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If isolation tempers the strong, it is the stumbling-block of the uncertain.

Paul Cezanne

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I was looking for some words to start this post about the new painting at the top, The Isolation, when I came across this quote I had used in a post here a few years back. It seemed to fit my feeling for this piece as did the post attached to the quote. So I am rerunning that today as well. This painting, an 8″ by 24″ canvas, is part of my solo show, Social Distancing, that opens next Friday, June 5, at the Principle Gallery.

A lot of people currently are experiencing more isolation that they might otherwise normally have to endure. I think it must really shake up their sense of certainty in the world. If they weren’t uncertain going into this episode, they most likely became so during their time of isolation.

I have been fortunate in that I enjoy this feeling of isolation. Thrive on it, actually. I don’t know that this is sign of strength or of some sort of neurosis. But I know that it is place where I experience certainty of any sort on a regular basis. Oh, there are still moments of uncertainty even there but far less than I am in the outer world.

Here’s the post from a few years back:

I spend a lot of time alone in the isolation of my studio. Fortunately for me, it is the place in the world where I am most comfortable and feel completely myself.

It is the place where I can feel unrestrained to free the mind and go wherever it takes me. The place where I can shed the uncertainty I find in the outer world and feel free to daydream. The place where I can summon up pictures that exist only inside myself. A place to study. To listen. To see.

It is my my university, my library, my theater, my monastery and my place of refuge.

My haven.

When I am out of the studio, I am all the while trying to get back to it.

When others come into my studio, the dynamic of that place changes and I feel myself suddenly self-conscious and a bit uncomfortable, like I am standing in someone else’s home.

The visitors’ eyes become my eyes and I notice things I never see on a day to day basis. The cat hair on the floor that needs to be swept up. The paint splatters on the wall or a fingerprint in paint on the wall switchplate. The windows that need cleaning. The piles of papers that I have been meaning to go through for too many months. The paintbrushes soaking in murky water scattered throughout the place or the start of a not-too-good painting that will most likely never see the outer world.

In that moment, my perfect castle of isolation becomes a hovel of uncertainty.

But the castle remarkably reappears once I am alone again. The uncertainty recedes and I begin to feel myself once more.

My isolation is my default state of being.

I understand exactly what Cezanne is saying at the top. I have been more comfortable alone than in the company of others since I was a child. I don’t know if that is a strength or just a neurotic peccadillo. But I know that if I ever find uncertainty in my isolation, I will have lost my footing in this world.

But, thankfully, that hasn’t happened yet…

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Charles C Mulford Grave Alexandria VA National Cemetery

I am very busy getting ready for my annual show at the Principle Gallery. Unlike the prior 20 shows, this year’s show will be different in many aspects, from the many precautions that I will have to take in delivering the work to the fact that there won’t be an actual opening reception this year. There’s a lot I am going to miss from this year’s show. But as I prepare, I am reminded of an entry I wrote  about a small family connection with that city that was revealed to me several years back. Felt like it was worth replaying on this Memorial Day.

I’ve been going to Alexandria, VA, a lovely and historic town that hugs the Potomac River just a few miles below Washington DC, for a long time, often several times a year. Outside of my link with the Principle Gallery and the relationships that have grown from that, I never thought I had a connection of any sort with that area.

Col. Eleazer Lindsley

Col.Eleazer Lindsley

But, as many of you who read this blog on a regular basis already know, I am an avid genealogist. I have documented some of my ancestral discoveries in a series of paintings, Icons, like the one shown here on the right, that I hope to get back to soon. While going through one of my lines earlier this year I came across a great-grand uncle by the name of Charles C. Mulford, who was the great grandson of Colonel Eleazer Lindsley who is my 7th-great grandfather, shown here in the Icon painting on the right.

Mulford was born in nearby Lindley in 1821 and lived a quiet life as a farmer until the Civil War broke out. Serving for the 6th Regiment of the NY Heavy Artillery, he saw combat in battles at Spottsylvania, Cold Harbor, the Wilderness, Totopotomy and Petersburg.  At the Battle of Petersburg, Mulford was shot in the upper  thigh and, during his hospitalization, contracted typhus and died in early July of 1864.

It was the same sort of tragic ending that many of my ancestors met while serving this country. But the interesting detail in the account was that he had died in Alexandria at the Fairfax Seminary hospital and was buried in the National Cemetery not too far from the gallery.

So Friday morning when I went out for coffee at a local cafe that I frequent when I am  in town I decided to seek out my great-grand uncle. Under threatening skies, I strolled the few blocks to the cemetery that is tucked quietly among neighborhoods filled with townhouses. It only took a few moments to find the grave, sitting in the first row facing a  stone wall.

The marble headstone was well weathered as you can see at the top of the page. I stood there for quite a while. I wondered if any others had looked closely at that stone in recent years, had uttered the name over that grave.

It’s a small thing but just standing in front of that stone for  a few minutes was very calming for me, especially on the day of an opening when I am normally very anxious. Just knowing that he and I shared a tiny bit of DNA and a common beginning had meaning for me, connecting to me to my family, our history as a nation and to Alexandria, as well. I felt like I belonged in so many ways.

And there was great peace in that moment.

So, besides the many paintings that I know populate the homes of Alexandria and the friends that I have made there, a small part of my past will always reside in that city. I finally feel truly connected there.

Some extra info:  Charles Mulford was the first cousin of  General John E. Mulford (my first cousin 6 generations removed) who was President Lincoln‘s Commissioner of Exchange which meant that he arranged for the exchange of prisoners during the war. He is shown below in uniform in a photo from Matthew Brady.Gen John E. Mulford Matthew Brady Photo Richmond VA

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In the morning they return
With tears in their eyes
The stench of death drifts up to the skies
A soldier so ill looks at the sky pilot
Remembers the words
“Thou shalt not kill.”
Sky pilot,
Sky pilot,
How high can you fly?
You’ll never, never, never reach the sky.

–Sky Pilot, Eric Burdon and the Animals

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I watched a National Geographic documentary this past week, Heroes of the Sky: The Mighty Eighth Air Force, about that unit’s service during WW II. While it is a story that has been well documented and one with which I was familiar, it was well done and served as a reminder of the horror of war and the great loss it inflicts on those who serve and sacrifice. Fitting stuff for a Memorial Day weekend.

The 8th was based in England during the war and was the group responsible for the many US missions into continental Europe, including raids into Germany. Early on, when they first began sending raids into France and then Germany, their bombers were escorted by British fighter planes until their own planes, the P-47’s, were ready for service. However, the P-47’s had a major liability, a limited range. This meant that they could only escort the bombers so far into Europe before having to turn and head back to refuel which left the bombers exposed for the approach to their targets sites.

This fact meant that the casualties suffered in those early sorties were staggering. Hearing the numbers now, with hundreds of planes and thousands of airmen lost in a single month, one is left to wonder if we would have the stomach to bear such a sacrifice now, even in the face of the possibility of being defeated and overtaken by a cruel Nazi/Fascist regime?

I certainly don’t know the answer to that question, especially in these changed times where the minds of many could be swayed via divisive misinformation into an acceptance of the beliefs of those regimes we might otherwise be opposing. After all, even during WW II the Nazi cult had plenty of supporters here in the states, Americans who by race or belief fell under their spell.

I hope we never have to find out. And I suspect we won’t.

My belief is that those who seek to rule over us in a repressive fascist state have long realized that such a thing cannot be achieved via direct war and conflict. No, it will be an insidious and incremental effort, one that seek to infiltrate our branches of power and sources of info, seeking to control the power of the nation by dividing the people into many opposing factions, thereby confusing and thwarting their will to resist. Any sort of national unity would be fractious, at best.

Even a military that is massive and powerful would not be able to stop such an effort. In fact, it might act as a sort of tranquilizer, making the citizens believe that so long as they have such a powerful force protecting them they would be safe and secure, that there would be no possibility of any sort of attack on their country.

I fear that it is already well underway. The tools to do so are in place and easily accessible and it seems that we have the mentality and an environment that is ripe for such an effort.

Look at how easily minds are now swayed into disbelieving facts and accepting ridiculous conspiracy theories. Would it be a stretch for these same minds to fall into the belief that maybe a fascist regime would be acceptable, even preferable?

I hope I am way off base here, that it is just the product of a runaway imagination. But on this Memorial day weekend, it’s something I want to consider and keep in mind, if only for the responsibility we bear for those who have fallen in combat in our past against the forces of tyranny, despotism, and hatred.

We owe that to those who have sacrificed their lives for this nation. We, the living, are their witnesses. We bear testimony to their efforts, their experience and their existence.

For me, that’s the part of Memorial day I try to keep in mind. Hope you will at least consider it this weekend.

For this week’s Sunday morning music, here’s Sky Pilot from Eric Burdon and the Animals. From 1968, it’s one of those songs that holds lots of different meanings. At its core, it’s about a chaplain who blesses troops before they set out on a mission then goes to bed awaiting to learn their fate. It’s an interesting song, set into three parts and including a variety of sounds and effects. You’ve even got some bagpipes playing Garryowen thrown in along the way.

Have a good day.

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“I told myself: ‘I am surrounded by unknown things.’ I imagined man without ears, suspecting the existence of sound as we suspect so many hidden mysteries, man noting acoustic phenomena whose nature and provenance he cannot determine. And I grew afraid of everything around me – afraid of the air, afraid of the night. From the moment we can know almost nothing, and from the moment that everything is limitless, what remains? Does emptiness actually not exist? What does exist in this apparent emptiness?”

Guy de Maupassant, The Horla

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This is another new piece, a smaller painting on paper that is part of my Social Distancing show that opens June 5 at the Principle Gallery in Alexandria, VA. I am calling this piece The Emptiness.

The title is taken from The Horla, one of the last short stories written by Guy de Maupassant, the 19th century French master of the short story. It’s a tale of horror about an alien being — an invisible organism, actually– called the Horla that comes to earth with the intention of subjugating the human race. This unseen invader has the power to enter and sway the minds of its victims. The narrator of the story describes his emotions, the vast emptiness that overtakes him, as he realizes what is happening and his powerlessness in the face of the threat.

A few years later, tragically, de Maupassant tried to commit suicide by slitting his own throat but survived, dying in a sanitarium a year later, in 1893 at the age of 42. Apparently, the emptiness of the story’s narrator was very much the same emptiness as that of  the writer.

I thought this painting would fit well into this particular show, which is concerned with social isolation, from that which has been caused by the pandemic to all other forms of isolation. For some, isolation can bring solitude. For others, it brings the emptiness that de Maupassant described.

This painting leans toward that form of isolation. Maybe it’s the bilious green of the interior walls or the spare details of the room. Or the looming moon seen through the window, a large alien eye always there, always watching.

It feels like an unusual piece for me, even though it fits neatly into my body of work. It feels complete and there’s a pleasant, even comfortable, feel to it. But it’s an uneasy comfort, maybe like that experienced by those whose minds have unknowingly been infected by the Horla.

Or maybe it’s the uneasiness that comes with the normalization and acceptance, by a lot of people, of behavior that was once considered repulsive by the majority of us. It feels like the same kind of infection of the mind is taking place. Watching this take place now must surely be like the experience of the narrator watching the Horla affect those around him.

It certainly creates its own emptiness.

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“When I pronounce the word Future,
the first syllable already belongs to the past.

When I pronounce the word Silence,
I destroy it.”

Wisława Szymborska, Poems New and Collected

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“When I pronounce the word Silence, I destroy it…”

I love that line from the late Nobel Prize winning poet Wisława Szymborska. It so well sums up my own forays into writing as a young man when I found myself trying futilely to write about silence and places of silence. My words always seemed to defeat my purpose.

You can’t really write about silence.

Using words to describe silence is like using hate to demonstrate love or war to peace.  It doesn’t really work well.

No, you can’t write about silence.

You can only be silent.

Silence is a way of being.

That brings me to the painting shown above called Song of Silence.

This painting, Song of Silence, is being included along with a small group of vintage pieces in my upcoming show, Social Distancing, that opens at the Principle Gallery on June 5. Most of the early work for this show comes the mid 1990’s but this is the latest of the vintage pieces, from 2007.

It is a fairly large piece at 32″ x 32″ on paper and its size seems to accentuate its quietness. I did a number of similar pieces in the mid 2000’s and they were some of my favorites to paint. There was something special in the delicacy and restraint of these pieces. Their simplicity would lead you to believe they were simple to paint but capturing such an ephemeral feelings with minimal elements made them real challenges. Anything even slightly askew could make the whole thing fall apart.

For me personally, when these pieces worked, when they came together in that special way, they felt like magic. They transported me to a different state of being, to that place of silence, if only for a few short moments.

This is one of those pieces for me.

It’s been quite a while since I exhibited this type of work and I am eager to see what sort of response this brings in the gallery.  We’ll see.

The title, Song of Silence, seems like it might contradict my words at the beginning of this post but wordless music often has the ability to convey silence. As an example I am including a selection below from one of my favorite pieces of music, Tabula Rasa, from composer Arvo Pärt that I believe does this effectively. This music, as performed by violinist Gil Shaham, served as a large influence on much of my early work.

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I am putting the finishing touches on the work for my upcoming show, Social Distancing, that opens June 5 at the Principle Gallery in Alexandria. In addition to the new works, I am putting together a small group of what I would call vintage work, early paintings from the 1990’s and a couple from the early 2000’s. Most of these haven’t been shown in over twenty years, if they have even been shown at all. I chose this time to share these pieces because I felt they fit well with the theme of this show, which is the isolation brought on by the covid-19 crisis.

The piece at the top is one that I am still trying to decide if it will be part of the show. It’s called Dance of Joy from 1996. It has been hanging in my studios for over twenty years now, from my first rustic studio that is in the process of being absorbed into the forest floor to my current more spacious and well appointed digs.

You wouldn’t think that you would include a piece called Dance of Joy in a show devoted to social distancing but I think you have to include the more hopeful and happy aspects, as well. After all, those moments still exist for most of us even in this state of suspended animation in which we now exist. The things that brought me joy before this still bring me joy now and almost all of them don’t depend on any changes in my form of isolation.

But beyond that aspect, I found an interpretation in the painting that I am sure wasn’t intended when it was first painted. I think at that time I saw the trees as dancers celebrating the rise of the red sun in a bacchanalian manner. But looking at this piece yesterday, I saw it an the dance of joy when we finally overcome the virus, that time when we find a way to safely control and manage, if not eradicate, it. I saw the red disc not as a sun or a moon on the rise but as the virus on the decline.

That will bring a time for dances of joy, a time to celebrate those times of shared communal enjoyment.

Until that time, we must be patient and careful in order to contain the damages and the deaths caused by this virus. But we can still do our dances of joy until we experience that real bacchanal that will hopefully come sooner than later.

For this Sunday morning’s musical selection, I am turning to the world of Klezmer music and the acclaimed clarinetist Giora Feidman.  Feidman is an Argentine born Israeli who is considered the King of Klezmer.  He was chosen by Steven Spielberg to perform the clarinet solos for his film Schindler’s List. The song I have chosen is titled, The Dance of Joy. But you knew that, right?

I love the infectious ( bad choice of word) energy of klezmer and this song has it at its highest level. I can see the trees in this painting moving wildly to this music. So, give a listen and try to find some moments of joy today, something that makes you do your own dance of joy. Have a good day.

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“Beyond the edge of the world there’s a space where emptiness and substance neatly overlap, where past and future form a continuous, endless loop. And, hovering about, there are signs no one has ever read, chords no one has ever heard.”

Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore

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I call this painting, a 24″ by 24″ canvas, At the Edge of the World. It’s included in my annual solo show Social Distancing which opens June 5 at the Principle Gallery in Alexandria.

It’s an odd thing to promote a show during these strange times. While I know there will be a show, we still don’t know if there will be a reception. And even if there somehow is a reception, we don’t know what the logistics for it would be. I am pretty positive that I would not be attending in either case  which is odd as this has been an annual keystone event for me for the past 20 years.

Like many things these days, everything for the show has seemed out of rhythm and discordant.

I know getting into the groove for this show was difficult in the earlier part of this year as the pandemic took hold. I am not the kind of painter who can just fall back on my built in process and trust that it will carry me through. My process is always changing and is often quite different, even from day to day. The process used is often simply whatever is at hand that best allows me to express whatever the emotion well inside is gushing out on that given day.

For me, painting is almost always about the emotion of the moment. So, at a time when my emotions are flying all over the place, finding a painting groove took a while to locate. Before I found it, I felt like I was always fighting against myself. But now I’m in that groove and it feels good to create work that consistently meshes with my internal feelings.

We’re in a time that has shaken our rhythms and forced us to look at things in different ways, to reexamine what forces have brought us to this point and where we will be when this is all over. I think the work for this show distinctly reflects this time of social distancing and the air of anxiety and uncertainty that surrounds all of us. While some of it feels darker at first glance, there is most always a duality in the work that brings a feeling of hopeful possibility and endurance.

I know that is what I am seeing in this painting. It reflects the fact that we are at a place and time that we have never encountered before. We are at the edge of the world now. We don’t really now for sure what is in store for us beyond that visible edge. We fear the worst and hope for the best. The reality most likely is somewhere between those two poles but nobody can truly predict that future with any degree of certainty.

In this painting, I believe the focus is on the positive aspects of this near future that dwells over that edge. Much like the short snip from Murakami’s novel at the top, there is the possibility of that which is new and unknown to us. New chords to hear. New patterns to see. A new way of thinking.

This is about seeing this time as a moment of reinvention, with the possibility to forge a future that is markedly better than the past.

That’s my reading. You may see it differently and that is just as it should be.

Take care and have a good day.

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“In the life of each of us, I said to myself, there is a place remote and islanded, and given to endless regret or secret happiness; we are each the uncompanioned hermit and recluse of an hour or a day; we understand our fellows of the cell to whatever age of history they may belong.”

Sarah Orne Jewett, The Country of the Pointed Firs

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I’ve been looking at the work for my upcoming Principle Gallery show, Social Distancing, and as the title implies, much of it is concerned with isolation. There is distance and a lot of singularity in the elements of each piece. A lone house. A single tree, One chair alone. There are landscapes without a tree or person or structure. Just the still emptiness. And even in the cityscapes of this show that seem busy and crowded with buildings and lights, it is the emptiness of the streets and the lack of figures in the lit windows that mark them.

It’s familiar territory for me, places and themes I have explored for a long time. However, this current situation brings my familiarity closer to what has become a new normal for some of us.

It will be interesting to see how people react to the work now as opposed to how they have in the past. After all, each of us relates to our isolation and solitude in different ways. For some it is maddening with the sense of imprisonment. For others, it is liberating in a way, freed from social obligations and niceties, free to do things for themselves without guilt.

Unfortunately, for both there is a dark cloud of potential danger hovering always nearby. It’s creates a strain that is difficult in human terms but, in the artistic sense, this adds a desired tension, one that evokes some sort of emotional response.

And in the piece above, Sequester’s Moon, it is the slate blue darkness of the sky and clouds that evokes this tension. With a different sky, this piece might feel pastoral and idyllic. With this sky, some might see it as the scene as ominous. Or they might see the house as a safe place amidst the dangers.

Myself, I see it as a safe place. A place to expand, not contract. I am much like Sarah Orne Jewett’s character above who, in their isolation and solitude, identifies easily with the hermits and recluses of past ages.

So, here in my hermit’s cell of isolation, I am going happily back to work now.

Have a good day.

 

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It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

— A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens

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It seems like this current period of time, this year we call 2020, might be memorable. It definitely falls somewhere among those terms that Dickens set out in the opening paragraph of his A Tale of Two Cities.

I’m still waiting for the best of times part but maybe it will eventually show its shining face at some point this year. Got my fingers crossed on that one.

The painting at the top is part of my Social Distancing show that opens 4 weeks from tomorrow, June 5, at the Principle Gallery in Alexandria. As I was working on it, further into the process it felt like it was acting as a marker in some way of this year. It certainly reflected the social distancing in the show’s title.

But there was something more than that to it, something more like the Dickensian ( finally got to use that word!) words above. Perhaps best of times, worst of times sort of stuff.

Season of light and season of darkness, definitely.

I think it’s a fitting piece for this period with its fractured sky and darker, ominous tones set against the light from the sun/moon(?) and the sturdiness of the house.

It is neither optimistic nor pessimistic. Not fearful either nor foolishly filled with hubris. The word I might use is enduring.

Kind of like the final speech from Ma Joad ( played brilliantly by Jane Darwell) that ends the film version of The Grapes of Wrath:

“I ain’t never gonna be scared no more. I was, though. For a while it looked like we was beat. Good and beat. Looked like we didn’t have nobody in the world but enemies. Like nobody was friendly no more. Made me feel kinda bad and scared too, like we was lost and nobody cared…. Rich fellas come up and they die, and their kids ain’t no good and they die out too, but we keep on coming. We’re the people that live. They can’t wipe us out, they can’t lick us. We’ll go on forever, Pa, ’cause we’re the people.”

That speech always moves me because it speaks so strongly to my own survival instincts. There have been times when I wanted to give up but this same drive that Ma Joad describes kicks in.

You take the beating today but you keep plodding forward, doing whatever is needed to see the next day.

Because maybe that’s where the answer will be.

That’s what I see in this painting. Enduring. Resilient. Good time, bad times, fight through the darkness and look for the light. Just keep going on and not giving up.

I am calling this painting, which is 20″ wide by 30″ tall on wood panel, In the Year 2020.

It was somewhat borrowed from the old Zager & Evans 1968 hit In the Year 2525. That time 50 some years back felt as apocalyptic as this moment seems now. I am sure there was a lot of use of the best of times, worst of times at that point. But we did somehow endure the turbulence of that time. There might be much more ahead of us now that we will have to struggle past but we will most likely endure and look back at this year with mixed feelings someday, remembering the awfulness along with the goodness we discovered alongside it.

Here’s a video of that Zager & Evans song set to visuals from the 1925 silent futuristic dystopian classic from director Fritz Lang, Metropolis.
Have a good day and stay strong.

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I call this painting Hunkered Down. It’s about 17″ square on paper and is part of my solo show, Social Distancing, that opens in just over a month on June 5th at the Principle Gallery.

Choosing the title for this piece, or for the show for that matter, was not a difficult task. Hunkered down is the term that most often jumps to mind when I think of this time of keeping socially distant.

The fact that this is the normal form of existence for me made it even easier.

Avoiding people and not having to go anywhere is something I have practiced for decades. I never thought of wearing a mask but like the idea of the vague anonymity it provides. Now that it’s acceptable and required, I might continue to wear one even after this thing someday subsides.

That is, if I ever leave my property again.

That’s a big if.

This piece is a return to my older style in transparent inks, more spare in detail which allows the primary elements, the simple forms of sky and land, to carry the larger part of the emotional load. This lack of detail brings a quietness to the whole that speaks volumes, at least for me.

The first song that came to  mind when I thought of an accompaniment to this painting was an old favorite from Elvis Costello, Almost Blue. There are several versions of the song that I like so I had some choices. I have played a wonderful version that is an absolute favorite from late jazz great Chet Baker here before so I decided to play a nice simple and spare performance of the song by Elvis himself from a 2005 radio broadcast. I also threw in a version that I also like very much from, Diana Krall, who also happens to be his wife.

Have a good Sunday. Be careful out there, okay?

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