Archive for March, 2010

Living History

In today’s local paper, there was a story about an annual event that our local school system has held for the past seven years.  It is held at a local war plane museum and brings together eighth grade history students and the people who fought and lived through World War II, allowing the young ones to have one-on-one contact with these survivors.  They get to hear history brought to life so that they might better understand our proximity to history and to carry it forward.

There was a Marine who survived Iwo Jima.  A fighter pilot who flew over sixty missions over Germany and France.  Front line soldiers and people who worked behind the lines. People who supported the war effort on the home front.  All recounting their experiences for these young ears.

I think it’s a brilliant concept and I envy the kids.  I would love to be with them going from table to table, listening to the stories and asking questions.

I often wish I could do the same with relatives who have passed away before I even knew I had questions for them.  I would love to sit with my grandfather and ask him about his early life as a pro wrestler and his time as a stage manager in vaudeville.  What stories I bet he could tell!  And I wish I could ask my grandmother about the logging camps her father ran and what is was like living  in the Adirondacks  in the early part of the last century.  About unknown relatives that I have only recently uncovered while doing genealogical research.  So many questions.

We often let living history slip away with many stories untold and lost for eternity.  That is truly a shame and it’s good that these eighth-graders are fortunate enough to hear stories that will now live on.  It’s something we should all strive to do in our own lives: listen and learn to the living history that is all around us.

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Sometimes in the winds of change we find our true direction.


I’ve finished a couple of paintings over the last few days, pieces that I will show here in the next week or so.  This is a 12″ by 36″ canvas and is sort of a revisiting of a theme and a visual motif in the way the sky is painted.  I wanted a sense of motion and flow in the sky.  Controlled, directed chaos.  Like the wind itself.

I love painting the skies in this type of painting.  It’s thousands of paint strokes, layer after layer, built up.  There’s a real meditative quality in this manner of work, where I can lock into the surface and not feel as though there’s a task before me.  Time drops away and all I see is the next stroke to be painted.  It’s a strong and interesting feeling that really connects me with the work.

I sometimes worry that I see more in this work because I’m looking at it with the memory of this feeling achieved while painting.  The outside viewer doesn’t have this memory and can only judge it on their own experience and reaction to what is before them.  When I’m evaluating my paintings, I try to look at the work with a detached eye, putting aside personal memory and influence, but it’s hard to do so completely.  Those memories are strong.  I can only hope that the viewer gets a sense of the feeling from their own eye, that it somehow comes through and reveals itself to them in the brushstrokes and surface of the painting.

Often it does.  Sometimes it doesn’t.

That’s painting…

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Buster Keaton in "The Navigator"

I’m kind of busy this morning.  I’m getting a group of work ready to be delivered to a couple of my distant galleries so I’m hustling around, finishing the details and things that should have been finished some time ago on a few pieces.

But I did want to comment on another of my favorites, the great comedic film actor, Buster Keaton.  They showed his 1924 classic, The Navigator, late last night on TCM.  Like many of Keaton’s films, one of the main characters in the movie was the main prop in the film, a hulking old steamship that is abandoned and adrift.  Keaton could make incredible use of his prowess as a physical comedian with the physical dimensions of such a ship, as he had done in other films with locomotives and falling houses, among other things.

With his deadpan, melancholic face and ability to find comedy in very a physical manner, his humor is universal and timeless.  I find myself laughing out loud at his work often and marveling at the his daring in performing all the tremendously dangerous stunts that he did without a double.  For what it’s worth, Jackie Chan mentions him as one of his biggest influences.

Here’s a short with several of his bigger stunts from several of his films including a funny underwater bit from The Navigator

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Busy this morning, I wanted to just have a small bit of music on this Sunday so I chose a song from Bonnie Prince Billy, known to some as Will Oldham.  I’ve always liked his very distinct style and songwriting and chose this song, I Am Goodbye. I wanted to have an image to accompany the song so I gave a quick look in a file and came across my old friend here.  I thought he might fit the song well.

This is a piece that I did about fifteen years ago, in 1995.  He was the first figure like this that I painted and became the basis of a series that I called Exiles which was a creative breakthrough for me at the time.  Thankfully, he never was sold or given away and remains with me.  He is one of my treasured pieces, holding many meanings in many aspects for me.

But for today, while this is  hello,  he is goodbye…

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Kuna Molas

Traditional Kuna Mola

Sometimes you’re reminded how expansive this world is and how little you know about so many things in it.

This is a good thing.  It reawakens the curiosity.  Makes you want to spackle over the cracks and gaps in your knowledge with new information.  And gaining new knowledge is never a bad thing.

A few days ago I presented a new painting, Through the Labyrinth, and a reader commented that it reminded her very much of the molas of the Kuna people.  To my dismay, I realized I had never heard of the Kuna people of Panama nor was I familiar with their brightly colored and intricately patterned shirts, which are called molas.

So, this morning I have been taking a crash course on the molas and culture of the Kuna people, who are an indigenous people living in Panama and Colombia.  The molas evolved from a traditional form of body painting into the present textile versions with the coming of the Spanish colonizers and missionaries.  They often use geometric patterns as well as colorful representations of tropical birds and animals.

I was most taken with the geometric patterns of the molas.  They have a great sense of completeness about them.  I can’t fully explain what I mean by that.  It’s as though, while being representative of things in the Kuna world, the patterns are a complete world  unto themselves.  Maybe I simply mean that they have universal meaning.

I don’t know.  They’re just wonderful to look at and take in.  And I’m sure you’ll see elements from these creep into my work at some point soon.  It can’t be helped.

Kuna Flag of 1925

Now, if the pattern directly above reminds you of  the swastika, don’t be alarmed.  The swastika was and is a symbol for many cultures throughout all the world, including the Kuna people, often symbolizing stability and harmony.  It was actually used in the flag which was used as a symbol of their autonomy in a revolt against the Panamanian government in 1925.  They changed the flag less than two decades later when the Nazis forever altered the world’s perception away from the swastika’s true meaning.  But for the Kuna the swastika still holds its ancient meaning and, hopefully, always will.

Hopefully, always in peace in their native land…

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The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926)

I first saw a film, The Adventures of Prince Achmed,  from Lotte Reiniger several years ago in a series about early silent films.  It was made in 1926 Germany and was one of the first animated films made.  It’s a form of animation that Reiniger pioneered and mastered, based on Eastern shadow theatre.   Using silhouette figures, each is painstakingly cut and hinged then  filmed in small movements with time lapse photography to produce motion in the film.  This film took three years to complete.

Lotte Reiniger At Work

In this telling of the Arabian Nights stories, I was immediately struck by the beauty and movement of the colors in the film.  Each cell was tinted by hand to produce intense bursts of color that gave the film a gorgeous surreal quality.  The movements of the figures in the film are smooth and natural,  very subtle.  I found myself so taken with watching the movements and changes that I found myself not following the story.  But I didn’t care.  It was beautiful to see and sparked the imagination.

Lotte Reiniger (1899-1981), born in Germany and living most of her post-WW II life in Britain,  left quite a body of work from a career that spanned over 50 years, including one of the first film versions of Hugh Lofting’s Doctor Dolittle. She’s pretty much unknown in popular culture which is a great shame.  Her work is marvelous and deserves to be seen.

Here’s a small clip of Prince Achmed:

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Aaah, blue skies…

I’m trying to think good thoughts this morning.

I have to because my head might explode if I allow myself to focus on the idiocy of the people who are being led sheeplike in angry, violent-tinged protest against the recent healthcare bill and the government in general.  They are angry that something is being taken from them at this moment, that the misfortune of their current state of affairs has just risen with the election of Obama.

Folks, this has been going on a long time.  Dave Leonhardt wrote a very informative article in yesterday’s New York Times that talks about how this bill is the first step at stemming the inequality of wealth in this nation, saying:

Since 1980, median real household income has risen less than 15 percent. The only period of strong middle-class income growth during this time came in the mid- and late 1990s, which by coincidence was also the one time when taxes on the affluent were rising.

For most of the last three decades, tax rates for the wealthy have been falling, while their pretax pay has been rising rapidly. Real incomes at the 99.99th percentile have jumped more than 300 percent since 1980. At the 99th percentile — about $300,000 today — real pay has roughly doubled.

I think a lot of the anger of these current tea-party protestors is justified but greatly misdirected.  They are, for the most part, middle-class and they have seen their income remain stagnant and their buying power diminish over the last three decades.  Unfortunately, instead of examining the real reasons behind this dilemma and discovering where this transfer of wealth finally settled, they fall prey to the urgings of talking heads like Limbaugh , O’Reilly and Beck.  Like Dick Armey, who has made a cottage industry out of this type of incitement.  Men who profess to speak for America’s best interests but in fact are simply protecting their own interests, which are considerable.  The grab-what-you-can-and screw-everyone-else, take-from-the-middle-and-put-on-top attitude of the last thirty years have been very good to this particular group.  They have a lot to lose.  Not the tea-partiers.  They have already had what wealth they possessed slowly sapped from them.

The terrible thing here is that these put-upon people, the middle and lower class of this country, still often identify themselves with the wealthy, with the very people and corporations who have benefited most from the increasing inequity in wealth in this country.  They are ripe and ready for anyone who can direct their anger at any scapegoat besides the true culprits.  They eat up incendiary words and phrases put out by the punditry without really knowing the basis behind these words.  Socialism.  Fascism.  Nazism.  Hitler.  Stalin. Antichrist.

They are led to believe that their anger is the anger of all people and therefore justified.  Every action becomes justified by the uncivil actions of their  leaders and  the silence of their shepherds when the first brick is thrown or the first racial epithet yelled.

Where does this end?  Who knows…  Like most things, this movement will probably have unintended consequences.  Sometimes, when you try to prod a wild animal forward it’ll eventually turn on you.

Today,  I’m going back to thinking about blue skies…

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I love it when people exceed the expectations put upon them by others.  People who persevere in pursuit of a dream despite little or no encouragement from the outside.   My current favorite is Jeff Foote, shown here, the starting center of the Cornell Big Red basketball team who is on an improbable run in the current NCAA tournament.   Jeff and his teammates face the highly favored and number one seed Kentucky team Thursday night for a chance to move into the final eight teams in the tournament.

Like the Big Red team in this tournament, Jeff Foote has always been an underdog.  He went to Spencer-Van Etten High School, located in a very small rural village not far from where I live.  It’s a small school with most graduating classes numbering less than a hundred students and isn’t known as a hotbed for turning out sports stars.  So when Jeff was playing for S-VE as a gangly 6′ 8″ teenager, he kenw he wanted to play Division I ball but attracted practically no attention.  Division I powerhouses didn’t come to see him.  Neither did even smaller Division I schools.  For that matter, no Division II schools came calling.  Only RIT, a Division III school  a couple of hours away in Rochester expressed any interest at all.

But he wanted to and believed he could play Division I ball and instead of just giving in to the expectations of others, Jeff kept pushing.  He applied to St. Bonaventure, a Division I school in western NY, and made the team as a walk-on.  No scholarship.  No guarantee of playing time.  But he was in Division I even if it was at the end of the bench as a now gawky 7-footer.  At the very least, it gave him a framework in which to work hard towards improvement.

In the meantime, Jeff’s mother, a nurse at a hospital in Elmira, became acquainted with the coaching staff at Cornell when one of their players suffered a back injury and came to her hospital for treatment.  She became friendly with them and told them that they should take a look at her son, the 7- foot walk-on for the Bonnies. 

They were intrigued by the thought of the big unknown kid.  They gave him a try-out and the work Jeff had put in was apparent.  He transferred to Cornell and has had a wonderful career there, improving steadily as the starting center for the three-time Ivy League champions, going each of the last three years to the NCAA tournament.  This year he was named the Ivy League Defensive Player of the year and his game continues to grow as he continually strives to improve.  He’s eyeing a career in the European Leagues and has set his long range goal on the NBA. 

Don’t underestimate the kid.

And don’t count out the Big Red.

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This is a painting that I’ve been working on for the past several days that I’m calling Through the Labyrinth for the time being.  This piece, a 24″ by 24″ canvas, is part of what may be a new series for this year.

I see this series progressing as a group featuring the look of my typical landscape with a patchwork of fields consisting of blocks of saturated color and random geometric patterns.  I really want to maintain  a rhythm in these fields and make them feel natural and easily translatable to the eye.

By that, I mean I want to take something that when looked at from a purely analytical stance may not be totally natural or rational and make it appear to be so within the framework of the painting.  There’s an example of this in this painting, one that I have used in the past.  If you look at the sun, you recognize it as the sun.  But when you stop and think about it, this sun defies logic.  It is darker than the light emanating from it.

This was initially done without forethought and didn’t even occur to me until a couple of other painters pointed it out.  It always translated naturally in my head as the sun, the light source, despite its comparative darkness.

This is the type of visual translation I want to continue with this next possible series. At this point, it’s still only a possibility.  I’ve worked on a couple and have another one, a large piece, taking shape in my mind.  It’s all a matter of maintaining a natural, organic flow through the piece that creates an environment where the viewer is made comfortable and secure, allowing them to accept it as a credible reality.  This sense of trust allows the piece to take on a real sense of place.

We’ll see how this goes.  This piece is a good step forward.

At least, I think so…

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Last night was a historic one for America.  A healthcare reform bill was passed by Congress and awaits approval in the Senate before being signed into law by President Obama.

Is it perfect?  Certainly not.  It couldn’t be.  Passing legislation on a subject that affects such a large segment of our economy and all of our population could never approach perfection.  Some will say it’s not enough, that it doesn’t do enough.  Others will say it goes too far, is too intrusive. 

But it’s a true start, a real framework on which to build.  It is but a first step in a long process that needs to take place in order to bring substantive change to a system that has been devouring our economy for too long.  To do nothing and maintain the staus quo on healthcare as our government has been doing for too many decades was not a realistic option.  When you’re at risk of drowning there comes a point where you’re going to want to try to swim.

And we are in deep water.  Using the latest comprehensive figures, from 2007, the US spends over 2.2 trillion dollars, or $7400 for every person living here, for a system that doesn’t even include coverage for over 15% of its population.  The newer, not yet official, numbers are even higher, with healthcare costs growing much faster than the rate of inflation.

That means healthcare is eating about 16% or more of our GDP.  The average for other wealthy nations is 8-9% and that includes coverage for all their citizens in most cases.  And better overall healthcare, acording to most statistics.  We spend more and get less than any other nation in the world.  That puts us at a competitive disadvantage globally and  is unacceptable and unsustainable. 

Something had to be done and now it is officially underway with the imminent passage of this bill.  Let’s start building on this foundation.


A couple of good articles on the subject:  Ezra Klein in the Washington Post  and Paul Krugman in the New York Times.  Klein’s view is very similar to that of mine and Krugman’s examines the contrast between the tones of the two opposing sides of this struggle.

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