I was off work today while my kids were in school for the morning so, with some bonus free time, I grabbed the opportunity to do some art. I had not found time to play with the supplies in my November Art Snacks box so I got those and my art journal and set to work. The Liquitex acrylic gouache I received was in a deep turquoise colour, one of my favourite colours, and I let that inform the subject matter as I thought the colour would suit an illustration of the Statue of Liberty. I didn’t want to try and draw the actual sculpture, however, so I drew my version of the iconic figure, changing her pose, hair, and face, but leaving enough elements for the subject to be obvious. I have not used gouache much generally and have never used acrylic gouache so this piece was a big experiment in media for me. I liked that I could use it thick on the crown but that diluted down it behaved a bit more like watercolour, which is how I used it on the body of the figure. I even managed to get some watercolour-like pigment blooms going. Gouache and I never got on well in the past, which is why I have barely used it, but I may have to give it another go.
The second and final leg of my birthday trip involved a cemetery. This will come as no surprise to those who have known me a long time or who have been following this blog for a while. I love cemeteries of any kind, from poky wee family plots to provincial church graveyards to massive municipal burial grounds. I am also a family history nerd and this trip combined both of these passions.
Mr Pict is a dual US/UK national (well, we all are now but he has been one from birth) and he has branches of his family that go all the way back to early colonial times, including Mayflower passengers, and a branch that goes back to 16th Century Switzerland. This latter family, the Stricklers, were Mennonites who were forced to flee Switzerland because of their religious beliefs (Mr Pict’s 10x Great-Grandfather is known as “Conrad the Persecuted”) and they eventually found their way to Pennsylvania in the early 18th Century. Back in August, I had used a family trip to Buffalo as an excuse to drag the extended family around three cemeteries to “meet” direct line Strickler ancestors. This time, however, we were seeking to meet ancestors from two generations even further back, including the first Strickler – another Conrad – to emigrate to America.
The weird thing about this cemetery – which is named the Strickler-Miller Cemetery – is that it stands in the grounds of the York County Prison. It is outside the walls and the barbed wire but is nevertheless plonked so adjacent to the prison facility that we were always in sight of guard towers in what presumably is an exercise yard. The prison stands on land that my husband’s ancestors once owned and farmed in centuries past so it makes sense that the burial plot is where it is but nevertheless it was a very peculiar feeling to be pootling around a cemetery in the shadow of a prison.
While we had experienced so much success in locating graves in Buffalo, we were much less successful in our explorations in this cemetery – despite it being vastly smaller than those cemeteries. The issue was the age of the graves we were looking for. My husband’s 6x Great-Grandfather died in 1771. I was looking for a small and worn field stone and saw a couple that might be right but could also be entirely wrong. We did, however, find several collateral ancestors and finally – after much viewing of the eroded transcription from different angles – we found the grave of Mr Pict’s 5x Great-Grandfather, Johannes Strickler, who died in 1795. We were in pursuit of his wife Elizabeth’s grave when we were thwarted in an unexpected way.
We were methodically wandering up and down the rows of wonky grave markers when a corrections officer drove down the road from the prison to the cemetery, rolled down his window, and ordered us to leave. We tried to explain why we were in the cemetery but he was having absolutely none of it. I could have either argued the toss or asked if we could speak to the governor to ask permission, as nothing I had read indicated that we were not allowed to be there. However, I was not about to argue with an armed man in any circumstances. Furthermore, the kids were complaining of being cold (the wind chill had picked up), one had accidentally whacked another in the face with his sleeve, and I had twisted my ankle by falling down a grass covered groundhog hole. It was time to accept defeat and depart of our own accord before we were escorted back to the main road.
It, therefore, was not a wholly successful cemetery trip but the kids were happy to have the prison guard anecdote to share with their classmates on Monday morning. It’s a risky business being a nerd sometimes.
I voted early this morning.
I was so excited and enthusiastic. I literally squealed when I saw my name and signature in the electoral register. I had had nightmares about my name not being in there because I became a citizen and registered so recently and was all prepared for requesting a provisional ballot. Turns out the admin for voting runs more smoothly than most American bureaucracies I have had to deal with.
Five years of living in a country while not enfranchised to vote has been stressful. I am raising my kids here and I pay taxes here and I intend to stay here so I am invested in this country. Today I was relieved to be able to exercise my right and responsibility as a US citizen.
Once a year, on the weekend closest to my birthday, I get to impose my choice of a day trip on the other five members of the Pict family and they are not allowed to complain or picket. Last year, everyone had to accompany me to Edgar Allan Poe’s Philadelphia home and the year before that we had a thorough wander around Laurel Hill Cemetery. This year, for multiple reasons, my choice was to visit the State Museum of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg. I thought it would be a good opportunity to learn a bit more about the state we now call home and so it proved to be.
We began in a gallery dedicated to Pennsylvania icons. This was a clever way to curate an eclectic array of items from stuffed animals to vintage packaging to ephemera from various industries. I actually had not known that mountain lions had ever roamed in Pennsylvania. 1871 was when the last cougar was killed in Pennsylvania, though the last eastern mountain lion was seen in Maine in 1938. My oldest son, snarky teen that he is, had sarcastically grumped that he was really hoping to see a coal pick so I dragged him to a display about Pennsylvania’s history of coal mining to show him the pick. He was nowhere near as enthusiastic as he had implied he would be. My favourite section of the icons gallery was that dedicated to big name companies based in PA because I love vintage packaging. There were old Heinz bottles, a Tastykake tin, a cardboard Hershey’s barrel that had once held Kisses, Crayola crayon cartons, and Hires root beer bottles. I also saw packaging from companies that I had not known were PA based – Keebler, Peeps, Zippo lighters, slinky, and Planter’s peanuts.
The reason I like vintage packaging is that I like old graphic design and commercial art and typography. For that same reason, I enjoyed the special exhibition dedicated to war advertising. In order to engage the kids in the idea of art as propaganda, we took turns adopting the poses depicted in the posters. That was good fun as was the slogan “Can vegetables, fruit, and the Kaiser too”. Nearby was a set of display cases with military items and a model of the battleship, USS Pennsylvania.
I had read that the museum had not so long ago been very moribund but that it had been given a boost when it stopped being free and started charging (admission is reasonable, though we had free entry) so they could invest in improving their displays to better showcase their exhibits and so they could obtain new items. One of these new purchases was very striking. From a distance, it looked like a beautiful sculpture of dangling sparkles, like an extra long chandelier; close up, however, it was arresting to discover that the sparkles were little gems inside glassine bags and that each of these bags represented an opioid death just from within Pennsylvania and just in 2017. It was staggering and to see this visual representation of all those tragedies.
My husband was looking forward to the Civil War section, since that is one of his nerd categories, but he was disappointed because it was very much focused on the “home front” and the social history aspects of the conflict rather than the military or political history that enthuses him. The kids and I, however, enjoyed it well enough. Our youngest learned that he could have served as a drummer boy and the boys all got to try out stereoscopic viewfinders for the first time. For my part, I was most struck by a display of items commemorating Gettysburg that were more like tourist trinkets than sombre reminders of a terrible, traumatic tragedy. I found it difficult to imagine women in crinolines fanning their faces with fans depicting the battlefield at some society ball. People can be so strange. Mr Pict did, however, enjoy a later section in the Museum featuring Civil War items, including John Burns’ rifle. The centrepiece of this gallery was an absolutely cast painting of the battle of Gettysburg by Peter Frederick Rothermel. Mr Pict got really into it and explained all of the areas of action being portrayed on the canvas. My eyes glazed over and my ears went numb.
There was an aesthetically pleasing section of the museum that had been dressed up to look like a street from times past. It contained things like an old trough with a pump, a general store, various shop windows, and trade workshops. My youngest was actually creeped out by the sound effects in the woodworker’s workshop. I learned something in that section too – summer kitchens. I had no idea summer kitchens used to be a thing, an additional building or annex room built in a shaded space and with thick stone walls so as to keep everything cool and, therefore, safely hygienic and to stop the rest of the house getting warm from the hot activities of cooking in the days before refrigeration and air conditioning. I was aware of kitchen outbuildings only in the context of enslaved people working in them on plantations so it was new information to me that houses in various social strata had once had these. My favourite item in this section, however, was a simple tin advertising sign that read “Pepo Worm Syrup”. I was simply tickled by the name plus I find parasites to be fascinating (probably as an offshoot of my keen interest in pandemics).
A trip up the escalator took us to a section largely dedicated to forms of transport. I do love the shapes of old stagecoaches and conestoga wagons but I am otherwise not that interested in vintage vehicles. Nor are my husband or children so we were able to whip through this section at a brisk pace. The same space also had displays, exhibits, and information about various industries of Pennsylvania such as milling of grain or textiles. Again, industrial history is not my bag so we moved quickly. My husband, however, did spend a bit of time in a section about the Pennsylvania Turnpike just because he has a connection, through his employment, to the turnpike. It was actually a really nicely presented area and probably one that had some recent investment of funds and time. We all had a good laugh when we happened upon a record of the song “Pennsylvania Turnpike, I love you” by Dick Todd and the Appalachian Wildcats and a button that let us listen to the track. It was a hoot.
The top tier of the museum was like stepping through a portal in time to my childhood as it was all of the things I remember loving about museum visits as a kid: anthropology, dinosaurs, taxidermy, and dioramas on different scales. I still get just as enthusiastic about these things as wee Laura did many birthdays ago. The mannequins in the dioramas had that glossy look of mannequins from my late 1970s childhood but the dioramas themselves were well maintained and effective. I liked the miniature dioramas best, however, because I like tiny wee fiddly things. I was big into dinosaurs when I was a wee girl. I was, therefore, definitely transported back to my childhood when it came to the fossils because I was very excited to see the skull of a gigantic fish and an entire mastodon skeleton, both found within Pennsylvania. The dioramas of stuffed critters were also well done as they depicted small ecosystems instead of just being a plain old wolf among painted grass. I learned that bison had once roamed in Pennsylvania but I also learned about how massively taxidermy techniques have improved. An adjacent section was all about the process of preserving, stuffing, and displaying an animal carcass and seeing what the old mountain lion used to look like – stubby muzzled and cartoonish – demonstrated just how much techniques have improved.
Phew! This post is quite long enough but I will conclude it with a postscript. The State Museum is opposite the State Capitol. We had visited the State Capitol in 2015, though we didn’t take a formal tour, so this time we just did a circuit of the exterior.
Then it was in the car and off to the second location for my birthday day trip ….
I had to redeem myself and my art journal after the hideous beetle page so I returned to what for me is apparently a favourite subject – skeleton women. I have no idea what in my psyche or imagination keeps compelling me to illustrate these skeletal ladies. I just go with it. This one was an experiment with a colour palette of orange, rusty red, and teal. I like the combination and can see me using it again. While the orange and red suggest rust, the teal suggests verdigris so they all work together quite well thematically as well as in terms of colour.
I probably won’t return to either of my art journals for the rest of this month because I am going to be consumed with other art projects. I am still filling my Brooklyn Art Library sketchbook with zombies and I am also participating in Drawlloween. I have joined in with Inktober the past couple of years but this year I decided to push myself out of the habit of just doing ink linework illustrations by joining in with Drawlloween. I am working bigger than in previous years and I am adding colour. That’s the plan anyway. You can follow the results of both of these projects on my other blog, Pict Ink, or on Instagram.
I used an Art Journal Adventure prompt for this art journal page. The idea had been to use household objects for mark-making. I decided, however, to make an abstract piece by drawing around various kitchen utensils, overlapping the silhouettes, and then (very roughly) filling the resulting shapes in with acrylic paint. It was just the type of quick dose of art I needed on a busy day. My art table is in the kitchen so I was able to create this page while cooking and cleaning in the same space. It’s rough and ready but it was a fun stress-buster to just throw some paint around on paper.
Peaks and valleys. Rough and smooth. Successes and failures. Not every experiment in my art journal is going to be a success. Indeed, most are probably lacking in some way but that’s acceptable to me because they are just experiments and my art journals are for relaxation and play. Some pages, however, are just abject failures. This is one such page. I almost didn’t blog about it because it is so bad but every failure is a learning opportunity so here it is.
My Rainbow Art Journal is a work in progress, evolving all the time. Some pages I complete from start to finish but others are more dynamic and shifting, emerging from leftover paint smooshed here, scraps of collage pasted there, until ultimately I decide what to do with that page. This page had had lots of red, yellow, and orange paint scraped onto it. I had also had to slap on some washi tape to reinforce the perforations. It was a pretty ugly base layer but it was something to work on. Incidentally, the background colour is much more orange than it appears in the photo. I think the metallics throw the camera off. Anyway, unfortunately I didn’t manage to lose the ugly. I painted on a beetle in a pearlescent yellow. The shimmer was nice but the whole thing looked washed out in comparison to the background colours. I, therefore, smudged on some gold to make the beetle a bit warmer in hue and add yet more shimmer. The idiom “You can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear” came to mind. I added some ink and some paint pen for detailing. Nope. Still ugly. That’s when I decided that I hated this page and that I was investing no more time in it. Time to abandon it and call it quits. On to new and hopefully better pages.