Archive for October, 2011


There is so much stuff out there that one can’t possibly keep up with it all.  I saw a short segment yesterday morning on television about a sort-0f aesthetic movement that I had completely missed in my regular sweeps through popular culture.  It’s steampunk,  based loosely on the early science fiction of the Victorian Era of the 19th and early 20th century.  Think Jules Verne and HG Wells.  It basically reimagines history, melding the technology of that era with that of our own time.  For example, one of the steampunkers had a computer keyboard that was constructed of brass with beautiful round typewriter keys.  It was a spectacular piece of work that he described as being right on place in the Nautilus sunmarine of Captain Nemo.

When I first saw this, I immediately thought of the movie The Time Machine with Rod Taylor as the Time Traveller.  I had saw this again recently and had marvelled at the techno-beauty of the actual Time Machine in the movie, with its decorative curves and beautiful brass surfaces.  It is just the sort of thing that these steampunk followers grabbed onto and made the basis for their movement.  They have translated this look into many items such as the guitar ,shown above, and the motorcycle and laptop, both shown below.

This movement has been the basis for the recent Sherlock Holmes films with Robert Downey, Jr and it certainly looks like something that could easily fall out of any Terry Gilliam film.  Another cited influence on the steampunk movement was the 1960’s TV series The Wild, Wild West , a favorite of mine when I was a kid, which had this same look and use of technology.

I think it’s interesting, especially from a visual perspective.  I love the surfaces, the sweeping design lines and the busy overuse of levers and gauges.  I ‘m just not sure about the folks who follow it in the same way as the Trekkies or Star Wars people.  I’m more surprised that steampunk has been around for about twenty or thirty years and hadn’t come to my attention in some way.  As I said, it’s a big world out there and you can’t keep up with it all.  I’m looking over at a cheap electric guitar in the corner of my studio and am thinking it might look pretty cool with a few brass gears and a vintage steam pressure gauge or two.  Hmmm…….


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I’ve been back in the studio for several days now after a period where I was engaged in doing some maintenance projects around here.  I have been progressively worse at compartmentalizing the tasks in my life so that when I work on something outside the studio I find it difficult to work for short periods in the studio on those days.  As a result, once I am back in the studio I sometimes fall out of rhythm and have to find ways to regain it.  For the first day or so, I seem to flounder around and everything seems just out of sync and flat.  Throw in a material failure like I mentioned in yesterday’s post and it gets to be frustrating.

Yesterday, I finally turned back to my old ally, color.  It seems that whenever I feel this creative frustration color is inevitably the answer for me.  I don’t worry about what I am creating, simply start creating blocks of colors.  Colors that are familiar to me and combinations that I haven’t used for a while.  I aim for bold and dark-edged color then begin manipulating the gradation of the block to create a contrast within it, flushing out the flatness of the last few days.

 It has to be intuitive for me, just grabbing colors and throwing them in.  I’ve never used a colorwheel , never really tried to understand them.  Whenever I have looked at them, the colors never made me want to see or use any of them.  To me, they seemed to take out all of the emotion of the colors and make it dry and tasteless.  I found that by using my own colors and taking the time I could find the emotion in the colors through this exercise.

It’s amazing how this simple exercise in color cleanses away the stifling feeling that had been there before and prods some hidden creative impulse.  Suddenly, momentum is born and begins to move forward.  Rhythm is nearly regained and I look forward to jumping back in today.

Here’s a little Sunday music with a title that fits this post.  It’s Colors from Amos Lee with an assist from Norah Jones.


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Other Failures

Back in March, I wrote a blog entry titled Failure where I discussed briefly how I deal with different aspects of failure as an artist.  One aspect I failed to mention was the possibility of failure due to things I have little control over.  For instance, the failure of materials that I use.

I mention this because of an incident in the last few days.  I was using a different type of panel due to my supplier being temporarily out of stock on my normal brand.  I treated it in the same way as I normally do all my surfaces that are to be painted, applying multiple layers of gesso over several days, giving each layer at least a day to dry before applying the next.  It has been a process that I have used for over a decade with little , if any problems. 

I took one of the newer panels that had been dry for well over a week and began painting.  I painted in my typically wet manner and worked for a little over an hour then set it aside to dry before diving back in.  I have been getting back into the swing and rhythm of my painting after the distractions of finishing several not-art related projects and this felt like a big step in the right direction.  It was vibrant and had edges that my mind was grabbing onto, setting off creative sparks.  The work is sometimes self-propelling.  However, when I came back to this panel, I noticed with some dismay that the surface had delaminated in several spots,  leaving large bubbles of paint, gesso and underlying paper.  It was something that I haven’t seen in years and I was a bit angry at the waste of my time and creative effort due to a material failure, not to mention the several other panels of the same material that I had already prepared that were waitng for me.  I realized that I probably couldn’t use them know, couldn’t trust that they would hold up to my painting process or beyond. 

There’s not much to be done in such situations and, in the bigger scheme of things, it’s not the end of the world.  Just irking to waste effort and lose newly gained momentum.

Another failure came many years ago when I was still painting in my house, before I had a studio of any sort.  I had taken on a project that would turn out to be pivotal to my career and was under a deadline to finish several pieces, all larger than I had attempted up to that point.  One was a large tryptych comprised of three panels.  I had all three panels laid out side-by-side and was working on them, nearing completion, when our cat jumped up on my table and ran across all three panels, leaving blue catprints on each from the paint that she had landed in on her jump to the table.  My heart and mind were immediately racing and I resisted the urge to send our little cat into a sub-orbital journey into space.

All I could see was lost effort, the lost potential.  I knew I could start over but I knew it would be hard to recreate the same rhythm and feel of this work.  Besides I didn’t have the time.  There had to be something that I could do.  I stepped back and just took it all in.  The catprints went completely across all three panels but there was something I saw.    They were all in the upper half of the pieces and had a dancing little rhythm to them.  Maybe they could be masked and incorporated into the piece.

Long story short, the tryptych ended up with several clouds that ran across them entire work, an addition that I think actually enhanced the work.   As with most failures, there were positives to be taken away from the experience.  The clouds were the first of that sort that I had painted into my work and have become regular parts of my vocabulary.   I also learned that there was often a creative  solution to any problems that might arise and that my reaction to such problems should be patient and measured.  Not a bad way to deal with all other problems as well.

Okay.  I could probably list dozens of other mistakes that I’ve faced over my time doing this.  Hell, probably hundreds.  But I have more mistakes to make right now and have to get to work.

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Comeback Cards!

Up late last night watching one of the greater games you’ll ever see in the World Series.  The St. Louis Cardinals made an improbable comeback not once, but twice, both times down to their last strike to end the game.  The game stretched into extra innings and ended after a towering walk-off home run from David Freese of the Cards sent the St. Louis crowd into a frenzy and the Texas Rangers slouching to their clubhouse.  There, the plastic that had been draped over their lockers to protect them from the champagne that was supposed to be popping in celebration had been rolled up and hovered above the downcast players like a symbolic Sword of Damocles.

Even though my team is not here, I am loving this Series and these Cardinals.  I grew up a Cards fan, worshipping Bob Gibson and his teammates, but have strayed away over the years.  So I can’t say they’re my team.  But this team has such a gritty guttiness that I can’t help but root for them.  In the regular season, they staged one of the great comebacks of all time, coming from 10 1/2 games back  just to squeak into the playoffs where they upset the heavily favored Phillies.  They have been big  underdogs here in the Series but somehow keep fighting back against the stacked Rangers.  I keep expecting Nolan Ryan’s head to literally explode at some point during these tense games.

The beauty of the Cards is that they are doing it with players who are not big names, outside of the legendary status of Albert Pujols.  For example, John Jay is an outfielder who has looked so out of his class through much of this series but somehow comes up with two bigs hits in the tightest situations, when the enthusiasm of the Cardinal fans was beginning to wane.  The same for Daniel Descalso, a utility player who will not be showing up on any fantasy baseball rosters anytime soon.  I can’t help but root for guys who don’t realize and don’t care that nobody is expecting them to win.  They are dong something all the big names who didn’t make it this far couldn’t do— playing in the moment.

So, I guess I’ll be watching the Cards tonight and even if they don’t complete what appears to an appointment with destiny by winning, I will watch to the last out.  You never know what these Cardiac Cards are capable of.

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This is a caricature of famed German composer Richard Wagner drawn by the great David Levine.  It was one of the  many,many caricatures that he created in an illustrious career for the New York Review of Books and other major magazines.  Levine was considered the king of caricature and, according to John Updike, was “one of America’s assets.”

I recently obtained this from the West End Gallery from the personal collection of  Thomas Buechner, the late painter/museum director/writer  who had painted with Levine for decades as part of the renowned Painting Group in NYC  (the subject of an HBO documentary in 2007 about the group’s 25 member’s simultaneous portrait of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who sat for them) and had written a book on Levine’s work. 

I really like this piece a lot and like the connection it has to Levine and Buechner’s relationship.  I also know that Buechner was a huge fan of Wagner’s work and had undertaken the illustration of Wagner’s Das Rheingold in 1988.  His work was translated into glass and was subsequently displayed at the Metropolitan Opera when they presented the Wagner epic.  I am excited about the prospect of having such a piece with me in the studio and hope it brings even a small bit of inspiration.

You’re probably all most familiar with Wagner through the use of his music in populkar culture such as it’s use in the film Apocalypse Now where it was the soundtrack for the calvary’s helicopter attack.  My favorite use of his music is, of course, as the inspiration for the Bugs Bunny classic, What’s Opera, Doc?   But to show the music in its natural environment, here’s Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphonic Orchestra with a little taste.

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Last year on this blog, I talked about a piece that I was commissioned to paint translating the Greek myth of Baucis and Philemon, the couple that were spared by the Zeus because of the deep love they shared and the humility and generosity they displayed.  They lived on in eternity as a pair of trees growing from the same trunk.  I did not translate the piece literally but used my visual vocabulary to convey the qualities that I think make up the couple.  All in all, I think it was a very successful piece.

I was recently asked to paint another version based on this same myth after the person requesting it had seen my first take on it.  The result is shown here.  It has a more celebratory feel than the first version and has a real sense of optimism in its color and composition.  I think it has a very different overall feel than the first but really hits the mark. 

It’s not always easy when I am asked to produce a painting based on another painting of mine.  There are so many little variables that make a painting successful, sometimes things that I have no control over or an action of mine of which I might not even be aware. Sometimes even the time of the year makes a difference.  For instance, right now , it is cooler in the studio than earlier in the year.  As a result, the surfaces dry at different rates and sometimes there is a subtle difference in the way certain colors dry and adhere.  So a color painted in July may not turn out absolutely the same in October.  Fortunately, for this request the colors and format were different so it was not a matter of replicating the first version. 

I hope this painting serves its new owners well and well represents their own time together.  It’s been my pleasure to have folks like this use my work as a symbol for a part of their lives.

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Xavier Mellery

‘He who will manage to have us forget colour and form at the price of emotion will achieve the highest goal of all.’

—Xavier Mellery (1841-1925)


I’ve been spending the last several days putting a new roof on part of my home, so haven’t been as productive in the studio as I would like.  But I have been looking at imagery when I can, much of it some of the symbolist painters who have shown up here in the past few weeks.  One painter whose work always makes me stop and spend a few moments looking is the Belgian painter Xavier Mellery, another artist whose name is not well known to the general public.  In fact, there is not a lot of info to be found.

Mellery did some typical representative work in his career that was quite nice.  Some of his interior scenes are beautifully done and are very filled with a contemplative ponderance.  For instance, After Evening Prayers, shown below, has a wondrful sense of quiet atmosphere, most fitting for the subject.   But the work that really stands out for me are his allegories set against solid, often golden,  backgrounds.  Many incorporate text that speak to large concepts such as death and immortality, such as the piece shown here, Immortality.  They are beautiful in design and execution and, as I say, always stop me in my tracks as I thumb through the few books that contain their images.  I am glad to have come across them and feel inspirations in them that I hope wwill someday show through in my own work.


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I’ve written here before about the joys of digging through one’s genealogy and finding little bits about your family that have been hidden for generations.  Before I started, I knew next to nothing about my family’s history.  There had been practically nothing handed down and there seemed to be little interest in its past.  For all I knew, we had crawled from under a rock about a hundred years ago and were suddenly just here.  There were times when that seemed like a logical explanation.

But over time, I have uncovered a great depth of material, the sort of things that all families certainly have in their own pasts, that have been really gratifying and have made me feel much more connected to this world and this country than I felt at times before.  I’ve found descendents who fought on both sides of the Revolutionary War, the British Loyalist side being pushed up into Canada before coming back here generations later.  I’ve had many who fought in the Civil War, including a gr-gr-great grandfather who emigrated here from Scotland and fought for the Union  and was a captive at Andersonville.  Another was a nearly 60 year old Canadian who had settled in the northern Adirondacks and enlisted and served with his son, my great-grand uncle.

All folks of which I was unaware of growing up.  The ease of researching today makes this connection to one’s past so much simpler that I, like so many others, can easily fill in the black voids of our own history.

One of my favorites was another gr-gr-great grandfather, someone of who I knew absolutely nothing.  His name was Joseph Harris and when he died, the local newspaper, the Wellsboro Agitator ( I love the name of that paper!), ran a headline for his obit that stated  Well Known Musician Dies.  It went on to say that he had been the US banjo champion at one point in his life.  I have to say that I was pleased by this, even though I had never even heard of this man before my research and his musical talent didn’t trickle down through the generations to me. 

Again, my stories are not exceptional.  We all have this rich fabric in our past that binds us to history and ultimately together if we only choose to look beyond what we see in the present.  Perhaps we can discover more about who we are as a people by examining our families’ pasts.  I know that I feel more invested in my life and my country than I did before doing this research.  And I guess that is a good thing.



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I heard from the filmmaker, Eric Krasner, who made the video, Yiddish Hillbillies,  that I used in Friday’s blogpost.  I will write more about Mr. Krasner’s work in another post but while looking through some of the oddities that he shows on his  CineGraphic Studios’s YouTube channel, I came across something that was off my radar screen– the Soundies.

Soundies were short, 2-3 minute, films that were produced primarily in the 1940’s to be shown in Panoram machines, coin operated devices that were often placed in bars, bus stations and coffee houses.  They projected a 16mm film from the rear onto a screen at the front, much like a TV in viewing , or into a peepshow setup where only one person could view the film.  They were pretty big at the time and many, many films were produced for these video jukeboxes.  There were music videos featuring the top bands and performers, both white and black, of the era as well as comedy bits and cheesecake videos with strippers that seem pretty mild by today’s standards.  I had seen some of these videos before but didn’t realize this was the machine for which they were produced.

With the huge growth of popularity of the television in the 1950’s, the Panoram machines fell out of favor but the films that they spawned are still around and are a treasure trove of rare performances.  Here’s a short promo video from a PBS documentary on the Soundies that gives a taste of the films.

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Hogback Heaven

Looking through some old work, most of which was done early on while I was still forming my technique and style and before I showed my work publicly, I came across this oddity that I noted as Hogback Heaven.  It’s a goofy little scene of a rough hewn home and yard somewhere out on a back country road, the kind of place that I often passed years ago in my treks on the backroads around my home area.  All that is missing here from my memories of those places are a barking hound and a toddler in a sagging diaper playing in the gravel of the driveway. 

Whenever I come across this piece, I have to smile.  I don’t know if it’s the subject or the crazy electric feel of the cobalt blue sky and hills and the red neon outlines of the house and ground.  I’m still trying to figure out where that color came from.  Maybe it’s a smile of embarassment that this little painting is hovering in my past.  But there’s something in it that makes me not want to destroy it. 

I wanted to set this post to some fitting music and in my search came across this other sort of oddity.  Called Yiddish Hillbillies, it’s a vintage 40’s era cartoon that has had the soundtrack replaced ( in a very clever and coordinated way) with a song from Mickey Katz.  Katz was a comedian who specialized in Jewish humor, with Yiddish-tinged song parodies of contemporary songs of the time being his specialty.  Think Borscht Riders in the Sky or Sixteen Tons (of Latkes).  While much of the Yiddish-tinged wording goes over my head I do enjoy the klezmer feel here.  A note on Mickey Katz:  His son is actor Joel Grey which makes him the grandfather of actress Jennifer Grey.

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