Archive for February, 2011

Tomorrow is the first day of March.  It was in this month 100 years ago, that the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory caught fire, killing 146 garment workers, mostly women and children.  It was discovered that the factory owner had locked the exits to prevent workers from leaving early.  This was an event that brought to light the plight of workers and how they were often subjected to exploitation and dangerous work environments.  It led to the growing support of labor unions and a crusade for labor and safety reform.

Tonight, PBS is airing an episode of The American Experience that features all the grisly details of the Triangle Fire, highlighting the events and factors leading up to the fire along with its consequences.  It’s an interesting time to be showing this show with this national movement currently afoot to destroy labor unions and strip away many of the regulatory controls placed on businesses.  It’s an object lesson in what can happen in an unregulated environment and I recommend it for all those who feel that an unbridled free market will solve all our ills. 

This episode airs at 9 PM in most areas and will be available also on the PBS website within a week or so.

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We’re deep in snow now, a couple of feet now built up over the ground outside my studio and coating the trees, making the evergreen limbs bow deeply .  When I go outside there’s wonderful stillness, the blanket of whiteness muffling all sound.  There’s a very meditative quality in big snowfalls as though time even trudges slower through the deep snow

‘Tis beautiful.

I don’t feel like writing today.  Feel like painting.  Here’s an atmospheric song from June Tabor, accompanied by one of my favorite guitarists, Martin Simpson.  It’s called Scarecrow and is wonderfully understated.  The quiet and the pauses give this song great weight.  Like the morning after a big snow.

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I’ve started working on a few new pieces on paper, taking a short break from the larger additive paintings that have occupied me for the past few months.  One of the first was this painting, about 7″ by 12″, which is a continuation of last year’s black and white series.  I thought it would be best to dive back into this work with some black and white work to regather the feel and rhythm of the medium.

I call this black and white but it’s pretty evident that this is not completely accurate.  I still use bits of color, usually muted tones of red or yellow, and the rest is really black and gray.  Actually, now that I think about it, I think I was calling this my gray work several months back.  Writing or talking about the work is the only reason I try to label the styles I use.  In my mind, they are simply different and labels don’t matter.

This reentry into this work on paper is always interesting because there are always tweaks in the colors.  The time away from this style has cleansed the palette and gives me a new chance to see the colors and combinations in a new light.  While there is a continuum with obvious traits and colors in my work,  going back through the years and reviewing my work on a year by year basis shows these tweaks in an obvious way.  Some years, the predominant work is very bright with almost a gleaming white underneath that makes the work glow.  Very clean, very bright and light.  Other years, the colors are deeper and crowd together densely giving the work a very rich feel.  Some years are dominated by cerain colors. In these years there will be mainly blues or golden yellows or deep oranges that seem to jump out from every piece.

Every year is different even in a similar fashion.  So as I go back in for this year I am eager to see how the year evolves and what trail I will follow.  Looking at this piece allows me to see several pieces into the future.  Many new pieces have that effect.  They spark something, some new idea or rhythm, that I instantly visualize and, if things go as I see them, eventually find their way out into the world.  Sometimes they evaporate before I can capture them and I then find myself struggling to recall that spark, that idea.  It’s like trying to recall a story, something someone told you in passing several before.  You can remember being told something but the details just won’t come.  So you let it go and one day something will spark that thought and suddenly bring back the whole story in detail.  That’s what often happens when I look at my work– it brings back ideas that have laid dormant in my mmemory for a long period of time.

So when I look at a piece like this, I take pleasure in the painting itself but also in the inspiration it provides for subsequent pieces.  When this is happening, I know I’m back in rhythm and the work usually shows this.

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The labor movement was the principal force that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress. Out of its bold struggles, economic and social reform gave birth to unemployment insurance, old-age pensions, government relief for the destitute and, above all, new wage levels that meant not mere survival but a tolerable life. The captains of industry did not lead this transformation; they resisted it until they were overcome. When in the thirties the wave of union organization crested over the nation, it carried to secure shores not only itself but the whole society.

Martin Luther King, Jr.


I had promised myself that I would stop interjecting political views into this forum but watching the events of the last week taking place in Wisconsin and across this country has forced me to break that promise.  Labor is, and has been for some time, under attack from the so-called captains of industry and their minions in government and that is truly a tragic event for the working class of this country, many of whom have no idea of the history behind the labor movement.  Most don’t realize that many of the things they take for granted  in the workplace , like a 40 hour workweek and minimum wages, are there because of workers from prior generations banding together to demand tolerable working conditions and a living wage.  They can’t see that unions have raised the boats of all workers, union and non-union. 

This nation has been seeing a decline in the middle class for some time now, with there now being the greatest disparity in wealth between the upper and lower classes since the years just before the Great Depression.  It has been shown historically that we prosper as a whole when the workers of this country prosper and the workers are under attack now.  We have been convinced in the great echo chamber of the media controlled by powerful corporations that taxcuts and bailouts for corporations (the faceless captains of industry) are acceptable and necessary, costing us countless billions of dollars.  It is forbidden to ask corporations making billions of dollars in profits to pay their true tax liabilities without concessions but to demand that the rights and benefits of those with the least power, the workers, be sacrificed is acceptable.  

Those in power, and those who kowtow to them, will always seek more and more from those they hold power over and will use all the means within their reach to hold on to this staus quo.  As King said, the prosperity of the middle class was not given freely by the captains of industry.  They were forced in to it and the nation as a whole, the powerful included, benefitted.

There’s so much to say on this subject, so many words to spew out about the value of the working class and how we must lift it back to its feet if we ever hope to once again see widespread prosperity in this country.  Too many for this simple blog.  This is not a small fight in Wisconsin.  It affects all America and should not be taken lightly.  Unions have long been demonized and, admittedly, have had some problems.   But we need the unions if only as a firewall against the ever increasing greed of the powerful and to give many small voices a larger voice. 

As the great Union leader John L. Lewis said: Let the workers organize. Let the toilers assemble. Let their crystallized voice proclaim their injustices and demand their privileges. Let all thoughtful citizens sustain them, for the future of Labor is the future of America.

Stand strong, Wisconsin.


After I posted this I came across an interesting article by Constitutional scholar Linda Monk titled How Unions Saved the Constitution that states:

Make no mistake: What is at risk in Wisconsin, and every state in America, is the quality of life that American workers have fought — and died — for during the past century. When plutocrats like the Koch brothers tell the governor of an American state to roll back the clock on public employees, they are seeking to end protections for all workers. The Kochs are part of an ideological movement that hopes to end all legislation controlling wages, hours, and workplace safety — returning America to a “Social Darwinism” that ensures survival of the fittest (read: richest). This is the constitutional theory that prevailed before the New Deal. To these extremists, Ayn Rand is on par with James Madison.

If you can, plesase check out this article.

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Plumbing on the March

I came across this video from the BBC that features the work of Dutch artist Theo Jansen, kinetic sculptures called strandbeests.  Made from simple PVC pipe, an inexpensive product found in any hardware store, Jansen has over the years created creatures that prowl the Dutch beaches, starting first with smaller ones that required Jansen to pull them along until evolving to larger, more intricate beasts that are wind powered.  He evens mentions that these creatures have the ability to detcet and avoid obstacles.  It’s an ingenius blending of art and engineering.

Plus it’s just neat to watch.

The BBC video is a nice intro to his work and more can be found at his Strandbeest website, which features more short videos of his many creations in motion.  Maybe you’ll see one on a beach near you soon.

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I see this new piece, a 12″ by 24″ canvas, more as a meditation than a scene.  There is rhythm in the motion of the path’s ascent as well as a rhythm in the chaotic nature of the underlying texture that gives this painting its name, Rhythm of the Mountain.  As I first started painting I had every intention of inserting a tree to act as the focal point of the piece but as I progressed it became evident that it would actually pull away from the meditative simplicity of the barren landscape.  The sun/moon becomes the central figure here and the mountain pass leads the eye upward to it.

I am drawn to the simplicity of this piece.  It has a dramatic calmness to it, like the actor delivering a soliloquy who takes a dramatic pause and in that moment there hangs all that has come before alongside the potential of what is to come, held up for the audience to ponder in the silence of that pause.  Empty yet full.

I mentioned the texture of this piece and it plays a central role here.  It has ribbons of gesso that spin  across the canvas which in the sky actually dictated how I was to paint it.  It gives this piece a greater depth and this would be a much different painting without it.

I can’t say if this will appeal to everyone but that’s something I can’t worry about.  The important thing is in satisfying something inside myself and hoping that others recognize that same thing within themselves and identify with it.  Hopefully, this piece will strike an inner chord with others.

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Music to Plow By

Monday morning and it’s snowing hard outside.  My morning will be filled with shovelling and plowing  and not painting, which throws off my rhythm a bit.  But that’s a small price to pay for the beauty of the snow outside, coating the tree limbs and glowing white and clean.  It’s gorgeous out my window.

I thought I’d play a bit of music today and found a lovely piece from Esperanza Spalding.  I have to admit that she was not on my radar before the last few weeks, when she emerged into the larger public’s consciousness with her Grammy win as Best New Artist, beating out teen heartthrob Justin Bieber.  I guess an upright bass playing  jazz chanteuse (who was teaching at Berklee at age 20!) probably seems an unlikely choice over the teenie bopper who inspires Bieber Fever.  But finally hearing and seeing her play, as well as hearing of her life story,  has convinced me.  Just good stuff, whether you like jazz or not.

Give a listen:

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I was really amazed when I first came across these items and their back story only makes them more intriguing to me.  They are bottles of sand where different colored grains of sand are manipulated, without use of glues or any bonding agents, to create highly detailed images and patterns.  These were created by Andrew Clemens who lived in Iowa and died in 1894 at the age of 37.

Clemens was stricken at an early age with encephalitis which left him deaf and practically mute.  He encountered the art of sandpainting at about age 13 and began to search the local terrain for different colors of sand which he incorporated into his craft.  With practice he moved from simple layers and geometric patterns into more and more intricate patterns, even replicating photographs with ornate shading.

As I noted above, Clemens used no glues in his painting, using only the pressure of the surrounding grains of sand to keep his images in place.  To manipulate the sand he created his own tools from pieces of hickory and fish hooks.  It’s a classic case of an artist finding a medium that fits the way his mind operates. 

When finished, Clemens would pack the jar tightly and seal it.  As his abilities grew so did his notoriety.  His jars soon became fairly popular with orders coming in from around Iowa and the rest of the country.  Small jars sold for a dollar or two and larger ones sold for 6 or 8.  Today, the larger, intricate ones like those at the top of the page would sell for $50-100,000 according to experts.  That is, if they came up for sale.  There are not too many left.  Not only because of the short life of Clemens.  His work had an ephemeral quality.  A slip of the hand and a beautiful work of art becomes a pile of sand and glass, never to be put back together. 

The more I see of these pieces from Clemens, the more amzed I am at his ability to break down an image and render it grain by grain, almost as though each grain were an individual pixel in a modern digital image.  He truly found a medium that meshed with his vision and abilities and thankfully much of his work still survives in collections for us to see.

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This painting called Dissolve is another in the series I’ve been working in for the past few months.  This 24″ by 36″ piece is based very much on the same format as Like Sugar In Water, which I displayed here several days back.  Both paintings grow from the bottom where they begin in structured blocks of color.  The path cuts through, rising from the geometry of the fields up to a plain that flattens out.  The path continues by the red-roofed house and is not seen again as it enters the broad yellow field that runs to the horizon.  The path’s upward movement is continued in  the spreading bare limbs of the distant tree which merges into the broken mosaic of the sky.

It’s a simple concept and a simple composition, dependent on the complexity of the color and the placement of the elements in order to transmit feeling and emotion.  These simpler compositions, when done so that they work well, are often very potent purveyors of feeling and are among my persoanl favorites.  The stripped down nature of the scene takes away all distractions and centers the essence of the work in the willing viewer’s eyes, making it very accessible to those who connect with it.  And that is much of what I hope for my work- to create work that stirs strong emotion within a seeming;ly simple context.

Maybe there’s more to it than this.  I can’t be sure if my thoughts and interpretations are any more valid than those of a first-time viewer.  That’s the great thing about art– there are no absolutes.  It’s also the thing about art that scares a lot of people.  Many people fear the gray areas of this world, of which there are many,  and desire absolute belief and knowledge in all aspects of their lives.   But art most often  lives in the ambiguity, the uncertainty,  of those gray areas and that can be unsettling to some. 

 Dissolve seems absolute and certain at first glance but is all about the gray areas of our world and our belief.  At least as I see it…

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Northern Lights

Earlier this week there were reports that the Northern Lights might be visible in our area, a fairly rare occurrence.  Unfortunately, from our viewpoint it wasn’t visible.  I’ve only seen these lights two times from where I live and I remember them being quite mesmerizing as a child, riding with my father in the car one evening with my eyes glued to the northern sky.  Even now, when I see images of the lights I am immediately filled with  the desire to pick up my brush and run dashes of color through other colors.

Here’s a pretty good video of the changing lights set to music played by a 7 year old Emily Bear.  Quite nice.

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