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Archive for the ‘Personal Mythology’ Category

There’s so much craziness taking place in this country at this point in time.  I wanted to write something that would plead for our patience and tolerance,  asking us to avoid the knee jerk reactions, finger-pointing and extreme behaviors that have brought us here.  To ask that we just breath and take a moment to consider the consequences of our words and actions.

I could do that.  But there has been so much said, so many words asking for calm  and some unfortunately, asking for retribution and more anger.  So instead I am going to focus on a different time and place.  Below is a piece from back in 2010 that focuses on the Coney Island paintings of Reginald Marsh, a favorite of mine, and some of my recollections of Coney Island.  Reginald Marsh

Reginald Marsh Coney Island Beach I’m always intrigued by the paintings of Reginald Marsh, who painted scenes depicting the urban world of New York City throughout the early part of the 20th century until his death in 1954.  His paintings always seemed densely packed with figures and constant movement, all rendered with easily recognizable line work and colors that were strong yet had a soft transparency.  Striking.

One of his favorite subjects was Coney Island, the famous part of Brooklyn with its beach, boardwalk and amusement park.  Whenever I see Marsh’s Coney Island paintings I am always reminded of the several trips I made there as a child in the late 1960’s.  My parents and I would go to NY to see Mets’ games, leaving my older, busier siblings at home, and would sometimes go to Coney Island on the day when the games were at night. 

It was always like entering an exotic, much different world than my country home.  It was dirty with  trash strewn everywhere.  I remember the first time we swung into the parking lot at Astroland, the amusement park there, and thinking we’d entered a landfill as there were literally piles of paper and bottles over nearly the whole lot.  If you spent much time in NY at that time, it was not an unusual sight.

Reginald Marsh The Lucky DaredevilsBut it was great fun and over the few visits there I had many memories that burned indelibly into my memory bank.  My parents, and my aunt and uncle who sometimes were with us, would, after a while stop at one of the bars that opened to the boardwalk to have a cold one and I would wander alone.  It was a wonderland of colorful attractions and games, their facades faded by time and sun. I have sharp memories of standing at one bar’s doorway and watching a singer all dressed in cowboy regalia standing on the bar with his electric guitar singing out country songs in the middle of the afternoon.  I sometimes wonder if it might have been country troubador Jerry Jeff Walker who had come out of Brooklyn. 

 Reginald Marsh Coney Island SceneI remember seeing the crowds down on the beach and suddenly seeing everyone there pointing out to the water and yelling.  Looking out, I saw two legs bobbing straight out of the water, almost comically so.  The lifeguards rushed out and dragged the body in.  Dead and, now that I think about it, had probably been so for a while.

I also remember going into a boardwalk arcade and approaching an older man with a gray moustache and a coin changer on his belt.  I asked for change and handed him my dollar bill.  He made a couple of clicks on the changer and poured a pile of nickels into my hands.  As I turned to go the machines, he put his hand on my shoulder.

Reginald MarshTunnel of Love“Hold on!” he exclaimed in a thick accent that sounded Greek and a little angry to a terrified nine year old.  He started chastising me.

“You don’t know me! Don’t ever trust anyone you don’t know.  I give you money and you trust me and don’t count.  You should not trust me.  Now, count!”

I stood there petrified and counted out loud.  It was the right change, of course, and the man’s gruff demeanor suddenly changed and he beamed a smile at me.  “You understand? Now go.  Have fun,” he said as he gave me a pat on the shoulder.

A little life lesson along with the change on the boardwalk in 1969.

That moment is clear as yesterday and it always reappears when I see images from Marsh or images of Coney Island.

Reginald Marsh Pip and Flip

 

 

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GC Myers- Icon: Joe H.Here’s my latest entry into the Icon series, a 12″ by 12″ canvas piece that is titled Icon: Joe H.  He is my 3rd great-grandfather and his name was Joseph Harris and he was born in the Lindley (the town named after our common ancestor, Eleazer Lindsley,who was among the first Icons) area south of Corning in 1833.

He led a fairly typical life for the time and place, serving in the Civil War and raising a family.  He worked primarily as a blacksmith and a sawyer ( I have a lot of lumbermen in my family– maybe that’s where my affinity for trees comes from) in his early years, working for a number of years in the then booming timber business that was taking place in northern Pennsylvania and western NY.   It was there that his wife, Emeline Whitney, died just a year or so after the end of the Civil War.  Later in his life, he returned to the area of his birth, settling in as a farmer  just over the border in Pennsylvania where he died in 1922.

That was about the extent of his life for me, at least what I could find of it in records.  I did discover that he married his step-sister, Jennie, who was twenty years younger, as his second wife.  But it was my research into local newspapers that gave me a better sense of him.

Looking at records gave no indication of anything but the basics but in his 1922 death notice printed in the Wellsboro Agitator ( I love the name of that paper!) the headline lists him as a “Skilled and Noted Musician.”  It goes on to say that he had been the one-time Banjo Champion of the United States.  He very well may have picked up the banjo from his Civil War experience as it’s popularity in the time after the war is often attributed to many people being exposed to it for the first time during their service.  I could never find anything to document a championship which was no big surprise as it most likely occurred somewhere in the 1870’s or 1880’s and whatever group sanctioned the competition is more than likely no longer in existence.

But I was pleased to know that music played a big part in his life and I later found an item that confirmed this.  It stated that his son, William Harris, was working as a musician in one of the  oilfield boom towns in northern PA in the 1890’s when he tragically took his own life by shooting himself at the hotel where he was living.  As is often the case, you find a lot of tragedy when you look backwards so it’s some consolation to know that there was a bit of music and joy mixed in there somewhere.

I did visit Joe’s gravesite a while back.  It is a bare-boned and flat plot of land that sits next to a harsh little trailer park visible from the new interstate.  Standing at his grave you looked into the backyard of several trailers, the kind of yards scattered with kids toys, spare tires and oil drums.

It made me a little sad but then, I guess a guy who lived through the Civil War, endured the death of his first wife and several of his children before him and lived to see the first World War, this wasn’t all that bad.

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GC Myers- Icon- Peter the ScoundrelThis painting, a new 24″ by 20″ canvas, is titled Icon: Peter the Scoundrel.  This may not be my favorite painting from the Icon series that I’ve been working on as of late but this has been by far the hardest piece for me to complete.  It just kept going and going and I completely repainted the head and face at least six different times.  Each face never felt right and I could not get a handle on how I wanted to portray the person behind this painting.

Actually, I could never get a handle on this person, period.

His name was Peter Bundy, my 3rd great grandfather and he is buried in an old cemetery in Caton, just outside of Corning.  It’s a cemetery that I knew well from my childhood, having spent a lot of time with my favorite cousin in Caton.  In fact, my cousin worked in the cemetery as a teen, digging graves by hand.  I never knew at the time how many ancestors of mine were buried right there but doing research on my family lines I found that there were dozens and dozens of relatives there including  this Peter Bundy.

His grave stone says that he was born in Scotland in 1823 and served in the Civil War with the Ohio 75th Regiment.  Doing a bit of research I found a veteran’s pension record from the 1890’s that stated he had been captured and held at the infamous Andersonville Prison Camp.  That same record listed him as having an aliasCharles McKinney.  My mind began to imagine that perhaps he was a Union spy.

If only it could have been that simple.

A few years passed and one day I had a message about my family line on the Ancestry site.  It was from a family who had done research on their family line and had found that my gr-grandfather Peter Bundy was also their gr-grandfather.  Except that he had a different wife and a different name– Levi McProuty.  It turns out that my Peter Bundy held that name and married  under it in the years before the Civil War.   Living in western Steuben County, they had two children, a boy and two girls, before he ostensibly left in 1861 to serve in the Union army.  A year or so later, his wife was informed somehow that he had been killed in combat.

She and her children never saw him again.

It seems that in the year that he was gone, he had shed the name of Levi McProuty,  married my 3rd great-grandmother, Elizabeth Everetts, and had a child, my 2nd gr-grandmother.  While he may not have even served in the war as Levi McProuty, he did leave for service in the Civil War as Peter Bundy.  He returned to his second wife and child.

However, for the next twenty or so years, he didn’t show up in any public records.  But his wife and child did– his wife under the name of McKinney and his daughter under her married name.  He showed up in some veterans’ pension records  and the census before dying in 1901.  His wife died in 1915.  Both were listed under the Bundy name.

I don’t know if this is clearly written so that you can follow it– I know that it is so convoluted that I have trouble keeping it straight in my head.

So, was he really Peter Bundy or Levi McProuty?  Or Charles McKinney?  Or somebody completely different?  Was he even born in Scotland?  I find myself thinking that he may not have even served in the war, that he may have stolen the identities of other soldiers.  How he ended up serving in an Ohio regiment– Ohio being several hundred miles away– is another question that comes to mind.  Was his time at Andersonville just another lie? I don’t know if anything that is considered factual about this person is indeed real except for the fact that this person, my great-great-great grandfather, lived for a time and died in Caton–that’s on his gravestone.

And that he was a scoundrel.  That is not on his stone.

I think it’s this doubt that fed the troubles I had with this painting.  I could never see a face or a facial expression that suited this person because I never had an idea of his truth.  And just when I thought I would have a sense of him, there was always a new twist with which to contend.  When I had the different faces on this figure I felt a lot of discontent and anxiety, even waking up in my sleep thinking about it.

So yesterday morning, I came into the studio and decided to just simply put him in a mask.   A grinning, mocking mask that let’s me know that I don’t really know him and I doubt that I ever will.

 

 

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GC Myers- Railbirds 1994This is an older painting of mine from back in 1994.  I was in the transition from trying to simply replicate the work of others to developing my own visual voice.  I wasn’t sure where it would go from there and didn’t even have an idea of how to proceed.  I just painted and painted, letting each piece be the guide for the next.  Sometimes it brought forth breakthroughs and sometimes not.  But this time and this work still brings back that excitement of the unknown that was so present in that time.

This little piece is a favorite of mine from that time and is painted in a more traditional watercolor style that I was dabbling in at the time.  It is titled Railbirds and depicts a scuffle between the inhabitants at the rail of a horsetrack.  Perhaps there was a dispute over a mislaid wager or which jockey looked sharpest in their colors.  Who knows?

I spent an inordinate time as a kid at the race track, reading the Racing Form and drinking way too much Coke.  One summer, my father and I were at the track on average 3-4 times a week.  It was a time when a 13-year old kid could lay wagers at the betting windows without any questions and I would often act as a runner for bets, including my own.  I learned a lot of lessons there.

First, that I was lousy judge of horses and a pretty mediocre gambler.  But more importantly, it was a laboratory and showcase for human behavior and it stirred in me the beginnings of a realization that I didn’t want to spend my life in that way.  I saw lives that were heavily addicted to gambling and alcohol and it seemed like such a waste of time in what even then seemed like a too brief lifespan.  There were very unhappy, angry and greedy people there, always on display and they made an impression on me.

Maybe these lesson and these people formed the darkness that I use as a base for my work.  I often think it is the contrast between the underlying darkness and the overriding light of my work that sometimes makes it effective, makes it feel hopeful without being pollyanna-ish.

I don’t know for sure.  But I do look at this piece quite often in the studio, studying its rhythm and flow while thinking of those times, good and bad.

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GC Myers- Release the Past smEvery man’s memory is his private literature.
Aldous Huxley
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The painting shown above, Release the Past, is a 20″ by 24″ canvas that is part of my current show at the West End Gallery.  I was recently thinking about it, trying to discern exactly what it was that I was seeing in this piece, when I pulled up an earlier blogpost that featured the Huxley quote above.  It very much was in line with how I aligned this painting, with the figure in the mid-ground seemingly lost in thoughts of the past,  with my own experience.

Here’s what I wrote:

I like this quote from Huxley.  I have often felt that all of our personal lives fit into some sort of mythic template on which all literature is based and that we often fail to see the connections between the tales of our own lives and those stories which have come down through history in the form of myth and legend.  We all live lives that are often filled with tragedy , comedy and drama.  Heroic, even.  But we seldom perceive them as such, instead thinking of our personal memories as being merely mundane. 
 
And that’s probably as it should be.  Life is spent, for the most part, moving forward in small, day-to-day steps with little time left to see the larger pattern of our lives.  Who has the time to reflect backwards, to see how our lives fit into the templates of eternity?  Very few of us, to be sure.  But what if we could take that time to look back fully and see the patterns set in history and to see that our lives own patterns mesh into that pattern, that we are all indeed connected to and part of the same fabric?
 
Would it make a bit of difference?  Would it make us appreciate the fragility and rareness of  each individual’s place in this world. make us understand that our own history is the history of all and that our memory binds us to the fabric of history?
 
I don’t know.  But it’s something to think about.

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GC Myers-Concordia smThe title of this new painting, 36″ by 36″ on canvas. is Concordia, which is a Latin word for harmony as well as the name of the Roman goddess of harmony.  It translates literally as with one heart which I felt was really appropriate for this piece based on the role that the Red Tree has played in my career.

The beginning of the Red Tree is often asked about at the gallery talks I give and I usually just describe the chronology of its emergence in my work, how it was little more than a compositional element in the beginning, something that brought a central focus to the painting.  But describing what the Red Tree has evolved into for myself over the years in terms of its meaning is sometimes difficult to explain in the moment at these talks.

Yes, it is still a mere element that brings the eye to the center around which everything else in the painting more or less revolves.  In that respect, it is the sun in its own solar system.  But over time I have come to recognize that the Red Tree is the exposed heart of my work, the emotional center that speaks out to the world in a way I never could as myself.

It is a heart that seeks harmony in its existence, to be at one with the world.

With one heart.

Concordia.

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This painting will be part of my solo show Native Voice which opens two weeks from today, June 5,  at the Principle Gallery in Alexandria. VA.

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GC Myers- Unpuzzled Hesse QuoteThis quote came from Hermann Hesse‘s most famous book, Steppenwolf. A great book but my favorite Hesse book is Demian, which I have referenced here a couple of times in the past.  It was a book that I read at a time when I was at a crossroads in my life and it was very influential in my heading in the direction which led to this point.  I think this quote very much jibes with my perception of the world portrayed in my work, that being that it is a real entity, a real place.

It has as much substance as the outer world to me.   It has depth and layers.  It has breath and light.  It has emotion and its truth comes the fact that it is a precise portrayal of itself– not a replication of the outer world.

It just is.

That may sound nutty or perhaps egotistical to some.  I get that.  But without this belief in the reality of this inner world, the validity of the work to myself comes undone.  It fades to nothingness and certainly doesn’t move across to others.  It loses all meaning for everyone, myself included, without this certainty in its being real.

I’m going to stop at this point.  I may have said too much already.  That is, too much for the outer world.  In here, in my world, it sounds right…

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GC Myers Ever ReachingI am now into the seventh year of writing this blog.  It seems hard to believe that so much time has passed and so many posts, well over 1800,  have been written.  I was initially hesitant in writing this thing, afraid that there would be too much sharing, that I would unwittingly uncover the less pleasant sides of my character or reveal myself as some sort of fraud.  The idea of transparency as an artist seemed at that point a very scary proposition.

But in the years that have passed I have learned that this transparency has not been the devil I feared.  If anything, it has added to my own perception of how I see my own work and what I see as my purpose as an artist.  I have learned that I cannot separate myself from my work, that these two entities are codependents, each needing the other for existence.  The work is a reflection of me and I am now evolving into a reflection of the work.

Or so I hope.  I have often described my work as aspirational, as being a hoped-for emotional destination for myself.  So it would be fitting that I move toward this endpoint.

As I reread the above, I realize that one of the biggest challenges faced by writing a semi-daily blog is writing it in off the cuff, in a diary-like manner without much editing of any sort.   There are moments where I hesitate and want to change or delete everything, fearing that I contradict myself or reveal too much.  But we are animals of contradiction and I am now comfortable with living my life in a somewhat transparent manner through this blog and in my work.  I know that it will show through in some way, either in these words or in the paint.

So I continue on.

It’s the only thing I know how to do.

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GC Myers- Family Lines smDuring the openings for most of my shows, such as this past week’s opening at the Kada Gallery,   I inevitably get a number of questions about the meaning of the Red Chair especially when it’s suspended in a tree such as in the painting shown here from the show, Family Lines.  The empty chair itself is a simple and powerful symbol in many cultures of past ancestors or someone who is absent.  I have personally attached the concept of one’s own inner memory to it as well, seeing the chair as a distinct memory or myself in the narrative of that memory.  It is not always the same thing in each different circumstance.

But how it came to be aloft in the tree is a story that began when I was a kid.  I’ve told it innumerable times over the years but here it is:

Wilawana Road BarnGrowing up, we lived in the country in an isolated old farmhouse with an old barn across the road.  I happened to drive by the old place yesterday and snapped this photo of the old barn, now in a much more advanced stage of decay than when I was running around there.  It was pretty solid and complete at that earlier time.   In front of the barn, to the left of it here and out of the shot, is a large and old stone chimney, all that remains from the home of an early settler to the area, a stage coach driver who was killed there in an Indian raid in the late 18th century.  A small cemetery with old slate stones was nestled in the edge of the forest nearby. For a kid, it was a place filled with memory, a great place to play and let your imagination run wild.

One summer when I was 8 or 9 years old,  I came across a dead woodchuck laying next to the barn.  I don’t know how he died– he was just there.  Dead.  As the summer progressed and he dried out, a vine passed through his body and by summer’s end was suspended a couple of feet in the air.  To the eyes of a child this was something magical.  I was struck by the power of the earth to reclaim its creatures.  Everything seemed very ephemeral after that…

The idea of a tree growing through an object such as a chair, which is very representative of human existence, is a continuation of that early fascination.  It wasn’t until I had painted several pieces with the hanging chair that I began to also see the symbolism of the empty chair, which in some cultures represents the recently deceased.  That is what I see now– the family members who have passed on.  Again, this is my interpretation of this work.  I enjoy hearing what other people see in the work because many times it’s completely different from what I see but just as valid.  I often look at some pieces in a whole new light after hearing a new view.

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In different hours, a man represents each of several of his ancestors, as if there were seven or eight of us rolled up in each man’s skin, — seven or eight ancestors at least, — and they constitute the variety of notes for that new piece of music which his life is.
―Ralph Waldo Emerson

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GC Myers- Family Lines smThis is another newer painting that is headed to Erie for my show, Into the Common Ground,  in December at the Kada Gallery.  This 30′ by 40″ canvas is titled Family Lines with the Red Tree serving as the symbol of a family tree and the Red Chair acting as an offspring of it.  The broken segments of the winding path leading up to it represent for me the often arduous task of finding your connection to this tree while the light of the sky represents ultimate discovery and illumination.

I’ve often felt as though I had little definition of myself or my connection to the world through my ancestors.  My work as an artist has helped change this in many ways, giving me a portal for displaying who I am or  at least aspire to be in definition.  But my connection to my ancestors was always vague and hidden away beyond my knowledge.  I wondered who they were, what their stories held  and what traits they fed forward  through time to me.  I began to study my genealogy, hoping to discover some form of connection with the past that might help me better understand who I was in the present.  To discover what worlds the winding path that led to my own life traveled through.

It’s been a wonderful process that has given me greater connection with the past and with the history of this country and with those countries that gave birth to my ancestors.  Naturally, I am always drawn to the grand stories that are uncovered, the heroic and celebrated ancestors that I find myself hoping have somehow contributed some of their positive traits to my DNA.  But I am equally intrigued and touched by the simple and sometimes tragic tales that are uncovered.

I had earlier written of a great grand uncle who had lived his whole life in a county home for the infirmed. He was described in the censuses during his life as “feeble-minded” and he was unceremoniously buried  in an unmarked grave there at the county home.  I recently came across his death certificate and they listed him as a lifelong sufferer of epilepsy.  It made the story even more tragic in that this was perhaps a person who had a condition that would be treatable today.

I think of this person quite often.  His story is as much a part of that tree as those of  its more celebrated members.  It may not be the most beautiful leaf on the branch but it is there.  As Emerson says, we represent in some form a number of our ancestors and whose to say what part this ancestor plays in that piece of new music that is my life.

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