What Would They See?

A Refugee Girl Looks Back

A Refugee Girl Looks Back

I recently took my charcoal sketch of the Syrian refugee girl and weaved a larger composition around her, using Ogura lace paper, pastel pencils, acrylic ink, and oil pastels. I imagined her as an angel, looking down on the world she had left. What would she see? What might she be thinking? What would she say, if she could counsel the humans below?

Take a moment to think on these things. Put yourself in her place. The voices from the graves of Syrians who have perished during this brutal war are pleading with us to stop and consider these questions.

What I’m Working On….

   Syrian girl looking out window

I’ve been wanting to weave people into my paintings for a long time now. Of course, I have already done some studies of Syrian refugees. But portraits and figure studies are completely different from florals, fruits, and the large-scale clouds I most recently finished. So my goal is to develop a consistent style in approaching the portrait, just as I did with my other subjects.

I’ve been experimenting with different approaches to the beautiful beings I’ll be teasing out of the recesses of a blank canvas or paper. I love drawing in charcoal, which is how I created my sketch of the Syrian girl above. But I also love loading a brush with color and building layers of hue and value until the features of a face slowly emerges from the surface. That is what I did in the painting on the left, which is currently in progress.

As I move forward, perhaps I’ll incorporate charcoal sketches with vibrant oils. It’s an exciting exploration, and I’ll be sharing the results with you as it progresses.



The Clouds Above, Our Lives Below

Clouds I

Clouds I

For artists, the sky has always been an endlessly fascinating subject to paint.

When we wake up, we look outside and see the morning clouds. When we go to bed, we catch a peek at the stars before we pull the shade closed. The sky is all around us. We go about our days mostly oblivious to its ever-changing currents, more focused on what’s going on in front of us, on the ground. We pay attention to the weather, but not necessarily the sky.

And yet, the atmosphere above our heads is what makes the difference between whether we get up in the morning and continue our day as usual, or wake up to a natural disaster, as hurricanes or heat waves turn our world upside down.

We rely on Earth’s unique atmosphere to safeguard the conditions that sustain life on this planet. So we clearly need to start paying attention to the sky above us, because it has an oversized effect on what happens to us on the ground. Otherwise, we might one day have only paintings to remind us of what was.

So I began a series of paintings exploring the multitude of clouds that inhabit the life-sustaining belt around our planet. For those who spend their workday indoors, a painting like this can be your portal to the skies. It keeps you connected, and grounded, no matter what’s going on at the office.

The cloud series is a happy outcome of combining airbrush with raw canvas. This technique perfectly captures the diffused, muted, and delicate shapes of clouds drifting across the sky. Layers of transparent airbrush create depth, and the tooth of the untreated canvas provides texture. Spare, simple, and beautiful.

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Glacier, Retreating

Glacier, Retreating

Glacier, Retreating

The great glaciers of the world are shrinking. The ice they shed is cascading into the oceans, upsetting the saline balances, coastal water lines, and temperature differentials, all at once, for the first time in thousands upon thousands of years.

“Glacier, Retreating” portrays this process of disintegration, the gradual melting and receding of the front edge of these glaciers. I chose airbrush and ink as my medium because they best convey the subtleties of the gradual melting and diffusion of the glacier’s core into the surrounding atmosphere.

Once the great glaciers disappear, they may never come back. “Glacier, Retreating” is a memorial to their existence, in its muted layers of blue and green slowly dissipating to the edges of the canvas, the last glimmer of ice crystals still intact, but not for long.


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Crevasse, Melting

Crevasse, Melting

Crevasse, Melting

In reflecting upon themes for my Climate Change series, the image of melting glaciers immediately came to mind. Blue is a key element in my palette, my favorite in fact, and the prospect of exploring all the different shades of blue inherent in melting ice was irresistible. Glacial crevasses are particularly breathtaking, with their multitude of polished layers reflecting the blue light and plunging deep into the unknown.

I had just begun experimenting with airbrush, and a crevasse was the perfect subject for rendering the overlapping shapes and softly curving hues. The purity and translucency of color achieved with airbrush is unparalleled, and it conveys the delicate, fragile nature of these constantly changing ice formations.

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Will we be over our heads with sea level rise?

Coming to the Surface

Coming to the Surface

One of the techniques I have experimented with recently is poured acrylic ink on raw canvas. Morris Louis was probably the artist best known for pioneering this.

For my series on Climate Change, poured ink is the perfect medium to convey the feel of sea level rise, as the ink drenches the canvas and creates waves and eddies of color, as if swirls of ocean water were engulfing the viewer. To achieve this effect, you have to first treat the canvas with a liquid that breaks down the sizing and allows the ink to sink into the fabric. Then you have to work quickly to achieve the best effect, pouring and tilting, brushing huge swashes of ink and letting one bleed into another, spattering alcohol across the surface like sea foam.

The beauty of this kind of piece is in its spontaneity and simplicity: just pure ink flowing on raw canvas, no lines drawn except those naturally created as one color combines with another. As you pour and tilt and drag the brush across the surface, a completely organic form takes shape, a serendipitous blend of pure colors, much like the sea itself.

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Climate Change and the Frog in a Frying Pan Analogy

We Are More Like This Frog Than We Realize

We Are More Like This Frog Than We Realize

Our earth is our only home in this vast universe, and it’s in deep trouble. If we don’t act quickly to reduce our carbon emissions, our children and grandchildren will end up paying the price for our negligence.

I recently began a series of paintings on the theme of climate change. My first painting in this series illustrates the proverbial “frog in the frying pan” concept. This is the idea that if a frog is in a pan of water and you raise the temperature slowly enough, the frog won’t notice it and will end up perishing. Alarming news headlines on climate change make up the collage of flames under the frog.

While this hypothesis was eventually disproven in the case of frogs, it underscores a key psychological phenomenon that has kept humans from responding more vigorously, even as temperatures rise and the early consequences of climate change have become increasingly obvious. Daniel Gilbert, a psychology professor at Harvard, notes that our brains are ill-equipped to deal with distant or future threats.

Gilbert’s theory is that “…global warming occurs so gradually that it goes undetected by the brain. Though the human brain is very sensitive to chemical and psychical changes such as light, temperature, pressure, sound, size, and weight, incremental differences largely go unnoticed.

So, the frog in the frying pan analogy is not so far off. One only wonders how hot it will have to get before we mobilize the massive efforts that will be needed to change the path of climate change, and preserve a livable planet for future generations.

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She Leaves the Darkness Behind

Bulgarian photographer Dobrin Kashavelov has documented  refugees’ hardships with incredible sensitivity and poignance. You can view his series at, “Border of Hope.”

Syrian motherOne  of his photos inspired me to create the painting shown below. It is of a Syrian mother who at the time was in a refugee transit camp in Bulgaria. I don’t know what happened to her. But I do know that his photo forever captured her serene beauty and sincere dignity in spite of her circumstances and surroundings.

She looks off into the distance, at some source of light. I could hardly imagine what she had been through. And what her thoughts might be of her future. But I focused on the light.  I imagined her thoughts. And I wrote this poem, which winds its way through the painting:

She Leaves the Darkness Behind

she leaves the darkness behind her,
the bombs
the blasts
and the bullets.

only the ringing in the ears remains,
a constant reminder,
like a cricket atop her shoulder,
just another refugee fleeing the violence.

So she sets her sights on the butterfly within,
the vision
that out of this cramped cocoon
of pain and tears,

she will emerge whole,
by hope.

Again, as in my painting, “Their Ghosts Will Judge Us…”, flowers still bloom amid the destruction. As a refugee of war, this young woman tries to turn her back to the horrible things she has witnessed, to put them behind her and to focus on the promise of her future life.

In Syria, she was huddled in basements during bomb attacks, then squeezed into an airless truck driven by smugglers, and now, in the transit camp, she is again hemmed in, surrounded by walls, waiting for who knows how long, to have a sense of her fate.

She is like a butterfly that has been confined to a cocoon, unable to stretch, unable to see the light, unable to take wing. In a cocoon, accompanied by the painful memories and the ringing in the ears, the unseen scars of surviving the barbarism of war.

But my hope is that, like a butterfly, she will soon break free, and be drawn to the flowers that bloom around her: the kindness of strangers, the basic normalcy of being just a young woman again, and the possibilities that will be opened up to her in her new life.

Drowning in a Sea of Indifference

Last summer, the Western press was transfixed by the image of Aylan Kurdi, the young boy washed ashore after drowning during his father’s desperate trek across the Mediterranean. Suddenly Europe, the U.S. and Canada called out for action. Suddenly, the West paid attention.

And yet, this tragedy had been going on for years. Tens of thousands of children have died, both within Syria and along the harrowing route to sanctuary. Sadly, many on the receiving end of the refugee flow have remained indifferent, or worse,  have closed their doors to those who managed to survive the journey. While we can blame the sea and the smugglers and the flimsy rafts for these children’s deaths, it is our own indifference and inaction that have allowed it to continue. We say we have our own problems to deal with. We are afraid a terrorist will infiltrate. Why should we take the risk of bringing in refugees?

Why? Because the only difference between me and a Syrian refugee is that I happen to be born in the U.S., and they happen to be born in Syria. I did nothing in particular to earn this twist of fortune. It could be me. Aylan could be my child. Or yours.

This painting is dedicated to these children and their parents. Many died within sight of the shoreline; their deaths were preventable. Now the same Aegean Sea that has long  brought to mind joyful images of summer vacation and sun-kissed relaxation for Europeans, has become a killing field for the innocent.

I can only hope that our indifference will transform into compassionate action.



How the “Ghosts” Painting Came to Life

“Their Ghosts Will Judge Us: A Plea for Peace in Syria”

Sketch for "Their Ghosts Will Judge Us..."

Sketch for the painting.

The image of the Syrian woman with the dove (at left), which inspired the painting that was juried into the 2015 Yellow Barn Exhibit,  came to me one day as I was reflecting on the situation in Syria, and I quickly sketched it out while it was fresh in my mind. Usually, I have to rework a sketch a few times before I’m satisfied with it, but this one seemed to emerge whole  from somewhere in my subconscious.

She is not any specific person I had seen in photos, but to me, she is the face of Syria.

Her ephemeral visage symbolizes the humanity—the beauty, the kindness, and the basic dignity—that have been sacrificed on the front lines of this conflict.Their Ghosts will Judge Us: A Plea for Peace in Syria

This painting marks a stark departure from my previous works. My existing portfolio focused on vibrant, joyous colors, and mostly subjects from nature. But here, in attempting to crystallize the tragedy of Syria in an image, I could  feel only muted, melancholy colors coming to the fore.

The jagged shapes in the background symbolize the pain that has been inflicted on an entire population, and the shrapnel of barrel bombs. The woman’s face is pallid and ghostly, a specter of Syria’s former visage. (more…)