Welcome to the Chubby Chatterbox Newsletter, where I’ll be posting favorites from the Chubby Chatterbox archives. In addition, my complete thriller Return of the Mary Celeste will soon be serialized here for those who have asked for something beyond a regular post.

My novel is based on a true event, arguably the greatest maritime mystery of all time. In 1872 the crew and passengers of Boston brigantine Mary Celeste abandoned their seaworthy ship and its valuable cargo, vanishing in the middle of the Atlantic. Speculation over their fate has never abated. History records that after the Mary Celeste tragedy no one from that fateful voyage was ever seen again. History is about to be rewritten…

Return of the Mary Celeste


Tragedy struck the brigantine Mary Celeste on the morning of November 25, 1872. The hourly log was later recovered from the deserted vessel; At 8 a.m. the last notation was made. By 9 a.m. no one remained aboard to chalk the next entry.

Something had terrified Captain Benjamin Briggs and his crew, prompting the seasoned skipper to make a decision certain to affect not only himself, his ship and crew, but his family as well—his wife and two year old daughter were aboard Mary Celeste. Much ink has been spilled in fanciful and scientific attempts to explain the calamity that engulfed this perfectly seaworthy ship, yet all that is known for certain is this: in a matter of minutes Captain Briggs became convinced that the only way to save their lives was by ordering everyone into a hastily launched lifeboat. By giving the order to abandon ship, he also launched the greatest of all maritime mysteries.

On December 5, 1872, a month after leaving New York Harbor, Mary Celeste was found drifting on a calm and empty sea. The ship was in fine condition, perfectly intact with valuable cargo safely stored in her hold, but the crew and passengers had vanished. None were ever seen again.

Until now….

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Ken Orrett's Magic Carpet Ride

July 7, 2014

When Ken Orrett entered our college classroom that first time I thought he looked like Santa Claus with a Bahamian tan. Jovial and bursting with knowledge, he was here to teach art history, a subject I knew very little about. He explained that, while he loved teaching art history, he was primarily an artist and had been painting for nearly forty years.


A hand shot into the air with a student asking, “So what do you paint? Will you be bringing in any of your own artwork?”


Orrett said, “On the last day of class I’ll bring in some of my work. But for now let’s begin the continuum of art with prehistoric times.”


Over the next few months I listened attentively as he analyzed monuments and artwork from ancient civilizations, from Pharaonic Egypt to Hellenistic Greece,  past the Roman Era, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, Neo-Platonism, Mannerism, Humanism, a plethora of other “isms” and on to the twentieth century. As I listened I couldn’t help but be impressed by Ken Orrett’s wealth of knowledge as he transported me on a magic carpet ride through time and space. Yet I couldn’t help fantasizing about my instructor’s own art. What would a man create who seemed to know all there was to know about art?  






When he stroked his beard and spoke it was as if I could hear chisels striking marble or paint slapping canvas. I wouldn’t think of missing a single Ken Orrett art appreciation class. When our magic carpet ride landed in the twentieth century, Orrett’s knowledge deepened. He guided us through Cubism, Dadaism, Surrealism, Nihilism, Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art and Environmental Art, always speaking as if he knew the artists responsible for these movements personally, as if he were a fly on the studio wall while they created their masterpieces. As he spoke, I kept thinking about that last day of class when he’d promised to reveal his own work, based, no doubt, on a lifetime of artistic exploration and discovery.


He kept his word, entering the classroom with two canvases under his arm on our final day together. He positioned the two paintings so everyone could view them. A hush fell over the classroom. I’d spent the semester wondering what these paintings would be like. Would they slash perspective and rearrange reality? Would the brushstrokes be fat and meaty, a macho exploration of color and texture? Perhaps he’d skewered society and redefined art with items from popular culture like Andy Warhol.


I stared in disbelief at what I saw. Ken Orrett’s pictures were nothing like what I’d imagined. Instead of being brawny or challenging, they were—horror of horrors—cutesweet. The two paintings formed a diptych, fitting together as a single scene. The top two thirds of surface remained blank, but the bottom of the composition was loosely scattered with softly colored wildflowers.


What was this S*#T? Certainly not art. This work looked like a decorative border for stationery, or paper towels, perhaps gift wrapping paper. My jaw dropped. How could a brain filled with the minutia of five thousand years of art history produce anything so trivial?


Ken Orrett looked us in the eye, stroked his beard and said, “For forty years I painted, my brush influenced by all the art that had come before me. Some of that art was carefully disguised political propaganda, some was created as an intellectual challenge to further our understanding of consciousness. After forty years of painting I stood before my easel one day, paralyzed by all I knew, unable to pick up a brush. I couldn’t create anything for a long time.


“I live in the Santa Cruz mountains and every morning on my drive to class I passed this clump of wildflowers on the side of the road. One day I realized I was smiling when they came into view. It dawned on me that the time had come to stop mimicking the past and focus on the present. So now I paint wildflowers.”


It took years to not feel betrayed, to forgive him. I figured I’d toss my palette in a dumpster before resorting to the foolishness of painting wildflowers. But I was just a kid back then, eager to set the world on fire with my creative brilliance. It took years to change my thinking, realize I was marching down a similar path as Ken Orrett—no beard but I nailed his portly shape. No one’s journey of creative exploration should be mocked or casually discarded and I’m ashamed to have done so.


One day my own magic carpet of artistic exploration careened and crashed. Like Ken Orrett, I also stood before my easel, paralyzed by the ball and chain of history. This paralysis lasted over a decade. Today I’m back to painting, and while I’ll never lose my love of art history I no longer let it weigh me down. These days I paint for pure pleasure. I’ve yet to erect an easel beside a patch of wildflowers, but I’ve little doubt that, sooner or later, I’ll do just that. 











Wildflowers are preferable to some things labeled as "art" these days. I read an article recently about some guy paying like $2 million for a piece of "art" that was a bed with stained sheets and condom wrappers. Maybe I need to see how much I could get for my "artistic" bed.
By: PT Dilloway on July 7, 2014
I adore wildflowers. They always make me smile, too, and remind me of being a kid growing up next to Minnesota prairie land. I always thought of them as works from God's paintbrush.
By: Rita McGregor on July 7, 2014
i liked his explanation - and how he found his 'smile' again.
By: TexWisGirl on July 7, 2014
Simplicity and cliche are not "bad" art but they are not challenging art, and maybe with your background that is what you had hoped for.
By: Tabor on July 7, 2014
Excellent post- when I was at Marylhurst and working on my BFA in Photography I comtemplated all sorts of "edgy" thesis ideas and eventually abandoned them to photograph natures beauty. I am not able to try and catch humanity doing unspeakable things nor do I want to capture politicians being ugly. I'd rather show what beauty is out there if we only stop and really look quietly .
By: Kathe W. on July 7, 2014
I've always painted / done art for myself which is why I don't consider myself to be a "real" artist. What I paint is what other people are mostly not interested in, i.e. beautiful men. It's as stupid as painting flowers but it brings me pleasure so I don't care.
By: Michael Offutt on July 7, 2014
I liken art to life. Notwithstanding the cliches that exist. I believe complexity lies in the light and level of detail. In my opinion flowers can be quite complex.
By: Daniel LaFrance on July 7, 2014
Oh, how lovely that he taught you so much and you can still use your education. I enlarged "The History of Art" and was pleased that I recognized a number of works. The Hurricane always says that attending a technical college might have helped her more with her Ph.D. in math, but she wouldn't trade her liberal arts education for anything. I feel the same way. Love, Janie
By: Janie Junebug on July 7, 2014
My friend Rita Pita Pan left such a great comment. Love again, Janie
By: Janie Junebug on July 7, 2014
I hope if you ever get to the wildflower stage, you will show us your work. I am not an artist but an appreciator. Georgia O'keeffe did quite well with her sensual flowers.
By: Akansas Patti on July 7, 2014
When you come out of that dry spell, it's amazing where you might be.
By: mimi on July 7, 2014
My head is filled up just from reading this post. I don't even think I can paint a single wildflower. Of course, I've never painted anything else up to now, either.
By: Val on July 7, 2014
When you have expectations for someone or something, it's easy to be disappointed. I think, tho, that any subject can be 'cute' or 'art', it just takes a perspective to get it out. And that's my .02 cents on art history... :D Cat
By: Cat on July 7, 2014
As someone who has a hard time drawing a stick figure, I have admiration for ANYONE who can paint ANYTHING, be it highbrow art or wildflowers.
By: Pixel Peeper on July 7, 2014
Artists don't have it easy. They have to critique their work as it happens. they know what they want. If it's not coming through in the towel. I applaud you for giving it a second try.
By: red on July 7, 2014
And when you write your blog . . . the pleasure is all ours!
By: Tom Sightings on July 7, 2014
Shouldn't artists paint for themselves first? If that's what Ken liked, good for him. And if someone else liked it, too, that's just a bonus.
By: Scott Park on July 7, 2014
He said a lot through the wildflowers. I respect his humility.
By: Robyn Engel on July 7, 2014
I really like this post especially after all this knowledge it came back to the simplest of things to bring him pleasure. A great story!
By: John on July 8, 2014
Such is the artist's/writer's life - being so filled with the mechanics and knowledge that it weighs down the creativity. I am glad he found his brush again, and glad you found yours.
By: Carrie on July 8, 2014
I'd always wondered who had contributed to your impressive knowledge of the art world.. And I guess, in art as in writing, often less is more?
By: Bryan Jones on July 8, 2014
By: Catalyst on July 8, 2014
One of the most amazing sights from my days out on the truck was when the hills in the Mohave Desert west of Needles, California would turn blue in the spring. I decided to investigate one day, and I found that the reason for this was millions (perhaps even billions) of tiny wild flowers in bloom. I was completely awestruck. Please don't report me to UMM (Union of Manly Men) for blatant unmanly behavior. I can't afford another black mark.
By: Jerry E. Beuterbaugh on July 8, 2014
Nice piece. The best part of it is to read that you are painting again, and for yourself. That is wonderful.
By: Tom Cochrun on July 8, 2014
Can't wait to see what happens when you "Just be yourself" I expect it will be very good.
By: Cranky on July 10, 2014
It's fascinating to me how someone can take painting into a new realm--in this case without a brush, as I understand it. Interestingly, I passed through Needles, California the other night!
By: Michael Manning on July 13, 2014
I'm glad he found his smile. Like you, I would have lost mine.
By: Mitchell is Moving on July 15, 2014

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