ellen. Since she lives in Maine, we have plans to meet up in Portsmouth, NH sometime over the summer.

At that time, together, we will look to the northeast, over the 3,057 miles of Atlantic Ocean, look past the southern tip of Ireland, and wave to the lovely Chapel of St Non on the Pembrokeshire peninsula. Travel makes old friends of one-time strangers. The country of Wales is now a friend as well, one I hope to meet again someday.

Ellen is asleep, and I feel a rich fullness that will easily accompany me to dream land. All that’s left is to check the alarm clock, shut off the light, and snuggle down one last time.

Posted in Art-Making, Fake Journal 2020- To Wales and England, Sketchbooks, Travel, Travel and Storytelling, Watercolor | Tagged | 4 Comments

Episode 9/11…wherein the names of several places are hauntingly familiar

Saturday 9th April 2022 (a very sleepy girl is writing this!)

Although we didn’t travel far today, only about 70 miles round trip and just a couple hours in the coach, it ended up being the longest day full of scheduled events so far. We left the hotel heading north-northwest toward…wait a minute. I am totally distracted. I have to tell you a funny story first.

Decades ago when I was a kid I lived in a few places, but the spot with the deepest influence by far was the Lakes Region of central New Hampshire in America. Our home there was in the heart of a small village which stood in the shadow of our beloved Mount Cardigan. I climbed Cardigan once with a good friend, and the view of the surrounding lakes and mountains was spectacular. Another seemingly random note is that in the 19th century, one of my ancestors started a knitting mill in the nearby town of Bristol, and called it Cardigan Woolen Mills.

Today, here in Wales, I did a double-take when I saw the day’s itinerary: the plan is to first head to the town of Cardigan before we move on to Carmarthen where we will learn more about the Welsh wool industry. Carmarthen is located on a river that spills into the sea at, you guessed it, the Bristol Channel. Honestly, you can’t make this stuff up.

Okay, back to today’s real story. We headed out, and about an hour later we arrived at the town of Cardigan (pop. 4,000), situated on the River Teifi, which feeds eventually into Cardigan Bay to the north. Cardigan Castle, built during the 11th-12th centuries, overlooks the river. The town has been home to a variety of industries over the years, and now has a fairly balanced economy, with businesses, schools, retail, and healthcare establishments. We learned all sorts of historical details from the Study Leader, and around mid-morning we were set free to roam the town.

I settled in to sketch the waterfront area. “Keep it simple,” I told myself. “Sometimes less is more, right?” No color, and I’m glad of it. Had fun mixing up those warm and cool greys though!

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After regrouping we were off again, heading southeast to Carmarthen, a place thought by many to be the oldest town in Wales, with records dating back to 75 AD. It is located on the River Towy, which feeds into Bristol Channel, just to the north of the South West Peninsula of England.  I think you need a map now– at least I do!

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In Carmarthen there is still evidence of Roman ruins, and that was something I found downright amazing. Time for further childhood confessions:

History classes, for me growing up, were just a big blur of names and dates and maps with an awful test waiting for me at the end, that’s all. I never ‘got it.’.

As an American kid, growing up in mid-20th century American schools,  I just couldn’t grasp history. 90% of everything I was being taught was a blur because it all happened “over there,” whether it was in northern Europe, the Mediterranean, the Middle East, Africa, or the  Far East. I admit the expression ‘The Middle Ages’ never meant anything to me. (“Middle of what?” I wondered.) Thanks to this trip (better late than never, right?), I learned ‘The Middle Ages’ have that name because they mark a gap of sorts, the time between the 476 AD  fall of imperial Rome (which had included most of the land from Western Europe all the way to the Middle East). and the beginning of early modern Europe (about a hundred or so years later). It was a time of great instability and migration throughout the entire region, including Wales.

As I think back to my school years, how wonderful it would have been if we were taught not only what to learn, but also why it was worth knowing. Then and now, I needed a heartfelt, human scaffolding on which to hang all that data. Standing here today, in this very spot in Wales, it suddenly feels real to me as it never did before. I see that the history I studied happened where my feet are right now. Travel gives ‘history’ context and texture.

So now, back to Carmarthen. Many industries came and went from this lively town as well, including iron works, printing presses, and the Welsh wool industry which we learned more about today at the Dre-fach Felindre Woollen Mill. I enjoyed the tour of the mill (I used to teach weaving so the industrial-sized looms were familiar to me in a way, and fascinating.) I was spared any temptations in the gift shop though because, despite raising sheep as a kid and having taught weaving as an adult, I am deadly allergic to wool! Crazy, right? But it sure saves me a lot of money, never being tempted to buy or even touch those luxurious spun, knit, or woven goods I saw in gift shops today.

Instead of lingering inside, I grabbed a take-away lunch and headed for the millstream area behind the buildings to hunker down and sketch for a while. My trusty bubble-wrap ‘sit-upon’ came in handy again, as well as the bottle of water that I used this time for painting. That riverbank was way too steep and slippery to fetch river water with which to paint, and I was not about to risk a midday swim!

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Back on the buses and on to Laugharne, another small coastal town perhaps best known for being home to Dylan Thomas, the famous Welsh poet and writer, during the last four years of his brief life (he lived to be only 39.) There I enjoyed the view of the sea and of the rolling landscape which now feels so familiar. The long shadows of late afternoon  were enticing, and I almost began another sketch, but by then I was hitting that ‘pause’ between the day’s activities and the evening’s ‘settling-in’ time, so I looked, and I listened, and spent time simply breathing Welsh air.

Our dinner tonight was at a local restaurant that looked pretty humble from the outside, but was anything but inside. I was thirsty more than anything, so I finished off the bottle of water I had carried all day, then sat down to enjoy a tall cool glass of Belvoir elder flower sparkling water. Delicious! My travel-mates tucked in to enjoy mussels, fresh fish and chips, and all sorts of yummy selections, while I had a delicious house specialty, a combination French onion/minestrone soup, a colorful mixed salad, and more than one slice of their crusty homemade bread. Many of us also indulged in Pwdin Eva, a Welsh apple dessert that is similar to apple cobbler. I will certainly try making it when I am back at home.

Our real treat of the evening was a pre-arranged mingling with some of the locals, lively fun for many of the extroverts in our group. Our new Welsh friends were warm and curious, happy to answer our questions as well as asking some of their own! The evening in the tavern ended with a performance by a Welsh ‘mixed-voice choir,’ very impressive.

Upon reflection, I began to think there might be a simple secret to why so many Welsh people have such beautiful singing voices. For years, many children in Wales have grown up in an atmosphere of group singing, the same way my brothers grew up playing baseball and I grew up riding bicycles with my friends. When you grow up thinking that singing out loud in front of people is no big deal, then you have a chance to develop the skill that can only come with practice. (I am suddenly reminded of all the great American singers who grew up singing in gospel church choirs.)

I think oftentimes when you meet someone who seems to be ‘naturally good at,’ or ‘have a natural talent for’ something, they might be that way because they grew up in a household where that behavior was simply normal: not encouraged, or discouraged, just normal. Our childhood homes and neighborhoods are the Petri dishes for our early development. And in my opinion, no amount of intentional instruction can hold a candle to a child seeing a parent enjoying themselves doing something.

Kids want to be happy more than they want to be talented. If Mom is happy gardening, I am more likely to think it is a good idea too. If you are lucky enough to grow up in a household that is always humming and whistling and singing, you might not be so shy about joining in yourself. The choir members we heard tonight were happily hanging out singing, having a good time together, in perfect pitch.

The coach ride home was only about 40 minutes long, but I am sure I heard the not-so-perfect-pitch sounds of snoring along the way. That made me smile; it’s proof we are now officially a family I suppose! But no rest for the weary—tomorrow we head out first thing. By 7am we need to have our suitcases downstairs in the front hall, ready to be loaded onto the backseats of our coaches, so we can all snuggle up front together as we head for our final day’s adventures, and the hotel at Heathrow Airport. We have done this routine a few times by now, so we are old hands at it. As usual, Ellen and I will be all packed up by later tonight, so we can each sleep well.

I plan to dream of all the places in Wales that are now 3-D vivid for me. I am one lucky girl.

Posted in Art-Making, Fake Journal 2020- To Wales and England, Pen and Ink, Sketchbooks, Travel and Storytelling, Watercolor | Tagged | 2 Comments

Episode 8/11…wherein I celebrate my love of rocks

Friday, April 8th, 2022

Does anyone else like playing “Map” as much as I do? When we were kids, Dad got us a copy of the Reader’s Digest Atlas of the World. It was the cheapest babysitter in history, keeping my brothers and me occupied for hours on end. On further investigation just now, I see the book actually weighs close to six pounds (2.6 kg), and the 1963 version we had back then, in pristine condition today, would cost up to $850. Not that I want a copy actually. I think I’ll settle for Google Maps and Wikipedia to do research from the comfort of my hotel room here in Wales.

Last night I learned that Lamphey, the tiny village where we are staying, had a population of 843 in 2011. The closest town nearby is Pembroke (pop. 7,552), and of course that made me smile because the town next to where I live in New Hampshire is also called Pembroke. Over the next two days we will be traveling all around Pembrokeshire, a county set in the southwest peninsular tip of Wales. And here are your maps for today!

After our usual breakfast (and my sneaking an extra cup of tea and milk into my thermos/flask), we set off in a huge counter-clockwise (anti-clockwise!) circle around Pembrokeshire. The day began very overcast, so in honor of that, I decided to do sketches solely in ink, without a bit of tint or color brushwork. One less decision to make, hurrah! (Side Note: When I am concentrating on a sketch though, I have to be really careful to listen for the murmurings of my tour group. Otherwise they could arrive back at the bus without me, and I would become that annoying last-on-board person!)

First stop, the fascinating Preseli Mountains.

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These dramatic slant-stacked slabs of bluestone rise up out of the ground and look like they were frozen in mid-thrust on their way to escape to the sky. In truth they look the way they do because of a combination of the shifting tectonic layers below, and centuries of erosion from above, combining to create these impressive outcroppings.

The nearby human-built dolmens, equally striking but in a different way, are there to mark the resting places of revered people from long ago. I see these grave markers more as sculptures, and I honor the designers and the actual builders of these monuments at least as much as the chiefs and nobles who are claimed to be their inspiration.

Back onto the coaches, and off to explore the Iron Age hillfort of Castell Henllys, dating back over 2,000 years. Excavation began over 20 years ago and continues today. Four roundhouses and a granary were created in more recent years to allow visitors like ourselves a way to vividly sense life in those days.

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From the ancient village we headed west on the A487 toward Newport, the third largest city in Wales with a population of about 145,000. As it turned out, although we were scheduled to have our lunch in Newport, instead we stopped just north of there in Caerleon, home of the University of South Wales, a very pretty town on the River Usk.

(I am particularly fond of this place, because “USk” is the abbreviation used by the international organization, Urban Sketchers. Usk is close enough to USk to make me smile.)

Although the skies hadn’t cleared by lunchtime, the air was comfortably warm, the wind quite tolerable, so we were able to enjoy a brief walk around the town before we arrived at our destination: a restaurant located in what had been a stone priory dating back to the 12th century. Wonderful food of course, and the staff was able to get us in and out without any waiting. Very efficient and gracious, the monks would have been proud I am sure!

After lunch we continued on to St. Davids, (no apostrophe, and not plural either!), at one of the far southwest tips of Wales. It is the smallest ‘city’ in the UK and yet has a massive cathedral. I’m sure it is revered by people of deep faith, and would have been inspirational for any artist with stronger ‘let’s-draw-really-complex-architecture’ skills than I have! I preferred to spend my time sketching St. David’s presumed birthplace, at the humble Chapel of St Non. And yes, I caved: out came the watercolors when just a spot of late-afternoon sunlight illuminated the grassy knoll by the chapel.

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The return trip from St Davids to our hotel was only about an hour, following the coast for a while through the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, then continuing southeast and inland until we reached our home base of Lamphey. Most of us were less hungry than usual, but we still gathered in the dining hall at the appointed time because we knew we would only be together two more evenings after tonight.

After dinner we adjourned to the sitting room, where we were treated to a brief concert by a local harpist. The music was pleasing and restful, evoking memories of many of the places we had been this week.

The spirit of the group was shifting again, that mysterious coalescing of a readiness to head home soon, with a real fondness for the new friends we would have to leave behind. I am not yet enough of a seasoned traveler to be immune to these gentle pulls on my heart strings.

Posted in Fake Journal 2020- To Wales and England, Pen and Ink, Sketchbooks, Travel and Storytelling, Watercolor | Tagged | 4 Comments

Episode 7/11…wherein I discover an old friend in a faraway land

Thursday afternoon, April 7th, 2022

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“Bobbie, what a lovely surprise!”

Michael motioned to the chair beside him. We chatted for a moment, then I noticed the other members of my group gathering at the café exit, preparing to begin the hour-long tour of the Library itself.

“Michael, do you have time for a little chat? ” I said. “If not, I understand of course, but if so, I should go make some quick arrangements.”

He said yes, so I walked over to the group leader, explained my situation, and asked if I could be excused from group activities for the second time in the same day. She agreed, and I promised to be ready and waiting at the coaches by 2:30 pm.

Taking a seat with Michael, we smiled and shook our heads, pleased at how natural it felt to be chatting in person. It was familiar because we had  ‘seen’ each other a couple times a week for several years now, ever since September 2017 when I joined his private online Creativity Circle group. His website, Go Gently, explains much of the very interesting back-story.

In the years that our international group of friends met, I discovered what had been missing from my life: a creative community of like-minded people, folks who know it’s not easy to have a creative habit, to go to the drafting board, or the typewriter, or the music studio every single day, especially if your health presents an additional layer of challenge. Thanks to Michael I learned I can set a timer for 20 minutes, and thereby, as he says, “take one small step each day to move my creative project on a little.” 

When the original incarnation of the Creative Circle was disbanded due to Michael’s health concerns, he found a way, creative as ever, to continue to produce content on his Patreon page so that it would be fulfilling for his supporters, while at the same time being less taxing on Michael’s limited energy resources. It has been a win-win for all of us.

Knowing all this, I was pleased and still a bit surprised to see him here in the café, away from his hillside cottage, having a ‘tiny adventure’ that I was lucky enough to stumble across. We had our sketchbooks with us (of course), so we enjoyed a little ‘show and tell’ time, sharing our drawings and telling tales. At one point we both looked up at the clock and simultaneously said, “What now?” That brought on a laugh, and I got to hear his rippling chuckle in person, what a treat.

“Here are the options,” Michael said. “We still have 45 minutes or so before you need to catch your bus. We can indulge in a fresh pot of tea between us, share a plate of Welsh cakes for dessert, and carry on talking. Or, we can take a quick jaunt in my car, down past the town to the sea where I recorded a few of the videos you have seen. I would happily show you my place if I could, to see in person the Horizontal Oaks, and meet the chickens and Ounce [Michael’s famous cat], but that would take far too long and a lot more energy than I have available as you know. What do you say?”

I would have been happy with either choice, but the thought of a ride in his bright yellow car to a favorite quiet place won out easily. We drank our last drops of tea, left the Library, and strolled into the full sun of midday, easily spotting his car amongst all the grey and white and black ones. Off we went!

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A few minutes later we found ourselves at a good stopping place by the sea wall, and clambered over it to get to the rocky shoreline. There, to our left, was the old cement-and-stone breakwater that ran down into the sea. It gave us a place to sit, to take deep gulps of salty air, and to simply ponder for a while. I loved the sound of the water burbling through the smooth stones as the waves ran back out to sea. It was haunting, like wooden wind-chimes, only with rocks and water instead. Absolutely lyrical, and once you have heard it, you never forget it. The air was fairly calm, so all we heard was the gentle pulse of the waves stroking the sea-stones over and over.

To be on the safe side we headed back early, and sat in the car park near the coaches, waiting until my gang of fellow travelers started drifting out of the Library in groups of twos and threes. Michael and I got out of his car, hugged, and smiled as we said goodbye for now. I will see him again in a couple weeks of course, online, in one of our monthly live chats on Patreon. For now though, I cherish the lingering taste of the salt breeze, and the small round stone that somehow made its way into my pocket.

Our coaches got back on the A487 and headed south again, with over 70 miles still to go, about two more hours before reaching our final destination of Lamphey. We took a brief detour through Aberaeron, a small town of about 1,500. The multi-colored Georgian houses along the quay were charming, and we learned the harbor had supported fishing and shipbuilding industries in the 19th century. Nowadays, curiously, it is also known for its production and sale of honey.  Dylan Thomas, the poet and writer, had links to this handsome town as well.

As we rode along, I noticed the change in rhythm that happens in our group about 4 o’clock on most days. About that time there is a palpable shift: people are suddenly a bit weary and are restless to get ‘home’. That was very true today, and we were relieved to hear that in a short time we would be arriving at our hotel, the Best Western Lamphey Court. That last hour in the coach offered scenic views to a quieter-than-usual bunch of folks, at least that was true on the “Introverts Coach” which has been my refuge for most of the trip.

After arriving at the hotel, collecting our suitcases, and being given our room keys, we were happy to learn that dinner would be delayed until 7pm. Plenty of time to find our rooms, flop on our beds, and grab a quick horizontal rest before our next meal. We will be here in Lamphey for three nights, and because we are having a later-than-usual start tomorrow (9 am departure), there is ample time tonight to unpack, settle in, and still get a very good night’s rest.

Posted in Fake Journal 2020- To Wales and England, Pen and Ink, Sketchbooks, Travel and Storytelling, Watercolor | Tagged | 11 Comments