I got a commission to paint the Beale Street signs at twilight. It's taken me a while to get down there in the evening -- I've been just covered up with meetings and trips lately and had very few evenings free. I went down a while ago to start the drawing in the quieter daylight hours, and last night, Elmore went down with me to have a beer and hang out while I painted with the early evening light I needed to finish up. It's always cacophany down there, with street bands vying for attention from the tourists, but it's kind of fun for a short period of time. I also enjoy the Beale Street regulars who always come up to chat and see what I'm doing. There's a neat local culture down there underneath all the tourist crowds. But I was also glad to get back to my quiet home and clawhammer banjo once I was finished.
Regular readers of this blog will know that there are various trees in various places that call my name, and I tend to go back and draw/paint/carve them again and again. One of those is this small tree at the Country Workshops woodworking school, where we're sometimes lucky enough to house-sit. I've done pencil sketches, multiple pastels, an oil painting, and a letterpress block of this one. Today I'm drawing out a bigger print block of it -- again taking advantage of the bigger proof press I now have to work with. Unlike the letterpress print at the bottom of the post, the new one will be three colors.
I've got a new print block going, and I've done two proofs so far. This is from a watercolor I did this spring of a row of cherry trees blooming in Chickasaw Gardens. I tried the first color proof on brown paper, but next time around I'm going to try it on the cream as well and see which one I like better. I'm still carving away on this one. The drawing moved on me some as I was transferring it to the different blocks, so I'm being more conservative in my carving than usual.
There's been some pretty awesome music happening downtown in the daytime lately. Today Jason Freeman posted that he was going to be playing in Court Square from 12-1, and Elmore and I decided to pack a picnic and head down. I'm still working on doing better people, so it qualifies as work (if I stretch it), and it was a perfect day to sit outside for a while. Plus we love Jason's music. He does old time blues on his own and is also the lead of Memphis' own jug band, the Bluff City Backsliders.
Over the last few days I've managed a three color block almost from start to finish. I still have to do one more proof before I start printing in bulk. I want to make sure that the colors all line up, but I'm quite pleased with the process. Unlike the skinny columns of the Higbee Memorial in my Overton Park print, this one is more forgiving, with larger blocks of color, and the movement of the water makes very small registration wobbles unnoticeable. I'm going to try to get my technique for accuracy down with this one and then backtrack to finish up the first two.
I'm also pleased with how it looks on the brown paper. I had that in mind when I planned it, and it worked out as I had hoped. (Unlike the Overton Park print I'd planned for gray but decided looked better on cream instead.) I like the brown spaces being the darker shadows of the river and giving it that muddy, lazy, southern river feel that's so at home to me, since I live on the banks of the Big Muddy itself.
This river is in Arkansas, and it's one of my places I go for rest and sanctuary. We stay at the fabulous, Midtown-feeling River View Hotel in Calico Rock. I've done a whole series of paintings there, and I love getting my kayak out onto the cold, cold river and watching the white mist rise off its surface. We're hoping to get back over there in a couple of weeks, and I can't wait. Making art about places always transports me back to them mentally, so I'm ready for a couple of nights' getaway.
There was a confluence of cool events downtown today, so I took off from both commissions and work on the fall show to go just draw something fun. First was the "Food Truck Rodeo" in Court Square. The food trucks have just formed an association and had a mini-festival to celebrate. Today is also the Blues Awards, and the food truck folks had some good blues playing in the bandstand. I loved seeing the park so alive.
Elmore met me after his regular kayak outing, and we had lunch while I painted. Then we walked down to Beale Street, where yet more blues musicians were playing a free afternoon series of sets before the awards tonight.
We heard Mary Flower, whose finger picking blues I really enjoyed, and I couldn't resist painting her as well. I was drawn to the darkness of the indoor scene back lit by the windows across the front of B.B. King's.
We finished up the afternoon listening to Eden Brent, a favorite of ours and awesome boogaloo piano player from Mississippi. She's got a voice that will knock you out of your chair, and I don't know of anyone who crackles with so much energy during a live show.
I loved my Memphis afternoon. We've got a great city.
I've got a whole series of these deco-inspired print blocks of my own special places in my head. Here's the key block to the second one. It's the first proof of it I've pulled, so I've got some adjustments to make, but it's close to final form. I did watercolors on top of it to see where I want the colors to go, and this is what I'm shooting for. Now I'll have to carve two more blocks -- one block will have both blues on it, and the other will be the green.
I'm still working on printing the first one, the Overton Park print. I'm having trouble getting the green block underneath and the black key block on top (which has all the pattern) to line up just right with each other. First I print the green, let it dry, and then print the black on top. I have to have both blocks in just the same spot so the colors aren't off a little bit from where they should be. I'm still learning how to work with this press, and it's a little frustrating so far, but I'm hoping to get better locked in this week. In the meantime, I'll start carving the color blocks for this one and see how they do.
Saturday was our regular meeting for the Memphis Urban Sketchers. Elizabeth had decided to convene us downtown near the Memphis in May festivities, which is also near my regular Saturday morning destination of the farmers market. I'm an early bird and like to get to the market pretty early to get my pick of things. I was also concerned about parking once downtown got hopping, so I put a cooler in the car, hit the market about 8:30, and then headed for our meeting spot at Beale near the Orpheum.
I've got a commission on my list for the Orpheum theater, Memphis's old Vaudeville theater that now houses Broadway shows and the opera and whatnot, so I set up to paint it while waiting for the 11:00 meeting time to roll around. It's a pretty complicated building with lots of architectural grace notes, so it took about the full two hours, a bit longer than my usual watercolor time. I'm pretty pleased with the outcome, though, and I was also pleased to find some shade to paint in (not always possible when I need a certain view).
It was quite hot on Saturday. A couple of our group had had the foresight to scout out a good location ahead of time. Four of us ended up at a table with an umbrella on the upstairs deck of Alfred's, overlooking the main strip of Beale Street. It was lovely to sit in a comfortable chair with wait service and good spinach dip (since the 11-1:00 time frame is right through my lunch hour) and paint in comfort and companionship. I enjoy getting out with other artists, seeing what they are drawn to in the same scene, and swapping ideas. It's a lovely break from working alone at home so much of the time. We had several new and talented folks join us for the first time, and I love how the group continues to grow and attract new people. I'm often out of town for the meetings, but I love to be there when I'm home.
I was pretty worn out both my architectural concentration and almost five hours out in the heat by the time we were done. Elmore had finally turned on our a/c at home, and I happily did some sitting down printmaking indoors for the rest of the afternoon.
I've been mostly carving a new print block the last couple of days, but I did take time to do a commission this morning. I'm enjoying doing house portraits for folks, and this is a special one -- the people moving away commissioned it, but when I got there, it turned out that it's the same house my former English teacher and current friend and theater buddy is buying in my neighborhood. I'm so excited she's moving closer, and I can't wait to go sit on that porch. It's a great house. But it felt a little funny to paint it for someone else.
Otherwise, I've been working on a new print block of the Missouri Botanical Garden. Below is a snapshot of the block (12x17") at the end of work today. That's about 10 hours worth of carving so far, and I'm more than halfway through, but that total doesn't include the time doing the basic drawing and transferring the drawing to the block. Printmaking is MUCH more involved, which is why it's fun to go out and just do a watercolor sometimes. There will be a second and possibly third block for this print as well, depending on how many colors I want, but this first one is the most involved one to carve, since it has all the surface pattern of the drawing. The others will be much simpler blocks of color. I'll keep you posted as it progresses.
I continued my painting tour of the south this past weekend by going to Vicksburg with Elmore for his kayak race. Since the race was 20 miles (at that distance, I need a lunch break and possibly a nap in the middle), I painted instead of racing.
It's a lovely town with many antebellum houses, and I'd enjoyed being there last year for the same event. A year ago I had only begun to try watercolors, so it was nice to be there with some watercolor momentum going and the wind in my sails.
Above is the Old Courthouse (now a museum), and below is the super cool Mississippi River Commission building.
I attended one of the Episcopal churches there Sunday morning, taking advantage of being out of town and away from my good Presbyterian community of folks to enjoy the beautiful liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer. After church I painted the house below. I was trying to loosen up a bit, but mostly I just got sloppy (esp. with the greens). I think I may have my timing on the watercolors I do just about right. Rushing doesn't seem to improve the situation.
Finally I did one more view of the courthouse. The clouds were gorgeous that day, and I wanted to try, but I really need to get out and do a bunch of cloud studies. I'm just not happy with my skies in watercolor yet.
Martha Kelly is an artist and illustrator who lives and works in Memphis, Tennessee.
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