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.

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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



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.

All This Useless Beauty

Wikipedia reports that the above phrase was the title of an Elvis Costello album recorded in the 90s.  Elvis gave it that moniker in the expectation that the music would be largely ignored, and he was proven correct.  The album tanked. I doubt that I’ve heard any of the tracks, but the phrase stuck in my mind.

My work as an artist has largely been met with indifference when it comes to sales, and I can look at rack after rack filled with still lives, landscapes, portraits, narrative paintings that I made to discover or feel something new.  They are the remnants of my explorations, markers on a map, and as such are useless even if occasionally beautiful.

The involuntary sequestering of my work used to bother me, but does so less and less.  I’m glad that I made all those prints, paintings and drawings, and it’s too late to take them back.  I didn’t waste my time even if they end up in a dumpster after I’m dead.  I believe that the thoughts and feelings they revealed still echo through the ether, still send out ripples of influence if only through the marks they made on me.  Making them changed me, and changed the way I interacted with the world around me.

I sometimes see God as a flamboyant creator.  All these galaxies of stars!  All these creatures clamoring for life, all these souls yearning for truth and beauty.  Such complexity and such simplicity wrapped together in a bundle of bundles as one universe births another.  Is there any point to all this?  Is it just an exuberant outpouring, an endless process of becoming?

There’s probably no point in worrying about what Creation means.  Perhaps it’s enough to watch in wonder and add a little bit to all this useless beauty.


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.