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Was going to write something new today for Mother’s Day but decided to replay a post from five years back about my own mom, who died close to twenty five years ago now.

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I thought I would take the opportunity on this Mother’s Day, to dedicate this week’s Sunday music to my late mom. It’s hard for me to believe but later this year will mark twenty years [25 now] since she passed away after a short but brutal battle with cancer. Needless to say, I miss her very much and wish she could have seen the things that came in the years after she died, such as how well her grandchildren grew up and the great-grandkids she never got to meet or dote on.

For my parts, she never lived to see my work hanging in a gallery or museum, never got to see how it has grown over the years. Looking at two large pieces on easels next to me at this moment, I realize that there is a whole different world of mine she never got to witness.

But I think she would be pleased to know that things worked out okay, that I found something to ease my mind and give me something of a purpose. I would hope she would like the work I’ve done. I know she liked the earliest pieces, the only ones she would know, like the piece at the top. It was one of my earliest efforts in early 1994, long before I had experienced any kind of creative breakthrough. It was gift to her on Mother’s Day of that year and it hangs in my studio now, always reminding me of her.

So, for this bit of Sunday music, I thought I would play one of the songs I know to be a favorite of hers. She always loved Eddy Arnold‘s voice and I have specific memories of this song coming from our old stereo console. The title and the song itself,  Make the World Go Away, just seemed to fit Mom so well. For that matter, looking at the alternative world that surrounds me here in the studio, I guess it fits me as well. I am my mother’s child, after all.

Have a good Mother’s 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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Last July, I wrote here about going up the hill to the old studio that I had worked in everyday for over ten years before moving into my current digs. It was in pretty bad shape back then, with a gaping hole in the roof and the floor heading in several different directions, none of them level. It was a mass of decay and debris but I had found several paintings tucked away that I had overlooked when I was cleaning it out years ago.

There were some I remembered well and had wondered where they were before finding them. It was great finding these pieces, most of them in pretty good shape considering the exposure to the elements– and critters of all sorts– they had faced.

I wandered back up the hill yesterday. There were still a few things there that I needed to bring back down the hill plus I wanted to see how the old structure had fared during this past winter.

Well, the structure was in even worse shape, the walls and floors beginning to part company at some spots and the hole in the roof expanding to let in even more of the weather. Mother Nature was quickly reclaiming everything she could. I gingerly moved through the tilting doorway and picked around in the debris, finding the items I was looking for. As I prepared to leave, I stopped by group of three or four old paintings that I had left last year. They were not good in any way. Kind of embarrassing , actually. Plus, I didn’t even want to waste the time to carry them back down the hill.

But I went through them again and while I agreed with my decision from last year to leave them, there was one that grabbed my attention. It’s the piece at the top. It was painted about 25 years ago and I remember, even then, not knowing what it was meant to be.

It was an enigma even when I first painted it. I may have painted it but I still don’t get it, don’t fully understand what it’s supposed to say. But I do remember painting it and liking things about it. The colors of the sky the mass of the crowd behind the glowing figure that seems to be reclining on a cross. Not nailed. Like it was his decision to be there.

Maybe it’s saying that we choose the crosses we bear?

I don’t know.

Perhaps it was just the contrast between its colors and the destruction around it, but this piece seemed to ask to be freed from the wreckage. It’s in rough shape from a decade or more of exposure and neglect. It was painted on a cheap canvas panel and the cardboard backing that was now deteriorating and falling apart. But something in it sparked my imagination, made me want to look at it again. Made me save it for another day.

So, I brought it back down to my current studio. It’s been propped up on a chair and I have stopped to examine it several times over the past day. And even now, I am still mystified by it and how I came to paint it.

I am pretty sure I didn’t have a title for it back then and maybe it doesn’t deserve one now. Like I said, I still don’t know what to make of it. But if I were to give it a title I might call it You Can Have the Crown, taken from the title of a Sturgill Simpson song. I think the guy on the cross might understand. Give a listen and see if you do as well.

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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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I am running a little late this morning, having slept longer than normal in that world of dreams. It’s a strange world even in normal times but lately every dream somehow seems even weirder in these even odder days. I think I would sometimes prefer the dreamless nights of the psychotic mind.

But that reason aside,  after I got here I fixated on this smaller painting above in a corner of studio. From 2009, it’s called Two Sides of Blue and there’s something in it that always gives me pause. It certainly did this morning. Made me think it might be a good piece to couple with a piece of music and the first thing that came to mind was a song from Joanna Newsom. I guess she would be called a folk harpist. I don’t know how others categorize her actually. She’s a classically trained harpist who is a singer/songwriter. It’s probably her distinctive voice, somewhat reminiscent of the plaintive flatness of old timey bluegrass singers, that makes her such a a hard artist to pigeon hole. So, why bother?

This song just feels good this morning with this painting. Maybe written by someone on one side of this blue canal. I threw in the lyrics to read along with the music.

Have a good day, folks.

This Side of the Blue

Svetlana sucks lemons across from me,
and I am progressing abominably.
And I do not know my own way to the sea
but the saltiest sea knows its own way to me.

And the city that turns, turns protracted and slow
and I find myself toeing th’Embarcadero
and I find myself knowing
the things that I knew
which is all that you can know
on this side of the blue.

And Jaime has eyes
black and shiny as boots
and they march at you two-by-two
(re-loo re-loo);
when she looks at you,
you know she’s nowhere near through:
it’s the kindest heart beating
this side of the blue.

And the signifieds butt heads
with the signifiers,
and we all fall down slack-jawed
to marvel at words!
When across the sky sheet the
impossible birds, in a steady,
illiterate movement homewards.

And Gabriel stands beneath forest and moon.
See them rattle & boo,
see them shake, and see them loom.
See him fashion a cap from a page of Camus;
and see him navigate deftly this side of the blue.

And the rest of our lives
will the moments accrue
when the shape of their goneness
will flare up anew.
Then we do what we have to do
(re-loo re-loo),
which is all that you can do
on this side of the blue.

It’s all that you can do
on this side of the blue.

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“Some people think only intellect counts: knowing how to solve problems, knowing how to get by, knowing how to identify an advantage and seize it. But the functions of intellect are insufficient without courage, love, friendship, compassion, and empathy.”

― Dean Koontz

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I’ve never read a Dean Koontz novel and don’t really know much about his work, outside of them mainly being in the thriller/horror genres. And though I couldn’t find which book the words above were from,  I liked his pointing out that so many of the qualities of the intellect that we admire mean little if they are not accompanied by compassion and empathy.

I’ve been writing this blog for over eleven years now (yikes!) and over that time I have often written about what I see as an empathy deficit in this country. Too many of us tend to not be able to recognize the hardships and problems of others, to see only how things relate to us personally. We seem to, more and more, have an inability to imagine how it might be to walk a mile in the shoes of someone else.

Maybe it’s always been that way and I’m just a little late to the show. That could well be the case. But I don’t think so. There’s been an increase of self-centered behaviors and a coarsening of our attitude towards others that is easily observable. Someone acting like a participant on an ugly reality TV show that would have once appalled us is now acceptable behavior..

It’s all I-got-mine now. Winners and losers. Chumps and champs.

Our president*** is but an ugly reminder of this new normal. A symptom that was inevitable.

You see it in his self-aggrandizing attitude and his “the world revolves around me” narcissism. But it’s his total lack of empathy that irks me the most, personally. For example in the totality of his daily briefings during the covid-19 crisis, he has devoted less than 4 1/2 minutes out of more than 28 hours to expressing any concern for the individuals who have fell victim to the virus. Most often, his time was spent patting himself and those around him on the back, saying what a terrific job he is doing.

Little mention of the lives ended or of those living, the families and friends, who have been affected by these deaths.

It’s not that he didn’t have an opportunity. Between March 26 and April 26, one month, approximately 54,000 Americans perished due to the virus. That is an enormous tragedy for these families, for the health workers, for their friends and for this nation. Each of these 54,000 is a story, a life filled with moments of love and laughter, sadness and loss.

He is without empathy, without true concern for his fellow humans. He doesn’t have the ability to place himself in the shoes of others, to a walk a mile in any other person’s shoes.

Whatever it takes, whatever it costs in human terms, to stroke his huge fragile ego is never too much. Take the West Point grads, for example. They have long been dispersed from the campus and plans were under way for a remote virtual commencement ceremony. But this selfish thing decided, without consulting the Army officials, that he would be speaking at the commencement in June. As a result, 1000 grads are going to have to return to West Point, be tested there for the virus then be placed in quarantine for 14 days on campus, all for the vanity of this thing and the fawning adulation he craves so much.

He doesn’t give a damn for the peril in which he places anyone, for the lives he burns through. We are all expendable accessories to him.

Not lives. Not families. Not individuals with feelings and futures.

No, we are assets to be used. Fodder.

Okay, I got off on a tangent there. But it still is in line with the message this morning. We can only measure our success and survival to the extent that it reaches down to the most vulnerable among us. In order to do that, we must be able to see the struggles of others, to envision ourselves in those  same struggles.

We don’t have a leader than can do that so it’s up to us to make the difference needed.

Let’s try to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes for once.

Here’s an old song from Joe South from back around 1970. You don’t hear much about Joe South anymore but he had a nice string of hits in the late 60’s/early 70’s. I always liked this song. Here’s Walk a Mile on My Shoes.

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When the gates swing wide on the other side
Just beyond the sunset sea
There’ll be room to spare as we enter there
Room for you and room for me
For the gates are wide on the other side
Where the flowers ever bloom
On the right hand on the left hand
Fifty miles of elbow room

50 Miles of Elbow Room, Herbert Buffum

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I have always longed for elbow room.

Huge arching domes of clear air above.

Wide open spaces for the eye to search.

Soundless vistas with not a soul to be seen.

The elbow room I long for is not that described in the lyrics of the 1930 gospel song, 50 Miles of Elbow Room, from songwriter Herbert Buffum. His version of elbow room is a placid paradise in the hereafter

Ideally, I don’t have to die to find my sought after elbow room. Of course, finding such a place might entail a little imagination along with a willingness to accept that this elbow room most likely will be located inside oneself.

Maybe that’s what I am trying to uncover with my work.

Elbow room. At least, my own little bits of elbow room.

The painting at the top is such a piece. It’s part of my aptly titled show, Social Distancing, that is still planned to open on June 5 at the Principle Gallery in Alexandria, VA. There is some doubt as to whether there will be an actual physical opening reception but there will be a show hung to be viewed so long there is– wait for it– social distancing.

This painting is titled Elbow Room, of course. It’s a return of sorts to my earlier work of the early and mid 2000’s, painted in the transparent inks I favor on paper. In a way, painting it felt like it was something inherent. Built in. Natural, like coming home, like a circle being completed.

For me, this is the hardest work to judge. It’s like looking at old family photos. You don’t look at the faces and apprise them for attractiveness or ugliness. You just see them for what you know them to be, for what they mean to you. How the outside world sees them is not important.

And this certainly feels like a family photo for me.

So, on this Sunday morning, let’s hear a bit of that song, 50 Miles of Elbow Room. I couldn’t find the original from Vaughan Happy Two. The two most significant versions are a gospel version from the Rev. F.W. McGee in 1933 and a traditional folk version from the Carter Family in 1942. The song I am playing today owes its influence to the Carter Family. It’s performed by a favorite of mine, Gillian Welch.

Have a good Sunday. Hope you find some elbow room for yourself, if that’s what you want.

 

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