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Archive for April, 2009

Far WatchI use a single bird sometimes in my paintings.  The most common meaning for me is of the bird being the watcher, overseeing everything.  It represents patience and wisdom in this case.

I see the bird most often as a hawk but sometimes it’s a crow.  I admire both, the hawk for its physical prowess and the crow for its intelligence.  I remember watching a group of crows chase a hawk and when it appeared the hawk had nowhere to go he started leading the crows upward in  long loops.  As he rose, the crows closed in and just as they were about on him he made this powerful dive that carried him from above the spot where I was on a hillside to a point in the valley below, nearly a mile away.  The crows couldn’t match the dive and were left so far behind they gave up the pursuit.  It was an impressive escape.

Sometimes the bird represents to me a type of memento mori, a reminder of our mortality.  The bird is still the watcher but more of a spirit guide.  

In the spirit of this meaning, I’m segueing into a video of the old gospel song I’ll Fly Away sung by Allison Krauss and Gillian Welch. It feature scenes from the movie from which was taken, the Coen Brothers’ O Brother Where Art Thou?, one of my favorites.  It’s one of those films where when I see it’s on television will turn in it at any point to see what point the movie is at.  I particularly like the look of the film, the way they pulled a lot of the color out, replacing it with a sepia tone that kind of gives it a dated look.  The title of the movie is taken from the great Preston Sturges  film, Sullivan’s Travels.  In it, Sullivan is a movie director of mainly comedies who wants to make a deep, socially conscious film chronicling the poor and downtrodden, to be titled O Brother Where Art Thou?  He sets out disguised as a tramp to get a first hand look at the conditions of the poor and encounters many obstacles along the way.  Ultimately, his film is not made.  That is, until the Coens took the baton and finished the job.  Both are great, great films.

Anyway, here’s I’ll Fly Away


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Wondering

“For my part I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream.”    -Vincent Van Gogh

Starry Night Over the Rhone  Van Gogh

I came across this remark from Vincent Van Gogh and it immediately struck a chord.  I’ve written before of having little certainty about anything, particularly the big questions of life.  It’s always reassuring to see that others share the same viewpoint although I kind of wish I was sharing this point of view with someone whose life turned out slightly better than did Van Gogh’s.

Makes me wonder what he was dreaming about?  Was he dreaming of of color and shape or was he imagining himself flying through the night sky, his starry night?  Was he dreaming of a place without the need for belief or certainty?  

I don’t know.  Of that I’m certain but I do wonder…

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Copyright Bill Murcko Three Packs a Day There was an opening last night at the Principle Gallery featuring a group of work from artist Bill Murcko called Brothers of the Road, a collection of paintings featuring bikers in all their regalia.  Chatting with the gallery owner, she commented that she didn’t know if any bikers would be showing up for the show.  That immediately set off a memory from when I was kid.

It was in the mid-60’s and I was no older than eight years old when I accompanied my uncles and father to a hill climb on a steep hillside near Corning.  The whole idea of a hillclimb is to see who could conquer the sharp rise of the hill while staying aboard their motorcycles without flying off and sliding (or rather, tumbling) back to the bottom of the hill.

It was a sunny summer day and the field at the base of the hill was littered with all sorts of bikes, mostly pared down iron monsters from the 50’s.  There were Lincolns, Indians and BSA’s, all having that  the throaty sound like chainsaw noise filtered through a big cardboard tube, making it echo and somewhat rounder in sound.  I don’t know if that description makes sense but the sound was so different that the high squeals of modern bikes racing down the highway.

early-hill-climbOne after another guys in leather pants and armless  denim jackets, most without helmets,  would get a running start at the bottom of the steep decline and fire upward, trying to fine the line that would take them to the top.  Dirt flying, undulating back and forth as their bikes belched fire they climbed higher and higher above the crowd only to come to a even steeper point in the hill.  Gunning it, they dove into the rise.  Many would suddenly flip to one side or another, their bikes stalling out as they dug their legs into the ground trying to not start rolling down the hill.  An unfortunate few didn’t get to do this instead flipping over backwards and tumbling a good portion of the way down the hill.

it was pretty cool for a kid.

But the part that remains with me most were the motorcycle gangs that were in the crowd watching.  I was awestruck watching these people.  They were unlike anything I had seen at this point in my life.  The group next to us was gang out of Detroit, the name of which had evaded my memory over the many years.  Scorpions? I can’t quite remember the image on their jacket backs.  They were bearded and filthy, most dressed in black leather or grimy denim covered with writing and patches.  Some had bike chains worn like military braids.  The thing that caught my eye were the animal paws that hung like medals from their jackets.  Were those dog paws?  One looked like a lion’s paw, for chrissakes!  

This was in the days before pop-tops of any type on beer cans.  To open a can you had to use a can opener that cut a triangular hole on the can top.  They would open a can with can openers that hung from many of their jackets and would drink the beer by holding the can at arms length and let the beer sail through air to their waiting gobs. 

Perhaps the most vivid memory from that day was of a biker lady.  She had hair that was bleached to a pale yellow-white.  I had never seen hair that color before.  She fascinated me as I stood staring at her from about eight feet away.  She was wearing worn leather pants and a black and white polka dot bra.  Nothing else.  It was, again, a new look for me.  She wore dark glasses and held a can of beer  as she looked up at the hill.

There was no trouble that day and I didn’t leave with bad memories of those people, although I was still a little worried about those paws.  Over the years whenever I’d see a biker wearing his colors I flash back to that summer day in ’66 or ’67 and that biker lady in her polka dot bra.

You can see more of Bill Murcko’s work at the Principle Gallery in Alexandria, VA or at his website.

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Total FreedomI came across a snippet of an interview with Bob Dylan where he was asked about his favorite songwriters.  It was a short list with some interesting choices that might surprise some.  He mentioned the late Warren Zevon and Jimmy Buffett, two artists who were more or less pigeon-holed by the success of their best known hits.  For Zevon it was Werewolves of London and for Buffett, Margaritaville.  But when you look deeper into their work you find a treasure chest of beautifully written, poignant songs.  For instance, in the years before he became a caricature as the leader of the parrotheads (and vastly wealthy as a result) Buffett wrote several powerful albums.  Living and Dying in 3/4 Time is a beautiful album.  

But he also mentioned John Prine.  

I don’t know how well known he is among the general public but for me he has been a giant for about 35 years, writing simple songs that mix wit, wisdom and raw emotions.  His wordplay is wonderful and his melodies have deep hooks that instantly catch in my head.  His first album, John Prine, is packed with classics.  Angel From Montgomery, Sam Stone, Donald and Lydia, Six O’Clock News, Spanish Pipedream and on and on.  But my favorite is Paradise, a song wistfully recalling a young boy going with his parents to visit relatives in western Kentucky.

It brought to mind how the idea of paradise changes as we grow older, hopefully gaining wisdom.  When we’re young paradise is defined by place.  Where to find paradise.  For some, it might be a beach in the sun or a mountain in the snow.  For others, it’s being in the midst of a big city with everything at their fingertips.  We run to these places hoping to find what we define as a paradise.

But as we grow, we come to realize that paradise is not place.  You can be in the perfect place and still not be happy or fulfilled.  Paradise is an inside thing.  You have to find it in yourself to really find it.  Much like the kid in the Prine song.  Doing simple things in less than glamorous environments but feeling happy, safe and secure.  Kids can find paradise everywhere.

Anyway, I wanted to show this song.  There are other versions out there but I like this one from many years ago.  A much younger John Prine sings from his backyard.  Enjoy the paradise…

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NC Wyeth The GiantIn an earlier post I talked about the great American painter Andrew Wyeth on the day after he died.  His father was NC Wyeth who was the preeminent illustrator of the early 20th century, illustrating some of the great books of the time.

Throughout his life, he wanted to be known not as an illustrator but as an easel painter, a fine artist.  There seemed to be this fine distinction that because an illustrator brought the scenes and ideas of others’ stories to life that they were somehow below the work of those who painted solely their own ideas.  I never understood that concept because it was still Wyeth who composed the paintings and created the colors and brushstrokes that distinguished the work.  Wasn’t this very much the same as many Renaissance artists who painted many of their great works for the Church?  Are they not considered fine artists?

NC Wyeth- Rip Van WinkleI’ve always been attracted to the work of NC Wyeth having seen it innumerable times in print.  There was a real dynamic quality, punch, in his paintings.  However, it wasn’t until I saw his work in person that I truly appreciated how beautiful his work truly was.

He treated many of his illustrations as fine paintings, with glorious paint appplication that created beautiful surfaces within the painting.  His colors were complex, hardly ever a pure single color.  His blues often had glazes of red, his whites tinged with yellows.  All of his colors had an  earthy base that gave them a dark edge and weight. His compositions were bold and inventive, highly contrasting and dramatic to best illustrate many of the adventure stories on which he worked.  In person, many of these paintings are even more stunning than on the printed page.

NC Wyeth Last of the MohicansHis non-illustrative work was much more mundane, less dramatic but well executed.  His real spark seemed to be from the stories he was bringing to life.  The Arthurian legends, the Leatherstocking tales of Cooper, the pirates of Robert Louis Stevenson–  all seemed fresh and new in his paintings.  Unlike many artists, I think being freed from having to create a narrative of his own actually gave him the opportunity to fully exploit all the knowledge of technique and composition he held.  As though having the decision of what to paint taken from his hands allowed that energy that would be expended to be used on making the painting stronger.  Whatever the case, whether you choose to call it fine art or illustration, the resulting work was memorable and deserves a nod.  It continues to inspire to this very day.

NC Wyeth Blind PewNC Wyeth

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sandals2I stole the idea and the photo for this particular blog from one of my favorite blogs, A Dark Planet, from David Terrenoire.  I hope he doesn’t mind my theft but i’ve had this rolling around in my head for a couple of days now and felt like sharing.  Sorry, David.

In his post, David talked about coming across this tiny pair of sandals in the office park where he works, a place not frequented by children.  He wrote about how this sparked all sorts of speculation.  It was basically the start of a story which reminded him of what Ernest Hemingway had written when challenged to come up with a story in just six words:

For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.

It’s a stunning use of six simple words and nine syllables.  It conjures up all sorts of storylines involving all sorts of human experience- love and marriage, tragedy and loss, etc.   It’s like the spark that sets off the explosion that creates  a new universe. A Big Boom of ideas.

I found other examples.  For instance William Shatner came up with this:

Failed SAT. Lost scholarship. Invented rocket.  

Then there’s this from author Margaret Atwood:

Longed for him.  Got him.  Shit.

And Augusten Burroughs wrote:

Oh, that?  It’s nothing.  Not contagious.

To his credit, David Terrenoire came up on short notice with:

A mother, now childless, seeks divorce.

There’s a website, Six Word Stories, that has a running log of such stories,to which anyone can submit.  Some are pretty witty.  Some very creative.  A few recent ones:

No thanks, Eve.  I prefer oranges.      – from Ruth Polleys

And from Brian (just Brian):   

Five zombies.  Four bullets.  Two zombies.

There are many more but I still haven’t found one that has that completeness of idea and emotion that Hemingway brought with his six words.  I keep running some through my head, kind of like trying to put together a puzzle.  For me, it’s like composing a painting. I’m trying to create something that has a sense of its own world with the fewest elements, paring away detail but trying to find an iconic image that carries all sorts of meaning, needing no other words.  I always seem to find myself in a dark, kind of noir setting.  

Greyhound into Reno.  Cuckold fingers pistol.

Okay, it needs work.  I never claimed to be Hemingway or even a writer.  I paint pictures!

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Solitary Crossing

“Patience and perseverance have a magical effect before which difficulties disappear and obstacles vanish.”

                                                          -John Quincy Adams

 

I don’t what made this pop into my head but I was thinking about a conversation from a few years back that I had with a friend who is also a painter.  He has been an artist for almost his entire adult life, pretty successful for much of that time.  We both agree that we are  extremely fortunate to have found the careers that we have, one that feels like a destination rather than a passageway to some other calling.

For me, I knew this was the career for me when I realized I no longer looked at the job listings in the classified section of the paper.  For most of my life, I felt there was something else out there that would satisfy me but I didn’t know what it was or how to find it.  Maybe it was as simple as finding the right job.  Or so I thought.  When you don’t know where you’re going, any direction might be the right direction.

But during this particular conversation this friend asked, “What would you do if you suddenly couldn’t paint?  What if you were suddenly blind?”

For him, it was unthinkable.  His life of creation was totally visual, based on expressing every emotion in paint.  

I thought about it for a second and said simply, “I’d do something else.  I’d find a way.”

In that split-second I realized that while I loved painting and relished the idea that I could communicate completely in paint, painting was a mere device for self-expression.  But it was not the only way to go.  I knew then as I know now that the deprivation of something that has come to mean so much to me would, in itself, create a new need for expression that would somehow be satisfied. I have always marveled at the people who, when paralyzed or have lost use of their arms,  paint with their toes or their mouth .  Their drive to communicate overcame their obstacles.  Mine would as well.

 If blinded, I could or do something with words, using them to create color and texture.  Perhaps not at the same level as my painting but it might grow into something different given the circumstance.  The need to communicate whatever I needed to communicate would create a pathway.

It was an epiphany in that moment.  Just knowing that I had found painting gave me the belief that I could and would find a new form of expression if needed.  And i found that greatly comforting.

Yes, I’d find a way…

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Michael CaineI saw a short piece on the news-magazine show CBS Sunday Morning that profiled actor Michael Caine.  I have always liked Caine and many of his movies, although I sometimes question some of his choices.  The interesting part was when they pointed out how many of his 60’s era movies have had modern remakes.  Alfie, The Italian Job, Get Carter and several more have all been subjected to an updated retelling.  All fell short of the originals.

Caine said he didn’t understand why a moviemaker would want to remake a successful, well made film.  To his mind it made more sense to find a movie that had flopped but had a good storyline and remake that.  His Dirty Rotten Scoundrels was such a case, having been a flop, with another name,  starring Marlon Brando.

This kind of reinforced what I had mentioned in my Saturday post about The Ten Commandments where I talked about how modern moviemakers remake a classic film with new people and the newest technology and deliver films with more realism but less entertainment value.  They can never recreate the chemistry required to make a film  work. They forget that movies are about people first.  All the greatest cinematic technology and attention to detail mean nothing if the viewer can’t make some type of connection with the characters.  This human element is somehow overlooked by modern moviemakers.  

Like painting, all the technical prowess in the world means nothing if people can’t feel attachment to the work. 

I just thought it was an interesting point to think over while I’m waiting for them to remake Casablanca.  I hear they’re going to cast Matthew McConaughey to take over Bogart’s Rick character.

Just kidding- I hope…

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Soul of IndependenceIt’s Easter Sunday.  

While I wasn’t brought up with any religion in my life and don’t consider myself religious in any traditional, organized sense of the word, I am still respectful of the day and the gravity associated with it.

So on this holy day, I wanted to say something fitting in today’s post but it’s one of those situations where the will doesn’t match the task.  Maybe I’m tired.  Maybe I just don’t have a damn thing to say.

I don’t know.

Just don’t ask me questions…

I guess all I have to share today is the painting above, a personal favorite called Soul of Independence and a song that somewhat goes with it.  It’s Dont’ Ask Me Questions from Graham Parker about 30 years back.  It’s a song that has stuck in my head for all these years and whose chorus always has me thinking.  This is not a great video but please give a listen…

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the-ten-commandments-1956-movie-05Well, it’s the day before Easter which can only mean one thing:  the annual showing of The Ten Commandments, the 1956 epic film from Cecille B. DeMille.  

I always look forward to watching this movie not so much from any admiration of its quality as great cinema (though it is great moviemaking with its beautiful cinematography and color and the great musical score) but more so for the treasure trove of kitsch it bears.  I love the clumsy, stilted lines of dialogue.  The stylized overacting- Anne Baxter’s Nefretiri and John Derek’s Joshua are right out of the earliest, clumsiest silent films.  The boo-hiss quality of Yul Brynner’s Rameses.  And how can you not love Edward G. Robinson playing Dathan, snarling, “Where’s your Moses now?”  in that oft imitated voice straight out of Little Caesar.

But the star is Moses.  Love him or hate him, Charlton Heston was the perfect specimen for this or any epic movie.  Don’t get me started on Ben Hur. His physical stature, his deep voice and his ability to deliver the most wooden lines with complete commitment make his portrayal a complete pleasure to watch.  A tour de force.

Modern moviemakers always try to remake these epic type movies with full attention to every detail, trying to bring realism and authenticity to the story.  But while there may be realism there is no entertainment quality and they never measure up to the very films that some of these people mock.  This is is real entertainment.

So if you get a chance tonight, look in for a while (because it is a very lonnnng movie) and enjoy…


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