New Orleans

I’m so happy to have finally made it back to New Orleans last month! Once before, I visited this magical place, but my memories of it were bleak and brief as I was only 16 and it was simply a day visit. This time, however, we indulged in a well-rounded, mufti-day New Orleans experience.

New Orleans street

New Orleans

And what can I say? The rumors are true: this city, indeed, is filled with life, bright colors, crooked houses, great food, loud people, fabulous art, hot sauce, street music, muddy river water, creole cottages, iron balconies, humidity and wonderful Louisiana hospitality.

French Quarter

New Orleans streetcar

But I was mostly here for architecture. My goal was to capture “the essence” of this city with my camera lens, which then hopefully, would be translated into some new paintings. Because when customers ask me, over and over, to “PLEASE paint some New Orleans already!” – I do eventually give in and listen.

New orleans river

New Orleans street

What I found here though, was much more than a collection of photographs of funky streets and bright colored buildings. Because that special energy of a place can not be stored on a camera’s memory card. The way it FEELS to walk into a crowded intersection dancing to a jazz street orchestra, or have beautiful abandoned houses eerily surround you like ghosts as you veer away from French Quarter, or get to know the styles of local folk artists, or take your first bite of the best shrimp-and-grits you will ever try – all that can be only experienced first-hand and not through a camera lens.

Frenchman Street

New Orleans cemetery

And so we walked, for miles and miles. From the Garden District, to the end of Uptown, through Lafayette Cemetery, onward to French Quarter, evenings on Frenchman Street, and then Bywater, all the way to the end. Then back to the Garden District, where was our hotel. Never bothered with a cab or streetcar, only on foot.

Snug Harbor

New Orleans

But we also made it out to the bayou for some lovely “swamp exploring”. And seeing how life goes on and houses get built outside the levees (all while hearing numerous Katrina stories), and how catfish traps are set, and how swamp trees grow, and how alligators live, and how everything feeds on everything –  that was nothing short of fascinating.

louisiana swamp

louisiana bayou

I think NOW I’m ready to paint New Orleans. Actually, here is my first piece. It is titled “New Orleans Quilt” – because the city is such a patchwork of styles and senses. I look forward to painting more Big Easy scenes. And also – definitely to returning here someday.

New Orleans painting

“Santorini” commissioned painting

Santornini painting by Anastasia Mak

This 30×60 baby was a very time-consuming and fun labor of love. A lovely couple, who lives in San Francisco, has contacted me about creating a painting from their Santorini honeymoon photograph. After I finished drooling over the beauty of their photo, I was excited to get started – even though the sheer amount of detail and the number of stairs and buildings guaranteed that the painting was going to take some time to complete!  But – I love complex cityscapes, and when they also involve blue waters of the Mediterranean, this kind of challenge appears simply delicious to me.

This was my assignment photo (taken from the honeymooners’ hotel – aaah, to stay in a room with THAT view!):

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And here are some shots of the painting’s progress:

santorini sketch

santorini by anastasia mak

Santorini by Anastasia Mak

Santorini by Anastasia Mak

Santorini painting by Anastasia MakSantorini painting by Anastasia Mak

Southern Arizona: hiking and making little paintings

In the end of February, I traveled to southern Arizona for some sunshine, hiking, and color inspiration. I have a great friend Trish who lives in Tucson, and for several years I have been meaning to pay her a visit. Back at home, while snow and cold air generally don’t bother me too much, we’ve had an especially brutal Chicago winter in 2014, and this ended up being the perfect timing for some desert views!

Tucson is a sprawling small city, surrounded by several mountain ranges, and there are so many hiking opportunities within a just a 40-minute drive from downtown. These views are from Blackett’s Ridge trail, which runs above the popular Sabino Canyon.

Blackett's ridge trail

Blackett's ridge trail

One of my interesting Tucson art visits was DeGrazia Gallery in the Sun. It consists of a series of buildings and a large paintings collection by Ted DeGrazia, who created impressionistic works of Native Americans. Pictured below is the chapel building there:

DeGrazia Chapel

….which then inspired this little painting:

DeGrazia Chapel painting

Later, we traveled for some hiking to Chiricahua National Monument. This place is full of amazing, majestic vertical rock formations, which, geologists believe, resulted from a massive violation eruption that took place about 27 million years ago.

chiricahua national monument

chiricahua national monument

The trail we were on ranks amongst some of the beautiful hikes I have ever done. With each turn, a new panorama of rock formations opened up, they were both surreal and playful. Some of them are shaped like people, some – like birds, some – like cartoon characters.

chiricahua national monument

But most amazing and puzzling thing about this park is that it was – pretty much – empty! On a gorgeous 75 degree sunny day, after completing our 9.5 mile loop trai hike, we encountered maybe a total of 6 people (4 of whom were Amish). Could this be the best kept secret of Arizona? …and am I spoiling the magic by broadcasting it?? Nah. I don’t think I am ruining the solitude of future Chiricahua hikers, as most AZ visitors will continue to swarm up North, aiming for Sedona and Grand Canyon.

chiricahua national monument

chiricahua national monument

Meanwhile, colors of the Chiricahua rocks changed to different hues throughout the day, affected by positioning of the sun. At one point, they were all glowing neon green (because of lichen – or fungus-that covers them) – and orange (because of sunset)! What a stunning valley, and photos, of course, hardly do justice.

chiricahua national monument

chiricahua loop trail

And I then I followed up my hike with some very small, Chiricahua-inspired paintings:

Chiricahua painting

Chiricahua painting by Anastasia Mak

On the way back to Tucson, we stopped in the old mining town of Bisbee for some locally brewed beer and dinner. This town is so charming, and I so wish I had the opportunity to visit it during the day. Someday, I hope to make it back here, but for now, here is a quick night shot:

bisbee, az

Our next trail took us to Wasson Peak in the Tucson Mountain range. Surrounded by Sonora dessert and lush prickly vegetation, it was another hike-winner.

king canyon trail

wasson peak trail

And then, sure enough, came out a cactus-inspired painting:

cactus painting by anastasia mak

On the day I drove back to Phoenix to catch my flight home, I managed to squeeze in one last uphill adventure – Hunter Trail to Picacho Peak, which, from the interstate, looks like this:

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What a unique mountain this is. This huge rock has eroded into a sharp spire, and trail to the the tip, while only 2 miles long, is so steep that it requires holding on to various steel cables in many places. It was a climb-hike, a perfect way to end my little vacation.

picacho peak hunter trail

picacho peak hunter trail

This last little painting was inspired by simply enjoying a sunset on my friend’s balcony. Bye, Arizona. Thank you for another round of gorgeous hikes, well crafted beer, fun company, and yoga. It was great to see you again!

southwest sunset painting

La Scalinata a Mezzonotte – commissioned painting

This new piece, “La Scalinata a Mezzonotte” was completed in February. Done on a 16×24 gallery wrap canvas, it depicts the famous Spanish Steps in Rome, in my “signature” elongated style. The customer of this project enjoys spending a lot of time in Rome, and he sent me a few photos from his last stay there. The photos were taken at Christmas time, hence the Obelisk is turned into a Christmas tree (with green laser beams at the top, oh yes!). There was a lady with an umbrella in one of his photos, looking up at the stairs – she had to be incorporated into the painting! – as well a slightly mysterious full moon, surrounded by clouds.

Photos below show painting’s progress, from start to finish.

spanish steps sketch by Anastasia Mak

Spanish Steps painting progress by Anastasia Mak

Spanish Steps painting progress by Anastasia Mak

Spanish Steps painting progress by Anastasia Mak

Spanish Steps painting by Anastasia Mak

Commissioned painting – Lakeview House Portrait

This 16×20 acrylic on canvas painting was completed in January. It is a portrait of a home located in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood. I inserted a little slice of Chicago skyline, visible from Lake Michigan North Shore, into the painting. Original sketch also had the El Train in it, but in the end we decided to not include it. If you look closely, you will see a black cat – one of the residents of the house – in the first floor window.

Here are the painting progress photos, starting with the sketch:

Lakeview house portrait sketch

Lakeview House portrait painting progress

Lakeview House portrait painting progress

Lakeview House portrait by Anastasia Mak

New Zealand: Franz Josef Glacier

New Zealand landscape

So, after spending a few beautiful days in Wellington and Queenstown, it was time to head to Franz Josef Glacier. These are some shots from our 6+ hour drive. We were starting to feel a little spoiled as all the incredible scenery was getting almost redundant!

New Zealand landscape

New Zealand lanscape

And then – the patio area of our room in Franz Josef village with a view of the glacier.  Can this go on forever, please?

Franz Josef village, New Zealand

A visit to Franz Josef is all about getting up on the glacier, of course. But it is not always guaranteed. Full length hiking tours were allowed there up until a couple of years ago, but now ice in the lower part of the glacier is rapidly disintegrating, and due its fragility people are no longer allowed to hike up. The only way to get onto the glacier now is by helicopter. Climate in Franz Josef and all along South Island’s West Coast is very wet – it rains about 50% of the time, during which it is mostly no-go weather. Franz Josef tour operators and helicopter companies keep close watch on the forecast, and then determine which days are flying days. …All we could do is hope that we go up!

Franz Josef Glacier

And we got lucky! After a slight delay in the morning due to fog, we (along with several other hiking groups) got outfitted with waterproof clothing, big boots, and crampons, boarded the choppers and were taken up to a magical playground of snow and blue ice.

Franz Josef Heli hike

Franz Josef heli hike

Our hike was glorious! The fog completely disappeared and we were basking in sunshine. The waterproof clothing that we were given was almost too hot.  (Our guide’s name was Matt and he is from Cleveland, OH. Haaa! Cleveland.)

Franz Josef Glacier, New Zealand

Franz Josef glacier new zealand

franz Josef ice

The photo below is one of my favorites – but of course, you guys can tell that the steep incline is just an optical illusion, right? RIGHT?

Franz josef ice climb

But in the end of the hike, all of a sudden everything became ominous. Thick fog rolled in, visibility gradually decreased and temperatures dropped by about 20 degrees (Farenheit). We were waiting near the heli pad for helicopters that never came. Finally guides were radioed by the base and told that conditions are worsening, and it will be some time before, hopefully, flying weather resumes.

Franz Josef glacier fog

There are several plastic bins scattered around the glacier that contain supplies in case of poor weather conditions and emergencies. Some of the bins contain “tent-tarps” which you unroll and get underneath, as a group, to stay warm.  The tarps were a little stinky, but it was a much cozier option than shaking like a leaf in the wind.

Franz Josef bad weather

The wait went on for an hour, then two, then almost three. There seemed to be no improvement and guides started devising plans for a foot hike down the fragile ice. In order to create a path in constantly shifting ice, “stairs” have to be carved out, and then a group is carefully led all the way down to the glacier valley.  This slow descent was going to take another 3 or 4 hours. Even though we were freezing, Kurt and I got VERY excited at the possibility of a bonus adventure.  Groups that were stuck at the very top of the glacier had a rougher day – they did not have an alternative of hiking down, so their only option in no-flying weather is to get some tents from supply bins, move them off the ice and into the hills, and spend the night. Apparently that has never happened before.

Franz josef glacier tent

But then – there was a small clearance in the weather, and pilots took a chance.  They evacuated people from the top first, and, after a few quick flights, came for us. So – no bonus adventure for us, but I admit, hearing that echoing sound of the first helicopter was very comforting. We were now that much closer to a well-earned glass of wine!

Franz Josef helicopter

We were dropped off at the glacier valley. Which is covered by rainforest. Because that is how amazing New Zealand is. When our (very prolonged) glacier day was over, we were told that hiking groups get stranded there only once every couple of years. Frankly, I’m very surprised that it doesn’t happen more often. Or – who knows – maybe those guides said it because they wanted to make us feel special.

Franz Josef Glacier

And that was the end of our glacier adventure. But I will leave you with some Franz Josef llamas. Because everyone loves llamas. (Or, more likely, they’re alpacas? Anyway – cute fuzzy long-necked creatures).

Franz Josef llamas

Our South Island adventure continued with the drive to Arthur’s Pass National Park and then Christchurch – will be be covered in my next post.

Commissioned painting – Fonthill Castle

This 16×16 acrylic on wood commissioned painting was a wife’s gift to her husband. The couple got married in the beautiful Fonthill Castle (which is located in Doylestown, Pennsylvannia and was built in early 1900’s); and the entrance pillars in the painting’s foreground are marked with their initials.

Photos below document painting’s progress from initial sketch up to a finished framed piece.

Fonthill Castle sketch

Fontfill Castle painting progress 1

Fontfill Castle painting progress 2

Fontfill Castle painting progress 3

Fontfill Castle painting completed

New Zealand: Wellington and Queenstown

In November 2013, I put my painting on hold for a couple of weeks and traveled to a place that has been on my list for years: beautiful New Zealand.

While it has always been on my “someday” list, 2013 pushed it into my “now” list. My second cousin from Russia, Sergey (who is in his 20’s and whom I have not seen since he was a toddler) picked up a year-long gig, working for a Russian Embassy in Wellington. Thus, perfect time to travel to Middle Earth presented itself: I had to go there and reunite with a relative, of course! Promptly, Kurt and I purchased our airfare.  And after 22 total hours of flying time, we were there.

Wellington New Zealand

We started off at Wellington, where we met up with Sergey and explored the capital for a couple of days. Our explorations included a fascinating free tour of New Zealand Parliament (a must!), museums, a street food festival, a Balkan band concert, miles of walking, driving around nearby coastline, and hiking up a few hills.

Wellington New Zealand

From Wellington we flew to Queenstown, New Zealand’s “adventure central”. The natural beauty of this place is just stunning.  This, for example, was a view from our hotel deck:

Queenstown New Zealand

When visiting “adventure central” you must start off with adrenaline-inducing adventure, of course! Queenstown area offers so, so many options, but a free fall into a canyon has long been on my bucket list – hence it was time for the Shotover Canyon Swing! Here is how Canyon Swing works: you free fall off a platform for 60 meters, and then, hanging over a river, you swiiiiing! Like a big pendulum.

Shotover Canyon Swing

I admit, I was a little nervous during the 15-minute ride to the canyon, but I practiced my jump in my head many times, so it was going to be ok. That feeling of “ok” lasted until I got harnessed up, stepped to the edge, and looked down. Around the same time, the skies opened up, and a downpour started. And so – my legs froze and refused to move. I was being told that it was safe to go, my logic agreed, but all the instincts in my body were screaming – no way! I even asked one of the guys to give me a push, but he told me: “You’re on your own, lady”. So, timidly, I jumped forward. Whoa!!! There is nothing, nothing like a feel of free fall into a rapidly approaching ground. It was amazing. And that downpour? During my flight, I never even noticed it.

Shotover Canyon Swing New Zealand

If you have gone this far, you may as well do a second jump – right? – so my second free fall was done “backwards”. This time, while falling, I looked up at a rapidly diminishing jumping platform, an equally thrilling rush. And then the rush is over, and you swing over a river surrounded by stunning beauty, without a care in the world, and you wish you could bottle that feeling and keep with you forever. Sergey chose to fall into a canyon while “sitting” on a plastic chair. (Yeah, they have that jump option available too. Those guys are insane). Kurt preferred to just take our flying photos, and maybe collect my life insurance. (well, that second plan failed, clearly).

Shotover Canyon Swing New Zealand

Queenstown adventure continues: the following day, we booked a scenic flight to Milford Sound. We went in a tiny 6-person plane, operated by Glenorchy Air. Flying over New Zealand fjords, in such proximity to mountaintops, was jaw-dropping.

Milford Sound Flight

Milford Sound flight

Milford Sound flight

In Milford  Sound, we cruised all the way to the ocean and back, and then – my favorite part – Milford Sound kayaking. Kayaking got even more magical – as we spotted several Fjordland Crested penguins casually cleaning their little wings and then jumping into water after some fish. These are some of the rarest penguins in the world, and to see them while KAYAKING – most likely a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence!

Milford Sound, New Zealand

The rest of our time in Queenstown land was allocated to beautiful hikes.  In the evenings hiked the  Queenstown Hill track ,  part of Ben Lomond Track, and then spent a long day walking up and back down of the Routeburn track portion in Glenorchy area.

Queenstown New Zealand

Queenstown New Zealand

Routeburn track

Queenstown New Zealand

And after Queenstown area, we headed up the South Island coast. Go here to read Part 2 of my New Zealand trip review!

“Milwaukee Art Museum” commissioned painting

This 16×20 canvas is of the beautiful building that is Milwaukee Art Museum, along with a little bit of Milwaukee skyline surrounding it. The museum building was designed by Santiago Calatrava. This painting was commissioned by a Milwaukee resident. This was my first ever piece depicting Milwaukee, but I look forward to creating more Milwaukee pieces!

Below are the painting progress photos along with the finished piece.

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“Chicago Reflections” commissioned painting

This commissioned painting was completed in September. It is a 30×30 acrylic on canvas, and its colors and concept were based on my original “Orange Chicago” piece. The customer, who spent some memorable years in Chicago, but now lives out East, wanted a composition of buildings that capture her Chicago life and experiences. Amongst other famous landmarks, we have: Northwestern Prentice Women’s Hospital, Tempo Cafe, The Drake Hotel, The Chicagoan Apartment Building, and Northwestern Abbott Hall with Northwestern Gate in front of it.

Timing of this painting was especially great because soon after it was completed, The Northwestern Prentice Women’s Hospital has met the wrecking ball. Sadly, the iconic building is now in the process of being demolished.

Here are the progress photos of the painting, leading up to the completed piece:

(click on each image to see it in larger size)

Concept sketch on paper:

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Sketch on canvas (some of the composition has been adjusted):

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Stages of painting – in – progress:

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“Chicago Reflections” – completed

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