Happy Paintings for Well-Adjusted People

I’m due to give a power point presentation at an opening for a show at Daytona State College on March 29th.  I’m going to try to explain the history of some of my work, the influences, etc.  Here’s a cut down version of what I have so far.

My grandfather told stories about his boyhood in Dayton, Ohio, how he saw the Wright brothers flying their airplanes over the church steeples and department stores, how he got a job mucking out shops downtown after the 1913 flood inundated half the city. His baby sister, my great aunt Margaret told jokes, as did my great uncle Norby. They were at their best at funerals. If anyone looked a bit too glum, they’d make a quip and lighten the mood. So, I grew up on stories and jokes.

When I got to grad school, my professors expected serious artists to do three things: paint big; use thick paint; make it ugly. Bigness, thickness, and ugliness were signs of a desperate need to communicate the raw essence of one’s soul. At the time I painted small and thin, but my still life objects were ugly enough to earn me a partial pass. I began to paint still lives that were little tableaus. I arranged figurines, toys, posters into set ups that told odd tales.

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Penelope, Oil/Canvas, 1989

Years later, I grew desperately tired of painting still lives and began a series of narrative paintings with figures and interiors created from memory and imagination. Stanley Spencer, Balthus, and Philip Evergood were sources of inspiration. I painted stories about everyday life and my personal history. “Every Day” is a portrayal of the rituals of married life, of intimacy that eventually becomes mundane.

Picture 004

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Every Day, Oil/Canvas, 2000

I took up another subject: blue collar life. Third Shift is the story of a man who comes home early in the morning from work. His wife’s schedule opposes his. All he wants to do is to collapse, but she has other things in mind. The Night Factory is a bit of working class surreality. The men and women build things even in their dreams.

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Third Shift (top), The Night Factory (bottom).

I began to think about combining words and images to tell jokes and farces.

The main sources for the paintings in the show are 19th century portraits and illustrations. I’m drawn to the stiff formality of the former, and the exaggerated drama and sentimentality of the latter. I enjoy undercutting them by making ironic juxtapositions and hinting at unfortunate back stories. Paintings by Magritte and collages by Max Ernst and Hannah Hoch are lurking in the back of my mind when I work on these pieces.


Top left:  Hannah Hoch.  Bottom left:  Rene Magritte’s Premonition.                                           Right:  Max Ernst collage.

Sometimes the words are at war with the image (what does it all mean anyway?). Sometimes the joke is on me when I devote long hours to craft an image that is nothing more than a punch line for a stupid joke based on a pun…all that effort and technical knowledge to create something pointless and silly…Sometimes I create open-ended narratives. I like to short circuit a story by using vague texts that hint at multiple plots. My fables are open-ended, and outcomes are only suggested. The picture becomes something more than an illustration if the meaning isn’t fixed.

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Inseparable, Acrylic on Board and Canvas, 2018



“Great Grandma Died. She Got Better”

My wife’s grandmother died in the winter of 1990 after a slow decline. Our daughter, Annie, was a few months shy of her second birthday.  Judy and I brought her to a small, dark church in Reading to meet relatives who’d never had a chance to see her in the flesh.  We figured that Annie wouldn’t understand the proceedings and be affected, and that the sight of her might dispel some of the gloom.  Relatives filtered in before the service began, and I attended to Annie as folks made their introductions and chatted together in small groups.

I took Annie back to Judy’s parents before the minister made his appearance as we didn’t think that she could make it through the service without causing a disruption.  Annie rarely made a commotion in public, but liked to socialize with anyone sitting near her.  She peeped over the tops of booths in restaurants and once charmed a complete stranger into handing us ten bucks.  He told us to buy a gift for our little darling.  Judy and I imagined her crawling along a pew to canvas mourners for their time and attention.

We had a snack and played on the carpet with dolls and stuffed animals. Judy and her parents came home, and Annie seemed unfazed by her glimpse of death and bereavement.  But she must have absorbed some understanding of the seriousness of a funeral.  A few days later she asked Judy, “What happened to Great Grandma Alma?”  Judy told her that Alma had died.  Annie grew somber and quietly asked her mother, “Are you going to die?”  My wife made a quick decision.  She knew that Annie’s understanding of time, at that stage in her development, probably stretched forward about two weeks.  She could understand and anticipate upcoming events only if they occurred within a short span.  So Judy said, “No, Annie.  I’m not going to die.”  Then she asked, “Am I going to die?”  “No, Annie, you’re not going to die,” my wife reassured her.

That spring we drove to Judy’s parents for Easter.  Judy’s other grandmother, Lily, attended the family dinner.  Someone must have told my daughter that the elderly woman with white hair was her great grandmother.

Annie had developed considerable language skills by that age, but did not know that “great grandmother” could refer to more than one person.  During a lull in the conversation, Annie got her mother’s attention and pointed at Lily.  Annie said, “Great Grandma died.  She got better.”



Two Weddings and Three Funerals (This Has Nothing to Do with Hugh Grant)

My family drove to a country church in a small town southeast of Dayton. Sonny, my father’s boyhood friend, had a daughter who had chosen to marry young. The arrangements for the wedding had been rushed, and she may have been pregnant. At any rate, we were all aware that Sonny was not pleased, and the bride walked down the aisle with her eyes fixed on the planks of the wooden floor. The priest took his place before the couple and began the wedding Mass. He opened his sermon with these words: “The divorce rate in the United States is fifty percent. Half of the young people who stand before me to take their vows have chosen a doomed path.” The priest smiled, pleased by the shocked reaction of the crowd, then explored the pitfalls of wedded life in detail. After the service, I asked a regular congregant whether the priest always spoke so rudely. He told me that the man was known and loved for his direct manner.

A young priest married my nephew Dan and his bride Rachel. I had trouble paying attention to the ceremony as my eye kept drifting up to the mural painted on the wall behind the altar. Jesus crucified gazed up to heaven with one eye, and down toward Mary and a disciple with the other. These two suffered from a similar ophthalmological disability. Although they faced away from the cross, each attempted to look up and over their shoulders at Jesus while also gazing forward at the clouds above them. Lazy eye, according to the artist, was a common affliction in Jesus’ time. The priest stumbled along during the sermon, and pointed up at the mural and said, “Marriage is just like this painting.” He might have meant that a good relationship involves sacrifice and putting your spouse’s needs before your own, but I assumed he meant that marriage and crucifixion (a slow death so painful that one’s eyes no longer maintained unified focus) were equivalent. I shuddered as I repressed a laugh, and my wife gave me a warning glare that promised suffering long and hard if I failed to maintain proper church decorum. “By God,” I thought. “That idiot’s right.”

My grandmother died when I was nine, and the unfamiliar funeral rituals shocked me. I remember sitting in a pew in a dark Catholic church reeking of incense and flowers. Grandma rested in the wooden box before the altar. I studied the service bulletin as I listened to the priest intone, “May perpetual light shine upon her.” A narrow beam of light shone from the middle of the printed cross and split the blackness of the bulletin’s cover. I suddenly saw my grandmother’s soul trapped in a dark place. Only a thin glimmer of light offered her meager comfort. And then a wave of fear washed over me as I wondered if there was any light at all, or if my grandmother existed in any form anywhere.

My great uncle Norby died when I was about twenty. I had become accustomed to memorial services and could follow the proceedings with more detachment. The monsignor celebrating the funeral mass had a pale, waxy complexion, and when he spoke he sounded as if he’d never had a moment of passion in his life. His monotone delivery gave away his underlying boredom, and he said nothing specific about the man who had died. Instead, he told us that Norby looked down from heaven and prayed for our sinful souls. If he had bothered to learn anything about my great uncle, the monsignor would have known about Norby’s wicked sense of humor, his occasional sarcasm and irreverence. If Norby witnessed this funeral, he would have laughed at us as we sat in the hard pews and endured the cold observances.

Another priest displayed a similar lack of knowledge about the character of the deceased, though the cleric spoke with greater warmth and care for the mourners. He recalled his encounters with my sister during the time when she still came to Sunday services. He’d asked her how things were going, and she’d reply, “Peachy.” Apparently, he remained oblivious to my sister’s dry sense of irony, and that “peachy” could mean just the opposite if one paid attention to her tone of voice. Or perhaps he didn’t see her reserve, her unwillingness to complain about her affliction. Or her habit of offering minimal feedback to folks who had no idea what her condition was like. The priest went on for a bit, and one would have thought that Carla was the Mary Poppins of ALS. He paused for breath, and Clare, Carla’s four-month-old granddaughter, let loose a loud splutter. She gave the priest the raspberries. Dan, Clare’s father, started laughing, and the folks seated around him joined in. At the reception after the burial, Dan told me that he was sure that Clare had delivered Carla’s rebuttal.

The Ties That Bind

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Inseparable.  Acrylic on canvas and board.  2018

Some couples stay together out of true love, love that deepens and grows richer with each passing year.  Even if passion fades, the bonds of friendship and shared history strengthen.

Some couples remain conjoined when inertia prevents both from making a break for freedom.  The ennui becomes familiar, and the slow deadening of hope becomes the normal and comfortable state of being.

Some cling to each other in a symbiosis based on mutual contempt.  The hatred shared becomes the tie that binds.  Anger drives their anti-relationship forward, and resentment transforms itself into a negative romantic fervor.  If faced with the possibility of starting a new life based on affection and attraction, they wouldn’t know what to do.

Some relationships cycle through phases of love, inertia, and contempt, and still manage to go on.  They are like trees that weather storm after storm while others around them fall.  Perhaps endurance is a matter of blind willfulness and occasionally grace.


What Kind of Drugs

I wrote an existential, absurdist dramatization of how burned out I felt as I approached spring finals at the end of my freshmen year in college. I performed it in speech class and used my natural jitters to enhance the edginess of the delivery. It went over well, but one guy came up to me as we walked out and said, “What kind of drugs were you doing when you wrote that?” I said, “I just used my imagination.” He shrugged as if to say, “Well, if you’re not going to tell me…”

Years later I gave an art lesson to an eight-year-old boy, who astounded me with his ability to draw foreshortened animals from his imagination. The kid had a camera in his head and the ability to accurately capture what he saw in his mind’s eye. I told his father, a professor at Penn State, that his son had tremendous talent. The man looked at me in disbelief and mild horror. He appeared to be afraid that his child had come down with a fatal dose of creativity.

About ten years ago I sat down at a party beside an educated woman who counseled children. She stated, for no apparent reason, that artists while making art are in a state of insanity. I turned to her and said, “So, if I’m sitting here reading a book or watching the news I’m sane. But when I pick up a pencil and draw, say, a geranium, I go temporarily insane.” I spoke sarcastically, but she just nodded in agreement. I explained to her that drawing realistically was an analytical, problem solving process, and that it could be taught in a completely rational, step-by-step approach. Surely that was the hallmark of sanity. She answered, “No. When you’re making art, you’re insane. When you teach other people to draw, you’re introducing them to madness.”

I looked at her carefully to see if she was pulling my leg, but she appeared serious. I tried again: “Making art does put you into a nonverbal mode of thinking, but there is a sense of inevitable order as you come to an end of a piece.” “That’s a delusion,” she countered. Last ditch argument: “Van Gogh was completely lucid when he painted. When he was institutionalized during a spell of madness, his painting skills eroded. He was sane when he painted well.” She smiled sadly, cruelly as if she pitied me.

I’m not sure where the tagging of creativity as an abnormality comes from, but I suspect the source is fear. I believe that some folks are threatened by anything that makes them think in unaccustomed patterns or feel unfamiliar emotions.

A woman came up to me at an open house at my studio after she had looked at some of my paintings. I don’t remember what she said exactly, but the underlying question was, “What’s wrong with you?” I told her that I just paint the things that most people don’t want to acknowledge, the ghosts and bogeys hiding in the backs of their heads. She pointed to a painting and huffed, “That’s not in the back of my head,” and marched away. I thought “Oh yes, it really is.”

Foggy Mess of Happiness: Valentine’s Day

Valentine’s morning dawned foggy, and the day stayed gray at midmorning when I went on a mission to get a haircut and buy some plants for my wife.  I drove to Oviedo, but a barbershop near Home Depot had been replaced by a fitness center.  I headed back toward Winter Park, but stopped at Lukas Nursery on the way.  I found an odd looking plant with purple flowers in the shape of ragged trumpets.  The tag said they’d lure butterflies and hummingbirds.  Judy would love the color and the visitors they attracted.  As I walked off in search of an African violet, an older woman approached and said she had to take all the purple flowers, but added that I could keep the one in my hand.  Didn’t know what to say, so I went with a simple response:  “Thank you.”

After I purchased the plants, I took Red Bug Road home so that I could search for a new barbershop.  Ended up in Casselberry at a place that I’ve gone to off and on for a year.  A well dressed woman wearing make-up and carrying a shopping bag stopped me as I approached the door.  She said, “Mister, can you give me two dollars?”  I pulled out my wallet and she added, “I need to buy a bus pass.  That’s five dollars.”  I took two bills out, and she said, “Three dollars?”  I said, “Two,” handed her the cash and fled inside.  I’d never encountered a dickering beggar before.

I sat down to wait.  When I looked up, I was surprised to find an old acquaintance sitting in the barber chair in front of me.  I hadn’t seen him in six months.  Charlie said, “Dennis!”  We chatted for a few minutes and caught up on a bit of gossip.  “Strange coincidence,” I thought as he walked out the door.

Judy and I had a pleasant lunch, and the flowers and my haircut pleased her.  She teased and called me her silver fox. I didn’t mind.  We meditated, and I baked a peach upside down cake for a snack.  We watched a “Doc Martin” episode before I cooked supper and went to work.

Class went well for the most part, but I stepped in several times to correct some drawings.  Some of my students haven’t yet mastered (or committed to memory) some basic techniques in perspective and measuring proportions, and I grew impatient with the amateurish look of some of the work.  “We’re nearly at midterm!” I muttered under my breath.  I drilled a Drawing II student about some basic rules of line work, and as I walked away I realized I’d been too harsh.  I came back, apologized, and told her that we all have mental habits that need a bit of work.  I told Erin that I had to train myself as a boy to look back at my classroom desk each time I left to make sure that I hadn’t forgotten anything.  She relaxed, and I decided to ease up on the class and let them work in peace.

I cleaned up the room after the students left and found a smart phone on the tray of Erin’s easel.  “How odd,” I thought.  “Forgetfulness must be communicable.”  I decided to take it with me.  Leaving it there would ensure its theft, and the lost and found at the security office was closed.  I walked toward my car hoping to see Erin coming back from the parking lot, but instead ran into a slender young man sitting on a concrete ball.  He looked up from his phone and asked whether the Lynx bus would come near where he waited.  He added that he had to return to Disney World.  I said, “I haven’t seen buses pull in here for a couple years, but there’s a bus shelter two hundred feet south of the main entrance on Econlockhatchee.  He smiled, shook my hand, and said, “Thank you.  I am from Pakistan.”

As I drove out of the lot I saw him trudging south.  A Lynx bus appeared and turned onto campus.  “What the hell?” I said.  It didn’t seem to be heading to the shelter.  I took a right and drove north, but as I went on I felt a growing sense of dismay that I might have given the young man the wrong advice.  Would he be stranded there all night?  I also reasoned that I was dead tired, needed to go home and see my wife, and that my mission in life wasn’t to save the world.  Fog rolled in, and driving conditions got worse and worse.  Rationalizations failed me two or three miles up the road, and I turned around.

I had no idea what I would do if I found him sitting at the bus shelter.  I didn’t really want to drive for an hour down to Disney, and my gas gauge hovered below the half full mark.  Judy would worry…

I cruised around campus, pulled up to the shelter, but didn’t see the young man.  I assumed that the bus had swung around to where I had directed him to go, and that he was safely on his way.  A large man in a bulky coat did slump on one of the shelter seats, and I felt an odd obligation to give him a lift.  I resisted and drove home.

Judy waited up for me in her bedroom, and I explained why I’d been delayed.  She gave me a warm smile and told me that she loved me. I felt most of my tension and fatigue drain away.

Valentine’s Day had twisted and turned in unexpected ways, but none of that mattered.

Perspective: Blame that Dead Italian


I’ve covered perspective in drawing classes several times these past weeks. I say that an architect named Brunelleschi wanted to accurately copy Roman and Greek ruins.  He invented perspective in the late 1300 to early 1400s so that he could rip off the designs with precision.  I tell students that they can blame that dead Italian if they find drawing boxes and hallways frustrating.

I repeat, “Parallel lines appear to converge as they move away from your position,” until I’m nearly dead from boredom. But some students still insist on making objects get larger as they recede, smaller as they approach.  Even when I make corrections on their drawings, they’ll drift back to the original mistake in a series of tentative erasures and line markings.  They can’t quite believe that I’m telling them the truth and revert to notions that are wrong but comfortable.  Our perspectives on perspective stubbornly clash.

I also tell them that other cultures have different systems for depicting space on two dimensional surfaces.  The Chinese and Japanese scroll painters used isometric perspective (parallel lines on an object are drawn parallel on the paper), and Egyptian wall paintings used mixed viewpoints when depicting human beings.  A pharaoh would be drawn with a profile head and hips, a frontal eye and shoulders.  I tell them that all systems for showing space on a flat surface are lies, but that Renaissance lies allow an artist to create a convincing illusion of depth.

I go on to explain that early Renaissance artists used perspective fanatically and cite Perugino, Raphael’s instructor, as an example.  I say, “Perugino once did a painting called, ‘The Marriage of Joseph and Mary’.  The painting showed a black and white checked plain the size of Kansas.  In the middle of the plain was a tiny church.  In front of the church were two tiny figures, Mary and Joseph.”

I tell them that Western artists faithfully used perspective until Cezanne decided to shift around a bit as he painted still lives and people in interiors.  He went slightly Egyptian.  Braque and Picasso saw his paintings, looked at African masks, and decided to push the idea of a moving viewpoint further.  Forms fractured into geometric bits, and figures and still lives seemed to be part of a spatial continuum.  A splintered pear encountered a fragment of a table disrupted by a curtain and a hand.

I sometimes go on to explain that modern artists continued to throw out key elements of traditional art until they reached a dead end in the 1960s and 70s.  At that point artists were using paint rollers to paint monochrome canvases and doing conceptual pieces that offered little tangible evidence of production.  One man wrote to Art Forum magazine and reported that he planned to think the word “blue” for an hour or two on a Tuesday in July (I don’t recall the actual date, and apologize if his color-thought piece had an important connection to a precise day and time.).

I conclude by telling them that artists have continued to paint realistically using Renaissance conventions and perspective.  Avant-garde artists in the 1980s began to dump elements from multiple art history periods (traditional and modern) and cultures (Western and Eastern) back into their work, and now there are no true artistic movements any more.  A mishmash of styles and influences roll in and out of favor like oil slicks on sluggish tides.

While they stand there mulling over the information overload I just delivered, I offer them an out.  I say, “But we’re not going to worry about any of that.  Today we’re just going to draw boxes and halls.  And remember, none of this is my fault.  Blame that dead Italian.  He started this.”