I was honored to give a presentation in November 2020 about the solstice as part of a program with The Frick Pittsburgh, the organization that manages the Frick family mansion and museum in Pittsburgh. The presentation included paintings and photos illustrating my search for the light in the darkness. The Winter Solstice seemed like a good day to publish my presentation, and I share it here each year.
I have my friend Lisa DiGioia Nutini of Mexico Lindo for suggesting me to the person planning the event. The whole program was to be on three consecutive Thursday evenings in November and December, and each evening had three presenters. When I talked to the planner she mentioned “solstice traditions” so I wasn’t sure if I fit the bill because I don’t really have any traditions, though I have written about the solstice and the seasonal darkness a number of times. But my descriptions and brief snippets along with mention of artwork and photography sounded intriguing to the planner and provided a variety she wanted, not rituals, but recognition and celebration of the event. So I put together a narrative with paintings, photos and an essay you may have read here before.
Scroll down and read my presentation below.
Finding the Light in the Darkness
I am a self-employed artist and writer, part of me a commercial artist and professional writer with a regular slate of customers, and the other part a fine artist and creative writer with customers who are anyone with whom I can share my inspirations.
Those inspirations are derived entirely from the world around me. The tagline of my website is, “The Extraordinary in the Ordinary: Celebrating the art in everyday life,” be that medium visual or literary, 2D, 3D, poetry or prose, or some combination thereof.
I find winter very inspiring, including the darkness. I hear people all around me dreading the short days and long, dark nights, well before they even arrive, and complaining that it’s all gray and brown. When the longest nights are here, the waiting begins for the days when it’s light again when you leave work, at least.
But I like settling into the early darkness of late autumn; it’s good for concentration and focus, and a respite from my crazy racing around from my garden to my daily work to photographing each wildflower as it blooms and the autumn leaves as they put on their show. I love the wide open windows of summer, but when I close them and put on socks for the first time I feel an innate sense of security that I am safe and warm inside my house, ready for whatever the cold and dark will bring.
Through my art I have found that the darkness really isn’t completely dark, nor are the days without color. Even a tiny amount of light will find its way to highlight details you’d otherwise miss, our neighbors decorate their houses with garlands and lights, and the woods and fields and even our back yards are full of bright red rose hips and burnished copper oak leaves, blue jays and cardinals, and shades of violet and vivid blue in snow shadows. My eye is drawn to contrast and color, and I find a lot of that in winter light.
And so that search for the light in the darkness becomes my annual solstice celebration.
On a winter afternoon nearly 20 years ago, I was inspired by the early sunset on the winter solstice and ran off to chase it.
The moment when the sun stands still,
as it seemed to at this frigid, snow-covered
spruces standing dignified sentinel
to the moment
This painting is indeed from the Winter Solstice in 2003. As the sun began to set on a zero-degree day with a foot or more of snow the light was so beautiful that I took off in my car with my camera and art supplies. At the top of the hill the gentle pink and coral tones of the sunset melded with the blue of dusk on the field of unbroken snow at the old Christmas tree farm, one of my favorite spots. It was too cold to draw outside since I can’t wear gloves and would soon be dropping my pastels in the snow, so I positioned my car on a convenient side road and sketched this in my front seat. As it does sometimes, the sun seemed to hang in the trees just before it disappeared: solstice, “sun-stand-still”.
It’s just a little thing, 6″ x 6″, one of my favorites, especially now that the place is gone to development. It became the inspiration for an exhibit I hosted in 2004, “Winter White”.
I love winter so much, and found I had so much winter artwork already, I decided to do a show featuring the season, with snow and without. From bright blue skies to brilliant fluttering chestnut leaves, shiny red rose hips to olive green moss, brilliant and warm sunlight angling deep indoors, winter is a very colorful time of year. In 2004 I presented “Winter White” 42 small studies, illuminated by the stark light of winter in pastel, watercolor, pencil, and pen and ink from the trails to the backyard to interiors completed en plein air.
And I didn’t stop with that exhibit, either. The painting we began with, “Dusk in the Woods” was a very large painting from a few years later, and while I’ve sold most of what was included in the original “Winter White” exhibit I’ve painted enough since then to have another exhibit with just as many paintings.
I carry my camera with me everywhere to capture those images in all seasons. Sometimes they become paintings, but often the photos tell the story best.
As the winter solstice nears, bearing with it the shortest day of the year and the longest period of darkness, I find that analogous to my memories of years past when I thought it was the darkness I’d remember, not the light. During the days leading up to the winter solstice when the daylight is less and less, each day shorter, and each day is often overcast and filled with winter storms, some very old part of our brain senses imminent danger. But by a miracle the light returns and we celebrate.
In these darkening days it’s easy to curse the darkness and miss the delicate beauty only found at this time. In 2014 I took my walk to Main Street for errands and found a wonderland one heavy, dark, overcast day in a place I had thought so familiar. I called it my “gray day walk” as a shorthand for those moments of exploration when time stood still for me, unexpected on a busy afternoon.
THE LIGHT IN THE DARKNESS
I have had far worse days. Overwhelmed by the demands of commercial work as my customers and I prepared for the holidays along with merchandise orders and custom portraits and my own preparations for ending the year and beginning the next as a small business, I left the house at 4:00 p.m. destined for the post office and bank just before they closed.
Though I had walked this half mile route from my home to Main Street for years, I had lately been driving, using the need to save time or the awkwardness of a pile of packages as an excuse for wasting gas and a chance at exercise and fresh air. The day was hardly inspiring—five days prior to the winter solstice the days were frighteningly short, sunset less than an hour away, and in a series of heavy dark days typical of this area in late autumn and early winter, dense pasty clouds hanging low overhead and so dark it had felt like dusk at noon, and now some of the street lights on Main Street were already alight. I nearly always take photos on these walks, and while I laid the strap of my camera bag over my shoulder I was glad that, for once, I would probably not find anything to photograph and take time from my day in conditions like these.
Traffic was heavy so I took my route under the bridge, next to the creek where traffic noises faded and birds sang, a trickling sound as water flowed smoothly past over the rocks in the shallow waterway. And in the dim and fading light a world so familiar at first appeared dark and nearly colorless until my eyes adjusted to the light and found such wonders among the wildflowers along the way, standing upright though dried and every shade of brown and tan and umber I found fantastical birds, abstract sculptures, amazing complex patters among the dried flower heads, exposed and broken seed pods, leaves clinging curled to stems.
I could not stop for the post office and bank both closed at 4:30, so I walked as fast as I could with my camera bag on one shoulder and a large canvas bag of packages on the other so that I could amble back through this wonderland on my way back to my neighborhood. The light was so dim then, as the time approached sunset within minutes, that I had to set the ISO of my camera on 800 to get anything but vague images floating in sepia darkness, even with all my settings to admit as much light as possible.
These plants had sprung up from seeds tossed here on the wind and water, carried by birds and people walking past, sprouted in spring, housed birds and insects in summer, borne their flowers in summer and fall. I had walked among them many times with my camera and sketchpad, I knew where each stood, when they bloomed, their botanical names and history, I looked for them each year and anticipated the best times to compose the images I visualized, but this was a gift in its unfamiliarity.
Now, after several frosts, autumn storms and snow, the weak parts had been stripped away and the strongest parts of them were burnished by adversity and stood dignified in the dimness, with just enough sheen to highlight their most interesting shapes, textures and combined patterns.
The background now, rather than the usual details of other plants and flowers, was darkness, the more perfect to silhouette each delicate construction as if in a gallery featuring the finest art.
Milkweed pods became flocks of fantastical birds, or individual exotic species clinging to stems. Tightly curled dried flowers or clusters of puffy seeds set loose, sere and twisted leaves and flowers of another time. Even the holiday decorations in a shop front, capturing the blue from the late afternoon light with highlights from the store within echoed the shapes and patterns of the natural forms outdoors, as the raindrops that would soon fall.
I arrived home with dirty shoes from walking in mud, and dirty knees from kneeling in wet grass, bits of leaves and stems and seeds flocked with frills to carry them on the wind on my skirt and jacket, in my hair, on my bags, souvenirs of a timeless magic, both in letting go of the time of day, and letting go of time altogether for that period. I only let go and rejoined the day because it was too dark to photograph any longer.
I am grateful to this gift of creative vision that releases me from everyday cares for just a short time, exercises those aesthetic senses and relaxes the overused worry lines, and gives me these wonderful gifts of images to share, just for noticing the inspiration was there.
There is always something new to learn about the things we think we know well. Never forget that when the light seems dim there is much to be seen with the heart, and when adversity has taken away the quick and obvious beauty, the strongest parts remain, dignified in their naked and twisted strength.
I hope you enjoyed this presentation, whether you listened or read.
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