Contours of a Life

Week 16: #52 Ancestors – Negatives

By Eilene Lyon

Clara Ransom Davis’s botanical illustration of Trillium ovatum.

Negative space is an art term referring to the space around an object, or “air space.” Especially when working in watercolor, the artist focuses on filling in the darker places between lighter-colored features. It is a different way of seeing the world.

Sometimes we have to look between the lines, stare past the obvious, when we are doing research. Whatever stands in the foreground overpowers important truths lurking in the shadows. Interpreting the negative space helps us achieve a deeper understanding of contours we fail to notice due to familiarity.

Winter scenes are a good opportunity to use negative space, as seen in Clara’s snowy landscape, and the winter-white trees in my painting.
Buildings, especially white ones, also take advantage of negative space. Clara painted several historic Moscow, Idaho, buildings, including this hotel that burned down in 1890, replaced by the brick Hotel Moscow. The fence in my barn painting is also created with negative space technique.
Hotel Moscow. (E. Lyon 2013)

One of the surprising parallels between my great-grandmother, Clara Ransom Davis, and me is our work in watercolor painting (inexpert in both cases). We both studied botany, and invested in real estate. And most of all, we both found a passion in family history and genealogy.

Clara’s irises (left) and mine (right).
Clara was involved in the Latah County Pioneer Society in Moscow, Idaho. She is standing on the right, 1926. (University of Idaho Special Collections)

I knew nothing about these commonalities when I began my research journey. I expect there are ways in which our personalities intersect, too. She was always a more focused person than I have ever been able to achieve. But we both have demonstrated a serious demeanor and tendency to be distant in relationships, particularly uncomfortable with young children.

Clara holding her baby granddaughter, Barbara. My mother is standing next to them. My equally awkward embrace of my friend Lynn’s newborn daughter in 2000 (Courtesy of T. Sinclair).

I expect I have a better sense of humor and an ability to be more flexible than Clara could be, given her life experience and the time in which she lived. Clara was a strict temperance woman. I am quite the opposite!

I have heard stories about how she could not tolerate her husband using tobacco. Sterling knew she would be checking the trash pit, so he found a way to stash his empty Prince Albert cans in the walls of the house!

This painting Clara did of her living room uses negative space to define her fireplace surround, and clock face. Clara obviously loved books as much as I do. I find it intriguing that she painted only half of the settee on the right.
This moody sunset image reflects what I imagine are Clara’s sorrows in life: the career she was forced to give up, the loss of her father and siblings, among other things.

Great-grandma Clara is someone I keep returning to in my research, probing the negative space to find what made this woman tick—bringing her hidden sides into clearer focus by exploring the things that surrounded her: her homes, her social activities, her loves, her art.

Feature image: An exercise in negative space. (E. Lyon)

My mom gave me this painting by Clara of a creek in autumn. I think it is my favorite of her works.
This work of mine started out as a technique exercise, but soon I got into a flow state and created an abstract that I fell in love with.

46 thoughts on “Contours of a Life

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  1. Eilene, I LOVE your paintings! I didn’t know you painted…you have talent…have you shown your paintings before? Yours are much better than some of the stuff I see in the local galleries.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Shayne! Clara was really beautiful as a young woman – I hope I have a little bit of that. Certainly she instilled a love of learning in her daughters and grandchildren. That has definitely passed on to me.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I love everything about this – your use of negative space in your research, the parallels between you both AND all the artwork! That lasting painting of yours reminds me of the Chihuly ceiling at Franklin Park Conservatory in Columbus. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Brandi. I will have to check that out. There are other parallels (and differences) that I did not cover. One difference (I hope) is better health. Clara had myasthenia gravis later in life.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I had no idea you’re a watercolorist, Eilene–and a very good one! I enjoyed your discussion of negative space in both painting and research, very insightful. I was initially struck by the title of the post. We usually think of lives, particularly our ancestors’ lives as straight lines, when in fact a life has contours.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Liz. I’ve been reading and writing about cycles. Some cultures see life as a cycle or series of cycles, not a linear progression. I’m not a believer in reincarnation, but Clara’s work (including her research into certain people) has come around again with me.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Beautiful painting and beautiful post, Eilene! Wowsa. You have a lot in common with your great-grandmother. But, yes, times have changed. So funny about the tobacco in the walls of the house!
    Thank you SO much for attending the poetry reading! Loved seeing you there.
    When is your book coming out btw?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Luanne. I enjoyed the poetry reading very much. I recently reread Kin Types and posted a review on Amazon and my FB author page. It’s such amazing work.

      My book comes out in summer 2023. I’ll be furiously editing until September. Then it goes through the publisher’s processes.


      1. Oh, thank you so much!!! I really appreciate it. Why can’t I find your FB page? I just read your review. How beautiful! Thank you!!!!
        I can’t wait to read your book, Eilene. I know it probably feels like a long time, but there is a lot to do if you want to promote it.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I like how you took your great-grandmother Clara’s paintings and contrasted them with your own. You do beautiful work Eilene. I took some sketching classes as a teen and we went on excursions to local venues to sketch in charcoals or pastels. Though that was over a half-century ago, I knew that one day I would return to sketching, likely as a hobby in retirement. It’s hard enough to keep up with working, walking, photography and blogging, without throwing another hobby into the mix. However, I have joined a plein air painting group and met up with them a couple of times to watch them paint as well as photograph their work. I’ve bought some art supplies and a few how-to books, including one on watercolor paintings, to begin sketching and when retired I look forward to joining them … baby steps first. Your picture you describe as an “awkward embrace” of your friend’s newborn child made me chuckle. Having had no siblings and not allowed to babysit, I have only held a baby once in my lifetime and I am sure it was just as awkwardly as in your photos. My mom and I were visiting her friend who used to board babies for the Children’s Aid in Canada (she ended up adopting four or five of them through the years). Anyway, the phone rang and she handed me this baby and its bottle. I said to my mom “here, take it Mom!” My mom, not amused, said “it’s not going to bite you, just cradle it in your arms and keep feeding it.” I was not comfortable at all and my open purse was by my side, when suddenly this infant spit up into my purse.” I handed it over to my mom and said “take it now!” and I’ve never held or even come close to a baby since.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a funny baby story! I did some babysitting, but none young enough to be in diapers (I’ve never changed one in my life and hope I can continue my streak).

      I’ve taken sketching lessons on occasion over the years and don’t feel good at it at all. Somehow I manage to pull off a decent painting inspire of that limitation. I’m glad you plan to do some in your retirement (is that imminent?)

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I hope to have the same never-change-a-diaper-streak as you Eilene. I’d do better being around a puppy than a baby. 🙂

        Well my boss aimed to retire after being in the law business for fifty years. His father, a probate attorney was 83 and still practicing when he died suddenly. My boss will be 50 years in the biz this September, but told me recently “I don’t see why we can’t continue another year or so, do you?” It’s just the two of us. He is 75; I am 66 and I was looking forward to retiring this year, but I guess I’ll hang in there until the end. He is a workaholic and I don’t think he wants to retire.

        Your paintings look good and I’ve been watching the paintings from this group and they are the same as yours. I have to master sketching first and it’s been many years, but I am inspired to do more.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. It’s okay for someone to love their work so much they want to do it until their last breath. But You have other ideas about how to spend the rest of your life, so I do hope he doesn’t keep you postponing your retirement year after year after year.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. I hope so too Eilene. He loves to be busy and thrives on it, so is a chip off the old block I guess. He has said “I want to be like Dad and die with my boots on.” I seriously hope we’re not in business when he is 83.

        Liked by 2 people

  6. Fabulous post, Eilene. I enjoyed the discussion of negative space and all the paintings by you and your great-grandmother. How wonderful that you have discovered so many of her paintings, and have made a connection with her. I love the old photos, espec. of her holding the baby and your mother the toddler next to her. And I, too, found her half-settee really interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I love this post. That moody sunset image with the purple in the background is my favorite. How interesting that you discovered multiple commonalities with your great grandmother. I found out several years back that my great grandmother was an amateur painter and I myself had studied art.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That is also a favorite image of mine. It’s actually quite small. That’s something else we have in common is doing watercolors in small format. That’s cool that you also have art in common with your ancestor!

      Liked by 2 people

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