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

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

Wisława Szymborska, Poems New and Collected

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

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

You can’t really write about silence.

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

No, you can’t write about silence.

You can only be silent.

Silence is a way of being.

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

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

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

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

This is one of those pieces for me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take care and have a good day.

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

Sarah Orne Jewett, The Country of the Pointed Firs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have a good day.

 

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

— A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens

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

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

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

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

Season of light and season of darkness, definitely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because maybe that’s where the answer will be.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That is, if I ever leave my property again.

That’s a big if.

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

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

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

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“True glory consists in doing what deserves to be written, in writing what deserves to be read, and in so living as to make the world happier and better for our living in it.”

― Pliny the Elder

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A couple of days ago I showed a painting in progress, at a point where I believe it had taken on its life force. Even though it was far from complete, it was already exuding some sort of energy.

I can’t speak for other artists but for me, that’s always a great feeling. It energizes the process, makes me eager to see it through, to discover what its final phase will reveal. There’s a sense of gliding. It feels easy and smooth with little resistance, nothing to stop you from soaring forward.

Believe me when I say this is not normally the case. No, it’s not always gliding through a cool sky. Sometimes the process is a slow trudging march forward in the pouring rain. There are multiple periods in the process where  everything goes flat and dull, including my own enthusiasm for continuing, and there seems to be no satisfying end in sight.

But the strange thing is that often both of these paths– the soaring as well as the slogging– come to the same final point. Both often result in a piece that speaks on its own, that has its own life, its own energy.

They just get there via different routes.

The beauty in both ways is that both are energizing for me. The easy way, such as this painting followed, excites me and inspires me, throwing me instantly into my next work.

It’s joyful.

The slog, on the other hand, reinforces me. It builds the confidence that I can go deep within myself and get past the next obstacle I face. To just keep moving ahead.

It’s satisfying.

This piece was, as I said, easy. It excited me and inspired me from its very beginning. There’s a cleanness in its energy, its colors and forms clear and easily read. Graceful. The inspiration I felt in painting it hangs to it still. As does its joyful feeling.

It’s what I hope for in all my work.

I call this piece In Gaudium Mundi.

The joy in the world.

It’s an 18″ by 36″ canvas that will be part of my Social Distancing show at the Principle Gallery that opens in June at the Principle Gallery in Alexandria, VA.

Have a great day.

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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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Loneliness clarifies. Here silence stands
Like heat. Here leaves unnoticed thicken,
Hidden weeds flower, neglected waters quicken,
Luminously-peopled air ascends;
And past the poppies bluish neutral distance
Ends the land suddenly beyond a beach
Of shapes and shingle. Here is unfenced existence:
Facing the sun, untalkative, out of reach.

― Philip Larkin, The Whitsun Weddings

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A newer painting, this one on paper called The Quarantine House, that is part of my upcoming show, Social Distancing, at the Principle Gallery. The show is tentatively scheduled to open on June 5. There is, of course, uncertainty about how it might proceed given the current circumstances.

Uncertainty is a common companion for most of us these days. In regular times in the past, there were types of uncertainty that I was comfortable with, having developed a tolerance of sorts for them. You know, things like belief systems, confidence in my own abilities and those sorts of things. In fact, preparing for my annual shows was one of the coping mechanisms that built up that tolerance..

It gave me a defined task and a dead focus on that task. Certainty.

It was a certainty that pushed all other uncertainty to the back of my mind, out of sight and rendered harmless.

But now, there is a constant uncertainty that runs through these days. I still have the task but it feels less defined, less certain. And that dead focus that has sustained me in the past now feels like it is being restrained. Or held captive.

Like it is the one being confined to that quarantine house. It knows there is work to be done but the uncertainty has brought it to a standstill in the dragging minutes and hours of its confinement. It looks around for something that will feed it but all it see are the corners of its confined space and out the windows nothing but endless plains and distant horizons.

That dead focus feeds on certainty and it feels a bit starved at the moment.

I know that dead focus will leave the quarantine house eventually, that it will find its way to sustenance of some sort. A small bit of certainty will whet its appetite and soon, it will once again be ravenous for all the time it can consume.

But for now, I just have to wait it out with that uncertainty as a housemate here in the studio.

 

 

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My shadow’s the only one that walks beside me
My shallow heart’s the only thing that’s beating
Sometimes I wish someone out there will find me
Till then I walk alone

Green Day, Boulevard of Broken Dreams

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At the top is another piece from my Social Distancing show at the Principle Gallery, tentatively scheduled for early June. This painting is called Shelter in Place. The interesting thing about this group of paintings of empty city streets is that most of them were completed well before the imposed isolation began. But the situation has certainly caught up with these pieces.

The scenes of empty streets from around the world that we have seen on our screens in the past month are often haunting. They really capture the feel of this crisis, especially the day to day rhythms of life.

Or lack of rhythm.

I know that this is my biggest takeaway thus far.

I say that this isolation is neither nothing new or daunting for me, as an artist and as someone who would rather be alone for the most part. I have spent over two decades happily alone in my studio. There’s a certain rhythm that I find in this solitude, one that is comforting and nurturing to the creative process.

But that is the rhythm of a self-imposed isolation, more like the feeling of a hermitage or retreat. This feels different. It is more claustrophobic, more imposed from the outside.

More like solitary confinement. The hermit’s cell might not be much different than the cell of a prisoner in solitary in size and adornment but the feel one has in each is distinctly different.

The hermit chooses to be cloistered there and finds ample space in that small cell to wander and explore the vastness of the mind. The prisoner’s experience is set upon them and the closeness of the cell becomes even smaller, more confined. Even the mind seems walled in.

The same setting but with two different situations and two decidedly different rhythms of being.

The current situation of shelter in place seems like an odd mixture of the two, sowing confusion in my role as either hermit or prisoner, which most definitely throws my rhythms out of whack. There are moments of productive peacefulness followed quickly by a high level of anxiety that leaves me listless, almost frozen in place.

Oh, how I long for my hermit’s rhythm to be completely restored…

Anyway, here’s Boulevard of Broken Dreams from Green Day. Seems to match up with the painting.

Hope you find your rhythm. Have a good day.

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