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

Mountain Tapestry-email

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.


circling the truth_email

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



Lately I am fascinated by a phenomenon of nature:  the instantaneous motion of birds in a murmuration.  The flock moves in concert, creating ever-shifting shapes across the sky. These twists and turns are thought to be communal fear reactions to escape a nearby predator—an avian “circling of the wagons.”  When one bird moves, so do its closest neighbors in a reaction time under a tenth of a second.  The connected flock is “a system poised on the brink, capable of near-instantaneous transformation, like an avalanche or a ballet.”  (Dawna Markova & Angie McArthur in Collaborative Intelligence)




And I wonder:  Do human beings react this way?  Do we express our communal fear, anger, horror in a kind of murmuration?  We seem to jump from one fear or outrage to another, provoked by news reports and online posts.  Our social media responses travel near the speed of light and tend to cluster—rather like a flocking behavior.  “Look over HERE!  NO, look over THERE!”   We swoop nervously through clouds of uncertainty, trying to make sense of information which may have serious consequences.  We are continually on edge in these edgy times.

We humans feel our solitude deeply. We float on this planet, shifting with currents of change.  We gather together, drift off on our own, and gather again.  In the experience of profound emotions, we seek out other people to calm and center ourselves within the safety of a larger community. These human murmurations allow us to move forward together, profoundly connected and no longer alone—better able to cope with whatever difficulties lie ahead.



Murmuration, 16″ x 12″ (oil, cold wax, pastels on wood panel

Political Pulls

During this 2016 campaign season, political rants move from one extreme to another, fueled by constant media attention. Like many Americans who want to stay informed, I feel the contagion and the dilemma:   to tune in or not!

I’m reminded of a wonderful Ted Talk on creativity, given by novelist Amy Tan.  In it she says,  “There is no certainty, never complete answers.  You become aware of hints from the universe.  These become the focus.”

As an artist I explore pulses which resonate, whether from within or from what’s happening around me. Today I hear voices in the universe shouting. So I guess it’s no accident that my current art reflects opposite moods. On one hand, I crave boldness, dramatic color, and random lines. I paint quickly, tapping into an energy that wants to leave the painting completely. Unusual shapes arrive out of nowhere. Rules of composition beg to be broken. It is not a boring process.

 “Opening Night” (oil, cold wax, charcoal, marble dust on paper)

On the other hand, my soul yearns for stillness and quiet meditation. I want a respite from the noisy energies around me. I am painting over old work which no longer speaks to me. I may scrape here and there to reveal a bit of the history underneath. But the top layers are mostly quiet and reflective, with pastel colors, lots of negative space, and soft lines.

      “Morning Meditation” (oil, cold wax, collage, marble dust on wood panel)

At the moment, I cannot choose between these two creative impulses. Both are triggered daily, and compromise eludes me. Both pulls seem necessary to some forward movement I do not yet understand. But I trust that I am not alone in trying to make sense of our intense political scene as we head toward November’s election. Until then, I’ll tune in and out, breathe deeply, take long walks in a nearby forest, and paint on.


Hands On


Last October I bought a 70-year-old wallpaper brush, with an oak handle, old tin, and bristles worn into a wavy edge.  I love its age and imperfections.  And its size is great for painting large art panels.  My whole body gets into the act as it travels the surface.


wallpaper brush_opt


This is the second antique brush I’ve bought in recent months, and I realize there are reasons behind this impulse.

Full disclosure #1:  My current focus on hands no doubt can be traced to a recent (and fortunately minor) fracture of my left hand at the base of a finger.  I have gained new respect for all our hands do for us— how very important it is to grasp and to hold.

Full disclosure #2:  My mother turned her hobby into an antique business in her later life.  She found beauty in common objects, especially those forged, whittled and sewn by hand.  She loved to learn about their cultural and industrial contexts.  Her birthday is just around the corner.  I miss her, and thank her for sharing her deep appreciation of human history and artifacts.

Like her, I find wonder in an object created or used by another’s hands.  I’m drawn to ceramic bowls, cups, pitchers.  I want to touch every wood, metal or stone sculpture I’ve encountered.  I love to run my fingers across fabrics of wearable art and old quilts.

This strikes me as more than an appreciation of the work of artisans and more than a well-developed kinesthetic sense.  Touching something others have touched brings a reminder of continuity and connection.  Other fingers were here.  Another life touches my own.   Our histories merge across time.

Today, I paint with an old brush.  As I hold it I sense the stories of others.  What were they thinking as they used it, I wonder?  Where did they live?  What kind of lives did they lead? Others join me in my studio, and open me to new creative energies.  And I am grateful for the company.

Across Time and Space_opt

Across Time and Space (30″ x 30″ Oil with cold wax, marble dust, pastels)


Writing on Water

During these warm September days I am grateful for an outside pool to swim laps. With the flow of water and the warmth of the sun on my skin, swimming becomes a meditation.  My mind’s chatter fades.  I am inside a rhythm, turning from side to side, reaching with long arms, taking a quick full breath.  A wavy pattern of sunlight reflects on the bottom of the pool. Edges of light vibrate and dance below me.  I am fully in the moment. There is music here, and poetry.


The centered, peaceful energy I find in water is the same state I try to reach when I paint. Like other artists, I know when I’m in this zone.  The process is more spontaneous, fueled by a passion that is quiet and true.  I return to the rhythm and flow of swimming, sensing an undulating line—like the upbeat and downbeat of a conductor’s baton, like a wave writing on water.  Inside that motion I connect differently to time and space, to my essential self, and to something much more profound.

I’ve learned to take a few moments when I enter my studio to swim into the room, leaning into the creative current and letting it take me where it will.

Leaning In  (16″ x 16″ oil with cold wax)