tomatooncarLight and I have been in conversation as far back as I can remember. Most times, I just listen. Sometimes I get to talk back. Rarely–too rarely–we sing.

And it’s beginning to feel as though we’ll sing, soon.

When we sing, the light becomes a tangible thing, flowing like water, etching everything in its path, and I finally, blindingly, understand in my bones the definition of “illumination.”

A photographer friend calls that “seeing with angel eyes.” Someone else told me it’s when my creative biorhythms meld. All I know is that, this afternoon, I saw the beams begin to gather, dappling the ground, bursting through a leaf, shimmering the pine needles… and everywhere I looked became a still-life.

Yep. This makes me weird. Very weird. And I think it’s why, of all the media, I’m so drawn to photography and glass. One captures the light, the other manufactures it. They’re the right tools for making duets with light.


I wonder if all artists view light as a living thing. I suspect the two I spent time with today do, though I didn’t ask. I went to Catharine Newell‘s house this morning. She sketches in glass, which is about like saying that Steven Jobs makes keyboards. She’s got an exquisite exhibit at Bullseye Gallery right now that’s well worth seeing.

Catharine needed process shots for an upcoming lecture series and since there’s nothing I like better than shooting candids of artists at work, I was happy to oblige.


We head to her basement studio and Catharine sets to work, gesturing colored glass powder onto sheets of glass. She’ll fire them in the kiln, add more powder, fire again, stacking the sheets like pancakes to form a solid, three-dimensional sketch.

I trail in her wake, snapping frame after frame. The light is soft and Catharine moves about a mile a minute so that it can’t quite keep up. She’s dancing to a tune I can’t hear.

She casually, almost carelessly, sifts and evaluates. Shakes her head, wipes it off and tries again. “Ahhh,” she says, satisfied this time.

catharinesiftFor the life of me, I can’t see the difference, but she brings down the brush with quick, decisive movements. She’s conversing with light, and it’s a personal, private thing between them. Sometimes I’m not even sure where the new powder is…but Catharine knows. Stroke, stroke, stroke and suddenly: A face. An arm. A quizzical expression. I see where she was going, even if I’m still not sure how she got there.

While she works, I quietly snap away, and we talk. We discuss selling art, and talking to collectors, and what people buy. The series she’s working on is based on images she shot in Grand Central Station, when dim light and fast-moving passengers swirled into abstraction in her camera.


She moves impatiently. “I need to work on the floor,” and drops sketches, images and the glass onto the carpet. She bends, registering the stacked sheets, and compares them to the photo. “The green’s wrong,” she says, and opens another jar of powder.

Each panel can be taken only so far, then must be fired before the next step. As she finishes, she carries each to the kiln, and carefully lines it up with its mates. The deadline’s looming on this one, but the light won’t be hurried; Catharine lets the conversation develop at its own pace.

I grab a few more shots, transfer them to her computer, and my phone rings; it’s my lunch partner calling for an update. We hurry through goodbyes, and Catharine hands me a tomato from her garden. I rush off to Leah with its rich, red musk filling the car.


Leah Wilson talks with light, too. Unlike Catharine, she’s using conventional oils on wood and what she paints isn’t the light in living swarms but rather in river trash.

We’re meeting for the first time because we’re featured artists in a show at Guardino’s next April. Seemed like a good idea to get to know each other. Her work inspired me; she likes my blog. “And I didn’t know you could DO those things with just glass–so haunting,” she says.

(You can’t go far wrong telling Mommy her baby’s beautiful; I decide that Leah and I will get along just fine.)

The ink’s been dry on her MFA for a few years now and she’s found a direction; Leah’s fascinated with light and color and pattern and how we perceive it. My favorite of her works won’t actually be in our show; it’s a color study entitled “One Year of Average Colors of the South Yuba River: A mathematical determination of an esthetic value.” She’s pulled the essence of river light into simple abstraction; I wish I could see it in person.

We grab lunch at Pearl Bakery and chat for two hours, talking about what sells and what doesn’t, what the public gets, art-wise, and what they don’t. I ask, curiously, if Leah thinks her art education prepared her for a career as an artist.

“Artistically, it was really great. Before, I was scattered; I had great professors who forced me to focus and refine.” Business-wise? “Not really. Art schools mostly ignore the business side. I didn’t have any undergraduate classes in business or marketing. There was one class–just one–in marketing during my post-grad. It was taught by a gallery owner and really insightful…but nobody wanted to take it.”

tomatooncarWe agreed that artists need business savvy. “I’ve had to learn,” said Leah, and she proves wiser than I. She offers great advice on basic marketing, tells me to get over the whole portfolio thing and just do it. She gives me a verbal preview of her current work. In it, light bends and swoops around the water, caressing old nets and gushing across the sky.

As we talk, she smiles and gestures and chews. But she always, always watches the light.

We say goodbye, promise to keep in touch. There’s something in her work that inspires me, makes me think of souls caught in eddies, light pulsing through the current. I know enough not to force the idea, so I watch the road and the leaves and the light on the way home and let it sit in the back of my mind.

By the time I pull into my driveway, the light’s building over the roof, down the bushes and across the hood. I pick up Catharine’s tomato and notice for the first time the furriness of its stem. The small filaments catch fire in the gathering light.

Gently, I set the tomato on the trunk, angle the camera and start shooting.