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Archive for January, 2019

We live in a time of chaos and confusion, amidst a constant bombardment of information and misinformation, an indecipherable babble of yelled opinions and enough stupidity to fill all the oceans and flood every coastline of this planet.

And that’s on a good day.

This morning I found myself longing for something, some music or reading, that would take me away from this maelstrom of madness. I came to the music of the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt whose piece Tabula Rasa was a big influence on my early work.

His work is the antidote to the turbulence of our time. It is what I would call slow music. It is the sort of music that requires you to pause to hear it fully. Doing so slows down the elevated heartbeat, syncs it to a pace that seems to be a meditative drone that has long resided in us though we have long forgotten our ability to find it within ourselves.

For quite some time I have enjoyed Pärt’s adaptation of My Heart’s in the Highlands, which is a 1789 poem/song from the Scottish poet Robert Burns. Listening to it reminds me of the time spent alone wandering in the woods and fields in the hills around our home as a youth. Those times had that same pace, that same heartbeat and silence that made it so memorable in my mind.

Many times I have found my mind wandering back to those times and the spaces and silences that created a sense of home within me. Burns’ words speak a truth for me especially in these times so filled with sound and fury.

Allow yourself to pause for a moment and give a listen. Perhaps you will find your own heart in the highlands…

My heart’s in the Highlands, my heart is not here,

My heart’s in the Highlands a-chasing the deer –

A-chasing the wild deer, and following the roe;

My heart’s in the Highlands, wherever I go.

Farewell to the Highlands, farewell to the North

The birth place of Valour, the country of Worth;

Wherever I wander, wherever I rove,

The hills of the Highlands forever I love.

Farewell to the mountains high cover’d with snow;

 Farewell to the straths and green valleys below;  

Farewell to the forrests and wild-hanging woods;

Farwell to the torrents and loud-pouring floods.

My heart’s in the Highlands, my heart is not here,

My heart’s in the Highlands a-chasing the deer

Chasing the wild deer, and following the roe;

My heart’s in the Highlands, wherever I go.

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Ben Shahn

Ben Shahn -Jersey Homesteads (Roosevelt NJ) Mural

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The artist must operate on the assumption that the public consists in the highest order of individual; that he is civilized, cultured, and highly sensitive both to emotional and intellectual contexts. And while the whole public most certainly does not consist in that sort of individual, still the tendency of art is to create such a public – to lift the level of perceptivity, to increase and enrich the average individual’s store of values… I believe that it is in a certain devotion to concepts of truth that we discover values.

–Ben Shahn

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Born in Lithuania in 1898, Ben Shahn emigrated to America with his family in 1906. Throughout his career, up until his death in 1969, Shahn’s early training as a lithographer and graphic designer played a large part in his work, giving it a symbolic visual impact that made him one of he leading lights of social realist artists. His work often dealt with the human condition, particularly that of the common man.

Ben Shahn- The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti

While many of the themes in his work were labeled as leftist, his work championed civil rights and workers’ rights and stood against injustice and prejudice. He did a large series of works devoted to Sacco and Vanzetti. Designed to communicate a distinctly human point of view, his work always had a profound voice, one that called for the betterment of all people.

His was the work of the Everyman.

As he said: The natural reaction of the artist will be strongly towards bringing man back into focus as the center of importance.

I think that is a very important thing to keep in mind as is the quote at the top of the post, about how an artist must aspire to the highest human values of the public, even though they may not actually possess these qualities, with the hope that the artist’s work can lift them to a higher level. It’s a thought that should linger in the mind of any artist who hopes and desires to make a true difference in this world with their work.

I am not giving a lot of details here about the life and career of Shahn. But I hope the few that I have shared along with some of his images will inspire you to take a closer look at this interesting and important voice in modern art.

Ben Shahn- Father and Child 1946

Ben Shahn- The Burial Society

Ben Shahn- Nocturne

Ben Shahn- Four Piece Orchestra 1944

Ben Shahn- Self Portrait Among Churchgoers

Ben Shahn- Two Witnesses

Ben Shahn- Unemployment

 

 

 

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Snowing like made still. Been out plowing for a couple of hours already this morning, just trying to keep the driveway open, and there is definitely a few more hours of plowing ahead. But I thought I’d take a break, drink some coffee and try to throw out some music for a snowy Sunday morning.

Came up with an old song, Valley of Tears, written and performed originally in 1957 by Fats Domino and covered by a number of other artists over the years. Buddy Holly did a version that charted in 1961 that had a skating rink/ magic organ quality to it but I really like this version from the late great Solomon Burke accompanied by one of my favorites, Gillian Welch, and her husband David Rawlings.

Solomon Burke was one of the early greats in the transition period between R&B and Soul. He was a real preacher and blended the spiritual and the physical aspects of soul– the sex and the salvation– into his music. He never got the acclaim as some of the other big names of 60’s Soul but he is is revered.

This is a great, heartfelt performance of the song. Give a listen while I get back to my own valley of tears. If you consider the falling snow tears, that is. Have a good day.

 

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The American poet Mary Oliver died yesterday at the age of 83. I can’t claim to know much about poetry but I always found her work engaging and enlightening. There was a plain-spoken quality to her work that gave her musings the feel and clarity of newfound wisdom. She is gone but her voice will carry on. Here’s a post from a couple of years ago that was about the relationship of a painting of mine to one of her better known poems, Wild Geese.

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GC Myers- The Singular HeartYou do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Mary Oliver

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A while back, a person interested in my work sent me the poem above, Wild Geese.  It was written by the esteemed Pulitzer Prize winning poet Mary Oliver. This person wanted to know if I would be interested in translating this poem into into one of my paintings for them. I replied that when I had some time I would gladly do that as I think the poem strikes a chord that very much resonates in my work.

After a short while, this person contacted me again and said they had been looking at my work and had found a painting that they felt captured the spirit of the poem. The painting is the one shown at the top, The Singular Heart.

I was thrilled by the choice. It had the feeling and message of the poem without being absolutely literal.  It’s exactly how I wanted to portray it. And the message and title of the painting fell perfectly in line with Oliver’s poem.  The Red Tree stands, singular and alone, with the realization that it has a unique place, as does every being, in the family of things.

I told this person a bit about this painting and an experience I had with it that stuck with me.  Once it hung in my home area gallery, the West End Gallery, and I met with a local college art class there. One of the questions was which of the pieces there was my favorite. I normally don’t answer that question because I have always felt that any painting that I decide to show has something unique to it, some quality that makes it special to me. Kind of like a parent with their kids.

But on this occasion I didn’t hesitate and pointed at this painting.  I told them if I were to try to describe in one painting what I wanted to say with the body of my work and what I hoped for myself as a person, that this piece would summarize it perfectly.

I told this person that I felt it was perfect choice and was pleased when they chose this painting to represent the poem in their home. It means a lot when any painting finds a home but is even more special when I know that it resonates on many levels with its owner, that it goes deeper than the surface.

Here’s a clip of Mary Oliver reading her poem, Wild Geese:

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When I read the line above taken from the journal of the great Canadian artist Emily Carr (1871-1945), it really hit close to the bone for me. I thought about my early forays in my youth when I believed I wanted to be a writer.

I loved the words and their power, their ability to create emotion and reaction in the mind of the reader. But I cared little about creating narrative, about the details, the nuts and bolts, involved in storytelling. It was the essence of things that interested me, the atmospheres of silence and distance and empty space.

It was all too heady for an uneducated and inexperienced kid. I didn’t know what to do with writing that evolved into what seemed to be ethereal nothingness. More and more, it became a frustrating exercise.

And I think that is where painting came in for me, at a time when I truly needed it. I found that painting, especially landscape painting, was less about narrative and more about that essence, about capturing moments of atmosphere and perceived emotion and spirit.

The unwordable and the unformable, as Emily Carr put it.

I definitely see this evocation of essence in the work of Emily Carr and can only hope to find the same in my own.

 

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My annual show at the Principle Gallery in Alexandria, Virginia, opens on Friday, June 7th. This year is my 20th solo show there, something that seemed out of the realm of possibility when this run began with the first Redtree show back in 2000.

Nothing seemed guaranteed at that time.

I was still a fairly new artist at that point, showing my work publicly for barely five years with the last two years as a full-time artist. Still had that new artist smell. I understood that the Principle Gallery was taking a chance on me and that this show was a great opportunity for me as an artist. Solo shows in great galleries don’t just come to artists on an everyday basis and the success or failure of such a show could dictate how my career moved on from that point. I knew that all too well.

I remember my trepidation in the months before that first show as I prepared for it. I was operating in abject fear of my own failure was having trouble visualizing what success this show would even resemble. My final goal for the show ended up being that I simply hoped to not be embarrassed.

Fortunately, it turned out to be very successful. That led to the next year and the next and so forth. There have been varying degrees of success with the shows along the way but one thing that seldom changes is the absolute fear of failure that comes with each show. So, here I am, twenty years in, and still feeling that same ball of anxiety in my gut. If anything, it might even be worse because I see this as a personal landmark of sorts. I want it to be a show worthy of twenty years invested by the gallery.

I’ve been looking at some of he work from those earliest Principle Gallery shows, trying to see similarities and differences between the work then and now. To see how it has changed, to see what has been gained and lost. One that struck me this morning was the piece above from 2001 called Symphony to Joy. It’s a piece with what I would term great organic appeal. I mean that it in the sense given by the linework within the piece and the way the colors and forms play off one another. It just seems very natural.

Maybe I shouldn’t try to explain such things.

But what I am looking at is how I can regain that natural feel, that organic sense present in the painting. Twenty years of painting have straightened some lines, taken some spontaneity out of some color choices, and softened some rough edges. Experience and knowledge has taken the place of the urgency of the pure emotion found in these early pieces.

I sit here this morning anxiously wondering how to find a way to merge the experience with that emotional urgency. Hope I can figure it out before June 7th.

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Came across this post from six years back this morning and it made me stop. Reading it again, I realized it was what I was looking for this morning– a reminder of the why, the motivation behind what I am trying to do here in the studio. Thought it was a worth running here again.

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All day I think about it, then at night I say it.
Where did I come from, and what am I supposed to be doing?
I have no idea.
My soul is from elsewhere, I’m sure of that,
And I intend to end up there.

— Rumi, 13th century Persian poet

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The other day, while going over some very early posts from this blog, I came across this short poem from Rumi.  It had been passed on to me by my friend Scott Allen from the Cleveland area after my 2008 show at the Kada Gallery. He told me that it was what he himself had felt in my work. The poem had, I’m sorry to confess, slipped my mind over the years and coming across it again immediately rekindled my  original reaction to it. Then and now, I felt as though this little wisp of a poem captured the motivation behind what I was trying to do in my work.

Like Rumi’s voice in this poem, I have spent most of my life in an existential quandary, filled with doubts about who I am and what I should be doing. I often felt like a stranger in a strange land, ill at ease in my surroundings and feeling, like Rumi, that my soul is from elsewhere. Initially, I felt as though my uncertainties and doubts could be allayed externally. I was simply not in the right physical location. But it was apparent after a time that it was not an external problem. Regardless of the location, I would not be at ease on the outside until I sought and found where I needed to be internally.

That’s where the act of painting came in and to fill this void in my life. If life were an ocean, painting gave me a hope, an endpoint for which to navigate. Without it, I would still be rudderless in an ocean of doubt. With it and through it, I feel that my soul is headed in the right direction.

I don’t know exactly why I feel the need to share this intimacy with you this morning. Perhaps that openness is part of the journey or even the destination. But for me, seeing this poem again reconnected me to the journey at a point when it felt as though I was going slightly off course. Sometimes in the process of seeking one forgets why they set out on the journey in the beginning. And that why, that motivation, sometimes needs to be revisited during the journey. It gives the destination definition and immediately puts you back on course.

This morning, I feel like I am sailing on smooth seas again, knowing why I am going forward.

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