Archive for October, 2008

 Well, it’s here:  the final weekend before the Presidential election on Tuesday. I wait, like many, with a mix of eagerness to move ahead in a new direction and with the fear of having hopes crushed.  There’s a feeling that this may be a pivotal moment in our history, that this may be a decision that may indeed, unlike other such elections, affect our day to day lives for years to come.  It’s at times like this that I always come back to the words of Uncle Walt.

Walt Whitman was shaped and defined by his Americanism and the turbulent time in which he lived.  He spoke to the highest ideals that our nation embodies.  His words ring with a universal truth that seem as fresh today as they were over a century ago.  

This is a small bit from Song of Myself  from Leaves of Grass.  When I first read this (so many years ago) it resonated in my mind.  As I evolved into a painter I carried the sense of these few words with me and often when I look at some of my work, I can see those words in the work.  


 I too am not a bit tamed,

I too am untranslatable,

   I sound my barbaric yawp

     over the roofs of the world.


As always, thanks, Uncle Walt.

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I remember coming across an old John Lee Hooker album at a used record shop on Market Street in Corning, NY in the 1970’s.  It was a beaten piece of vinyl titled Folk Blues.  I was just a kid and had no idea who John Lee Hooker was but the album cover had a certain gritty, real feel to it and besides, it was only a buck.

It was from the early 50’s, scratched and worn,  and I remember the pops and crackles when I first put down the needle.  Didn’t sound hopeful but when his guitar and rhythm section kicked in on songs like Bad Boy and Rock House Boogie it was pure magic.  It was simple, direct and raw. The guitar sound was like downed power lines arcing in a storm.

I was hooked by Hooker.

To the casual listener, Hooker’s music could seem repetitive and narrowly focused but to me that was the genius of it.  His reexaminations of certain grooves revealed nuance and subtlety that could be easily lost in the distraction of an insanely hypnotic rhythm.

I view my work at times like Hooker’s music.  There is sometimes repetition of form, of compositional elements but that is by design.  Because I am working in a defined form it allows me to spend more creative effort on nuance– texture, color subtlety and quality of line.  The result is a piece that fits easily into the body of my work but has its own feel, its own life.  Its own groove.

As John Lee would say, boogie, chillen…

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I’ve always been attracted to the work of Grant Wood, particularly his landscapes.  They seemed to have their own life, their own rhythm that runs through each piece.  That rhythm is a goal for me in my own painting.  It’s hard to describe in words but I equate painting to music in many ways and the landscapes of Grant Wood are visual music to me, with a strong rhythm section and lilting melodies.

As a kid growing up in the Southern Tier of New York, I remember a teacher in grade school telling how the local Native American tribes looked at the landscape around them and saw human forms in the rolling fields and hilltops.  This really stuck with me and from that time on I have done the same.  It has really shaped how I see the landscape and how I depict it.

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“There is only one valuable thing in art: the thing you cannot explain”

                                                                            — Georges Braque



This is a quote that I used on the first artist statement I ever wrote and one that  I always revisit on a regular basis, especially at times when I question the content of a piece.  It reminds me that what I am trying to capture is not the subject matter, not a mere representation of reality.  I am trying to capture an indefinable feeling or spirit that is not calculable.  It is the sum of color and texture and light.  It is spirit and lifeforce.   When it is there, it is obvious and undeniable.

And that is a good day…



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This is a piece called “Labor to Light”, a smaller piece that is at the West End Gallery in Corning.  It features one of what I call my icons, the field rows running back to the horizon.  To me, they represent the act of labor and its fruits- the work ethic which has been very important to me in this career and something I stress to kids whenever I get to talk to them.  

I remember years ago reading an interview with author John Irving (of “Garp” fame) where he talked about his work routine.  He talks quite a bit about wrestling in his writing as he was a high school and college grappler and he used a wrestling analogy to describe how he approached his writing.  He said that if he wanted to go to the highest level as a wrestler, which would be an Olympic or world  champion, he would have to train harder and longer than the men he would be competing against.  He felt that he was basically competing against every wrestler in the world.  He then turned this to writing.  

He turned his writing into a competitive effort of Olympic proportion, where he was competing with every other writer in the world for each reader that came into a bookstore.  If you were buying someone else’s book, you weren’t buying his and in his mind, he had lost.  So he began to train himself as a writer with the same effort as though he were an Olympic athlete, writing 7-8 hours per day, forcing himself to forge ahead even on days when it would be easy to just blow it off and do anything else.

When I read this it struck a chord.  I realized that in order to reach my highest level I would have to be willing to devote myself to working harder and longer than other artists, be willing to spend more time alone, away from distraction.  It would require sacrifice and hard labor.  But Irving’s example gave me a path to follow, a starting point.

I have since realized that there is a multitude of talented people out there, many with abilities far beyond mine.  But to communicate successfully with one’s art one needs to push that ability fully, in order to go beyond what your mind sees as an endpoint. I see this as my goal everyday in the studio.  Sometimes I succeed and sometimes I come up short but I’m out there competing everyday.

Thanks, John Irving.

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This doesn’t have a lot to do with the day to day aspects of painting but it has much to say about how I see the journey we call life.  The path to the center leads through twists and turns and sometimes one feels tantalizingly close to the goal at hand only to find in the next moment that you couldn’t be further from it.  The idea, to me, is to maintain equilibrium and keep your eyes ahead on the path before you.  Do not be distracted by things that you cannot control.

To learn to draw your own labyrinth, click here.

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I watch the film version of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath” a couple of times a year in the studio and am always moved by this scene.  I think it fits well in this current environment.  I want a president who feels the pain and the longing for justice and equality of all the Tom Joads in this country, not one who only uses them in the form of “Joe the Plumber” to further his aspirations to a position where he can best serve his cronies.

To me, this is a scene that defines us as Americans, that speaks to our desire for fairness for all.  I could write on and on about it but none of my words would have the sheer beauty and strength of the original words.  Take a few minutes and take a look…

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  This is a photo from a book, In Their Studios: Artists & Their Environment  from the photographer, Barbara Hall Blumer.  It was a project that she carried out in 2007 documenting the studios of visual artists in the general area of the southern Finger Lakes, centering on Corning, NY, which has a vibrant artistic community.  The result was a beautiful book that gives insight into the workspaces and habits of many artists.  For me it was interesting to be able to peek into a bit of other artists’ lives.  I highly recommend the book for anyone interested in the process of art.

This is my first studio, one that I built in 1997 and worked in until January of this year, when I moved into a much larger and slightly better appointed studio.  This first studio was located in the woods that above my home and gave me what I called the best commute around, a short walk each morning up the hill through dense, fairly young forest.  Sometimes I would stop and wonder at my good fortune to have the luxury and pleasure of this walk each day.

It was a very rustic space without running water or a lot of heat for that matter but it served me well for ten years and its setting had a presence in much of my work.  It was very tranquil and from its windows I had great views of the woods and wildlife–  deer, gray and red fox, coyotes, raccoons (who at one point made their way into my roof) and even a weasel chasing after a rabbit. In the winter it would be spectacular as the snow would cling to the white pine branches almost to the ground.   Again, I wondered how I was so lucky…

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       I don’t want to make political statements with this blog but as I watch this presidential campaign churn onward I am struck by the difference of tone in the message put forward by both parties and reminded of a question that I have been asked at several gallery talks through the years.  People often ask what my paintings represent to me and if they reflect the qualities I possess as a person.  I always reply that the paintings are a facet of my self but only a facet.  They are the part that is hope, the part that knows what and where I am now but realizes there is potentially a better life ahead, one filled with peace and wisdom.  To me, the paintings are aspirations to my best self.

     I hear that same message in one campaign.  One appeals to our better selves, the other plays to our fears. One speaks of a better future, the other clings to the past.  One gives us a goal and a vision, one tells only tells us he knows how to lead us, without giving us a clue where that may be.

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My head’s been swirling lately with things I thought I would never have to know, things that I never could imagine would impact my life-  derivatives, Credit Default Swaps, leveraging and deleveraging, etc.  There seems to be a huge disconnect between how the media generally portrays what this financial crisis really entails and how the people who are embroiled in it lay it out.  The story from the guys who know is much scarier than what the media or politicos feed us.  We’ve been living in a house of cards for much too long and there will be a change coming.  A return to building and living on a real foundation…

That being said, I thought I would talk briefly how I prepare my surfaces for paint, how I build my foundation.  Whether I am using paper, masonite or canvas ( the canvas above is 24″ X 48″), I start in the same way by laying down layers of gesso.  I splatter, trowel, brush, knife and push with my fingers, anything to create a deep and interesting texture.  The whole idea behind this is to create a surface that has an interesting and abstractly sculptural feel.  Basically, it has visual interest before I even lay down my first brush of paint.  I find that this forms a textural depth in the painting, one that may not register immediately but ultimately gives the piece life .

I also find that this textured surface works best when completely chaotic and undirected.  Trying to create a pattern underneath that drives the piece above more often than not comes off as contrived and clumsy.  It becomes too much a product of thought, losing all sense of natural grace, which is what I think the surface prep adds to a painting.

I will show how the canvas shown turns out in the next month or so…

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