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Archive for December, 2019

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Interesting history behind the Henry Wadswoth Longfellow poem below that was transformed a few years after it was written in late 1863 into a well holiday song.

The 1860’s were a tragic time for the poet Longfellow. In addition to the beginning of the Civil War in 1861, his wife was killed in a tragic fire at his home. In early 1863, his oldest son enlisted in the Union Army despite his father’s protests. That same year he was severely wounded at the Battle of New Hope Church in Virginia. He survived but the injuries ended his army career.

This poem was a response to the times from Longfellow. The next to the last stanza points out his despair and his waning faith in the face of a divided nation:

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

But in the last stanza, upon hearing the loud pealing of the Christmas bells, he regains his belief that good will overcome evil:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.

The poem became popular at the time and was first set to music as a song in 1872 by British organist John Baptiste Calkin and then again in 1956, by American songwriter Johnny Marks, whose version, I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day, was first recorded that year by Bing Crosby. The Marks song has been recorded by over 60 artists and has sold over 5 million copies.

It’s a poem and song of hope for dark times. We can certainly use that these days.

 

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Christmas Bells

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1863

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Two Asterisks?

I am going to try to not say too much about yesterday’s impeachment of the president*. I will point out that the asterisk that I have always attached to his title is now fully earned. In fact, I may have to change it to president**.

And based on all that is still hanging out there in the forms of scandal, corruption and foreign entanglements, I wouldn’t be surprised if there aren’t even more asterisks added by the time this whole fiasco of an administration is done.

I don’t think there is a limit on the number of impeachments one president can have.

Though I am gratified that this process has taken place and he** has been impeached, it gives me no pleasure. This is only the first salvo and, as I have pointed out before, this man** is a looter who will burn down the whole shooting match before he** will allow himself** to be made responsible.

There are going to be many ugly days ahead.

He** has yet to show  any interest in uniting this country and governs through personal retribution and vengeance. He** feels no responsibility for anything that negative that happens and views this whole process as being somehow unprovoked. He** is going to make everyone pay.

For a man** with so little shame, he** has remarkably thin skin. His** ability to whine and feel persecuted is beyond anything I have ever witnessed outside of a 6 year old throwing a tantrum in a grocery store because he has been told he can’t have the candy bar at the checkout line.

I have seen that kid. Sadly, I have been that kid.

I believe I grew out of that phase. I am afraid I can’t say the same for the man** with the 6 year old’s mentality who is fuming this morning in the white house** or for his** glassy eyed cult members who cheer on every misdeed and bloviation of this child**.

As I said, ugly days ahead. But that is the price that must be paid to avoid even uglier days that would come if he** is not held accountable for his** actions. To not do so could set us on a course that would make us look a lot more like an autocracy than a democracy. And as flawed as our democracy might be, I prefer it to suffering the whims of a 6 year old autocrat.

This had to be done. He** has earned every asterisk he receives.

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“Rings and jewels are not gifts, but apologies for gifts. The only gift is a portion of thyself. Thou must bleed for me.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson, Gifts: An Essay

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I came across this essay, Gifts, from Ralph Waldo Emerson which is actually a practical guide to gift giving and receiving, well suited to the time in which it was written in 1844. I particularly like the line that states that rings and jewels are but apologies for gifts.

I have never looked upon a gift as an apology for not giving more of myself but when I really closely I find there is truth there. It is so much easier, so much less revealing to not truly give from ourselves and to simply go to the shops (or online these days) to acquire what often amounts to a poor symbol of what we might really feel for the person receiving that gift.

We’ve become accustomed to accepting these apologies because it excuses our own apologies to others. It’s to the point that we don’t know how give of ourselves nor do we know how to accept or acknowledge a gift that is really a true portion of the giver.

How do you do that? How do you bleed for someone else? Is it in the words of Emerson, as he continued after the quote above: Therefore the poet brings his poem; the shepherd, his lamb; the farmer, corn; the miner, a gem; the sailor, coral and shells; the painter, his picture; the girl, a handkerchief of her own sewing. This is right and pleasing, for it restores society in so far to its primary basis, when a man’s biography is conveyed in his gift…?

I don’t know.

I used to think that giving my paintings were like giving a piece of myself. It certainly fits in with Emerson’s words as he used just that as an example. It certainly seems like it is a piece of the person creating it.

But is it any more than a different sort of apology? Maybe an apology for not giving of my time and self to people directly? An apology for keeping my distance?

Sometimes I think that’s true. But there have been times when I have been given something made by another and I certainly don’t look at it as an apology in any way. I am just touched that they took the time and made the effort to even think of me in any way.

For example, I received a Christmas card from a friend whose two daughter drew red trees inside the card. That is as precious as any gift I could have received.

So where does that leave us?

I don’t know.

I am just thinking out loud this morning. Tomorrow I might look at this and ask myself what the hell I was thinking. You can never tell.

Bottom line: You can’t go wrong by truly giving of yourself. Bleed for someone, okay?

 

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Hey Skinny Santa

Going to be short today because my internet is down for a couple of days and I am not too adept at posting from my phone. I can’t be sure how this will show up on your screens.

But since it’s snowing pretty good at the moment and we’re about a week out from Christmas, here’s a song from JD McPherson, Hey Skinny Santa. Hope it shows up!

Planning to be back to normal here by Thursday but who knows. Have a good day!

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The Deacon’s New Tie- 1995

I have plenty of things to do this morning but somehow ended up spending an hour watching old videos on YouTube trying to find something to share here. However, it didn’t feel like wasted time. I generally find something new for my own edification or something that changes the course of my day in some way. Maybe makes me smile or think.

This morning, I felt like something bluesy/gospelly so I went to one of my favorites Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the godmother of rock and roll whose career spanned big bands to gospel to the blues that shaped rock and roll. Big onstage personality and a unique style with her electric guitar stylings. I thought you can’t go wrong with Sister Rosetta, especially in a live performance from a British rail station in 1964 where she’s rocking her guitar in a heavy coat and high heels belting out Didn’t It Rain on a wet platform.

But then some Louis Jordan, another favorite of mine, popped up on the sidebar. Another huge influence on early rock and roll and, like Sister Rosetta, possessing a big, charismatic personality onstage. I decided on his song Deacon Jones simply because it reminded me of the older piece above, The Deacon’s New Tie,  from my Exiles series from the mid 90’s. Thought they would pair together well.

Then on the side, up comes the Soul Stirrers, the gospel group that started the career of the immortal Sam Cooke, doing a knock’em dead version of I’m a Soldier. Just plain old great stuff.

I couldn’t pick just one so here are all three. Listen to one or two or all of them. Or none. Hey, you got free will working here, folks. But it wouldn’t be the worst way to spend a few minutes so you decide then go have a good day.



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Put this one in the Even the great ones screw up every once in a while file.

This is a painting from Norman Rockwell titled People Reading Stock Exchange, a piece done in 1930 for one of his many Saturday Evening Post covers. There appears to be nothing unique about it at first glance, just a group of folks hunched around a wall chart that they all  find completely absorbing. They all seem perfectly normal until you take a closer look and notice that the young man in the red shirt seems different. You look a bit closer, maybe squint a little until you realize you don’t need to do that to see his abnormality.

Yes, he has three legs.

This strange young fellow apparently went unnoticed for a while and Rockwell himself didn’t recognize it until it was pointed out years later. It proved to be a embarrassing episode for him, especially given his reputation for capturing detail and realism in his work.

Some people have tried to explain it away as some sort of subconscious phallic representation which seems like a stretch to me. I think it was merely an oversight although an unusual one. As a casual viewer, it it something that is easy to overlook but I am more surprised that in the process of adding the finishing touches that it simply didn’t register for him that he was creating a most unusual young man.

As an artist, it’s reassuring, even comforting, to see someone so meticulous in his process make such an error.

Most artists have at least a handful of such things in their background, pieces with shadows that make no sense in nature or arms or necks that are much too long for any living human. Most go unnoticed. The unfortunate thing is that once they are identified, they become the focal point of that painting forever– something once seen that cannot be unseen.

I know that I have several paintings with mistakes, with departures from the laws of physics and other realities. These are pieces that, without these flaws being pointed out, are strong and full works. Few people, if any, notice these flaws but for me they are sometimes the first things my eyes rest upon in the picture. But they don’t bother me as I imagine this bothered Rockwell.

I see them as symbols of our humanity, our inherent flawed nature. We don’t need to point out our flaws. They’re there for all to see. We can only hope people accept us, three legs or two or one.

And the three-legged young man here is a refreshing reminder of Rockwell’s humanity.

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This post originally ran here back in 2013. It has proven to be one of the more popular posts through the years, often getting hundreds and sometimes thousands of views in a day. It is a favorite of mine, as well, simply for the reminder that we are imperfect beings. I certainly make no pretense of perfection in my own work. In fact, flaws are an inherent part of what I do. My signature, if you will.

Must be I subscribe to the words of Fred Astaire:

The higher up you go, the more mistakes you are allowed. Right at the top, if you make enough of them, it’s considered to be your style.”

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“Watch any plant or animal and let it teach you acceptance of what is, surrender to the Now.
Let it teach you Being.
Let it teach you integrity — which means to be one, to be yourself, to be real.
Let it teach you how to live and how to die, and how not to make living and dying into a problem.”

Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now

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I have need of a little serenity this morning. It’s a crazy world out there and sometimes, when I let down my guard and let my reactions to it rule my demeanor, it gets the best of me. I find myself looking too far into the both the past and the future, seeking the causes and effects of things. While that might seem like a wise thing to do, to seek why things go a certain way and where they may lead, it often neglects the present time, the now.

That’s where I find myself this morning. Not in the past or the future but not quite fully in the now.

I try to sap some of the meaning of the words above from Eckhart Tolle. I have long found serenity in watching the forest and its inhabitants that surround the studio. There is a beauty in the witnessing the lives of the creatures of the wood.

For instance, take the common white tail deer that lives in abundance in our woods.

Their lives seem so difficult. Their existence is a constant struggle to find food, water and a tiny bit of shelter from the elements and the predators that hunt them. I used to have a doe that would snuggle up at night between the shrubs in front of my studio, laying up against the wall of the building. It was as safe and dry a place as she could possibly find.

There are few breaks for them. They are always on high alert, always skittishly scanning for danger and bolting in bursts of leaps through the forest at the slightest wrong movement.

Yes, it is a hard life.

Yet to see them have absolute moments of joy where they play and run with wild abandon around the studio makes me envious. It’s such a pure thing, their glorious reveling in the moment. In the now.

Watching them at these moments is one of the few times when I myself feel in the now. Their joy becomes my joy in that moment and the bitter world that surrounds us is gone away, if only for that brief instant. Gone are the worries of living and dying, of hardships past and to come.

Just a small yet absolute moment of joy.

That might be as close to real serenity that I ever experience. It might seem like a small thing but it feels like an immense treasure in a world that seems ready to plunge into madness.

And that’s just what I need. It’s good enough on this morning.

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Wyeth/ Balance

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It’s all in how you arrange the thing… the careful balance of the design is the motion.

-Andrew Wyeth

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I read this quote from the late Andrew Wyeth then looked over a large group of his work, examining each piece with these words in mind. I could really see the importance of the placement of the elements in his work, how it was the characteristic that truly defined his work. It was this that gave his work a poetic feel.

His use of negative space is masterful, the empty areas taking on an important role in the overall feel of the work. Placing the central character, the focal point of the picture, in any in any other spot would change the whole piece, would make it feel less.

It would feel off balance, at least in the form that Wyeth defined it. That balance is his signature.

And I think that is true for many artists. This idea of balance and motion makes up the artist’s eye. Every artist has a slightly different way of seeing things which creates their own unique visual voice.

Myself, when I feel stuck or blocked or feel that I have painted myself into a creative dead end, I look back at older work. It is often the balance and motion with the composition that affect me the most. It serves as a reminder to not lose sight of this idea of balance, to not focus too  much on other parts of the painting that, while important, may not have as much effect on the overall impact of the piece.

Balance in the design creates motion. Good advice from Mr. Wyeth.

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“I can very well do without God both in my life and in my painting, but I cannot, suffering as I am, do without something which is greater than I, which is my life, the power to create.”

Vincent van Gogh, The Letters of Vincent van Gogh

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Amen.

Love the passion in the words above from Van Gogh but really just wanted to share the painting at the top of the page. It’s The Red Vineyard from 1888 and it is considered to be the only painting ever sold by Van Gogh in his lifetime.

It was bought by the Belgian Impressionist artist Anna Boch in 1890, the year of Van Gogh’s death. It was bought for what would be abut $2000 in today’s dollars. I include that because when Boch let it go to auction in 1909, its value had shot up to what would be about $150,000 today. Van Gogh’s sister-in-law, the widow of his brother Theo, wanted to get it back but the price went well past her means.

It was purchased by a Russian collector who gave up ownership of it when all private property was nationalized by the Bolsheviks after the Communist Revolution. Today, it hangs in the Pushkin Museum in Moscow.

More than likely I will never see this painting in person but it remains a peach.

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Three Rules of Work: Out of clutter find simplicity; From discord find harmony; In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.

–Albert Einstein

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This Einstein fellow is a pretty smart guy.

Simplification, harmony and opportunity could be ingredients for any recipe to success in any field but I think they apply particularly well to the creative arts. I know that I can easily apply these three rules to my own work.

For me, its strength lies in its ability to transmit through simplification and harmony. The forms are often simplified versions of reality, shedding details that don’t factor into what it is trying to express.

There is often an underlying texture in the work that is chaotic and discordant. The harmonies in color and form painted over these create a tension, a feeling of wholeness in the work. A feeling of finding a pattern in the chaos that makes it all seem sensible.

And the final rule–opportunity lying in the midst of difficulty– is perhaps the easiest to apply. The best work always seems to rise from the greatest depths, those times when the mind has to move from its normal trench of thought. Times when it has to find new ways to move the message ahead.   The difficulties of life are often great but there is almost always an opportunity or lesson to be found within them if only we are able to take a deep breath and see them. These lesson always find their way into the work in some way.

Thanks for the thought, Mr. Einstein. I hear good things about you.

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This post ran here several years ago. Just thought I needed a reminder of what I should be doing.

 

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