Oh Sweet Jane

O.S.J. 1
O.S.J. 2

These color pencil drawings began with the same subject (the Cowboy Junkies’ song, Oh Sweet Jane) as a starting point. I overlapped words and images in the first, and fused layers of symbolic shapes in the second. I also restricted my palette to a limited number of pencils, each drawing having a different range to create distinct moods.

The drawings took on a life of their own, and my original intentions gradually evolved as colors, shapes and tones began to form patterns and unintended associations.

I’ll probably continue with the series until the surprises fade away.

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Four Seam Fastball

DSC_0504 (3)   Four Seam Fastball, color and graphite pencil, 8×6″.

My 7th and 8th grade baseball teams didn’t have happy players.  We blamed each other when we lost and didn’t always cheer a teammate who made a good play.  Feuds and fights from the schoolyard traveled with us to the ball park.

I caught a few games in 8th grade.  The pitcher on one occasion was a beefy guy named Greg who suffered from arm troubles.  He pushed the ball from the elbow when he threw, and his motion looked more like that of a shot-putter than a baseball pitcher.

The title is ironic.  A pitcher making this throw holds the ball so that four seams rotate backward as he hurls high and fast.  The pitch rises so that a batter swings at chest height at a ball passing by his nose.  Greg had no fastball on this day and bounced pitches in the dirt.

Greg’s innings ran long as he had to face at least five batters in each.  The game ended at dusk with rain clouds gathering.  We lost as usual, but I remember enjoying the game.  I was involved in each play and had done my best. I blocked a bunch of wild pitches and kept runners from advancing on a couple occasions.

And I secretly relished Greg’s discomfort.  Our positions were usually reversed:  he caught and I pitched.  He would grimace when I walked a batter and give me disgusted looks during dead arm outings when I had no fastball, no movement, and lots of hits against me.

But I didn’t show any lack of confidence in Greg that day as he fumed and pouted on the mound.  I even tried to con the umpire into calling strikes on borderline pitches by swiping my glove toward the plate when a ball veered outside.  And I didn’t give him dirty looks when another run crossed the plate.  I knew that I could easily suffer the same fate the next time I stood on the pitcher’s mound.

 

 

My Feet Hurt

DSC_0473 (2)Quantum Cubist Self-Portrait, graphite, 12×9″

Woke up at 5 for reasons unknown and watched a grainy black and white youtube video of the 1952 Yankees/Brooklyn Dodgers World Series.  Jackie Robinson played second base for the Dodgers and Roy Campanella played catcher.  Young Mickey Mantle led the Yankees to victory.  The batters swatted at pitches with wide, flat swings.  Baggy uniforms billowed and made the athletes seem slow of foot and wide of ass.

Drifted off, woke to my alarm at 7:30 feeling much groggier than I had at 5.  Stumbled through making breakfast, cooking lunch to leave behind for Judy, and packing an apple and a sandwich to take along.  Felt rushed and slightly hassled as I drove to work but arrived five minutes before the doors automatically unlocked at Valencia Building 3.

The classroom was only partially wrecked from the last class and the Friday clean up crew, so it took just ten minutes to move easels and chairs into position.  Set out three models of human skulls on upright wooden boxes for my Drawing I class.  Arranged a complex still life (a skeleton, fabric, bricks, boots, cow femurs, an angel statue, and a lamp shaped like a horse’s head) on the gray stage for my Drawing II students.

2/3 of the students showed up on time.  Did a brief intro for Drawing I and then switched to Drawing II.  I showed them Picasso’s early cubist paintings, had the students draw 9×12″ boxes and divide them into 8 sections using curving lines.  Told them to draw chunks of the still life in each area.  The kicker was this:  each time they drew another section they had to move to another position.  Cubism=multiple viewpoints rammed together into one shifting, churning space.

DSC_0471 (2)Cubist Still Life, graphite, 8×6″

Drawing I drew skulls and learned portrait proportions.  Then they drew me and themselves, and after lunch they paired up and drew each other.  Usual mistakes:  eyes drawn too large, faces elongated, heads turned into bowling balls with facial features attached haphazardly, noses shortened and shrunk to Michael Jackson proportions, necks too spindly to hold up a head, mouths too small and narrow to chew a hamburger, brains shrunk to subhuman proportions, facial proportions of the drawer transplanted onto drawings of other people.  Students struggled for a while, but improved.  A poor student surprised me by drawing an accurate portrait of another student after having butchered my face.

 

Gave my usual speech about proper etiquette when a model is present (our first model comes next week).  Told them not to make remarks or jokes about the model, not to touch the model, not to fraternize (the model is not a future date), not to photograph the model, and in short, to treat the model with respect.  These rules are based on bad behavior by previous students.  I concluded: “If you have an issue following these rules, then I will have an issue with you, and then I will issue you out the door.”

Two students stayed after.  One wanted to show me her latest work in computer graphics.  I gave her a few color theory tips.  The other wanted to convert me into becoming a computer artist.  Told him that I like the tactile experience of working with my hands, of making things out of physical materials.

He persisted, so I trotted out my standard and most effective argument.  I asked him, “Would you rather make love to a woman or look at porn?”  He stammered and said, “I’ll have to think about that.”  Discussion ended.

Put away wooden boxes, still life props and skulls; arranged easels in a circle around the room; erased the blackboard, locked the closet, turned off the spotlights.  The weekend cleaning crew came in while I packed my bag, and I told them that the paper towels were out in both dispensers.

Trudged through the building and met two students in the lobby.  We cringed greetings to each other sharing the hope that neither student or professor would feel obliged to start a conversation.

The day had turned hot and muggy while I worked inside, and the walk to the car seemed long.  My teaching adrenaline faded away, and the effects of walking on concrete floors became apparent: my knees felt numb and my feet hurt.

 

The Wine Lady

1994

I saw a woman on a sidewalk near the gallery at Crealde School of Art.  She reigned over a court of listeners, and a fellow Crealde teacher stood in the crowd.  I joined my colleague and soon realized that the lady holding forth was drunk and perhaps crazy.  She slurred her words as she ranted on about a sculptor who had molested her in his studio.  I didn’t doubt her story but wondered why she felt compelled to share it with a group of random strangers.  I began to edge away, but my colleague grabbed my arm, held on tight and said, “You’re not going anywhere.”  If she was trapped listening to the wine lady, then I was trapped too.

I didn’t know that the woman was a regular at art openings all over Orlando, but soon encountered her several times.  She usually held a plastic cup of red as she retold her story.  She had been an art student, and apprentice of sorts, an innocent young woman raped by a sculptor who had volunteered to be her mentor.  She fled, quit art school, and returned home.  Now she felt compelled to attend art events, to drink until she achieved a sloppy state of semi-coherence, and thence to recite the events leading to her downfall.

 

1999

I joined an artist’s co-op, and we held open houses once or twice a year.  I got to observe a lot of odd behavior in the art crowd in Orlando.  Some folks would come for the wine and hors d’oeuvres and set up private parties in the less frequented corners of our studio warehouse.  Some folks came view to what they considered to be a freak show.  They’d sneer at the artwork and make snickering jokes that questioned the sanity and talent of the exhibiting artists.  Everyone appeared to have an expert opinion regardless of their actual experience working in visual arts.

The wine lady showed up one night and stood in the doorway of my studio.  She had  already lost the ability to keep her internal monologue private.  She scanned me and said, “Well, he’s pretty good looking but putting on a little weight.  I wonder if he likes his wine too much.”

I greeted her to interrupt her appraisal, and she wandered over to my refreshment table.  My 14 year old daughter came in to say hello, and the wine lady targeted her.  She began to warn Annie that men were animals.  And then the wine lady started to launch her standard tale of woe.  I cut her off with a few sharp words and told my daughter to go find her mother.

A few years later I saw the woman walking along Aloma Avenue in Winter Park.  She marched at a brisk pace, gestured with her arms, and argued loudly with phantoms.

Several years passed.  My life grew complicated and more difficult and I attended fewer and fewer openings.  I moved my studio home to escape the drama I found whenever I joined artist groups.  I associated with other artists less frequently.  I had grown tired of the collective jealousy, political maneuvering, and madness.

I recently decided to give the art world another chance and went to an opening at Crealde.  I spotted the wine lady hovering near the refreshment table.  I felt surprised that she was still alive.  I listened to her story once more and didn’t dodge off to another room.   I nodded along to her familiar rant, and the intervening years seemed to peel away.

I felt more sympathy for her.  It doesn’t take much to derail a life, and I respected her ability to survive.  And I admired her persistence.  It takes a lot of stamina to hold onto a grudge for a couple decades and to persistently retell a sad tale of trauma.  I doubt that I could manage that.

Perhaps the wine lady is a latter day, wine-soaked Jonah preaching the evils of the male gender.  Who am I to judge her judgments?

 

 

Back Story

A friend of mine, a color field abstractionist who never made it to the big show, painted large canvases of pastels and off-whites.  He sold them to interior decorators who placed them in bank lobbies and board rooms.  He made a living, but his one show in New York flopped.

One day he invited me over to look at some new work.  I stifled a yawn as he rambled on about his “latest breakthrough”, but he rewarded my patience by pouring two tumblers of whiskey.  We lit up cigars and retired to his back porch, and he told me a nugget of art world wisdom:  “People don’t buy paintings.  They buy souvenirs of an artist’s back story.”

I didn’t know what he meant, but he explained.  (He always explained.)  “Van Gogh couldn’t draw and his early compositions and colors are crap.  But then he lops off an ear and tries to give it to a whore to prove how much he loves her.  Ends up in an asylum, shoots himself a few years later.  Folks start buying his paintings.  Wouldn’t touch them while he lived and breathed, but once the back story got out, he became a tragic genius.  Everybody wanted a piece of that.”

I asked him to name a few more examples.  “Dali shows up at a party wearing a diving suit, the ones with the weights and the bell shaped helmets.  He’s walking around with an oxygen tank on his back and nearly dies when a valve fails.  He’s sucking up all the air left inside the helmet and can’t get the damned thing off.  Great publicity.  Stole his wife away from a French poet and got kicked out of the Surrealists for making paintings about Hitler–or rather, his erotic dreams about Hitler.  He turned his life into a circus and sold off the posters.”

He went on.  (He always does.)  “Georg Grosz said that he and his buddies were like barkers at a carnival.  Come see the freak show.  And the rich ones lined up and paid admission.”

“But he paid a price, didn’t he?  Didn’t the Nazis chase him out of Germany?”

“So what?  When you put yourself on the market you have to expect some feedback from the public,” he drawled.

“You’re a real jerk,” I declared.

He sipped his whiskey, winced, and ran fingers through his thinning hair.  “And you’re naïve,” he countered.  He probed:  “So what’s your story?  Middle class background, white boy from the Cincinnati suburbs.  Married happily and had a couple kids.  Boring.  Wait a minute.  Didn’t you grow up Catholic?”

“Yeah,” I said warily.

“Any problems in the priest department?” he asked.

“Nope.  Didn’t happen to me and I never met any victims,” I said.

“Too bad.  Better start making something up.”

“What’s your deal?  I barely know anything about you,” I said.

“Oh, didn’t I tell you?  I was born in Venice near St. Marks.  My mother was a part time model and a part time hooker, and my father was Titian’s fourth cousin ten times removed.  I stowed away on a tramp steamer when I was 12 and hid with the rats in the hold.  I nearly starved in New York until I fell in with the mob.  I ran numbers for them and shook down mom-and-pops when I got old enough to look dangerous. Squiggy the Mooch sent me to art school after he saw a sketch I made of a dead body.  Said I drew the puddle of blood real good.  Met Franz Kline, fought Jackson Pollock in a bar, and screwed Elaine De Kooning (everybody screwed Elaine De Kooning).   She introduced me to Peggy Guggenheim, and the rest is history.”

“Didn’t you tell me that you’re from Milwaukee?  Your dad worked in a brewery, and your mom was a seamstress.”

“Back story, boy, back story.”

He took a long drag on his cigar and let out a long stream of smoke.

Art, the Offender?

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Does art find harmonies that soothe?  Do the harmonies suggest an underlying and reassuring order?  All is well?

Does art destroy smug tranquility?  Does the destruction open up new ways of seeing, hearing, living?  Or does it merely wipe away preconceptions without building a scaffold for new structures?

I read that James Joyce came across a few intelligible passages as he edited Finnegan’s Wake.  A reader might just be able to connect some dots.  Joyce immediately reworked the offending phrases until they seamlessly blended in with the seething babble of the rest of the book.

Picasso broke forms, twisted shapes, rendered the world in ways that surprised him.  Yet he missed having a set of rules by which he could judge the value of his work.  He realized that Cubism had undermined tradition, and that he couldn’t retrace his steps to regain the comfort of working in an enclosed system.

I used to use color as a weapon.  Reds and greens clashed and tore at each other.  Hot colors shouted at dull.  I wanted to wake everyone up to make them feel what I felt.  Now I know that they already did, that my emotions weren’t unique.  And now I like a little harmony as my days grow harder to manage and the world seems alien to me.

I sometimes visited the Museum of Modern Art in New York when I lived in Pennsylvania.  The lower floors started with James Ensor, and as I progressed upward I saw a progression of movements.  Fauvism jumped to Cubism skipped to Dadaism and Surrealism.  The tangled energy of Ab-Ex ran down and became supplanted by Pop Art and increasingly arid Minimalism.  The eighties section focused mostly on installation art.  Eccentricity seemed to be the only recognizable goal.  I fled around a corner into a quiet room with dimmer lights, sat on a bench and sighed.  A Monet water lily painting hung before me, and I felt like a thirsty traveler sipping cool water at an oasis.

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Abstraction: Poetic Interpretations of Memory

 

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Here’s a slide show of recent paintings and a drawing. These were made this year and represent a huge departure from my narrative painting series. Abstraction allows me to make poetic interpretations of emotions and experiences, and the process is more absorbing and satisfying than working realistically.

Technique: I’ve been layering images associated with specific events. Memories of a weekend vacation, a quilt on a bed, bass fishing with my father, recovering from surgery, dealing with a friendship gone bad, and an adolescent dream are the sources. I let the colors and shapes develop into rhythmic patterns and create contrasts between flat shapes and volumetric forms.

I intentionally leave hints of the original subject matter. I’ve never been a purist, never wanted to edit compositions into pristine arrangements of a few precious forms. I’d prefer, if I had the cash, to own abstract work by Paul Klee, Stuart Davis, Georges Braque, Arshille Gorky, Patrick Henry Bruce, August Macke, and Marsden Hartley. (They  included autobiographical images, symbols and references to nature in their compositions.)  I’d pass up the pure abstraction, minimalist, and conceptual artwork of Brice Marden, Robert Mangold, Robert Ryman, and Ellsworth Kelly.  (They boiled things down to sterile nothingness.)