I’m exploring a sloppier style. Some results are better. Some are worse. I did try a new idea, though. It involved taking a virtual road trip by way of Google Maps. I can use “Street View” wherever I decide to go, look around, stop and draw what I want. Travel is rare these days so it’s a manner of interacting with a distant environment. This time out, I only ventured to Ashland, Oregon (about twenty miles away). I like how the fish-eye perspective forces everything into weird angles.
Shortly after I moved to Oregon fifteen years ago, my dad and his wife (at the time) paid us a visit where my wife (at the time) and I had settled down. Some sightseeing was in order. We drove to Golden, a ghost town north of Grants Pass. Afterwards, we stopped off for lunch at the Wolf Creek Inn where they sell Golden memorabilia in the gift shop. I hadn’t realized that our visitors had bought a postcard until after they had returned to California. We found the souvenir in our guest room with a message on the back.
It’s taken me a while but I’ve finally gotten around to honoring their request.
In March of 2020, I finished illustrating my third novel, IMAGE. Seventeen of the pictures were of antiques, the eighteenth of nothing at all. It took almost a year for me to complete another sketch: a sloppy rendering of a car. I needed to learn to get the chaos under control. With that accomplished, I can move ahead. What to portray is a different question. Abandoned buildings are appealing (I’ve included a recent example here). My work has always dealt with desertion. It’s why old objects have such a mystique, I believe. They speak of the lives that were lived around — or, in the case of architecture, inside of — them. As I turn away from the figure, its empty environment hints at an eerie truth: that our decaying houses are the bodies from which we are bound to be evicted in the end.
A while ago, I wrote a post that referred to the printing plant where I used to work. It included pictures of the type of machine that I had operated there, a flatbed cutter. The shots weren’t mine, however. An internet image search had resulted in some good examples and I had borrowed two. Among the photos that I considered, I got a big surprise. There were a few of a naked woman doing my old job. As an artist who has a complicated history with the nude, I was delighted to see the bare body’s owner going about her business. I couldn’t believe it. Tracing the images to the website where they had originated disappointed me, nonetheless. Although I never saw the model herself doing anything indecent, she appeared amid a barrage of hardcore pornography. A view of a woman without any clothes, I guess, automatically qualifies. I had found her refreshingly wholesome. I was wrong. It makes me want to abandon the figure altogether like the artist in my second novel, The Sketchbook. In the end, no people populated his work anymore: “What remained were scenes of empty streets and abandoned buildings. The series seemed to say that Caleb and the human race were done.”
I had started and discarded twenty sketches or more by the time that I finally finished one. It happened a couple of weeks ago. Until then, none were perfect and that’s where I had gotten discouraged, wadded each up and thrown it away. In the interest of simply filling the page, I saw the final attempt to completion. Although straight lines are beyond me, a sloppier version — as it turns out — is still within my reach. There’s a reason why I have wasted so much paper drawing a 1969 Dodge Charger. The car and I have a history.
When I was thirteen years old, I had a disagreement with the neighbor’s Doberman about whether I could walk to the school bus stop or not. I prevailed after sustaining a bite to the bridge of my nose. A few stitches, a medical bill and a small insurance settlement later, my parents told me to spend an extra $700 however I chose. I chose a ’69 Charger (sorry college fund). Part of the money went to renting the trailer to haul it home. My dad and I spent a lot of the next three years underneath the hood. I drew that old beauty countless times, once even getting my vision of it into print.
As a result, I have kept that issue of Popular Hot Rodding magazine. Now I can use it to measure my fifty-year-old ability. My control has suffered but what’s important, I think, is that I still have a good idea of where the lines are supposed to go (my perspective in 1984 was crazy; of course, I was only a kid). So all is not lost. Maybe it took looking thirty-seven years into my past to see it.
I can’t draw or paint like I could once. That’s how it goes. I need to accept what I can’t change. For now, the doctor says that the best thing for me is exercise. In Oregon, spectacular trails abound. Lisa and I spend a lot of our time exploring them. One is at a lake a short drive from our house. It traces the water’s edge. For many years, we have used it to get to a good swimming spot. About halfway to our favorite beach, another path branches off. It leads away from the lake and up a steep hill. The extra work to move away from a refreshing plunge on a hot day isn’t very inviting. Even so, last Summer, we tried it. After a grueling climb, we reached a breathtaking vista atop a ridge. The view was amazing. It justified the effort involved to the point that we have returned on several occasions since then, the most recent being a couple of days ago (we forgot the camera — imagine the same scene with a little snow). Why do I mention it? Here’s what occurred to me: just because you’re on a different path doesn’t mean that you can’t encounter some beauty along the way.
In 2006, I walked into the warehouse where I would work (off and on — I tried screen printing elsewhere for a while) for the next thirteen years. Within its walls, something went seriously wrong for me. The building is home to a book manufacturer. As an art major with bills to pay, I had drifted into bookbinding shortly after graduation. Since 1993, my day-job has been in the printing industry. As a machine operator, it has always been said of me that I was pretty good with my hands. When one of them (the right and more dominant of the two) no longer functioned as smoothly, the reason why remained a mystery for months. Last week, I was reminded of the course of my decline. One morning, with a visit to the neurologist scheduled for that afternoon, I tried drawing as a way to measure my dexterity. Three attempts resulted in three wadded-up sheets of paper. My frustration led me to reflect on how things had gotten so bad. The first red flag that I can remember was raised while I was demonstrating a cutter program for a tour group.
It was on a machine very much like the one above. A handful of onlookers watched as I jogged their product into place. Having just come off a press, six printed panels had to be cut apart and stacked into a singular tower of text. My audience represented one of our biggest customers (one of the biggest companies in the world, in fact — a confidentiality agreement keeps me from saying which). With my back to them, I was getting through the program when my right arm began to shake uncontrollably. I willed it to work despite the weird vibration. Any hope that I had harbored that no one had noticed was dispelled when I turned around. Their expressions can best be described as compassionate alarm. A few asked questions about the process but with the tone of people addressing a developmentally disabled first-grader. My humiliation, eventually, waned to the point that I could wonder about my condition. That’s when I became aware of a startling truth.
My formerly dominant right hand had taken a backseat to my left. The keys that I had to press a thousand times a day were the sole domain of my no longer secondary digits. Why hadn’t that strange development ever dawned on me before? The safety guy, when I mentioned it to him, responded, “Yah, we didn’t know why you were holding your arm at your side like that.” What’s worse, I was soon diagnosed with adhesive capsulitis: frozen shoulder. An occupational health doctor blamed overuse. I went to physical therapy and got a steroid injection from an orthopedist, regained some range of motion yet still suffered from motor-control issues (at a restaurant once, I had to have Lisa cut my food). When I went back to see the specialist and told him that his shot hadn’t done the job, he replied as if it were obvious, “That’s because you have Parkinson’s.” A bad shoulder hadn’t caused my dexterity problems. A reliance on my other arm had caused my right one to seize up. It was so pathetically slow that I was inadvertently letting the limb go dormant. A three-month-wait to see a neurologist later, my worst fears were confirmed: I did, in fact, have Parkinson’s. It explained a lot, from my plodding pace (I have always preferred the adjectives ‘thorough’ and ‘methodical’) to my displeased expression (they call it ‘mask face’ and it’s the consequence of your features going slack) to my trouble speaking (a weak voice is yet another symptom). I had already taken leave from work. It allowed me to finish illustrating a novel, maybe my last. I finished the final drawing in March and hadn’t tried to sketch again until last week. At fifty years old, I worry that my art-making days are behind me. Of course, I mourn the loss. What surprises me is that I would ever miss a printing plant.
For more than five years now, Lisa and I have lived in a house that faces an empty field. When we moved in, the realtor assured us that the lot across the street wouldn’t be developed for a decade. From our southern windows, we have enjoyed expansive views of the Siskiyou Mountains. Jackrabbits have frolicked and neighborhood cats have hunted on the property. In the last couple of weeks, however, the work has started that will change all of that. The land was sold. The parcel is zoned high-density mixed-use and the buyer isn’t wasting any time. Bulldozers, front-loaders and dump-trucks arrived a couple of weeks ago. The noise of loud machinery and the filth of billowing clouds of dust have filled the formerly calm air.
The plans were posted online. They include a four-story structure with commercial space on the ground floor, a three-story apartment building and two-story townhouses (a retirement home already stands beyond the field). Lisa isn’t happy about the upheaval. Our world is being altered (or, as she would say, ruined). We were discussing it this morning when I remembered the date. Today marks two months since a catastrophe devastated our area.
On September 8, 2020, the Almeda Fire destroyed more than 3,000 structures in our part of Oregon. The blaze erupted while Lisa and I were watching her sister’s house an hour away. We had come back to Medford to run some errands that morning, saw the smoke engulfing the sky and were amazed. Even so, another conflagration, the Slater Fire, threatened her sister’s home. We returned there, stayed the night and awoke to learn that our own city, Central Point, was under evacuation orders. Ninety-five acres of the greenway two miles from our house were burning.
Emergency crews credited a change in the wind’s direction for preventing greater losses. Before the conditions had changed in their favor, though, large portions of Talent and Phoenix, Oregon (ten miles south of us) were decimated. My first reaction was, “Thank God that we were spared!” Hundreds of other families weren’t, however, so I had better not make God a part of the equation. Rather, I should blame the low humidity, gusting wind and mental illness of the arsonist for costing so many so much. It’s also a good idea to keep some perspective. A little construction in our neighborhood isn’t a major issue by comparison. We still have a place to live regardless of how it may be changing.
Since my previous post touched on the subject of my book covers, I’d like to share the latest. It was a challenge, at first, to imagine how to bring it to life. The solution was so amazingly simple that I’m still surprised that it took me so long to see it. At the outset, I knew that I wanted an empty, old-timey picture frame hanging on a weathered-looking wall. Where could I find a suitably run-down structure, how could I gain entry and who would let me hammer nails into their historic property? The answer, as I perused different places on my computer, was literally right in front of me.
I do all of my writing at this old table. I don’t remember exactly where I got it but we’ve been together for twenty years (my ex-wife, an antique dealer, may have picked it up at an auction; regardless, I got custody of it in our divorce). At any rate, the way that my palms tend to stick to the finish while I’m typing has always bothered me. You lift your hands on a hot day and there’s a shredding sound where the furniture stain and your sweat have adhered together. Wait a minute, I said to myself as I had an epiphany concerning the discoloration of the wood: wasn’t it precisely the sort of surface that I needed? What’s more, if I were to set the picture frame on a horizontal plane, it wouldn’t require any hardware to hang and try to hide in the final picture. A photo shoot resulted.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t get the camera high enough on the tripod to achieve a wide enough vantage. I unbolted the legs from the table and wrestled the top to the floor (no easy task given its weight — the thing is a monster). The greater distance below the lens was sufficient to capture it all. The frame was donated, after being robbed of its artwork, from elsewhere in the house. I had described it, in the novel, as a reproduction so I wasn’t worried about its authenticity. The newer gold, I thought, played well against the darker background, anyway. After I had tinkered with the image in Photoshop, tweaked the format and created a print-ready file, I sent off for the proof.
Here’s the finished product. I’m thrilled with it. The table on which I wrote is honored with a starring role. It reinforces the message of a book where everyday objects are like characters. Few viewers, however, will identify it as a desk. Wherever the frame is in reality, people, I think, are likely to assume that it’s on a wall. The band across the title reads “Not for Resale” because the novel has yet to be published. I don’t know how or when it will happen. I only hope that my cover survives the process.
It must be my obsessive personality. That’s why I had trouble accepting my Facebook ad. We’re all on the mental health spectrum, I believe, and each of us has our quirks. I had tried to promote my website on Facebook by boosting a post about it. The featured image turned out to be a painting of a nude woman. Because it appeared in the thumbnail preview, my ad was rejected.
So I tinkered with the settings, got a different picture to appear with the link and my promotion was approved. So, what was the problem? It didn’t fit thematically. That bothered me. It was posted on a page dedicated to my second novel, “The Sketchbook”: https://www.facebook.com/dcmorrister/. To summarize the plot, a woman wagers that she can stay naked all summer long, an artist takes her to stay at his cabin and she finds a new life in the neighboring town. Drawings of her illustrate the novel and are sampled on the Facebook page. The picture that resulted in my new ad, however, was of a bridge.
It’s a nice painting. I don’t mean to brag. Rather, my guilt compels me to say so. After a decent number of people had clicked “like” (and a couple, even, “love”), I deleted it. The landscape had nothing to do with my novels. At the top of a series of entries about the figure, the bridge was incongruous. I formulated a new approach. My website’s homepage features a detail of a chalk-pastel drawing. The sitter in it is turned away so that her nipples aren’t even visible. Surely, no one could object to such a harmless scene.
Wrong! It was rejected once and, after a brief review, a second time. What I needed was something where the model was suitably obscured. Why not, I thought, use the same photograph that I had for the cover of “The Sketchbook”. Maybe, if I wrote something intriguing, it would lead to more engagements. So I submitted my request along with the image in question.
Nope. It was rejected, too. The explanation cited provocative content as the reason. It also said something vague about too much skin. Never mind that it doesn’t reveal any more of the model than a bathing suit would, how does holding a sketchbook imply anything sexual? I was amazed. As a test of what exactly was acceptable, I tried the photo from my first novel, “In So Many Words”.
At last, my campaign was approved! Who knows how well it will be received? I’m not spending a fortune on it. In my frustration, I typed a placeholder sentence as a caption. Hopefully, it will do the job. What ‘s surprising is how strict the standards are. A lot of my writing regards the idea that nudity can’t really hurt you. If the censors have their way, nobody will ever know for sure.