Booth Shot Lincoln

Booth Shot Lincoln, color pencil, 6×8″.

The actor emptied a pistol into Lincoln’s skull to save the Confederacy. “Sic semper tyrannis!” he cried.

Twelve days later, soldiers in blue surrounded the barn where he hid. They set the building afire to drive him out. Booth refused to surrender and aimed his rifle at his tormentors. Boston Corbett hit the assassin in the neck with a shot fired through a gap in the boards. The soldiers lay Booth beneath a locust tree where he languished until dawn.

No one reported a final speech.


Second to Last Class

Four out of ten stand at their easels at the beginning of class. A fifth, who had set up earlier and left, wanders in as I finish my remarks.

I conclude: “Tonight we’re starting the final project. We’re copying an old master portrait but changing it five ways.”

Late comers arrive in dribbles to make a full complement of ten. Four have not brought the 22×30″ sheet of Rives BFK required for the final. One asks me where to find it. “Have you tried Sam Flax or Art Systems?” I ask. Art stores are where one finds art supplies. The student looks at me blankly even though I’ve mentioned these establishments many times before. She mutters, “My parents have to take me, and we haven’t gotten there yet. What can I do?” I answer, “You could try the bookstore. They might have something like it there…Or you can tape two sheets of drawing pad paper together.” She nods.

Redirection minutes later: “You need to tape the two sheets together,” I say. She’s got the two sheets stacked one behind the other on her easel. She asks, “Do you have any tape?” “Look on the counter. To the right of the bag. To the right of the bag. Look down. There it is.”

Re-redirection minutes later: “Okay, you really have to tape the two sheets together now. You can’t do the drawing on one sheet of paper.

Re-re-redirection minutes later: “You have to tape your two sheets of drawing paper together.” Blank look. “Come look at Anthony’s. He’s taped his two sheets together to make a larger sheet. See?”

Same student approaches me and asks, “Should I tape my sheets together to make a vertical rectangle or a horizontal?” I respond: “Is the old master portrait vertical or horizontal?” “Vertical,” she says. “Stack your sheets vertical,” I answer.

Another student points to her bag of supplies and asks if we’re drawing on drawing pad or newsprint paper. I say, “A whole sheet of Rives BFK.” I spread my hands apart and add, “22 by 30 inches.” Her eyes squinch tight to express suffering. She whispers tragically, “I didn’t know that I had to bring that.” I answer, “You shouldn’t be surprised. I’ve talked about this and written it on the board.” And she could have read about it in the reminder I posted the week before on the class website. And she could have learned to get the right paper after failing to do so two previous times in the last three weeks.

A guy is working roughly, quickly, and something doesn’t look right about the portrait’s face. “Who’s your artist?” I ask. “I don’t know,” he mutters and begins to page through images on his phone. He pulls up a Rembrandt, probably a portrait of the artist’s father painted in the 1630s, but the colors and texture of the face look odd. I squint at it and say, “Someone photo-shopped a face into the painting. Tom says, “No, it’s a painting.” “Look closely. See the difference between the painted areas on the hat and cloak and the photo of the face.” Tom grunts to concede. “Go ahead and use it,” I say. There’s no point in forcing him to start over.

The student who had difficulty taping two sheets together stops me as I make my rounds. She holds out her sketchbook and points to a homework drawing that I’d refused to grade. I had told the class to draw a figure from one of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes. She had drawn a woman perched on a modern work ladder. She said, “I drew a figure from the Sistine Chapel.” I said, “I don’t think that Michelangelo painted a lady on a ladder. Show me the original.” She scrolled on her phone until she came to an amateurish copy of a section of the Sistine Chapel ceiling featuring an additional figure leaning on a ladder. “That’s a bad copy, ” I tell her. “A student must have done that and added the ladder woman for some reason. See how sloppy the brushwork is? Look at those flattened forms. And Michelangelo was painting Biblical scenes. Why would he have added a ladder?” She frowns. How could she possibly have been able to tell the difference? I say, “I’ll give you a B,” and walk away.

The In-Betweens

Ohio leans hard enough against Pennsylvania to feel like a way station between the East Coast and the Midwestern corn belt. It’s rural and industrial (or used to be), progressive in urban centers and conservative in farm towns. Either/or, neither/nor.

When I return to Dayton I often get the feeling that I’m caught in the in-betweens. No one and no place is definitely one thing or another. As soon as I start making assumptions, I’m surprised to find their contradictions.

And I’m reminded of how it felt to be an adolescent, of hoping for and dreading the future, of knowing the things I wanted from life without knowing how to get them. I couldn’t stay a child when everything around and within pushed me into adulthood, but resented having no clear map for the journey forward.

I once became acutely depressed in my early twenties. I’d been trying out a semi-bohemian lifestyle of working at a grunt job while painting late at night. I burned the candle at both ends to see how that felt, but discovered that I had no enduring desire to drive myself into an early grave for the sake of ART. I decided to move back home and finish college, but the prospect of making the transition to a more normal life gave me a sense that old dreams had drifted away before new ones had arrived. Numbness set in as I began to close my studio and pack, and I remember that my lowest point came when I found myself watching back to back re-runs of “The Love Boat”. I couldn’t tear myself away from the reassuring spectacle of ordinary folks finding happy endings.

I suffered through another “in-between” during my first wife’s pregnancy. We’d agreed that I would stay home and take care of the baby while Judy pursued her career as a biological researcher. I’d never even babysat before and felt overwhelmed by the looming responsibilities. Judy gave me books to read, but I never picked them up. I told myself that I’d figure things out as I went along, but avoidance was my real disincentive. Annie, of course, came along anyway, and I did manage to learn how to care for her. And while I struggled with new mental and physical challenges (lack of sleep, out of balance back from walking with baby on one shoulder, bewilderment from the realization that my life no longer belonged to me), I still felt more comfortable with the actual struggle than with waiting for its arrival.

Now I’ve entered another transitional period involving religion. I became allergic to traditional Christianity in my teens when a nun assured me that “my soul would be lost” if I didn’t attend the local Catholic high school. I realized that her concern centered less upon my spiritual welfare and more upon exerting control over one of her minions. I’ve recently begun attending a Presbyterian church, and the kind influence of the pastor has moved me in the direction of renewing my faith. This sounds positive, but I’m left with that same old in-between feeling. Cynicism has become comfortable and confirmed in news reports about the Catholic Church. But I’ve discovered a group of people making a sincere effort to live in faith and feel drawn to join them. This feels odd after all these years…

I’d ask you to pray for me, but that sounds hypocritical. Maybe folks could meditate in my general direction, and we’ll see how this works out.

Abstract and Personal

I spent the day drawing abstractions using combinations of letters from my name and grid lines. The drawings progressed from left to right on the top row, then from right to left on the bottom row.

I woke up in a slightly depressed mood, but felt lighter and happier as the day moved forward. The drawings unintentionally reflect the gradual transformation from gloom to playfulness.

I’m going to use these examples in an abstract drawing class that starts on Wednesday. I’ll talk about the way shapes and patterns can be developed from simple sources to represent emotional states, thoughts and memories. I’m going to show examples from Paul Klee, August Macke, Wassily Kandinsky and Thomas Nozkowski. They believe(d) that shapes, lines and colors can be used like musical tones, rhythms and harmonies to communicate.

I may bring my baritone ukulele and strum a few major, minor and seventh chords to illustrate the point that each musical arrangement evokes a different range of feeling.

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.


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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