Saturday, April 10, 2010

An Open Letter To Andrea

Hi Andrea,

Thanks for your email and your request to use one of my paintings as a model. Your request is something that fits well into my artistic philosophy, and for that matter my life philosophy. I have believed, since I can’t remember when, that all knowledge, skills, and ideas should be shared. Otherwise I think there is a great ability for the development of “Prima Donnas” and God knows that I’ve had my share of them in life. So, where do I begin with all of this?

One of the good things that came from art school was being around a variety of people and seeing that they had a variety of ideas and practiced a variety of techniques (unless they were trying to suck up to the teacher). To roughly paraphrase Picasso, “A good artist borrows, a great artist steals.” If you go to Europe it is not uncommon to see people set up easels and painting supplies, in one of the galleries, and proceed to make a copy of a painting. In the USA people consider this to be “Cheating” because you are copying and not being original. One of the important things that I learned in art school is that there is nothing new under the sun. It’s all be done before in various ways and we just haven’t discovered it yet. I always encouraged my students to copy the works of “The Masters.” Copy a Degas drawing and it is like studying with Degas. Copy a Rembrandt and it is like having Rembrandt at your side teaching you.

Many years ago I did a pastel painting, as a gift, for a therapist who was helping my wife and myself. She requested a piece that was thematic of a mother and child in a loving relationship. I immediately thought of the artist, Mary Cassatt. I did not copy one of her pieces. Instead I researched photo references of mothers and children and did a composite sketch. But before I started the painting I surrounded my easel with books and images of Mary Cassatt paintings. I wanted her spirit in my studio so that I could learn from here and be guided by her. At a certain point in the painting these images were put away, because I didn’t want to duplicate her, but I wanted to put my own mark on the painting.

Whenever I’ve taught I’ve always brought in my own materials and would work along with the students. For me, it’s easier to visually show someone how to do something than to try to explain it verbally. I guess that’s why I always did well when I apprenticed out in a building trade (I learn better from watching and doing). I would get comments from others, some artists and some not, that by doing this, showing them my techniques, I was essentially teaching them how to do what I could do. That I could be taking sales away from myself. My response was pretty straightforward and simple.

Unlike so many college art teachers I do not see making art as a mystical and magical thing. I see it as a craft (I come from a blue collar working class family). I have long told students that I can teach them to draw and paint but I cannot teach them to be artists. Drawing and painting are crafts like being a carpenter, plumber, mechanic, doctor, lawyer, or whatever. We learn our craft and then we practice it. If we want to be good we practice it a lot. You have to teach yourself to be an artist because it is an internal expression but that expression is difficult, if not important, if you are not skilled in the craft of what you are doing.

As for someone else making paints just like mine, well they can’t because they are not me. Our art comes from the experiences of our lives. To duplicate my art, the shapes, forms, colors, compositions, intensity, and sensibility, then you would have to duplicate my life, and God only knows why anyone would want to do that. Our life experiences lead us all to different places. We have different encounters and interactions. Because of our personal history we understand the world around us differently. The theologian and scholar, John Dominick Crossan, has taught that you can have 4 people all standing together witnessing the same event at the same time and they will all come away with different memories of it. This is because we all filter the events of life through our own personal lens of history.

So, when I say that no one else can make paintings just like mine I’m not being vain or arrogant. I’m being pragmatic. I’ve taught students that our art is a reflection of our personality. Going again to Picasso and paraphrasing him, every work an artist does is a self-portrait. If I am neat and meticulous by nature, my art will be that way. If I’m a sloppy person my paintings will be sloppy. As for me, my paintings are a reflection of me and my mental illnesses.

They are tightly constructed but I try to disguise it with a feel of being casual (my need to try to hide who I am). They have a certain tension because I am a very tense (and intense) person. Because I am filled with oddities and eccentricities, so are my paintings. What is not seen on the surface is that I may have labored for hours or days to get a color or stroke just right. Now I don’t like to have people around when I paint because I’m afraid they’ll rip me off. Rather it is because, for me, painting is a very intimate activity that requires my full attention. It requires me to get lost to everything but the task at hand. I think by nature most visual artists are solitary creatures.

That doesn’t mean that I think artists shouldn’t share ideas and techniques. Quite the opposite is true. I think that artists need to collaborate more frequently with each other. As artists we are not really competing with each other and we should be helping each other with sales, marketing, exhibitions, materials, techniques, and so on. If you sell a painting it doesn’t mean that I’ve lost a sale. The person who bought your work did so because they liked your style and content as opposed to mine. When one artist succeeds we all succeed because someone bought an original work rather than a reproduction or a poster. Maybe someone sees your work but it just isn’t quite what they had in mind so you suggest they look at my work and I sell a piece. Again, it isn’t that you lost a sale (because you never had it) but that a sale was made. Commercial galleries understand this, which is why major cities have gallery districts. It draws a variety of people, with a variety of tastes into a centralized location where they can see a diverse group of works. The best place to open a new gallery is in an area with existing and established galleries.

Well, my mind is tired. I hope I didn’t ramble on too much and that this was somewhat helpful. Also, if you want to quote anything from this for your blog please, feel free to do so. I think I will be using this as my next blog posting.

Post Script

The French artist Ingress once commented to a young student, "Learn perspective then forget it." The same idea applies to composition and yes, even colors. You learn the theory, the mechanics of it and you practice it over and over again, ad nauseum, until you no longer have to think about it consciously, you're able to "forget it" and just do it. It just becomes part of you. Once you are so disciplined in form, composition, color, etc. that you no longer have to think about how to do them then you are finally free to create (including the emotional aspects). The internal chatter dies away and you have an "AHA!" moment. As a painter I can respond and react to what is in front of me visually without having to over-think it. Because of this I am free to follow the rules or to break them when circumstances call for it. I am free to let the painting tell me what to do and what changes are needed. And yes, Paula, an artist's palette is somewhat of a signature mark, just like we choose styles and colors of clothes because we like them and they fit.

And Andrea, you mentioned thumbnail sketches and I agree with their importance. I have learned, however, that what works at 3” doesn’t always work at 36”. I have to constantly re-evaluate and readjust as circumstances call for it. Again it is learning the rules and then having the freedom to break them when it’s right.

The first piece is titled “In Advance Of Winter” and measures approximately 4.5’ high X 7.5’ wide X 4’ deep and is made of mixed stacked wood. I have been spending a lot of time cutting up dead trees, splitting the wood, and stacking it so I can burn it and heat the house next winter. I’m good for about 2-3 hours a day until my arthritis overwhelms me and I have to stop. The next 3 pieces were done on a recent trip out to San Diego, CA to see our daughter. I learned how to not frustrate myself and use available resources and spaces. Two are part of my “Boundary Barrier Series” and they measure 14.5” X 20.5” and 20.5” X 14.5”. The third is titled “Dark Marsh” and measures 20.5” X 14.5”. All are done with artist crayons on paper. Finally is a thumbnail sketch of one of the Boundary Barrier pieces. It is graphite on paper. I’ve included my color notes.

Friday, February 12, 2010

How Long Have I Been Asleep?

I look back and see that I haven’t posted anything since June 2009. Back in May of that year I went into a bit of a funk. I had just started to come out of it when we made our road trip to California. Even though that trip seemed to be fraught with problems there was a lot of good in it. I got to see an old high school girlfriend and meet her family. More importantly I got to spend time with our oldest daughter. I spent quite a bit of time reading (including fiction which I seldom read), which I don’t do often enough. But for someone like me, a person with OCD, being outside of my normal routines and environment can wreak havoc. The trip stressed me out and put me into a deeper funk.

Once we returned I became even more cloistered. I don’t really mind that, there is not much out in the world that I care to participate in. As Irv Kupcinet said, “What can you say about a society that says that God is dead and Elvis is alive?” The people whose company I enjoy, because they can tolerate my personality, are far and few between and most of them live elsewhere or have died. As a result I usually don’t leave our property more than once a week. Then it’s usually to go to a building supply store for things that I need to buy to fix something around the house, or to go buy liquor. So, since May of 2009 I have only done 1 blog posting (in June) and only made 1 piece of art, a nude done in colored pencil. My doctor added a new med to my regime. It’s an anti anxiety med. She prescribed it because I am, by nature, a very tense person. In the last 15 years I have broken about 12-15 teeth from biting down so hard. So, that’s why I like drinking. Not to mention that having a strong willed adult daughter along with her stronger willed and rambunctious 4 year old son live with us so I tend to get a bit stressed.

Put all of this together and what I wanted to do was to burrow into the ground and pull and an insulating layer of earth over me and hibernate. Metaphorically that’s just what I did. Because I was questioning my life, especially as an artist and whether making art was really important. I just wanted to be distracted and that included avoiding my studio. Some of it was non-productive, like sitting back mindlessly watching movies. Otherwise I did home improvement projects. The problem with that was that projects that should have taken a few days turned into a few months. It was a combination of anxiety, uncertainty, and indecision mixed with physical problems.

At this point in my life I find that I’m good for about 2 hours of labor before my body rebels and gives out. I installed a wood burner add-on furnace to my HVAC system. I probably spent about a month internally debating placement and methodology before I got off my butt and did the work. The same holds true for the simple wood burner in my studio. I was splitting wood by hand using a maul and found that after 2 hours arthritis would stop me. My hands would swell and I would have to pack them in ice. Ibuprofen and whiskey would help the pain while I sat and mindlessly watched more movies. There is nothing like being reminded of your limitations and age especially since I used to be so strong. I have since bought a small electric log splitter and vowed to start splitting wood earlier in the year and be ready for next winter.

But this is also a reminder that I am going to have to change the way that I approach my art as I start to come out of this funk. My hands are stiff and arthritic and don’t have the dexterity that they used to. I cannot control materials they way that I once used to. Everything seems more clumsy. I have less energy and even less stamina.

Yet the depression and physical limitations don’t seem all that bad or daunting. I think about the great Norwegian artist, Edvard Munch, who suffered from depression. He had been hospitalized numerous times. When told that there was a treatment that would cure him, he refused it. He told his doctor that it would change who he was as a person and therefore as an artist. As Monet aged and his eyesight failed his Water Lily paintings became more abstract. I used to spend hours at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC looking at these particular paintings. It was like being in a chapel. When Matisse was old and bedridden, his assistant would tape paper to the ceiling of the bedroom and attach charcoal to the end of a stick so that the master could draw. So I guess that I can find a way around the numbness and stiffness in my hands. I guess that I can take these elongated periods of depression and learn from them and use them. The bleakness makes everything more enjoyable and alive once I resurface.

As I emerge from this particular funk I find that I am dreaming more and the dreams are more intense. At times they are so real I cannot tell where I am and feel like I am in an alternative reality. I take this as a positive sign of change and growth. They fit with the mythological writings of Joseph Campbell, the theological writings of John Dominick Crossan, and the articles that I have been reading on Biocentrism by Dr. Lanza, M.D. There is a sense that change is coming and for a person with OCD it is strange that I welcome and look forward to it and almost eager to embrace it. The idea of the Boundary Barrier becomes even more important. I have started to sketch out more ideas. I am also anticipating more multi-media pieces and experimenting with different materials. My creativity is returning and I begin to have a sense of excitement and renewed enthusiasm.

The first image is the wood burner add-on furnace that I spent way too much time working on. The next image is the small wood stove I put in my studio (again way too much time). Next are the 2 dogs we have added to our household. Have I ever mentioned that we are suckers for unwanted animals? We now have 5 dogs, 3 cats, and a rabbit. First is “Dolly” who we found abandoned on the roadside in the dead of winter (not uncommon in this area) about 1 year ago. She is a pure bred American Pit Bull Terrier and one of the sweetest dogs you would ever want to meet. She looks like the dog “Pete” from the old show, “The Little Rascals” and is probably the best dog with our grandson. I also call her “Wedge Head” or “Pinky” because of her pit characteristics. The next dog is “Oberon.” He is a purebred English Mastiff given to our daughter by the breeder. In this picture he is 9 months old and weighs about 110 pounds. He’s a bit of a runt and will probably max out at about 175 pounds. He is big and clumsy and is afraid of most everything (pretty pathetic for such a large dog) but he is highly lovable. He is called O.B. for short but my wife and grandson refer to him as “Obi Won Kanobi.” I call him “Lumpy.” The next image is from my “Boundary Barrier” series. It is done with water-soluble artist crayons and is titled “Hedge Wall With Bare Trees.” The final image is the only art I have done since May 2009. It is titled, “Woman of Color #1” and measures 20” X 13” and is colored pencil on paper. It ties in with my “Torso Series.”

Hopefully as the days become longer and the sunshine returns I can become more productive before the black dog returns. I guess I’ll just have to wait to find out. In the meantime doses of vitamin D3 and lots of garlic seem to be helping. And so does this wonderful version of the song, "Somewhere Over The Rainbow. by the artist israel iz kaʻanoʻi kamakawiwoʻole

Friday, July 17, 2009

Road Trip

My wife and I, along with 2 of our dogs are on a road trip. I used to like the adventure of travel, when I was young, but not so much anymore. Every year it seems more trouble than it’s worth.

I haven’t been on a plane in 9 years. When I first started traveling by plane the flying was part of the vacation. There was an exotic quality to it. Comfortable seats, drinks, and food that was even somewhat palatable. When my wife and I started seriously dating she lived in LA and I was up in San Francisco. The fares were cheap enough that I could hop on a commuter flight Friday evening and return on Sunday evening. I always sat in the back of the plane, in the smoking section, and drank a double scotch on the rocks. I only drank scotch, for some unknown reason, when I was on a plane.

Now flying is a chore. Airports are frustrating and their parking lots are a nightmare. When I go through the metal detector I always set off the alarm. I have a surgical steel knee. I can tell them about it and show the 10-inch scar but I am always told, “Step over to the side, sir.” I always smile as they pass the wand over me wondering if this is the time I’ll be strip-searched.

Traveling now means getting in our van and driving. I installed a platform bed in the van. One of us can rest and sleep while the other one drives. When it is late and we are both tired we can pull into rest areas and sleep for a few hours. With 2 dogs, one weighing 90 pounds, and a 12-gauge shotgun we feel pretty safe.

I do love watching the landscape unfold in front of us. The landscape has long had a spiritual and mystical sensibility for me. I am much better at being a passenger so I can just sit back and watch the scenery roll by me. When I have to drive I get easily distracted and very fatigued. I could never be a long-haul truck driver.

Because of my obsessive nature I have been known to drive up to a 1,000 miles in a single stretch (it took me 20 hours). It is the OCD. I don’t like being away from my life and I miss my stuff. I miss the rituals and routines that give a rhythm to my daily life. It may sound funny but all this daily sameness gives me a certain freedom, especially with my painting. The “sameness” is a discipline.

This trip is a little tougher on me. We are not taking the shortest route. We made a deliberate decision to avoid the main highways and to drive the smaller side roads as much as possible. We have been going through real “Bubba” country. The small towns that are true “Americana.” And I forgot to bring my bib-overalls.

This trip has a few different purposes. The main objective was to visit our daughter who lives in San Diego, who we haven’t seen in over a year. It also gives us a chance to see some old friends from LA that we haven’t visited with in over 3 years. The other reason was so that we could visit the town of Paducah, KY.

Paducah is a small town that has fallen on hard times. They are trying to reinvent themselves by recruiting “working artists” to relocate to the town. They are offering artists houses at below market prices and even empty downtown lots for free if you put up a building as a studio and gallery. Paducah seems to know that where you have the arts and artists eventually the economy becomes strong and vibrant. When I first visited Santa Fe, NM about 30 years ago it wasn’t much. Artists came for the scenery and the cheap prices and decided to stay. Now, Santa Fe is a Mecca for artists and a thriving vibrant city. So thriving that it’s tough for artists to be able to afford to live there anymore. So, if you’re an artist thinking of relocating, you can find more info on Paducah’s program at

The first image is of my bobble-head Jesus that I have on the dashboard of my van. For me it’s a throw back to the 1960’s when good Catholics everywhere had little plastic statues of Jesus on their dashboards. As the song went, “I don’t care if it rains or freezes, long as I got my plastic Jesus, sittin on the dashboard of my car.” My van died just outside of Tucumcari, NM and we spent 4 hours in the hot sun (104 degrees) before we got towed into town. Tucumcari is on old Route 66. The next image is from a new series that I am playing with based on the idea of boundary barriers. The last image is based on looking out my bathroom window. The trees and the brush form interesting patterns. Both of these paintings are done using artist crayon on paper. With both of them I am re-exploring the use of deeper, richer, and more muted colors.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

You Want What ?!

Back when I was about 18 or 19 years old I thought that one of the greatest sins that could be committed was to live a boring life. So back then it was my hope/wish/prayer that I would have an interesting life. There is an old saying, “Be careful of what you wish for, you just might get it!” In my youthful mind an interesting life meant being a successful, rich, and famous artist traveling the world. Well now I know that I should have been more specific in my wish. I didn’t get the successful, rich, and famous part but I sure did get the interesting part. After the last couple of months, with illness and death issues, I was hoping that everything would settle down. Good God how naïve could I be?

I recently found myself at the Emergency Room of the local hospital fearing that I was having a heart attack. Being nearly 60, overweight, and coming from a family of multi-generational heart disease, I became concerned when I experienced light headedness, dizziness, cold-sweats, nausea, and a tightness in my chest which extended to the left side of my neck, shoulder, and arm and didn’t go away after 6 hours when I had tried various home remedies. After spending 7 hours in the hospital receiving various tests and drugs (the morphine didn’t even give me a buzz) I was scheduled for a nuclear stress test and released to go home. I finished those tests a few days ago and will soon find out the results. I do have to admit it is a rather intriguing notion to be injected with a radioactive die solution.

I don’t want to live forever but I would like another 21.5 years even though at times life seems like an endless repetition days. That would give me the time to help raise my grandson to manhood. Regretfully, I have little confidence in his mother (my daughter) and even less in his father. It would also let me achieve my 50th wedding anniversary to my wife, the lovely Louise. After that, whatever happens happens. It does make for an interesting life.

But after all this stress and chaos there is another question that I need to answer. How do I make art out of all of this? This is the stuff of life and it is too good to waste. This is the stuff of life that makes good art. Another blogger, Philip Edson, has questioned me about expressing my “darker” side. As I thought about it I started to use darker and deeper colors. I started to use the landscape to express hiding places. Places where I can go and tuck myself into the shadows while I watch the world. Those places where I am separated, safe, protected, and remain unseen. I have created barriers and hiding places of my choosing. But there is more beyond that, as Philip asked me, how do I express more about my illnesses and depressive feelings? This has been a very good question for me.

My obsessive mind loves this type of entanglement. How do I express this stress and chaos? Do I want to be illustrative and narrative or go in another direction? There is an uncertainty that stalls and confronts me yet I see this as a good thing. If you look at history, all human growth comes from conflict. And if you look at history it also answers a lot of questions. So, I am going back and looking at the work of Rembrandt, William Blake, Edvard Munch, and Francis Bacon. I am also looking at the work of the contemporary artist, Basquiat. I am spending more of my reading time looking at human mythology, especially as it applies to the ideas of boundaries, barriers, and the dark forest. I sometimes lament that I am discovering more of this later in my life when my energy is waning but I’ll take it whenever and wherever it comes. It ain’t over until I’m dead and as I said, I hope/wish/pray that isn’t for another 21.5 years. So, if anyone has any ideas or thoughts about imagery, I’ll be glad to listen to them.

The first two images are from a series of darker colors that I have been working on. The title of the series is “Copse On Rich Street” and they are done with artist crayon on paper and they both measure 14.75” X 20.625” The next is a variation on a previous painting I had done. The colors are darker and the image leans in becoming less open. It is titled “Hiding In The Tall Grasses” and it measures 14.75” X 20.625” and is done with artist crayon on paper. These three pieces are reflective of my need for privacy and to separate myself from others and the world. To sit tucked away in quiet and dark places. The last piece is based on another series I started. It based on the idea of barriers and boundaries. The boundary threshold is an ancient notion known to all cultures providing society with known limits. It provides society with the unspoken “social contract” to which most people adhere. Within these limits are safety, contentment, and mutual support. To go beyond the boundary is to enter the unknown and to risk danger, darkness, and fear. The hope is to survive and to experience life more intensely. The piece is titled “Hedge Wall With Stripped Trees” and measures 20.625” X 14.75” and is done with artist crayon on paper. For me they all have a sense of entanglement and doing everything the same size fits well with my OCD.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Doing The Hokey Pokey

Recently I received a phone call from my sister, Barbara, out in Seattle telling me that our brother-in-law, Bill had suffered a massive heart attack. Luckily, he survived it. The big dumb Mick, while having the heart attack, drove himself to the hospital. When he arrived in the ER he immediately passed out. In a very short time he was wheeled into the only open operating room available and had a life saving stent placed into one of his arteries. Bill always did have the luck of the Irish. A few days later I learned that one of my oldest friends had died at the end of January. I was numb. Paraphrasing the writer/monk, Thomas Merton, I know that at 59 I am not yet old but I am reminded that every day I am living on borrowed time.

I sat there, with my head in a vise, babbling on to my wife about these two events in my best self-pitying “poor me” attitude. Ever being the comforter my wife took my hand and with the most compassionate sarcasm she could muster she said, “Poor baby, you’ve survived a heart attack and death and you lived to tell the tale.” Like a sharp stick in the eye she brought me back to reality and the present. God, I love that about her. She must have been a Zen master in a previous life.

Brother-in-law Bill is at home recovering very nicely. My friend, Bo, is still dead. One out of two ain’t bad I suppose. That’s a .500 average. There’s an old saying, “The best party I ever went to was an Irish funeral.” When my father died I learned the importance of a wake and the value that it has for the living. So, in a way, this is my wake for my friend.

Bo and I had been friends for 43 years. He helped to foster my budding interest in jazz. The first time I smoked marijuana was at his apartment while listening to recordings of the (original) Dave Brubeck Quartet. He introduced me to the writing of Thornton Wilder and J.D. Salinger. A decade later, through him, I learned of the writings of Thomas Merton, which came to have a very powerful influence on my life and sense of spirituality. He taught me how to shoot pool and how to be a carpenter. Over the years we had many road trips and adventures together. We also had many conversations, over coffee or fine cognac that went late into the night. Perhaps we had a bond because there was a spirit of rebelliousness in both of us. There’s an old movie, “The Wild One” starring Marlon Brando where his character is asked what he’s rebelling against and his answer is “What do ya got?” That was Bo, rebelling but not quite sure of what he was rebelling against.

We were on similar paths but over the years but they began to branch off in different directions. When I first met him he was very liberal. Over time he became moderate then eventually conservative, especially about his Christian faith. Knowing him, I couldn’t understand how he had become a conservative, right wing, Christian. On the other hand I was more moderate in the beginning (although some I know might say I was liberal or even radical) and eventually grew more liberal. Along with an interest in spirituality and world religions, I also have a strong interest in Christianity (scripture, history, orthodoxy, theology, etc.) especially when compared to other religions. I went in a different direction headed towards the more radical boundaries of the faith. These diametrically opposed views, rather than drive the friendship apart made it stronger. He was one of the few that I could argue or debate with and still be intense, direct, and opinionated and not have to worry about it. But then he had similar qualities.

He had a restless spirit and could be a pain-in-the-ass but he had a good heart. Like so many of us, he was filled with a lot of self-doubt and questioned his self worth. He never fully appreciated how much he really touched and helped others. So now that he has joined the cosmic dance (he wanted to join the heavenly choir but really didn’t sing that well) and my wife has poked me in the eye I will pour a glass of fine cognac and enjoy the ride on the stream of my memories.

So, does this have anything to do with art? Well, yes and no. Artists not only reflect the world around themselves but they also reflect who they are as people. I believe that art is autobiographical. It is the trail that I leave behind as I pass through life. Anything that touches my life also touches my art. Who and what I am, both good and bad, shapes the form and content of my work. My landscapes do not depict lonely places (because I am not lonely) but rather solitary places. I like solitude and to have places where I can hide and watch the world unseen (does that make me a voyeur?). They are the places that I go to in order to recharge my batteries so that I can confront the world when necessary. They are the places where I go to really find out if the hokey pokey is what it is really about.

The first image is a photograph from one of my favorites bloggers, Lori Witzel (artist, writer, philosopher and hokey pokey enthusiast The next photo is one of myself as a young artist in 1969. I was visiting my friend, Bo, when he lived up in Eureka, CA. The third photo is a picture of my friend, Maurice “Bo” Peltier (1938-2009) doing his James Dean impersonation from “Rebel Without A Cause” or as his brother put it, a rebel without a clue. The final image is from a new series that I am working on. It is titled “Copse On Rich St. #4” and measures 14.75” X 20.625” and is artist crayon on paper.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Decidedly Undecided

In my last post, Phillip Edson left a comment that my art didn’t seem to reflect the angst and such that I write about. In some ways I agree with him and in others ways I disagree so I decided to write about it. For quite a few weeks I have been writing this post in my head and obviously I haven’t gotten very far. I have been looking for a singular approach to it but haven’t found that starting place. My thoughts are many and scattered like the pencils and pastels on my drawing table. There is no order or reason to them. And so, like making art, I just have to pick up one and start. It will probably seem fragmented but I hope, eventually, to pull it all together into a cohesive whole.

Many times in the past I have paraphrased Picasso with the statement that every work an artist does is a self-portrait. The work that I do is a reflection of who and what I am, a snapshot of myself at that particular moment. That particular moment is also a reflection of all my accumulated experiences, good, bad, or indifferent, in life. However, we live in a 4 dimensional existence, length, width, height, and (forward moving) time. Because of this we can never see the whole completely at any given moment.

Imagine looking at a large piece of cut crystal. I can hold it in my hand and at any given moment I can see the top or the bottom, the front or the back. I can see a combination of the front, top, and a side. I can see many of the facets that form the total shape and give it the luster and sparkle it presents. What I cannot see is the whole crystal from all sides and angles at the same time even though it is clear and transparent. Yet, even though it has many sides and facets it is still one crystal that presents itself and reflects the light in many different ways.

I am like that cut crystal (or cut glass in my case). The art that I make is a reflection from one of those facets of my life.

Off On A Tangent

Facets are made because of our life experiences. Some we willingly accept or try to achieve while others are visited upon us. As always, it is not important what we have as what we do with it. As I have said before I have various mental illnesses and I was emotionally abused as a child. Big WHOOP! I am neither alone nor special but as a young man I felt that way and my art reflected those feelings. Like me, my paintings were dark and brooding. My paintings were dark and had a gritty quality to them. My self-imposed artistic hero was Jackson Pollack because of his hard living and self-destructive nature. The suffering soul was an image that appealed to me. I was looking for beauty in those places where most people avoided, the fringes where the discarded gravitated. I did find beauty but not in its classic definition.

Another Tangent

I don’t think that opposites are always what we think that they may be. For example, to me, the opposite of love is not hate. Love and hate are the same strong emotion focused on a person, an object, an idea, or whatever. Mirror opposites, those feelings that are diametrically opposed are really the same thing. For me, the opposite of love is indifference. If I can love you then I can hate you because they are the same strong emotion. If I don’t care about you then I neither love nor hate you, I am simply indifferent to you, i.e. you don’t exist. Love and hate are active while indifference is passive. Does this make sense?

So What Has This To Do With My Art?

In my artist statement I have a quote from the psychoanalyst and author, June Singer from her book, BOUNDARIES OF THE SOUL. She says, “Jung has wisely said that if you are able to observe a quality that is characteristic of a person, you may be quite certain that somewhere in that person the opposite is equally true.”

Being emotionally abused made me feel weak and vulnerable so I filled my work with strong color, shape, and composition. Bravado is just another expression of fear. If I’m “In your face” then maybe I can make you back off and keep from getting too close. If I took something complex and made it look easy and simple then I could screw with you if you tried to do it. I could also contradict conventional thinking. Because I felt so inferior it was a way to feel superior. I was/am expressing myself through the mirror opposite. Because of the angst I am looking for Elysium (or Valhalla, Nirvana, Heaven, The Ground of All Being, The Still Point, or whatever you wish to call it). It is like a long and dreary winter makes me focus more on and long for the spring and summer and the warmth and light that they bring. The landscapes also acknowledge that I like to stay hidden where I can watch and observe from the fringes. I don’t make it easy for others to get close to me by putting up obstacles and barriers and obstructed pathways. Yet the nudes speak to the exact opposite. With everything stripped away I am left completely exposed.

Over time I have no doubt that this will continue to change. The longer that I live, the more facets that will be carved into me. I realize that a lot of this might be as clear as mud. If you wish to question me, please do so. If you have questions about my thinking please ask me. For me, so much of this is thinking out loud.

The first piece is an oil on hardwood panel. It is a triptych that measures 48” X 77.5” and is titled “Tall Grass Pathway.” The next piece is an oil on prepared paper titled “Dark Woods 03” and measures 21.75” X 34”. Next is artist crayon on hardwood panel that measures 11” X 14” and is titled “Half Hidden Barn.” The nude is colored pencil on paper, measures 26” X 20.5”, and is titled “Bathtub Nude.”

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Can’t Get No Satisfaction

A couple of months ago an old friend from high school commented, “I have a good life but it’s not a satisfying life.” This comment became for me the gift that keeps on giving; it gave me something to obsess about. Like a large boulder in an open field I kept meandering around it. Looking at it from all angles trying to figure out why I recognized it. Why I am drawn to and intrigued by it. Among many other thoughts it reminded me of some stories about different artists. These may be urban myths but still are good stories.

The first is a story about the American artist, Billy Al Bengston. As the tale goes, it was said he was doing abstract paintings that had surfaces that were heavy and thick with paint. One day he came into his studio and stood in front of his most current painting. He reached into his jacket pocket, pulled out a revolver and shot all of the bullets into the painting. He then turned and walked out of the studio. Shortly thereafter he began a series of paintings that became known as the “Chevron Series” a set of amorphous paintings that were smoothly airbrushed. It was said that with the heavy abstracts Bengston, “liked what he was doing (the process) but hated the results” while with the Chevron series he “hated what he was doing (process) but loved the results.”

Then there is the artist, Robert Irwin. In the 70’s he was doing semi-conceptual sculptures that were part of the architecture that played on the theme of light, time, space, and perception. He left NYC and moved out to southern California where he rented a street level warehouse space. It is said that he painted the interior of the space black except for the back wall, which was white. He covered all the windows and then drilled a hole in the door turning the space into a large pinhole camera. It was said that he spent a year sitting inside that space watching the inverted street scenes for a year. He seemed to need to change his way of looking at things.

In the 1970’s it was fairly common for art collector’s to pay for an artwork that had not yet been made, to place an order for a future work. The painter, Larry Poons had such a following for his tightly rendered “ellipse” paintings. One day he told his business manager to give all the money back because he was no longer happy doing the ellipse paintings and was going off in a new direction. He started to do large abstracts where, while the canvas was on the floor, he would spatter and pour the paint creating thick and fissured surfaces. These “poured’ paintings became highly successful and numerous other artist followed Poons’ lead in changing styles and directions.

So why the sudden and drastic changes, especially when everything seems to be going so well, when everything seems so good? Maybe we begin to discover that what we really want are things that lie on a deeper level. We begin to develop our psychological and spiritual natures so as to bring an order and meaning to the chaos that we perceive surrounds us. Reinhold Niebuhr (theologian, ethicist, and political analyst) teaches that “profound religion is an effort to answer the challenge of pessimism. It seeks a center of meaning in life which is able to include the totality of existence, and which is able to interpret the chaos of something which only provisionally threatens its cosmos and can ultimately be brought under its dominion.”

I told my friend I also have a good life. I have a good and wonderful spouse, children that I love, and a delightful grandson. Even with all of this I am not quite satisfied. I have a nagging sensation that there must be more. Happiness still eludes me no matter what I try. I no longer look for nor expect happiness and satisfaction rather I just keep trying to move forward, one day at a time, hoping that I’ll eventually find meaning, or at least stumble upon it (probably while looking in the wrong direction). Don’t beat yourself up over not being satisfied (I tried and it doesn’t work) it seems to be part of the human condition.

This dissatisfaction seems to me to be existential angst. This angst is what drives the arts and creativity. It is why so many artists eventually go completely off their meds, something I have often considered, or drink a lot or do drugs. This angst is why people become alcoholics or drug addicts; why people become workaholics; why people become conservative, fundamentalist religious zealots of any faith. This angst is what drove me, as a teenager, to the edge of the abyss to consider suicide. It is what compelled me to live a self-destructive life through my late 20’s. It is why I lived in a monastery for a year seeking spiritual direction and religious bliss (unsuccessfully). I didn’t really know what I was looking for but I knew when what I was doing didn’t fit. I’m 59 years old and I’m still trying things on to see if they fit; I’m still trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up. As Justice Holmes used to say, “The aim of life is to get as far as possible from imperfection.” I know that I’ll never achieve it because I don’t believe there is perfection in this life. I don’t think that perfection, happiness, or being satisfied is static and serene. I see them as dynamic, growing, changing, and ever moving.

The pieces here are a variety of what I have been working on. The first is from one of my favorite hiking places. It is titled, "Birch Trees in Fall" and measures 24" X 36". It is oil on hardwood panel. The next is one of my figurative pieces. I have been playing with colored pencils and enjoying it. It measures about 34" X 20.5". The next is based on a theme of a dark wooded place. It measures 20.5" X 32" and is oil on prepared paper. The final piece is from a series of torsos that I have been doing. It measures 19.75" X 13.75" and is a combination of colored pencil and artist crayons.