Archive for November, 2011

I recently finished this new painting, an 18″ by 26″ piece on paper, that is the newest addition to my Archaeology series.  Titled Archaeology: Rainbow’s End,  this painting features the subterranean debris field that marks this series including some of the recurring icons that show up in most,  or at least many, of the pieces in this series.  There’s a shoe, a peace symbol, a red chair, a self-referential painting and a mask, amon many other little bits and pieces.

I don’t know if there’s something in my psychology that is at risk here , some flaw that I’ve managed to hide from the world that might be exposed in this field of trash.  If so, I guess that’s risk I’m willing to make.  I really like the feel of this group and the way it creates a rhtymic pattern in the underground that feels like faded wallpaper in an old house, which is pretty fitting.  There’s a sense of the nostalgic here perhaps enhanced by the warmth of the sky above, aglow in reds and gold.

The Rainbow’s End part of the title comes from the colors of the strata above the artifacts.  Whenver I loooked at this piece that immediately struck me and I began to think of this as the rainbow painting over the long time that I worked on this piece.  I worked on this in bits and pieces for several months, never quite wanting to finish this particular painting.  Even now, after it is done and headed out to what will certainly be a new home, I have regrets about finishing it, as though it represents a personal piece.  Maybe there is something in that trash heap that I haven’t recognized yet.  I don’t know.

Maybe this hesitation to let a piece like this go is the reason I do so few of the Archaeology paintings lately.  As well as the longer time it takes to finsih these paintings, there also does seem to be a different type of mental investment in these pieces.  Like pouring out all the detritus that has accumulated in my mind over time for all the world to see.  There is less control in this than in the painting of a landscape, at least in how the pieces are read by the viewer. 

Maybe that’s it.  Again, I don’t know.  I never do.  So, I keep painting in the hope that I will find something that finally does let me know.  Maybe there’s something in this debris that I’ve missed.  I better look again…

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  This song is That’s a Rockin’ Good Way sung by Dinah Washington and Brook Benton amd it made it to #7 on the Pop charts and #1 on the R&B charts in 1959.  I heard this song on the radio yesterday and it made me think about Washington’s career and legacy.

Known as both the Queen of the Jukeboxes and Queen of the Blues, Washington was one of the biggest recording stars of the 1950’s, singing jazz, blues and pop songs with her earthy delivery.   Her body of work is impressive yet she is seldom mentioned alongside the other jazz greats such as Ella Fitzgerald or Billie Holiday.  In fact, she is little known today which is a shame not only because so many are missing out on her vast talent but because her story is such a compelling story. 

There are all the elements of great drama in her biography, her rise from a poor girl in Alabama to her great success as a major recording artist being only one aspect.  There were all the men in her lives including 8 or 9 marriages, depending on which source you believe, and a number of other lovers.  There was her battle with drugs and alcohol as well as a struggle with her weight which led to emotional swings that found her fighting with everyone around her, including her fans at times.  There was the constant struggle with her record company for the respect she deserved.  She had a big, big personality and finally seemed to be coming into her own as an artist when an accidental overdose brought her life to a close in 1963.  She was only 39.  There’s a nice concise bio online from jounalist Dean Robbins that I recommend.

So, here’s just a small sample of her talent.  Hopefully, her legacy will continue to grow…

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This is a new painting that is about 8″ high by 26″ wide on paper.  I call this piece Azilum,  using the French form of asylum or place of refuge.  There is a place not too far from here in Northern Pennsylvania that is called French Azilum, which was formed around the time of the French Revolution as a place where the aristocracy forced to flee the guillotine could find refuge.  While the French Revolution was based very much on our American Revolutionary principles, many members of the aristocracy had helped our cause in many ways, including fighting alongside us,  and when the tide turned at home against them, we offered them a place to which they could escape.

French Azilum was built on 1600 acres of land along the Susquehanna River in Bradford County and was a relatively short lived experiment, pretty much ending when Napoleon offered repatriation for these exiles.  The place was pretty much gone by 1803 as the population disbanded, having left for France and other locations here in the states.  The dream of the French Court regrouping in the Pennsylvania wilderness never really came about.

I don’t know that this piece has any direct connection with French Azilum but the dream of safe haven that it embodies certainly does fit the bill here.  The warmth and intensity of the colors make it very inviting and there is a tangible sense of calm around the central Red Tree.  A very meditative quality, far removed from the dangers and influence of the outside world.  Something that I think was probably hoped for by those exiled Frenchmen in their shangri-la on the Susquehanna back in the day.

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 These signs were placed on the company vehicles of US Cranes LLC in northern Georgia several months ago.  It has only been in the last week or two that the signs, which say New Company Policy: We Are Not Hiring Until Obama Is Gone, have went viral.  The company received so many angry emails and phone messages that it had to shut down its website and phonelines.  The owner, Bill Looman, was portrayed in news reports as someone who was a poor misunderstood soul who wanted to hire but simply couldn’t afford to because of the policies of President Obama.

The company’s website now greets you with this message:

William (Bill) Looman is a veteran, a patriot, and most importantly, my friend and brother. He and I along with many other Marines, Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen/women and Coasties, served, still serve, and shall continue to serve, so that the Constitution of the United States of America cannot be so trampled as to rob any American of their right to freedom of expression. All of you who have been less than kind in your assessment of Bill for his practice of that freedom, should be ashamed of yourselves. Every American has the right of freedom of speech, through the printed word or spoken, and for you to look down upon that right is to declare that not only do you not believe in the American Constitution, but to also declare to all that listen that you do not care to be branded an American. How sad that is.

There are lessons to be learned here.  The first is that free speech comes with a price.  Yes, we have the right to vent every thought that comes into our mind but we have to remember that same right allows people to react to what we’ve said.  This reaction can go from words to economic boycotts.  Most businesses realize this and have the sense to stay away from making their most outrageous thoughts and opinions public.  Say what you want, be as nuts as the voices in your head tell you to be, but be prepared for a reaction.

I don’t think Mr. Looman was prepared.  Many things about his recent past have come up as a result of his relatively short time in the limelight.  His manifesto on Facebook is interesting and disturbing. There is also his involvement with several Georgia militia organizations, so-called Patriot groups such as the North Georgia Militia whose actions have been closely followed by Hatewatch from the Southern Poverty Law Center.  They point out that these militia groups have grown in number nationwide from 149 known groups in 2008 to 824 by the end of 2010, numbers that very much mirror the numbers from the mid 90’s when Timothy McVeigh performed his heinous act of domestic terrorism.

So this is not just some poor schlub who acted before he thought.  This is a man filled with hatred and ill intent.  He has done us a great favor by exposing himself now with his signs of ignorance and not at a later time when perhaps he and his cronies have perpetrated something far more sinister.

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To the End of Time

This is a new painting, 12″ by 18″ on paper, that I’m calling To the End of Time.  It’s another take on the Baucis and Philemon theme that I have used and talked about here before, from the Greek myth from the poor couple who were favored by the Gods for their generosity of spirit and were rewarded by being allowed to be united for eternity in the form of two trees that sprouted from the same trunk. 

This piece has a wonderful simplicity of form and composition, letting the depth in the colors and the the movement created in the texture of the sky and in the foliage of the trees carry the narrative and emotional load.  I think this painting is very much enhanced by its spareness of detail, making the central figures seem as they exist in some otherworldly plane, free from the drone of the everyday.

The sky here takes on a character of its own with the swirling bands of gesso that dance across it. There is also a nice intensity in the color and contrast of it.  This is one of those pieces that I like to use as an example of how much can be said with little, how each bit of the painting, every square inch, has visual interest.  This was a premise I started painting with many years ago and when my work is at its best, this is very evident. 

Well, at least to me.

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 It would be pretty easy to meander into maudlin territory when writing about such a day so I’ll spare you that today.  I will say that I am thankful for many, many people and things in my life and try to keep that in mind every day.  We often overlook those things which give our lives meaning and depth and focus instead on the negative aspects of life.  What we are not.  What we don’t have.  What we haven’t done.  Too much time is wasted with these thoughts, especially given the limited time we have in this world.

So, today, I ask that you look at your life as though it were a painting in a frame.  See it for the beauty it holds, the colors and texture that are present.  It may not be a Rembrandt, but what does that matter?  Appreciate the uniqueness of it and treat it as the  precious thing that it is.  Treat yourself and the world around you with respect.  Today and every day.  Then every day will truly be like a holiday.

Here’s a song that carries the theme amd title of this post.  It’s from William Bell who recorded on the legendary Stax/Volt label.  I love this song and can’t get it out of my head whenever I stumble across it.  Enjoy and have a great Thanksgiving.

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I’ve written here about a number of self-taught artists who create their work from some hidden inner core that demands expression.  Some have suffered through forms of mental illness en route to their creations but perhaps none show the depth of their illness so readily as Royal Robertson, shown here in front of his home before his death in 1997.


Robertson was born in 1936 in Louisiana and trained as a sign painter.  He married his wife Adell in 1955 and they produced 11 children in 19 years of  marriage  until Adell left Royal for another man , taking the 11 children with them.  Already in the midst of his paranoid schizophrenia, this departure sent him reeling into an angry pit of despair fueling a misogynistic rage that saw him create numerous pieces featuring Adell in various forms, mostly as a whore and sometimes in a very explicit manner.

Adell- Prophet Royal Robertson

There’s a lot more than can be written about Robertson’s life and illness– the visions and alien visitations he claimed, for example– but I want to just talk about his work a bit.  It’s a bit different from most self-taught or outsider artists that I have looked at in that it doesn’t settle into a recognizable self-vocabulary for him.  His work seems to dart all over the place in different styles and looks , never really finding that singular voice, probably a result of the unsettled nature of his mind.  It sometimes looks like comic books, sometimes like pastoral scenes that just happen to have alien crafts hovering through and sometimes just crude drawings of a naked Adell.  And sometimes it will coalesce into a piece that is quite graceful.  It’s difficult work of which  to get a grasp, to say that it easily attracts or repels me. 

One thing that did attract me was his practice of filling the backs of his work with the words of his prophecy.  It reminded me very much of a piece of paper that I have around here somewhere.  It was done by a man who used to come into the restaurant where I worked when I first began painting.  His name was Sam and he would come in and sit at a table for hours, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes.  He was always disheveled and muttering, obviously possessing a disturbed mind.  He was eventually barred from the restaurant for yelling at the other patrons.

Royal Robertson- reverse side of drawing

But while he was there he often  would have a sheet of paper on which he would make lists in a beautifully graceful manner.  One day he left one and I made sure to grab it before it hit the trash.  It was a  wonderful piece of work.  It had lists of government officials, Hollywood starlets, PGA golfers and characaters from the Godfather movies.  He often called a young server, whose name was Mary, Tina Brazzi, saying that she was the daughter of Luca Brazzi, the character in the film who eventually slept with the fishes.  Mary was a little uneasy about being recognized as Tina.  But the sheet itself was beautiful, with lovely calligraphy and an order that belied Sam’s own mind.  It’s a piece that always brings me both joy and sadness when I see it, a reminder of how fine that line often is between beauty and madness, something to which the work of Royal Robertson also attests.



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I was thinking about what to write today and was having a hard time in not going into a rant decrying the dysfunction of those in our government as is being brought to light by the failure of the so-called  Super Committee.  I was also having a hard time not screaming about the obnxoiuos Grover Norquist and the power he wields over these boobs, all in the hopes of returning our government  to the size it was in the good old days of 1900. 

But it was making me much too angry.  I became angry just typing out the paragraph above.  So I thought I had better look elsewhere and I checked out the Candler Arts blog.  The first thing I saw was this oil painting that was for sale on eBay.  It looks to be a piece from sometime in the 1800’s of two fluffy pups and a couple of black birds at the same feeding bowl.

How could I stay mad?

Of course, it could be a faked piece, one made to look like it was much older than it is in reality. That is not out of the question in the field of antique paintings.  These deceivers use old canvas, old nails and old wood — anything to make the work look as though it came from an earlier time.  I guess that kind of deceit would go hand in hand with what’s going on in our capital at the moment.  They do set the example for our nation or at least reflect it, after all.

But you know what?  I don’t care if this is a fake.  It’s still better than thinking about the puppets of power this morning.  And if it’s not a fake, even better.

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This is  a very small painting, just a  3″ by 5″ canvas, that I call In the Blood.   The title may in some way relate to the subject of yesterday’s post where I discussed why someone stays in their hometown even though its flaws and inadequacies become more and more evident, more glaring in the light of other seemingly better places. 

I wrote about having an attachment to this area through my family’s history, even though it is still relatively new to me.  By that I mean that it was never a part of my early life, never really known in any detail by my father’s generation and was only uncovered through the access afforded by the availability of  the many records and data online.  There I discovered the history of my family here that had always eluded me and left me feeling as though I was unconnected to any place.  I discovered relatives and names that were new to me, most interwoven with the history of this region of the country.

This past week, I went to our local historical society, the Chemung Valley History Museum, looking for a piece of furniture that a friend of my sister had seen there , made around 1860 by a man with our family name.  Our family is not one for artifacts handed down through generations.  I envy people who can hold something tangible in their hands that was part of their ancestor’s lives, can literally feel that connection to their past.  I can’t think of any such thing that exists in our family so the idea of an object made by an ancestor intrigued me.

Going into the recent exhibit of items made in this county, the first piece that caught my eye was a chest of drawers with nice dimensions and a lovely reddish golden tone in its finish.  I looked at the placard on it and sure enough, it was made by a man named George Myers.  This was the connecting artifact I sought. He was my great- grand uncle a man who came with his brother ( my great-gr-grandfather) and his parents from Eastern Pennsylvania in the 1830’s and settled here.  He was a furniture finisher who worked at a local furniture company, Hubbell’s,  for nearly 50 years.  His first son had fought in the Civil War, an event that was  recalled in the 1940’s in an obituary of a younger son who told of remembering his older brother marching down Water Street in his Union Army uniform, heading out of town in a parade to the battles in the South.

I was pleased to see this artifact, pleased to see it in a place where it would be cared for and kept.  I was also pleased that it was a nice piece of work.  It reminded me of the things I want in my own work.  It was solid in construction, simple in design yet graceful. 

I sought out someone who might be able to tell me more and found the archivist, Rachel Dworkin.  She didn’t have a lot of history on the chest but informed me that it was signed.  She delicately took out the top drawer and on the back side there was a bold signature and date, 1861,  in pencil, looking as fresh as though it had been written that very morning.

  But the thing that excited me was that after the signature he had drawn a face, a simple drawing of the side of what looked to be a young woman’s face.  The lines, like the chest, were simple but confident and strong,  drawn very much in the way I would draw a face, even now, and this thrilled me.  I laughed out loud and tried to explain to Ms. Dworkin but I don’t think I could really fully explain what that little drawing meant to me, how it gave me a deeper connection to this place and person and made me feel as though he had that same need for expression that I feel.

Maybe it was in the blood, after all.

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 “Why do we still live here?”

This question opened an article in the op-ed section yesterday in my  local newspaper, the Star Gazette.  Written by a younger columnist, John Cleary, it described his feelings over the possibility of leaving his lifelong home in Elmira, seeking a new home where the problems that now seem to beset the streets of the this small city seem further away.  It’s a difficult decision because he has only known this area and never even considered the possibility of leaving it.  It is home, after all.

But, as he writes, “When we hear of dismal ratings of Elmira’s schools, when the newspaper is full of stories of police standoffs, shootings and meth labs, when we visit the neighborhoods we grew up in and realize we wouldn’t want our children to be there, the urge to go away feels very strong.”  He doesn’t even mention the extraordinarily high property taxes (some of the highest in the nation), the economy that was tepid even during the boom years were happening nationally or the brain drain of youth heading away from this area.

The article resonated with me, made me ask the same questions of my own life in this area.  Why do I live here?

Some answers are easy.  I like the natural beauty of the area, the lushness of the green in the summer and the gray hills and valleys in the winter.  We have the Finger Lakes just  to our north with their wineries and scenic vistas.   I like the history of this area and the connections my family has in it.  I like the familiarity of each place, knowing where things are and the ease of getting to them in this relatively small community.  It is home, after all.

There are family connections as well although many folks have left the area or passed away and I don’t maintain great contact with the ones that remain.

That doesn’t sound like much.  I think about my father  who now lives in Florida.  He had left this area after retiring in his 50’s, returning a time or two, the last after my mother died 15 years ago.  Since that time he has split his time between Florida and here with his new partner.  While here he is never really happy about it– actually, he’s miserable being here–  and counts the days until he returns to Florida. 

 For years, I never understood how he could feel such misery in being here but the more I thought about it, the more I could see his perspective.  He knew this area when it was larger and more vibrant,  filled with friends and family and life.  It must have been like seeing someone that you loved and remembered as young and strong start to die and emaciate before your eyes.  Soon you see just a hoolow carcass of the person that was and you don’t even recognize them.   Even sadder, they don’t recognize you.  The relationship has changed and the only thing that keeps you around is some sort of loyalty to the memory of what once was.  Staying becomes painful.

Maybe that’s overstating it.  I don’t know. 

Why I live here remains a difficult question to answer.  It’s the only place where I feel a connection to the place and my ancestry but is that enough?  Where we live is a relationship and like all relationships, there are negative aspects we must accept in order to maintain that relationship.  When the negatives far outweigh the positives, we tend to break off the relationship, or, at least, we should. 

Hard questions to ask, even harder to answer.  I hope Mr. Cleary finds an answer that satisfies his life and needs. I know his article has made me think.


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