He Didn’t See It Coming

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Acrylic on canvas, 16×20″

Another narrative painting that I started early this year and finished today.  Sometimes I like to take a lot of time and effort to tell a bad joke based on puns.

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Endurance

August 24-25

I wanted to run the 440, but my ninth grade track coach rightly judged that I was too slow for a race that was essentially a one lap sprint.  I didn’t have a fast twitch muscle in my body, and my flat feet produced a lot of drag.  He pegged me for the 880, two laps around the track.  In my early races I gave in to adrenaline bursts during the first three hundred yards, and started out way too fast. By the time I hit the halfway mark in the second lap I usually had nothing left in the tank.  I eventually figured out that placing in a race was a matter of accepting my limitations and level of endurance, of initially holding down my pace so that I could finish with a kick.

Tonight I sat in my driveway, smoked a cigar and drank about an inch of bourbon from a mug.  It’s wise to take an easy pace when smoking a stogie and drinking booze, and I stretched my performance to an hour and fifteen minutes.  While I sat and puffed and sipped, I realized that any success in my professional life came down to endurance.

When I paint a painting I take my time as I know that I’m not a sprinter when it comes to making art.  I have to contemplate, redirect, and rethink my way through the creative process.  When I teach I have to get to know my students and adjust my approach accordingly.  Some students resist instruction and require dogged persistence (I repeat, come at them again from another angle, persuade and encourage until something good starts to happen.).  Some need to left alone until they’re ready to hear what I have to say.  My attitude, which I have to maintain through four months, has to be one of persistently renewed good will.

The rewarding things in my personal life also benefitted from accepting the requirements of endurance.  I am not a naturally kind and patient man, and I married a sweet woman who, for some unknown reason, believed in me.  We’re celebrating our 33rd anniversary today because she persisted in her faith in me, and because I’ve attempted to live up to her expectations.  I still fail often, but realize that continual effort to return her kindness is the only true gift I can give her.

Parenting is nothing but an exercise in persistence.  Each child comes with unique personality traits that must be shunted into positive forms.  “Shunting” means patiently redirecting behavior until they become functional human beings.  (The real trick is to do this without squashing a child’s innate qualities.)  It takes endurance to be a shepherd, to be a patient guide for 18 or 20 years.

Now that I’m approaching sixty, I’m starting to see that the end years require even more patience.  As my joints creak and my energy wanes, it takes more effort to get through a week of cares and duties.  I may have another twenty years on this planet, and each one will most likely bring new challenges that I will face with diminishing capabilities.  I hope I have the endurance to run my race to the end with a semblance of dignity and decency.  I don’t want to face my last hours and minutes recounting all the times I could have done things better if I’d only had another ounce of kindness, if I’d only persisted in trying just a bit longer.

You Just Gotta Know What to Do

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You’re an artist?  I saw you painting there and I just had to stop and say “hi”.  I love art.  My name is Kara and I live just up the street with my husband Terry.  I’ve been here for twenty-five years, and way back when this neighborhood used to be nice.  Folks moved here ‘cause it’s so close to the highways, so if they worked at the Cape or at Martin Marietta they could drive a few blocks and hop onto an entrance ramp.

Do you have any family?  Two kids, that’s nice.  Two little baby children.  Enjoy them while they’re young.  My boy’s all grown up now.  He went to Colonial High School.  He’s a good boy, and he had to be.  That school was rough.  He could’ve got into all kinds of trouble if he’d had a mind to.  He did anyway without trying.  Someone slipped a tab of LSD into his cola when he was at this party, and he comes home and tells me all this crazy stuff and I realized right away what was wrong with him, so I sat him down on the sofa and made him drink ice water and held him tight until he calmed down and fell asleep.  He was right as rain by the next morning…Everything turns out all right if you know what to do.

What do I do?  I’m a housewife right now.  I used to work, but I hurt my joints at this package delivery company.  I packed boxes and got them ready for shipping, and I liked the job and my boss, but the doctor put me on this new steroid for my arthritis and it did the devil’s work on my shoulders and I had to quit.  I tried to file a lawsuit against the company.  I know that lifting all those boxes did me damage even if they can claim that I was sick before I started working there.  But my lawyer keeps dragging his feet while he takes my money, and meanwhile my disability claim is all up in the air.  But I know that lawyer is going to work things out.  I’ve put a little spell on him, a little white magic.  What you do is mix some herbs and put them into a cheesecloth sachet, and you say a few words right before you toss the sachet into a fire, and the smoke carries the spell away and puts it into the universe.  It’ll work (and if it doesn’t it makes me feel better).  That lawyer’s gonna earn his money, one way or another, and I’m gonna get my due.

Sometimes I think that I got sick because of my husband, Terry.  He’s a good man, a good man.  But his first wife is a sneaky bitch and kept nosing around playing up to him, and he was dumb enough to fall for her act.  I could tell he was thinking about leaving me, the dumb ass, but my arthritis flared up so bad I was nearly crippled and he had to wait on me hand and foot and felt so sorry for me that he forgot all about that whore.  But I have to remind him from time to time whenever he gets that look in his eye and I can tell that he’s thinking about her again that I need him so much .  He loves me.  I know he does.  I tell him that we were meant to be together, and there’s no escaping what nature and the universe has decreed.  And every morning I get up and make him breakfast even when my hands feel like claws and my knees freeze up, ‘cause it’s a wife’s duty.  You never know if your husband’s gonna get hurt or killed on the job, so you gotta get up and make him his breakfast and kiss him goodbye like it might be the last time.  That’s a secret to a happy marriage.  It’s what you gotta do.

Do you follow politics?  I don’t know about this Clinton, how he’ll work out.  But one president I sure did like was Richard Milhous Nixon.  He knew how to run a country, and when he said jump, everyone jumped.  Now I know they said all kinds of things about him, all kinds of bad stuff about Watergate and how he was a crook and all that.  But you gotta look past that.  He was a good man and he didn’t deserve all the grief they threw at him.  He threw some back, but he just didn’t know how to duck.

You might think that I’m some kinda witch from what I said before, but my spells are all for the good.  But being a spiritual person can get you into trouble.  The devil doesn’t want you to stay on the good side of things, and you have to be careful if he comes knockin’ at your door.  But everything turns out okay if you know what to do.  Like one day I was looking out my back window out toward the drainage field beyond my back fence.  You know, where the high-tension lines run through?  And I saw the devil rise up out of the swamp, and he was big and ugly and glowed dark like a charcoal briquette, and he called my name and I knew that he wanted me for his own.  But I just closed my blinds and sat on a chair and thought all about the good things I had all around me.  I knew that the devil wanted me to lift the blinds and take a good look at him and open my soul up to his poison, but I wasn’t that dumb.  I just sat there and waited, and pretty soon I felt him going away, the evil draining out of the day.  And when I opened my blinds again he was gone.  For good I hope.  But if he ever comes back I know just what to do, and everything will be fine.

You come down and visit some time.  We like to build a bonfire out back and shoot the breeze.  There’s nothing better than a cool night, a bonfire and some beer.  And visits from neighbors and small talk and listening to the frogs croak out on the drainage field.  Some nights I can’t hear myself think they get so loud and the noise fills up the inside of my head until I just want to scream.  But then I sit by Terry and hold his hand while he smokes his cigarettes and sips a Bud Lite, and I think that I’m a lucky girl to be living here with him on a sweet night with stars in the sky and embers glowing on the fire.  The frogs stop bothering me and I’m glad I left Ohio and came down here to Orlando way back in 1962, that I followed my heart and knew just what to do.

Naked People

DSC_0132 (2)Hillary (charcoal, 20 minute pose)

I took a Drawing I class at the University of Dayton, and we drew boxes the first class.  The second we drew a model wearing a bathing suit.  By midterm the models wore nothing, but by then I had become habituated to seeing nude men and women on the modeling stage.  The problems of figuring out basic proportions and drawing hands and feet outweighed any shock I felt from seeing body after body.

I took a life drawing class the next semester.  The process was familiar, but the instructor demanded more.  And my classmates drew on a much higher level.  I felt intimidated, so I learned to steal from the best.  Gary drew like an angel–I couldn’t figure out how he captured a human figure and it’s surrounding space with a few lines.  But I noticed that he always included a rug or the section of the stage on which the model stood.  He showed a bit of depth that way.  I stole that.  Dave made bravura marks for emphasis after he had the main forms down.  I stole that.  Violet accented junctions where two planes came together, pop-pop-pop all around the drawing.  The accents created points of tension that countered the long lines flowing along the length of an arm or a leg.  Beautiful.  I stole that.

The models had varying attitudes toward their work.  One emaciated woman cringed before dropping her robe.  She slumped onto a cushion at the shadowed back of the stage, stared at the floor the whole time she posed, and answered the professor in monosyllables.  I felt guilty drawing her.  A short man with a muscular body held his head high and relaxed into his poses.  He lost his detached composure once when he caught me glaring at his groin.  I was trying for a third time to correctly draw the juncture where the thigh inserts into the hip, but he mistook my frustration for an odd reaction to the sight of his privates.  I shifted my gaze and drew his knees after I saw him frown back at me.  A redhead struck long, languorous poses.  Her lips curled in a lazy smile as she directed inappropriate jokes at the male students.  She’d say, “Well, boys, what are you looking at?” and “See anything you like, boys?”  During breaks she’d don a robe and walk around the class to inspect our drawings.  She didn’t bother to use a tie, and her garment gaped open as she stood next to us.  She had a crush on Gary and lingered at his drawings.  One day she exclaimed, “You make me look so beautiful!”  After she returned to the stage Gary slowly, deliberately erased her face off the drawing.

I eventually became an art instructor and taught life drawing with nude models.  I learned from painful experience to give my students a lecture about art room etiquette before a first lesson.  I say, ” One:  the model has not come to class to socialize with you.  I am not running a dating service, and you will not ask for a phone number.  Two:  you will not touch the model.  Three:  you will not make personal remarks or jokes about the model.  Four:  you will not photograph the model.  Five:  treat the model with respect.  If you cannot follow these rules I’ll kick you out of class, and you’ll have to find a way to make up for the missing drawings on your own.  That will cost you time and money.”  Then I give them examples of bad behavior.  “A student stood three feet away from a model and told me that the model was too ugly to draw…A woman in a figure painting class made a bad sketch of the model.  When the model returned to the stand after a break the student tried to twist the model’s arms and legs to match the mangled contortions of her drawing…A student, an older woman wearing a baggy sweater and bifocals, confronted a model on the first day of class.  She shouted, ‘Jezebel!  Jezebel!’ when the model opened her robe.”

I believe that the close study of a face and body (scars and all) is a way of honoring an individual’s history and humanity.  But some of my beginning drawing students refuse to draw from a nude person, even if the model is of their gender.   Religious faith trumps acceptance of the human form.  I give my moral protestors an alternative.  I send them out of the classroom to draw nudes from old master prints and paintings.  They never complain about that form of nudity–it’s second hand nature doesn’t compromise their principles.  I no longer bother to tell them that Raphael, Rubens and Da Vinci drew directly from models, that Western Art is based on the unembarrassed study of naked people.  If I did they’d only think that I was making excuses for my sins.

DSC_0133 (2)Joyce (oil on canvas)

Come Up and See My Etchings

Rosemary, the printmaking instructor at the University of Delaware, insisted on taking as many students as possible to visit an artist in Philadelphia.   The grad students in her class knew they had no choice, but she even pressured a few undergrads to come along.  One offered the excuse that he had other classes on the day of the trip, but Rosemary dismissed it saying, “This trip is more important for your growth as an artist.”

The bus ride took us through grimy neighborhoods of trash strewn streets and boarded up buildings on the south side and dropped us off in Center City.  Fifteen would be artists dutifully trooped up the steps of a two story brick row house.  A quiet man in his late thirties opened the door slowly and greeted Rosemary in a monotone.  He waved his hand for us to pass inside, but left us milling around in the entryway.  He seemed reluctant to let us into his inner sanctum.  Rosemary said, “Can we see your studio?” He led us up a narrow, dark stairway to a room crowded with work tables, flat files of paper, and storage cabinets with wide, flat drawers.  Recently pulled prints hung by clothes pins on thin wires strung from one wall to another.

“So, am I right in assuming that you’ve all seen my work?” he asked us.  No one answered.  I barely remembered his name, and Rosemary had said nothing about the style and subject matter of his prints.  She simply told us that he was a etcher who showed his work at an important gallery in Philly.  He stared and waited, shoulders slumping lower.  He sighed:  another defeat.  “Then why are you here?” he asked.

Rosemary flattered him until he was sufficiently mollified.  He put on white gloves and laid out prints on a long, white table.  He combined imagery from several photographs to create interiors and landscapes that looked real but subtly wrong.  The perspective wasn’t completely consistent, but the individual details looked so accurate that the eye accepted the spaces as dry depictions of an uncanny world.  They reminded me of dreams I had of my Midwestern home town:  familiar streets and houses recombined with landmarks from other places.

I asked the print maker about his technique.  He told us that he achieved his photorealistic effects by pointillism.  He used a needle to meticulously prick tiny holes in the asphaltum covering his copper plates.  I asked him how long it took him to work on a plate.  I expected him to say months, but he replied, “Oh, about a day.  That’s the easy part.”  I followed up with, “But how many times do you etch the plate?  What about revisions?”  “I do it all in one layer, no revisions.  What takes the most time is designing them.”  He opened a drawer and took out a sheaf of preparatory sketches.  Each one looked like finished works of art.

Rosemary asked him to show us works in progress.  He laid out another pile of exquisitely rendered drawings and said, “These aren’t very good yet.  I hate showing you these things.”  We protested, and Rosemary said, “Really, these are wonderful.”  The man mumbled, “If you say so.”

He showed us a few more prints, an etched plate or two, and then escorted us down the stairs.  He stood on his porch and stared at his shoes as we walked away.  He retreated inside and firmly shut the door after he had said a quick goodbye to Rosemary.

On the ride home students chattered about classes at Delaware and argued about politics (Reagan’s Iran/Contra scandal dominated the news).  Some wore Walkman’s and listened to music.  I thought about the print maker and wondered if the effort he put into his images paid him back in the end.  How could a man with that much ability and accomplishment feel so discouraged? I had a tenth of his talent.  Was there any hope for me?

I was too young to realize that happiness often had little to do with success.

 

Teach, Breathe, Relax

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My wife, Judy, gets worried about me when I come home after teaching a rough class. My reddened face tells her that my blood pressure is elevated once again. She speaks to me in a quiet voice suitable for calming an angry dog and steers the conversation toward topics having nothing to do with teaching.

Lately I’ve been encountering students who do not listen to instructions, fail to understand instructions but do not ask questions, cherry pick one part of the instructions while ignoring the rest, and who do random things unrelated to the assignment even after getting further instruction and clarification.  This occurs after I’ve shown them examples of correctly finished drawings and done demonstrations of techniques.  I’ve sometimes had to sketch the beginning steps on their drawings to get the basics established.

They think that I’m odd and damaged when I show signs of irritation and frustration after they self-sabotage their work by further acts of blind incomprehension or bored indifference. One student cannot follow any verbal instruction.  I told him last Saturday to start a tonal painting by working from dark tones to light tones.  He responded, “Okay, light to dark.”  This was the third or fourth instance of communication failure between us within a few minutes.  “No,” I pleaded, “dark to light!”

The other night a student nodded along when I gave her instruction, and then proceeded to do the opposite of what I had told her.  She advised the women next to her to follow suite, and I had to deal with a minor insurrection.  She began to do the assignment correctly after I gave her a series of increasingly curt orders.  I relaxed as the class began to go as planned, and she asked me if I felt better.  She spoke to me in a patronizing tone as if illness had been the cause of my irritability. I suffered a relapse when I growled in response, “Don’t worry about how I’m feeling.”

I’ve been talking with Judy about all this and have realized a few insights about teaching and my frustration:  1. I get a sense of personal satisfaction when a student learns something–I’ve made a difference; 2. my classroom is a place where I feel in control; 3. I put a lot of effort into preparing and presenting a class.  When students fail to learn my sense of satisfaction disappears.  When students react randomly to my directions I get anxious because I feel like I’m losing control.  When my efforts are ignored I feel disrespected and unappreciated.

I realize that it’s a fool’s game to rely on others for self-worth.  I can only do my best and let the results come in as they may. Getting churned up over a weak group of students is pointless.

A few months back I tried the technique of watching my breath during times of stress.  If I slowed down and paid attention to air passing in and out of my nostrils I had a chance to relax and reset my emotions.  Recently I read a passage from Yogananda where he advises his devotees to keep their calm throughout the day, and to watch for the instances when they fail.  He says that progress can be judged by how well we live in peace with our surroundings.

And that sounds like a good goal to me.  If my focus is on maintaining a sense of peace and calm while I teach, and not so much on ego driven ambitions (control, accomplishment, praise), I might be a lot more effective…I need a tattoo on the back of my drawing hand that says, “Teach, breathe, relax.”  And on the other it could read, “Keep the calm.”

Landscape Painting Force Field

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Bougainvillea Looking West

I’m still working on a landscape that I started this summer and wrote about in “Front Yard Monet”.   I know that it’s nearly done as some areas are resisting improvement, and additional maneuvers only make them slightly worse.  I tell my students that each painting is a collection of missteps and corrections, and that with every new canvas a painter learns a new way to accept defeat.  But defeat does not mean discouragement.  It means that new territories of experience and expression still await.  A perfect painting means that exploration has come to an end.

I also tell them that painting a landscape usually involves more problems than changing light, fickle weather and attacks by bugs: a plein air painter is often beset by bystanders who comment on the work in progress and share their viewpoints about their lives, religion, politics, and art.  They persist unless discouraged.  On Friday I resorted to a desperate measure to fend off three onlookers and was partially successful.

I was painting a patch of grass in the left foreground when I heard the sounds of a motor and a radio approaching.  A weather beaten man with one lone tooth in his upper jaw who wore a baseball cap, shorts and a tee shirt pushed a mower slowly toward me.  Reuben stopped to look at the painting, but didn’t turn off his radio or the motor as he told me about his attempts at painting and photography.  He had a thick accent, and what with the background noise I had trouble understanding everything he said, but managed to pick out a few of the major points.  The man said that he had several regular customers in the neighborhood and helped them with their gardens as well.  Reuben enjoyed working as him own boss in the outdoors as it gave him time to appreciate the beauty he saw everywhere around him.  A recent sunset moved him so much that he took a picture of the red and purple tinged clouds above a glowing horizon. And then Reuben knocked on the door of a nearby house, showed a befuddled stranger his picture, and pulled his victim out onto the lawn to make him look at the splendor of nature.

He had used up the memory in his phone and now carried a small digital camera to continue taking his photos.  With practice and persistence he had developed a sense of composition that allowed him to isolate the most choice elements in the landscape.  Now when he snapped a picture he framed hidden beauty in such a way that it revealed itself to his viewers.

Reuben also told me that he had financial difficulties and lived in a rented room a few blocks away, but that his life had grown so much richer now that he lived a simpler life.  I didn’t cut him off because he kept saying things about life and art that agreed with my own observations, because it would have been wrong to interrupt his joyous flow, and because the man had a huge need to unburden his thoughts to a willing  (and/or unwilling) audience.  After 20 minutes, however, I began to use a Buddhist practice of following my breaths to help me remain patient. He had begun to repeat himself, and I feared that the sun would set before Reuben finished his harangue.  Thankfully he walked on after he had taken three or four selfies with me and my landscape, and had apologized at least five time for taking up my time.

I painted a bit more after he left, but decided to go inside for a drink of water.  I remembered that I had a cigar on my dresser, a Christmas present from my daughter’s fiance’.  I took it outside with me and lit up.  Reuben returned pushing his mower just as I arrived at my easel.  He grinned and said, “I bet you’re smoking that to keep me moving on.”  I smiled and said nothing but thought, “Damn right!”

A man in a pick up truck pulled up a bit later and asked me what I was painting.  I pointed down the street to my view, and he looked at the painting on my easel.  He seemed surprised, gave me a compliment or two, told me he lived just down the block and promised to return later.  I puffed on my cigar and hoped that he would not.  He drove away, but swung back around the corner a half hour later and pulled up in his driveway two houses up the cross street.  He did not come back for a chat.  “Good cigar,” I thought.

A young woman stopped her car beside me just as I began to place a few touches on the clouds above a tree.  She asked me if I were a professional, and I said, “Yes, and I teach painting and drawing at Crealde School of Art and Valencia.”  She said, “I take classes at Valencia.  What’s your name?”  I told her and said that our department was a good place to  study.  She seemed bright and pleasant, but light was fading and it was time for me to pack up and start supper. I puffed on my cigar.  A cloud of smoke drifted in her direction, and she fled before she was engulfed.

Later that night I sent a message to my daughter on Facebook.  I told her that her boyfriend’s gift, a Quorum Shade from Nicaragua, was much appreciated.  And then I looked up cigar stores online to see if a local shop sold them.  I’m thinking about starting a series of landscapes in my neighborhood and may have to stock up.

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My Viewpoint