Weekly watercolor: Art-literate version

Thanks to the Rogue Gallery & Art Center, Pocket Protector Weekly Watercolor entries will now come with something extra: know-how.

I started watercolor painting more than a year ago. A comic book writer and artist named Jeff Lemire got me interested. He did a watercolor painting of DC Comics character Swamp Thing that was just awesome. I picked up some cheap paints and gave it a try. I didn’t stop, zero instruction under my belt. A pile of the pieces in my home office kept growing. I took pictures of most and shared them – to the collective eye rolls of family, friends and acquaintances, I’m sure – on Facebook and Twitter.

Then came my 30th birthday. My parents purchased a $150 gift certificate to the Rogue Gallery, nestled cozily next to Rogue Community College on South Bartlett Street. Their intent, they said, was for me to use the gift certificate and take a class. You know, digest a bit of training so I can at least advance from “amateur” to “trained amateur.”

I finally jumped at the chance two weeks ago and signed up for a beginner watercolor class. This weekend’s class will be my second one in the three-part series. The above painting is my takeaway creation. You’re viewing the “un-ruined” version. My attempt at another tree in the foreground destroyed the tranquil scene.

Being thrust into a somewhat “academic” setting where there are guidelines instead of just me, a brush and a blank canvas has made me realize the watercolor medium is actually pretty difficult to do the right way. You have to be fast. There’s timing involved. Expect to have a large pile of screwed up, sopping wet canvases next to a thin pile of successes.

That challenge is why I want to keep at it. As nice as it would be, I think I’d get bored with instant gratification when it came to things that mattered. And I haven’t yet thrown up my hands in the year and change I’ve been learning. Paints and waters have continued to soak my brushes and smear once-snowy paper with whatever images my brain concocts that day.

So here’s to making messes, I guess. Have a great weekend.

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“Best Year Ever” contender

Serial arsonist. Local government agency bombing. Robot on Mars. Five-year-old superhero.

I’m wondering if these words/tidings would have shown up in tea leaves if I’d visited a fortune teller Dec. 31, 2012, if images of the Curiosity Rover and an IED detonating aboard a propane tank would have flickered in her crystal ball.

Being surprised was better, I think. The listed topics above were, hands down, my favorite stories to cover these past 364 days. They may have made the top 10 all-time list, and honestly, this is likely my favorite year in journalism thus far.

Why? Variety and thematic, deeper-than-the-headline meanings that I, in my complicated, reaching way, have dissected from each story.

Two of these stories were about fire and how some have used it to damage property around Medford. One man, Alan Leroy McVay, allegedly attached an IED to a a propane tank to make a homemade bomb that he attempted to set off in front of the Jackson County District Attorney’s Office. He will be charged federally for his suspected involvement.

I’ll never forget the morning the explosion was reported; the caution tape, the closed building, the press conferences, the number of agencies involved. It felt more like an episode of ‘Law and Order’ than a day at the Mail Tribune.

Then there were the numerous arson fires set in vacant homes around Medford by persons unknown. They still have not been apprehended.

There’s something spooky about that, knowing they could be standing outside the Mail Tribune right now, planning their next move. On a practical level, it also has to be frustrating. They’ve racked up over $500,000 in damage, and it’s likely that price tag will keep going up.

The other two stories I speak of were about our potential, the best in us.

Take Matt Heverly, the former Medford resident who spends each day – or, as he would term it, “sol” – sending planned movements to the Curiosity Rover, the $2.5 billion NASA robot tasked with finding life, or evidence of past life, on Mars.

Real smarts and imagination are required for something like that, but Matt had additional qualities like humility and kindness that made him a real joy to talk to.

Then there was Miles Scott, the pint-sized Bruce Wayne from Tulelake, Calif., who beat leukemia and became the Batkid for a day, thanks to the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

The story I got to do wasn’t just about Miles’ much-watched feats across a faux-Gotham City that made him a national celebrity. It was about how his heroics haven’t stopped, thanks to a foundation his parents and the San Francisco 49ers Foundation set up. Thirty-three cents of every dollar raised will go to Asante Rogue Regional Medical Center’s pediatrics department, where Miles was treated for acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

Like any heartwarming story, there were a handful of idiots that slithered up from the sewers and crypts to screech about how horribly stupid and mismanaged and expensive and overblown and blah blah blah the Batkid phenomenon was. A guest writer for the Washington Post argued that the funds could have/should have been redirected to a more logical, safe course. You know, instead of reaching inside themselves and doing something terribly creative and nice that, in effect, created a foundation devoted to fighting something as awful as childhood leukemia and gave us something to smile about for a day, Make A Wish should have just given that money directly.

Under that logic, we’re all pretty bad people. Because we choose to sometimes buy coffee instead of donating that money to cancer research. In my opinion, that logic dismisses terms like “investment” and “awareness.” And “humanity.”

Either way, an incredible story that captured so many, one I will be grateful to have been a part of forever.

So what’s next? Who knows. That’s one of the most exciting components of the news business; the unpredictability and eternal fields of clouds people like me have to keep clearing away to see what’s next.

I hope you’ll continue on this journey with me and my colleagues. You won’t regret it.

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Another world, two hours away

All my wife and I had talked about for three years was snowshoeing at Crater Lake. It was a clockwork sort of routine; it got cold, and we’d say things like, “We have to go snowshoeing at Crater Lake this year. Have to. This is the year.”

We were keen on it because a park ranger will let you borrow snowshoes and take you on a guided hike through the woods. You get to catch spectacular views of the lake itself, see the ice and snow twinkling on the tree needles, and learn a bit about local natural history. All free. Or I guess you technically recoup some of your tax dollars.

You’re welcome for that, Dad. Merry Christmas.

Either way, why in the world wouldn’t we take advantage of something like this sooner? I’m not sure. Likely it’s somewhere in the same handful of standard reasons we always give for not taking advantage of actual experiences. Fill-in-the-blank laziness. Choose Your Own Lack of Adventure.

This year was different. We went this past weekend, made that lazy, meandering drive up a woodland-smothered Highway 62 to the park and tried not to perform any impromptu skating routines on the frosted pavement. We joined a group of about 35 people, most of whom had never snowshoed before. Good company for us rookies.

We’d made the shortest trek. There were people from Bend, Portland, San Francisco, China, Australia. Etc. Our guide, Ranger Dave Grimes, gave us a few basic rules before we left. Stay together, don’t mangle the natural beauty. Oh, also, have fun. He threw himself down a sledding hill to prove that point, giggled like a little kid when he reached the end of his ride.

I can’t stress the beauty of Crater Lake enough, especially in the winter. Heck, especially during Christmastime. There was something about it being just a few days out from Dec. 25 that made tromping through the snow-wrapped woods even more special.

Freezing rain had launched an all out assault on the park the night before, leaving the trees wrapped in layers of frigid tinsel.

We learned the trees at Crater Lake take yoga and pilates, that they are able to bend into forests of rainbows under the weight of so much snow and snap back up when it all melts. We learned about the park wildlife: the elk that leave and the bears who go comatose and the weasels that slither through the snows like the ‘Tremors’ worms in pursuit of voles living beneath the icy powder.

Then there was the lake itself, that rocky cauldron of perfect, windswept blue that draws people from across the world and renders them speechless and barely blinking.

Forget Westeros from ‘Game of Thrones.’ Forget Middle Earth. Forget Pandora from ‘Avatar’ and Endor from ‘Return of the Jedi.’ There is a world of true, fantasy-caliber beauty in our backyard.

And we can either keep planning to go see it, or actually see it.

Take it from the guy who finally went: I’d recommend the latter.

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Comparatively, though

I ran with a guy in college who, I felt, once made a very simple but profound statement about chilly weather.

This individual was from La Pine, an arctic hamlet outside Bend that brings images of frost-smothered lumberjacks to mind. He basically said the idea that those who come from colder areas should have superpowers in frosty weather is stupid. “Cold is cold,” I believe was his exact concluding phraseology.

He’s right. I’m from Colorado, and I can’t tell you the number of times I’ll be hit with assumptions like that. When it gets frigid out, it’s inevitable that I’ll hear people say things like, “Oh, but you must be used to this” or “This probably is nothing compared to where you’re from.”

Uh, no. Beg to differ on all counts. Temperatures that plunge into the teens or low 20s don’t get me giddy because of the goose down and gortex skin we Coloradans are presumably born with. Cold weather – the real kind, the kind that glazes your bones with silvery frost – is never fun, even if you were raised in an igloo.

But fret not. There is good news in the fight against arctic-feeling weather, and it doesn’t involve gulping down hot drinks or layers, though those are fine supplements to the main plan of attack.

Which is this: compare your situation to a handful of others where it was arguably colder.

Example: I’m reading a book called “In the Heart of the Sea” right now. It’s about a whaling tragedy from the early 1800s where a rogue 85-foot sperm whale plowed into the whaling vessel Essex, forcing the men to abandon ship and try and try and make it to land in a pitiful fleet of tiny makeshift boats. I’m only about one-third in, but the story has already made me thankful for my heated building and vehicle, my coat, hot cocoa and fireplaces. That I’m not stuck at sea in an open face boat while freezing waters and mist rendered me a constant soaking, shivering disaster.

Feel warmer yet? No. OK, how about this?

I’ll stick with the nautical theme. Think about explorer Ernest Shackleton and his Antarctic expedition. Imagine his boat caught in an ice floe, eventually sinking, and having to make camp on the nearby frozen fields while you figured out your next move. No hand warmers or battery powered heaters or $1,000 jackets designed to stop the icy air…cold.

We could even go fictional if you like. Think about that scene in “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country” where an inmate of a prison on a frozen asteroid is thrown outside in nothing but skimpy rags, left to freeze to death. Then there’s the ice planet Hoth from the Star Wars universe. Imagine being lost overnight in a blizzard, caught in sub-freezing temperatures and blowing snow while darkness descends.

It suddenly doesn’t seem so bad out, does it? Comparatively, I mean.

I’m practically ready to hit the beach.

So this holiday season, when you feel overwhelmed by the nip in the air, just remember: You may not have cold-shielding superpowers, but at least you’re not that guy.

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Weekly watercolor: Chill in the air

This week’s Weekly Watercolor is early this week, as there wasn’t one last week.

The format for these Weekly Watercolor blogs is pretty simple. I show one of my paintings, verbalize a bit on its creation, and then we part ways.

We can call this one wishful thinking on paper, because I want nothing more than to see the sun right now. I imagine you’re the same way. This fog has been difficult to endure. I remember watching a Bob Ross Joy of Painting episode where he said he hated winter paintings because they always looked so cold. Hopefully this snowy one has a bit more warmth than the ones he speaks of.

I was a lot braver with use of the paint in this one, more than I think I’ve ever been. The purple clouds were a particular gamble – a lot of broad, clumsy swipes at the canvas, but I think they turned out alright. I like how the sun looks hidden and tucked away, sort of a subtle promise of a brighter, more comfortable tomorrow.

If I was king for a day, this’d be what Christmas morning looked like. A chill in the air, but oh so quiet and glittery.

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Weekly watercolor: Bring me that horizon

Two talented journalists I have hoarded amounts of respect and admiration for leave the Mail Tribune today. It’s ironic that Thanksgiving is tomorrow, because I’m not thankful that they’re leaving.

Sanne Specht and Paul Fattig have an attention to detail in their stories that I hope to master someday. Snappy, give-’em-hell  writing both. They’re also incredibly decent people.

But I wish them well. This week’s Weekly Watercolor is dedicated to them.

Weekly Watercolor, for any rookie readers, is where I share some of my art, give a blurb on its creation background, and bid you adieu. A two-minute art class.

I did this in the back of a booklet on a much smaller canvas then I’m used to. I went from big, bleached white paper to postcard-sized gray. That made it a challenge.

Ultimately, I wanted to convey a scene that showed the start of a journey. Sanne and Paul are ending one and starting another, hopping into new boats and hitting another course in a long, boundless river. I have to imagine they’ll both end up at the base of a mountain chain like the one in the painting. A new challenge to climb, a new horizon to chase.

Have a great weekend and Thanksgiving.

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Weekly watercolor: Winter woods

It was difficult to make time for the Weekly Watercolor blog last week. When a homemade bomb goes off at the Jackson County District Attorney’s Office, your priorities tend to shift.

This week it’s a bit quieter. Police have a suspect in custody, and that means I can break away for a few minutes to share some more of my art.

If you’ve never been here before, the Weekly Watercolor is a new deal at the Pocket Protector blog. I post an image of one of my watercolors, give you a blurb about background, end scene.

Considering this week’s cold snap, I thought a winter painting seemed appropriate.There was a lot of lightly-applied brushing in this; attempts at layering, too. I clearly have a lot to learn, but I take some satisfaction in knowing this is my wife’s favorite thus far.

I hope the purple and dark blue help enhance the feel of shiver-in-your-boots weather. That cabin doesn’t look like a bad place to be, though, I have to say. Think of it: A fire, some just-ground coffee, a book.

Heck, let’s go right now.

Have a good weekend.

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21st century toolkit

This morning reminded me that having quality tools can give you a leg up, no matter what industry you’re in.

I bought an iPhone 5s a few days ago, and it apparently was just in time. What happened four days later – today – showed me that.

That’s when a propane tank exploded in front of the Jackson County District Attorney’s Office, an event that became an anecdote for how quickly news stories like these can spread and how tools like the one I just purchased contribute to that.

I drove to the spot of the reported explosion. Police had put up their usual mustard-colored DO NOT CROSS tape, and the red and blue lights on their cars stuttered up and down the street. While I waited for a police officer to come and talk to me, I started making Vines. Vines are six-second videos. If an actual movie were a full paragraph, a Vine would be a single abbreviated word.

In less than a minute, both Vines – which showed the basics of the scene – were up on my Twitter feed. That’s when my usual police contact – Lt. Mike Budreau – came over and filled me in about what was going on. I used my iPhone to record him on Big Boy video, got some more shots – TV people call them ‘B-roll’ – and took some photos.

Back at the office, I got to work on the video, which you can view in its final form here. I was able to edit the footage I’d gotten and add titles and transitions, all on the phone. I hit export. It uploaded to YouTube in about a minute. Then came the final step – attaching to the Mail Tribune site and putting it out in Twitter/Facebooklandia. Two hours later, we had another video, more content, more Tweeting, more photos.

My new phone – the newest, shiniest addition to my reporter’s toolbox – made a lot of it possible. All that plus a story for our website in such a short amount of time. The fact that a simpleton like me can do such tasks is frightening and cool at the same time.

But that’s where it’s headed. Hell, that’s where we are. News like this needs to be a four-course meal, not a bean burrito. At the same time, 21st century journalists are challenged with getting as much information up as possible; four-course meals you can microwave. I think we were able to do that today. Between videos, social media engagement, photos and written content, I think we served up something useful and interesting that left readers full.

And having the right tools really helped.

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The man in the photo

I keep very few photos on my desk.

Robocop and Avengers posters? You bet. Calvin and Hobbes strips? Absolutely. Green Lantern and T-Rex figurines? Collectors stamps of DC superheroes?

Check, check, and check.

A 6-year-old owns the joint. I’m just renting.

One of the photos on my desk shows that 6-year-old, wrapped in a tuxedo and standing next to his grandfather. They’re both at a wedding. The 6-year-old played ring bearer and the grandfather was the father of the groom – the 6-year-old’s uncle. They’re both smiling. It’s legitimate contentment.

That grandfather has been dead for six years. That 6-year-old had grown to 24 by that time. He tried not to cry at the funeral but ended up doing the opposite. His tears were more like screams. He “said a few words” in a packed church in Kalamazoo, Michigan and almost collapsed at the sudden wound of grief that opened in his chest.

Now that 6-year-old wears the disguise of a 30-year-old me everywhere he goes. Echoes of the man in the photo are still loud as ever; his voice, how he laughed, and so forth. They magnify and increase tenfold this time of year, when we approach a day designated to celebrating men and women like him.

The man in the photo fought in World War II in a U.S. Army division called the Graves Registration Service. His responsibilities included hauling the dead off battle fields, identifying them and writing to their families. War was about bodies for him, bodies and bad news. He was the messenger people talk about when they say “Don’t shoot the messenger.”

He saw the shores of Anzio during World War II, joining the Allied Forces on the push up through Italy to Rome. The sages at Google tell me 25,000+ died during that battle. That’s more than the population of Ashland.

The man in the photo buried whatever he witnessed. And I mean buried. He knocked his memories unconscious and threw them in a box, kicked it in a dark hole before shoveling dirt back over the chasm. He said little about what he’d seen during war, said nothing about the Bronze Star the U.S. government saw fit to give him.

The man in the photo on my desk preferred to move on, I think, a choice I respect and loathe in the same breath.

I’ve tried to fill in the blanks about his time overseas since then. I wrote a semi-biographical story called ‘Suffer the Echoes’ when he started going to the hospital a lot. A small literary journal out of West Virginia published it. I’m working on a similar piece right now. I have a trunk of his letters and other junk he kept from the war. Someday I’ll unearth them and write a book, a testament he would have likely poo-pooed but secretly felt flattered by if he were alive to see it.

I couldn’t tell you why I have this feeling of responsibility to keep his memory alive. The man in the photo is remembered already.

My best guess is I want to understand bravery. That concept – in its true form, at least – is largely foreign to me. I grew up in a two-story house in the suburbs. No one in my family is in jail or a padded room or has had to declare bankruptcy.

The man in the photo walked onto battlefields, gathered up bodies and buried them, told their families that their children were exceptional men. Concurrently, I get pissed when sources don’t call me back. I get an attitude when my wife asks me to clean the bathroom or I’m stuck on a video game.

The man in the photo is a reminder that I can be better than that. And on Veterans Day, his promptings get loud.

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Weekly Watercolor: The Pumpkin King

This week’s Weekly Watercolor is coming a bit early this week for two reasons. First, Halloween is almost upon us. Second, I’ll be out of town Friday, my usual day to post these.

The Weekly Watercolor is a relatively new installment at the Pocket Protector blog. I upload one of my watercolors each week and provide a little background blurb.

This one was fun. I love ‘Nightmare Before Christmas.’ Love it. The demented sets and characters, the nutty musical numbers, the sweet story that moves in a quiet current beneath it all. Main character Jack Skellington – seen above, though few of you need that refer, I’m sure – is a character I’d wanted to paint for awhile. This was the year.

It was a challenge, for sure. I had to treat the painting a lot more like a drawing. That required a thicker water-to-paint ratio and making darn sure it didn’t bleed. I hope I pulled it off.

Happy Halloween.

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