Christmas Memories

I love these quiet days between Christmas and New Year’s.  It’s a resting place to review the old year and get ready for the new; a time for reflection and remembrance.

I think of my grandfather, Robert Sinclair Swanson, who died on his sixty-eighth birthday, Christmas Day, 1958. I was ten, so I remember it all clearly.  We called him PopPop. He had had a heart attack years before and was forced to leave his business and “rest.”  Nowadays he’d be given a treadmill and a Fitbit and told to get moving.  The forced inactivity was hard on him and even harder on our grandmother. 
But that Christmas Day all was well. The whole family met at Uncle Jack’s. There were piles of presents; PopPop always insisted that he be given both a Christmas gift and a birthday gift, but since he was delighted with a ball of string or a new pencil his wishes didn’t strain our budgets. There was birthday cake and singing. He carved the turkey and after dinner plucked the carcass clean, ready for the soup pot, and made packets of white meat and dark for each family to take home for sandwiches.  When the day was over and we got in our car to leave, my mother said, “Oh, wait—I didn’t say good night to PopPop,” and she ran back for a quick hug and a thank you for the wonderful day.  When we got home the phone was ringing.  Mom picked it up and said, before even hanging up,“Bob, get back to Jack’s—your dad’s had a stroke.” 

And that was that.  He had been sitting with my cousin John on his lap. He made a funny noise that my grandmother at first thought was to amuse John, then he put his head back and was gone.  It was sad for us and shocking but a perfect end to a life well-lived.

This is a picture from the day after Christmas the year before that one.  Santa had brought my brother Alan a set of trains and PopPop declared himself conductor in chief.  You can see he’s in his element with two little boys, my brother Robby and cousin Danny, on his lap and several big boys ready to do his bidding.  That’s me in the gray sweater, the boys are Alan’s friends.  Where’s Alan?  He’s upstairs asking Mom, “When is PopPop going home?” 
I recently asked Alan what he remembers about that day.  He said, “PopPop was a very grandfatherly grandfather and he loved to do boy things.  It was great to watch how he did it all so carefully, putting the tracks together and connecting the engines to the cars. Then we’d start it up, and then we’d stop at the station..start and then stop. It was great.  But slow. Eventually you want… well…there are two engines and what if we make them crash?”

Mom was always thankful that she went back to say good-bye on that last night. I think she was also thankful that she never told PopPop about Alan’s question.  She just told Alan to be patient. When I look at this picture I see a man having a wonderful time and I’m glad he had those moments.  I think Alan’s glad, too.

It Came Upon the Midnight Clear

Here’s a page from my current project; I’m illustrating my favorite Christmas carols and hope to present them next year.  This is “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” with the angels bending near the earth to touch their harps of gold.

We’re coming to the end of a year that’s been so hard for so many of us, full of discord and fear for our neighbors, our leaders and the planet, our home

But there have been hard times before this.

I have a Christmas card sent by my grandparents, probably in 1943, in the midst of World War II, as Hitler raged across Europe.  The picture on the front is a church window with advent candles on one side and an American flag on the other.  Through the window we see the star of Bethlehem.  Inside the message has those familiar words from Luke; “For unto us is born this day in the city of David…” and “Thanks be to God, who giveth us the victory…”

It’s signed; 
Robert, Louise, Dave, Jack, Dan, Janet 

and Private Robert Swanson, U.S. Army. 

That was my Dad, drafted that June, age18 years and six weeks.

I hold this card in my hand and feel the weight of all those hopes and fears, also pride, patriotism, faith and sacrifice.  Those were hard, dark times.

But the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has never put it out.  They got through their hard times and we’ll get through ours. We’ll learn from our mistakes and try to do better. We’ll work together to seek solutions. I just got an email from Environment New York with a plan to save the bees!

Christmas music is full of words that lift me up and fill my heart with joy.  This one especially, because each verse ends with angels singing.
Remember, the first words of every angel appearing on Earth are, “Fear Not!”

My favorite line is the last; 

“Now hush the noise and cease your strife and hear the angels sing.”

The Lawrence Tree

   I have long adored Georgia O”Keeffe.  My first year in art school the Whitney Museum held a retrospective of her work; I haunted that show and bought the catalogue and a ton of postcards.  She said, “Fill a space in a beautiful way,” and I thought I could do that.  I painted many imitation O’Keeffe’s and read everything I could find about her.  I kept her in my head, sometimes speaking to her, sometimes asking myself, “What would Georgia do?” 

    The Lawrence Tree is one of my favorites.  It’s painted as if we’re lying at the foot of a great tree, gazing up through her branches at the starry night sky.  I’ve lain like that, but never thought to paint it.  That’s why she’s Georgia O’Keeffe.

    So, as Arthur and I drove through Taos and I saw a sign that said, 

Lawrence Ranch

   I spoke up. I knew O’Keeffe had been part of a loose and fractious community that included the art patron Dorothy Brett. Brett gave the ranch to D.H.Lawrence and his wife and they lived there for a short time, while he recovered his health and wrote The Plumed Serpent.

    “Oh, the Lawrence Ranch,” I said.  “My favorite O’Keeffe is the Lawrence Tree.  I wonder if it’s there.”  Arthur slammed on the brakes and turned in.

    “It says no trespassing!”
    “You have to see this.”
    “But Arthur!…” I did long to see it, but I hate breaking rules.
    “We’re going,
    “What if somebody stops us?”
    “You’re an artist and you have to see that tree.”
    “that’s our defense?”
    “I’ll tell them it’s your favorite painting.”
      I pictured myself behind bars saying, “I’m not a criminal I’m an artist.”

    But what did Lawrence himself say? “A woman has to live her life, or live to repent not having lived it.” 

    Arthur drove on. It was a very long and rocky dirt road, and we raised a cloud of dust.  Around every turn was another NO TRESPASSING sign. I expected to hear sirens.

  We pulled in at a sign that said Lawrence Chapel. There was a ranch house, and there was the tree.  The Lawrence Tree in person.  As Lawrence himself wrote, The big pine tree in front of the house, standing still and unconcerned and alive… like a guardian angel. “

    I walked to the tree, thinking to lie down beneath it and look up but there was a very large raccoon sitting in its branches like a sentinel.  A NO TRESPASSING sign is one thing, a vigilant raccoon quite another.  I had to be content with imagining I could lie down and see the stars through the branches just as O’Keeffe had done. And that was enough.

     I thank Georgia O’Keeffe for the painting I’ve loved for fifty years.  I thank D.H. Lawrence for the words that encouraged and dared me.  And I thank Arthur for making the turn and driving past the forbidding sign.  

    The ranch now belongs to the University of New Mexico and they conduct tours on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I went there on my own instead of behind a well-meaning docent and a bunch of chatty tourists.  I saw the Lawrence Tree as I needed to see it.   

   I trespassed and I do not repent.

A Letter to my Hips


Recently you’ve been screaming in pain when I get out of the car, or hoist myself up from the sofa.  I’ve tried everything to shut you up–ibuprophen, a chiropractor, acupuncture. I may have reminded you that nobody else complains–my back, neck, knees, hands and feet, shoulders–everybody’s doing fine.  Now I’m working with a trainer to build up your strength and flexibility.

He said, “When you feel no pain, remember to be grateful.”

I think of all the miles we’ve walked,  on city streets, often in high heels. That couldn’t have been fun for you. All the soccer games, the field hockey. We had so much fun with the Hula Hoop and the Twist.

Please forgive me. I’m sorry I said you were too wide. I should have thanked you for all those soft landings on the ski slopes  Oh, and how could I forget; thank you for the easy delivery of two beautiful babies.

I look forward to many more years with you, and I promise to be kinder.


My hip trouble has made me think of this piece by Katy Lyness, my classmate at the Art Students League.   The pencil drawing on the left is the preliminary sketch for the etching on the right. I love the way the two images face each other,  echoing the way the rib cage and the pelvis face each other.

At the League, everything begins with drawing, drawing begins with the human figure, and that begins with the bones. In life class as you stare at the naked person in front of you, you realize that she’s not naked enough.  You’re trying to see through skin, muscle and sinew to the bones.

Katy’s focus on the rib cage and the pelvis, as opposed to the skull, which always creeps me out, illustrates how supportive and protecting our bones are.  The rib cage holds the lungs and heart, the pelvis cradles the belly and womb.

I find this so moving; these sheltering loving shapes are like a mother’s arms.  

Who designed this miracle?  How long did that take?

I believe in God, the  creator of the universe, and I believe in Darwin and the theory of evolution.   Psalm 90 says in verse 4, and we sing it all the time, “A thousand ages in thy sight are like an evening gone.”  Seven days, a billion years. They’re both a blink of God’s eye.

All we have to do is remember to be grateful.


Thoughts on Thanksgiving Day

    Thank you for all the nice responses to my Thanksgiving in New York City.  Here are some thoughts I had as I drew it, and as I look back at it.

    This is the south facing side of the American Museum of Natural History on 77th Street Between Central Park West and Columbus Avenue. I took some liberties here; you can’t actually look in the windows and see the great herd of elephants.  They stand in all their glory in the Hall of African Mammals.  While I’m grateful that they are preserved for posterity I can’t help knowing that those beautiful creatures would have much preferred to live out their lives.   I imagine the terror they, especially the baby, felt as the guns roared—maybe his mother died first and he was left alone. I’m appalled at pictures of hunters gloating over dead animals.  I often say, “Couldn’t you just look at the animals?  Why do you have to kill them?”  But here I am gazing in wonder at the results of that carnage, so grateful that they’re standing still so I can draw them.

    `Then there’s the statue of Teddy Rosevelt standing in the center of his memorial on the Eastern facing side of the Museum. His figure, heroic on horseback, is flanked by two men on foot, an African and a Native American.  They were intended by the artist to be allegorical figures of Africa and North America, expressing TR’s love for the two great continents and his friendliness toward all races.  Today they make us cringe at the implicit racism. The same work of art seen in two different times evokes very different responses. I decided not to draw the two men.  Was that the right choice?  Should I have honored them by not ignoring them or would I be seen as racist as well?

    Many of the exhibits inside are the result of TR’s hunting trips. He was responsible for the death of thousands of animals but as president he preserved thousands of acres of wilderness as National Parks, including Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon. Again, I’m torn. Ambivalence is hard to live with. I try to accept that most people do the best they can with what they have within their own time and place.    

    My drawing is all about Thanksgiving Day and the great parade.  Again I took liberties; there’s no actual turkey balloon but it was right for the picture. I wanted to honor this day, this event and the thousands of people who work all year to make it happen. How does it all come about? Who thinks up new characters for the balloons? Whoever thought of giant balloons in the first place? What are those great workshops like? How do you make a giant Charlie Brown?  

    I think of the ones staying up all night to inflate those balloons and then keep them safe ’til morning, the marchers who hold the balloons tethered to earth. Then there are the high school bands who come from all over the country—how do you play the trumpet in 30 degree weather? Or march and twirl a baton in a skimpy but not too skimpy costume?  

     And who keeps us all safe?  Last year only a few weeks before Thanksgiving there was an attack by a van driven into bicyclists in lower Manhattan.  We felt tense but the city workers, the police, sanitation, and fire departments were all on hand to keep traffic and the parade moving.  Garbage trucks were parked at all the cross streets like giant guard dogs so no vehicles could spoil the fun.


    I can get a little teary thinking about all the thought and work and expertise dedicated to make this wonderful and slightly silly event happen.   Maybe not so silly.  It’s a celebration of the day we set aside to give thanks and what’s more important than that? I’m grateful for a great deal, including how complicated life can be.

Writing the Baseball Queen

Writing the Baseball Queen

The Evolution of Inspiration

I showed this drawing to my second grade students and one girl said, “She’s the Baseball Queen, and she saves all the home run balls.”

And I said, “Eureka!”

The woman is the sculpture, “Memory”, who sits at Broadway and 106th Street in the memorial to  Isidore and Ida Strauss who went down with the Titanic. The baseball players? For months, vague ideas had been swirling in my head, centered on the great American Pastime.

In my neighborhood there was Dads and Daughters softball.  Several men gathered on Saturday mornings with their daughters to help the girls develop their skills and build confidence on the field.  The girls had other ideas, twirling, looking at the sky, practicing cartwheels–anything but batting and fielding. I thought there was a story there, but I didn’t know what.  Girls and baseball, feeling left out, the sense of longing; a baseball stew bubbled in my head.

ThenI learned Leonardo DaVinci’s last words and I couldn’t get them out of my head; “If I could make…If I…”

Then the Baseball Queen appeared.  I thought about her for some time and then sat down to write.  Anthony Trollope said, “It you want to write, apply cobbler’s wax to the seat of your pants.”  So I promised myself that I would sit with a pen and paper for one hour and I wouldn’t get up, I wouldn’t turn on the radio or pick up a book.  One hour.

Nothing happened for forty minutes and then the Baseball Queen flowed on to the paper.


The Baseball Queen

I am in bed and the sun is still shining.  I have to go to bed when it isn’t even dark.  It isn’t dark. It isn’t night. It isn’t fair. The sun is shining right in my eyes. Who could sleep?  Everyone else is outside playing baseball.

I can see them. I can hear them. I wish I was with them.

I wish I could get in that game.  They’re not really bigger than me.  I could play with them.

I could say, “Give me a shot.”  Then they’d pitch it to me, and I would belt that ball and it would go flying–sailing–out of the park, over the houses, over the trees, and over the clock tower.  The ladies who hold up the clock would try to catch it but it would be too high for them and much too fast.

It would fly all the way to the Baseball Queen, who catches all the home run balls and keeps them in her Home run Hall of Fame Palace in the sky.

She would say, “Who hit this ball?”

Hank Aaron would say, “It wasn’t me.”

Ted Williams would say, “Not me.”

Mickey Mantle would say, “I didn’t hit it.”

Even Reggie Jackson would say, “Don’t look at me.”

Then the Baseball Queen would say, “ Who is this new Sultan of Swat?”  And she would come all the way down to our field.

When she found out that it was me, that I was the one who hit that amazing home run, she would look at me and say, “Why are you wearing your pajamas?”

And when the Baseball Queen found out that the greatest home run hitter in the history of baseball had to go to bed before it was even dark, she would march right up to my front door, ring my doorbell, and tell my mother a thing or two.

that’s what would happen, if I could only get on that field.  If I could only get outside. If I could only stay up. If I could only…If I…

Why Baseball?

Why do I draw Baseball?
Safe at Home in a Persian Garden


Why Baseball?  I once said to my brother, Alan, “Did you love baseball for itself or for all the time you spent with Dad?”  His answer was, “It was all so wonderful, why choose?” That’s a typical answer from my family, one that left me wanting. Wanting what?

Baseball infused my life–the constant sound of the game on the radio or TV, the never ending games of catch in our yard and even in the living room. But baseball wasn’t for me. I didn’t like standing in the hot sun with people yelling and throwing things at me.  I have no interest in sitting through a whole game but I do like to watch on TV where I can see a beautiful play again and again on the replay.

It’s not the game itself, it’s the mystique.  There’s something about boys. I remember the moment when I was very little and realized I would grow up to be a woman like my mother, not a man like Daddy. I wasn’t disappointed but I wasn’t thrilled either.  It was more like…well, Ok. I watched my brothers and their friends and wanted to somehow be part of that mysterious fraternity. I admired the intensity of their interest and their mastery.  They’d practice and practice and never get tired or bored. I coveted their passion.

Once at Yankee Stadium I emerged from the dark stands to see the sun shining on the brilliant grass. As nine young men in pinstripes ran onto the field I felt the romance of it all, the history, the timelessness and the grace.  My first thought was, I want to draw that. That was my way to make baseball my own. But how to make it unique?

When my grandmother reached the end of her life and had trouble remembering which story she had already told, she repeated over and over that her favorite Yankee had left the team. Her words were, “Did you hear that Tommy John got traded to the Angels?

It was the perfect metaphor for dying and going to Heaven, merging all the threads of my yearning. And so MomMom inspired me to begin a series of baseball players, primarily Yankees, whose pinstripes make a useful drawing device.  I set them in various classical, baroque and celestial settings. I took to reading the sports pages, not for the scores but for the photos of the graceful movements of elite athletes.

I’ve had a wonderful time placing the boys in odd but beautiful places.  Here’s Mickey Mantle being traded to the Angels.

My Rhinos

The Rhino

Why do I like to draw the rhinoceros? My figures, animals or humans, have a chubby, cuddly quality.  Even my old people look like children. If I were to draw puppies and kittens they would be sickenly sweet.  I look animals with some grit, that don’t look cute.

That led me to the Rhino. I had been thinking about rhinos for years since I found this  picture in the Daily News.

 Four rhinos walking down a road, just ambling along–four dudes out for a walk.  Isn’t the rhino a solitary creature? Not according to these guys. I don’t know where they were or what they were up to. They look so companionable. They look like the bandidos in The Wild Bunch or George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Condoleeza Rice strolling down a road in Texas, but nice.

You can see by how yellow it is that I’ve saved it for a long time.  I  wanted to do something with rhinos but I knew my draughtsmanship wasn’t up to the task. So I practiced, 

I think of the Rhino as a plodding heavy grumpy beast but I saw one trotting around in a large enclosure at the Bronx Zoo, surprisingly light-footed and graceful.   Then I read the obituary of Anna Merz, Rhino Guardian and Champion, who built a Rhino Sanctuary in Africa.  Rhinos — far from being the stupid, aggressive, ill-tempered sorts many suppose — were, in her words, beautiful and elegant. She blamed their bellicosity on their poor eyesight, leading them to charge first and ask questions later. She found that rhinos have a sense of humor and that they communicate by altering their breathing rhythms. She read them Shakespeare to soothe them.

Then I met the bronze rhino on the Plaza of Musee D’Orsay, and had a moment of perfect happiness.   

The elements of that moment were;

  1.  I was in Paris, with Arthur.
  2.  It was a chilly day but the sun was warm on my face.
  3.  In a few minutes we would meet friends and go out for a nice lunch.
  4. I’d like to add my children, but they were teen-agers and the best I could say   was they were safe at home under someone else’s supervision.
  5. Maybe most important, I had an idea for a new series of drawings percolating in my brain.

I went home and drew that rhino from all directions, in different settings, sometimes walking in Paris with Degas’s little ballerina.

You can see more rhinos in my Rhino Gallery.

Little furniture

When I complained to a friend at work about having to plan dinner yet again she told me the tale of the little table. It seems all you had to do was clap your hands and say “Come, Little Table, come!” and a table would trot in, beautifully set with a delicious meal. When you’d eaten your fill you just clapped your hands and said, “Go, Little Table, go!” and it would trot off to wash the dishes. “So,” I said, “where do I get one of those little tables?”  The closest I could come was to make a drawing.

Then when Jessie was about three she asked me as we were walking in New York City, “Why don’t homeless people just get jobs?” 

I took a deep breath and said; “Well… what do you need in order to get a job? First you have to go on a job interview.  You should be rested so you need a bed. You have to be clean so you need a bathtub. You should be well-fed so you need a stove and a table. We came to the conclusion that to have a home you need a job-but to get a job you need a home.

This series of drawings is a meditation on home. As I drew I thought of more things a home needs–a chair to sit and think, a fireplace to keep cozy, extra chairs for when friends come over.  What does a home provide us and what does our home need from us?  What does it take to have a life?