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Color duet – painting with Kaffe Fassett

Kaffe taught me to seek beauty, and to find it in color.

The beauty of a weird beige plastic card table against an array of singing red bowls in my mother’s house.

The hallucinatory pink wall in a sea of white on a walk through winter in Vermont

Before I was ever a painter he took me by the hand and introduced me to the neutral wonderland of Giorgio Morandi, and the joy of being in a relationship with the same objects for over 50 years.

When we were little and there was no babysitter he took us for long walks and told us stories, and we lay on the tall grass on the side of the road and listened, enthralled.

When we were older he sent us postcards from his travels – men on horseback wearing shoes with toes that curled, rows of colorful spices in a marketplace. His images in word and picture captivated my imagination.

And he introduced me to his favorite painters, Odilon Redon, Matisse, Sean Scully, and taught me that some of my greatest teachers might be found in books.

When we began to paint together, it was always color that inspired his arrangements. I sat nearby and painted my version sometimes literally at his elbow. In painting with Kaffe, I have learned to see color in greater depth, to seek its range of luminosity, the importance of capturing the subtle differences between hues.

It is almost as though he can hear the colors singing, and in painting what he sees he is keying the pitch. Can you hear it? Can you see it?

For years we have stolen a week out of our lives for this. Hours of looking and sitting and painting and standing back, looking again and again at the same objects in new arrangements. Trying again, seeing again. Because it is in this pursuit of beauty, the beauty of one color singing against another, that we both find meaning.

Last week someone asked us, don’t you get bored painting the same things again and again?

Never, was Kaffe’s reply.

And I was thinking, after ten years I feel I am just getting to know them. They have become old friends. My mother’s collection of vases in sherbet hues, the happy patterned bowls, the yellow and white striped vase.

Last year we made backdrops from textiles, jazzing up the pattern game.

This year we stripped it all back to the simplicity of the plastic card table and the white wall. The restraint made all the colors hum at an even greater pitch.

It is a wonderful game, seeking, seeing, and that moment when you get it right, and the intense satisfaction of the pursuit.

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The Art is Now – a letter to my students

Next week I’ll be returning to California to teach a new five day workshop at Esalen Institute.

This new course is called The Art of Now, and is designed for artists and non-artists alike to reap the benefits of art-making practices in their ordinary every day lives.

We will also explore habits that creative geniuses though the ages and across mediums have adopted with great success.

A benefit of working with these practices and habits is enormous, for everyone.

Part of it has to do with working with your hands. Even baking bread or gardening or knitting can offer us a therapeutic experience, connecting body, mind, and spirit. A delicious outcome is a benefit. A loaf of bread, ripe tomatoes, a soft and comforting scarf.

In my workshop I invite my students to replace strain with ease.

Is it that simple?

Just trade it in?

You want to create something but you’re just too tired. Or there is an invisible barrier between you and the practice that feels insurmountable. Or you are on the verge of a great idea but trapped in lethargy.

Or you keep telling yourself a story that is getting in your way.

Ease versus strain.

Energy versus lethargy.

Excitement versus fear.

In meditation we are invited to focus on our breath and to bring our focus back again and again as our attention naturally drifts away. Each new beginning is a victory of awareness that somehow you have drifted, and a return to focus.

In The Art of Now, we too work with beginning again and again.

Many beginnings in different modalities: drawing, painting, writing, collaging.

The goal is not to become a great writer, award winning painter, or museum exhibited artist.

The goal is not mastery.

The goal is to simply be, to be present, to become aware, to be here now, in this moment, as you are and with what is.

In this work, we knock on many doorways that lead into the same room, into a spaciousness and an easiness that can be cultivated, nurtured, and sustained long after the workshop is over.

We’ve designed this course so that you can arrive as you are, empty handed, and leave with the simple tools you need to sculpt a practice out of your daily life.

Come as you are, with nothing but your desire.

And if you desire, bring your favorite writing pen or watercolor brush or sketchbook or meditation cushion or some object you’d like to work with through the five days.

We provide everything you need for the workshop, and Esalen provides a beautiful natural space in which to rest, relax, and recharge.

If you have any questions at all, please feel free to email me or Tom.

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Mastering Creativity – a weekend workshop on artistic practices. At the Carmel Foundation, Carmel

Workshop Description:

Drop the story and just begin! With the guidance of award-winning artist Erin Lee Gafill and her husband, photographer Tom Birmingham, you’ll explore writing, painting, observational drawing, sketch & watercolor wash.

With color and line, tone and word, we’ll cultivate “beginner’s mind”, exploring the connection between art-making and mindfulness. By the end of the workshop, your sketchbook will be brimming with new work and ideas to explore.

Looking for a refresher course on color? Need a few tips on overcoming self-doubt? Don’t think you have enough time in the day to get anything done? Think you’re too old to start now? Think again! This immersive work-shop drops you right into the flow. No experience required.

The weekend kicks off with a complimentary Thursday evening slideshow, Finding a Way In, Building the Creative Habit. Join us for an evening of colorful inspiration and practical tips on creating constructive creative habits in your daily life in increments as short as the minutes a day.


Slideshow: Thursday at 7pm.

Workshop: Friday and Saturday, June 21 & 22, from 10am-4pm Seideneck Room.

Where: Carmel Foundation, Carmel-by-the-Sea, Southeast Corner of 8th and Lincoln


Slideshow Fee: $15 or free to workshop participants.

Tuition: $275

Materials: all materials will be provided

Sign up at

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The more I want to do, the slower I go

Today the list is long, with lots of projects and people to interact with, and decisions to make.

I feel pulled in every direction.

So I step away from the chaos and find a chair in a quiet room. I set my timer for ten minutes. I write out a list of what must be done today. I write detail after detail, small and large, in no particular order, until the timer goes off.

And then I set the timer for ten more minutes.

And just sit, and breathe, and pay attention to my breath.

My meditation teacher says that the breath is the flagpole, and everything else the waving flag.

I sit and find steadiness in the slowing down, the one point focus. A sense of calm fills me up like cool water in a cup.

And I notice all the flags waving in my mind.

They are plentiful, and beautiful, and various. They offer so many wonderful trains of thought to ride out on.

But when I become aware of them, these bright and flashy banners flapping in the inconstant wind, I bring my attention back to breathing in, breathing out, and this moment, now.

Often I have an insight during meditation that feels so strong and compelling I am tempted to jump up and begin working on it immediately. As if, THIS is the point of the meditation, THIS is the insight I have been looking for.

And I have found that it is better for me to stay present for the ten minutes of this awareness practice, and not chase after every idea in the very moment it arises. The awareness itself, and the daily practice itself, is the end game.

Sometimes, when my mind is on overdrive, I simply keep a pen and paper handy and write down the thought quietly, then continue with my meditation.

There it is, to refer back to later, as the day goes on.

I have found that for me getting grounded before launching my kite in the wind is better than running wildly willy nilly.

Though chasing dreams silly nilly worked for me when I was younger, it also undermined my health, and my peace of mind.

I remember a day many years ago when I had worked very hard for a longtime on multiple fronts and had many projects finally up and running, a success by any measure. And yet I felt completely hollow and drained, the opposite of successful.

I couldn’t understand why I felt this way, as everything I had been working for seemed to have come true. I should have felt elated, thrilled, triumphant.

But I had lost something.

I had become completely ungrounded.

It was the deep pain and anguish of that experience that forced me to change my approach.

I believe pain is often a tool, a gift that shows us that what we are doing does not serve us.

Would we change otherwise?

We change to get out of pain.

We change to restore balance.

We change to find happiness.

The more I want to do, the slower I go.

In this way, it becomes clearer to me what is the higher priority. And what can fall to the wayside.

I return to my list, and study it again.

Now I review all of these details from a calmer place, as though a larger portion of my brain is available to me.

And throughout the day, this short – ten minute – pause will be a touchstone to return to, when I have to make a decision, when I am confronted with aggression or defensiveness, when I am in danger of being run of my course.

Finding the flagpole instead of being the flag.

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If you’re ever in Florence …

4 am and music is playing, the wind howls, shaking the windows, the curtains, a window slams in the other room.

The music is coming from outside, wafting in, piano and cello, but the wind abbreviates it’s phrasing, and the window crashes like a cymbal and I am asleep again.

One time in Florence we traded in our car early and found a place near Piazza Carmine where the Brancacci Chapel is, up a flight of stairs in a room overlooking a busy street lined up with parking cones to avoid traffic. The street also has a bakery and a bar and a “farmacia”.

What more did we need?

That and the river so close, we could cross on one bridge and back again on another and take a morning doing this, traversing the Arno at dawn and capturing the rising light on the swift water.

We returned our car days early because it was raining and we wanted to be in a city where we could walk out a door and be in a cafe, drinking espresso and reading a paper and watching the people go by, shopping and talking and living their lives. A rainy day in the country – beautiful, yes, but we already knew it too well.

There is a sense in Florence, even now, of a way of life connected back a thousand years.

From the rose-tinted glasses of the visitor, it appears a simpler life, less constrained by work and more focused on family and food and leisure, time with friends, enjoying the pleasures of being alive, smelling the roses.

There is a church nearby I wandered into one day 24 years ago or so, small and unmemorable as churches go, but for the one corner to the right of the door where there is a chapel once shrouded in shadow, with an electric box to put a coin in, which would allow a brief span of electric light.

I remember pushing my coins into the box and the light turning on abruptly, with a click, and turning to see Jacopo Pontormo’s Deposition of Christ there, Mary in robes of azure and lapis lazuli, her son sinking to the ground, the mourning friend in thin pink robes, the gazes of astonishment of the others as they looked away beyond the limits of the canvas.

Where are they looking?

What do they see?

Then the light turned off.

I put another coin in.

I stood there for too long, my children restless, gone back outside for a gelato on the corner.

Now a foundation has funded the chapel and there is always light on the Pontormo, no need for coins. But still I go and stand there, and ask the same questions.

It is almost 8 am and the day, here, now, dawns.

The music has stopped playing and the wind has died down.

Sun rises over the Santa Lucia’s.

A new day awaits.

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Italy changed me

Italy changed me.

And I wanted to be changed.

I went for the first time when I was thirty, my son 11 years old, my daughter five.

I wanted to connect with the creative source that had nurtured so many of my favorite artists, and to restore some of the broken branches in my family tree.

My family tree is far from straightforward but learning about your ancestors is so fascinating.

I have been trying to piece together my family tree for some time now and have learned a lot from using online tools such as social security death index obituary records.

There are so many genealogical resources online nowadays, it is much easier to track down your relatives.

Anyway, with this in mind, I thought we would retrace the footsteps of my great great grandmother, the Modernist painter Jane Gallatin Powers who founded the Carmel art scene, died in Rome in 1944, and is now buried there in the poet’s cemetery by Caius Cestius’s Pyramid.

I thought I would go to the Medici Chapel, which I knew from books, and see Michelangelo’s devastating Pietà, and monumental David.

I did all those things, and saw all those things.

And those things affected me deeply, and still do.

But there was something more, in Italy, for me, something deeper and closer at the same time. Something that is hard to name but that I feel as soon as I cross the Arno in Florence, step onto a vaporetto (water taxi) in Venice, or grab that first espresso in the Fiumicino airport in Rome.

Something ineffable, intangible, unnameable, that saturated my waking hours then, lingers after every visit for weeks and months, and returns to me even now in dreams.

That first visit we took our children with us and for three weeks enjoyed the bounty of Italy, the good food and wine, the hospitality of new friends, and the bittersweet discovery of old familial haunts: via Margutta, the Spanish Steps, the Borghese Gardens where my grandmother once shook her fist at the carriage driver for asking too much money, successfully talking his fee down by half.

As a family, we basked in the sights of unparalleled art and architecture, classical sculpture and the ruins of ancient temples, farmers’ markets overflowing with nature’s bounty, long walks through gorgeous places, both urban and rural, and the most delicious gelato.

Now, 25 years later, we still reminisce about that first visit, those precious moments indelibly etched in our memories.

What is it? Something in the air and water and light, the food and drink, the pace, which despite modernity is still humane and the three hour lunch a common occurrence even midweek.

It is the history, the people, the connectedness of people with place.

It is the lived values that are everywhere we go, from the rampant vineyards, free range pigs, and bountiful gardens of the old castle in Tenuta Spannocchia where we take a week a year for an artistic retreat, to the shops shuttered for an afternoon rest you will still find in Montecatini, Montepulciano, and Siena.

We come home from Italy and try to embody everything we learned there in our lives here, at home in Big Sur. Still, we tend to get caught up quickly in our ambitious to-do lists, our work, our hustle.

But at least now we have Italy ON our “to do” lists as a necessary part of our year, an aspirational week of living in balance with all of these things we love, and in community with our fellow travelers.

This year, our Awaken The Artist Within excursion begins in Florence and ends in Orvieto, with visits to Siena and Civita Bagnoregio “the town forgotten by time”, a week in a fifteenth century castle at Tenuta Spannocchia, even a day at a natural thermal spring to “take the waters”.

We will shape our time as we have come to love most, with good food and drink, walking and sharing, sketching and painting and writing, with just enough structure to give us what we need and enough free time to rest, relax, and restore.

This is a group trip to Italy like none other. Our Awaken The Artist Within Tour is small and personalized, based on the experiences here that changed my life, and could change yours too.

Join us?

Full details at

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Making art together – cultivating community through creative work (and play)

I paint alone, I write alone, I bake bread and work in my garden alone, and find solitude as essential to my being as food and water.

But when we come together as a small group, three to thirty say, or more even, around a finite creative practice, something else as deeply integral to my well being is nurtured too.

A sense of belonging, connection, and meaning. A sense of community.

Yesterday I hosted one of my regular free plein aire paint-outs on my very doorstep, at Nepenthe, in Big Sur.

We gathered on the terrace and instead of doing a painting demo, as I usually do, we started with a brief conversation about attitude, stillness, and receptivity.

Around us hawks soared, clouds massed on the hills, and the mountains marched south into the sea. Sky and water mirrored one another, a pale silvery blue.

Instead of jumping right in, we took one minute to simply stand there in silence just soaking it all in.

Just a minute.

Breathing, seeing, listening, feeling, being.

Then, instead of immediately setting up in front of the view, I suggested we take a handful of minutes to make quick tonal thumbnails of various vantage points.

I took my own advice and found myself observing the scene from a new perspective, aware that on this particular day all the drama was in the gathering clouds.

It had been raining all night and the air was saturated with moisture. Every mountain shape was veiled by mist, emphasizing its shape over detail, and the relationship of the values in each shape progressively lightening as the ridges grew more distant.

As I began my painting, the others scattered left and right, working with watercolors, oils, acrylics, pen and pencil. There’s a woman that has experience in painting of all kinds, she told me in the future she may join me but try to do something a little different, I asked what she had in mind and she said she wished to try and paint with diamonds to see how that works for her. This is what art is all about, finding the particular outlet that benefits you the best!

Ann spied the pond down on the Packard Ranch and captured its shimmer and shape, like an opal set between emerald meadows.

Susan’s eye went up to the eastern hills framed by old oaks, golden green now from winter rains, a favorite subject of mine to paint as well and often overlooked.

As the morning went on, in sketchbooks and on canvas lines and washes began to tell the story of curving hills and jagged cliffs and towering mountain shapes, skies merging with seas, colors moving beyond the seen to the felt.

Tom found his inspiration in an old chair in a corner, and rendered it beautifully.

Then it was time to eat. A picnic lunch followed by a gentle appraisal of the work we had done, the process of doing it, and what we saw in the paintings that we loved or thought could use some technical help.

How to make this aspect appear lighter? Surround it with darker values.

How to capture truer values when painting “plein aire”? Stand back from the work often and look at it in shade (even taking it indoors) to see if the values are reading properly.

How to keep the paint from getting all over your face? Some questions have no answers!

And then it was time to pack up our kits and head home, the takeaway more the time together and the shared stories than the actual paintings we’d accomplished. A kind of communal refueling to tackle the rigors of being an artist in a time when this kind of work is regarded by many as merely a pastime or a somewhat frivolous hobby.

To say to one another, through doing the work and supporting one another in doing the work, that this matters, that’s its worthwhile, and that it’s necessary.

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Taking a pause

In Spannocchia the fruit trees are blooming, small pink blossoms with petals that fade to white, crisscrossing the sky as though making miniature blue panes of stained glass.

One morning after walking I took a hot bath in the big tub in my room, the fragrant soap frothing up into iridescent bubbles.

The morning walk, the talk I had had with Myra, the pause in our walking as we saw the sun rise over the forest and castle, all felt contained within a fragrant bubble of soap, suspended for a languorous moment as I was suspended in that delicious hot bath, between this and that.

The castle was built in the 12th century, updated in the fifteenth, and again in the 21st. The rooms are decorated by the owners, long gone, and their descendants continue to visit, making their more modern presence felt with satellite tv and updated photos on the mantel.

But the sense of place is timeless. A family, a community of farmers, a piece of land that contains meadows and orchards and a garden and acres and acres of forest, pigs and chickens, a relationship with time that says now is the time to plant, and now to harvest, and now by the light of the full moon to hunt the wild boar that roam the woods.

In the ancient kitchen “il cuoco” makes the pasta as it was made five hundred years ago.

In the morning Daniela gathers flowers and persimmons from the garden and makes bouquets for every table, odd corners of the house where we guests might catch a glimpse, a little niche in the wall in the hallway across from her office door.

The toilets have pulls for flushing, and bidets.

In our studio, separate from the house, a farm house once used as a museum of archaeological artifacts, the windows open onto cypress trees and distant hillsides dotted with villas and “poderes”. At night the sun sets over those hills and the whole valley turns a kind of violet and then blue.

In the evening after painting and sketching and writing and walking we drink wine with the interns and staff, a welcome pause before the dinner is served.

It seems the cook is never given a pause, here. We are served breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

There is one night, though, when Tom makes dinner for all of us giving the cook a night off.

If we are lucky, porcini mushrooms gathered from the forest, “finnochio” sliced into crunchy salad with oil and salt and pepper, pecorino from Magdalena at the front desk’s home dairy, prosciutto from one of our guest interns, good wine from our visit to Montepulciano or Montalcino.

This is a special night, the night Tom cooks. By now we’ve all gotten to know each other, and the fears we brought with us have dissolved away.

Too soon, our time here ends, like the bubbles in the hot bath, like the flowering of the cherry trees, like the golden glow of the setting sun.

In words, on sketchbook pages, through the practice of our arts, we contain those moments just a little while longer, to savor, to relive, to return to.

We return every year. It is an annual ritual, a vital pause before the holidays.

Our next visit to Spannocchia is with our Awaken The Artist a Within Tour and is in October 2019, begins in Florence and continues on for several days in Orvieto, and still has space for a few more fellow travelers.

Details at

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Ortigia, Siracusa, Sicily

In the morning Tom goes out for an early walk then brings home croissants from the pasticceria on the corner. We drink coffee and talk about where we want to go today.

Then we lace up our boots and head out for a walk around the island, astonished at the wild surf and deep green-blue sea, storm-tossed and agitated.

In the summer these rocky coves beneath the sea wall are crowded with bathers. It’s hard to imagine today.

It is cold and we walk on, our backs to the rising sun, and keep on walking until we have crossed the causeway and found our way over to the Archaeological Museum, then from there the ancient Greek Theater, and below it the natural cave they call Dionysus’s Ear.

By the time we reach the top rung of the theater the sun is high in the sky, the sky is robin’s egg blue, and we are happy to unzip our winter parkas, pull off our sweaters, and bask in the sun.

Tom sketches, and I sketch too, picking one spot out of the scene to concentrate my attention on. It is an old building, a bit incongruous as it juts up above the stadium seating. I pretend it is the caretaker’s cottage, and imagine what it would have been like to live there a thousand years ago.

Ten minutes. A line drawing in pencil, a few washes of color, some time to let the watercolor dry.

It is almost one and we are hungry.

Like locals do, we enjoy a delicious lunch – thin crusted pizza, a salad of fennel, onion, orange and olives, followed by a leisurely rest back in our apartment. Then it is time to head out into the streets again to take in the sights of the evening.

The setting sun kisses the clouds, turning them cotton candy pink, then blood orange, then the deep red of pomegranate.

This is the island of Demeter and Persephone – the goddesses who gave us winter, who gave us the concept of hibernation and rest rather than continual productivity and harvest.

On this, our last full day in Ortigia, we have at last found our rhythm of sight seeing and resting, activity and repose.

In those precious “down” hours, before heading out and between wanders, we absorb and digest and are restored to ourselves.

Sometimes, it seems, we have to leave home for awhile to get the message.

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The path of stones is crowded with wild parsley, yellow sour grass, pink and magenta sweet peas, prickly pear cactus.

The stones are uneven, the path built on an ancient trail dating back a thousand years.

At the end, what will we find?

There are many stories, but the one I like best includes a wild storm, taking shelter in a cave, and a mystical vision.

Wandering the streets and trails and pathways and byways of Taormina and its environs, beauty stops us again and again, astonishing, ever present, from the looming presence of Mount Etna, an active volcano that has been rather more active of late, to the massing clouds overhead, to the brilliant Mediterranean light, to the ruins of the Ancient Greek theater in the heart of the town center.

Later in the day I will stand on the edge of the ruins and look north, east, and south, gazing as long as I can, before finally sitting on the top rung of seats and pulling out my sketchbook.

Just 10 minutes, I say, and that’s exactly what I do – ten minutes of sketching after an hour of looking.

Blue Sky, purple mountain, ruined stone wall, columns in half light, the deep green of the Italian cypress – and there the minutes have flown by.

The wind snatches the pages of my sketchbook and Mount Etna ripples, the sky drips into the greenery, the shadows merge with light.

So be it.

No storm, no refuge, no mysticism.

Just taking in a day with all my senses.

Taking time to look, to record, to listen and smell and taste, and all the while I am thinking, remember this.

Remember this.