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Solitary trees, if they grow at all, grow strong.

Winston Churchill

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The solitary tree has been a vital part of my work from the beginning. Actually, the word vital understates its importance.

I couldn’t find the image of a painting from a number of years ago that I wanted to see again. This sent me on a search through a maze of files and images from over the past twenty years. I probably spent more time doing this than I should have but it became one of those obsessive things.

Shuffling through these images, one after another, that form of the lone tree just jumped out at me. I say jumped because of the way in which it surprised me. I, of all people, know that the single Red Tree has been important and prevalent in my work. There is no getting around that fact. I have literally been called the “Red Tree guy.”

I understand its symbolism and meaning very well.

But it just seemed different, more away from me personally.

There were many that had slipped my mind that made me stop to look closer. I wasn’t seeing myself anymore in those pieces but found myself admiring the character they taken on in the time they had been absent in my memory. There was a strength and dignity in them that was palpable.

They had somehow expanded in the time I had lost track of them.

They were no longer me. They were them.

It was as though my forgetfulness had made them grow in solitude and they, out of necessity, had grown stronger as a result. Much like the words above from Churchill, which were written in a letter to his mother in 1899, a few years after his father had died.

I may have been the symbolic father of those works, those many Red Trees, but their strength was their’s alone, obtained in their solitude. I felt bad that I had lost track of them but was so pleased at what they had become.

They were beyond me.

Which is all I could hope.

 

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Oddly enough, I have some things that I must do this morning and thought I’d rerun this post from 2014 about a recently completed painting. Both the painting and the theme of this post resonate strongly with me personally. Have a good day.

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We cast a shadow on something wherever we stand, and it is no good moving from place to place to save things; because the shadow always follows. Choose a place where you won’t do harm – yes, choose a place where you won’t do very much harm, and stand in it for all you are worth, facing the sunshine. 

–E.M. Forster, A Room With a View

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Choose a place where you won’t do harm…

I don’t want to, nor do I think I should, say much more about this new painting, a 24″ by 36″ canvas that carries the title Cast Your Shadow.

I like the idea represented by the quote above from E.M. Forster where one seeks out a place of their own, a place where they can stand without causing harm. It’s a theme that I’ve always thought of in terms of being a smooth stone on a creek bed, pushed and polished by the current through the ages until at last coming to rest in a spot where the water flows easily over it.

The stone finds it’s place where it does no harm. It doesn’t disturb the water and the water simply passes by.

It seems like such a small desire, to find a place where the water flows easily by or where one can stand in the sun without their shadow blocking the light from others. But the simplicity of this wish is deceiving.

It is the work of a lifetime.

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I dare not speak much further;
But cruel are the times when we are traitors
And do not know ourselves; when we hold rumor
From what we fear, yet know not what we fear,
But float upon a wild and violent sea
Each way and none.

William Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act 4, Scene 2

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The piece at the top is a new work on paper, one that I am calling Wind Tossed. It was painted this past weekend and it very much mirrors the feelings that ran through me in the studio.

Dark and turbulent, trying to find something onto which I could grab hold and find direction. A source of light for which I could set a course.

Much like the lines from Macbeth above, I felt like a cork on a wild sea, my emotions thrown in all directions and none.

Feelings of worry and concern for those I know at risk. Fearful and anxious ones, as well, for the future. My own and that of our country.

And anger. Plenty of anger. Buckets of it, most of it directed at what as I see as a betrayal of our population by our titular leaders’ denial and refusal to accept early guidance on what the health experts and intelligence community saw coming our way. Their cavalier attitude toward this pandemic in the months leading up to this was an egregious act of irresponsibility, one that borders on malevolence and criminality.

I didn’t find a lot on which I could grab in these past few days outside of the small comfort that comes in knowing we are isolated and relatively safe, with adequate supplies and each other in which we can find some support.

But,oddly enough, there is something gained from this uncertain time. I find that that this anxiety and anger turns into something much greater than both– a defiant determination to persevere.

And that, no doubt, is what I am seeing in this painting, why it speaks so clearly to me in this moment. we may be wind tossed but the skies will one day clear. The seas will settle then and we will find our way to solid ground.

I am not one to hold much certainty in anything but of this, I am certain.

 

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There is only one day left, always starting over: it is given to us at dawn and taken away from us at dusk.

Jean-Paul Sartre

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This is a new painting, a large canvas measuring 30″ high by 48″ wide, that is scheduled for my annual show at the Principle Gallery, this year called Social Distancing,which is tentatively scheduled to open on June 5.

I call it And Dusk Dissolves.

It’s a very soothing painting here in the studio, with a lot of warmth and light in its colors. I believe that is because it needed to be that in this moment.

I was trying to ease my mind in some way.

Trying to push away anger and fear, to push away anxiety and despair. To find a place in which I could rest my mind, if only for a brief moment.

And I think I find that place in this piece. In it, the Red Tree feels safe and at peace.

Yet at the same time, there is a somber wistfulness in it, as though the Red Tree is already missing the day that is still just leaving, regretting what little it has done with that precious time. As the Sartre words above attest, the day is a gift that is given to us each dawn and taken away each dusk.

This day’s gift is nearly gone.

The next dawn will bring a new gift but before that sunrise arrives there is a long dark night to be endured. Lately, it is filled with restless sleep and dreams with nightmarish imagery and intense feelings of alienation and betrayal.

Though the dawn brings a sense of joy and potential that comes with it as a gift, the ever lengthening nights begin to slowly diminish this optimistic outlook.

Maybe that’s the strength of this piece, that tension between its gratitude for the gift of the day that has passed, its peaceful acceptance of the present  moment, and its apprehension of what the new day may bring.

The current time often informs and defines my own readings of my work. Sometimes the piece translates differently over time and sometimes they emote in the same way, tell me the same story. I can’t tell on this painting right now. It’s still too close, too deeply embedded.

But I have a feeling that years from now — if that turns out to be the case– I will look on this piece and remember the comfort and reassurance it offered in a terrible time.

And that will comfort me then, as well.

Have a good day. Remember, it’s a gift.

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The era of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays is coming to its close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences.

–Winston Churchill

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For many of you Breaking Bad fans out there, the term half measures immediately brings to mind a pivotal episode in the series where Walter White realizes that when you’re dealing with deadly people and things, half measures have no place and will most likely get you killed.

And that is what we have been witnessing in the efforts to combat the coronavirus, so far as the steps taken by the president** and his gang of yes men– half measures.

Even yesterday, with the virus constantly gaining more and more footholds, cases and deaths mounting, the markets plummeting, and the experts warning that the most extreme steps must be taken, he stood before the nation and said that while he had signed the order for the Defense Protection Act, which gives the government tremendous powers to compel private companies to produce materials necessary supplies for this effort, he was not implementing it. He said he wanted to keep it for when we really needed it.

That’s like having a new rope in your hands and there’s a person drowning in the water near you and saying, ” I don’t want to use this now because I might need it later.”

That kind of holding a little back for later is fine under normal circumstance but when someone is in dire need it amounts to a half measure.

Now is not a time for half measures, not a time to let some folks drown while you still have that rope in your hand.

I can’t really explain why he won’t commit to full measures at this point other than to say that by doing so he commits to taking responsibility for those actions. It would assert the powers of the federal government and that would take away his ability to lay off blame on the many governors who have been the real leaders in this effort.

The whole thing would become his baby. And there is no way he can accept that sort of responsibility. Not now. Not ever.

But what he fails to understand is that in this sort of situation, the more he tries to evade his duty and responsibility, the more it becomes solely his baby, whether he likes it or not.

You might think I am being unfair in my criticism of the president** because of my intense dislike of him on almost every level, something I will not deny. You might think I should keep my mouth shut and give him a chance, especially in such a time of crisis.

To that I say, “That’s crazy.”

This has nothing to do with my dislike of this person. I am basing it not on that but on the fact that he is in the driver’s seat and I’m just a passenger in a speeding bus as he steers it toward the edge of steep mountain road. He is distracted (texting furiously as he steers) and doesn’t seem fully committed as we hurtle toward the precipice.

Yeah, I’m going to speak up. The time for patience, of waiting to see how he’s doing is past. I want someone to jerk his ass out of the driver’s seat and start steering this thing in a responsible manner, away from that deadly edge.

If you watched his briefing yesterday, I don’t see how you would view it much differently. If you watched him and were not disturbed and a little frightened or you somehow found comfort in his tirades and over the edge rambles, often about his own woes, I fear we are lost. He is a half-step from wearing a uniform with a chestful of medals and ribbons, demanding that the obsequious flunkies around him call him Generalissimo.

The time is now. Not later.

It is time for this person to fully commit to doing everything in the many powers given to him in his position to take this on for the benefit of all the people and not himself, his family or his cronies. It is time to act like there is no tomorrow and throw away the idea of half measures. ‘

As Churchill states in the words at the top: we are entering a period of consequences.

We should pay special attention to his words of warning because, more than ever, they apply at this moment in time.

Now is the time for full measures.

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They who have been bred in the school of politics fail now and always to face the facts. Their measures are half measures and makeshifts merely. They put off the day of settlement, and meanwhile the debt accumulates.

–Henry David Thoreau

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“In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence… In time, every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out its duties.”

Laurence J. Peter, The Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong

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For those of you too young to have been around back then, The Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong was a book from Dr. Laurence J. Peter that came out in 1969 and was a huge bestseller. It was one of those books and ideas that became ubiquitous in their time. It seemed like everywhere I looked back then, that book cover was staring out at me from book racks in every grocery store, card shop and bus station.

Maybe the universe was trying to tell me something, even then.

In the book, a blend of practical business management principle and mild satire, Peter described every organization as a pyramidal hierarchy in which each member was eventually promoted up the pyramid to a position where they would be proven to be incompetent. The real work of the organization was always done by those within the pyramid who had not yet risen to their own personal level of incompetence.

Those not yet proven to be incompetent were like the mortar that strengthened and bonded the blocks of the pyramid.

It was one of those ideas that seemed so simple that it was hard to believe that nobody had voiced it in that way before. And just looking around at almost any organization, private or public, seemed to offer ample proof of its validity.

Why am I talking about this? I think anybody who has been closely following the US government’s response to the Covid-19 crisis could easily see it as the principle in action.

It is one of the first things that jumps to mind when watching the daily press briefings lately. They are maddeningly difficult to watch with their evasions, lack of information, blame placement, contradictions, empty promises and self-congratulatory puffery often along a raft of outright lies.

Not a shred of reassurance anywhere to be found. For me, it almost always brings on an unpleasant mix of disgust and rage combined with dread.

The dread can be explained by another line from Peter’s book: “Any government, whether it is a democracy, a dictatorship, a communistic or free enterprise bureaucracy, will fall when its hierarchy reaches an intolerable state of maturity.” 

That maturity is the point when most of the level of the hierarchy have been filled with incompetents and this administration has spent much of the last three-plus years removing apolitical professionals who had been competently handling many important positions within the pyramid. These are the people who had yet to reach their own level of incompetence, people were doing the real work that kept the governmental pyramid standing. In their place, they inserted political lackeys, people ill-equipped to handle even the most mundane requirements of their posts let alone a global crisis that requires the ultimate in competence from every level of the pyramid.

Watching closely as I have, it sure feels to me like every position in that pyramid is so packed with incompetence that there is little, if any, room left for the still competent to do the dirty, real work required to keep the pyramid standing.

Thus, the dread.

Here are a couple of other little snips from The Peter Principle that one might think were written solely for the here and now:

“Sometimes I wonder whether the world is being run by smart people who are putting us on or by imbeciles who really mean it.”

“Incompetence plus incompetence equals incompetence.”

“If two wrongs don’t make a right, try three.”

I know that writing this doesn’t accomplish anything. But it’s something I have to do once in awhile if only to try to organize what I am seeing in a way that I can comprehend so I can figure out how to look to the future.

And I do still look to the future, even with a little hope. But that hope is my own and owes nothing to the efforts of these incompetents who sit atop the crumbling pyramid.

Hey, have a great day! And be careful out there.

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Social Distancing

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Through vigilance, restraint and control the wise will construct an island that no flood will overcome.

Gautama Buddha

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Being stranded on this island is looking pretty damn good right now.

Be careful out there, folks.

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