Volunteer

My wife and I volunteered to teach art and science sections of a Vacation Bible School program at our church. Judy initially thought she’d assist two teachers who would develop science projects and lead lessons. She discovered, too late to back out, that she was the only volunteer. I knew that she’d have difficulty getting through the week by herself, so I agreed to be her assistant.

We ended up having a good time working with interesting kids. Some were unwilling attendees who needed gentle coaxing to participate. We taught them about rocket propulsion by firing balloon-powered missiles along strings running to a planet Mars target. We gave them materials and let them work out designs for Martian landers. Their payloads were marshmallows. If a lander set down gently and didn’t dump cargo on the floor, the budding engineer could eat the marshmallow. One girl made a parasail out of construction paper and string. Her lander floated down slowly with stately grandeur. Her marshmallow barely wobbled at touch down.

Judy and I didn’t know if any of the projects would work and felt trembly at the start of each day. Flopping in front of groups of fifteen to twenty kids can be painful. But by the end of the week our confidence grew, and we had the satisfaction of watching kids learn to enjoy science as they tried new things.

****

Earlier this summer, Judy and I took a short vacation at a state park in northern Florida. The cabin had a screened-in porch where we sat mornings and evenings to catch a breeze and look out over a lake. I studied the construction of the porch, the screen door and the deck. I made the mistake of saying, “I think that I could build something like this on our front porch.” Judy’s eyes popped wide open. Oops.

I started on the porch at the end of June. I finished the supports this Monday. I’ve got two weeks left before my regular work schedule kicks in. Three steps remain: fill in gaps between the support frame and the porch roof; build and hang a door with a latch; make screens and install them in the support framework.

I had hoped to finish the project by our anniversary in late August but know now that I’m not going to make it. Perhaps I’ll reach completion by the end of September. Problems keep multiplying, but I’ve been able to figure them out so far. When I run into difficulties, I stare at a trouble spot until an idea pops into my head. Then I discover as I cut, sand, paint, and drill whether my plan works.

I’ve never done a project like this before, and in some ways it feels like I’ve jumped from an airplane without fully understanding how my parachute works. The experience is stimulating and somewhat terrifying. But this exercise in physical labor and problem-solving has given a lot of satisfaction. Every time I step back and take a look at the porch, I see tangible evidence of progress. That doesn’t often happen to me any more.

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Climb the Stairs

Climb the Stairs, oil/canvas, 4×2′

I’m nearly done working on a painting called, “Climb the Stairs”. An unpleasant event inspired the layered images. As I glaze, scumble and brush toward completion, uninvited emotions come up from behind, tap me on the shoulder and say “hi”. Pain and anxiety intrude most frequently. Anger, associated bad memories and bitterness pile on and compound my difficulties.

I thought that working through this subject would serve as an exorcism, that the sting would diminish as I came to terms with my history. I realize now that this memory is a channel to more trouble. I’ve also concluded that there’s not much chance of off-loading. This negative crud has been hard-wired into the core.

But better things have come to me over the years. They’ve too have made indelible impressions. I’ve had a fortunate life for the most part and am grateful. Perhaps I’ll focus on good memories in subsequent paintings. The ugliness will always be there, but I don’t have to encourage it to take over. It’s only one small part of the picture.

Homecoming

Perhaps I’ll find balance one day and come to a peaceful reconciliation with my life in its entirety. But the next painting will have to have at least one puppy. And some butterflies. Can’t rule out flowers.

The Clear-Out Dream

I recently turned sixty. A number artists of my generation are moving away or quitting. Some are giving up for health reasons. Others are discarding paintings and equipment to downsize for moves to homes nearer to children and grandchildren. Or other interests have capture what’s left of their time and energy, and they feel like they’ve made enough art to last a life time. One friend had a spiritual awakening that superseded slow gains made working at the easel.

I’ve recently received clearing-out canvases from a few retiring/moving artists. They’re piled up in my studio next to a rack of 200 paintings I made over the course of 38 years. I’ve got more work stashed on another rack and inside my house. I’ve begun to think that I’ll never buy a fresh canvas again, but will just paint over old canvases that no longer make the grade. I can’t see the point of adding numbers to my “oeuvre”. I may be self-digesting the record of my career but have found that very few are interested in said career.

My wife and I are joining folks our age in considering one final move, one more fresh start. We’re paring down our book collection and trying to lose our turntable, stereo equipment and records. The house seems cluttered and cumbersome, and the thought of boxing up possessions for movers daunts us. We want to nibble away at the pile to gradually diminish our load.

I occasionally get flashbacks to a time when painting was new and every finished piece gave exciting revelations. I long to be 25 once again, to have fresh adventures in a world of wide open possibilities.

Last night I had a dream. I noticed that someone had bashed in the door to my studio. Robbers had taken tools as expected. Then my lumber and work table disappeared. The painting racks yawned empty.

I felt oddly freed. I could start over and begin my career anew. Possibilities might come from across a clear horizon no longer blocked by a hodge-podge assemblage of painting debris.

Then I noticed that my easels, paints, brushes and palettes had been taken too. All that they had left were a few bare tables and cover sheets. I bent down in anguish and cried out, “They took my easels!”

The dream told me that I might want a fresh start, but I’m not ready to quit just yet.

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.