Tuesday, December 29, 2009

2010, here we come!

What a year ahead!

First we learned of our younger son's engagement, and plans for a September 2010 wedding.

Then our daughter and son-in-law told us that we are going to be grandparents in May.

Now our oldest son has asked a wonderful gal to marry him, and she has answered in the affirmative!

It's not even New Year's Day yet, but I'm ready to start celebrating! Woo-hoo!!!!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Memories of Christmases Past

I’ve been reminiscing lately, and thinking about how blessed I am to have these memories of Christmas…

As a kid, picking out a Christmas tree at the corner lot with my dad and brother. I especially remember the light bulbs, hung across the lot, illuminating the trees.

As a dad, the adventure of taking my kids to a “cut your own” tree farm, in search of the perfect Christmas tree.

Many years of "Family Christmas" at Crabtree’s Kitchen, where we enjoyed a wonderful meal and then a horse drawn sleigh ride through the woods. Grandpa often claimed to spot Rudolph through the trees, and the "real" Santa always paid a visit.

The warmth of our home on a cold, snowy Christmas Eve.

Melting butter and paprika sprinkled on top of the mashed potatoes, served with a Christmas meal at Aunt Irene and Cousin Kris’ house.

Uncle Vern and his tape recorder.

Moving from upper to lower Edgerton Street during the week between Christmas and New Year, and having a fully decorated tree in the trailer with the rest of our belongings.

Singing Silent Night, while holding a lit candle in the darkened sanctuary of our church during Christmas Eve service.

Peeling dried, cooled wax from my fingers.

Ornaments, hand made by us kids, and as ugly as they were, Mom still hung them on the tree.

A mountain of gifts under the tree, and the anticipation of opening them.

Taking a nap during the afternoon on Christmas Eve, to make the time go faster.

Rice pudding, and a prize awaiting the lucky person to find the walnut hidden somewhere in the bowl. I never ate the pudding, but was allowed to hunt for the nut.

My mom, scurrying around getting the meal on the table, and always the last to sit and eat.

One of my fellow employees, coming to our door on Christmas Eve and asking for food.

Barney, our dog, and his appetite for discarded wrapping paper.

“Christmas lights out mom’s side!”

What are your Christmas memories?

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Do what you love

I initially wrote this blog a few days ago, but when my trusted editor (my wife) read it, she told me it was a real downer. From my perspective, I thought I had simply shared some thoughts about working life. My intent was not to complain or garner sympathy, but when I separated myself from the topic and reread it from your perspective, I realized it could come across negatively. So, with that in mind, and in an effort to satisfy my editor, let me try to present the subject a little differently.

We have all heard the expression, “Find a job doing what you love, and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.” If I am honest with myself, I’m not sure I can say that I have loved my job consistently over the 40 years I’ve worked. By no means do I wish to be pitied. It’s not that I have hated every one of my 10,000+ workdays. It’s just that if I may have had a “higher calling,” I didn’t hear it or answer it, and I now find myself looking inward, contemplating how I would like to spend my waking/working hours. It’s an interesting process to pursue.

CLARIFICATION TO APPEASE MY EDITOR: While I have not necessarily loved every one of the 4.8 million minutes I have worked (not counting overtime), I have enjoyed many, and have been blessed with steady employment for all but 8 weeks of this period. I have liked working with 99.9% of the people, and consider some of them to be good friends even now, 30-40 years later. I still come home each day with a smile, to get a hug and a kiss from my loving wife, and a squealing, tail-wagging doggie greeting. It’s tough to beat that! No complaining here!

In my early years, I needed to work just to keep gas in my car, and spending money in my pocket. Like many others my age, I had no concept of planning for a long-term career, and my idea of preparing for the future was to plan for the following weekend.

CTAME: Yes, I admit I was a bozo, one who didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life, and thought he would just figure it out as he went along!

As I gained experience in the working world, I was fortunate to move from one position to the next, always staying near the front end of graphics technology. Indeed, there were years in the 80’s and 90’s when I was receiving calls from headhunters at a rate of about 3 or 4 per year. Besides the ego boost that interest afforded me, I was able to do some traveling as I considered offers. Those calls gradually decreased as I entered my 50’s, and it is evident that older guys aren’t as highly regarded in my business.
CTAME: I don’t get many headhunter calls anymore, so what. That’s OK with me. I know that I’m at the top of my game, and my experience and knowledge is immeasurable. I don’t want to move to another state and start over, anyway! The majority of my family is here, and I enjoy traveling so I have plenty of opportunity to see the cities I’ve passed up over the years. (Besides, if I changed jobs, they would probably want me to tweet!)

So now, it’s the eve of 2010. I have successfully climbed the management ladder. I have met most of my career goals. While I have no clear desire to start my own company, I would not rule that out. I presume I have 9-10 years of full time work ahead of me, and who knows how many years beyond that to be active. It makes sense to spend that time doing something I really enjoy.

CTAME: I love the thought of having a relatively short time left to work before retirement, but the fact of the matter is that I will never stop working. I will simply change what I’m doing each day, and you’ll have a different phone number to reach me between 7:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. While I enjoy the role that I have as the “wise ol’ boss,” and I find it amusing that younger workers sometimes affectionately call me “Pops,” I am excited for the future, and all of the unknowns. One thing for certain: from this point forward, I’ll be buying a lot more oil paint.

Stay tuned!

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Vroom, vroom!

Superstitions are not uncommon among athletes, and many have rituals they follow in preparation for an event. Some eat pasta or pancakes before a race. Some visualize their performance or listen to a certain type of music. There are those who wear a particular neck chain or must tap their hockey stick 10 times before taking to the ice. Some only approach the batter’s box from the left side, or offer the Sign of the Cross every time they come up to bat.

These types of activities are not restricted to athletes. Artists, writers and other creative individuals have their own superstitions, and (often strange) behaviors. The artistic process sometimes needs a good kick in the butt, either to break out of a festering rut, or to inspire new heights of creativity. Robert Genn, in his Twice Weekly Letters art newsletter, gave these examples of the odd actions of artists. Each day, before beginning to write, Dame Edith Sitwell would lie in a coffin. Poet Friedrich Schiller “kept rotten apples in his desk and inhaled them when he needed a shot of inspiration.” There is a story that 19th century landscape artist J.M.W. Turner once had himself “strapped to a ship’s mast and taken out to sea” in order to experience the drama of the elements during a storm. Accounts of eating raw beets preceding artistic pursuits, and painting naked have also circulated.

Edgar Allen Poe and Ernest Hemingway were reportedly heavy drinkers, though it is unknown if these behaviors contributed to their genius. Smoking cigars, drinking coffee, and marijuana use have all been employed as inspiration to intensify the creative process.

Many of us remember the phase the Beatles went through in the late 60’s, when they studied with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the founder of Transcendental Meditation, and began writing and performing a whole new style of music.

Rituals or routines can serve as motivation, but after considering all of this, I’m afraid I am quite boring. Sure, I can never seem to get my creative motor revved up on a Saturday morning without a few cups of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee, but you won’t find me with brushes in hand while wearing my birthday suit.

It’s not a pretty picture!

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Tuesday, November 17, 2009


I hung some new paintings at the Stillwater gallery last weekend, replacing others that had been there for a while. This is a challenging task, because space is limited and I must decide which paintings are most appropriate for the season. It is logical to keep my two Stillwater bridge prints hanging continuously, since they are specific to the area, and I also want to keep the most popular sellers hanging on my wall. I often wrestle with the thought that a buyer for the piece just removed may now walk through the door. Nevertheless, I need to rotate some out to keep the work fresh, and so, with winter coming, I hung some snow scenes.

All Tied Up - pen and ink with acrylic, by Dennis Sterner

The next step will be to check and update my wall at Rivertown Artworks in Osceola, Wisconsin. I have a smaller space there, and try to hang pieces with a “country” theme. I haven’t had work displayed there very long, and so far have sold only one framed print of Aermotor Co. The store is still quite new, and probably needs some time to develop its clientele, but has a great location in a quaint, small town that is always working to promote tourism.

I am putting together some paintings and prints with a north woods theme, and next spring plan to take a drive along the North Shore to see if I can persuade some galleries or gift shops between Duluth and Grand Marias to show my work. My Split Rock Lighthouse would be perfect for this venue, and I have many other pieces in process with lakeshore, forest, fishing and Lake Superior subjects.

Basically, the same types of subjects could do well in another gallery that is on my list of visits next year, and a drive to the Wisconsin towns of Boulder Junction, Minocqua and Eagle River may lead to opportunities to show my work to travelers through the beautiful north woods.

Perhaps one of my biggest challenges lies ahead as I prepare new paintings and approach galleries in Colorado and Wyoming. Our annual vacation to the Rockies has supplied me with a wealth of reference photos for paintings. During our last trip to Rocky Mountain National Park, I spent some time painting “en plein aire,” and those new paintings have led me to a prepare a series on the Rockies.

As much as I love to paint, it’s the promotion and marketing that can sometimes take the most time and effort. I need to pursue every opportunity to find venues to share my work, and offer art for sale. There is only so much room on our walls at home!

Friday, November 13, 2009

Stillwater Fine Art Walk

Stillwater Art Guild Gallery (402 North Main Street) is participating, along with six other galleries, in Art on Main. It's tonight, 4-9pm; tomorrow, 11am-5pm. Come on by and say hello!

Friday, October 30, 2009

It's all about the hunt

I have always wanted to be an artist although there were times, as a youngster, that I also thought being a professional baseball or football player sounded good. And there was a period in the 60’s that I thought I wanted to be a scientist. But when I was asked the question a few months back, “What would be your dream job?” I surprised myself by answering, after some contemplation, that I would like to be a treasure hunter.

I enjoy the reflective, satisfying feeling derived from painting and drawing, but the activity that has always given me a sensation of excited anticipation and gut-wrenching thrill has been the search for treasure. I have never considered anything as extensive or dangerous as shipwreck diving or spelunking, but I have often gone in search of my own sort of treasure.

When I was a kid, my family moved to a different house from time to time. We would sometimes find old coins, buried deep in the cushions of furniture left behind. Occasionally, there were old coats hanging in deserted storage rooms that also yielded coins from the pockets. This led to a coin collecting hobby that continues today.

Garage sales and estate sales have been some of my most lucrative hunting grounds. Whether it is an old picture that I can hardly wait to bring home and open up the frame to see what might be hiding behind it, or a vintage Fisher Price toy that costs $2.00 and can be resold on eBay for $50, the hunt and the find is rewarding. Coming across old issues of art magazines and books, or an old Currier & Ives print, is exciting…it could just as well be a buried chest on a deserted island in the south Pacific.

I can only imagine the thrill and challenges felt by people who dive on sunken ships or explore ancient tombs. In my own little world, I feel similar anticipation when I check out a deserted barn or discover an old car in a field. The possibility of stumbling upon old treasures of the past as I roam around a junkyard or dumpsite is enough to make my adrenaline flow.

More recently, my wife and I have started geocaching, which blends elements of exploring, hiking and treasure hunting into a very enjoyable pastime. With our portable GPS, we have had an opportunity to visit some unique roads and trails as we follow the coordinates to hidden treasures. Hundreds of thousands of caches are hidden, all over the world. We often spend Sunday afternoon searching for newly placed caches in the area, and always make it a part of our annual vacation to search out those near our destination. Just a couple of months ago, for the first time, we prepared a cache of our own and hid it in a nearby regional park.

So, just as blogging seems to have satisfied my desire to be a writer, I think geocaching has filled my need to explore and hunt for treasure. The next time you see someone on hands and knees, peering inside a hollow log, stop and say hello – it just might be me!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

I can hardly wait!

Husband, father,
brother, son.
I hope I've passed the test.

Uncle, boss
and loyal friend;
I know I've tried my best.

But a role that I
have never played
will start in spring, next year.

A grandpa!
I can hardly wait!
I'm grinning ear to ear!

Congratulations, Laura and Chris. I love you both.

Thursday, October 15, 2009


It is a season of transition.

Perhaps second only to spring, when dirty snow and ice accumulated during a long, gray winter give way to new blades of green grass and budding trees, the transition from summer to fall approaches with magical, yet sometimes agonizing, anticipation.

Besides the fact that I can no longer exclaim, “ball game tonight!” as I arrive home from work, the beauty and warmth of our Midwestern summer begins to wane. But then, it’s difficult to complain about losing summer’s beauty when it is replaced by autumn’s parade of red, yellow and gold; the smell of crisp, October air; the crunch of frosty grass underfoot; and the amazing sculptures of willows and oaks as they undress to expose their limbs against the cool, gray sky.

Kids are back in school, and I can’t help but notice (and appreciate) the transition to older crews working at McDonalds and elsewhere. A shift in my morning drive time is calculated to avoid following the school bus and its many pick-up stops. It’s now a little darker in the morning, and in the evening, and soon the only daylight hours will be while I am sitting in my windowless office. (Of course, these days I am just glad to have an office in which to sit!)

Outdoor projects are transitioning to indoor projects. The travel trailer has been stored for the winter, the pool will soon be covered, and the mower deck will need to be replaced with the snow blower. I will rake the fallen leaves, and they will make good winter cover for the perennial flowers. One final garage cleaning will enable us to park indoors again.

Transitions. Our lives are full of them. Some are nearly the same every year, while others sneak up on us while we are busy with our lives.

But now, with fewer projects on my list, I begin a refreshed season of painting and drawing. The outdoors is no longer competing for my time, and I look forward to a prolific six months.

I love transition.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Six degrees of separation?

Someone recently told me that we are connected in some way to every third person that we meet. I was surprised by this ratio, but I am familiar with the “small world experiment,” and “six degrees of separation” (or “human web”), a theory that everyone on earth is somehow linked to each other through an average of only six other people. Odd as it may seem, there is even a game out there called Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, which challenges people to see if they can connect any film actor in history to actor Kevin Bacon within six links. I’m not sure why he was the subject of the challenge, although for a time he seemed to be in every movie being made! Several scientific studies have been conducted to support these theories. I’m not going to spend any time here summarizing the studies, but if anyone wants to learn more, The Google is ready and able to help. I will, however, share just a few thoughts on the subject, and once again the realization of what a small world we live in, especially if we twist it my way.

At first, it’s hard to imagine how a kid from the east side of St Paul could ever be linked, through only 6 people, to someone in the Third World, or Queen Elizabeth, or Vladimir Putin. Even though I would be extremely surprised if a connection could be found from me to someone like Osama Bin Laden, I suppose, if a person could find just one link to another country, one could get real creative and find ways to link to almost anyone. It is just a matter of how many degrees apart we are separated.

Depending on what types of rules we place on this challenge, I think we could creatively link ourselves in odd ways to all sorts of people. For example, every time we attend a music concert or go to a sporting event, there is (somewhat of) a link starting to the people on the stage and playing field. And if one got an autograph or caught a foul ball, there is a definite link. Who knows where some of those links might lead?

When I took a writing class through community education a couple of years ago, my instructor was also a writer for Prairie Home Companion, so I suppose I could say I was therefore linked to Garrison Keillor. In addition, my sister-in-law works for Minnesota Public Radio and has met him on several occasions. In either of these situations I am linked by only two degrees of separation from the author/humorist.

As my wife and I were walking on a street in downtown Chicago, we nearly bumped into Oprah and her entourage. Does this mean we could say we are linked to her? If so, then we would be linked to everyone appearing on her show.

Several years earlier, the graphics company I was working for produced a small control panel decal that I later heard was applied to equipment that went to the moon. Therefore, could I be linked to Neil Armstrong? Well, that one may be stretching it.

There are, of course, plenty of direct links, when we have an opportunity to actually meet famous people. My friend and I noticed Minnesota Twins great, Tony Oliva, at the airport when we were waiting for a flight. When he had finished saying goodbye to his family we approached him, introduced ourselves, and asked for an autograph. We spent the next 5-10 minutes talking, and making a legitimate link. This connection then began a link between us and everyone else on the Twins, and potentially to many people living in his native country of Cuba.

One time, when I was having breakfast in a Milwaukee hotel restaurant, I recognized half-a-dozen Twins players sitting at the counter. I made a pest of myself and asked them all for autographs, unknowingly creating a link to each of them and their worlds.

One of my favorite artists, Robert Bateman, was in Forest Lake for a book signing a few years ago, and I took that opportunity to meet him and have a copy of his book signed. That was a direct, or real, link.

So there are the real links, and then some creative links like I have mentioned above. We all know what a small world we live in. There probably are many ways that we could find real or creative links to people, worldwide. The possibilities are endless, and the connections can be intriguing.

Do any of my readers wish to share links from their lives?

Friday, September 18, 2009

Stay in touch!

An approaching 40th high school reunion, and my thought process in trying to decide if I will attend, has me reminiscing again about the “old” days. In particular, my old art class memories have led me to wonder if the same experiences that I had are tolerated, accepted, or embraced in the classroom today. My guess would be that they are not, in part because we live in a society that is afraid to offend, goes to great lengths to avoid any sign of favoritism, and one that I think sometimes stifles creativity.

Memories of school often begin with my junior high school art teacher, Richard Wariakois, who got my attention early when he warned his students that the dense and opaque, black India ink would cause paralysis to our hands if a spill occurred. Yes, I was especially naïve, but it took me a couple of years before I realized that his words weren’t true at all, and that it was just his clever way of insuring we were neat and careful with supplies!

Mr. Wariakois must’ve recognized my love of art, and a talent needing development. Perhaps that was why he allowed me to work on larger and more unique projects when opportunity arose. One of those projects was a large oil painting of a serene pasture, with horses and a pond. When finished, it was hung above the stairway leading to the boys’ locker room. I didn’t take gym class and had no reason to be in the area, so I didn’t learn until much later that my painting was dubbed “the snag pit.” I won’t go into detail about why my painting came to be called that, but suffice it to say that junior high school boys often lack art appreciation, and good manners!

Another “special assignment” from Mr. W. began when he brought in two, 8’ long telephone pole sections, and asked me and one other student to go to work with chisels, mallets and knives to create American Indian totem poles. It was a challenging task for a couple of East Side, Scandinavian kids, but we must have done enough library research (thumbing through fat encyclopedia volumes) to make them believable, because the tall statues guarded the art department entrance for years after.

As the end of the school year approached, Mr Wariakois told me that I could have all of the opened tubes of oil paint. He would receive a new supply the following fall, and rather than throwing the old paint away he wanted it put to good use. It has been. I think that I just finished squeezing out the last of that paint this past winter.

High school art classes led to new adventures. I started with Art 1, since I felt like I should start at the beginning, but it only took a few weeks for my teacher, Richard Larsen, to recommend that I transfer to Studio Art. I maintained communication with Mr. Larsen, but Studio art was where I belonged! It was there, under the watchful eye and gentle guidance of Helen McKenney, that I was exposed to additional mediums, clay work, and new friends who had similar interests. Dave, Dave, Ned and I, quite often, would work while softly humming or whistling. One of our favorites was the theme song from the epic film, Exodus. (Thanks, Cousin Kris, for helping to identify the name. You, and your terrific memory, ROCK!)

I did editorial cartoons and caricatures for the school paper, many special projects, and started selling my art to other students. I joined Spectrum, the high school art club, and was elected co-president. (Sally: if you’re reading this, I apologize once again that while we shared the title, you did all of the work!)

I was a prolific artist, leading to more recognition as time went by. Once, during a school-wide art fair, my Spanish teacher asked the class if any of us had artwork on display. Before I had a chance to reply (I was quite shy at the time), one of my classmates boldy exclaimed, "I do! I've hung my work under my alias – Dennis Sterner!"

Unlike other students, when I occasionally ditched a class, I didn’t sneak out of school to get a burger or meet a friend or have a smoke. I quietly slipped into a studio art class so I could spend an extra hour in my favorite pastime. Sweet Mrs. McKenney never ratted me out!

I mentioned in an earlier blog that Mrs. McKenney gave me a blank canvas when I was about to graduate, and asked me to paint something for her sometime. To this day, I regret that I never did. I never saw her again, and have not heard anything about her since. Mr. Larsen supplemented his teaching income by driving a cement truck in Forest Lake during the summer; I’ve waved to him from time to time, but have not seen him for quite awhile. I heard that Mr. Wariakois recently died, and though I have not stayed in touch, I thank him for starting me in the right direction, and stressing the importance of keeping a tidy workspace and not wasting ink.

Memories are treasures that should be embraced. It’s a shame we get so busy that we don’t stay in touch with people who shaped our lives.

Maybe I will attend my class reunion.

Monday, September 7, 2009

One More Sterner

It looks like I'll be doing another "wedding" oil painting. My youngest son has gathered the courage to ask her dad for permission to marry, and then he popped the question. She said, YES!

We're thrilled! She's a keeper.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Brushing Up

I have occasionally blogged about the satisfaction I get from my brushes - the utter joy of picking up this instrument of the masters, gently drawing its bristles through my fingers as I prepare to dive into the medium, then leisurely extracting the brush and observing as it glistens in the light, and drips oil-based gold. The virgin brush is no longer the same, now permanently tinted to a degree; yet, if properly cared for, will serve me well for years to come. Through the pressure of my fingers and the sway of my arms, I apply the liquid hue to the textured substrate, admiring the change in the surface as it develops a radiant glow.

For the past two evenings, I have worked, and toiled, and blended, and stroked these painters’ tools, as I completed the single largest project I have ever attempted with my brushes. With a tremendous amount of assistance from my trusted associates, MBH, MOD and FSIL, we converted the 2000 square foot coniferous structure from a dull, drab and dusty surface, to one that shouts new life and promise.

My deepest thanks to My Better Half, My Only Daughter and Favorite Son-In-Law for helping me stain the house!

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Time off work + Family Camp = Ahhhhh

I returned to work on Monday after a great trip to Madeline Island, off the southern shore of Lake Superior, near Bayfield, Wisconsin. Our vacation week actually started the previous Saturday in Birchwood, WI, with a surprise 60th birthday party for my brother-in-law, that became even more hilarious than expected when we learned that he had known of the surprise for at least a month, and never told anyone. Nevertheless, the party was a huge success, with family and friends getting together, having a good time.

On Sunday, Pat, Schroeder and I packed up the trailer and headed north, not really sure where we would spend the next couple of days. We found a very peaceful National Forest campground, north of Drummond, that gave us a chance to catch our breath from the busy weekend, and relax a bit. We were the only campers there.

Our next stop was Bayfield. We toured the town, treated ourselves to an ice cream cone and visited a couple of art galleries (one of my favorite things to do when away from home). Then, after checking out a small city campground just outside of town and discovering all our favorite, lakeside spots unavailable, we decided to board the ferry and start our island adventure a few days earlier than originally planned.

Big Bay State Park was our destination, on the eastern shore of Madeline Island, and though we had campsite reservations for later in the week, we assumed it would be no problem to snag a spot on a Monday. Little did we know that the campground was booked solid! (Fact: Big Bay has the highest nightly occupancy rate of all Wisconsin State Park campgrounds, according to a park ranger.) It was only because another camper had just canceled that we were able to settle into a site early.

The weather was beautiful during the early part of the week, and afforded plenty of opportunity to enjoy the beaches and tour the island. (Opinion: Housed in a former schoolhouse, Madeline Island has one of the most charming public libraries around!) I snapped some research photographs for future paintings, and spent a little time sketching some of Madeline Island’s landscape. Rain moved in Wednesday afternoon, and continued through Friday, but in between raindrops we hiked, and biked, and geocached, and read, and ate, and just enjoyed having free time. On Thursday, we moved to our reserved site in anticipation of Family Camp, our annual camping trip with our three “kids,” son-in-law, and the boys’ girlfriends. Camp was a great time, as always, and included some competitive games of Catch Phrase and Ladder ball, a round of golf, great conversation, a surprise visit from friends, campfire stories, moped riding, bicycling, a stop at Tom’s Burned Down Cafe, and delicious food in large quantities. It’s amazing to me how well we eat when we are on our camping trips!

By the time Sunday rolled around, everyone was sorry to see our time together come to an end. One at a time, each couple packed up and headed for the ferry. It was a beautiful, warm, sunny day, with calm water in Lake Superior, and several sailboats sharing the channel. A few of us met again on the mainland, and spent some time driving around in search of pie, eventually finding some wonderful apple and blueberry turnovers at Coco, in Washburn. We sat outdoors on Coco's colorful Adirondack style chairs, enjoying our treats, while bakers, Nick and Jim, popped a few more turnovers into the oven so we would have a supply to take home.

To a certain degree, I believe we were all delaying the inevitable. We knew we needed to hit the road; it was already 4:30 p.m. but no one wanted to see the trip end. Finally, amidst more hugs and good-byes, we each headed our separate ways.

I can’t wait until we can do it again.

Family Camp, 2009

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Gardening like Monet?

Many years ago, I spent a Sunday afternoon at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, admiring a visiting exhibit by one of my all-time favorite masters, Claude Monet. From what I’ve learned, Monet noticed the village of Giverny, in northern France and on the bank of the River Seine, while on a train. He immediately knew he wanted to live there, and after saving enough money, purchased a house and land. It was there that he created the spectacular gardens that were the subject of many of his later paintings, and some of his most memorable works. As I left the gallery that day, I stopped in the gift shop and purchased a children’s book called Linnea in Monet’s Garden, and a small, cloth doll modeled after the main character in the book. Both were to be a treat for my daughter, Laura.

I’m not sure what ever happened to the book or the doll, but my memories of Monet’s garden paintings remain vivid. The tranquil scenes, and his use of color and bold brushstrokes have always been inspirational to me. It was, perhaps, with Monet's Giverny gardens in mind that we set out to build our own perennial garden in the back yard. Its main shape has been present for quite awhile, as has an arbor, covered with flourishing roses, and a flagstone walkway, but we’ve finally begun to polish the garden off. We’ve added and amended soil, and lined the garden edges with stones that we have gathered from all over the property. Over the last few days we have planted 20 flowering plants, thanks to generous birthday gifts to Pat from our children and her mom, and have added a healthy layer of mulch. It will require several years, and probably double the amount of plants before everything matures and fills in, but we’ve got a good start. The garden will be beautiful, and it will be a treat to watch it grow and develop.

The Waterlily Pond, by Claude Monet. (Public domain image.)

The last plant was put in its place last night, and because it is close to 6 feet high and very thin, I thought I would attach a tall, wooden stake for support to the nearby retaining wall that faces the pond. I carefully positioned it so it was vertical, and pounded the first nail through the cedar into the wall. Then, just as I was going to strike a second nail, I found myself inside of a swarm of angry bees. Evidently, my pounding caused an unwelcome vibration in the wall, about two feet below the new plant, and the bees’ peaceful existence was disrupted. I must have looked like one of those cartoon characters, running from a swarm of bees with legs spinning, arms flailing, and (almost) screaming obscenities at the little honeys! My hammer, nails and pride went flying as I was chased out of Linnea’s Garden.

Luckily, I only got three bee stings, one on my shoulder and two behind my knee. Nevertheless, I was sore and quite exhausted from the ordeal. Some baking soda paste on the stings and a cold washcloth on my forehead, and I was ready to return to the garden. Treading lightly and keeping my eyes and ears open, I tied up the plant and then skedaddled out of the area, leaving the bees and wall alone. Until another day.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Where's a clothespin?

After I inserted a couple of bagel slices into the toaster this morning, I looked for a clothespin to reclose the bag. I hate, with a vengeance, those little white plastic “C” shaped clips that are often used on bagged products. They just aren’t user friendly. The only thing worse for this purpose is the wire clamp used to hold potato bags closed; those are not reusable at all. In our house, potato bags get ripped open, and never again closed up properly. Anyway, I digress. Back to the clothespin.

I needed a spring-type clothespin. We usually have a few in a drawer, along with twist ties, rubber bands and a variety of bags and wraps and such. But today I couldn’t find one. Where in the world, I thought to myself, are the clothespins? I knew that we keep a few in a bag in the laundry room, but I couldn’t find any out there, either. We’ve purchased clothespins in the past, in big packs of 50 or 100. Perhaps some have vanished forever, springing their escape from clothing hung outside to dry on a windy day, but not many. To where do they disappear? Is it like the sock that always seems to show up without its mate at the end of the wash-and-dry cycle? It’s not like a clothespin can cling to the inside of a pant leg with a static charge! Early on a Monday morning, when cranky ol’ me is trying to choke down some breakfast at 5:00, I just didn’t need this annoyance! A twist tie would have to do.

Fast forward to noon. I had lunch at my desk, like I usually do, and ate a few mini carrots instead of potato chips. (I gave up chips a couple of years ago as part of my attempt to eat healthier.) The sandwich was great, and the carrots were fresh out of a new bag. As I was ready to close up the bag, I blindly reached into a drawer in my desk to find…a clothespin! In that couple of nanoseconds, my brain registered, Sure, you don’t have any clothespins when you need them at home because they’re all in a drawer at work!

Hmmmm. This drawer is often bumping into my keyboard, so I don’t usually open it all the way. For some reason, today I pulled it open as far as it would go, and what did I discover but 29 clothespins, buried beneath legal pads and Post-it notes! A veritable goldmine of those little wooden, spring-loaded suckers. In a series of quick calculations that almost prove I must have some degree of OCD, I figured out that the 29 clothespins, along with perhaps 15 twist ties, and a handful of rubber bands, equates to around 50 bags of carrots that I have brought to work for lunches. And, since I very seldom go out to lunch, and since a bag usually lasts me for a couple of weeks, and 100 weeks is about two years, and since I have been eating carrots instead of chips for two years, I have now solved the case of the missing clothespins!

Sometimes it amazes me where an idea for a blog will come from.

Editor’s note (a.k.a. Mrs. S.): If the writer of this blog would look, he might also see that there are at least ½ dozen clothespins in his studio - on nearly empty paint tubes, holding paper to the easel and clipping various papers together. :-)

Monday, August 3, 2009

Old sketchbook analysis

It seems like I’m always cleaning or organizing in the studio. I was going through some old (ancient?) sketchbooks from my junior and senior high school days, when it occurred to me that I might have had some issues as a teen.

Anyone who watches television cop shows like Criminal Minds or The Mentalist has seen episodes where the investigators have had to delve into the past of the unsub (unknown subject). If those same investigators were to look at my old sketchbooks, they may start formulating a theory about me!

Beyond the usual art class assigned drawings, there was a collection of sketches worthy of a character study, and an entirely different person expressing himself in those books. When looking at a delicate picture of a bouquet of roses, followed on the next page by a sinister, dark figure on a waterfront dock, one might presume that I was reminiscing about a movie I had just seen. But how to explain 20 or 30 of those kinds of characters? It was almost like I was creating a pen and pencil underworld, where good and evil met in combat. The creepy creatures that I drew were gruesome, and certainly based on nothing more than an active imagination. But, what an imagination!

There were war pictures. On one page I drew an anti-war design, I suppose reflecting some pacifist feelings that I seem to remember having at the time. But, turn the page, and see my drawings of Nazi soldiers being obliterated during World Ward II by Air Force fighters. Someone might analyze these and conclude that I had some kind of an internal conflict between a just war and one that, perhaps, never should have happened. (Vietnam was in progress at the time.) Personally, I don’t remember being that deep when I was 16.

Then there was my “mining” period. I had several drawings of huge cliffs, pits, valleys and water channels, where heavy equipment was digging, plowing and moving earth, while creating tunnels, bridges and roads. I don’t know what was in my head when drawing those pictures. And I’m not sure what it meant when the miners were under attack from army tanks or submarines. At least there weren’t any dark, subterranean creatures taking part in the battles.

I need to explain that my subjects were not all creepy or violent. This was a kid who loved his family, went to church and got good grades in school. I had many nice drawings – of my friends, cars, puppies and cartoons. But as I reviewed these sketchbooks, including hundreds of drawings, I never knew quite what to expect on the next page. To this day, I can’t explain the darkness of some of my oldest art. Perhaps a therapist would tell me that I was expressing opposites of my life. That, because of my conventional, east side, Captain Whitebread background, I was building a fantasy world that I had never seen, except on TV or in the movies. The therapist might add that it’s just part of growing through the adolescent years, and nothing to worry about.

I prefer to think of it as early indications of a creative genius, like ……oh, how ‘bout Rembrandt, or Monet, or Van Gogh?

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Camping Observations

A few days camping this past week has once again allowed me to clear my mind of normal, everyday clutter, and see the world around me with a fresh attitude. Simple, familiar and always welcomed experiences:

Hearing the haunting horn of a locomotive in the distance, announcing its approach, and the rumbling sound the train makes as it speeds along the tracks.

Why do the noisiest crows always sit directly above our campsite at 5:00 a.m?

Stepping outside to find the early morning dew covering the picnic table and anything else that was left outside overnight, a small and temporary inconvenience that will evaporate as the warm sun rises.

The tiny footprints left by raccoons in their nighttime search for food.

The smell of fresh coffee brewing on the camp stove, with the anticipation of holding the hot, steaming mug in my hands, and taking that first tasty sip.

The groan of an outboard motor passing by the campground just after dawn, and eventually becoming silent as it travels across the calm lake.

Chipmunks with no fear, looking for dropped morsels of anything edible.

The haze over the valley below, diffusing the scene, and usually signaling a hot, humid day ahead.

Why do mosquitoes seem to find us when we sit in the shade, and not in the sun? And, conversely, the flies do the opposite.

What is the little bug that looks like it is wearing a World War II helmet?

Dragonflies and butterflies, fluttering among the wildflowers.

The distinctive song of cicadas, enveloping the area, and accentuating a hot summer day.

The (almost) guaranteed trip to a local store to pick up supplies we forgot to pack.

Sitting around the campfire in the evening, munching on salted-in-the-shell peanuts, roasting hot dogs or s’mores, and gazing into the mesmerizing red-hot coals.

And, finally, looking up into the dark, night sky when the day is done, inspecting the heavens, watching for shooting stars, realizing how small we are, and being thankful for what we have.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Yosemite Chapel

Anyone who has visited Yosemite National Park in California is likely familiar with its countless waterfalls, the famous granite walls of El Capitan and Half Dome, and the ancient giant Sequoia trees. A pioneer landmark of which you may not have heard is the Yosemite Valley Chapel. Built in 1879, the chapel is the oldest structure in Yosemite Valley, and gained recognition on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. With its incredible past and awesome location, it has attracted a steady stream of visitors for many years.

Four weeks ago, today, a young Minnesota couple said their wedding vows in the Yosemite Valley Chapel and began married life together.

It was the wedding of Abe and Rachel, good friends of my son and his girlfriend, which led me to do an oil painting of the chapel. They wanted a unique gift for their friends, and asked if I would be interested in painting the chapel so they could buy a framed print to give as a wedding gift.

With little time or opportunity to visit and research before I needed to begin painting, I was concerned about getting a technically accurate picture of the chapel as it might look on an early summer day. There were a few photos of the general area in my files that helped to plan the look and colors of the trees, grass and sky; and I found pictures of the chapel on the Internet, at the official Yosemite Chapel website and at several photo-sharing sites. Most of those were taken from different views and in other seasons of the year. My challenge was to make a composition that was representative of the scene and as accurate as possible, without using the ideas of or infringing on the copyrights of other artists and photographers.

Working from several views of the chapel and the surrounding hills and trees, I composed a scene that clearly depicts it as a special place. The cedar colored chapel and steeple, the serene setting, the pines trees in front and the large tree on the side of the chapel are accurate, yet I took some liberties with Half Dome. It is visible from the chapel area but it doesn’t loom over the scene quite as I painted it. Nevertheless, the painting is immediately believable and representative of the day. That was my main goal, and I have heard that the newlyweds are thrilled with their gift. What can make an artist happier?

My final brush strokes on each painting are always my signature, and a bible verse notation chosen especially for the piece. For Yosemite Chapel, I selected Colossians 3:12-17, scripture that I think speaks not only to newlyweds, but also to all of us.

Best wishes, Abe and Rachel, for a long and happy life together!

[Editor’s note: Yosemite Valley Chapel is for sale on Dennis’ website (the original, as well as giclée prints). Click here, scroll to the picture of it, and click on the image for more information.]

Friday, July 10, 2009


The sparkling clean, white ‘63 Chevy was sitting at the corner, waiting for the light to turn from red to green when the midnight blue ‘64 rumbled alongside. The two drivers gave each other a slight nod, as their respective girlfriends slid even closer toward the driver side of the bench seats. Both cars pulsated with horsepower, panting and inching forward, their drivers visualizing a drag strip: impatient with the red, anticipating the yellow, desiring the green. Onlookers on both sides of the street stretched their necks to see where the vibration in the pavement was coming from. Finally, as the two brothers of GM could hold back no longer, the glowing green appeared, and faster than a slug crawls from a garden, the monster 283’s s-l-o-w-l-y rumbled away from the corner.

What? A slug? A 283?

Well, I was in the ‘64; my buddy, Norb, was in the ‘63. Back in about 1971, we had a couple of the cleanest Impalas ever to cruise the loop of downtown St. Paul. They weren’t the big muscle cars with 427 or 454 engines, but that was ok. We didn’t race (much), but we took great pleasure in slowly cruising our favorite streets, while music from our car stereos (cassettes and 8 tracks) drifted out into the neighborhood through the open windows. We looked darn good!

Those memories came flooding back to me last Wednesday evening when Pat and I drove down to Stillwater, and dropped in on the Cruisin’ on the Croix car show. There’s nothing like a warm summer night, rock and roll music, a babe on your arm, and the explosion of open headers from a ‘68 Chevelle SS396 to bring out the kid again in every male baby boomer of a certain age! We got there a little late and missed some of the treasures on display, but we saw enough old cars to rekindle thoughts of the “old” days, before gas was unleaded, when 8 cylinders were standard, and when “green” meant you were inexperienced in the drag racing department.

I have to confess, I never raced at the drag strip, but I remember more than a few nights when my tires spun out as I competed with a friend, my brother, or a member of the dreaded Highland Raiders Car Club. You see, I was a member of The Jokers Wild, along with close to 50 friends who lived and worked mostly in or near the East Side. The Raiders were our nemesis, always looking for a drag, or a fight, or just wanting to stir up trouble. (Think Jets and Sharks on a smaller scale.) Ha! At least that's how I remember it, but I must admit that I never really got to know any of the Highland Raiders, and they probably weren't much different than us. In fact, when I think about it now, perhaps most of the teasing I endured from them was when I was still driving my ‘55 Chev, 4 door. As my first car, it was a beaut, but as a hot rod it had about as much muscle as a 2009 Prius! It’s no wonder I would hear taunts from one of their guys like, “Hey! Where’d ya get that lawnmower?” Ah, well, those were great days.

In Stillwater, we saw a few of my old favorites, including a gorgeous ‘69 Super Bee owned by my buddy, Ed. He had one just like it back in the early 70’s, but sold his “baby,” as most of us did. As luck would have it, he found another a few years ago and was able to buy it. Now, on many summer nights, Ed can be found at a car show with his teen-aged son, enjoying the Bee and passing on the car bug to a new generation.

If only we could all find and afford to buy one of our first cars, or one that we have always dreamed of owning. I'd buy a Corvette, from 1967 or before. Just imagine, a car that cost between $5000- $10,000 back then can now demand as much as $100,000, or more! Oh, if I only knew then what I know now!

[Editor's note: If you'd like a custom illustration or caricature of your own classic car, contact Dennis.]

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Happy Birthday, USA!

Every year, as Independence Day approaches, a wide variety of somewhat scattered thoughts and memories again come to mind.

I remember the year that my brother almost blew himself up. If memory serves me correctly, our family was camping at a park in Ontario (or it could have been Otsego, or Osceola). He and I were about 7 and 10 years old, and we each had a bucket of fireworks. We were sitting on the beach as darkness moved in, and enjoying the fireworks of other campers when his bucket caught a spark while under him. The entire beach lit up, and he must have been lifted 3 feet into the air! Luckily, the only damage was a destroyed bucket and a hot behind.

My family often went on July 4th to Lake Phalen, on St. Paul’s East Side, to sit on the shore and watch the fireworks display over the water. I have very distinct memories of those hot summer nights, and the chorus of oooooo’s and aaahhhhh’s that accompanied every colorful burst.

The sight of Air Force fighter jets, screaming above the treetops during the annual Forest Lake parade, always gives me a chill and puts a lump in my throat.

As many as a few weeks of random booms, off in the distance, seem normal at this time of year. I can’t help but compare them to a different sort of random boom that people hear from their homes in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, or elsewhere a war is being waged.

I admire the steady and fearless military of our country, as they protect us at home and afar, and provide the security and safety we sometimes take for granted.

When I was on a business trip to New England a few years ago, I was able to walk on some of the battlefields of the Revolutionary War. It is an amazing feeling, to gaze out on a grassy field at Lexington and imagine the conflict that took place there, over 200 years ago.

I’ve started a painting, of bold, colorful fireworks exploding over the lift bridge in Stillwater. Other work has been put in front of it, but I will get back to it and finish it in time for next year’s Independence Day celebration.

Every year, sometime during the middle of June, I glance at the cornfields along the roadways, and wonder if the small, green sprouts will be “knee high by the 4th of July.” Once the 4th rolls around, I am always amazed that the corn is knee high, and sometimes already as high as my waist.

I love to see the flag displayed, exhibiting pride in our country and its people, and reminding me of the founding principles on which the United States of America was formed.

Does anyone else have 4th of July memories or thoughts they would like to share?