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I have been in a funk in the studio for the past couple of weeks. It feels as though any momentum or confidence about my work that I thought was permanently embedded in myself seems to have completely evaporated. I should have known better than to think that things had changed, that I had somehow gained some new kind of unwavering confidence that would inure me to my natural uncertainty. This happens quite often with me, as I have documented here before. Like the words from Goethe below, my own progression as an artist moves in a spiral, sometimes pulsing forward and some times retreating.

Evolution and dissolution.

I went back to a post that I have twice posted here that describes a time not much different than my current situation. I felt out of sorts and uncertain, definitely in need of a pep talk that could only come from my own experience of overcoming this inertia. Here’s that post:

Robert Smithson Spiral Jetty

Progress has not followed a straight ascending line, but a spiral
with rhythms of progress and retrogression, of evolution and dissolution.

– Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

***********

I was looking at a book catalog yesterday, just browsing for something new and I spotted a book on the works of Robert Smithson, who is best known for his monumental earthworks. The most famous is shown here, the Spiral Jetty, which juts out into the Great Salt Lake in Utah. I’ve always been somewhat fascinated by earth-moving on a large scale and have admired Smithson’s work whenever I came across it.

The reason I mention this now is that I found myself thinking smaller lately, painting smaller paintings for a smaller economy. Part of this was a conscious decision but part was the result of just becoming a little more wary with all the turmoil in the world. There has been a period of introversion marked by a noticeable withdrawal from thinking boldly. Seeing this reminded me of the need to think big.

I realized I had become a bit fearful of pushing myself, perhaps afraid of exposing my limitations. I had lost a little faith in my own abilities, including the ability to adapt to new challenges.

I was being safe. It was the retrogression that Goethe talks of in the quote above. I was in the spiral.

This all flashed in my head within a few seconds of seeing the spiral jetty. Funny how a single image can trigger a stream of thought with so many branches off of it.

I had forgotten that I had to trust myself and throw the fear of failure aside, that thinking bold almost always summons up the best in many people. Once you say that you don’t give a damn what anyone says, that if you fail so be it, the road opens up before you and your mind finds a way to get you on it.

So I have to remember to think big.

To look past the horizon. Just freaking do it.

Then progress will come…

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“America is the wealthiest nation on Earth, but its people are mainly poor, and poor Americans are urged to hate themselves. To quote the American humorist Kin Hubbard, ‘It ain’t no disgrace to be poor, but it might as well be.’ It is in fact a crime for an American to be poor, even though America is a nation of poor. Every other nation has folk traditions of men who were poor but extremely wise and virtuous, and therefore more estimable than anyone with power and gold. No such tales are told by the American poor. They mock themselves and glorify their betters. The meanest eating or drinking establishment, owned by a man who is himself poor, is very likely to have a sign on its wall asking this cruel question: ‘if you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich?’ There will also be an American flag no larger than a child’s hand – glued to a lollipop stick and flying from the cash register.

Americans, like human beings everywhere, believe many things that are obviously untrue. Their most destructive untruth is that it is very easy for any American to make money. They will not acknowledge how in fact hard money is to come by, and, therefore, those who have no money blame and blame and blame themselves. This inward blame has been a treasure for the rich and powerful, who have had to do less for their poor, publicly and privately, than any other ruling class since, say Napoleonic times. Many novelties have come from America. The most startling of these, a thing without precedent, is a mass of undignified poor. They do not love one another because they do not love themselves.”

Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five, 1969

++++++++++++++++++++

The above was written almost 50 years back by Kurt Vonnegut. I first read my now worn copy of Slaughter-House Five about 45 years ago and re-read it a number of times in the years that followed though it has been decades since I last read it. When I came across the excerpt above this morning I realized how much it informed and shaped my views on the world.

And how little this country had changed in the 50 years since.

If anything, this loathing of the poor or just those who may not be doing as well as ourselves has accelerated as the sheer numbers have grown due to a population that is now roughly 70% larger than in 1969. It provides some explanation for how the poor and middle-classes could somehow stand behind that thing now lurching around our White House. He is everything they would normally detest: a privileged, loud, rude elitist who flaunts his good fortune and mocks and derides those he sees as being beneath him. Who brags about dining and playing golf with the wealthiest people and hates to shake the hands of the common folk out of fear of their germs. An amoral man who is a known liar and a cheat, especially when it comes to bullying those with little sway who have worked for him.

The why of this is in Vonnegut’s words. It’s the same dynamic that allows people to get angry at the supermarket when they see someone in line ahead of them, especially a person of color, using food stamps. You can see them seething, almost mouthing the words welfare queen. These same people would have no problem with a man, especially a white man in an expensive suit, accepting billion dollar checks as a bail-out for the mistakes of these same men.

Maybe that is what we are seeing, common folks glorifying their betters, as Vonnegut put it. Except this person, this so-called leader, is not their better. He is a glaring symbol of the very worst of their qualities. He is well beneath them if they would only look beyond the cheesy gold patina.

To put it crudely: a gold-plated turd is still just a turd.

And even more than that, he is compromised and beholden to several other nations now.

And these same folks, by extension, are compromised as well. They have forsaken their principles and beliefs for empty promises that were never meant to come true. They would turn their head to corruption and possibly murder so that a wealthy man in a nice suit could make some more money.

It was true in 1969 when Slaughter-House Five came out. It’s true today.

Time to read the book again.

Art here tomorrow. Promise.

 

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Last week a notification came up on my Facebook feed of a painting of mine that was being offered for sale locally. It wasn’t the best of photos but I immediate recognized the painting. It was from back in 1999 and was titled Black Opal Night. The price was very reasonable and I immediately contacted the seller, offering to buy the painting back.

In our back and forth, she asked why I was buying this painting back. It seems that artists buying their work back is not a normal thing.

I replied that it was from the years between 1996 and 2000, a five year period that was pre-Red Tree and an evolutionary step to my subsequent work. It was also a time from which I have practically no remaining work and would love to have a few more pieces. I have been very fortunate in that almost all of the work from that time have found new homes. The few that remain with me are pieces that most likely should have never left the studio in the first place. They have major flaws– poor color quality, composition balances that seem off a bit and so on– which I would now consider disqualifying, that would keep me from showing it publicly.

I may have been a little less discerning in earlier times.

This piece, from what I could see in the photo and could glean from my memory of it, didn’t seem to fall into this category.

Another part of wanting to acquire this piece was that my documentation at the time was pre-digital and spotty. I most likely have slides of this piece but the slide itself is most likely poorly shot. And a poorly photographed slide is still a poor image when transferred to a digital format, which is still an iffy process for me. It would be good to see a painting from the time and get proper photos. I have to admit that the photo here was taken through glass so it is not a perfect image. But it works.

So I picked this up over the weekend and I couldn’t have been more thrilled. First, the image itself looked new even though the frame, a blue-green color that I no longer use, was a bit less fresh looking. It was definitely of the time. I could see where I was at the time from a process standpoint, how I was still embracing techniques that are now deep embedded.

I often speak at gallery talks about the 60 or 70 thousand hours spent in the studio over the past two decades. This piece was from the beginning of that time and offered a glimpse of how the work had evolved and changed. This piece was pushing at the edges of my abilities at the time which gives it an excited feel. I can almost feel my excitement in painting it from the time. There are surface flaws that are integral to the energy of this painting that give it a rawness that I think was a big part of the strength of that early work.

That rawness is something I don’t see as much in recent work. Oh, the excitement is still there but the expression of it is more refined, more controlled. And looking at this painting makes me wonder if I am pushing myself enough. Am I staying too far inside the lines? How do I regain that raw energy?

And maybe the answers to these questions are the real reasons for me re-acquiring this painting. Even though it’s simply an older painting in my body of work, it has given me so many things to ponder.

Let’s see where it goes from here.

 

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Ten Years

In the hubbub of the last few weeks, I lost sight of the fact that this past late September marked ten years that I have been writing this blog.  The first Redtreetimes showed up on September 19, 2008. It was very short and featured two of my earliest paintings. The first contemporary piece of mine from that time to debut here was the 2008 painting above, Coming to a Realization, on the next day.

There have been almost 3000 posts in those ten years. Occasionally I riff back through the online archives and am proud of some of the posts and disappointed by others. But the one thing I think it has been is consistent. I don’t cringe at the opinions I have expressed and am not embarrassed or ashamed by the personal flaws I sometimes expose. If anything, the blog has served in much the same way as my work in giving voice and form to the fact that I exist, that I am here in this place at this time.

Has it been worth the time and effort? I think so but there are days when I really can’t be so positive about that. It might look like there should be little effort in throwing this together each morning but that is an illusion. If there are 3000 posts then I figure I’ve spent at least 3000 hours. Most likely much more when you factor in the posts that are written only to be sent to the trash, never to see any other screen but mine. There have been plenty of those.

Or the many posts that takes multiple hours to write. Writing is real toil to me and it often takes much longer than you would think for me to squeeze out a couple of hundred words. And I can’t help but think how long it might take if I took the time to reread and edit them before posting them.

But overall, I think this blog has been a great supplement to my work. It has exposed a lot of people in far flung locations to my paintings and the stories and thoughts behind them.

In the past, the gallery system provided the background stories and ideas behind an artist’s work to the public. I am fortunate in that I have worked with galleries that still do much of that for me. But that is a rarer quality today as many brick and mortar galleries struggle. So more and more, it is important for an artist to be proactive and take matters into their own hands and do things like social media and blogs.

I can’t say if this increased exposure on the net has increased the sales of my work. I believe it has. More importantly, it has helped shape the way in which I see my own work and how I want it presented to the outside world. It has introduced me to many folks who provide valuable feedback and sometimes thought provoking opinions. This has no doubt shaped the work as well.

I want to send a hearty Thank You to those of you who still pop in and out after all these years to check out my work or the work of others. I try to keep it interesting and show a broad range of material without becoming too esoteric or deep. I think fully it reflects the thought I expressed here years ago, that like a river I may appear to be a mile wide but am mostly only inches deep.

Take that for what you will. And thanks, again.

 

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Ave Maria

It’s a cool and wet morning here with a soft rain falling that I wasn’t expecting. The ground around the studio is saturated like sponge and when you walk through the grass there are spots where the green of the tall grass– my lawn needs mowing– is overtaken by the brown of the muddy soil.

It sets a quiet tone within me. The last several days have been so busy that I haven’t had the chance to just spend the time in the studio to which I have been accustomed for the past decade or so. It’s not just time spent painting but, more importantly, time spent mulling things over and trying to set things in an orderly way that allows me to more fully function.

Not having that time makes me uneasy, like I am on the verge of losing my balance.

So the quiet of the cool air and the soft rain and the muddy steps in the grass feel good this morning. This quiet allows me to slow my thoughts, to abate the tensions of those things which I can’t control.

Oh, they’ll be back soon enough but for  a short time I recede into this quiet. And that is a good start.

For today’s Sunday morning music I am featuring a group that flew under my radar until this week’s painting workshop. One of the attendees, Frank who has been with me for three of these workshops, excitedly told me that he had discovered that one of his most favorite groups was performing at the Smith opera House in nearby Geneva. Frank normally drives in to these workshops in from about an hour or so away. This year he and his wife were staying in Penn Yan  and would be able to see the performance. He was ecstatic.

The group is a renowned, Grammy Award winning male vocal classical ensemble from San Francisco called Chanticleer. They have been performing with a revolving roster of voices for 40 years and this performance was part of their anniversary tour. The clip below is the group performing one of their better known selections along with another elite male ensemble, Cantus, in a bar where the two groups had met up.  The song is Ave Maria from the 20th century composer Franz Biebl.

It’s a stunning display and, unlike Thursday’s judiciary hearing, there are no red-faced mean drunks anywhere to be found. That in itself is refreshing. Give a listen and have a great Sunday.

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Character

I am busy getting things around today for a workshop that I am leading up at Penn Yan in the beautiful Finger Lakes tomorrow and Friday. This is only my fourth year doing this but every year I say that this is most likely the last time I will do this. The words have already left my mouth this year.

I do not feel that I am a natural teacher and get somewhat stressed out doing these, much more so than giving a talk. Because the folks at the workshop are paying to be there, I worry that they won’t get their money’s worth. That’s where the anxiety comes in for me. I probably overcompensate in response to this but if it helps me feel that I have given something of value to these folks, then I can accept that.

Even though it’s stressful, I have to say that I am glad to be doing this workshop this year, given what might be happening in the next couple of days in DC. I would rather be teaching a few of my techniques to willing and friendly faces than yelling and swearing at my television.

Now that is stress.

So, I am taking a few days off from the blog. The image and Helen Keller quote at the top speak very much to the trials this country is currently experiencing. Whatever character we possess as a nation, now is the time it will be truly revealed.

Good luck to us all. See you in a few days.

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The painting above is The Sea, Watched from artist Jamie Wyeth. I came across the quote from Wyeth that is  below the image and it really struck a nerve with me, especially in the moment.

Being back in the studio after the Gallery Talk at the Principle Gallery, I am conflicted by two desires. One is to just be bone lazy and do nothing, to simply enjoy the good feelings generated by the talk and my own sense of my work at the moment. The other is to dig back in with even greater fervor, to move the goalposts ahead and begin the next step towards reaching those goals. What exactly those goals are is yet to be determined but I do know they are there.

I do feel that I do have to move forward, to not be lazy and rest on the work that is out there at this point. Part of that comes from doing these talks and getting real feedback on what I have done. I don’t want to come before these folks next year and have nothing new, no advancement in the body of the work, to point to.

That is the one of the addictive parts of this painting thing– a fear of falling short.

But sometimes the lazy part is appealing. I look at the work so far and I feel good about it. I tell myself to take it easy. Relax. Coast for a while. That would certainly be easy to do.

But part of me knows that’s the wrong way to go. If for some reason my career ended today, I can’t say I would be satisfied with what I have done. I don’t feel that my story is completely told yet, that the work hasn’t yet revealed all that it has to yield.

So, I dig back in.

I was asked after the talk the other day if I planned to retire and I laughed. First, I said I couldn’t because all of the paintings I have given away at these talk represented my retirement funds. But I said I couldn’t imagine not doing this to the day I either die or become incapacitated in a way that would prevent me from picking up a brush and making a mark.

Realistically, I figure I have a good twenty five years in which to be productive. And if I am fortunate and take care of myself, maybe thirty. I notice more and more older artists working into their 90’s and beyond, producing new work that are exclamation points on long careers.

That would be good. But it won’t happen if one lets laziness creep too much into the equation. Fortunately for me, the credo, “Live to work, work to live,” is not a scary or depressing idea.

So, that being said, I’ve got a lot of work to do. Have a great day.

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