Waiting For Her Muse

In this pandemic time, it is so hard for me to focus on making art.  It’s not from a lack of desire.  And there are many emotions at play that could feed the creative process.  Uncertainty and fear.  Confusion.  Helplessness.  Sadness at the loss of life and normalcy.  But my psyche apparently has enough to do just coping with the daily undercurrents swirling around us.  So…I busy myself with smaller, more mundane projects which might yield a sense of accomplishment.  Making cards from older paintings on paper. Cleaning out my studio. Cleaning the house. Tackling projects that have been on my “to do” list for months.

There are small comforts.  I find moments of peace walking in a nearby forest where I’ve found pieces of bark, twigs, and acorn tops to use in mark making.   I watch the blossoms unfolding on the magnolia, viburnum and redbud trees of our block. I greatly enjoy the chalk art on sidewalks, and all the creative ways our neighborhood children find to be together at at safe distance.

I am at a safe distance from my Muse.  I travel my day in an information-gathering state of mind.  Still, I am optimistic that all my fleeting observations and insights are weaving together, just below the surface of my awareness.  I have no idea what they will say to me later, or how they will find their way into my art.  But I am confident that there will be veins of rich ore to tap.

My Muse will return.  And I will welcome her with open arms.

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Waiting For Her Muse (16″ x 12″ oil, cold wax, pastels, ink on wood)

Blog For A New Year

My late mother-in-law had a wonderful expression.  She’d arrive at our door after an hour drive and say to her excited grandsons, “Let me come to myself!” I feel like this after a busy holiday season when I’ve largely abandoned my studio. Paintings in progress sit idle and blank panels wait for first marks. As I return to my art, I must “come to myself.”

Over the years I’ve learned a few tricks to to help me find the creative impulse I need to move forward. I look through sketchbooks and files to see what captures my attention. This January, two files are particularly helpful:  “COOL QUOTES” and “POSSIBLE TITLES.”  As an artist who is also a poet, I am inspired by the words of others. I gather lines from poems or insightful phrases from films, books, articles and blogs. When I look through these files now, I discover clear themes I want to explore next in my art.

“More Clarity” (20″ x 22″ Acrylics and Collage on Canvas)

Theme #1:  QUIET.    I crave more calm and quiet to offset the noise in our current political climate. I want to make art with large areas of open space. These titles fit my search for simplicity and meaning in today’s complex environment:  Into Silence, Just Breathe, Silent Language, Finding the Moment, Holding the Now, Internal Voice.

“Let there be an opening into the quiet

that lies beneath the chaos,

where you find the peace

you did not think possible,

and see what shimmers within the storm.”

(“Blessing in the Chaos” by Jan Richardson)

Theme #2:  UNCERTAINTY.  I often feel anxious from the constant upheaval and cacophony in our present culture, and found possible titles which speak to this theme:  Impermanence, Inflection Points, Event Horizon, Collapsible Space, Disconnect, Cone of Uncertainty, Scaring Myself, Details Are Sketchy.

Theme #3:  CULTURAL/POLITICAL COMMENTARY.  This is a continuing impulse in my art. Undoubtedly, it reflects a master’s degree and prior work experience in public policy. I am vitally interested in current events and how they shape our culture.  A painting I sold in December is titled, “Circling the Truth.”  My most recent gallery exhibit included a painting called, “Political Circus” and I just named a new work “Climate Change.”  I am pulled to explore these possible titles from my file:  Radical Transparency, Memes, Global Currents, Knowledge Transfer, Are We There Yet.

I am re-focused and eager to begin new paintings. As I begin 2020, I am left with this sage advice from an Irish poet:

“May you have the wisdom

to enter generously

into your own unease.

To discover the new direction

your longing wants to take.” 

(From “For Longing” by John Donohue)

Building Bridges (24″ x 24″ Oil, cold wax, pastels on wood)


The Painting Spoke To Me

Every now and then a painting seems to arrive from nowhere.  It comes quickly, and seems to paint itself.  It is unlike any I’ve painted before.  It resists any changes and seems to say, “Back away from the painting!” when I approach.   This occurs whenever my art moves in a new direction.   So I wait.  I put it aside until I can understand how it relates to my prior work and what it is trying to say.

The painting below is a case in point.  It stayed in my studio for weeks, and I analyzed it regularly.  I saw a bold figure who reminded me of the ancient Kokopelli deity from Southwestern tribes.  Prominent among the Hopi and Zuni pueblos, the Kokopelli governed both fertility and trade—bringing children, but also stories and news from other communities to help link people.  My painting has mountains that look like those surrounding Santa Fe, a place I love.  The figure is rooted and rises into the sky, and its outstretched arm folds into the hills.  A feather hovers above, and the land below bubbles with life and energy.  The painting puzzled me.  I almost never paint figures.  Nor have I painted anything to suggest Southwestern folklore.  And yet, here was a stylized figure who seemed to share something— to offer a gift or pass along a legacy.

I thought about inheritances.  I reflected on my home, which is full of antique furniture and objects made by the hands of others.  They hold memories and stories of those who came before.  In my attempts to declutter, I am careful to guard certain pictures, paintings, photos, and papers which my sons may want from their childhood home.  Memorabilia from our family tree will become part of their lives.  In recent weeks, I have been impacted by news coverage on immigration.  I value the role immigrants played in my own life, and in all the ways they’ve shaped America’s history.   We humans are connected across cultures in so many ways.   Legacies abound….

Legacies from those who came before, and who continue to inform our lives.  Finally I understood what this painting was trying to capture.  I found early signs in my sketchbook journals and mark making, so it did not arrive “out of the blue.”  I named it Gifts Of Our Ancestors.  Soon after I titled it and put the image on my website, I sold it to another artist.  She said it resonated deeply for her since she owned many pieces of art handed down through the generations of her family.

I treasure the lesson of this painting:  to paint from the soul, always The more I put distractions aside and tap into my deepest emotions and insights—whether these are conscious or not—the more authentic my art becomes.

As I write this, I feel ancestors smile.


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Gifts Of Our Ancestors (40″ x 30″ Oil, cold wax, pastels on wood panel, SOLD)

Crossing the Border of Almost

Fog (metaphor for mystery)

saturates my pores, sends

an ancient message:  attend

 to the moment at hand.


I stand inside fog, realize

I am at a border, where past

blurs into memory, and

the future is unknowable.


Perhaps this is how refugees

feel—a deep longing tinged

with regret—as they journey

between here and there,


no longer where they were,

not yet where they will be.

They are time travelers, wary

and unsettled, mourning


what is lost to them, riding

uncertainty on fragile waves

of hope.  Fog whispers this,

reminds me that all of us live


our lives along borders—real

and imagined—caught on seams

or inside the space between,

yearning, on the edge of almost.


Cynthia J. Lee

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Crossing the Border of Almost (24 x 24, Oil, cold wax, pastels on wood panel)


Where Sea Becomes Air


Here, in this city on the bay,

the Pacific has wanderlust.

It rises, becomes air,

becomes cloud, saturating

my skin with salty mist.

I breathe fog, and watch

as it floats across waves,

climbs cliffs along the rocky

coast, hovers over rounded

Cyprus trees—immersing

everything in a particular

shade of grayed green.


I wonder if these ribbons

of fog are merely lost

or fallen clouds, awakening

to solid ground instead of sky.

Or maybe—like the ocean—

they are free spirits, choosing

a new journey, wisps of ocean-

cloud woven with laughter,

rolling softly in a playful dance

between earth and sky,

where sea becomes air.


Cynthia J. Lee

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Where Sea Becomes Air (24 x 24, Oil, cold wax pastels on wood panel)


Stories the Fog Holds

I stand inside clouds on a San Francisco hill

tonight, and marvel at sights unseen:

blurry halos of street lamps, hints

of intersections, furry skyscraper shapes

lining the Bay.   Fog rolls in like the crest

of a wave before it dissolves against the shore,

engulfing me in a grayed greeting

from the ocean nearby.   I walk, and wonder

at fog as metaphor, its meaning

to humans over time.

What is inside these grounded clouds? 

What is hidden to us?  

 Neither future nor past is seen, every

possibility just out of reach,

all history shrouded.

There is only now, only this moment

in this place. Without a visible world,

 does imagination grow wider…deeper?  

  The night air is still,  dense with mystery,

as if the answers to all our questions

are here— sotto voce and sub rosa—

vague whispers in mist I cannot understand.

Inside this fog I feel a multitude of stories,

told and untold, can almost hear wispy

voices from yesterday and tomorrow,

trying to share wisdom and cautionary

tales, folding softly in and out of time.


Cynthia J. Lee

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Stories the Fog Holds (24 x 24 (Oil, cold wax, pastels on wood panel)

Sunsets in the Sand

White sand, soft as talcum powder,

so different from the coarse grains

of Lake Michigan.  Gulf waters glint

and glitter, and my soul keeps time

to waves as they break the shore.

Birds on thin stilts yield a path as I near,

and pelicans overhead cast pterodactyl

shadows.  I watch one fold its wings,

become an exclamation point

in a racing dive toward a surprised

fish, then return to the sky with a full

orange grin.  I am giddy as a child

watching fireworks, seeing this cartoon

creature—its body borrowed from

a prehistoric time—turn sleek,

powerful, graceful in an instant.

Here there are many reminders

of primordial Earth:  an ancient ocean

surrenders its pulverized flora

and fauna.   Shell fragments on the shore

hold all the colors of a Florida sunset,

millennia of days ending, hardened into

bone, forged in coral, lavender and pink.


Later in the week I lunch at a revolving

restaurant, fifteen stories high.

Islands lace the intercostals, bend

under the weight of skyscrapers.

A flock of pelicans flies past at eye level,

and suddenly I long for wet sand

between my toes, yearn to be far

from this steel structure with its birds’

eye view, where I can see for miles but

cannot feel a pelican’s shadow, or know

that sunsets are scattered in the sand.

—Cynthia J Lee

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Gulf Coast Beach, Florida (16 x 20, Oil, cold wax, sand, charcoal on wood)

Mountain Soul

Mountain Soul

Here in the mountains even roots climb

with energy that is male, active.

I am edgy and on guard, a stark contrast

to the serenity of these woods.

Light and shadow part the trees,

and I open to the wind’s soft breath,

the rustling sway of branches.

They are counterpoint to danger

I feel on the periphery:   a fall down

the steep incline, an encounter

with a sharp-toothed or slithering

creature whose habitat I invade.


Trees blur, and I cannot see

the path’s end.   All around I sense

others who traveled this ground.

How many remain. on the forest

floor after danger became real,

became death?


My buffered life and its illusions

of control are no help to me in this

untamed place.   Basic skills to survive

are not in my suburban bag of tricks.

Those survivors who journeyed here

humble me now.  I feel their hands

steady me, help to push against blue-gray

smoke of my own mortality.  I hear

their voices urging me to take

a deep breath, savor this moment

in space and time, let the mountains’

vast energy flow through me and into

the sky’s waiting arms.


—Cynthia J. Lee

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Mountain Soul (20 x 16, Oil, cold wax, mica, charcoal, marble dust on wood)


Passing Signs

I hike the Smoky Mountains, that misty

purple roller coaster laced with silent

reminders of life before, layer upon layer

rising into this ancient forest. Ochre

pervades my pores—pigment of ancestors,

formed of iron oxide hurled from

the planet’s core.  It is early autumn

and I am ochre, searching for magnetic

north.  I feel ghostly markings along this

trail, maps I cannot read, illusive

blueprints to tell a traveler where to turn

left or right, where to find water or

a place to rest for the night.  I am red ochre

lines on a rock. A stacking of stones,

branches crossed beside the path.   Signs

to say:   Others were here. Go this way.

I am handprints on an ancient cave wall,

a squiggly line, a series of dots made

in charcoal from a safe fire’s embers—

an affirmation in ash, that a soul, like me,

once journeyed here, then moved on.

—Cynthia J. Lee

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Mountain Tapestry (16 x 16, Oil, cold wax, marble dust, mica flakes on wood)


Circling the Truth


A heightened sense of my own mortality is transforming me.  There were triggers from profound experiences in nature—hiking isolated trails in a mountain woods, and paddling a kayak into a primordial mangrove tunnel.  But, if I’m honest with myself, the true root of this change is the recognition that time moves more quickly now.  My awareness of aging brings sharper focus and a new attitude.  I’ve become impatient with the tepid, the half-baked, the insincere.  Conformity bores me.  I lean toward edgy and honest.  I crave full-throttle, all-in reactions to daily life, tempered only by compassion.

At times, I am able to alternate this rebellious passion with a more Zen approach—relaxing into stillness, openness, and playful humor.  Best of all, I’ve given myself permission to roam between these two mindsets.  Each has its own rewards.

As I ponder the passing time, I also wonder about all of us.  Global challenges and nationalist tendencies spark our collective fear and unrest.  Our constant social media connections seem to make us lonelier. We humans are so alike, so needy, and yet so polarized.  We travel varied paths in search of meaning and often come up short.

I am reminded of a lovely Italian phrase, passeggiata, to describe people walking around the town plaza late in the afternoon.  I want to walk there, together with old and new friends, and with perfect strangers—all of us sharing the angled sunlight and shadows, finding peace as night approaches.


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Circling the Truth   (30″ x 24″, Oil, cold wax, pastels on wood panel)