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.

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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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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.)

 

 

 

Ohio Man and Vincent Van Gogh

The art department at the University of Delaware had a poster pinned on the office door: a reproduction of a Vincent Van Gogh self-portrait.  The painting showed the artist puffing a pipe while wearing a bandage over the torn stub of the ear he had recently severed.  Vincent looks haunted, like a man who has begun to realize that his life has just shifted permanently sideways.

van gogh

One day I saw Professor Bob standing in front of the poster.  He grabbed his scarf, wrapped it around his head, mimicked the act of smoking a pipe, and hunkered down.  He sucked in his cheeks and looked mournfully up at us.  Professors Larry and Steve shouted and laughed, and I asked, “What’s so funny?”

Larry told me that a grad candidate had brought along his wife on his interview.  She was a hair dresser who most likely had never attended college.  She had seen Bob standing near the door earlier in the day, pointed to the poster and asked Bob if the painting was a portrait of him.

I met the candidate later in the day and discovered that he was a small town boy from Ohio.  He spoke simply about his work, and I asked him what projects he had planned for grad school.  He told me that he painted portraits of anyone willing to model for him.  He didn’t have any rationale for his selection process and didn’t wish to explore an underlying theme while developing his work.

I liked the man, but knew that the professors would reject him if he didn’t come into his afternoon slide show with a plan of action.  I knew that the profs wanted to see a conceptual model.  He might explore issues surrounding homelessness by painting street people.  He might survey modes of masculinity by contrasting football players to poets, blue collar locals to high-toned academics.  He could investigate the shifting standards of feminine beauty by painting women who fit the definitions of attractiveness in different times and cultures.  Example:  a Rubenesque woman contrasted with an emaciated Twiggy-like model.

But the man from Ohio gave me a blank look when I tried to coax him into picking a more complex project.  He simply wanted to paint people and had never given much thought to issues inherent in the field of portraiture.  I’m sure that he’d never heard of “The Male Gaze’, and didn’t understand that a person’s clothing, posture and expression revealed clues about their social status and group history.

I changed the subject when I saw that my efforts were pointless.  I asked him how he liked Delaware.  I remembered the difficulty I had in adjusting to East Coast culture after moving to Wilmington from Dayton, Ohio.  I had been unprepared for the rudeness, the social preening, the thin-skinned hostility.  Ohio Man jumped on the topic and told me a story about a waitress in a Delaware diner who yelled at him when he asked for more coffee.  He said, “I was polite and nice as pie, but she’d like to have torn my head off over a refill.  I told my wife, ‘Things sure are different here.'”

His paintings looked good to me at the slide show.  The proportions were accurate and the draftsmanship sure, and the flesh tones shimmered clear and fine.  His brushwork was lively, and the paint thick and juicy.  The guy had talent.  But he blew it when he started to talk.  He pointed to a portrait of an old man and said, “This is my Grandpa.  I showed it to him when I finished it, and he said nothing.  I worried that he thought it was no good.  But he smiled to show me that he liked it and that he was proud, and that smile meant more to me than anything anyone has ever said about my work.”

Ohio Man waited for the profs to say something pleasant in response, but Larry stared at the floor, Bob smirked, and Steve glared at the candidate.  Ohio Man looked flustered but continued as before.  He delivered heartwarming stories about subjects in forthcoming slides.  Aunt Mattie suffered from diabetes, but that didn’t stop her from making decorations for the grade school Christmas tree.  Uncle Jim sold shoes in a shop downtown, and he always remembered a repeat customer’s name.  Cousin Jean planned to join the Navy after she graduated from high school because she loved her country and wanted to see the world.

I spoke with the professors after Ohio Man packed up his slides and joined his wife in the hall.  I expected more jokes, but the three men had grown solemn.  They couldn’t believe that an artist who had made that much progress had failed to develop one critical line of thinking.  The profs couldn’t find a hint of ironic detachment in the paintings, not a scrap of socio-political thrust in his attitude toward his subjects.  The man was simply a painting machine.  He’d offer nothing but greeting card homilies in critiques, and would do little to challenge his fellow students.

Bob, Steve and Larry rejected Ohio Man and sent him back home.  I  sometimes thought of him when I passed the office and saw the Van Gogh poster.  I hoped that he’d found a refuge among people who liked him and his work and valued his innocence.