Archive for January, 2011


I had a nice email from a gentleman who told me about a prize his 16 year old daughter had recently won for one of her paintings.  I took a look at the piece and responded to him.  It was nice painting, nicely composed and had strong lines and color.  It was far ahead of anything I was doing at that age, especially by the virtue that it was complete.  I could see this young person doing more with their talents in the future.  I wrote him back and told him this but with my standard warning, one that I have written about  here before:  Potential and how it must be actively pursued with constant efforts and a consistent pushing of one’s abilities. 

I wrote him to tell him this, to let him know about some of the young talents I have seen come and go because they felt their talent was something that was in them and could be turned on and off with the flip of a switch.  I told him to tell her to look at the work required as a musician looks at rehearsals.  Perhaps even look at their talents as being like those of a musician, talents that need constant exercise in order to stay sharp and strong.  For instance, even if you have great innate talent, you can’t expect to play the violin like Itzhak Perlman if you don’t devote your talents in the same way as he does. A great part of his life is in nurturing his abilities.

I always feel like a sourpuss when I’m giving this advice.  Nobody wants to hear that they need to work harder.  Everyone wants to think that they have this great talent born within them and it will flow like a spigot whenever they so desire.  If only that were true.

I think you will find that those who succeed at the highest levels in any field are those who understand this need to constantly push and work their talents.  I’m sure there are exceptions but none come immediately to mind.  I wrote about this in a blog post when I first started this, over two years ago.  I wrote about something author John Irving had said about competing as a writer as he competed as a wrestler, putting in the same sort of work as though he were attempting to be an Olympic wrestler. 

Hard work.   It’s not glamorous especially in this world of instant gratification but it is a proven entity .

I’m showing the piece above to highlight this.  It’s a small painting that I did before I was showing in any galleries, in 1994.  At the time, it pleased me very much and I could have very easily kept painting in that style and been pretty happy, without much effort.  But there was a little voice in me that kept saying to push ahead and work harder, to see what I could accomplish with greater effort.  It became not an end but a stepping stone to move ahead.

That is how I hope this man’s daughter see her painting– as a stepping stone.  She may think it is the best thing she has ever done but if she is willing to push ahead and put in the effort, she will look at it someday as a mere step in her journey.

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Wendell Phillips Monument, Boston Commons

Revolution is the only thing, the only power, that ever worked out freedom for any people.  The powers that have ruled long and learned to love ruling, will never give up that prerogative until they must, til they see the certainty of overthrow and destruction
 if they do not.
—-Wendell Phillips
I wanted to say a few words about the current political unrest spreading through the Middle East and these words from Wendell Phillips, the American abolitionist and advocate of Native Americans of the 19th century, came to mind.  These words seem to echo the root of the problem in Egypt  and in other areas where revolution is in the air.  Maybe in the US in times to come.
            In Egypt and other countries, there has been an ever expanding chasm between the haves and have-nots, with the haves possessing all the political power,  bending it to serve their wills.  They control the government and shape the laws and policies in a way that only benefits them, usually at the expense of the have-nots.  Injustice and inequality become the norm and an aristocracy is formed to lord over a growing class of the poor and oppressed.  The government which always speaks of serving the people is now only serving a select few and an anger begins to simmer at the unfairness of the situation.  A tipping point begins to materialize and nears and is finally reached.  The streets fill with the angry populace.
      Maybe this is very, very much oversimplified but it is the spine of any revolution.  I worry for the US , not for what is happening in Egypt, but for what is happening here, with a government and judiciary more and more attuned to serving the interests of the wealthiest citizens at the expense of those less affluent citizens who need the protection of our government.  We have evolved into a corporate  aristocracy, even giving the benefits (without the responsibility) of citizenship to corporations in the Citizens United ruling from the Supreme Court.  The chasm between the haves and have-nots is nearing historic proportions and in a nation of over 300 million people that was formed from revolution, those in the have camp should take heed from what is happening in the Middle East.
As Phillips also said: 
  Governments exist to protect the rights of minorities. The loved and the rich need no protection: they have many friends and few enemies.

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This is a new piece that I’ve been working on for the last week.  It’s fairly large at 30″ by 40″ and carries the size well, drawing my eye back to it on a regular basis from across the studio.  I am drawn to the rhythm of the landscape and the quiet of the central red tree against the action of the confetti-like sky.  It has a calming effect for me, one that centers my anxieties and slows me down a bit.  Applied patience in a turbulent world.

I’ve talked about this here before.  The purpose my work holds for me is to act as a  sort of pacifier, to create a world and landscape that takes me just a bit further from the reality of the world in which we actually live.  I consider this alternate landscape  a world based on reason.  At least, that’s how I see it.

I documented this piece in a series of photos as I was painting, snapping shots after small bits were done.  I am in the process of putting them together in a video similar to the one I posted last week, Growing a Painting.  This video would be more in depth and detail as far as the way the piece comes together.  I’ll post it when it is done. Hopefully, it will turn out well.  We’ll see…

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Periodically I look up from my easel or my computer at a set of shelves that are built into the stonework of the fireplace in my studio.  I have some books and a couple of  small older pieces of mine along with a few mementos.  The one that always catches my eye is an old shoe last (the forms a cobbler would use in making a shoe) that I found here when I moved in.  I was drawn to it from the moment I first saw it. 

It’s carved from what looks to be a fairly soft wood, a fir or poplar.  The weight is deceiving when you pick it up as there are heavy brass inserts on the heel.  On these inserts you can see where the shoemaker has nailled many heels over the years, leaving little pits in the brass.  It has several markings on it.  ITALIO is printed in block letters on one side and the size 8 1/2 D is stamped into the wood.  There is a date as well, Apr 6 1960 on one side.

There’s something very beautiful in the form of this object, a certain rhythm  in the smooth lines of the wood as it rolls up and over the instep.  The graceful nature of the object makes it seem more a work of sculpture than a utilitarian object and when I hold it, the weight of it and the coolness of the wood give it a  tactile quality that belies its true nature.

The forms used in making objects such as shoes or hats are often quite beautiful to my eye.  Seeing the form of the intended object in a material other than the leather of the shoe or the felt of the hat gives a much different impression.  It allows you to look past the object, which may not have even drawn the eye in its intended final state, and see the forms underneath.  The essence of the piece.

I found these hat molds at a site , Just Folk, that is offering them for sale.  Their site has a great opening page with funky music and a slideshow of some their unique objects.  These hat molds have a great look that I’m sure transcends the beauty of the original hats although these designs are very solid.  I wonder how many of these hats are still floating around, stored away in attic chests or propped up in the windows of a vintage clothing store?

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A Little Nickel

I am running way behind this morning, the internal stopwatch with which I compete with myself  having not started on time .  Having no one to answer to in the studio but myself,  I can do what I do on my own time schedule but I have always been a stickler for trying to get as much done as possible early in the day so that when my natural indolence sets in I will have at least accomplished a few things for the day. 

So, today I need a kick of energy, something to rev the engine.  I think this might be a good morning to feature some upbeat music from the progressive bluegrass trio Nickel Creek featuring Chris Thile, the wunderkind on mandolin.  This is a rousing version of The Fox that has a jam band feel and there’s a nice little piece of Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues thrown in as well.

Enjoy and have a great day!

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I just finished a small group of tiny paintings for an annual show held at the West End Gallery in Corning, called Little Gems.  Held every February, it’s a show of miniature paintings from the gallery artists.  I’ve mentioned before that this show is a sentimental favorite of mine.  The first time I exhibited my work in public was at a Little Gems show in 1995, at a time when the idea of being a collected painter seemed awfully far away, if even imagined at all.  Most of the work I was creating at the time was small and pretty much fell in line with the theme of the show.  It was a turning point in my life, opening doors of new possibility to me.

Since that time, I have always held a special spot for this show for that reason and for the fact that it has original work, albeit small in size,  offered at very affordable prices, giving  people of modest means an opportunity to collect work  they might admire.  There’s something very egalitarian about it, far from the perception of the art gallery as an elitist institution.  And I like the idea  that art is for everyone.

This is a group of tiny 2″ by 4″ canvas paintings that I frame in a slightly larger (just under 6″ by8″) shadow box frame that makes the piece seem a bit larger .  The petite canvas size creates a challenge and I like to include a few twists on my normal compositions, such as this piece to the right with the yellow flag and the divided sky.  But I often try to keep the work typical of my style and subject vocabulary.  This goes back to the thought in the last paragraph.  This might be the only piece of original art that is bought by the person who selects this painting and I would like to give them opportunity to have a piece that is obviously recognizable as my work.  That’s one of the reasons that I have always strived to paint these little pieces with all the effort and care that I use in much larger pieces.

This show, Little Gems, opens next Friday, February 4th, at the West End Gallery in Corning, NY.

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You wouldn’t know it to look at the work of Amedeo Modigliani, but it was quite an influence on my painting.  Modigliani’s work through his short, self-destructive life consisted primarily of stylized portraits and  nudes.  The heads of his subjects were long and oval, often set at an angle aperch an overly long neck.  The eyes are almond shaped and the nose pinched.   Hardly words to describe great beauty yet they maintain a graceful allure that is immediately recognizable as the work of Modigliani.

  His instant recognizability of his style and subjects from across large galleries was striking and was the great message I took from seeing Modigliani in museums over the years.  You couldn’t mistake it for the work of anyone else and as a painter early in my career, still seeking the direction of my work, this was an invaluable observation.  With each Modigliani I came across, the idea that my work should be somehow unique and have a quality of instant recognition was reinforced in my mind. 

Also, his limited subject matter made an imprint.  The idiosyncratic nature of his portraits and nudes made the repetition of his forms seem like a moot point, making the viewer easily enter the picture plane and focus on the unique qualities of the piece in the colors and forms.  It wasn’t the subject that mattered but the way in which it was painted.  Another valuable lesson.

Fortunately, I didn’t learn the lessons of the other parts of Modigliani’s life.  His drug and alcohol addictions, combined with tuberculosis, led to an early death at the age of 35.  Even more tragic is the story of Jeanne Hebuterne, the model for the paintings shown here and the common-law wife of the artist.  She was the subject of at least 25 of Modigliani paintings.  The day after the artist succumbed to death in Paris in January of 1920, a distraught and pregnant  Jeanne threw herself out the window, killing herself and her unborn child.  She was 21 years old. 

 Coincidentally, her death came on this date, January 25.  I didn’t realize that until I just looked it up.  Hmmm…

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Frigid Air

It’s hard not to mention the cold today.  When I walked out the door this morning , it was -15 degrees. 

I’ve mentioned here that I like the winter weather, enjoy the feel of an icy breeze on my face.   As I get older I keep moving my eyes ever northward on the map for a place that is cooler year round.  But even I have my limits.  Single digit temperatures down to zero are no problem but below that zero presents new challenges.  It seems like the cold grows geometrically more intense with each degree it falls below  zero and clothing that felt comfortable in slightly milder sub-freezing temperatures now seems slightly inadequate.  The cold dryness of the frigid air burns just a little bit with deep breathes and exposed skin protests with redness.

But it is beautiful with ice crystals laying like tiny diamonds spread across the white sheet of snow that covers the landscape.  Everything is brisk and clean, the grays and deep browns of the winter forest now only providing a contrast to the clean whiteness.

And the quiet.  Ah, the quiet.  Walking out in the early morning is nothing but stillness.  The animals of the forest are hunkered down and the cold has reduced all other outdoor human activity and noise to a bare minimum.  The quiet is wonderful and worth the price of a layer or two of added clothing.

But still, -15 is pretty damn cold. Last summer,  I talked to an old neighbor and friend from my childhood who is an avid hunter who told me of a trip he took last spring to hunt musk ox above the Arctic Circle.  He spent 13 days on the frozen tundra of northern Canada with every day being no warmer than -50.  He hired a group of Mi’kmaq native guides that were a constant source of amazement to him.  They wore thin skin jackets that they made  and the tents they erected every night were, as he said, ” thin and looked like the ticking from an old quilt.”  But they were very comfortable with the cold and the tent was more than adequate.  He asked if they ever went further south and they said they periodically went to the small village that they call home in the summer but that it was too warm there for them.  It was in the 40’s there most days.  so they would head back north.

I like the cold but I’m not up to that level of tolerance.  Yet.

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I was looking online for some music to feature today and my ear turned toward klezmer music, the traditional music of the Jews of eastern Europe.  Think of  Fiddler on the Roof, with lively music that features the fiddle and clarinet.  As I was looking I came across a clip from a film I had not seen or heard of,  for that matter.  The clip featured a group of eastern European Jews playing their klezmer versus a group of Gypsies playing their similar, but slightly coarser, music in a sort of musical face-off.

The film was a French film from 1998 from Romanian director Radu Mihaileanu called Train de Vie which translates to Train of Life.  The story takes place in a small Jewish village in eatern Europe that has a local resident return from a neighboring village where the Nazis have entered and taken over, sending the residents away on trains to the camps.  He describes the horrors but nobody takes him seriously for he is , unfortunately, the village idiot.  But the rabbi sees that he is telling the truth and a plot is formed where they would procure a train and have local residents pose as Nazis to herd the townspeople on to the trains.  The trains would not go to the concentration camps, however.  They would head for Palestine.

It has the feel, from what I read, of a Life is Beautiful, the Roberto Benigni film about the Holocaust that had comic elements concerning a tragic event in history.  A delicate line to tread.

Whatever the case, it looks interesting.  I’ll have to try to find this film soon.

Here’s the clip with the klezmer and  gypsy players–

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John Dingell

There was a short article on the Huffington Post this week from Amanda Terkel that has stuck with me.  In the light of this being the 50th anniversary of JFK’s inauguration, Terkel spoke with Rep. John Dingell to compare the rhetoric of that time with that now swirling around the Obama presidency.  Dingell has been a congressman (Democrat serving from Michigan) since 1955– 55 years- and has seen much come and go politically over that time.

He spoke of the harsh tone of the opposition against JFK in the weeks before his assassination in Dallas in 1963, which included an infamous handbill that circulated in the Dallas area in the form of  a wanted poster, portraying JFK as a criminal wanted for treason for imagined crimes against the American people.  Reading the charges on the poster, I am reminded of the current rhetoric and the way it makes baseless claims in a nonspecific manner, using catchwords to incite the willing mind.  It also brought to mind the hate-filled caricatures of Obama that are pushed forward by the right-wing media of the president as a fascist or Muslim socialist.

This constant incitement by a willing, partisan media was one of the differences that Dingell cited between then and now.  Polarized cheerleaders openly pushing there adherents further and further along on a 24 hour newscycle ,  all the time demonizing the opposing side, were not as visible then.  No Fox News nor MSNBC.  No Glenn Beck or Limbaugh .  No Olbermann.  Well, there’s no Olbermann now either since he announced that last night’s show was to be his last.

The point here is that we have become so ignorant of our recent history that we fail to see the patterns and cycles of history that occur, forcing us to possibly relive history over and over like someone with short-term memory loss repeating the same mistake again and again, thinking that this time the results will be different.  We are at a time of change, much as JFK’s term was a time of change for this nation, and there will always be great fear and opposition to even the most needed change.  However, if we look to history we can see that we will endure and emerge better if only we do not succumb to these fears and embrace change.

John Dingell is a bit of living history for us.  Heed his words and learn from his experience, which is our own history.

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