Still Duolingo-ing

Dear Liza,

I have now been practicing French with Duolingo every day for 800 days in a row! This is partly an advantage of being retired; I don’t need to get up and go anywhere first thing in the morning. Cereal, coffee, and Duolingo are my first activities. Partly it is having a reliable study-buddy in Auntie Bridgett.

And partly it is a big, buttery longing to return to La Belle France!

I remember our trip to Paris in 2006, when my ignorance of even basic French drove me to tears of frustration and made for some awkward moments.

It was better in 2008, when we included Angers, Angouleme and Nantes in our itinerary. Having studied with Rick Hughes, I could read the wonderful historic plaques. I could understand the menus and signage at train stations.

But I still couldn’t talk to anyone! French seemed to gallop by while my brain trudged at a snail’s pace.

When we returned a few years later, I had done some Duolingo and studied with Veronique Sepulchre, and I felt more capable. I was still speaking French like a backwards child, but I was speaking French!

And when we are finally able to travel internationally again, I plan to be Paris ready.

La ville de lumiere, je vais retourner!


Grandma Judy

Inspiration from Everywhere

Dear Liza,

When I was teaching, we talked a lot about creating ”life-long learners. In talking with the students I have kept in touch with, I see that I was mostly successful. And I was very successful in becoming one myself.

Since I have been retired, I have had lots of time to learn new things.

I have studied the histories of Paris and Portland, The Monarchs of France and England, How to write mysteries, and The history and structure of Broadway Musicals..

The inspiration to learn something new can come from anywhere. A random “Why on Earth…?” can lead me down a internet and library rabbit hole for a week or more.

And sometimes the inspiration comes from you, Liza. Our Sunday Evening Art Zooms give me reason to draw something I normally wouldn’t, and stretch me a bit.

I have drawn Anime characters while you told me their stories and then drawn a robot and then made up a story about him. And everytime, I learn something new about faces, or color, or composition.

Keep learning!


Grandma Judy

Another Art Challenge

Dear Liza,

My friend Ruth Inman gave us another challenge this week. It was to use text as a background for a piece of art. She offered some pieces of text to use, but I wanted to do my own. I used some stencils that I just got last week and went over the letters in waterproof ink.

I got my acrylic paints and an old credit card and scraped some color over the words.

The greens and yellows are a good start….

One thing I really like about art, and the artistic process, is that you learn as you go along. If something isn’t right, you work on it until it is. In this case, the pink made it even more Spring-y, but was way too intense. The letters were fighting with the colors! Help!

Auntie Bridgett suggested I put some white outlines around the letters, which helped a bit, but not enough. So I darkened the letters with some watercolor pencil and lightened the red bits up with tiny dots of Posca marker. It was better!

I still need to work on getting my stencils letters straight, but that will come with practice.

Have fun with your art!


Grandma Judy

Lefties and Landscapes

Dear Liza,

As I have gotten more into drawing and painting this past year, I have realized that there has been a whole long list in my head of “things I can’t do”. I’ll bet most people have this sort of list, and it makes decisions for them even when they don’t realize it

“I can’t write an essay every single day!” I wailed to myself, thinking about starting this blog in 2017. I have proven myself wrong 943 times so far.

My latest lefty drawing…

“I can’t draw with my left hand,” I have said since…. well, since I could draw at all. Recently, with practice and an adjustment of expectations, I have proven myself wrong again.

And now, I am tackling “I can’t do landscapes.” I am watching YouTube videos, finding the artists who go slowly enough for me, like Alan Owen, a Scotsman who is lovely to listen to. I am staring at landscape photos and watercolors, looking for the magic so I can reproduce it. And I am practicing. A lot.
With very mixed results.

On my own……

In “All That Jazz”, choreographer Joe Gideon tells one of troupe, “I don’t know if I can make you a great dancer. I don’t even know if I can make you a good dancer. But if you keep trying and don’t give up, I know I can make you a better dancer.”

With Alan Owen’s guidance.

And better is all I’m looking for right now.


Grandma Judy

Finally, A Product

Dear Liza,

Yesterday was busy! I walked down to Auntie Katie’s to deliver some cookies, made art with stencils, and got a bunch of essays edited. It felt good to be accomplishing things.

I also finished a non-dominant (lefty) piece that I started last week. . It was the most difficult so far, and it took days of on and off work. My left hand isn’t very strong and working with it is hard, so I only do about an hour at a time.

I decided to copy my photo of a bridge at Cambridge, England. The reflections and delicate windows are just beautiful.

So lovely!

I knew it was going to be hard, but easy stuff doesn’t make me smarter, and if it was horrible, I could always tear it out of the journal. I started, wiggly lines and all, feeling worse and worse about it as I went on.

Not so much…..

I was so discouraged I put it away. But after a few days I remembered Picasso’s statement that if, at some point, you don’t hate a piece, you will never make anything worthwhile. I decided to give it another chance.


I got the watercolors out and, still left handed, started adding color. Watercolor always needs layers and layers to look right, so my lazy left got a workout. That took another long afternoon of painting and drying, and painting some more. It was better! I got out the colored pencils to give some stronger edges on the bridge and bricks, and eventually was satisfied. It could stay in the journal, though I think it still needs some shading.

I used to think that if you weren’t “good enough” at art, or music, or whatever, you were ‘wasting your time’. I now know that it isn’t being good at art that is the point, it is simply the doing. What you can learn about yourself as you peer closely at things and try and make sense of them with pencil and paper are all part of understanding who you can be.

It’s a worthwhile project, I promise.


Grandma Judy

Sweet Betsy from Pike

Dear Liza,

Grandpa Nelson gave me my guitar for Christmas in 1978. She was a not-very-expensive Franciscan guitar, and I loved her. I named her Sweet Betsy from Pike after the old Pioneering song, and learned five basic chords right away. I was working at a daycare center and knew how much children loved music.

Betsy was a great addition to my time in the daycare business. If clean-up time was going slowly, I would pull Betsy from her case and the toys would be on their shelves in no time.

The thing is, I wasn’t very good. I didn’t have to be. When your audience is three- and four-year-olds, the bar is pretty low. But I was good enough for that place and time.

Me, struggling with Ike the autoharp, 1989

Years later, when I got my teaching credential and my first job, Betsy proved herself valuable once again. Kinderbloom was a major step up from daycare and my teaching partner, Laurel Sherry-Armstrong, knew a lot more about music than I did. She played lots of instruments, but the one she brought to class was an autoharp. We named it Ike, after Sweet Betsy’s lover. I practiced and improved, and together we taught the kids to sing “I Love you Forever” and had parents smiling through tears at the Mother’s Day tea.

Second grade needed better skills, and when I finally landed in my happy place of third grade, I was ready. Regular classes meant regular class programs, and I was accompanying dozens of singers in front of a big roomful of kids and parents. I had moved up to about ten chords and a few strumming patterns.

Me and Betsy, about 1998

When I retired a few years ago, Betsy got put up. My fingertips got soft. This Summer when I tried to play “Teddy Bear’s Picnic”, I couldn’t make it work.

Betsy and Bridgett Bear this summer

And now we are coming up on Christmas, and I am not ready to go through a quarantined holiday without playing and singing Christmas carols. I got Betsy out and dusted her off, found our folder of Christmas songs and went online to transpose them into keys I can play (with my ten chords). I spent half an hour strumming and re-learning, painfully feeling the strings on my fingertips. Later, I spent another half hour playing and singing a little with Auntie Bridgett, with things coming easier and my fingers feeling stronger.

Auntie Katie playing Betsy last Christmas

I can do this! Christmas carols, here we come!


Grandma Judy

More Mixing of Media

Dear Liza,

Learning and doing new things is a wonderful way to stay young. Doing the Art Journal challenge with Ruth Inman every week is making me be a better artist, too.

This week I decided to use the mixed media items (address labels, box tops, and can labels) to make a picture that wasn’t about the collage. Let me explain.

I have usually made collages where the paper itself is the feature. The Tootsie Roll wrappers in my bouquet, though bright and fun, never looked like anything other than what they were.

My new challenge was to make a real picture using collage bits. Since I am getting better at faces (by practicing a lot), I decided to draw a face with watercolor pencils, then build the environment with collage.

Naked face and some tentative background…

Once I got the basic proportions in, I built my cityscape background from junk mail. I made them very vertical so they looked like tall buildings. Auntie Bridgett showed me how to make the perspective.

Then came the hard part, making the face. Auntie Bridgett suggested making my character monochromatic, or all one color. I chose blue.

The more I drew, the more I liked it. Shading cheekbones and eye sockets is something that definitely takes practice! Putting in sky and what I thought was a street made it more ‘real’.

He needed a face, so I made eyes out of box tops and junk mail, with eyebrows from address labels, and lips, mustache and goatee from security envelopes.

His hair is made from address labels, with a little black acrylic sponged on to make it more uniform in color. I kept liking it, so I put some details in the background with an Elegant Writer and a few clouds to give perspective.

Looking again, I realized the ‘street’ really looked like an overcoat, so I put in some lapels. And voila! I call him Georges, because he looks French, stylish, and a bit paranoid. I hope when you see this, you will try making a collage picture, too!


Grandma Judy

Flowers on My Table

Dear Liza,

As the Corona shut down continues into summer, the world outside continues to get more beautiful day by day. We have had an unusually cool summer so far in Portland. I remember our first summer here, with temperatures of 111 degrees for a few days, and am grateful that we are enjoying mostly mid-70s . This, plus a few random showers, have made the flowers very happy.

Feeling pleased with water colors and pencils

Being inside most of the time, I have tried my hand at water coloring different types of flowers. I started with daisies and moved onto sunflowers, shading them with colored pencils as needed. The other day I found a great picture of some coneflowers online, and worked to paint them.

Tackling some coneflowers….

I was pleased with my first attempt, and am working on my second. The slight tremor in my right hand isn’t getting in my way as much as I expected and I am feeling more confident.

A second go at the same flowers….

Then yesterday, or our way to the market, we met this fabulous specimen! A real, live coneflower! I took her picture and will use it for my next attempt.

The real thing!

Art imitating life imitating art imitating life….. It’s a perfect cycle.


Grandma Judy