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“Sublime”– Currently at the Principle Gallery, Alexandria


WHEN I AM AMONG THE TREES

When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.
I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.
Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”
The light flows from their branches.
And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,
“and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine.”

–Mary Oliver


It’s been my privilege and good fortune to spend much of my life among the trees. I have climbed and played on them as a child and there are many memories of specific trees from my childhood. I have planted multitudes of trees and nurtured them.  I have lived under their watchful cover and have built a studio among them where I worked for many years. In fact, much of my livelihood has been derived from a certain Red Tree.

Throughout it all, there has been a sense of them as beings, unlike us humans but living beings nonetheless. I think that sometimes that we are the aliens living among their native race here on earth. I also like to think that I have a neighborly friendship of sorts with the trees around me. An understanding it might be called.

I try to not harm them and try my best to protect them, That it is becoming harder as invasive species become more and more prevalent. The ash trees in our area are on their last legs, for instance, from the emerald ash borer beetle. It is tragic to see them begin to fail from the onslaught of the beetles. But they maintain their stoic dignity until the bitter end, as they slowly dissemble with their upper limbs falling first. Eventually, all that remains is a tall sheared off trunk standing as a memorial to the life that once stood proudly in that space.

I do mourn for the trees. There is a white pine that stands by our drive. It is probably 25-30 years old and watching its growth over the years has been a delight as it grew large and full in that time. But this year, this goddamn 2020, its needles suddenly went brown and it died quickly and completely. Each time, we pass it as we go down our drive, I feel a great sense of loss, a deep bite of anguish over the fact that it died on my watch.

It feels like it was our responsibility. We are the caretakers for our trees. Or rather, we serve the trees so that they can complete their destiny on their land.

That being said, the poem at the top from Mary Oliver certainly rings true for me as it recognizes the profound gift that trees often offer to those of us lucky enough to spend time and share space with them.

Here’s lovely reading of the poem from Amanda Palmer.


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I don’t need to be forgiven
For something I haven’t done
Nor for wanting my family
To find their place in the sun
If you keep this pressure on
Just don’t be surprised
If I can’t summon up my dignity
While you’re roughing up my pride

There will be a reckoning
For the peddlers of hate
Who spread their poison all across this estate
And a reckoning, too, for the politicians who
Left us to this fate
There will be a reckoning

Billy Bragg, There Will Be a Reckoning


Since we’re in the midst of another Labor Day weekend, albeit one certainly not in normal times, I was listening to some Billy Bragg, the British singer who has picked up the mantle of Woody Guthrie to become the voice for workers and the downtrodden. In fact, his Guthrie connection includes the fact that he provided most of the vocals for one of my favorites albums, Mermaid Avenue. It was a collaboration between Bragg and the group Wilco to set to music and record a group of unreleased Woody Guthrie songs that were just lyrics on paper.

The result was what I consider a brilliant album. But that’s one guy’s opinion.

I came across this song from Bragg that has been bouncing around for a while but seems to have relevance for these times. It’s called There Will Be a Reckoning. In different performances Bragg has talked about how since WWII and the defeat of the fascist forces that were threatening to overtake the planet, generations of politicians have neglected to honestly address the big issues that affect the majority of the population on this planet– financial inequality, social injustice and racism, food insecurity and adequate healthcare.

They usually just kick these concerns down the road in acts of expediency.

Expediency is often just another name for cowardice.

As a result, it has created a vacuum in which those with fascist tendencies and objectives can once again begin the rise to power through the division of the population through campaigns of fear and hatred. They see the neglected problems and, though they have no plan on ever correcting the deficits, use it as a prybar to separate the masses and set one group against the other.

And quite often they succeed. And fascism gains a strong toehold and takes power. And this leaves another generation to have someday fight to stop its spread.

Yeah, if it’s not stopped, there will definitely be a reckoning.

Here’s a live version of the song from several years ago. I am playing it to let you hear Bragg’s cockney accent and a few words on the song as he introduces it. The painting at the top is my A Time For Reckoning which is still at the West End Gallery and was part of my recent show there. I think it pairs well with this song and these times.

Have a good day.


 

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“In the midst of a thousand clouds and countless waters
there is an idle person.
By day, he roams the green mountains,
at night, he returns to sleep beneath the cliff.
Quickly, the seasons pass
in serenity, with no worldly bonds.
How joyful! What does he depend upon?
Quiet, like a large autumn river.”

― Hanshan

Translated by Peter Levitt, The Complete Cold Mountain: Poems of the Legendary Hermit Hanshan

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Quiet. Like an autumn river.

This sounds pretty good this morning.

Little thinking and little writing.

Just flow. And be.

Just to pass on a little knowledge this morning, Hanshan was a legendary Chinese Buddhist monk who is thought to have lived as a hermit in the 9th century. Little is known of his life or if he even truly existed but there is a group of of several hundred poems attributed to him that were written on the rocks of the region in which he is purported to have resided.

Another factoid: Jack Kerouac dedicated his book, The Dharma Bums, to Hanshan.

Okay, enough with the thinking this morning. Back to being a cool autumn river.

To that end, here’s a favorite, River, from Joni Mitchell.

Be the river and have a good day.

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It has bothered me all my life that I do not paint like everybody else.

–Henri Matisse

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Well, Mr. Matisse certainly did not paint like everybody else and I, for one, am glad of it.

But I believe I know what he is saying. As an artist, you’re always torn between poles of confidence.

When it is at its highest point, you believe so strongly in what you are doing that it doesn’t matter what everybody else’s work is like.

But at the low points, you lose confidence in the credibility of your own voice and vision. At these low points it seems like it would be easier to have the comfort of being able to judge your own work against others who do the same type of work so that you could gauge whether your creations were worthy of notice.

I certainly have swung wildly between these two poles and have at points wished that I painted more like other artists, as though I would somehow benefit from their credibility. I know that this sort of thinking is misplaced and the result of low self-esteem in that moment, but it happens. And on a more regular basis than one might think.

But the work itself is usually the voice of reason, the thing that brings me around once more. Just getting lost in the creation of a piece and sitting in front of it in the aftermath, still fully immersed in the life force it then exudes, washes away that need to be like everybody else.

But even in that moment, I know that nagging feeling, that desire to be like everybody else, will still be there waiting for me when I inevitably swing back to that other pole.

So, Mr. Matisse, thank you for not being like everybody else. I know how hard it sometimes must have felt but we appreciate you staying true to your own voice.

Here are a few more of his interiors, a group of his work that I really love.

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I was going to write today about Memorial Day since we are in that holiday weekend. But something last night set me thinking about our old beagle, Mae Belle Brown, and I thought I would memorialize her in some small way here instead.

I have mentioned that my home and studio is set at the edge of a forest which means that we are daily witnesses to a constant parade of wild creatures of all sorts. It’s a virtual Peaceable Kingdom, if you’re familiar with the famous folk paintings of Edward Hicks. On any given day, we see dozens of different sorts of birds, waterfowl and large and small animals.

Just yesterday, I watched three adorable and fluffy fox kits rolling around after they emerged from under a shed of ours above our house in the woods. Then I watched as several wood ducks from our pond came down my studio driveway to munch on a handful of corn I had thrown out  for the wild turkeys, of which one tom stood several yards away from the ducks, his feathers all puffed out and his wattle fully expanded in regal display. And just a few more feet from the ducks stood a mother doe who was nibbling at the same bit of corn.

Just a short while earlier, this doe had rousted two small young bucks who regularly relax and drowse in the juniper bushes next to my studio window. I call them my studio interns and they are very young, most likely recently evicted from their family unit when the new fawns arrived. In time, as the fawns get stronger, they will rejoin the family unit. But for now, they are just biding their time, feeling a little untethered as they are not really sure what to do.

It might have been this same mother doe who I had watched, earlier in the morning, with her newly born fawn in our front yard. As she nursed her fawn, another equally young fawn emerged from the woods. The doe sniffed at the fawn. But it was pretty obvious this was not her own baby and the fawn moved on into the brush at the edge of the woods. A short bit later another doe came through searching for it.

Later in the day, at this same spot, we watched as one of these does pursued a raccoon on the ground. The raccoon moved quickly to a tree and scurried several feet up on one side of a larger tree while the doe waited on the other side of it.  She moved around and the coon went a bit further, just out of reach. When the doe moved around to the other side, the coon descended and headed through the brush. The doe was quickly right behind it and the coon went up another tree. This went on for a while, with the coon holding tight to the tree as the doe stood waiting patiently below it, a kind of Mexican standoff between the two. Eventually, the raccoon was able to make a getaway.

Watching this reminded me of a similar incident that occurred with our old beagle Mae Belle Brown many years before. It was in this same spot that she had encountered a similar mother deer. Unfortunately, unlike the raccoon, she couldn’t climb a tree.

Now, Mae Belle was a beagle we had rescued a few years prior to this incident. A friend had told me that there was an old beagle at the local shelter that I should see as she knew I had a fondness for beagles. When I went to the shelter and asked about the dog, the caretaker said she was somewhere around the place, just wandering on her own in the hallways between the kennels. Just then she came around the corner and I was stunned at her appearance.

She was the most pitiful thin I had ever seen.  The was small and old, very very gray, all the beagle colors washed almost completely out of the her face and back. And that back, it was so swayed downward, the weight of her little bulbous belly dragging it low. This was all set on four tiny skinny legs that gave her the appearance of a short bratwurst sausage set on four tiny chicken legs. No, not even chicken legs. More like chicken wings or quail legs. What a pathetic sight it was to see this gray little sausage on quail legs waddle down the hall.

They had found her behind a local Pizza Hut, snuffling around the dumpster and nobody had come forward to claim her. She smelled almost as bad as she looked, the kind of odor that came with rot and decay. I left and went home, pretty sure this wasn’t the girl for me. But the thought of that poor little thing just gnawed at me through the day. I came to the conclusion that if we didn’t take her in, nobody would. I told myself that she was in such poor shape we would most likely act as a sort of hospice for her. Maybe we have her for six months or a year.

So, that afternoon she came home with me. We found that her teeth were a horror show, mostly rotted to the gums which were also in terrible condition. In fact, there were points where you could see completely through the rot in her gums to the roots of her teeth and beyond into her mouth. The roof of her mouth was rotting as well. It was a wreck.

After a bit, after unsuccessfully trying to treat her with antibiotics, we went to another vet who convinced us that she was in good enough condition, despite the fact that they estimated her age at 11 or 12, to undergo dental surgery. They extracted all her teeth except for her 8 molars that were in decent condition and one single lower canine in the front. It was a great success. Her mouth cleared up well and the odor went away forever. There was an article on dental surgery for dogs in the local paper that featured her story. Our little star.

Through the years we had her, she had all sorts of setbacks. She had come to us with infections in her ears that resulted in pebbly concretions that would periodically give her small seizures. We were able to clear those up. Then once she has an episode where she somehow sprained her little rat tail. She couldn’t wag her tail without extreme pain and when she had to defecate, it was a horrible experience. She would squat and squeal as she released her load. The vets said there was little to be done but give it time so for weeks we watched helplessly as this poor little girl would squeal each day.

That brings us back to her encounter with the mama deer. It was in early June. Mae Belle was in the yard just snuffling around as she had often done before. She seldom ventured more than fifty feet from the house. In fact, she was normally eager to get back to her bed. We were reading the paper that morning when suddenly there was terrible wail from outside. Going to the door I could see Mae Belle down in the yard in front of our house, on a wide path between two patches of woods that led to our pond. Maybe 100 feet away. She was on her back and a deer was jumping up and down on top of her, trying to stomp her into the ground. I ran screaming at the deer and was within ten feet or so before she sensed my coming. At that point, I was afraid I was going to have to tackle her but thankfully, she fled into the woods.

Mae Belle was again a wreck. Her belly was cut open and she was in shock. We wrapped her up sped her to the emergency vet. They were able to stabilize her and bandage her up cuts. She had twelve breaks in her ribs. When we took her home the next day, she was sore but able to move around. She recuperated surprisingly fast, open sitting at the open doorway of our home with her bandage her midsection, growling lowly whenever a deer cut through the yard.

I did some research and found deer attacks on dogs are surprisingly common. especially in the spring when the does are protective of their fawns. In fact, that same day, a friend who lives several miles from us, watch as their neighbor’s dog was chased and cornered by their garage by a deer. No injuries in that case but it happens on a regular basis. So, watch your dogs if there are deer around your home this time of the year.

Despite all her physical problems and injuries, Mae Belle had a great five years with us. She actually seemed to get younger with each passing year and displayed more and more vigor, joy, and satisfaction as the time went on. She would do a little dance of joy when being fed, where she would dance and bounce from side to side on those little chicken wing legs, a big grin on her toothless mouth.

What a baby doll. It hurt like hell when we had to put her down after a chronic illness quickly knocked her for a loop. But that time we had initially thought would be a short time to comfort her turned into a wonderful five years for us both. One of my favorite memories of her sleeping next to me with her little chicken legs wrapped around my thigh.

If you get a chance to someday adopt an older dog, do it. Their love and gratitude is such a tangible thing that it far overshadows the inevitable sorrow that comes with their passing.

All that came back to me yesterday watching that deer harass that poor raccoon not ten feet from where Mae Belle had been attacked. I know that Memorial Day is about honoring those that have given their lives in service to our nation but today I am honoring Mae Belle for all that she gave to us. The photo at the top is Mae Belle near the end of her time with us. That sweet little snausage.

Have a good day.

 

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I don’t know much about sailing. I do know the difference between port and starboard but that’s just mnemonics — port has four letters like left.

But I don’t know a sloop from a schooner, a ketch from a cutter. Can barely tie my shoelaces let alone some intricate nautical knot. Never felt the spray from the waves and can only imagine the feeling of being out in the middle of the sea, alone with only a sail and the rhythm of the currents to move me.

But the lure and romance of the sailboat and the act of sailing is not lost on me. The idea of attuning oneself to the awesome natural power and grace of the waves is an enticing proposition and just watching a skilled sailor handle a boat, even from the shore, is fascinating.

It’s all there, the same elements that I most often use in my landscape paintings. Natural power and high domes of sky. Wide horizons with the rhythms of the landscape replaced by the rhythms of the waves. The same sort of quietude and focus. A sense of purpose.

I think that’s what makes my sail boat paintings some of my favorites to paint. They are a chance to exercise my own imagination in trying to envision the experience of riding the rhythms of the ocean. I have been thrilled over the years when those folks who can call themselves sailors tell me how much they like these pieces. Makes me think I must be getting some aspect of it right, even if it only comes from my imagination.

The piece above is from my upcoming show, Social Distancing, that opens June 5 at the Principle Gallery. I call this painting, a 17″ by 17″ piece on paper, Running on Rhythm. Hopefully it feels right in some way for my sailing friends.

Here’s a song that is not really about sailing but it uses sailin’ in its title and chorus and is just a song that sticks with me. The song is Sailin’ Shoes from Little Feat. I am including two versions, both sung by the late great Lowell George. The first is the original from their 1972 album of the same name, a slower bluesy version. The second is from their incredible 1978 live album, Waiting For Columbus, who was by all accounts a sailor. This version is a bit more raucous and unrestrained. I like both.

Give a listen and have a good day.

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nope

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Earlier, I began to write about the huge amount of sloppy thinking being displayed lately by many people. You know what I mean, those people who grasp at the first meme or video clip or article that confirms what they want to believe the truth should be. They react in a visceral manner and immediately pass it on, not considering its veracity, source, or the context in which it is presented. They do no research at all and just take its credibility as a given.

As I wrote, I asked myself if this sloppy thinking was a product of ignorance or apathy. My answer of “I don’t know and I don’t care” made me think it would be best to save this subject for another day.

So, moving on, I read the other day that a lot of people are struggling with the isolation because they find there is actually more intrusion into their private time by their commitments to video chats and things of that sort with friends, family and co-workers. The article mentioned that their inability to say NO was a real issue for these folks, who felt an obligation to accept every invitation to participate.

It reminded me of an article that I ran years ago and again four years back about the necessity of saying NO. This is one of the first pieces of advice I offer to young artists when I speak with them, telling them there are sacrifices and choices that need to be made in order to succeed. One of those  choices is how you spend your time. My advice to them is that just learning to honestly say NO will make their artistic path easier and their lives infinitely better.

Here’s that article about the power in that word NO:

noThere’s an interesting article on the website Medium by tech pioneer Kevin Ashton (best known for coining the phrase “the internet of things“) called Creative People Say No. In it he talks about how productive creatives —productive is the key word here–  understand the limitations of their time here and as a result weigh every request for their time against what they might produce in that time. It immediately struck a chord with me as I have known for many years that my time as both a living human and artist are limited and that for me to ever have a chance of capturing that elusive intangible answer that goads me forward, always just a step ahead of me and just out of sight, than I have to mete out my time judiciously. We have X numbers of hours and doing something other than that which I recognize as my purpose  represents a real choice.

no 2Ashton echoes my own feelings when he  writes:  Time is the raw material of creation. Wipe away the magic and myth of creating and all that remains is work: the work of becoming expert through study and practice, the work of finding solutions to problems and problems with those solutions, the work of trial and error, the work of thinking and perfecting, the work of creating. Creating consumes. It is all day, every day. It knows neither weekends nor vacations. It is not when we feel like it. It is habit, compulsion, obsession, vocation.

So, over the the last 15 years, I have wrestled over every choice that takes time away from the studio, in most cases declining invitations to all sorts of functions and putting off travelling and vacations. Even a morning cup of coffee with friend or family requires serious debate. For a while I thought I was agoraphobic but I know that’s not the case. I just view my time here on Earth as extremely limited and shrinking at a constant rate with each passing day

no 1It reminds me of a conversation I had with a painter friend a number of years ago. He had brought up the name of a well-known artist whose work he admired who was incredibly productive. My friend bemoaned the fact that he himself wasn’t as productive and wondered how this person could do so much.  In the conversation he told me about all the activities that his life held– traveling , classes, music sessions with friends and time with his kids. I couldn’t bring myself to point out that he would have to start sacrificing something in order to be as productive as this other artist. It was obvious that his X amount of hours were spent differently than the other artist, who I should point out also had a studio staff with a manager and several assistants to boost his productivity. My friend made the choices that he felt were right for him and who could argue that his kids didn’t deserve even more of his time?  

I think of this conversation quite often when I am faced with a choice other than spending time in the studio. Even writing this blog entry is gnawing at me because it has exceeded the amount of time I want to spend on it this morning. That being said, I am going to stop right here and get back to that thing that I feel that I have to do.

Read the article. It’s a good essay.

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I posted this photo of my studio cat, Hobie, yesterday and she drew quite a bit of attention on social media. Thought I would say a few words about this girl who has been my studio assistant for somewhere around ten years now.

Like I said in the posting, she is a perfect assistant. She is undemanding in every aspect except her occasional need for periodic rubs and a treat or two throughout the day. She is also neat and has never once taken to scratch at any of the canvasses or frames scattered around the studio.

She is thoughtful. When I come into the studio each morning, if she has caught a mouse she leaves it as a love gift for me in front of my easel. That’s the first place I check when I come into this space. Stepping on a dead mouse is not a pleasant experience, certainly not  something I want to do again anytime soon.

I call her presents love gifts because she absolutely loves me. When I first enter the studio kitchen each morning, the first thing that occurs is our ritual greeting. It consists of me getting down on the floor and laying with her with her  for several minutes. She circles me and rubs against me then flops on her side in front of me for an extended pet, a tremendously loud purr emanating from her all the time.

I usually serenade her with a song at this point, which she also seems to like for some reason, even with my awful voice. A longtime favorite has been the version of She’s Some Kind of Wonderful from Grand Funk. She’s also partial to Cole Porter tunes.

I was going to tell how she came to be a full time live-in assistant and house cat that no longer goes outside but it’s a longer story than I am willing to tell right now. She doesn’t even seem to want to go out side now, like she knows how tough it is to be on your own out there in the woods and fully appreciates what sweet gig she has now. One where she can demand rubs and kisses and tasty treats. One where she can roll on any pile of papers that she finds.

As I said, she’s perfect for the situation. She’s super smart, understanding, undemanding, affectionate and fully satisfied with her life now. Just a great girl and a wonderful companion.

I am including a song, Walking My Cat Named Dog, from the 1960’s from folksinger Norma Tanega. I came across it when I was looking up the name of the song that opens the TV show What We Do in the Shadows which is a goofy mockumentary style show about a group of real vampires living on Staten Island. It’s based on a film of the same name from filmmaker Taika Waititi who also made a favorite movie of mine, JoJo Rabbit. It’s a show that often makes me laugh out loud but the opening theme always catches my attention. It has a great sound.

Looking it up, I found that it’s  called You’re Dead from Norma Tanega. Looking her up, I found that she was discovered as a singing camp counselor in the Catskills and is best known for the song Walking My Cat Named Dog. It’s a song that I can’t quite remember but it sounds familiar, definitely a product of mid 60’s radio. But more than that, it reminds me of Hobie who I have often felt had a dog vibe to her. Maybe it’s her unconditional love and she doesn’t seem seem as aloof as some other cats. I don’t know why but I often think of her as my dogcat. My cat named dog.

Anyway, here is that song along with You’re Dead. Pet your cats and dogs. And your fish and your snakes and your turtles. And your horses and llamas.  Goats and pigs, too. Whatever. Have a good day.

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https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V4jUZ-Ex1k0

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Autobiography

Three-Musicians-By-Pablo-Picasso*****************

For those who know how to read, I have painted my autobiography. 

-Pablo Picasso

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The image and quote above ran here several years ago with just a few words from me. I am going to run it that way today as well. It’s a simple statement that I agree with so why muddy the waters with unnecessary verbiage?

Now, I have to get to work on the next chapter of my autobiography so have a good day, okay?

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The_Torment_of_Saint_Anthony_(Michelangelo)

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A man paints with his brains and not his hands.

-Michaelangelo Buonarroti

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I am a little intimidated in quoting the words of a man who is believed to have painted the piece shown above, The Torment of Saint Anthony, at the tender age of 12 or 13. Pretty amazing. It’s obvious from this, and almost everything created afterward over his lifetime, that Michaelangelo had both brains and hands– the highest degree of craftsmanship along with thought and feeling that brought his work to life.

But his words ring true for any painter. Painting should not be mere craft, not formulaic process nor exact replication of the reality before them. No, it is beyond that. It is how the artist imbues the work with their own thought and emotion, their own spirit, their own essence that elevates the work above craft. It requires a total investment of the self.

Doing that is the trick. At first glance, it seems both a tall task and a simple one. Giving what you think is 100% of yourself seems easy, right? But not holding back something, not sharing every bit of yourself, makes it a Herculean effort. In the end, it comes down to simply feeling emotion in what you are doing and being willing to openly display it without reserve.

Now, maybe I am misinterpreting Michaelangelo’s words to fit my own subjective view of painting. Perhaps in these ten spare words he was speaking about taking a more scientific or mathematical approach to painting and composition. That I don’t know. But when I read it, it made sense to me because the differentiating quality I see in painting, from self-taught rough-hewn outsiders to the highest level of traditional representational painters, is how much of themselves a painter is willing to invest in their creations.

An investment of the self.

It is the thought process of the artist that makes the painting, not the mechanical process.

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This post is from five years back. and is shared again because I love this youthful piece from Michaelangelo along with his words. Whenever I see this painting, or for that matter, anything from Michaelangelo, I am humbled beyond description. And that’s not a bad thing. 

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