Archive for December, 2010

Here we are at the end of the first decade of this millenium and I find myself a bit under the weather.  I was going to write about resolutions and new beginnings, all the typical New Year’s folderol, but don’t really feel up to it this morning.  Maybe tomorrow.  The New Year will no doubt bring everything into clear focus.

Or not.

So, iinstead I’ll show a neat clip from a BBC broadcast from 1964 that showed a concert from the Blues and Gospel Train, a  tour that stormed through Britain  featuring American blues and gospel greats such as Muddy Waters, Sonny Terry and Rev. Gary Davis.  The special had a huge broadcast audience and was a big influence on the young there. 

The clip I’m showing is from Sister Rosetta Tharpe who was a giant in the gospel world but also kept a foot in the world of secular blues.  She was big woman with a big voice and personality who is quite a sight wielding her white electric guitar.  Very powerful.  I thought this song, Didn’t It Rain? , was appropriate for the day as it’s about making it through the storm and heading into the new day, something I think we can equate to the past decade going into the next.

The venue here is a disused railway station in Chorlton that they dressed up a bit to resemble an old rail station from the American deep south.  It makes a pretty good backdrop for the Sister’s wailing and playing.  Anyway, enjoy and have a wonderful New Year’s Eve…

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These lines above are from the chorus of John Prine’s song Living in the Future, written well over 20 years ago.  I think of this chorus wheneverI hear people expounding on how wonderful or horrible things will be in the future.  It seems that the future seldom reaches the levels of our fears or hopes.

I’m thinking of this today because we’re nearing the official end of the first decade of this new millenium tomorrow night.  I guess we can drop the new part at that point.  The new car smell has definitely faded.  When I was a kid the idea of living in the 21st century seemed distant and alluring, with the prospect of jet packs whooshing us all over the world and teleportation flights to the amusement park on the moon being an everyday thing.  We’d all be wearing those space outfits that resembled shiny coveralls that we saw in the sci-fi flicks of the 50’s and our meals would be prepared with the touch of a button.  Disease had been eradicated and peace ruled the earth.

Okay, maybe I took it too far.  But it has been interesting living in this time that has long served as a far point in time for literature of the last century.  We have lived past the 1984 that George Orwell wrote of and the year 2000 fizzled like a wet firecracker despite the doomsayers who claimed an apocalypse was imminent at the time.  We haven’t quite seen the rise of Big Brother although it seems like we have taken strides in that direction at times.  We aren’t zipping about in rocket ships or teleporting across the universe but we are connected globally via the web in a way that I don’t think we fully saw thirty years ago.   Maybe we’re not talking with our minds, as John Prine predicted in his song, but we are talking more than ever with cell phones glued to faces and bluetooth headsets permanently jammed into ears.

 Meals are not cooked with the touch of a button.  In fact, we have went the other way.  We now celebrate the time and care of food preparation with television networks devoted to the act of cooking. 

Disease certainly hasn’t been eradicated but if you step back and really examine the strides made in medicine over the past thirty years, it is breathtaking.  Of course,  not all the breakthrough care is available to all of us but that’s a different story for a different time.

Of course, they were right about our garb.  I’m wearing my shiny silver space coveralls even as I write this.  I want to be ready when the future catches up with us.  It’s gaining…

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I am always fascinated with the need for self expression displayed by many folk or outsider artists.  There is a great purity in it,  a direct line to the artist’s inner drive and self that can’t be replicated with all the craftmanship available to the most trained of artists.  It’s just real.

I was reminded of this when I came across the painting shown here for sale on the Candler Arts website.  It’s a wonderful  nativity scene painted by the late Jimmy Lee Sudduth, a self-taught artist from rural Alabama who died in 2007 at the age of 97.  His drive to express himself started at an early age and, despite having few if any resources, was able to create paintings with pigments with the red and grey muds of his home soil.  In later years he used house paints and finally acrylic paints as his fame (he was fortunate enough to have his work discovered by the larger outside world) peaked.  But his lack of supplies or training provided no obstacles for his need to create. 

Probably a lesson there for us all.

I was immediately struck by this painting.  There’s a real sense of rightness about it that really resonates with me.  I don’t know if this is a mud painting or whether he was using house paints here but it doesn’t matter.  It’s simply a raw and real expession, something I wish that more us could capture with our own works.  To put aside craft and technique, or at least make them secondary to the expression of something deeper pulled from within.

Then we might be on to something truly special.  Like Jimmy Lee Sudduth.

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It’s nearing the end of the year and I’ve exceeded my quota for inane words written so I’m just going to show a video from The Music Machine.  They were a mid-60’s band from LA that played a garage-punk brand of music that characterized their biggest hit, the Top 20 Talk Talk.  They were definitely products of the era with their helmeted hairstyles and their funky all black garb, complete with one single glove worn on the right hand of each band member, predating Michael Jackson by decades.  They didn’t make it out of the 60’s,  going through a couple of incarnations in the 4 or 5 years of their existence.

I was going to feature Talk Talk but I came across this little gem, their cover of Neil Diamond’s classic Cherry Cherry.  It’s a surprisingly cool and restrained version.  It’s got a little bit of everything.  Jazzy flute solos.  Go-go dancers in groovy threads doing some kind of  swaying low-impact calisthenics.  Neat 60’s backdrop.

Oh, it’s a happening.

But it somehow works.

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“Without leaps of imagination or dreaming, we lose the excitement of possibilities. Dreaming, after all is a form of planning.”
— Gloria Steinem


I love the last sentence of this quote.  Without dreaming we would remain static, tethered to the present moment and state of affairs.  Would we have soared like birds without the dreams of the Wright Brothers and other aviation pioneers?  Would we have reached out  to the universe without the dreams of early aerospace engineers?  Would any of the great structures of the world been built without dreams?

If we can dream it, we can do it.  We will find a way.  But we have to dream first.

I remember talking to an older waitress  that I worked with many years back.  Her life was always filled with drama and she always seemed discontented with her lot in life.  I asked her what she wanted from her life and she said she didn’t know.  Maybe a good job where she made enough money to be comfortable.  Asking further, it seemed that she had no dreams for herself, no specific desires.  She saw herself as nothing more than she was at that moment.   It became clear that she had no way to formulate a future without a dream to plan from, a map to read as  she started her journey forward.  She was simply in the car with no knowledge of where she wanted to go. 

That’s  a sad little episode.  I knew I couldn’t make her dream and I saw so many other people at that time in the same  car, without maps and with no real goals or dreams to work towards.  I tried my best to tell them, to show how I was working toward my dreams as an artist, taking small steps.  But it didn’t always resonate and no lightbulbs suddenly turned on over the heads of those people. 

Maybe it just wasn’t the time for an epiphany for them.

But I still have hope that someday they will realize that having a dream is a small step toward a better life.  I’m not talking about a better life with more things and money.  I’m talking about a better life lived with purpose and intent.  That provides the satisfaction that comes with following our dreams.

So, as this year is ending, think about your life and dare to dream.  Take that first baby step forward.  A new year is coming.

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Well, it’s the day after Christmas and I’m trying to clear my palette from the holiday and get ready for the new year.  Not the holiday but the actual year 2011.  I’m starting to really begin to think about moving in new directions, even in a subtle fashion.  I’ve talked before about how this change is important to me and how it keeps me excited in the work.

Sometimes this new direction comes in the form of new compositions or a differing use of the materials at my disposal.  Sometimes in entails visiting past work or influences and seeing how they interpret at this point in time.  The same composition painted at different times often brings surprisingly different results.  Maybe my color palette is different at one time versus the other or maybe my emotional state is different, which has a huge effect on my work.

As for past influences, sometimes the time that has passed allows me to see different aspects of the painting I’m looking at and take this aspect into my own work.  The painting I’m showing today is an example of a past influence that I have used.  It’s Death on the Ridge Road from the great Grant Wood in 1935.  I love this painting.  It has so many aspects to ponder and take from.

When I first used this as an influence, in this painting from 2001 on the right, I focused mainly on the movement in Wood’s painting.  The curve of the road and the shapes and positions of the vehicles hurtling at one another, along with the lean of the telephone pole at the top of the hill set against the moving sky, all give this piece a sense of motion and action.

At the time, I wanted my painting to carry that same sense of movement as I felt in Wood’s piece but in an even simpler composition, without the drama of the vehicles potentially crashing together.  In my painting the road and motion in the leaves of the tree carry the action aspect.  It very much a different piece, compositionally and emotionally than the Wood painting.  At that time, when I painted this, that was what I took mainly from the Wood painting.  Now, I might focus on other aspects and create work that is quite different than what I first pulled from this influence.  For instance, today I might want to pull something from his shadowing at the bottom of the painting, something I actually have used in a number of paintings over the years.  Or the symbolic aspect of that lower telephone pole and the way it creates an almost shadow-like effect of a cross on the hillside.  That is filled with possibility.

So I will spend the next several weeks taking some time to look at past work of my and work from those I consider influences, such as Grant Wood, and hopefully something new will merge.  At least, a newer version of my work with a new facet.  We shall see.

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Christmas Eve

It’s Christmas Eve and like many I have things to do so I’ll leave you for today and tomorrow with my simple best wishes for a happy holiday.  Hope you can all find good moments to hold on to.

Here’s a  lovely version of one of my childhood Christmas favorites, Little Drummer Boy, from Tori Amos.

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Yesterday, after finally getting back in the studio after running errands, I flipped on the tube and caught the end of the classic John Ford film The Searchers.  On the day that the Coen Brothers’ remake of True Grit opened, it was fitting that they were showing what is probably John Wayne’s finest performance, as the damaged and hate-filled hero Ethan Edwards.  Beautifully shot film with layers and layers of content. 

 The reason I mention this this morning is the image shown here, the final shot of the film.  Ethan has finished his quest to find and retrieve his kidnapped niece and has deposited her with what remains of her family.  He stands apart, the darkness of the interior walls forming a frame that highlights his alienation and isolation.  He is a living ghost.

It is an image that never fails to move me, bringing forward a strong emotional reaction to it, even if only seeing it in a passing clip for a mere second or two. It captures perfectly the tenor and content of the whole story in a single iconic image.  Ethan holds his damaged arm representing his emotional scars as well and he slowly turns and walks away towards the desert as the door shuts behind, bringing the story to an end in darkness.  Just perfect.

I remember seeing a documentary on John Ford that equated his filmmaking to painting in that he looked at the compositions with a painter’s eye, letting the background become part of the storytelling process.  You can see it in most of his films.  There are shots that are so beautifully composed that they evoke an immediate emotional response.  What you hope for as a painter. 

Even now as I sit here writing this, my eye wanders up that image and I am struck by it.  I will probably have that image with me for the rest of the day, at least.  That is powerful.

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I was looking earlier online for a video of the song Blue Christmas to accompany this little painting that I have used as a Christmas card in the past.  I wanted something other than Elvis’ version, which is the standard by which all other versions are judged.  I was amazed at how many different people have covered the song.  There are rock versions , big band and country versions from dozens and dozens of various artists from every segment of the musical spectrum that all seem to pay homage to Elvis’ particular take on the song.  There are different instrumental versions including a charming version on the harp played by a teen who is lamenting the loss of her homeschool teacher, versions from various handbell groups (I particularly liked the one from the Trinity University) and one on the ukulele from one of my favorites, the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britiain.

It is an amzing array of sounds and styles that cover this beloved holiday song.  But I found one video entitled Blue Christmas that is another song altogether.  It’s features the trumpet of Miles Davis and the sax of Wayne Shorter and is even bluer in tone than the songs above.  Maybe it’s the odd little animation that accompanies it that gives it even a glummer feel for the holiday.  But it swings.

Take a look-

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Santa? Is That You?

Here’s another photo from Square America.  Santa’s a little scary here.  Reminds me of a segment from a movie from the early 70’s, the  original Tales From the Crypt, where a homocidal maniac escapes from a prison for the criminally insane. It is, of course, Christma Eve.  He ends up, now somehow dressed up as Santa (and looking very much like this guy shown here, if my memory serves me well) at the home of a character (played by Joan Collins) who has just murdered her own wealthy husband.  Hijinks ensue.

Santa can be a scary or at least strange guy for a lot of people.  My strangest memory with Santa came many years ago when Cheri and I were very young and took a trip to the Adirondacks.  There is a famous little tourist spot  that I don’t want to name but let’s just say it features Santa in his work environment as he prepares for Christmas.  There are reindeer and elves.  Your normal stuff.

Anyway, it was between seasons there in the fall.  The summer campers and hikers were gone and the winter skiers and snowmobilers weren’t due for a month or so.  So when we pulled into this park there were very few people there.  In fact, none.  We were it. 

We wandered around for while.  Fed the reindeer.  Can’t remember what else there was there actually.  I wish I had the condition I mentioned in yesterday’s post so I could tell you.  But as we strolled we caught of a glimpse of a man in a red suit and a white beard.  It was him.  The man.  Santa.

We approached and realized he was leaning against a building.  Smoking a cigarette. 

Looking back, I knew he viewed us as adults well past believing in Santa, which was true.  But we were still young and relatively unjaded, wanting to at least maintain the facade of the myth. At least wanted this guy to play his part.   And here was Santa sucking on a Marlboro.  I think he flicked the butt on the ground and crushed it with his black Santa boots.

We talked for a while and he was kind of matter of fact about everything.  Even a little crusty.  No ho-ho-hos here.  He told us they were thinking about relocating this North Pole workshop down the mountain further where the main road passed.  As he explained, “That’s where the money is.” 

However disappointed we were, we laughed all the way down the mountain road and to this day we both chuckle whenever we hear the term that’s where the money is and think of our smoky Santa.

Maybe it was this guy.  I can’t be sure.

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