Archive for November, 2009

We were flipping around the dial last night and came across a show on the Travel Channel called Meet the Natives.  It was a reality show where a group of five tribesmen from the small island of Tanna in Vanuatu,  which is part of Melanesia in the western Pacific, travel to the USA to visit with five different families in different parts of the country.  Meeting our natives.  Last night’s episodes consisted of a visit to a large working ranch in Montana and then on to some time with a fairly wealthy Manhattan family.

At first, given the exploitive nature of most reality shows, I wasn’t too keen on watching but we thought we’d give it a few minutes.  I’m glad I did.

The five tribesmen come from a society that we would call primitive.  They live in the jungle, nude for the most part but for their nambas, which are penis sheaths.  They farm small crops and raise a few animals, primarily pigs and chickens, for their sustenance. They also hunt with traditional weapons made from the materials of the forest.  They enjoy celebratory dances and an occasional sip of kava, the traditional sedating beverage made from the kava root.  They have a system of beliefs very much tied to their environment and nature.

They may be the happiest people on earth.

The five chosen for this trip to the US, which follows an earlier trip to Britiain, were charming.  They were inquisitively open-minded and full of good humor.  The chief of their tribe was one of the travelers and made very astute comments about what he saw.  One, called Happy Man, was always laughing and joking, endearing himself to everyone he met with his smile and playful manner.  Another served as their translator, having left the tribe for a while to go to school where he learned English.

Their first stop was in Montana.  They were the guests of a family that ran a large ranch with about 5000 heads of cattle.  It was a surprisingly good fit for the tribesmen.  They were able to see equivalencies in the day to day life of the cowboys with their own, such as the care of the animals.  They also fit in well at the local tavern where they drank beer for the first time (“sour but nice”) and danced to a country western band.  They do like to dance.

An interesting moment came when they were out where they first encountered snow, which was somewhat comical.  They stumbled across a buffalo and scampered to higher ground where they watched it.  Their description of it was wonderful.

It looks like a cow but it is no cow.  It has the face of a devil and the hair of a man.

I can only wonder what the folks back home will envision when they hear their account.

They then went to NYC which was much more alien than Montana to the men.  While they were fascinated by many of the things they came across, the chief always registered a bit of sadness of how the people of the city lived, how they were so dependent on money for all their needs.  They encountered a homeless man in Central Park and were perplexed that such a thing should happen in a place with so much.

Happy Man said that it was obvious that no one loved this man.

Kind of sums it up.

There were a lot of things I could go on about the tribesmen.  They may live what we callously call a primitive existence but their intelligence and wisdom is anything but primitive.

If you get a chance, tune in.  You’ll look at our country with different eyes…

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Time of Change

It happens every year.

There’s a period in my year where I’m sort of on hiatus from my painting.  I’m in the studio still,  doing small tasks and tidying up.  Looking at older work.  Thinking.

Thinking about what my next cycle of work will bring.  This is a natural point for me every year, when I’m sort of  mentally spent, from a painting perspective.  I’m in need, at this point, of new energy, new inspiration.  Something that set me off in a new direction or at least a new aspect.

I always look at this point with both a little trepidation and a little excitement.  The trepidation comes from the possibility that I may be a dry well, that I’ve drained off all my creative energy and it’s not replenishing itself.  The excitement comes from knowing that this isn’t the case and soon the change I’m anticipating will be at hand.  Something new will be here that will focus my energy, drive me into the new year with new direction.

How do I know this?

Because I am still trying.  The effort put forth will bring at least a few new thoughts and these new thoughts will spark other new ideas.  New possibilities.

And the well is flowing once more.

So, while I may not be painting at the moment, I am assembling the base on which new work will be built…

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It’s Saturday morning and something made me think about the meaning of patriotism.  Out of the blue.  I began thinking of an old Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul song, “I Am a Patriot” and a version that he performed back in 1984.  It had a long intro that was simply put by Little Steven ( better known to most  as Steve Van Zandt of the E Street Band and The Sopranos) and speaks as well to these times as it did 25 years ago.

It may be hard to get past the 80’s look of the clothing and the production of the show this is from but I think it’s still a pretty good anthem for doing what is best for the people of your country first, setting aside self-interest.   And that’s what patriots do.

By the way, the painting shown is  The Way of the Brave and is currently hung at the West End Gallery in Corning, NY.  I thought it fit the song…

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I’ve been writing lately about browsing the newspapers of the early part of the last century. That era has always held a particular attraction for me because of the energy of the wide sweeping change that was taking place across all aspects of our world.  The transition from a horse-drawn world to the automobile.  The beginning of man in flight.  The beginning of true mass communication in the form of the recording and radio and film, a move away from live entertainment.  Everything was speeded up, changing faster and faster.  It was the birth of the Modern.

In art it was no different.  It was a transitional period away from the traditional, from the studied, academy-trained artist to the more expressive, individualized artist.  Modernism.

One of my favorites from that time is Marsden Hartley, a Maine-born painter.  I’ve always been attracted to a series of collage-like paintings he executed that are painted on a black ground, such as the one above, Portrait of a German Officer.  I love the way he puts his forms and colors together in these pieces, giving them a real visual impact.  His landscapes, such as Storm Clouds shown here, have that organic feel that I really like and look for in my own work.  By that, I mean that his shapes have a natural, human-like roll and feel.  I can’t really describe this well.

But it’s there.

There are stories behind many of his collage-like pieces. for instance, Portrait of a German Officer, was an homage to a German officer of WW I, the cousin of a close friend with which Hartley had been enamored ( he was gay) before being killed in the war. Knowing this gives the piece new meaning, added depth.

I know this is not a great lesson on Hartley or his work but there is more info out there, if you’re interested enough to look. He’s not the best known artist of his time but his influence continues…

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It’s Thanksgiving 2009, the last one of this first decade of the new century.  It has been a decade that many would like to put well behind us.  A decade of terrorism, non-stop war and unabated greed.

But there are still reasons for giving thanks.  Friends and family and the love that is there.   The moments of joy that brighten many dark days.  A kind word from a stranger.   The sunshine and the rain that nourish us.  The food we eat.

It’s simple.  It’s anything and everything.

In a universe that is seemingly infinite, we are riding the tiniest clod of  soil and water.  We have consciousness,  aware of the world around us.

We are alive.

So, on this last Thanksgiving of this decade, look around and be thankful but remember that Thanksgiving is a word of action.  It is not static.  Be active and express your thanks to those around you.  If you have the ability, show your thanks to the world by helping those who have not been quite so fortunate in worldly terms.  Or by extending a hand in some way to those who sacrifice on our behalf, such as the soldiers who are spending their day away from those they love.

Volunteer at your favorite charity.  Write a check to your local food bank.  Just do something to help someone besides yourself.

It’s a word of action, after all.

Have a Happy Thanksgiving…

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Silence is as full of potential wisdom and wit as the unshown marble of great sculpture. The silent bear no witness against themselves.

—Aldous Huxley


I’ve been scratching around in the studio for the last few days.  Straightening up a little, putting things in their places.  Taking inventory, as it were.  Seeing what materials I have on hand, what I’m short on.

I do the same with the creative side of my mind.  I take this time, as I’ve noted in the past, to look back at the year and the body of work I’ve created over this period.  What have I done?  What is strong and what needs to improve?

One thing I’ve done in the past year is the continuance of this blog.  It’s done far better than I ever expected as far as readership and it has become a big part of my morning in the studio.  The feedback has been great and  I’ve taken a lot from the comments and e-mails received as a result of this blog but I still worry that this provides too much information about a subject, painting as an art, that often communicates best without words.  I still fear that the impact of my words and thoughts will never add up to anything near the sum of my painted work and, as a result, a seed of doubt will be planted.  A doubt that makes the viewer question their own view of the work.  If I speak and write and eventually expose all my flaws and deficiencies, will the work still stand up?

As Huxley said, the silent bear no witness against themselves.  There’s much to be said for that.  Maybe the silent artist allows the narrative surrounding their work to form on its own, to grow beyond what they themselves may be.  I can see that in many cases.

But I’ve found that I’ve always wanted to control the narrative around my work.  To not let it be spun out of my hands.  So I talk and write.

For better or worse…

The inventory goes on.

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I’ve written about how much I like reading old newspapers, if only to get a kick from the claims of the advertisements of the time.  One of my favorites that ran in our local papers was from Duffys Malt Whiskey, which was promoted as a tonic of sorts which built strength and fought disease.  Bronchitis, pneumonia , malaria and the maladies of old age were helpless before the smooth taste of Duffys. The wrestler in this ad claims to have risen from his sick bed with just the aid of Duffys.

And a massage.

There were also ads with doctors endorsing Pabst Blue Ribbon as a strength builder and protection against wasting diseases.

Ah, it was a grand time to be sick!

Now, I know guys who believe that they are bigger and stronger as a result of drinking whiskey, usually after 10 or 12 shots, but I have to laugh at the idea of it as medication.  Makes me wonder what future generations will look at when they examine our current world and say, What the hell were they thinking? Kind of like the scene from Woody Allen’s comic classic Sleeper when the scientists of the future who marvel that we, here in the present, thought of hot fudge as being unhealthy.

We always think we’re the end point of progress and for a brief moment that is true.  But in the big picture we’re just points along the continuum and things will continue to change.  What is thought of as solid thinking today may be challenged tomorrow .  On and on into infinity…

Just thinking of this makes me tired.  I could use a shot of Duffys right about now…

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It’s a funny time of the year for me as an artist.  I’m at the end of a creative cycle and have a little more time at my disposal, which is nice.  Allows me to catch up with things I too long neglect or just don’t make time for normally.

But there is a part of me that is made uneasy by this freedom to do other things.  My next shows and goals seem very far in the distance and I’m unfocused,  floundering around a bit, trying to find my bearings as to where I see my work moving.  It’s as though I am somewhat lost without having to be at work, without having an immediate goal.  Sort of like being rudderless in the waves.

This is not an unusual event for me at this time of the year.  The nice thing in having done this for a number of years now is knowing that this time, and the accompanying uneasiness,  is only temporary.  I realize that this is all part of a cycle and that I have the tools to get through this feeling of being adrift creatively and that the time will come soon when I will be once more fully engaged.

It reminds me of  something I read in the comments of a friend’s blog, when the discussion was about getting through a period of depression.  The commentator said he had learned to accept these periods of darkness as part of who he was and that it became easier once he recognized that when the black crows flew in, they were his black crows.  And eventually he knew they would leave if he could only be patient and wait them out.

I understand what he meant.

Once you know there is a cycle, you know the other side will soon come around.

And I think it’s important to have this part of the cycle, as uncomfortable as it may seem.  For me, it always seems to spur new searching and new creativity.  For that reason alone, I have learned to embrace my own particular black crows…

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In Our Nature

Another Sunday morning.  Hunting season here, so I listen for the inevitable gunshots that ring through the forests around my place.  Not too many.  Certainly not like it was a number of years back when it sounded like a shooting gallery on the first days of the season.  I’m not a hunter, never really have been , but I have no problem with responsible hunters in the woods.  The hunters who have a level of reverence for their prey and selectively hunt.  It’s the cretins with no respect for the creatures they’re hunting, who are only out there for a thrill kill, that bother me.

There’s an element of selfish cruelty in these guys that pisses me off because it’s the same element of selfishness and cruelty that is present in so many of the horrible deeds that make one want to turn off the evening news in disgust.  I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.  It’s nothing new, just a part of who we are as a species.  How can one expect something to do other than what is in its nature?

That brings me to my song for today from Neko Case, who is a real favorite of mine.  It’s People Got a Lot of Nerve and its message  is pretty close to what I said above.  Why be surprised when any creature, including man, does what is in its nature?

Have a great Sunday…

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I was looking for a painting in my files and came across this piece, Time and Tide, from a few years back.  It was a piece, an 18″ by 25″ image on paper, that  I well remember but had lost a few of the details in the creases of my memory.  I had forgotten how well this piece came together and the impact it carried.  Even though it possesses many of my standard elements, such as the red roofs, it feels as though it is a bit of an anomaly.  Maybe that’s why I had to stop over this image and look for a while.

The title, of course, is a reference to the old proverb, time and tide wait for no man, which is basically saying that all men are equal in the eyes of time and nature, that no man has any greater reign than another in those realms.  We are all equally powerless before the passing of time and the movement of nature.  It’s a message that I often see in my work, or at least hope to see.

When I stop to look at pieces from the past, I’m always looking at the differences in the textures and the way I’m handling the colors from what I’m doing currently.  Sometimes I’m able to find something that I really liked in the piece, something I was using that really contributed greatly to the piece, that I was not consciously aware at the time.  It was just part of the process.  For instance, the texture in the open part of the sky in this piece was just done in the way I normally would do that at that point in time.  But as time goes on there are subtle, unthought of  changes in the process that after a time alter the whole feel.  So when I look back what I’m trying to ascertain is how a painting of mine is different and if those differences are things that I might want to revisit. Perhaps I was at a certain juncture then and moved in one direction yet there was another direction available– do I want to step back and try that other direction?

That’s the beauty of art, one can go back in time in a way and for a while defy time and tide….

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