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Archive for the ‘Biographical’ Category

Painting has come to play a big part in my life. I’ve had a couple of different conversations with some folks over the past few weeks where I have tried to explain what painting has meant to me, tried to explain the void that it filled for me and the sense of purpose it brought to my life.  I talked about never feeling any sense of destiny or anything like that in becoming a painter. It just seemed to work for me in the ways I needed it to work. These conversations brought to mind the blog entry below that I wrote back in early 2009 called The Need to Paint that I thought I’d share today:

I wrote a few days ago about how I am often mystified by the meanings of my paintings and how I this makes me glad that I still have the need to paint.

The need to paint?

I thought about that after I hit the button to publish that post. I have often heard artists say they had to paint, as though it were some sort of exotic medical quandary.

Paint or die.

It always kind of bothered me when I heard this, as though these people were saying they had some sort of predestined calling. Like they were prophets or shamans that without their visionary paintings the world would spin out of control. I don’t think I ever felt afflicted with this and it always sounded just a little pompous to me. 

So when I wrote that I had the need to paint it made me twitch a bit. Maybe I’m the pompous ass here. That certainly is in the realm of possibility.

But I find myself kind of standing behind what I said– I do need to paint.

It’s not some call to destiny. It’s not to transmit some psychic message to the world. It’s more a case of me needing have a voice or form of expression that best suits my mind and abilities. Painting just happens to fill that need. If I could yodel–and thankfully for us all I cannot– I might be saying that I have the need to yodel.

But I need to paint.

I need to paint to try to express things I certainly can’t put in words, things that awe and mystify me. I need to paint to have a means to a voice to make the universe aware that I exist.

I need to paint just to remind myself that I am alive and still have the ability to feel the excitement and joy from something that I have created. I need to paint to feel the surprise of exceeding what I felt was within me, to go into that realm of personal mystery within and emerge with something new. I need to paint because it has given me the closest thing I know to answers to the questions I have.

I need to paint because it is one of the few things that I’ve done fairly well in my life.

Would I die?

Nah…

I’d adapt and find something new but it would be hard to find something that would suit me as well. So I guess I do need to paint after all. Call me a pompous ass. I don’t give a damn- I’ve got work to do.

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There are sensory perceptions that we carry throughout our lives.  It might be a sound, a smell, an image that once brought to mind brings forth the atmosphere and feeling of the time in which they first entered our consciousness.

The smell of a cooking turkey instantly returns me to my childhood and the farmhouse where we lived. It would be Thanksgiving and  I can see Mom’s old formal dining table with the heavy chairs that surrounded it. It’s a long table with all the extending leafs in place and it’s surface is covered with the bounty of Thanksgiving, the mashed potatoes, canned cranberry sauce, stuffing and so on. Just the tiniest whiff of a roasting turkey always — and I mean always–sends me hurtling through time back to that table.

The same is true with certain songs. Take for instance, the song In My Life from the Beatles. Hearing those opening chords always sends me back to same big old farmhouse that played such a big part in my formative years. I can see the old floral wallpaper in the living room and there’s a big console record player with cloth covered speakers on its front and two sliding panels on top that uncover a turntable on one side and the controls for a radio on the other. Those opening chords have me immediately standing in front of that record player with the light from the large windows in that room filtering through Mom’s frilled white cotton curtains. On the wall there was a reproduction of a schlocky painting — I think it was a red covered bridge–printed on thick cardboard that was bought at the Loblaws grocery store.

It’s a good memory. I felt safe in that place, free to imagine places and adventures I hoped for in the future. It was a good place to foster some of the thoughts and observations that direct my paintings to this very day.

That’s my intro for this week’s Sunday morning music. I thought instead of playing the original Beatles version of In My Life which is understandably a favorite of mine, I would opt instead for one from Bette Midler with a beautiful accompaniment on ukelele from uke wizard Jake Shimabukuro. The feeling of his playing on this song works for me as much as the original in bringing back that earlier time and place.

Give a listen, think about some of those sensations that trigger your own memories and have a good Sunday.

 

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I was going through my little treasure chest the other day. It’s an old square cardboard box filled with old experiments, failures, breakthroughs and other assorted oddities from my earliest days painting. I enjoy doing this because many of the pieces stimulate some of the same sensory triggers that drove me back when they were painted, back in 1994 and early 1995. Feeling that same sensation now creates an urgency in me, one that makes me want to get back to work so that maybe I can create that same feeling in this moment.

Motivation comes in many forms. It even rises from work that I felt was not good enough to show years ago. Over the years many of these pieces have grown in my estimation and I see now how they fit into my larger body of work and how they made the transformation from borderline fire-starters to things that I value highly today.

While I do see motivation in this sometime visitation to the past, part of me wonders if there is any value in going back and experiencing these pieces once again. After all, I have moved on since that time and can’t return to the point that produced that work. The nostalgia of it makes me forget the frustration that was present at the time that came from knowing that these pieces weren’t hitting the spot I envisioned, that there was much progress to be made in my work before it would satisfy me on a consistent basis.

So maybe going back serves little purpose. Maybe it prevents one from moving on to new paths, new ideas, new work. As aviator/author Beryl Markham wrote in her memoir, West With the Night:

“I have learned that if you must leave a place that you have lived in and loved and where all your yesteryears are buried deep, leave it any way except a slow way, leave it the fastest way you can. Never turn back and never believe that an hour you remember is a better hour because it is dead. Passed years seem safe ones, vanquished ones, while the future lives in a cloud, formidable from a distance.” 

She may be right. But this morning I am looking back to a place I don’t want to return to in the present moment. I know I have to move forward, have to progress. These works now belong to a past that cannot hold me back from that formidable future ahead.

And they won’t. If anything, they make me want to be better…

 

 

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Exiles--QuartetWe all carry within us our places of exile, our crimes, and our ravages. But our task is not to unleash them on the world; it is to fight them in ourselves and in others.

Albert Camus

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I have written about and showed a number of the pieces from my early Exiles series here on this blog. It was a very important group of work for me in that it was the first real break towards forming my own voice, creating and displaying work that was emotional for myself. It was also the work that spawned my first solo show in early 1997.

The inspiration for this work was mainly drawn from the experience of watching my mother suffer and die from lung cancer over a short five or six month period in 1995. Her short and awful struggle was hard to witness, leaving me with a deep sense of helplessness as I could only wish that there was a way in which I could somehow alleviate her pain. Most of the work deals with figures who are in some form of retrospection or prayer, wishing for an end to their own suffering.

But another part of this work was drawn from my own feelings of emotional exile, a feeling of estrangement in almost every situation. I had spent the better part of my life to that point  as though I didn’t belong anywhere, always on the outside viewing the world around me as stranger in a strange land, to borrow the words of that most famous biblical exile, Moses. These figures were manifestations of that sense of inner exile that I carried with me.

Little did I know that these very figures would help me find a way out of this exile. With their creation came a sense of confidence and trust in the power of my self-revelation. I could now see that the path from the hinterlands of my exile was not in drawing my emotions more and more inward, allowing no one to see. No, the path to a reunion with the world was through pouring this emotion onto the surface of paper or canvas for all to see.

This is hard to write and I am struggling with it as I sit here this morning. I started writing this because I had been reconsidering revisiting this series, creating a new generation of Exiles. But in pondering this idea I realized that the biggest obstacle was in the fact that I no longer felt so much a stranger in a strange land. I no longer felt like the Exile, no longer lived every moment with these figures. It turned out that they were guides for me, leading me back to the world to which I now feel somewhat connected, thanks to my work.

If there is to be a new series, they will most likely not be Exiles.

The piece shown here, Quartet,  is one of my favorites, a grouping of four figures.  You may not see it in these figures but the visual influence for this work were the carvings found on Mayan ruins of Mexico and Central America.  I myself see this mainly in the figure at the bottom right.

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I am busy getting ready for this Saturday’s Gallery Talk at the West End Gallery.  You wouldn’t think it would take much preparation, would you? I show up and talk for a while. End of prep. And from a few of the many talks I’ve given over the years, that would appear to be the extent of my preparation.

But I really do try to have an idea of some ideas I want to get across in these talks. Sometimes, it focuses on an anecdote or two or a thought that has been floating around with me for some time. So, I try to collect these ideas and commit them to memory so that I can go to them when the time arises.

But the main preparation comes in continually telling myself to allow myself to be absolutely transparent and honest when I am up there in front of the group. That can mean admitting to my shortcomings and flaws to people that I’ve sometimes never seen before. I know that sounds awful when taken at face value, something no one really wants to face. Who wants to confess anything to strangers?

But, as an artist, there is great value in those moments. There is catharsis in the act of  confession, revelation in the exposing of one’s vulnerabilities. It’s like wiping off layers of dust from a mirror — what may have been obscured is now evident. And for me, that is a vital part of my creative process. Without it, I may as well be a chimp with fingerpaints.

So, my prep consists of readying my willingness to reveal vulnerability. Believe me when I say that it takes some doing.

Another part is choosing a painting to give away at the end of the talk. I spend a lot of time, going back and forth on what to give away. As I have said in the past, I want it to be a meaningful piece, something that actually hurts me a little bit to give away. I am really struggling to choose a piece for this talk. I have a couple in mind but keep changing my mind because part of me doesn’t want to give them away. And that little pang of regret makes me think I am close to choosing.

I will let you know in the next day or so.

So, to sum up: Gallery Talk this Saturday, August 5, at the West End Gallery in Corning. There will be refreshments, a drawing for one of my paintings, maybe a few other assorted giveaways and, if my preparations work out as planned, a darn good conversation.  

There is also a small group of new paintings that are coming with me including the little piece shown above. It’s petite in size only. I call it Drift Away. Here’s the song from Dobie Gray from many years back. If you are of a certain age, you have no doubt heard this song a thousand times and have the chorus permanently etched in your brain tissue. But it’s still a good listen.

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So runs my dream: but what am I? 
         An infant crying in the night: 
         An infant crying for the light: 
And with no language but a cry.
                                                                                                          .
Alfred Tennyson, Canto 54, In Memoriam A.H.H.
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I came across an online article a few weeks back that captured my interest. Written by British designer Benjamin Earl Evans, it is titled 11 Brutal Truths About Creativity That No One Wants to Talk About. It’s a pretty short read.
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Many of the points Evans makes seem pretty evident to me– your ideas are not original, everybody is creative, creativity is hard, success depends on the assistance of others and so on. Art, like any business or real endeavor, is filled with difficulties and harsh realities and if someone has spent anytime trying to be a working artist, they recognize many of these as absolute truths.
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Perhaps the greatest difficulty for the visual artist is that you are faced with the prospect of competing with other artists, many with greater skills and training than yourself, for dwindling opportunities to show your work in the traditional gallery spaces that best gets your work in front of prospective collectors. Add to this that the artist then has to have their work somehow create an emotional bridge to the viewer, something that connects with them on the most visceral level.
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I find myself often wondering what might be the differentiating factor in why the work of some artists succeed at these difficult tasks while the work of other greatly skilled artists does not? It is surely something beyond technical prowess and a solid resume. Something almost indefinable.
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Evans provides one possible answer in this article, one that stopped me in my tracks with its simple obviousness– allowing yourself to be vulnerable.
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It made me think the many times I have seen artists with incredible technical and observational skills create work that just doesn’t seem to reveal itself emotionally. Perhaps their ability has overshadowed their need for expression? I don’t know that answer.
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But reading that, I immediately recognized the place of vulnerability and my willingness to share it in my work. I realize that my fears and shortcomings come through in my work.  My weaknesses, my uncertainties and my tears are readily on display as are my affections, hopes and aspirations. Even my lack of certain skills is a vulnerability that I am willing to expose and share, mainly because I cannot hide behind them.
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Maybe that kind of vulnerability is one of those differentiating factors. I don’t know for sure though I tend to lean that way in my belief. How does an artist gain vulnerability? Again, I don’t know. Not even sure they can outside of trying to work on those things that allow them to really feel deep emotion.
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No easy answers, unfortunately. But for me, I will continue with my transparency, my own vulnerability. It’s all I know.

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Tonight marks the opening reception for Self Determination, an exhibit of my new work at the West End Gallery in Corning. It runs from 5 until 7:30 and there will be refreshments, food, music from guitarist William Groome and work– both mine and the great work of the other artists there whose work is on display upstairs– that I hope you will find to your liking.

I saw the show in the gallery yesterday and think it has an impressive look in place. Jesse and Lin always do a fantastic job arranging and hanging the show so that it shows to its best advantage and this show is a great example of their skill.

The West End was the first gallery ( or for that matter, the first people outside my family) to see anything in my work and they set me on this life in art that I have so enjoyed back in early 1995. They have graciously hosted my solo shows — this is my 16th there– over the years and I try to do my very best for them out of a sense of gratitude for the many things they have done for me.

I hope this show lives up to that obligation I feel. I think it does but my opinion is mine alone. You will have to be the judge.

I will be on hand tonight and will be available for all your questions or comments. If you can make it tonight, please don’t be shy. If you want to talk and I am engaged with someone else, just catch my eye and I will get to you as soon as possible. Or listen in and join the conversation. That’s something I always forget to point out because I have had so many people tell me they were at an opening and didn’t speak with me because I was busy with other people. If you make the effort to get to the gallery I will make time for you.

Also, just a reminder that if you can’t make the show, there will be a Gallery Talk at the West End on Saturday, August 5.  Should be fun so I hope you can make it then.

So, if your date book isn’t full, please stop in tonight at the West End Gallery. We look forward to seeing you.

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