Night into Morning

I fall asleep in front of the living room TV around twelve, and wake up around two or three.  Wide awake, I make the habitual mistake of booting my computer.  I check my e-mail, look for messages on Facebook, watch comic routines on YouTube.  I fall back to sleep with my laptop at my side as I lay in bed, and I feel a bit of shame when I wake up with a dark screen beside my pillow, the battery sapped.  And I wonder what played on and on while I drifted off and dreamt odd dreams.

I usually wake up between 7:30 and 8, eventually stumble to the kitchen, search for a semblance of life at the bottom of a coffee cup as I share breakfast with Judy.  The day doesn’t truly begin until sometime after nine when my grogginess finally evaporates like fog in bright sunshine.

Last night I retreated to my room at quarter to twelve after listening to Stephen Colbert’s monologue, and discovered a dog under my cover sheet when I sat on the bed to take off my pants.  Sedgewick had sneaked away early and found shelter for the night. Shakespeare followed me from the living room, jumped onto the bed and settled on the lower left.  I turned off the light and lay on a two foot wide strip of mattress with Sedgewick folded against my spine.  Shakespeare eventually lodged in the crook of my knees, which made rolling over difficult.

At four in the morning my neighbor, Joe, had his latest blow out with a roommate.  (These quarterly festivities are held, inevitably, in the carport fifteen feet away from my window.)  Roommate accused Joe of damaging his truck.  Joe protested his innocence.  Roommate said, “I thought we was brothers.  But now you’re lying to me.  You’re gonna pay for my truck!”  Threats and accusations followed, a heavy motor rumbled to life, and roommate drove away.  He returned a few minutes later, however, and the argument resumed at higher decibels.  No one mentioned a gun or threatened to use one, and I didn’t hear punches landing.  I decided to let it go.  I only call the cops now when a threat of death and permanent damage seem imminent.

Sedgewick stirred at seven and woke me up.  I heard Judy open her door and walk into the hall.  The dogs stayed put, however, and didn’t chase her to the bathroom.  I took a blanket and threw it over their heads to tease them, but they accepted the covering as a gift, settled beneath and fell back to sleep.  I woke them up when I finished morning ablutions, and led them to the back door.  I yawned and batted away mosquitos as the two sniffed, peed, and convened over signs of cat, armadillo, and raccoon incursions.  The clouds hung low and gray, and we didn’t linger long.

I made scrambled eggs for Judy and me, and let Sedgewick mooch a thin shaving of cheese.  We had a good conversation, I washed dishes, and then I took the two dogs for a long walk.  I deposited their droppings under the Cassia bush in the front yard, washed my hands and retreated to my studio.  I listened to a chapter of “A Gentleman In Moscow” as I worked on a painting entitled, “Dog Days”.

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At 10:30 I browned some chicken in a pan and began to prepare lunch. We ate at 11:30, and the morning ended.

 

 

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What Painters Think About

Folks have asked me what I think about while I’m working on a painting.  If it’s a funny or sarcastic project, they assume that I’m cackling nonstop as I mix colors and apply brushstrokes.  Some seem unaware that canvases can take hundreds of hours to complete, and that no one maintains the same mental state longer than a few seconds.

A children’s counselor once told me that artists are insane while they make their art.  I failed to convince her that I’m lucid while working, and that no one (Van Gogh included) could make a painting work if he or she didn’t make thousands of clear-headed decisions.  I also told the counselor that she might be mistaking the nonverbal thought patterns that arise in painters’ minds for signs of insanity.  The inner monologue sometimes falls away as we work.  Instinct and feeling take over…Time seems to disappear, and painting becomes more like prayer or meditation.

Below is a recreation of my thoughts while painting.  It’s not a transcription, of course, but may give readers an inkling of what I think about before I hit the sweet spot of inner silence.

 

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Mexican Bull (oil/canvas)

Maybe I can finish this today.  No, can’t work too long.  Got to get groceries and pay some bills.  That color’s garish…No wait–It’s better than what I wanted…What the hell was that?  Sounded like a five hundred pound squirrel landed on the roof…maybe a magnolia pod.  Did I dream about that chewing sound in the attic last night, or have the rats returned?

 

DSC_0298 (2)Quilt (oil/canvas, 2018)

Oh crap.  This looks like Paul Klee.  Who am I ripping off besides him?  Hello Kandinsky.  Hello Max Beckman.  Steal from the best, leave the rest…Jesus, the left side looks like a greeting card.  Got to mess that up.  I’ll sour those colors and add a black line…Better, but still too pretty.  Might as well add bunnies and flowers.  Picasso said you have to destroy something if it looks too good too early in a painting…Asshole…I wonder if artists have to be assholes to become famous?  I’m an asshole…When will my ship come in?

A truck drives by with a dog hanging half way out the window.  It barks at regular intervals as it progresses down the street, and the noise fades and shifts key as it moves farther away.

Doppler Dog strikes again…I wonder if we should get a dog.  No time right now to take care of a dog…Hmm…that passage looks like a dog’s tail…Or is that a toe?  Meh.  It’s a blob of paint.  Ugly blob…Scrape it off…My shoulder hurts.  There goes the knee.  Is it hot in here?  Maybe I should get up and turn on the fan, stretch, but first…Well that looks better, but now I have to change five things to compensate…Patience, man, patience.

 

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Lake Louisa (oil on canvas)

Helen thinks that I’m a nut job, and that Friday student thinks I’m Donald Trump’s twin…”Who am I anyway?  Am I just my resume’?”   What was that song I heard yesterday…I’ve heard it before…Don’t have the cd, but the singer’s name is…Senility strikes again…I’ll think of it later, but her last name started with a P.  Penn…Penwright…Peyroux?  

I get up to look at what I’ve done, move that painting off the easel and stand it against a wall.

Did I just make everything worse?  Man, the middle needs a highlight, and those colors on the right look too mucky now.  When did I begin to lose all my talent…what little there is…Oh, come on now…it always looks bad half way through…maybe if I pop that red, palette knife a little white, glaze a purple over that mess and…

Judy knocks on the door to the studio and invites me to join her on a walk.  We head up Chilean Drive and talk about an upcoming visit from our daughter, the folks who used to live in the house at the corner, and the north wind that’s bringing another cold front.

When I get back my mind is clearer, and I look at the painting with fresh eyes.

It almost looks done!  When did that happen?  Time to spray for elves…Now I’ll just accent that scrabbly field of yellow, twist a red line along that edge…Might be done…Should I sign it?  I hate signing a painting…You get close and a signature screws everything up…An act of hubris and the gods of painting smite me…Can’t think of anything more to do on this one, and it’s good enough…for now…Ah, the familiar feeling of partial defeat…But that other painting in the corner is calling me…Maybe that one’ll turn out better…Wait a minute!  I can fix this one if I…maybe…That’s better…hmmm…

(Silence.)

 

Walk Through An Art Show

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I saw my show, “Happy Paintings for Well-Adjusted People”, for the first time last Thursday.  My wife and daughter came to the opening that night, and I mostly interacted with faculty, a man named Tony, and two high school art teachers who happened to be on campus at the time.  I gave a lecture about my work to the folks listed above and a class forced to attend.  But the somewhat listless students listened and didn’t lapse into smart phone drifts of attention too often.  I got a few questions at the end that helped me to explain things a bit further.

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Judy helped me to refine my speech, and we agreed that the underlying theme in a lot of my work is humor.  So I opened and closed my presentation with jokes.  One featured hump back whales, and the other told a story about swimming lessons involving trips to the middle of Lake Erie, a tough father, and being tied up in a bag.

My work was treated with respect, and the reception felt warm and friendly.  I recommend Daytona State College and the curator, Viktoryia McGrath, to any artist interested in exhibiting their work in a college setting.

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My daughter, Annie, spent the weekend with us and brought along Shakespeare and Sedgewick, her two dogs. She left early Easter Sunday afternoon, and Judy and I both felt a bit sad now that the flurry of activity had ended and the house was a lot quieter. We decided that we will be moving next door to a child once they settle down in a permanent location.

Now I’m looking forward to making new paintings under less stressful conditions, finishing out my semester, and starting summer projects.

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

 

It’s About Being Creative

I sometimes encountered a bass player named David in a floating garage band that met in two places. Each location had its own roster of musicians, but I limped along at both venues strumming rhythm guitar. I was mediocre at best.  One day David chided me about my playing and said, “You know, sometimes it’s about being creative!”

He referred to my uninspired chords when we played extended jams that spiraled out for ten minutes plus. All songs stayed in E, and I ran out of ways to vary my approach after the first three minutes. I wanted to tell Dave that I might be a bit more creative if I had played guitar as long as he had, but I expected no understanding from him. He’d forgotten that he’d sucked when he first picked up a guitar, no longer remembered that his creativity was the product of instincts and muscle memory built up over years of practice.

I eventually gave up playing music in a group when it became clear that I didn’t have the drive or talent to improve significantly, and when I realized that I felt no special thrill even when I managed contribute a few choice licks. It all seemed a bit mechanical and boring compared to writing a poem or painting a picture.

Years earlier I met similar criticism at the University of Delaware. One instructor pressured me to vary the surface texture of my paintings (he made thick, painterly abstractions). Another criticized the stiffness and timidity of my brushwork. He demonstrated what he meant by taking my brush and making quick, fluid strokes that enlivened dead passages on my painting. Both professors expressed frustration with me when I did not follow their advice. They assumed that I was a tightly wound, repressed individual who would forever cling to a narrow range of effects.

I understood what they wanted, but couldn’t deliver it. I had to paint another seven or eight years before my brushwork became more spontaneous, before I learned how to paint thick, expressive passages with complex textures.

In both music and painting I understood that “it’s about being creative,” but I had a deeper desire to improve when it came to making fine art. And I gave myself time to experiment and fail. My painting technique eventually grew freer, the results got better, and my creativity blossomed.

I recently grew irritated with a student who rigidly stuck to her customary mode when painting an abstraction. She continually reverted to copying from a subject verbatim, held her brush in a death grip, and made scratchy little marks.  She refused to create rhythmic distortions in shapes, to flatten forms, to experiment with color. Instead she turned her picture into a muddy Impressionist mess.

I felt an urge to tell her to loosen up, to experiment, to make new choices. I almost said, “You know, it’s about being…”

 

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.

My Wife Doesn’t Support the Arts

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It all started with her African violets.  Judy asked me to watch over them while she went away for a few days to a plant physiology conference.  I put them in my bedroom, admired the round forms of their leaves, and decided to do a series of charcoal drawings.  The series went well as I recorded the gradual descent of the stems, the drooping and dropping of the leaves.  When she returned I showed her the drawings before I returned her plants, and I waited for her to praise how closely I watched over them, how I put all my powers of observation into making a faithful record.  Instead she cried, “You didn’t water them!  They’re half dead!”  Her outburst shocked me.  How could she not understand that true art is about the cycle of life and death, the drama of mortality?  Her plants may have given up their lives, but they had made a worthy sacrifice for Art.

I decided to ignore her odd sense of priorities and married her, but the early days of cohabitation were fraught with tension.  Judy objected one day when she found me in the kitchen mixing painting solutions (varnish, stand oil, paint thinner) at the dining table.  She exclaimed, “We eat there!”  “Of course we do,” I replied.  “Are you saying that a table has only one function?”  She couldn’t find an adequate response to my query, but I agreed to mix my painting media on the back steps.  I thought, “This is how it starts.”

A few months later she asked me where the hammer was.  She’d rummaged through the tool chest and the drawers in the kitchen and couldn’t find it.  I said, “I’m using it in a still life.  Don’t touch it.  I’ll be done with it in a month or two.”  She shook her head in disbelief and failed to comment on my innovative use of nontraditional subject matter in a genre filled to overflowing with fruit ‘n flower paintings.  I began to wonder if I’d married badly.

DSC_0260 (2)Cat and Hammer, Oil/Canvas, 1985

Three years later she forced me to shut down my studio in a spare bedroom in our duplex apartment in State College.  I had to relocate to a cold and drafty basement and work wearing a coat during the winter months.  At the time of my banishment Judy was seven months pregnant and refused to listen to my objections.  She said, “We have to get the baby’s room ready now.”  I began to suspect that she placed more importance on family than on Culture. So bourgeois.

And then one day about six months later, she came down to the basement with a load of laundry on one arm and our daughter on the other.  I thoughtfully interrupted an intense painting session to warn her to not step on a tube of oil paint that I had left, for a no longer recalled strategic purpose, on the floor drain in front of the washer.  I gathered from the pained look she gave me that she thought that I should quit working and move the tube.  I gallantly ignored her unreasonable expectations and began to rework a difficult passage that I’d been struggling with for days.  (The demands my paintings made on me often left me exhausted and mentally battered, but I had become used to making sacrifices.)  I barely noticed when she slammed the lid to the washer and retreated with baby back up the basement stairs–stomp, stomp, stomp.  “Some people,” I thought, “have it so easy.”

This morning I set up my French folding easel in my bathroom and began a palette knife self-portrait.  I spent an hour or two.  Judy wondered what kept me out of sight for so long, and I asked her if she’d like to see how I had managed to turn yet another room into a studio.  She stared at my work arrangement and the newly begun painting, but instead of expressing wonder at my ingenuity she said, “I guess this means that you’ll be using my bathroom a lot.”

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My wife.  The muse.