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Archive for April, 2012

I call this new painting String Theory.  It’s a 20″ by 40″ canvas that is simple in design but has great depth of color and a strong underlying texture that gives it added dimensions.  It’s a striking piece in the studio, especially given its larger size, with its saturated tones and the thick spiral bands that run through it catching glints of light at different angles. 

The Red Tree’s crown is painted as a monolithic form and seems to glow with life  amid the contrasting darkness of the sky.  I chose a deep red for the color of the fields in the foreground because I wanted it to represent  the earth as a physical dimension, the red symbolizing the blood of the living.  The swirling  blues and greens of the sky, to me, represent a different dimension, one less tangible and more ethereal. 

As for the title and the thought behind it, I described this in a blogpost from July of 2009.  I think I will let the words from that post describe what I see here as well:

The title of this painting comes from the way the sky is formed from many patches of color and the way the light is formed therein. It reminded me of one of the supposed byproducts of the string theory which is a very speculative area of quantum physics. Without going into the scientific basis for the theory ( which I really couldn’t do very well anyway), string theory basically creates a platform where extra dimensions could and may exist alongside the dimensions that we know and dwell within, without our knowledge of their existence. A simplified example of how this might work is the way we are surrounded by radio signals all the time without our knowledge but with the proper receptor, a radio, they become apparent. With string theory, perhaps there are also parallel dimensions around us without our knowledge, dimensions that contain others forms of energy, other forms of existence. 

People have used this as theoretical basis for many things such as time travel, the existence of UFOs, and things supernatural such as ghosts and other spectral occurrences. The string theory has been a very fertile field for science fiction writers to work. 

Perhaps it also provides a place where the soul, the source of energy that animates the body, ultimately dwells. Perhaps there is the energy of souls all around us in these alternative dimensions. Maybe the photons we see are also the part, a facet, of something unseen. That’s how I see the sky in this painting, as masses of disparate energies that we only see partially in the dimensions we can detect. 

Okay, remember that it is early in the morning when I’m writing this. I’m not smart enough to really discuss quantum physics. I am not familiar with all the New Age-y spiritualism. I’m just saying there is some form of energy out there in the light we see. What it is, I surely don’t know. In this painting I like to see it as light and energy of souls. 

And that makes me feel good…

It made me feel good then and does now as well.

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Most people immediately think of Roberta Flack when they think of the song The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, and for good reason.  Her 1972 version was  truly beautiful and deserved every bit of the acclaim it earned.  But the song didn’t originate with her and has had many versions through the years, including one of my favorites from Johnny Cash, which you can see below. 

The song’s history began in 1957.  Iy was written by Ewan MacColl,  a British folk singer who is a very interesting character in his own right.  He was a married man who fell in love with the much younger Peggy Seeger, the half-sister of folk icon Pete Seeger.  He later married Seeger.  MacColl wrote the song about her and for her to perform.  She needed a song for a play she was appearing in here in the USA so MacColl wrote the song and taught it to her via the telephone as he was barred from entering the States because of his Communist ties.  As I said, he was an interesting character.   Her original version is lovely with different phrasing than the better known Flack version.  I’ve also included a similarly performed and charming version from Peter, Paul and Mary.

Cash’s version is much more ponderous.  It is from his American series near the end of his life.  His voice was weaker and even rawer than in his younger days but Cash used it in an incredibly expressive way, giving the song  the feeling of a dirge as he looked back from a point near the end of his and his wife’s life, to an earlier time in his life and the fresh discovery of love.  It is both beautiful and sad. 

Just a great song.


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Abstracted

Yesterday was one of those odd days in the studio.  I have been extremely busy at work recently and, as a result, have found a nice deep groove, one of those creative rhythms where each new effort inspires the next and new ideas are shooting out all over the place.  Everything comes easily and is done without questioning, all with the confidence that the instinct driving this surge will carry me in the right direction.   It’s a great feeling and I find it hard to pull myself away when this happens, fearful that a break of any sort will disrupt this vibrant but sometimes fragile rhythm.

But sometimes the rhythm just goes a bit haywire for awhile.  Like a seemingly healthy heart that suddenly goes into fibrillation without warning.  That was how it felt yesterday .

I can’t explain why or when or  even what caused this episode.  It was as though everything suddenly became  abstract and I could find no semblance of direction or purpose in what I was doing.  The whole concept of pushing paint around sheets of heavy paper and canvas seemed absolutely ridiculous.  The work in front of me made no sense and when I turned away from it, hoping that I could simply pick up in something new, there was nothing.  I suddenly felt totally empty and the confidence that had been so ample in recent days was gone in a flash, replaced by old fears. 

It’s quite disconcerting  and even a little panic creeps in at first.  But this isn’t my first rodeo.  I’ve been here before and know that it’s a matter of just pushing through this temporary fog and that it will soon subside. Sometimes it goes quickly and sometimes it lingers for days and weeks but eventually the fears will fade into the background and purpose returns. 

Luckily for me, yesterday was just a short episode and within a few hours I had regained equilibrium.  My world seemed less abstract and I once again believed in what I was doing and felt a vitality in my efforts.  The rhythm was regained. 

It made me realize how fortunate I was to only have to face what amount to relatively  minor demons when several friends are going through much more true hardships in their lives.  I hope they can endure through these periods of darkness and abstraction and soon find their own rhythm again.   It’s out there waiting for them if they can just struggle through.

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Sometimes you paint something that you really like, something that very much hits every potential goal you set for your work, yet you find yourself at a loss for words to describe it.  That’s very much how I feel about this newer painting, Moment Divine,  a 10″ by 16″ piece on paper.

Perhaps this lack of words is a good thing, a sign that the work needs no more said about it.  It is expression enough in itself and to talk too much would only take away from the atmosphere it creates.

I don’t really know.  Sometimes there are pieces like this that seem to have a quiet completeness to them.  They are usually simply designed with a harmony of color and form  that makes them feel effortless and without pretense.  They have a simple and natural beauty that doesn’t need embellishment. 

That’s kind of how I see this painting.  Simple and easy.  Naturally effortless. 

Maybe I’ve said too much already.  Maybe I should just let the image speak for itself now…

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60-MPH View/ Redux

There are times when ideas for a piece come from seeing something once or twice and taking what you remember of it and using that in your work.

For example, a number of years ago I remember driving through the Poconos on the way to NYC. As I drove down a hill, I glimpsed to my right a group of trees, maybe an orchard. It was early morning and the sun was low behind them, casting long individual shadows in the damp, long grass. The whole scene was taken in in the blink of an eye.

I call that the 60-MPH view. Actually, it’s closer to 75 MPH but who’s really keeping track?

From this split-second glance I returned to the studio a few days later and took the elements of that scene that remained in memory and created several versions of that scene. They were vibrant and alive. It was as the speed of the glimpse took away interfering details and distilled the remaining elements into something stronger.

The painting above, Above the Babble, is another kind of this taking in quickly and using the elements from memory. My sister had a small print that has hung for many years in her home. I always would notice the print when I visited but didn’t spend much time in front of it. One day in the studio the composition of that piece, as I remembered it, came to mind. This was the result along with several subsequent versions over the years. None of them really look like the print in any specific detail but for me they echo the rhythm and feel of the inspiring piece.

I try to use this viewing process when I look at other artists’ works as well, taking in the work quickly then trying to remember what I saw. This forces the strengths, as I see them, forward and they remain in my memory. This allows me to find things in work that is very unlike mine that I ultimately use in my own work. A form of synthesis, I suppose….

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 I am periodically running some of my favorite older posts.  The above post originally ran here on February 9, 2009.

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One of the blogs that I subscribe to is Photobotos.com which promises to deliver one amzing photo per day from photographers around the globe.  It pretty much keeps this promise consistently.  The photo shown here definitely falls in that category and was posted yesterday and really caught my eye.  It was a great  shot,  composed beautifully with  deep color and expressiveness.  It was shot by photographer Romain Mattei while traveling in Malaysia.  Mattei’s story, below,  of how the shot came about really adds something to this photo.  He writes:

I was spending the day in Kuala Lumpur without any plan of what to visit or to see. I was just going straight with only a map not to be lost. I make an amazing encounter purely by luck in a place where there were no tourists at all. A monkey and two cats were chilling on a chair in a patio. The two cats appeared to be pets but I wasn’t sure about the monkey. They were slipping and then playing together before the playful monkey pushed one of two sleeping cats out of the chair for fun. The cat lied down in order to keep on with its nap and this is when the monkey started to massage him. 

To me, it was a massage because he was really focused on doing it well on the back and the tail but of course if he would find a flea, he wouldn’t refuse a little snack. The cat was really enjoying and I was shooting the scene with my 100mm f/2.8 macro lens, which allowed me to be quite close to the scene. The two animals were not shy at all, the monkey was doing his job and the cat was even posing for the pictures. 

I took a whole series of pictures, it was too unique not to burn my Memory Card. I shot this one wide open in order to get the monkey a bit blurry but not too much so that the massage scene would be very recognizable. Like this, the focus point would be on the cat and the shot would be more eye-catching stressing the cat’s eyes looking right at me. 

Also, I didn’t want to center the cat’s face in order to strengthen the composition and I chose to place the cat on the picture following the thirds rule. The monkey was more or less in the center, but being blurry it didn’t affect the composition, not catching the attention that much. 

I left the right side empty, apart from the monkey’s tail in order not to overload the whole composition. 

I felt extremely lucky to witness this scene. After the monkey finished his massage/skin care, he went away and while I was shooting the cat completely relaxed, he came from a side and stole two bills in my pocket. I couldn’t believe it, I chased him to get my money back (maybe I should have left it to him as a reward for such a photographic moment) and while I was about to take my bills back from his hand, he put his hand behind his back like a little child!! He only wanted to play and then he gave the bills back to me himself. An extraordinary animal, so smart!

 

 

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When I Go Away

Early Sunday morning.  I’m in the midst of a work frenzy the last few days in the studio but I’m trying to start the day a little slower.  I think I’ll take the rest of day off from the blog and listen to a little music this morning, probably something from Levon Helm who passed away a few days ago, most likely  Electric Dirt, which  was Helm’s last studio album.  I love the cover.  Here’s Levon singing  the gospel-tinged When I Go Away.

Like the song says:  No more troubles…
Good travelling for you, Levon.

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I’ve written here before about some of my favorite Outsider artists, those untrained artists who follow their obsessive need for expression even as they suffer hardships such as illness, extreme poverty and mental disabilities.  People like Martin Ramirez, the Mexican-born artist who was committed to an asylum in his thirties and spent the rest of his life, 30+ years, locked away as he created an amazing intricately designed world in his art. 

There was another artist years before Ramirez whose road was very similar and who work was as deeply designed and engaging.  It was the Swiss artist Adolf Wolfli who was born in 1864 and died in 1930, about the time Ramirez was committed.  Wolfli was considered one of the first acknowledged Art Brut artists, as Outsiders are called in Europe and, like Ramirez, he had a difficult life that ended with him living the greater part of his life locked away.

Wolfli, an orphan at the age of 10, was physically and sexually, abused throughout his childhood.  He suffered from severe mental illness which manifested itself in vilent outbursts and hallucinations.  It was this and a series of child molestation charges that led to his committal in 1895.  He was about 31 years old.  He never left. 

He began to draw at some point during his life in custody, it soon becoming a true obsession as his inticate drawings covered every scrap of paper he could lay his hands on.  Walter Morgenthaler, a doctor at the psychiatric hospital who documented Wolfli case in a book, wrote this about the extent of Wolfli’s obsession:  Every Monday morning Wölfli is given a new pencil and two large sheets of unprinted newsprint. The pencil is used up in two days; then he has to make do with the stubs he has saved or with whatever he can beg off someone else. He often writes with pieces only five to seven millimetres long and even with the broken-off points of lead, which he handles deftly, holding them between his fingernails. He carefully collects packing paper and any other paper he can get from the guards and patients in his area; otherwise he would run out of paper before the next Sunday night. At Christmas the house gives him a box of coloured pencils, which lasts him two or three weeks at the most.

Wolfli’s work incorporated musical notations that were woven into the designs, an odd looking notation that seemed purely ornamental but was later proven to be an actual  idiosyncratic notation sysytem that could indeed be played.  Wolfli would sometimes play the music on a paper trumpet he had crafted. 

Wolfli produced a prodigious body of work in his years in the asylum, including a semi-autobiographical epic that was a massive 45 volumes in size.  It consisted of over 25000 pages and 1600 illustrations.  His work has been largely kept together as a collection which is in the Museum of Fine Arts in Bern, Switzerland.  There is also the Adolf Wolfli Foundation which was formed in 1975 to bring his work to the attention of the public through education on and exhibitions of his works.

Like many of these artists about which I write, Wolfli’s work is new to me.  But it is so immediately grabbing in its design and its harmony of color and form that I am enthralled by it.  When I clicked on the Google images page for his work, there was such a gorgeous continuity that ran through every image on the page that I found it hard to choose which image to explore first.  Such beauty revealed in the dark recesses of a life spent locked away.

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Give me a place to stand, and I will move the Earth.

Archimedes

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This is actually a condensed and long accepted version of  Archimedes‘  words.  It was really about the power of lever in physics.  He actually said: Give me a lever long enough and a place to stand  and I will move the Earth.  But the lever has been dropped over the 2200 or so  years since he lived and has come to signify something more than a statement about physical mechanics.  It is an almost existential statement about the power of the individual in changing the world.  The small somehow defeating  the overwhelming forces set against them.

David versus Goliath. 

 David’s lever was the sling and stone he used to take down the giant.  Every underdog has somehow identified a strategic advantage that has enabled them to triumph against all odds.  Something that plays to their own strengths and magnifies their greater opponent’s weaknesses. 

What is the lever you will use to move the Earth?

I call the painting above A Place to Stand after these words of Archimedes.  It is a new piece that is a 24″ by 30″ canvas that is a very simple composition that relies on the juxtaposition of the single Red Tree set against a powerfully set sky that seems ready to overwhelm the diminuative tree.  Yet, against all the elemental force  of wind and weather that  the sky can muster, the tree perseveres.  It uses the flexibility of its trunk and limbs to absorb the wind and its bark protects it against the heat and cold. 

It stands alone, without protection.  Yet it stands.   Just standing  strong where you are is a lever powerful enough to change the world. 

Perseverance is often its own victory.

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It was announced yesterday that Levon Helm in is the “final stages” of the battle he has waged with throat cancer since 1996. Levon is best known as the drummer/vocalist for the legendary group that started in the eary 60’s as the backing band, The Hawks, for early rockabilly star Ronnie Hawkins and later came to fame as The Band behind Bob Dylan as he made the sometimes rocky transition from folk to rock.  On their own, The Band had a number of songs that have become classics over the years– The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, Up On Cripple Creek, The Weight, The Shape I’m In and so on.  Levon , guitarist Robbie Robertson  and organist Garth Hudson are the only remaining living  members of  The Band.

Levon Helm has also been acclaimed as an actor, best known for playing the father of Loretta Lynn in the movie Coal Miner’s Daughter.  His coal miner portrayal in the film had a dead-eyed authenticity that , for me, really made the entire movie seem alive.  It’s the same authenticity that he seems to bring to everything.  I always feel like I’m seeing the real person when I see Levon Helm, even when he’s a character in a film.

The Band-- Levon is 2nd from left.

His life after The Band has had ups and downs.  Following his initial battle with cancer, he found himself in dire financial straits with the weight of huge medical bills pulling him down.  He started hosting a series of concerts, called Midnight Rambles,  at his home/studio in Woodstock, NY in order to raise money to pay his bills.  Because of the damage done to his throat he relied on a series of high profile guests to sing until his voice was strong enough to begin to sing once more, which was several years later in 2004.  This series of concerts revitalized his career and led to his last three albums, Dirt Farmer, Electric Dirt and  Ramble at the Ryman, a live set recorded at the legendary Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.  Both Electric Dirt and Ramble at the Ryman won Grammy Awards in the Americana category.

As I said above, I always had the feeling that what you saw with Levon Helm was what you got. Natural, without artifice.  This world is going to miss the loss of  a real person, maybe the highest compliment of which I can conceive.  Good travels, Levon.

  Here’s one of my favorites from The Band, The Weight, shot in 1970 during the fabled Festival Express.

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