Archive for April, 2011

Happy Birthday

It’s my Dad’s birthday today.  That’s him on the right in an old photo,and one of my favorites, from about 50 years ago when he was working at a little used car  lot that my uncle used to run in Elmira.  I always loved this picture and that kind of cocky attitude of  it.  It really captures a particular time for me and I can almost smell the oily ground and the dusty interiors of those old  1950’s cars I used to play in and around.

The fellow on the other side of that sweet Chevy Impala  was Jesse Gardner, who also worked with my Dad at the Sheriff’s Department and actually played a small part in my beginning to show my work many years later.   Although I didn’t know it at the time, his son, Tom, a well known painter, was the owner of the West End Gallery in Corning.  I used to visit the gallery before I even started painting and often had long conversations with Tom that eventually led to him taking a look at my work and inviting me to show there.  When I learned that he was Jesse’s son I was surprised I hadn’t put it together before since the two had a strikingly similar appearance.

Growing up, I was a pretty constant companion to my Dad.  Being the youngest by several years, I probably spent more time alone with Dad than my sister or brother, especially as they moved into their late teens.  We spent a lot of time over the years at the Finger Lakes Race Track, a thoroughbred horse track  in Canandaigua.  Maybe not what most would consider an ideal place for impressionable kids but I enjoyed that world at the time and I enjoyed my time with Dad.  We would listen to country stations on the radio on the hour and a half drive there.  I particularly remember us  listening to the news from Paul Harvey with his distinctive take on the world and songs like A Boy Named Sue from Johnny Cash and many others.  Whenever I think of that ride, the song that comes to mind is Counting Flowers on the Wall from the Statler Brothers.  It seems like we heard that many times and we both seemed to enjoy it as we glided through that Finger Lakes landscape that was often filled with the smells of fresh cabbages in the fields.

Anyway, we don’t make a big deal out of birthdays in our family but I did want to say Happy Birthday to my old man down in Florida.  Have a great day, Dad.  Here’s a song for you.

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Mark Twain's "Eve's Diary" Title Page - by Lester Ralph

There is a slate of activities scheduled tonight at the historic Park Church in my hometown of Elmira to commemorate this city’s part in an episode that Mark Twain chronicled in a very short vignette called A Monument to Adam.  It seems that Twain had made an offhand comment at one point in the late 1870’s to the then minister of Park Church, Thomas K. Beecher, who was the  brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe and Henry Ward Beecher and a favorite drinking buddy of the famed writer.  It was in the era when the evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin were taking hold of the wider population and Twain, in speaking of Darwin with Beecher, joked that the biblical Adam had altogether been overlooked by the naturalist and that  he would surely soon be forgotten.  He then suggested, with tongue even more firmly planted in cheek, that Elmira should erect a monument to Adam that would keep his name alive as well as serve as a great boon to local tourism.

Much to his surprise, the idea took off locally and soon he was in meetings with bankers who pledged thousands of dollars to erect the monument and began to solicit designs from all over, some from Paris, as Twain notes.  Elmira was on its way to becoming a tourist mecca.  Or so the locals thought.

The Park Church, Elmira NY

Twain felt it was always a ridiculous idea and, in an effort to curtail its momentum, wrote a request to be read before the congress asking the federal government to erect the monument, knowing full well that once the idea was presented it would be ridiculed and would soon be forgotten.  But the representative wouldn’t read it because he felt that it was so seriously written and sentimental that they might just consider it in earnest. 

Of course, the idea ran out of steam and was soon set aside only to revived later as a short article by Twain.  Elmira never became a tourist destination, outside of the folks who come to see Twain’s gravesite.   But tonight the idea lives on again in that same church where Twain would periodically listen to the preaching of Beecher.

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I’m sitting here wondering if the birthers will finally go away now that President Obama has given them what they claimed they sought.  I know I shouldn’t wonder such things because it’s obvious that this was never about a birth certificate, never about where the man was born.  If it was as simple as that, the question was answered long ago.  No, this is about intolerance, about a group of people being willing to accept any contrivance of a story that delegitimizes the man that they cannot accept as president because  of his differences from them.  Differences like his ideology and his intellect, where he definitely differs from them.  Differences like the Muslim roots of his name.  Like the color of his skin. 

Though this has been a dark blot of shame on our country, I am sure it will not end even now.  The hatred of these people knows no reason and will find a new lie to rally around.  New conspiracies raised by the winking shepherds of this willing flock.  And the media will sit by, unquestioning as it allows the lie to build.

Ah, it’s frustrating to see such unchecked hatred and idiocy. 

Here’s a song, Shoot Out the Lights, from Richard Thompson.  It was the title song from a highly acclaimed 1982 album from him and his then wife, Linda, that acted as a document of the end of their marriage.  I’ve always liked the imagery the title brings to mind, of someone shooting out the lights to mark the finality of something ending.  Let’s shoot out the lights on this birther business.

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I’ve been continuing this recent series of  patterned  landscapes, most on paper,  in the studio the past few weeks, falling into a very nice rhythm as I proceed.  This is a recent completion, an 18″ by 25″ image on paper, that has the Red Tree as the central figure in a quiet but bright composition.  The patterned fields of the landscape, like many of the paintings in this series, takes up about half of the composition, solidly built as a foundation to hold up the breaking sky above.

I’m still thinking about what to call this piece.  There is a sense of the idyllic in the scene, hunkered away safely from the intruding fingers of the greater world.  I suppose that’s why I find this work so satisfying as I paint.  There’s a comforting aspect in this work for me.  Soothing. Pacifying.

There’s also a simplicity in it but I would not call it naive.  I have a feeling that while this is an idealization and the landscape portrays the comfortable and safe, there is also an awareness of the world outside.  As though the Red Tree is cognizant of its good fortune in being rooted in this tranquil place.  Perhaps that should be its title- Good Fortune.

Let me think on that…

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Last week after a post I wrote about one man’s artistic transfromation after experiencing a stroke, Al, a longtime reader, sent me a link to an interesting site about the imagined world of another man whose life had been similarly transformed and whose story is told in a documentary, Marwencol, which airs tonight on the PBS  series, Independent Lens. It’s also available streaming on Netflix. 

This fellow, Mark Hogancamp, didn’t suffer brain damage due to a stroke.  He was beaten and stomped by five young men outside a Kingston, NY bar back in 2000 to the point that he lost large chunks of his memory including that of his actual identity.  He slowly began to gather bits and pieces of his past in rehabilitation but the trauma of the attack lingered, deeply carved into his pysche.  When the Medicare funding for his rehab ran out Hogancamp started his own therapy.

That’s when Marwencol was born.  Marwencol is the name of  a small fictional Belgian village in the  World War II era world that Hogancamp’s mind began to form.  Hogancamp began a new life in the character of an American GI who found his wayto this place where all of the men were either off to war or had been killed by the German SS.  The only inhabitants of Marwencol were the women who had survived by hiding from the SS and who, in a show of their appreciation for Hogancamp, gave him the village tavern.  The towns inhabitants and the other GI’s who come to Marwencol are all fashioned and named after friends of Hogancamp.

Hogancamp, using small dolls (Barbies are used as the women) and roughly made buildings made from found lumber, recreated the village and scenes  from his Marwencol stories then photographed them.  It’s a grim world where the SS, often in groups of five, are a constant threat.  His photos are highly realistic and vividly compelling, giving a sense of experience that goes beyond the narrative of the photos and into the mind of Hogancamp.

I was able to see the documentary last week and liked it a lot, finding parts that were uplifting and humorous, including his discovery upon coming home from rehab for the first time  that he owned a couple of hundred pairs of women’s shoes and didn’t know why.  Hogancamp’s world of Marwencol is a triumph of the creative mind in coping with the reality of a very harsh existence.  But as the film ends,  there is a tinge of sadness as Hogancamp remains a very fragile, damaged soul.  I found myself hoping that he finds some way to keep this creative part alive and still find peace so that he doesn’t have to live the rest of his life in Marwencol, always under attack from the dark forces that haunt his past.

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Walk while ye have the light, lest darkness come upon you.

—— John Ruskin

These words from Ruskin might have meaning in both a practical and a spiritual sense.  Simply put words of advice for the traveler: Move forward while the road ahead is visible.  Words that apply also to the internal traveler, those trapped in a twilight world inside where they always seem on the edge of darkness.
I think this fits this new piece that I call Knowing Darkness.  It’s a small painting, just 6″ by 6″ on masonite, done in a style that I have used periodically pver the years, most notably in my Outlaws pieces of a few years back.  The Outlaws were  singular figure, some with handguns, all done in this same dark black/sepia tone where the image is not really light  painted on but darkness carved away.  The technique is a throwback to my earliest attempts at painting when I was still thinking of the surface as being a solid surface in which the image was sculpted. 
While these pieces are always darkly introspective, they always seem to bring me a certain excitement in doing them, as though the bits of light being revealed are new light for me as well.  Like I am pulling away a certain personal darkness with each bit of white surface that breaks through.  In that respect, I find these pieces more hopeful than their outward appearance suggests.
This piece is no different.  When I look at this piece it says to me that you can know darkness without dwelling in it. 

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I wasn’t going to post anything today but when I flipped on the television first thing this morning to check out the news an episode of “I Love Lucy” was on with Ricky singing a beautiful song called Similau.  I’ve seen every episode of the show many, many times over the years and am always amazed at how talented Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz were.

Everyone knows about Lucy’s comedic sklils but it’s her dancing that I really admire.  She plays up the clumsiness in her  comedy dance routines creating bits that make me laugh every time I see them.  But periodically she flashes the grace and movement of a real dancer.  I don’t think a less talented dancer could create the comedic effect of her often failed dance attempts on the show.

Desi also flashed his wonderful talents on the show, both as a comedian and a real entertainer.  There are a number of his performances of songs on the show that I find really really fascinating with their Cuban beats that were popular in that time.  Of course, there was his signature Babalu but it’s songs like this one, Similau, that captivate me.  Not what you’d expect from one of the most popular sitcoms of all time.

I couldn’t find the version of the song from the show which featured a really interesting and more pronounced rhythmic counterpoint but this is an equally fine version taken from the Peggy Lee radio  show of that time. 

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Easter Egg?

Not your typical Easter egg, I suppose.  Certainly different than the brightly colored eggs of my youth.

Back then I never knew much about the origin of the egg in the Easter tradition.  Never gave it much thought at all.  But there is a story behind that iconic egg.  Like the rabbit which has come to symbolize Easter as well, the egg stems from the pagan Easter festival  which celebrated both as symbols of fertility and the emerging new life of spring.  The coloring of the eggs, done in earliest times by boiling the eggs with flowers petals, also symbolized the budding colors of spring.

For the Christians part, the egg also had a part in their tradition.  There is a legend that states that  Caesar summoned Mary Magdalene before him after the crucifixion of Jesus, and upon hearing her claims that Jesus had been resurrected is claimed to have said, pointing at a nearby basket of eggs,” Christ has not risen, no more than that egg is red.”  At that point  the eggs supposedly turned red.  Many orthodox Christians traditionally color their eggs red to symbolize this story as well as the sacrificial blood of Christ.

There’s also a pragmatic part to the story of the Easter egg.  The festival of Lent, the 40 days prior to Easter that symbolize Jesus’ 40 days spent fasting in the desert, had long had a prohibition on all meats and animal by-products including milk and eggs.  This created quite a surplus of eggs which would have went to waste in those days long before modern refrigeration without their preservation by boiling.

Now, where the topless lady in this Victorian era image falls into the story, I have not a clue.

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Blue II- Joan Miro

When I’m painting, which is most of the time, there are occasional shifts in the work from day to day.  Sometimes they just happen without any forethought, an adding of an element here or there to change the balance of a composition or the touch of a color that may have been absent from the palette for some time. 

Then there are conscious decisions made in advance of coming work, such as the decsion ot work in a certain size or medium.  I came across some older work lately in my archives that made me make such a consious decision.  It was a group of  mainly nocturnal scenes done in deep gem-like transparent  blues.  They have a stark and moody feel and, while I always have really thought highly of them, have been out of my repertoire for some time. I’ve got to make an effort to revisit this work and see what emerges.  There’s something different in approaching a painting as an examination of  solely color rather than as harmonizing a landscape’s composition.  The focus on color seems to create its own mood and drama, one that comes across off the wall even in the starkest of compositions.
We shall see.  For now, here’s a video that speaks to the subject for me.  It’s Dave Brubeck’s Bluette played over the wondeful work of Joan Miro.  Enjoy.

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Valley Bountiful

I am calling this painting Valley Bountiful.  It’s a new 30″ by 30″ canvas that is a continuance of a recent group of work that focuses on the patterned fields and tree groupings that make up the foreground, all feeding to the central figure of the Red Tree. 

I’m really enjoying this recent streak of work.  There’s a sense of fullness, or completeness, in these pieces that really gratifies me.  I see this in the density of the color,  in the depth of the picture plane into which the scene pushes and in the way the fields comes together.

  I may not be able to explain what I fully mean by the word fullness here.  Maybe it feels as though there is a sense of self-containment in the piece, an autonomy that allows the painting to live fully on its own in its own self-described world.  I have always described a piece as being successful if it takes on a life of its own, to have their own voice and vocabulary and existing in their own time and place.  These pieces seem to fully embody this.  They seem fully alive, dwelling completely in their own idealized world.

All that I can ask.

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