Our 2013 Christmas Tree

2013 Christmas TreeWe always have a memorable Christmas tree, whether it’s an unconventional species (Russian olive, plum, or a box elder branch) or the experience of obtaining it- lengthy hunting stories involving mechanical malfunctions in cold and snowy mountain passes.

This year’s tree hunt was different: my husband walked into the back yard and sawed down a tree we’d planted 20 years ago. The nine-foot Scotch pine was wedged between a chokecherry and another evergreen, reaching long limbs in search of the sun. Sacrificing the starving tree for no better purpose than to provide more room for its neighbors seemed wrong, so it became the 2013 “Caywood Family Christmas Tree.”

This tree would never have “made the cut” (pardon the pun) for a Christmas tree lot. It lacks the shape and splendor of what is considered standard. The circumstances of its life were hampered, through no fault of its own. This tree, given better opportunities as a sapling (space, sun), may have grown into a lovely specimen of evergreen glory. But this was not to be its purpose.

When I feel remorse at the cutting of this tree for temporary use in our home, I remember the tree lots I saw on Christmas Eve, still lined with symmetrical conifers which will not grace a living room, while our lanky, “Charlie Brown tree” is draped in colored spheres of LED “luminescence” and ornaments representing holiday memories of years long past. Though it lacked the qualifications, “the stone that the builder refused…”

Like the tree, we’re not all given optimal circumstances in early life, but that doesn’t mean we’re doomed to remain in those situations. The Lord can provide a purpose that can lead anyone out of anything. Sometimes it’s a purpose we’ve known since the beginning, and sometimes we don’t see the purpose until we’re on our way to fulfilling it.

The tree is just a tree; it was not given a Divine purpose for standing in our living room this Christmas. But in pondering its apparent “lot” (again, pardon the pun) in life and transcendence to part of our future Christmas memories -“Remember when Dad cut the Christmas tree from our back yard?” -I can apply the idea to our lives as people. We may be born into a world that hinders us, but we aren’t destined to stay there.


Daily (or nearly daily) Paintings in 2013

Late in 2012, I decided that painting 300 small, nearly daily paintings in 2013 will teach me to better identify key elements in my subject matter and record them in a timely manner on the canvas.  I usually don’t make new year’s resolutions, believing it a recipe for failure to make a life change in such a “cold turkey” fashion, but these daily studies seem like a learning experience that can really benefit me, whether I make it to 300 or not.  Finding Leslie Saeta’s blog post “30 Paintings in 30 Days” at http://lesliesaeta.blogspot.com/2012/12/thirty-paintings-in-thirty-days.html sealed my resolve to try it.

These are by no means masterpieces (I’d painted about four still lifes in previous 20 years!), but each has taught me something that will improve my skill with my usual subject matter- landscapes & livestock.  I’ve learned to “dive in” rather than plan too much; the stress of trying to create something wonderful is releaved when I look at it as a quick study of form, color, edges and values.  Learning this much after four paintings excites me and encourages me to continue on.  See more of my work at www.sonjacaywood.com  or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sonjacaywood.art and be sure to check out Leslie Saeta’s link above for many many artists taking the 30 paintings in 30 days challenge.


#1: 8×10 oil, 1/1/13

Already this first painting seems dull in comparison to the next two.  I love old, brightly colored dishes.  This blue bowl cried for the bright orange of the cuties, which were deliciously sweet.


#2: 5×7 oil, 1/2/13

I finally have a reason to use the flea market finds I adore for their color and shape.  This painting pleased me more than the first because of the addition of yellow & red.


#3: 5×7 oil, 1/3/13

I added my great grandma’s little orange creamer because I love it, and also because I’m thrifty, and had a lot of orange paint on my palette.  I’m starting to see more reflected color on these shiny objects, and trying to trust the values instead of washing them out.


#4: 5×7 oil, 1/4/13

I changed it up today, having only a few minutes to spend in the studio after supper.  This was my husband’s grandma’s little vase- termed a “butt” vase rather than a “bud” vase because of its unique shape.  I should have spent more time on it, but I learned to choose shadow colors with more care in the future.

Roadblocks Encourage New Paths in the Direction of Our Dreams


Roadblocks Encourage New Paths in the Direction of Our Dreams

            Last April, my Special Ed director told me that I -and several other Special Ed. paras throughout our school district- would no longer have a job in the fall, as the district was removing aide positions.  I was shocked, even though that very morning I’d asked myself on the way to work, “Would I ever quit my job if my art started selling?”   Then I asked, “What would I do if I lost my job?”  *(Insert theme from “The Twilight Zone” here.)

Though I’d always dreamed of being a full-time artist, I loved my 17 years with the school district.  Seeing a student learn a tool to use in life- a method to tackle a problem or perform a task-whether an algebraic formula or following a recipe- was very fulfilling, but I’ve always known it’s not my “truest path.”

The weekend after the getting the news, I painted in my studio for around six hours, creating a large landscape in oil.  Besides being therapeutic, as art always is, I realized that it would take me about 130 hours of working at the school to earn this painting’s retail value. It might take awhile to sell, but it’s not a loaf of bread or a cookie- it’ll keep.  And if I really need money, I can lower prices or get some of those long-put-off commissions done.  I began to realize, “Hey, this is possible.”

I began to prepare, which wasn’t difficult since I gave up playing hockey and sold our horses years ago to make art a bigger priority in my life. My summer job as a museum worker/information provider afforded me time to paint, and I put every spare dime into car payments or a savings account.   I was blessed with many encouraging sales, mostly because knowing I wouldn’t have much income in the fall, I slashed prices to sell.  I sold art to people from 10 different states over the summer, and one piece went to France- one that I’d painted from memory of a view from a classroom window, a view that as a teacher’s aide I’d only dreamed of painting.

I’ve been busier than ever with two art shows this fall, and the Christmas season approaching.  My days are filled with obligations and duties that line up with my dreams- I couldn’t be happier.  During the first week of school, I sold five paintings.  To make that amount of money as a teacher’s aide, I would have had to work around 80 hours, or just over two weeks (and I made an excellent wage for classified staff).  I imagined God reminding me of Jeremiah 29:11, “See?  ‘I know the plans I have for you.'”

I know the winter may be long and dry in sales, or it might not.  As one client told me, the work of establishing myself over the years (while working two jobs) has paid off.

I have a renewed love for domesticity- finally finding time for the house, the garden and flowerbeds.  I’m at peace, and giddy with the prospect of being my own boss at least part of the time.  People have asked me to give lessons and teach community art classes, which will get me through the financial dry spells and grant me some of the fulfillment I found in the classroom.

You know what they say about God closing doors and opening windows.  What might seem like a tragedy at the time can be God’s way of putting you on your correct path. As to the question I’d asked myself on the way to work that morning, I doubt I would have weaned myself from that steady paycheck to pursue art.  Without the job loss, I may have never known the feeling of going in the direction of my dreams or living the life I imagined.

How I Modified My Joe Miller Signature Field Easel


Having dealt with a less than satisfactory plein air easel for years, I spent hours-nay, years- researching field easels before buying a new one.  I chose the Joe Miller Signature model because:

  • it has four telescoping legs
  • it has three shelves for palettes and supplies
  • the arms are adjustable and can lay horizontally for watercolors, etc.
  • it’s pretty
  • it only weighs ten pounds
  • I like Cheap Joes, and it was on sale

However, some problems were apparent upon setting my new easel up for the first time:

  • the finish was very thin
  • two of the four legs flop out when folded up, making carrying it a pain
  • I’m just 5’5″ and the vertical position, the lower painting “shelf” goes no higher than the top of the base of the easel, which would be ideal for someone extremely short or sitting in a chair.  It’s so far below eye level that few people could comfortably paint in oil standing at this easel.  Note: Joe is a watercolorist; this wouldn’t pose a problem for someone painting on a horizontal substrate.
  • The paint storage compartment is too shallow to easily accommodate average-sized tubes of oil or acrylics.  An extra half-inch would save a lot of time and hassle in this regard.  Note: this wouldn’t be a problem for a watercolorist, as w/c paint tubes are smaller.
  • The sliding shelf over the afore-mentioned paint storage is wasted space; if it had a larger bottom lip, it could store something under the painting holder when folded up

First, I varnished the entire easel, inside and out, with two more coats of polyurethane to strengthen and protect the wood.

Next, I fashioned an additional painting bracket from a scrap of 1×2 pine:  I ran it through my table saw at 1/8-inch intervals through the middle of the length of wood, leaving about an 1/8 of an inch on each side.  I used a chisel to clean out the slivers of wood the table saw missed, and cut it to my desired length.  Then I ripped a smaller piece to about 1 x1/4-inch and cut it to the same length as the front piece.  I sanded, stained and drilled holes through both pieces so that two bolts would fasten the pieces on either side of the painting holder, fastening with wing nuts on the back.  This is fully adjustable, and I’ve never used the easel without it.



I glued and screwed a thin wooden “stop” to the bottom side (when upright) of the paint storage lid/shelf so that it can hold a brush holder, which I made by sewing two strips of elastic to a piece of canvas in varying widths, then adhering it to the back of a watercolor block (thick cardboard), finishing the back with paper canvas (which could be another palette in a pinch). Now my easel holds an adequate supply of brushes and palette knives safely under the painting rack.  The wood addition keeps it from falling out when carrying the easel.  There’s also room for a fold-up car window shade if you use one, or another thin wooden palette (not pictured), which covers the brush holder.















Next, I found some strange type of bracket at our local re-store that perfectly holds the wayward legs in place during transport.  I wish I knew what they were called, but I don’t.


I cut down an old thin wooden palette to fit the right hand shelf.  It can be removed and clamped to any shelf during painting (perfect for when I don’t have room for my big covered palette).  One could also cut down paper palettes, but that seems wasteful to me.  I cut a similar palette down for the paint storage lid (not pictured).


The Cheap Joes easel doesn’t come with a shoulder strap, so I took one off a nice duffel bag we weren’t using.  This holds clamps for attaching shades, a palette or dealing with wind.

I attached a chain to the front D ring and put a snap on the other end of it to hold a roll of paper towels.  While painting, I unsnap it and clamp the snap end, making a hanging paper towel dispenser next to the trash bag (a rubber band keeps the towels in place).  Another hook holds my turp can on the front shelf, rather than dangling from the side hook that came on the easel.  Be sure this hook is small enough to allow the legs to fold up.  A snap on the D ring holds travel-sized sunscreen, a garbage bag (and even the turp container can while in transport).


I am completely satisfied with my Joe Miller Signature Field Easel and would recommend it to any plein air artist.  It’s a perfect “traveling studio” that I’ve used in hotel rooms as well as in high mountain terrain.  During an OPA Paint Out last year several people complimented its beauty and function.  The modifications I made make the easel more user-friendly to oil or acrylic painters and truly make it a more wonderful easel for anyone.  Now, if I could only find a way to make the paint storage deeper…

Repurpose Granny’s Afghan for Funky Seat Covers

My artsy daughter’s cheery 1973 Saab 96 was cannibalized in its past life, and came to us sans: side trim, five lug bolts, the hatch back latch and the original green front seats.  To simply purchase common seat covers for so unique a car and driver would not do.  I knew I’d discovered the solution when I found this afghan in a local thrift store for $5.


Supplies: elastic and stretchy fabric for a base cover, tape measure, scissors, a sewing machine, & a “rough plan” drawn out.


I sewed a quick “crumb coat” cover after duct-taping the brittle vinyl’s holes on each of the seats.Image

Next, I placed the afghan on the floor, (where Agnus (above) approved the color scheme) and carefully cut the yarn that bound the granny squares, leaving me with two long rectangles of afghan, each complete with fringe on three sides!  This was a great blanket to use for this project, however, any conventional afghan could be used, providing that you stitch up any fraying edges where cuts were made, or use a zigzag stitch before you cut, then reinforce it good when you sew it together.


Using black yarn, I sewed a “pocket” from the top two thirds of the rectangle, which became the back of the cover.  I was lucky in that the width of the seat matched the width of the squares, making for tidy square edges.  These seat covers need no fastening or elastic, as the extra row of squares hangs over the edge of the seat and the covers stay put.  I love that the head rests of the old Saab came out, so we didn’t have to account for covering them too, which would have taken more blanket than I had.



Happy Car!  Total Cost: about $8; Time: around 3 hours total.  Now if only the carburetor was such an easy fix.