The content and opinions expressed in this blog are mine. They do not represent the US Government or US Peace Corps - Jud Dolphin

Saturday, October 26

Are You The Artist?

I notice a couple looking at my art. The woman picks up a piece and shows it to her husband. I'm across the room so I'm curious, but I can't over-hear their conversation. Not that I needed to because within moments, they move towards me with a painting in hand.

“Are you Jud Dolphin...the artist,” they ask?

I'm at an art exhibit featuring 15 artists from my apartment building. We've transformed the lobby into a weekend show of creativity. Everyone is impressed by the quality of the art. I'm making new friendships and feel like I'm part of an artist community. It's great.

The prospect of the Art Show spurred me into painting more. I worked hard on a landscape entitled Winter Geese at Dawn. It was a real challenge. I never painted animals before and here, there were birds with feathers...yikes! It took me four attempts before I had what I was looking for.

Winter Geese at Dawn
Talking with other artists, I hear that it's not unusual to have a lot of paintings thrown into the scrap bin. “Do the work,” they say “and don't worry about the quality. It will come along.” Sometimes I wonder, but my mantra has become – Give it a try!

Some years ago, I came across a book entitled The Artist Way by Julia Cameron. It's a self-help guide for realizing more creativity. It's helped to open a lot of possibilities for me. In part, the Artist Way prepared the way for joining the Peace Corps and now for being more involved with art and teaching.

Cameron's approach is to follow a discipline of writing “morning pages”. They're three hand-written pages of whatever is top-of-the mind each morning. Although I often miss a day or two, the writing fosters awareness and helps to identify blocks that hamper creativity or just getting on with life. Often I'll imagine something on my “morning pages” and find a new opportunity for it later in the week.

Here's a link for some more information's_Way

I've reached for the Artist Way whenever I've felt stuck. Recently, a friend was telling me how she was feeling stuck. I mentioned the Artist Way, she bought the book and now we both are working through it – a chapter at a time. One of the side benefits is the chance we have to check-in with one another several times a month.

Both of us agree that we have become more mindful and have been amazed by coincidences and new possibilities popping up where none existed before. Ms Cameron calls it synchronicity.

So here I am at the opening reception for the Art Show. A lot of people have turned out. A cadre of my friends have come to lend support. The room is buzzing with activity. Besides the Winter Geese painting, I have two others on display.

Beach Dunes was created after a visit to my brother's home in Florida. I was impressed by the dunes that lined the beach. Realizing that they are alive with grasses blowing in the wind lent interest. And hearing how dunes actually move over time added some mystery. I hope I captured some of it.

Beach Dunes

Rock Creek Autumn was inspired by my bicycle rides along Rock Creek.  Rock Creek is a park that winds through the city of Washington, DC.  Not far from my home, there's a water falls that was part of an old grain mill.  I framed the falls and water alive with autumn color.

Rock Creek Autumn

More of my paintings are unframed in bins that line the far wall. A young woman tells me about a friend who has been having hard times. I think it's interesting how a creative atmosphere can sometimes open deeper exchanges among people. Synchronicity?

She looks at a small painting and says, “I want to get this for her.” I tell her about my visit to the Cherry Blossom Festival and how it inspired the watercolor. I hope it will cheer her friend. It's my first sale and an answer to my “morning pages.”

Cherry Blossoms 

Another sale follows. Also from the bin, it features a cluster of birch trees. It's inspired by the birch forests that are so much a part of Ukraine. After the sale, another person says, “I was thinking of that one too.” Maybe, I'll paint more birch trees!

Ukraine Birch

And then there's the couple who asked if I was the artist. They tell me about a parent who recently died after a long life. They're clearing his home near the ocean of personal momentous and preparing to make it a rental. “We think this painting will be perfect on the wall.”

The Wave

Later my son, Matthew, emails me asking how the Art Show went. I call back and tell him about the excitement of selling paintings. Two small ones and one large. He congratulates me and says with a chuckle, “I guess you're a professional now.” 

Wow, I have come a long way. And now I wonder....

Tuesday, August 27

March on Washington - 50th Anniversary

What a wonderful spirit filled experience. Instead of trekking to a far-a-way retreat or cloistering in a quiet pool of meditation, I plunged into a wave of humanity.

It started a couple of weeks ago with a call from my friend, Joe, at the Lafayette Urban Ministry (LUM). He wanted to bring a group of teens from low-income families to the 50th Anniversary commemorating the March on Washington – the one where Martin Luther King voiced his “I have a Dream” speech into history. The group from Lafayette needed a place to stay.

Immediately, I thought of 15th Street Presbyterian Church. This historical congregation involved in civil rights, would be a natural. Another friend , Bob, is the minister there and after a few calls, he made arrangements. The kids from Lum's Achieve program would be able to come to Washington. And I, who probably would have skipped the event, would accompany them.

Here we go. We catch the Metro towards the National Mall. Already, a few groups in matching tee shirts cluster along the station platform. I see logos for UAW, SEIU, and other labor groups. The Urban League and NAACP are well represented too. Others in family groups remember Trayvon Martin with his hoodie image shining life-like across chests - both young and old. I think to myself, “Lest we forget” and to be honest, I mostly had.

Racial profiling and Trayvon's image 

We exit and walk towards the White House. The teens are struck by how small it looks. When juxtaposed with the immense power of the US government, the White House does look out of place. Maybe, we should build a bigger one.

Achieve students from Lafayette, Indiana

I catch an older man wearing a different kind of tee shirt. No logos. It has a message with a lot to read:
One voice can change a room.
And if a voice can change a room, it can change a city.
And if it can change a city, it can change a state.
And if it can change a state, it can change a nation.
And if it can change a nation, it can change the world.

Your voice can change the world.

The tee shirt doesn't attribute the author, but I discover that it's from the 2008 Campaign of Barack Obama – the man who now occupies that small looking White House.

Ironic and yet hopeful, I think. A man who possesses immense power can be used to remind us about the human spirit where even one voice can make a difference. I smile to myself, “Keep the White House small.”

We make the turn onto 17th Street past the old Executive Building and move towards the Washington Monument. One teen asks , “What happened? I thought it was suppose to be white.” I explain the veil of gray scaffolding has been erected for workers to repair damage from the 2011 earthquake that shook the Capital and cracked the upper levels of the Monument.

She nods and scurries to catch up with the others. For a moment, I imagine a monument that is neither white or gray but shines with a spectrum of color just like the Lafayette group who's now merging into a larger and larger stream of diverse Americans.

Messages on placards echo those of 50 years ago. Unite for Justice. Realize the Dream. Protect Voting Rights. Jobs not War. And a new one DC Statehood. Those of us who live in the Nation's Capital still do not have representatives in the Congress. Taxation without representation. We fought a revolutionary war over this.

About ¾ of mile away. We get a glimpse of the Lincoln memorial. It's solid people except for the reflecting pool which has been fences off. There will be no dipping of tired feet in cool waters today. We decide to peel off and make our way to the Martin Luther King Memorial.

We walk through the “Mountain of Despair” and see before us a “Stone of Hope” into which King's image has been carved. On a low wall surrounding the Monument are 14 inscribed quotes. I think how relevant they still are. While reminding us of the controversies we lived through, they point to the conflicts still among us. Sure we Americans have made progress, but there's more to the dream of peace and justice.

Two quotes grab my attention:

I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.

Make a career of humanity. Commit yourself to the noble struggle for equal rights. You will make a greater person of yourself, a greater nation of your country, and a finer world to live in.

It's 1:30 pm. I walk back up 17th Street. I'm tired and hungry. I stop at a sandwich shop and take a window seat. Humanity is still flooding towards the National Mall. There are organized groups of adults, but I'm struck by the number of families with children. I wonder, how much are they absorbing?

For sure, poverty and racism are insidious. Who among these children will pick up the baton and become a drum major for justice? Who will make a career of helping humanity? Who will never forget the Trayvon Martin's of this world?

When I reconnect with the Lafayette teens, I make a point asking each of them about their future plans. I'm struck by how engaging they are. One wants to be a dentist, a couple like the idea of being a vet and several want to get to college. 

Obviously they have absorbed lots and been energized by the day. I have a real positive feeling about this Achieve group. I make it a point of saying to each how I think they'll do good in school this year. "I have that feeling, I say. They beam with confidence.  I then think to myself, “Maybe, they'll find a way to make the world a better place.”

Already expressing leadership, students give interviews to TV 18 Lafayette, Indiana

The March on Washington is over, but my spirit is filled and my awareness has soared.  I'm thinking we can make this world a better place.  

Tuesday, June 4

Alaska's Inside Passage

It looks like any other airport. “Maybe this one is a little smaller,” I think. I pass out of Security and make my way towards baggage claim. Slowly the escalator descends. Foot by foot, a floor to ceiling wall of windows is revealed.
Snow capped mountains - Juneau, Alaska
Wow! Before me is a grand vista of majestic snow capped mountains. It's like a Cinerama. I'm living large. I'm in Juneau, Alaska.
Often cloudy mist hugs the valleys
Weather changes throughout the day.
Here the sky dazzles with a mix of bright blue and clouds.
I think it begs to be painted.
For the next 10 days, I'll board a ship touring the Southwest corner of Alaska's Inland Passage. Our ship is a small one – about 126 feet.  She can hold 30 passengers, but I'll have just 18 cohorts plus crew on this trip.
Kayaking back to the Island Spirit
 They like to call it an un–cruise like a B&B on water. We'll be able to slip into coves where larger cruise ships holding 2000+ cannot imagine going. I'm psyched for the adventure.

An on-board naturalist promises sightings of eagles, whales, porpoise and maybe even a few bears. Captain Jeff tells us that we're on our way to Ford's Terror.
Looking towards Ford's Terror
It's an exceptionally narrow passage. An early explorer got trapped in churning water when the tide turned and rushed out. His name was Ford and consequently the name – Ford's Terror. 

Take a video tour here

We'll ride in on a high tide and hopefully out on the same.

Right now, we're traveling up a fjord called Endicott Arm. The small ship goes slow as we dodge chunks of ice – small icebergs actually. Excitement on the deck grows as we take pictures. One passenger jokes about lifeboats and the Titanic. “Where are the violin players?” I'm glad we had a safety briefing.
Stunningly beautiful flows of ice
Off in the distance is the massive ice wall of Dawes Glacier. Strangely it's colored in shades of aqua and blue. I've never seen anything like that color in nature before.

Distant Dawes Glacier is still moving mountains
  The captain tells us that he will inch forward to within a quarter mile, but dares not go further. He's not so concerned about ice falling or calving, as they say, but being struck by a shooter coming up from below.

Takea look here  Believe me ¼ mile is close enough...simply breath taking.

That night we make the tide into Ford's Terror and drop anchor for the night. The ship is equipped with massive batteries which have been storing energy all day and now the engines are silenced. What remains is Alaskan wilderness just like native people heard – Wind and a near-by waterfalls cascading from cliffs above. I crack my window to let the sounds and cool air flow in. I'm in the wilderness.

Days are filled with kayaking. I paddle to the foot of a waterfalls and get to withing 10 feet of it's splashing descent. The mist sweeps across my face and I spot a small rainbow. My spirit grins.

Alaska is a magical place.  With so much plastic, concretre and asphalt in modern life, being here realigns the senses.  Peer into the water and it's crystal clear.  Smell the air and there's no hint of diesel fumes.  Listen to the breeze sweep across mountains.  Feel the sun peek from behind a puffy cloud and warm your face.  Alaska is massive as well as nuanced with so many experiences.  I'm beginning to realize that I'm only skimming the surface.

But oh my, how I'm enjoying this adventure.

Overhead I see eagles soaring. One lands on a tree and I decide to paddle closer. The eagle tolerates my approach as I marvel at the bird's grandeur.

Our naturalist tells us that eagles are at the top of their food chain. Since the banning of DDT, they have re-established themselves. What an eagle wants, an eagle gets.  I decide to paddle on.

On another day, I'm paddling around an island when I hear a whooshing sound. Humpback whales are surfacing in the distance.  The sound I hear are their blow holes.  Suddenly, I hear and see a humpback surface about 300 feet from the bow of my kayak.  Talk about being up close and personal.  I decide to keep my distance as best I can and watch him gently surface and feed on herring. It's a remarkable sight.

Afterward I just drift along listening to the world around me. It's a cacophony of bird sounds puntuated by a distant whoosh.  Delicate and beautiful. I'm feeling one with nature now.

Each day I paint a watercolor in my journal. I discovered last year when I went to the Pine Ridge and the Lakota Tribe that it's a good way to soak in experiences. It's my way of feeding the spirit. As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words. Here are a few of the sketches that I produced.

It's a clear day and distant mountains gleam with snow

Sea Lions fill the rock island.  Each bull has a harem of 15-20.
They are very possessive as we learn when we get too close. 
A small one gravel street village with a year-round population of 35.
No cars.  Bikes rule except for the fire truck.  
Twilight fills the sky, land and water with color

Even with pictures in watercolors, my Alaskan adventure cannot be easily shared. It's more than mountains and wilderness, more than ice and waterfalls, more than mammals below or birds above.

I think Alaska gives a glimpse into mystery beyond words and images. It shows me nature's power to both create and destroy.  It transports me into the magnificent cycle of life and death and re-creation or might we say resurrection.

For millennium, glaciers have either moved forward taking giant boulders along for the ride or retreated calving icebergs into the watery seas. Now many are rapidly receding hundreds of feet each year. Creation and destruction are battling within the blue ice.

Humpback whales cooperate with one another. They leave solitary feeding to create a circle of bubbles deep under the water. This bubble ring corrals herring into large clumps so that they can be more easily eaten. I witness the frenzy of life and death swimming in the water.

Moored in remote coves, I see jagged snow capped mountains reflected in pristine waters. Waterfalls cascade across their face cutting grooves and eventually deep fjords into the granite. I think that even these mighty mountains will one day be made low. Nothing in nature and life remains the same.
With Mendenhall Glacier receding more than a football field each year,
Nugget Falls now gushes down the mountain. 

As I soak in the environment around me, a grand metaphor comes to mind.  Being in Alaska is like brushing up against the mysteries of eternity. When that happens, I think we are never quite the same.

Thursday, February 21

Chevy Chase Art Exhibit

Life has a way of surprising me again and again.  Here I am standing in a room filled with artists and their friends.  It’s the opening night of an art exhibit organized by the Fine Arts Council of the Chevy Chase Citizens Association. 

I’m here with eight other artists from the Van Ness Housing Coop.  It’s the first time we have been brought together to exhibit.  It’s fun to meet and greet one another.  One woman says, “With so many of us at Van Ness, we ought to have ourselves an artist saloon.”  Maybe it will happen and usher in another surprise.
Around the perimeter of the room hang our paintings.   There are oils and acrylics - mostly abstractions.  They grab attention with their powerful strokes of bold color.  By contrast, there’s a soft pastel.  It depicts friends talking.  I’m struck by expressions and their eyes.  Some connect and others stare blankly beyond the painting.  I wonder to myself, “If pictures could talk, what stories would be told.” 

Watercolorists are well represented with four of us in the show.  Each has a distinct style.  Several use a line and wash technique combining ink pen drawing with delicate watercolor washes.  My friend Marguerite has done some delightful street scenes from Provence France.  You can view some of her work on her blog   

A new friend Martine has a whimsical painting of two cats perched on a windowsill.  They’re intent on every movement of a red bird feeding outside. More of her work can be viewed at

It’s wonderful to be here among these artists.  A few years ago it would have been unimaginable.  I was just dabbling with watercolors.  Sure I went to some classes in Boston and Maine.  I even got to go to workshop in Andalusia, Spain.  It was a lot of fun, but through it all I lacked an understanding of basic techniques. My painting was hit and misses and often I missed. 
All this changed when I began to teach.  A teacher needs to know his material.  I spent many hours dissecting techniques and painting them one step at a time.  During my Peace Corps Service in Ukraine, long winter nights were filled with practice and then more practice.  My own art work got a lot better as I understood more about basic techniques.  Soon I began teaching classes to aspiring artist and enjoying every moment of it.

I submitted four paintings and three were accepted for the exhibit. 

Maine Winter is from memory, but inspired by my life in Maine.  Often I drove a road in South Portland and viewed the distant city from across the frozen harbor.   Of course the cluster of pines in the painting is a way of identifying with Maine, the Pine Tree State.

English Cottage is an painting I made for an Internet contest.  They supplied a photograph as jumping off place.  I then decided to add a second building nestled into the trees.  Do you see the line and wash technique?   I like the way the sky formed.  It uses what is commonly called wet-into-wet. 

A friend asks, “How did you paint that?”  We talk about the unique characteristics of watercolor.  “For sure it can be difficult, but there’s magic too”, I say.  “Unlike other media, watercolor flows and mixes on the paper.  It’s spontaneous and somewhat unpredictable. 

I liken it to having a dance partner. One leads and the other follows and sometimes roles are reversed.  When I lay a wash across the paper, it’s like gliding into a first step and then waiting for my partner to responds.  On and on we go responding to one another.  I think that’s why I like watercolors.  You never know exactly where you’re going to end up.  So many surprising things can happen – just like life.”

Winter Glow comes from my imagination, but is informed by my memory of Ukraine.  Ukraine can be so very cold and it has an abundance of birch trees.  The glow from the depths of the forest is a mystery.  Is it a sunrise, sunset, fire or some other glow?  Like the mystery that is Ukraine, it awaits interpretation.

Right now the room is filling up.  About a dozen of my friends have come to show support.  I'm delighted.  Ben, a Peace Corps friend, is here too.  I jokingly call him my patron because he commissioned a painting last Christmas.  

Lots of people are circulating and looking at the variety of art.  Several indicate an interest in mine and ask for a card.  Fortunately, I made up a few just so that I would be prepared.  I haven’t sold any.  But who knows, I may be surprised.  The exhibit will be up for a month. 

When I served in Ukraine, I got a chance to teach leadership skills to young leaders of the Country’s emerging civic society.  I remember saying that before you start a new project, it helps to imagine it. 
I said, “It’s like your first step happens in the mind.”  I encouraged them to take time to envision outcomes and let their minds feel the contours of what they were about to start.  It’s like Stephen Covey writes in his Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.   “Begin with your end in mind.”

Last New Year’s, I was thinking about finding a way to show some of my art.  I thought about scoping out coffee shops and various restaurants.  I began imaging my work on public display.   But before I could take further steps, I got a letter - “We would like to invite you to participate in the exhibition program of the Fine Arts Committee of the Chevy Chase Citizen’s Association....”  

It’s amazing how life can surprise you just as you begin to think about starting something new.