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Thursday, June 4, 2015

Day 1: Niagara Falls

I made it safe and sound to Buffalo last night. I am staying with a friend from college, Rachel, and am happy to be in a house for a few days to ease the transition to camping/living from my car. Yes, my mom's van is now a camper van. Converting the van was her brainchild - I just threw my stuff in there. My mom and dad both worked tirelessly and selflessly the past few weeks, especially in the days leading up to my trip, to help get me ready. Fiancé Dan helped last weekend too - priming paper with shellac, finishing wedding invitations, etc...thank you three especially from the bottom of my heart for continuing to put up with my last minute chaos.

Rachel and I in Buffalo.

Also, thank you to the Brueggeman center at Xavier University, including Dr. Buchanan and Cynthia Cummins. The Brueggeman Fellowship, for those who don't know, is an incredible opportunity for a handful of students each year at Xavier. We each conducted a year of independent study in preparation for an international immersion experience. Here's more on the program from the Brueggeman website:

The Fellows program has two goals. First, the research, through which we hope students will learn about a topic of their choosing from a global perspective. Second is to help students develop a new level of self-confidence by challenging them to conceive, plan and complete a program that begins with a yearlong independent study, followed by an immersion trip to engage in research and service. They must plan every aspect of this trip themselves. The program is high risk and high reward. The Center's hope is that the Fellows program will offer personal, intellectual, moral and spiritual self-discovery and growth that will change their lives in ways we can only begin to imagine.

The other fellows are taking journeys into other countries, and some may call me crazy for not taking this opportunity to travel abroad, I really felt the next step in my artistic process was here. I rode my bike across the country in 2013 with my family, and this experience inspired my undergraduate thesis work at Xavier. You can see these landscape drawings and paintings at Since then I've become much more interested in plein air painting (painting outdoors) which puts the painter in direct contact with nature instead of working from a photograph or multiple photo references. This all started, really, when I did a report in an art history class on landscape painter Thomas Moran - since then I've been hooked on the Hudson River School painters. They were a group of (white, male) 19th century American landscape painters. They didn't all hang out or go to the same school together - Hudson River School is a blanket term for landscape artists during this time in the U.S. (although Frederic Church did study under Thomas Cole for two years). It seemed natural and organic that my trip would follow these artists (four of my favorites - Thomas Cole, Frederic Church, Thomas Moran, and Albert Bierstadt), giving me the chance to see the landscapes they painted and work as closely as I can to how they worked. I want to see how the American landscape has changed and stayed the same, because it was largely untouched when the HRS was active. There are other things I'm interested in that go along with this - more on that later.

My first Impression of Niagara Falls: There are so many tourists here! I heard five or more languages, saw SO MANY selfie sticks, and ruined a couple photos with my big hiking backpack filled with painting supplies. At some point a group of kids ran by me and they had to have been in 8th grade because they were so annoying! I started off at the American Falls then realized Frederic Church (who painted the falls extensively - he's why I'm here) painted Horseshoe Falls from the Canadian side. Looking at the map (yes Army Dan I read a map, correctly!) I saw a pedestrian bridge to Goat Island and Horseshoe Falls.

These falls were less crowded than the American side (such an insane tourist trap with the gift shops and boat tours and museum and aquarium and and and.......) and my phone service/data told me I was in "Canada," so I guess I visited Canadian cell space today (#exotic). I walked around a bit and then sat on a grassy area journaled for a while, sorting and recording my thoughts before I started sketching. It was difficult to focus on the falls with so many people cycling in and out of the observation area. They come, they get their selfie, they leave. Come, selfie, leave, over and over! I wanted them to stop for two seconds to take the magnificent sight in with their own two eyes, not a camera lens.

This morning when I was paying for parking the attendant asked what I was doing and I told her I was painting the falls. She asked if I "did that for your job" and I was able to say "YES I am an artist!" For the first time ever - I am a bona fide, full time, real life artist. I'm not taking classes, I'm not teaching classes, I'm not planning a wedding. I am so fortunate to have the time and means to do this.

I finished a pencil sketch (happy with how it turned out) and took out a small, long canvas to paint a study for a larger canvas I'll paint tomorrow. I hadn't painted in the weeks leading up to my trip so it took a few minutes to get everything set up. Seagulls were flying overhead, the sun was warm and pleasant, the falls roared. And the crowds were still there - except as soon as I started painting, the people loved me and I loved the people! I think twenty people came up to see my little painting in the course of an hour. I thought I would be annoyed - but everyone was respectful, encouraging, and genuinely interested. I didn't let it phase me - in fact, it really motivated me to keep working. Six or so kids came up to me and anyone who knows me will know how much I loved this! (Teaching moments!!!!) One kid told me his whole life story for about twenty minutes of the crackers he was eating and his new house and how bad his brother was aaaand it was adorable. One woman said I should have business cards - so I'm seriously considering having some shipped to Maine or another stop where I'll be for a while. Maybe I can design and print some at a Walgreens or Kinkos.

Another woman I talked to asked if I paint from photographs. I told her one of my goals is to use as little photographic reference as possible by doing plein air sketches and paintings, because there was a time artists didn't have photos to look at while painting. She was really interested in that and told me I should tell that to anyone buying my work because it makes it "more meaningful." I think so too and it was encouraging to hear that it could make a difference to a random person. There's nothing bad or wrong about painting from photographs - I am just striving for a different authenticity and mimicking the artistic process of HRS painters.

Back to Niagara Falls to complete a larger painting of Horseshoe Falls tomorrow!

American Falls.

Rapids of American Falls.

American Falls - there really is a rainbow all the time!
Sketch of Horseshoe Falls.

Sketch of Horseshoe Falls.
Sketch of Horseshoe Falls.
My little set up.

More views of Horseshoe Falls.

Horseshoe Falls and Maid of the Mist.

A miniature, a few people called it, of Horseshoe Falls.
Yes, I did get a selfie with the falls. I earned it - I was there for hours!
Mine mine mine mine...

Short hike to Three Sisters Islands.

Rapids of Horseshoe Falls.

And there's a watch tan to match...


  1. Hi Em! Full-time artist!
    Have a great adventure--I am so envious!
    Aunt Sue

  2. Very cool, Emily! I look forward to reading more. :)