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 giclĂ©e 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?