Five Tides

Harbor, Russell Steven Powell acrylic on canvas, 14x11

Harbor, acrylic on canvas, 14×11

Sun God, Russell Steven Powell acrylic on canvas, 11x14

Sun God, acrylic on canvas, 11×14

THE SOURCES OF INSPIRATION in the Cape Cod dunes are as multifarious as tides, and equally mysterious, guided by forces ethereal (moon phases), and elemental (ocean currents, distant storms).

High and low tides arrive reliably twice daily on these shores, at roughly six-hour intervals. But where they end, the intensity of their waves, and what washes up on the beach are never the same.

I paint with regularity, gradually over time achieving greater consistency, recognizable style and themes. But the sources are many, and they are often unpredictable.

In some cases the idea for a painting surfaces full blown (“Straw Hat”); in others, the original concept takes an unexpected turn along the way (“Weeping Woman”).

Voice Mail, Dunes, Russell Steven Powell acrylic on canvas, 14x11

Voice Mail, Dunes, acrylic on canvas, 14×11

Sometimes the idea appears unformed, seemingly from nowhere, an unnamed energy or emotion like a lightning bolt suddenly stabbing the stone-flat sea: 30 seemingly innocuous words (or less) of a familiar voice heard during my daily phone check (“Voice Mail”).

Other times, without preconception, the painting reflects my particular mood or circumstances (“Sun God,” painted during a blazing hot day).

Weeping Woman, Russell Steven Powell acrylic on canvas, 14x11

Weeping Woman, acrylic on canvas, 14×11

Sometimes, what begins as an exercise in color, form, and brush stroke gradually coalesces into a unified theme (“Harbor”).


These examples are some of the work I completed during my recent two-week stay at Boris’s shack in the Provincetown dunes.

Straw Hat On Table, Russell Steven Powell acrylic on canvas, 20x16

Straw Hat On Table, acrylic on canvas, 20×16


New Paintings From The Dunes

Sunset, Dunes, Russell Steven Powell acrylic on canvas, 14x11

Sunset, Dunes, acrylic on canvas, 14×11

Night Vision, Russell Steven Powell acrylic on canvas, 14x11

Night Vision, acrylic on canvas, 14×11

I HAVE JUST RETURNED from two glorious weeks living alone in a one-room dune shack. I did all of the things I had hoped to do, without pressure or distraction:

I painted daily, in acrylic and watercolor (some of the results are posted here).

I wrote daily journal entries, an essay, and three long letters to friends.

I read three novels, three issues of Harper’s (cover to cover), a friend’s poetry manuscript, a work of nonfiction, and parts of two other books.

I walked and swam, and took lots of photographs.

I had just enough food to make it through without once having to walk into town, returning home with half a box of Triscuits and some peanut butter.

Supermoon, Dunes, Russell Steven Powell acrylic on canvas, 14x11

Supermoon, Dunes, acrylic on canvas, 14×11

My two weeks encompassed the longest days of the year, and a full moon. I rose at dawn before sunrise and watched the night sky dim without artificial light, only lighting a kerosene lamp one time (and that for just a few minutes).

Most valuable—and difficult—of all, I did nothing. I drank my morning  coffee sitting on the deck watching tree swallows dive and glide around me and the birdhouses they occupy in front, to the side, and at the rear of the shack.

I resisted my compulsion to activity during this early hour, even to read, listening to the mockingbird and song sparrows, breathing in the pink, fragrant beach roses that rise around the shack.

Swallows, Russell Steven Powell acrylic on canvas, 16x20

Swallows, acrylic on canvas, 16×20

Without effort, I observed the wide band of continually undulating dune grass—there is always a breeze, from a whisper to a gust—cresting 20 feet above the beach, and absorbed the view of ocean beyond, with its seals and seagulls and boats of various shapes and sizes, and its tides rising or falling every hour of every day.

I watched ocean turn to sky: deep to powder blue, bright pink, menacing green, slate gray.

I practiced doing nothing, several times a day, and I got better at it as time went along.

Weather Pattern, Russell Steven Powell acrylic on canvas, 20x16

Weather Pattern, acrylic on canvas, 20×16

What happens next is a mystery, of course. But I will continue to cultivate the good habit of beginning my days doing nothing, substituting my ship-like front porch for the ship-like deck of the shack.