First Summer, egg tempera on panel

First Summer, egg tempera on panel

It began as a whisper at first, a subtle shift in the wind, which otherwise would have gone unnoticed, except for the shiver that raced up my spine. There was a message on the line. You don’t know me, the voice was saying, I didn’t even know if you would talk to me, but I think you should give me a try. You may assume that you are content with your current situation, the path that you have chosen, but I have watched you for a while and know you are not satisfied. Come, give me a try.

I saw you standing in the meadow many years ago, after a spring rain. A youth then, you were staring at the blossoming trees, studying the leaves, wondering what made them glow so green in the glistening light. And again, chest high in murmuring salt grass of a golden marsh, your eyes transfixed on the palisade of palm trees marching across the distant horizon—Oh how you loved their airy blueness. I was there beside you in the surf, when you drew that snowy egret, saw it turn in the twilight—watched you marvel at the lilac and green hues nestled in the shadow of its breast. Yes, I can see right through you, see how you struggle to understand and posses the elusive ever changing colors of the day. They lift your spirits then pass right through you, like music floating through a room.

Know you have tried others, at first, enamored by their colorful charms. Then after becoming familiar with their traits, you lay them aside, for they could not do for you what you asked them too. So here I am, I’ve been around for thousands of years, and for a time in the reign of kings and popes, I was the most popular one in the room.

To be continued.

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“I don’t know anything about inspiration because I don’t know what inspiration is—I’ve heard about it, but I never saw it.” William Faulkner

Photo:  Vintage cat door knocker, Charleston, South Carolina.

Photo: Vintage cat door knocker, Charleston, South Carolina.

Where do ideas come from?

Successful artists constantly fuel the creative fire. They don’t sit around waiting for inspiration to strike, they just get to work and believe in the process.

Contemporary painter Chuck Close says, “inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work.”

I’m primarily an internal painter. My creative process involves reading, writing, reflecting and continually drawing or painting to produce ideas. I use external subjects to manifest my thoughts. Most of my paintings are researched based. When I become interested in something, I want to learn all I can about it. I like to think it adds a bit more verisimilitude to my work.

The past few years, I’ve been experimenting with various visual objects to trigger new associations, concepts and connections. The key is to keep working. Inspiration will come, work will materialize.

Driving back from the Crossnore show in North Carolina we dropped off a couple of new paintings at Cheryl Newby gallery and stopped in Charleston.

Walking around I snapped a few quick photos, relying on my unconscious before I had time to analyze—idea triggers—shoot and scoot.

Loading them on my computer, I Googled door knockers to learn why so many of these old ones have grotesque faces.

Apparently, they are designed to keep evil spirits away. Which reminded me of the voodoo church I stumbled across once in a questionable neighborhood in South Florida. A jaundice-eyed resident told me the aluminum foil covering the windows was to keep out evil spirits. I was hoping it worked both ways.


Photo: Voodoo church

At the opposite end of the ecclesiastical spectrum, in the courtyard of a Catholic church on an island on the west coast of Florida, I was drawn to another type of shadowy spectral playing on the doorway. The result was this egg tempera painting.

Boca Shadows. egg tempera painting

Boca Shadows. egg tempera painting

Below is a detail photo of the actual door. Initially, I thought the two rings were door knockers. Because, when I first visited the church, a couple of elderly woman were exiting and told me to just go on in. The door is never locked. I went inside and on the way out had trouble shutting the door. I shoved it harder and heard a loud Click. The door was locked! Uh oh. Asking forgiveness, I skedaddled.

Curious about these two rings, I discovered that they are the oldest type of door knockers and sometimes referred to as a sanctuary knocker. In medieval times, large rings were mounted on the doors of churches. Anyone who had committed a crime could seek sanctuary by grabbing hold.

Photo: wrought metal door knocker rings

Photo: wrought metal door knocker rings

Earlier in the week, I was hoping to hold onto the rings of the whitewater raft on the Nolichuky river in North Carolina that Mary had booked. Especially after listening to our guide tell us how many ways we could die. I was hoping to stay in the raft and also study the water for a fly-fishing painting commission. I managed the latter. Before we took off, I briefly considered staying on the porch and hanging out with the rafter’s dog.

Photo: Nolichucky rafter's dog

Photo: Nolichucky rafter’s dog

He reminded me of a Naive American’s dog I saw at an outpost in Alaska during a blizzard. It immediately triggered a train of inspirational images and nouns from childhood, with many possible painting ideas to explore.

However, as Robert Frost wrote,”Yet knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back.”


North of the 35th Parallel, egg tempera painting by Daniel Ambrose

North of the 35th Parallel, egg tempera on panel

North of the 35th Parallel

Time is on my mind when I wake in the darkness in the room of our rented cottage here in the mountains of North Carolina. What time is it? Rolling out of bed and stumbling into the living room, I paw around for my phone and groan when I see it’s 3:38 a.m.  Not again!

I go back to bed, but soon start thinking about my show at Crossnnore opening this Thursday, and the signature painting, North of the 35th Parallel. At first appearance it’s a simple piece—a hill, tree and bit of sky. But it’s everything to me.

Thirty odd years ago, when I came up to the mountains, I came for them and the rural structures, and the abundance of nature and animals.  I liked the idea of being in a place where cows just might outnumber people. The chance of discovering authentic hand-made goods and crafts made by mountain people tucked here and there among the hollers was also appealing.

Then, after a couple of decades hiatus from these parts, I began coming up here every summer for the past seven years exploring and painting. In that time I have met so many nice people. On Rabbit Hop, in the hardware store and eateries; I’ve met them in their pastures and gardens, on mountain tops and trails, sitting on tractors and fishing in streams. While I am painting, folks have come up to me on bikes and horses or walking with a pack of dogs, whose names I’ve learned too.  And there was the gent on a bicycle who took my picture while I painted a farm, and the young lady who stopped while I was parked on a remote road drawing and asked if I was okay and needed help.  More than once, I’ve been asked if I needed help.

This morning in the pre-dawn stillness, I was thinking how when I first came here I knew no one and no one knew me. In the course of traveling around Mitchell, Avery and McDowell county, I have come to know the names and a little bit about many people.  It struck me that when I think of  the natural landscape now, I see the faces of the people I know planted against the backdrop of this land. It not just the natural landscape that I come here for now—it’s to see friends too.

Some of their names and faces immediately come to mind:

Alton, in the apple tree, Nate, Calvin and Annie. Cynthia—her brothers and parents with the dog we couldn’t keep. Teresa from the coffee shop, Kent and Anita, Ed the church steward and his cows, Gloria and Dave, Mary and her partner Alli. Heidi, Lisa and Stephanie make me smile. I needed an egg once to make tempera paint and Lisa ran home and brought me back a dozen of fresh ones from her chickens. So many acts of kindness have been extended to me. Joe and Patty, Richard and Janice, Tom, Barney and Pam. The ones I was fortunate to meet and have now passed, like the powerhouse Dr. Crain, who did so much for the children of Crossnore before her passing. Jay who mowed our grass, and Lloyd. Collectors, clerks, couples, neighbors, artists scattered across these mountains all bring a warm feeling when I picture all their kind faces.

I do not know why I chose to stand in knee high grass by the side of the road one Sunday morning and paint a study of a hill and tree while most people around here were in church. It was extremely hot and dry and I just knew I was going to get chiggers or something itchier from standing in the weeds.

But there was something about this scene that pinned me in place. A stout tree always reminds me of my father, and now my Grandma Dewey, who died this month is included in that remembrance.  Hills bring happy memories too, good for rolling and sledding down, and scampering up to see what’s on the other side. I don’t do much scampering anymore, but I still want to climb hills. Though my hip tells me the going up won’t be easy and my knees tell me the coming down will be even more painful. Still, I have to climb that hill.  As long as we are alive we need to strive for the summit of our hills.

Yesterday we drove by the inspiration for North of the 35th Parallel and I saw that the tree had been cleaved by lightning.  I’m pleased now I took the time to paint it. Painting is a reverent way of living in the world. Painting is a way of honoring this land and the people who call it home.

The mountains remain, but most of the the old places that brought me here many years ago are gone. The old country stores where you could buy anything from a gallon of gas to a cup of fishing worms have disappeared. Traditional crafts have moved from beside the bean patch to inside galleries. And it is good to see young artists carrying on the work. It’s not an easy life and I respect their bravery.

I am Florida born and bred and the sea is in my blood. But I know the quartz sand on the beach once was a part of these mountains.  Now when I think of these old hills, I see more than humps and trees and what used to be. I see the faces of friendly people. People that make me feel at home during my time here north of the 35th parallel.