First Snow

An occasion for reflection and gratitude

Over the twenty-eight years that I’ve been a naturalized New Englander, I’ve developed a personal tradition: every year, I must artisanally hand-shovel the first snowfall. In fact, I try to avoid using a gasoline-powered snowblower for as long as I can into the season. This ceases to be practical after the second or third foot of snow has fallen in as many weeks, which eventually does happen.

This year the first real snowfall came pretty late—December 28th. (I’m not counting the flurries that flew early in October.) We didn’t get a deep accumulation—it was only three or four inches. But what little fell was wet, heavy as bricks, and covered with a brittle crust of ice, leading me to question the wisdom of shoveling the whole driveway by hand (and by back). But I forged ahead and did my work, and in the process reminded myself of why I had concocted my silly tradition in the first place.

It had something to do with being rugged and stoic in the face of daunting odds and conditions, which I’ve romanticized as a New England trait. It also puts me in touch with an earlier, more thoughtful, less mechanized way of doing things. We live in such a privileged, materialistic society that makes it so easy to step on a pedal and end up miles from where we were half an hour ago. In this light, I think it is so important to maintain a perspective that honors the laws of physics and the idea that what goes up must come down. Whatever seems easy (like pushing a button and starting an orange robot that makes easy work of snow removal) must be paid for somewhere else in the universe, probably by some innocent butterfly whose only crime was flapping its wings.

So I return to my shoveling, thinking these deep thoughts, fancying myself some kind of modern-day Thoreau, “wishing to speak a word for Nature.” But I burst my own bubble when I catch myself grumbling about how hard it is to live in a place that experiences extreme winters. (I’m sure that my friends in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Manitoba will chuckle at this characterization of Massachusetts.) There’s always a five-to-ten-foot strip where the driveway meets the road, where big plow trucks throw salty slush, adding the snow from the road to the snow already on your driveway, gluing everything together into a giant block of concrete, and turning your evening into a major excavation project.

But the complaining reflex doesn’t last for long, as I snap back to the perspective of how fortunate and grateful I am. After so many years of struggling and wanting, I finally have a driveway TO shovel. And I think about people in Missouri and Louisiana whose homes are being flooded, and worry about them. I think about people who are being held captive, even if it’s a prison of their own making—a mental scaffolding of religious fanaticism, political fervor, or lust for attention. And my heart goes out to them, and hopes that one day they will find peace within themselves. I think a lot about people who face health challenges, and all the associated pain. My heart goes out to everyone in the world who is suffering, and it makes my little mountain of ice seem so inconsequential.

And I return to my shoveling.

Boneyard

An oil painting I made in the 1990s

I painted this peaceful, melancholy scene based on a photograph I took in the old part of Oconee Hill Cemetery in Athens, Georgia. I worked on this oil painting while studying under the late Richard Yarde at the University of Massachusetts, in the early 1990s.

Technical details and availability

1994; oil on canvas; medium-sized; private collection (not for sale).

Autumn in New England

One of my favorite things about the place where I live: the awe-inspiring colors of foliage and sky

There is so much to be thankful for. This time of year, one of the things I am most thankful for is New England, the place where I live. The colors of the foliage and the sky are awe-inspiring. They make me want to paint.

I took this photo of Easthampton, Massachusetts from the Log Cabin, a banquet hall atop Mt. Tom, in neighboring Holyoke, Massachusetts.

Paintings of Flowers

Flowers are such rewarding subjects to paint. Not only do they hold relatively still, but they are full of color and intriguing form. Above, I tackled a blooming sunflower (and an aspiring one) standing proudly against a bright red barn wall. Oil on canvas. Private collection; not for sale.

She Loves Me

Below, I interpreted the spirit of daisies in a much more stylized way. I love how the north-south divisions in the background contrast with the radial divisions of the daisy petals. I donated this piece to the Second Annual Benefit Auction sponsored by 20things.org (website no longer active) to benefit Cancer Connection in Florence, Massachusetts. The painting was won by a wonderful person named Daisy. She loves me… She loves me not…

She Loves Me painting by Trace Meek

More Daisies

Have you had enough daisies yet? Below is an acrylic painting I made for the same family that commissioned the Belly Cast piece. It’s a bit more of a realistic rendering than the daisies in She Loves Me, but hopefully not too realistic.

Daisies painting by Trace Meek

Two Sunflowers

Two Sunflowers painting by Trace Meek

I painted these two happy sunflowers for a friend, as a wedding gift for her cousin. I used acrylic on canvas, and framed it in a black-stained, hand-carved wooden frame.

Bueno y Sano Paintings and Murals

An evolving public art project that started in 1995

In 1995 I began providing mural-painting services for the Bueno y Sano family of healthy burrito restaurants. I painted all of the interior walls of the flagship Amherst, Massachusetts store.

Later I created a similar treatment for the Northampton, Massachusetts store when it opened in 2006. Northampton has a different vibe from Amherst, and this is reflected in the art work I made for “Noho.”

Finally, I was invited to create the interior décor for the restaurant in Burlington, Vermont, which opened in 2007.

The Burlington, Vermont store

Bueno Burlington - daytime view of Lake Champlain

In each case, I tried to capture a bit of the essence of the town, and represent it in a “whimsical” and upbeat style. Additionally, I created imagery that harmonized with the food philosophy of the restaurants: healthy, fresh, California-style burrito cuisine. Consequently, I have painted many peppers, onions, eggplants, squashes, and the like.

This next image shows a stylized view of Lake Champlain as seen at night:

Bueno Burlington - night time view of Lake Champlain

Lastly, my signature “orange swirly” pattern has been a constant, unifying link appearing in all the stores. Recently the Northampton store renovated, and erased the funky pattern in favor of a more clean, contemporary look.

Orange swirly pattern

The Amherst, Massachusetts store

Bueno y Sano mural
This mural scene was inspired by the enchanted Mt. Pollux in South Amherst
Bueno y Sano mural
My fresh veggies mural has held up well over the years.
Me, in front of my Bueno y Sano mural
Me, in front of my Bueno y Sano mural. Photo by Rebecca Johnson

Mohawk Trail

An oil painting based on a scene from the Mohawk Trail in Charlemont, Massachusetts.

This painting was inspired by a walk along a section of the Mohawk Trail in Charlemont, Massachusetts.

Mohawk Trail is one of my personal favorite paintings. It challenged me to confront and rethink my occasionally precise painting style; I somehow managed to let parts of this remain loose, gestural and abstract, while functioning meaningfully in the context of the larger image.

Paths and trails are intriguing, both metaphorically and as a purely compositional element. They have begun to figure in several of my works that involve landscapes of one form or another.

Technical Details

I painted Mohawk Trail in acrylic and oil on canvas, and finished it in 2005. Its dimensions are 44 inches by 55 inches (not including the black-stained spruce frame I built for it). This painting has been sold.

Two Trees

Two maple trees at Mt. Pollux in South Amherst, Massachusetts.

You would be hard-pressed to convince me that there is anything more gloriously beautiful than autumn in New England. Each of the seasons has its own particular beauty, but October—my favorite month—ushers in a perfect convergence of climate, emotion, and color.

The heat of summer tapers off and is replaced with a cooler ambient temperature. Gardeners lay their gardens to rest, and people and animals alike batten down the hatches in preparation for the winter to come. Dramatic, blustery clouds and azure skies set a pensive mood. Golden afternoon light illuminates resplendent, fiery colors that the region’s trees produce. All of this is draped over a stunningly-gorgeous landscape and an all too fleeting American Gothic architectural style. By mid-month, invigorating breezes will whip up the leaves that will have fallen. Crisp, sweet smells of composting leaves will waft about. And by the end of the month the show will be over.

One of the places that I most love to visit during this season is Mount Pollux, located in South Amherst, Massachusetts. Formerly an apple orchard, Mt. Pollux is a little knob just north of Mt. Norwottuck, the highest mountain in the Holyoke Range. It is a very romantic, dreamy, energetic place. I wouldn’t be surprised if it sits atop an intersection of some of the earth’s ley lines. Many weddings have taken place here. Doubtless many young romantics have wooed each other on its flanks. Many hands have been held, many picnics have been consumed, and many kites have been flown. I brought my Dad here when he visited many moons ago, and we ceremoniously remembered our departed loved one.

One of the unique features of Mt. Pollux is that from the top, on a clear day, you are treated to a nearly unobstructed, 360-degree view of the surrounding land, which includes the Connecticut River Valley (a.k.a. the Pioneer Valley) and mountains as far away as New York, Vermont, and New Hampshire. You can’t see Connecticut to the south, because the majestic Holyoke Range stands in the way. And you can’t see Rhode Island because it’s just so darn small.

Another unique feature of Mt. Pollux is its centerpiece: the two maple trees at the top. I have been told that some students from nearby Hampshire College refer to the place simply as Two Trees, which makes perfect sense.

Calling it Mt. Pollux makes sense too, as the trees embody an energy of “two-ness.” Recursively underscoring this theme, there is also a Mt. Castor in the area, but it is harder to find.

In Roman mythology, Castor and Pollux were the Gemini (twin) brothers. As astronomy buffs will tell you, the constellation Gemini comprises the twin stars Castor and Pollux. (Incidentally, my aforementioned brother Trevor was born under the astrological sign of Gemini.)

In the myth, the twins shared the same mother but had different fathers (immortal Zeus and mortal Tyndareus), which meant that Pollux was immortal and Castor was mortal. When Castor was killed, Pollux asked Zeus to let him share his own immortality with his twin to keep them together and they were transformed into the Gemini constellation. The pair were regarded as the patrons of sailors, to whom they appeared as St. Elmo’s fire.

One thing I like about these two trees is that they seem to tell a story. They are not classically “perfect” maple specimens. They are unusual and asymmetrical. They are a little bit messy, not unlike life itself. The tree on the left sports a protrusion that reaches out to cover a corresponding chunk that is missing from the tree on the right. Both of the trees lean away from each other, but they seem to be relating. Is the one on the left reaching out to help one on the right, which has been injured in an ancient lightning strike or ice storm? Or is it more of an antagonistic gesture, as might befit a bickering old couple? Is it presumptuous to anthropomorphize them thusly?

If you have a chance, visit Mt. Pollux and decide for yourself! In the meantime, please enjoy this photograph.

San Francisco and the Marin Headlands

Photos of my adventures in the San Francisco Bay area.

In August of 2010 I traveled to San Francisco, California for the first time to attend a professional conference called UX Week. I fell in love with the area. Everywhere I turned was a visual feast that appealed to my inner aspiring photographer. Every aspect of the place—the climate, the fog, the architecture, the topography, the flora, the Mediterranean quality of light, and the cultural vibe—felt intriguingly and refreshingly foreign from anything I had ever experienced before, even in my dreams. Luckily, I had an opportunity to return to the area for a week in August of 2011. Following are a few of my favorite shots from both visits.

En route, somewhere over the Midwest

View from a plane

This story would not be complete without a photo taken from the plane. This one was taken some 38,000 feet above Michigan. As uncomfortable, expensive, potentially unhealthy, and inconvenient as the air travel can be, there is something about it that I love, and that I feel is necessary to drive home the scale of the country, its mountains, and the distance between the coasts.

It is still mesmerizing to me that I can fly out of Boston, see the Atlantic Ocean, and in less time than I spend at work on a typical day, see the Pacific on the other coast, as I descend into San Francisco. I always book a window seat, because I love to look down and get a feel for the topographical character of the various parts of the country. Every region has its own signature landmarks, crop circles, bodies of water, canyons, and other formations. And at night (if you have the fortune of returning on an overnight flight as I did), you can see different types of grids that cities and towns are built upon, etched in lights below.

Trolley leaving Powell & Market

San Francisco Trolley

Ever since I was a child I have always been fascinated with trains. So rugged and free, yet so orderly. Needless to say, San Francisco’s trolleys were one of the things I was most looking forward to seeing. After my flight, I took BART from SFO to the Powell Street Station (near where I spent the week, at Hotel Palomar). I had been up from the underground station no more than two minutes when I was blown away by this sight. I was instantly transformed into a kid again, full of wide-eyed amazement. Oh, the possibilities of things!

Steep hills in this city

Steep San Francisco hills

Neither the moderate Piedmont plateau of Atlanta, Georgia (where I was born and spent the first half of my life) nor the rolling hills and fertile valleys of Western Massachusetts that I now call home could have prepared me for the topographical surprise and delight that I would discover in San Francisco. There are a couple of flat areas in the city (that I am certain the local bicyclists have discovered), but most of San Francisco—at least the part that I saw—simply undulates.

It is one of the true great romantic cities of the world. Apparently it’s very motorcycle-friendly too, which I would not have expected of a place that is fairly seismically active.

Crossing the Golden Gate Bridge

Crossing the Golden Gate Bridge

I love bridges almost as much as I love trains! Before my conference began, a couple of dear old friends now living in the Bay Area picked me up at my hotel and drove me across the Golden Gate Bridge to the Marin Headlands, where we enjoyed a simply perfect day lunching in Sausalito, playing on Rodeo Beach, walking among the tall California redwood trees at Muir Woods, and taking in some breathtaking sights from the bluffs above the San Francisco Bay, just north of the city.

Rodeo Beach

Rodeo Beach

Giant rocks and steep cliffs held together with succulent vegetation are hallmarks of Rodeo Beach (apparently pronounced “roh-DAY-oh”). This photograph was taken in August 2011 (on my second visit), and was a typically blustery, foggy day (unlike last year’s visit which was unseasonably clear and warmer). What a magical place it is. Seriously—as the song says—when you go, be sure to wear a flower in your hair!

Alaskan Sunset

I took this photograph in August of 2004 from a boat on Kachemak Bay, en route from Halibut Cove to Homer, Alaska. I love how the warm glow of the sun is subtly reflected in the calm water, and the way that the horizon line between water and sky is barely discernible. I also love how during the summer in Alaska, days seem to last forever. I’ve never been to Alaska in the winter, but I am sure that the same is true of nights during that season.

The paradoxical truth is that the best strategy for finding your way out of the fog is to enjoy the fog.

—Rob Brezsny