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Archive for December, 2019

Actor/Producer Kirk Douglas turns 103 years old today. As the last of the Hollywood’s Golden Era stars, it would be easy to simply point out the highlights in his long and fabled career. For god’s sake, he was Spartacus. That in itself might be the headline for most people.

But he starred in and made so many great films in so many genres that to focus on one seems to short him in some way. There is the anti-war classic Paths of Glory, the great boxing film Champion and Out of the Past, a film noir gem. He played a modern cowboy out of step with the ever changing world in Lonely Are the Brave, a rising jazz star in Young Man With a Horn and the epic hero Ulysses in the film of the same name.

There are so many others that I could go on and on but I want to focus on one film. It was his portrayal of Vincent Van Gogh in Lust For Life that that really hits for me. It’s a beautifully made film from director Vincent Minnelli with lush colors shot in locations in France that lend it an air of authenticity.

Douglas plays the artist to what feels to me like perfection, capturing Van Gogh’s manic passions and frustrations as well as his fragility. You feel like you are watching Van Gogh and feel his sense of self epiphany that comes from the creation of many of his paintings. It is a performance that is a mixture of strength and vulnerability, much like you see in a Van Gogh painting.

There are a lot of fine films that wonderfully portray artists but this remains a favorite of mine. It’s one of those movies that I can tune into at any point and immediately engage with just because of Douglas’ portrayal and the the beautiful visuals of the film itself.

Like I said, there are tons of films to talk about with Kirk Douglas but there is much more to celebrate with Kirk Douglas’ 103 years on this planet. He has the ultimate American biography. Son of immigrants, raised in a very poor family, worked since he was a child to help his family, talked his way into college, served in the Navy during WW II, became a stage actor ( he was the original Randle Patrick McMurphy in the Broadway production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which he also produced) and then a real movie star.

Plus, he had severe stroke back in 1996 and has flourished in the years since.

It’s been a big life. To make it through all that to be 103 years old, he must have, like Van Gogh, a real lust for life.

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I am running late again so I am going to keep this intro to this week’s Sunday morning music selection short. It’s a great version of the Rolling Stones’ classic Gimme Shelter from 1970 by Merry Clayton.

While most of us have no idea who Merry Clayton is, she is a legendary back up singer, giving strong vocal backing to a host of artists through the decades. She was a Raelette behind Ray Charles and also backed up  such a diverse group of artists such as Pearl Bailey, Burt Bacharach, Tom Jones, Joe Cocker, Linda Ronstadt, Elvis, Carole King, Tori Amos, Neil Young and even Lynyrd Skynyrd.

The most famous story about Merry Clayton revolves around this song, Gimme Shelter. It seems when the Stones were recording it, Mick Jagger thought it would be great to have a strong female voice in its chorus. They called Clayton in the middle of the night and she showed up shortly after, pregnant and in curlers, and knocked out her part in a couple of takes. The ultimate trooper, her chorus became a defining element of the rock classic.

There’s a lot more to read about here incredible, and largely unsung, career, some of it told in 2013 Oscar winning documentary about back up singers, 20 Feet From Stardom. In 2014, Merry Clayton was in a serious car crash and, as a result, had both legs amputated.

The ups and downs of a life.

Here’s her Gimme Shelter. Have a great Sunday.

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Stay High

Got a lot to get done this morning but I did come across this video of a song from the recent solo album from Brittany Howard, the lead singer of he Alabama Shakes, and I wanted to share it. It’s an acoustic version of the song Stay High.

The album version is more produced, of course, and has the feel of early 70’s soul/ R&B, her voice reminiscent of the falsettos of Eddie Kendricks or Curtis Mayfield. This acoustic piece is plain sweet and simple and natural in its feel. It just made me feel good this morning.

Give a listen. Maybe it will make you feel good, as well.

 

 

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I was going to write something about gullibility this morning and while I was searching for something to kick off the post, a quote or an image, I came across this little bit of mirth from the late Shel Silverstein. It pretty much summed up everything you need to know about our willingness to often accept things that make no sense or are demonstrably false.

Of course, none of us will admit to wearing the plunger. We convince ourselves it’s a damn fine hat because Teddy or someone else, maybe someone named Donnie, says it is just that. If he says it looks good then it must, because he always tells us just what we want to hear and believe. We’re to smart and wary to fall for something other than the truth.

But in fact, we are actually like the character in All the King’s Men that Robert Penn Warren described: “I suppose that Willie had his natural quota of ordinary suspicion and caginess, but those things tend to evaporate when what people tell you is what you want to hear.”

And when someone is telling you that the toilet plunger on your head looks great, you really want to believe him. Because otherwise you’re just an idiot with a damn toilet plunger stuck on your head.

You know, whenever I see one of those godawful red hats on someone from now on, all I am going to see is that person with a toilet plunger on their head.

There’s a brain somewhere inside that bony box sitting between your shoulders, people. Take off the plunger and use it.

 

 

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The Scale of Our Competence

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“Our understandable wish to preserve the planet must somehow be reduced to the scale of our competence – that is to wish to preserve all of its humble households and neighborhoods.”

― Wendell Berry, The World-Ending Fire: The Essential Wendell Berry

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I wrote a longer post about the power of the small actions of one person in the face of the big problems hovering over this world based on the words above from poet Wendell Berry but ended up trashing the whole thing.

It was just way too much… well, way too much.

I simply like the term Berry used: the scale of our competence.

Simply put: Don’t wait for big answers. Do what you can do where you are. And do it now.

Big things often begin from the actions of one single person doing what they can do where they are.

Don’t focus on the scale of the problem. Focus on the scale of your own competence, of what you can do in the here and now.

Then do it.

Amen. End of sermon.

Now leave, okay? Go do what you can.

 

 

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Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off – then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.

–Herman Melville, Moby Dick

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I’m no sailor but I know that feeling, that drizzly November in my soul as Melville wrote. A glumness descends accompanied by an anxiety that cannot be quelled and the idea of being around people sets my jaw hard with my grating teeth. If people still wore hats I am sure I would be aiming to knock them off their heads.

Or worse.

I can’t head to the sea to alleviate my hypos as Melville describes this feeling which I believe is taken from the word hypochondria. No, for me, it is time to try to barricade myself in the studio and pick up my brush which is my equivalent to hoisting the sail.

With brush in hand there is a freedom with no boundaries that can hold me. No rules to follow, no one to tell me what I can or can’t do.

A brush loaded with paint is like a sail filled with a strong wind that will take me anywhere I want to go.

I can create my own sun when it’s gloomy outside or my own moon and stars to guide me through the dark. I can look out on a landscape free of all traces of people and if I occasionally want to see one I can make them far away from me, small and distant.

That keeps me from knocking off their hats.

The hypos seem to be getting the upper hand of me so I think it is high time to pick up my brush and set sail.

But if you see me on the street in the meantime, hold onto your hat.

 

 

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George Bellows- Blue Morning 1909

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Try everything that can be done. Be deliberate. Be spontaneous. Be thoughtful and painstaking. Be abandoned and impulsive. Learn your own possibilities.

–George Bellows

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George Bellows- Stag at Sharkey’s 1909

I’ve been an admirer of George Bellows’ work for a long time. He was a member of the Ashcan School, the group of painters from around the turn of the 20th century who painted gritty scenes set in the streets and buildings of urban America. He did a series of scenes with club fighters of the era that are favorites of mine, such as Stag at Sharkey’s here on the right, reminding me of my own grandfather who was a club wrestler of that same era.

My grandfather had numerous matches in the men’s clubs as well in the vaudeville theaters that were common in our hometown. He was called Shank for his ability to put a leghold on his opponents and hold it until they submitted. He had matches that lasted for several hours and had a pretty large local fanbase.

I can easily envision him at home in the dark scenes that were painted at that time by George Bellows.

While best known for his dark and gritty work, Bellows seemed to have paid attention to his own words of advice above. Though he died prematurely in 1925 at the age of 42 from peritonitis from a ruptured appendix, he stretched his work in many directions beyond his work as a member of the Ashcan group. He did portraiture, war scenes, landscapes and Maine seascapes and a host of other sorts of paintings in his prolific but short life. All were distinctly his own.

I wonder if he ever fully learned the extent of his own possibilities. While we may never know the answer, he left us a lot of hints as to what they might have been.

George Bellows- Love of Winter 1914

George Bellows- Big Dory 1913

George Bellows- Cleaning Fish

George Bellows- Haystacks and Barn

George Bellows- Massacre at Dinant (War Series) 1918

George Bellows- Shipyard Society 1916

George Bellows- Steaming Streets 1908

George Bellows- The White Horse 1914

George Bellows- Up the Hudson

George Bellows- The Fisherman’s Family 1923

 

 

 

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With about a foot of snow already on the ground and more falling as I write, I spent my first few hours this morning shoveling and plowing but still felt that I should post something. I am running one of my favorite posts, one that I run every few years. 

GC Myers- Heliotrope sm***************************

“Patience and perseverance have a magical effect before which difficulties disappear and obstacles vanish.”

-John Quincy Adams

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I don’t what made this pop into my head but I was thinking about a conversation from a few years back that I had with a friend who is also a painter. He has been a working artist for almost his entire adult life, fairly successful for much of that time. We both agree that we are extremely fortunate to have found the careers that we have, one that feels like a destination rather than a passageway to some other calling.

For me, I knew this was the career for me when I realized I no longer looked at the job listings in the classified section of the paper. For most of my life, I felt there was something else out there that would satisfy me but I didn’t know what it was or how to find it. Maybe it was as simple as finding the right job. Or so I thought.

When you don’t know where you’re going, any direction feels like it might be the right direction.

But during this particular conversation this friend asked, “What would you do if you suddenly couldn’t paint? What if you were suddenly blind?”

For him, it was unthinkable. His life of creation was totally visual, based on expressing every emotion in paint.

I thought about it for a second and said simply, “I’d do something else. I’d find a way.”

In that split-second I realized that while I loved painting and relished the idea that I could communicate completely in paint, painting was a mere device for self-expression. But it was not the only way to go. I knew then as I know now that the deprivation of something that has come to mean so much to me would, in itself, create a new need for expression that would somehow be satisfied. I have always marveled at the people who, when paralyzed or have lost use of their arms, paint with their toes or their mouth . Their drive to communicate overcame their obstacles. Mine would as well.

If blinded, I could or do something with words, using them to create color and texture. Perhaps not at the same level as my painting but it might grow into something different given the circumstance. The need to communicate whatever I needed to communicate would create a pathway.

It was an epiphany in that moment. Just knowing that I had found painting gave me the belief that I could and would find a new form of expression if needed.

I did it once and I could do it again. And I found that greatly comforting.

Yes, I’d find a way…

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Taking it easy this morning in the studio. Well, it seems easy even though I’m working on a requested piece and trying to reorganize things in here before I start getting in the next painting groove, for whose arrival I am patiently waiting.

I can feel that the next groove is getting here soon and I want to be ready. Certain parts of my studio have slowly devolved in the last year or two into a slight state of chaos. Things get misplaced and can’t be readily found so I spend ten minutes searching for it and lose a bit of my creative momentum, which is already an ephemeral thing for me. It comes and goes in a flash and any time lost while it’s at hand is lost forever.

Plus, there’s a corrosive effect of having my studio in a state of chaos. I can tolerate and even thrive with clutter to a point. But beyond that point, it piles up quickly and spills over into my thought process and my attitude. I’ve realized over the twenty-plus years I’ve been doing this thing and see that the tipping point is near at hand.

So, I am painting and organizing today. Here’s a song from Sturgill Simpson. It’s his cover of In Bloom from Nirvana. There are a couple of levels of irony in this version. Kurt Cobain wrote this song about the irony of the new fans they gained as their fame grew, who sang along with the songs without understanding the lyrics and whose actions in life were sometimes direct contradictions to the meanings of the songs. Kurt Cobain described this song as being about the intolerance of “rednecks, macho men and abusive people.”

It’s ironic that Simpson covers this song because from outward appearance and sound, one might mistake the Kentucky country singer a for one of those rednecks. But Simpson himself deals with that same type of fan who sings along without knowing the meaning of his songs. While his sound is based deeply in traditional country his attitudes are not redneck at all.

In short, this is a really good interpretation of a good song. Also, a neat looking video. Give a look and a listen then have a good Sunday.

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