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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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The only person you are destined to become is the person you decide to be.

― Ralph Waldo Emerson

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The painting above, a 24″ by 18″ canvas, shares its title with that of my solo show, Self Determination, which opens this Friday, July 14, at the West End Gallery in Corning.

That title, Self Determination, refers to a thought that came to me some years ago. It was that we have a choice in deciding what kind of person we want to be. While we can’t always change circumstance, we have the ability to change our course, our outlook, our reactions and so many other things that pertain to how we are defined.

It’s not an original idea, as Emerson’s concise words above attest. I’m sure I could dig around and come up with the same idea from the time of Socrates or Plato.

No, it’s a universal truth. But it is one that, while seeming  self evident, is overlooked by the majority of people. We often live our lives with little consideration given to our actions and reactions as we stumble through our precious time in this world.

We just accept who and what we are as a given, even when we are less than pleased by what we see.

I know that was the case for me for much of my earlier life. Not that I didn’t think about my choices. No, I just never thought about what my decisions might be if I were the person I wanted to be. Instead I often opted for short-sighted and expedient answers, usually those that required little effort or sacrifice on my part.

I didn’t often like or respect the person I was at those times.

But once I realized I could decide what type of person I wished to be, I began to ask myself conscious questions that set a new course for myself. Gradually, I began to move toward the person I chose to be. Oh, I am still quite a distance from that destination and I still find myself disliking the person I am at times. But I know now that I am headed in a direction that is of my design and not simply living life in a default setting, letting circumstances and the desires of other people dictate my actions.

And maybe that is why I am so drawn to the painting above. I feel it is a great example of what I have been trying to express with my work– that we have an ability to move beyond expectations and circumstances to become better versions of ourselves.

For me, I want to be that Red Tree, simply satisfied with its place in the world.

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“You are not the oil, you are not the air—merely the point of combustion, the flash-point where the light is born. You are merely the lens in the beam. You can only receive, give, and possess the light as the lens does. If you seek yourself, you rob the lens of its transparency. You will know life and be acknowledged by it according to your degree of transparency—your capacity, that is, to vanish as an end and remain purely as a means.” 
― Dag HammarskjöldMarkings

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Transparency is an issue that has had a lot of buzz in public discussion lately. I am not going to get into that today.

But I do have to say that it troubles me as I am someone who has become ever more transparent, more honest, through the past few decades. I used to view such openness and honesty as a weakness, as a vulnerability that would allow myself to be exploited in some way. But at a point about twenty five years back, I came to the realization that I wanted to live an open and transparent life, one with nothing to hide.

It meant admitting weaknesses and vulnerabilities, taking responsibility for my many shortcomings.

It’s a scary thing and I wasn’t sure that it was the right thing for me. But I felt it was my only option if I were going to proceed through the reminder of my life.

And it was perhaps the best decision I ever made. Sparing you all the details, I have to say that that the transparency, the vulnerability that I chose at that point, has transformed my life. It has not always been easy or perfect but it is certainly better.

The effect of that transparency is what I was seeing in the painting at the top of the page, With Nothing to Hide.  A 15″ by 11″ painting on paper, it is part of my show, Self Determination, that opens Friday at the West End Gallery.

It expresses the willingness to make oneself vulnerable, to allow the world to see how you see and react to the world. I think that might be the quality that made my career as an artist possible. In fact, I think that is the quality that many incredibly talented artists suppress, which sometimes keeps them from meshing that transparency of emotional feeling with their physical talent. Which means they often don’t reach the potential that might lay within them.

For me, I was lucky in having my painting assist me with my transparency and, in turn, that desire for vulnerability aided me in my painting. It was hand-in-hand. I didn’t know it at the time but looking back I realize how fortunate I was.

And I mean that honestly.

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Well, the work for my show, Self Determination, has been delivered to the West End Gallery where Jesse and Lin will hang the show within the next day or so for previews until next Friday’s opening reception.

It’s always a big relief in the day or so after getting the show out of the studio and into the gallery, just in getting the task done and out of the way. Earlier in my career that relief was short lived as I would be extremely nervous in the time between delivery and the actual show. I would always second guess my decisions and fret over things over which I had no control. Any confidence I had built up during the actual painting process would evaporate completely.

But time and experience have mellowed that feeling. I don’t think I am any more confident or certain about the work that I do than I was in those earlier days. But I know now that once the work is done, the die is cast so there’s little I can do about anything from that point on. It is beyond me so I must accept whatever comes.

And that makes the time before a show much easier to tolerate, allowing me to do other things and reexamine the work for the show.

Take for instance the painting at the top of the page, Ask the Night, which is part of the show.  It’s a piece that has a great meditative quality for myself. Maybe it is the calming effect of the blues and purples. Maybe it’s the cool placidity of moon and the gentle rays emanating from  it. Or maybe it is the way in which the waterway opens itself to the sky above.

The title comes from  the idea that we are surrounded each night by the sheer mystery and magnitude of the universe. It is a daunting thought, one that puts us in our place, exposing how little we really know beyond our limited reach. We like to think that the universe revolves around us but in the night we realize that it barely acknowledges us except for the veiled promise of answers to all our questions, if only we could somehow ask.

And in this painting I see that lone house on horizon holding an inhabitant who looks out on the sky with an existential desire to know, to have their questions answered. And in that sky, in that calming moon, they see the possibility of an answer.

So they summon their courage and they ask the night.

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