I am a writer, painter, singer and avid home cook who delights in telling stories in words, images and songs and in cooking meals from what’s in the fridge and the fresh, seasonal fruits and vegetables from my weekly produce box from Riverdog Farm in Guinda, California. I am a long-time student of Natalie Goldberg, have served as her assistant at Kripalu in Lenox, Massachusetts and teach Goldberg’s writing practice as set down in Goldberg’s classic “Writing Down the Bones.” An East Bay native, I frequent the Berkeley Farmers’ Market on Saturday mornings, gathering ingredients I need to cook kale and many other foods.
After a lifetime of cooking, I am beginning to articulate a cooking philosophy based on using what is available in the manner of farm wives and other ancestral cooks. I have been influenced by the work of Barbara Kingsolver, Michael Pollan and Alice Waters. I am fortunate to live where the growing season is long and the variety of available food is immense.
About the paintings:
The way I paint is very like the way I cook — I start with ingredients and what is already on hand. This means I keep a running palette of gouache: when I finish a painting, I cover the palette with its plastic cover; when I start a painting, I open it up again and look at what colors I have going. Then I look to the ingredients in the recipe I have written about and make sure I have the colors to start painting them — yellow and green for zucchini and corn, for example. If I have an empty spot in my palette, I might mix a new color — if I need a new color, I might combine small amounts of two colors into one pot to free up some space. My central section of the palette where others might mix paint is usually full of various green tints, which I adjust as I go along. I try to not let the paints get sloppy and contaminated so that I can use all of what I have on the palette — it may take a great deal of time to go through a big squeeze of red, but watercolors are forgiving: if you add water and stir you can keep using them. I also sometimes use paint straight out of the tube to get intense colors.
When I approach my watercolor paper (most often an 8″ x8″ square of 140 lb paper) I start with ingredients, too: typically, I start painting ingredients in the lower right hand corner of food paintings and let the rest of the painting take shape around that. I do not plan what I am going to paint, but keep the recipe in my mind (or, my teacher would say, “in my belly”) while I paint.
The scary secret?
If I have a thought like “Purple” or “Elephant” I always go with it, no matter how crazy it may be — I don’t second-guess myself. Sometimes I have to change things I put on paper — change the size, change the color — but even if I think I may have wrecked something I keep going until the painting is finished. I often find myself back at my desk touching it up, sometimes even after photographing it when a photograph reveals a light area or not enough contrast. Often problems resolve themselves if I just stay committed to the painting.
Just as I start with ingredients as subjects, I start with gouache as a medium, applied with a wet brush. If I can’t get the level of detail I want from gouache and brushwork I resort to watercolor pencils later in the painting process — I use pencils to add layers of color and to draw in fine detail. I also use watercolor pigment on occasion and may be using it more when I run out of gouache from my current collection. I cannibalized all of my mother’s old tubes of watercolors years ago when I started painting and still have some of them, plus a few I have bought. When I started painting I painted exclusively with watercolor pigment and spent more time mixing colors than painting. When I travel, I paint with watercolor pencils, using them wet and dry.
I like water media for portability, lack of solvents, ease of use, variety of color effects. I like watercolor pencils because I can hold them like a pencil and they are water-soluble, good for blending colors.
I almost never paint in backgrounds first. This method has its challenges — you have to skirt carefully around objects you have painted (I don’t mask things) and fill in edges carefully. If I thought about this I would say that I like all of the areas of a painting to remain open to the other areas and objects, to interact as the process moves along in the same way that flavors interact in a recipe — you don’t stake out a vanilla zone or a cinnamon zone, generally, although you can if you use vanilla in your icing and cinnamon in your cake. My backgrounds can demand wildness, leaps: raccoon coats and imaginary trees appear out of nowhere, as well as striped wallpaper and serapes that I have never seen. Something about starting by painting simple ingredients encourages my imagination to take off later in the painting process.
Subjects: Because this blog focuses on seasonal food, these paintings have food subjects. I also like to paint trees, landscapes, flowers and illustrations inspired by songs: my “Paris” CD has an illustrated book of lyrics for all of the songs, and there are more where those came from.
Want to know more? Ask me some questions. I’ll be glad to answer them.
I have been singing folksongs and traditional ballads since I first heard them on 10-inch records as a child, as well as Christmas carols, hymns, songs from musicals and songs that my mother played on the piano. Then when I heard Joni Mitchell and realized she wrote her own songs I started writing songs, but have always maintained my love for traditional material and the songs of others. My 2009 CD, “Paris” features two ballads, two hymns, three original songs and covers of Leonard Cohen, Stephen Foster, Joni Mitchell, Shelley Posen and Richard Thompson. You can listen to short clips of the album on CD Baby:
Writing and writing practice: As of November 2012 I am starting my first stint of NaNoWriMo aka National Novel Writing Month where participants volunteer to write a 50,000 word manuscript in thirty days. I completed NaNoWriMo in 2009 and 2010, foundered in 2011 when I actually tried to write a novel and have returned to my memoir in 2012.
I recently received the following endorsement from Natalie Goldberg:
I fully endorse sharyn dimmick, who has studied with me for twelve years, to teach writing practice. Her understanding of the work, her commitment and her own practice are exemplary and she is one of my main students.
— natalie goldberg, author of writing down the bones.
I have also been offered a teaching space in San Francisco. I am looking for writing practice students. If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area or will be visiting here, have always wanted to write and need to get started or if you have always wanted to study with Natalie and can’t make it to one of her workshops you might consider studying with me. Feel free to contact me with any questions about writing practice, schedules, etc.