Sunday, June 14, 2020

The Confederate Battle Flag

The Marines and NASCAR made the news this past week when they banned the Confederate flag at all Marine bases and NASCAR events.  Both came down hard on the idea that the flag is a symbol of white supremacy, black oppression, slavery, and racial divisiveness.  In my opinion, the actions are absolutely right and the rationale spot-on.  It was long overdue.

I say this as a guy who was raised in the South in the mid-20th century.  I learned to think that blacks were not the equal of whites.  I thought that a "Rebel" exemplified independence, individualism, pride, a reverence for a code of honor, and a refusal to kowtow to authority.  This was reinforced by movies and TV shows that played up those characteristics with their white heroes.  Blacks were relegated to supporting roles, if they were even present at all. And the Rebel Flag was something to be proud of.  Heritage, you know.

My attitudes began to change while in high school.  I had a job one summer where I worked in a small plant alongside quite a few black men.  I discovered that, even though these guys may not have much education, that didn't mean they weren't smart.  They taught me how to do my job, and then how to do it better.  In the process, they taught me that those at the top (in this case, some college-educated white guys) don't always know the best way to do things.  And they opened my eyes to some of the unfortunate assumptions I had about blacks.  That began a change in my thought processes about race that continues to this day.

I've been working on my family history for a long time.  A few years ago, I discovered that two of my great-great-grandfathers, three of their brothers, and one of their cousins all fought in the Confederate Army.  Another, one of my great-great-great grandfathers, made saddles for the Confederate cavalry.  None of them were wealthy: they were all small farmers eking out a living.  None owned slaves.  But all were apparently very tough, capable, resourceful, and fought like hell.  They all came back from the war, although almost all suffered badly from wounds, disease, starvation, imprisonment in a POW camp, or various combinations.  They returned home to a South that had been devastated.  They survived there, but didn't prosper. 

So, when I see a Confederate battle flag, I see a flag that my ancestors fought for.  I think of men who did the job they thought they had to do, did it well, and survived some unbelievably bad times by toughness, tenacity, and giving it their all.  I wouldn't be here if they didn't.

But that doesn't mean the Confederate flag is something to celebrate today.  This was the flag of states that wanted to perpetuate and expand the enslavement of black people.  That was the sole purpose of the war.  It wasn't to "resist Northern aggression", it wasn't for "state's rights", it wasn't for any of those other reasons.  It all goes back to slavery.  And that is totally counter to the Declaration of Independence's phrase "all men are created equal".  So, while I can honor the personal characteristics of my ancestors, I can't honor the cause for which they fought.

And not only does the Confederate flag say "slavery", it also says "treason".  This is a flag of those that actively fought against the United States.  To fly a Confederate flag says "I honor those who killed American soldiers".  You can't fly a Confederate flag to honor that legacy and still call yourself a patriotic American.  It's one or the other.

And last week, the Marine Corps and NASCAR both came to the same conclusion.  It's about time.  Let's put the Confederate flags into museums where they belong.  And leave them there.

Saturday, May 30, 2020

Social Insanity

This country seems to have lost its mind.  All kinds of stresses are causing all kinds of bad behavior, all over the country, and they're feeding off each other.
- Police in Minneapolis kill a black man during an arrest.
- Rioting follows over several days and people destroy their own neighborhoods.
- More police in Minneapolis arrest a black CNN reporter while he's on the air, leaving his white team members alone at first.  They were arrested later.

That's just one stresser in the past several days.  Others have been building over months or years.
- A black woman is shot and killed by a police SWAT team while she's sleeping in her own apartment.  The cops went to the wrong address.
- A black man is killed while jogging.  The white attackers thought he was a burglar.
- A white woman in Central Park goes nuts and calls 911 over a black man who asked her to put her dog on a leash. 
- A white office worker calls 911 on two black men in an office building gym.  The two were authorized to use the gym.

And these are just a few of the most recent racist events regarding blacks.  There's so much more going on, all at once.
- People are being assaulted for wearing a mask.
- People are being assaulted for NOT wearing a mask.
- Hundreds of people jammed a pool party in the Ozarks in total disregard of their health.
- Thousands of people jammed beaches over Memorial Day weekend.
- Blacks and Hispanics are disproportionately getting Covid, mostly due to environments and cultural habits that promote the spread of the virus.
- White protestors wearing body armor and carrying AR-15s invaded state government buildings to push for ending the coronavirus lockdowns.  (Imagine the outcry if they were black or Hispanic.)
- Angry people asserting that their rights to do whatever they want have precedence over everybody else's rights to stay safe and healthy.
- Angry people are blaming it all on the Democrats.
- Angry people are blaming it all on the Republicans.
- Angry people are blaming it all on China.

There are lots of very angry people these days and we're taking it out on each other in very destructive ways.

And where's the leadership to counter this?  Where's the leadership to calm things down, bring people together, find common ground, and develop some answers?  If you're looking to Donald Trump, you're looking in the wrong place.  He's fanning the flames.  Sowing division and distrust is how he ran his TV show, how he got elected, and how he runs the country.

If you're looking to news media, you're looking in the wrong place.  We used to have Walter Cronkite, whose calm approach made you feel like we would get through whatever the crisis of the day was.  And we did.  Now, the media flames passions on all sides.  "If it bleeds, it leads."  That's how you get ratings, baby.

If you're looking to social media, you're looking in the wrong place.  All I see there is anger.  Lots and lots of anger.  Little in the way of possible answers.  Or, if you look at my own posts, mostly levity as a relief valve for all the pent-up anxiety that's being spread.

The situation today reminds me very much of the late 60's and early 70's.  Then we had race riots, anti-war demonstrations, the Chicago national convention riots, a pandemic that killed over 100,000 just in the US (the Hong Kong flu in '68-69), armed white vigilantes, the Black Panthers, political assassinations, an unnecessary war, the Kent State massacre, high-level corruption, and a criminal President.  There was a lot of talk about "revolution" and even the Beatles sang about it.  It took a lot of work by a whole lot of people at all levels to bring the nation back to an even keel, make changes (never enough), and restore some semblance of normality.

I don't see many leaders with a Big Name stepping up.  What I do see are lots of us little people doing what we can.  The doctors and nurses who volunteered to go to New York to help with the pandemic response, for example.  The thousands of police officers around the country who are doing what they can to counter the image put forth by the four Minneapolis cops.  The workers in my local grocery store who wear their masks and wipe down their checkout station in between every customer.

We got through it in the 60's and 70's and we can get through this if we want to.  It will take a willingness to quit demonizing those who disagree with you, to listen to other people's concerns, examine our own prejudices, and be more considerate.  It will also take a sea change in Washington.  We need a new set of politicians (they're not "leaders") to work together.  And we need to pay less attention to the opinion-makers and talking heads who sow dissension, and more to each other.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Coronavirus Lockdown

The coronavirus has really locked things down around this house.  We're keeping a low profile, doing stuff in our own private places (house, yard, studio), and venturing out as little as possible.  That part is fairly easy to accept: there's a deadly virus out there, so minimize your chances of catching it.  And we're pretty quiet and private people, anyway.

What's been much more stressful is the massive stupidity that is even more widespread than the virus.  Way too many people are way too eager to get back to "normality" RIGHT NOW, and to hell with any virus.  "It's just the flu, and anyway, it's a Democratic hoax, and by the way I HAVE A RIGHT TO TAKE MY AR-15 ANYWHERE".  The past two months, and especially the past four weeks, have shown that the spirit of the Greatest Generation is long gone.  People are way more concerned with their own petty wants, have no trust for people who actually know things about viruses and epidemiology, and are perfectly happy to fuck the rest of the world over so they can have a good time.  The just-completed Memorial Day weekend was full of examples, with people jamming beaches, restaurants, bars, pools, churches, parks, stores, you name it.  I expect we'll see many of them jamming ICU's before long.  I'll have no sympathy whatsoever for them, but I will have sympathy for those people that they spread the virus to.  And I'm doing everything I can to NOT be one of those people.

Keeping busy isn't a problem here.  I had a proposal-writing project that required a lot of time and effort.  Springtime demands lots of work in the yard and we've had way more rain than normal, meaning the grass and weeds are growing way faster than normal.  And my Alfa is in the garage with a big chunk of the interior removed so I can do some work on it.

In the studio, I've been reading, watching art videos and online demos, and experimenting with new-to-me techniques.  Most have gone right into the trash can.  Two paintings are nearing completion after being in progress for seemingly forever.  Both are small and I keep thinking they really should be bigger, as in 30x40 or 36x48, meaning I'd have to start over again.  Shouldn't take "forever" since the small ones are working out most of the issues with composition, color, and technique, but still, that's a lot of work.  And I have a couple of other ideas pending for new paintings anyway.

So: I'm off to the studio this afternoon.  Or the garage.  Whatever.

Monday, May 04, 2020

Kent State - 50 Years Later

The Kent State student massacre was 50 years ago today.  At the time, it was one of the worst events in a series of social conflicts that had been going on for years.  For me, it marked the point at which I began to realize that my values were different from many around me.

Quick recap: the late 60's saw increasing disruption over the Vietnam War and race relations.  There had been the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King a couple of years previously.  Race riots had torn up cities across the country.  The Vietnam war was getting bigger, the draft was underway, and a great many people didn't see any reason why we were involved there at all.  There were increasing numbers of anti-war protests at colleges all over the country. 

In May, 1970, I was finishing my junior year in high school.  My parents and most everybody I knew were staunch Republicans.  I supported the war without really thinking about it because everybody else did.  One guy from my neighborhood got commissioned in the Army, went to Vietnam, and was back in just a couple of months, minus one eye.  Everybody thought he did his duty.

Then the Ohio National Guard opened fire on a protest at Kent State University.  They killed four students and wounded nine.  Their claim, at the time, was that the students were throwing rocks and bricks at them and the Guardsmen were afraid for their lives.

I was horrified at this.  I couldn't believe that a troop of soldiers, armed with rifles and tear gas, would be afraid of students.  To me, it was murder, pure and simple.

And this is where I ran smack into the wall of my conservative environment.  My parents didn't have much sympathy for the students.  My high school friends had none.  "Serves 'em right.  They asked for it.  Damn longhairs."  I couldn't believe it.  They were just students.  But they weren't just students to most of those around me.  They weren't people at all.

I read everything I could on the event - Time, Newsweek, US News and World Report, a few others.  It became clear that the initial reports of rock-throwing and "threatening" students were wrong.  They were unarmed.  Of the four dead, two weren't even protesting, they were just watching in the background, and one was a ROTC student.  It just reinforced my sense that it was murder.  But nobody else in my family or circle of friends saw it that way.  Meanwhile, more mass protests and riots erupted across the country, over both the war and the Kent State shootings.  I wasn't interested in protesting or rioting because I still supported the war, but thought the over-reaction of the Guard was totally wrong.

Over the next few years, some members of the Guard faced criminal charges that were dismissed.  Then they faced civil charges that were also dismissed.  It made me sick.

Still does.

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Copying a Painting

Sometimes, when things aren't going quite right, for whatever reason, I'll stop what I'm doing and copy somebody else's painting.  It's proven to be a good way to re-set my inner painting mojo.  Recently, I spent three weeks out of the studio due to everything surrounding the coronavirus lockdown.  Three weeks is enough time to get rusty.  When I got back to the studio, my first project was to finish up a painting from several weeks earlier.  I think it turned out pretty awful.  Then I tried to finish up another painting and wound up scrubbing everything new off of it.  Then I tried working on yet a third painting and didn't get anywhere.  Okay, time to re-set.

As I've noted on here several times before, I've been looking at the Swedish artist Nick Alm.  I don't really care for the subject matter of his paintings, which tend to be a bunch of young Swedes getting drunk in cafes.  I'm not young or Swedish, and I haven't been drunk in a cafe in quite a few decades.  What I'm fascinated by is Alm's technical capability.  There are two parts to this: his compositions, and his skill with putting paint on canvas.

I've talked about his compositions in another post.  My "third painting" mentioned above is actually an attempt to use insights from studying his compositions in a painting of my own.  It's been underway for, oh, six months, and is nowhere near done.  But this time, I'm not looking at composition, I'm looking specifically at how he puts paint on canvas.  And, for that, I copy.

I was looking at paint application because I just couldn't get into the groove of mixing paint, using the brush effectively, and getting the effect I wanted.  Everything seemed to be over-saturated, too contrasty, and too hard-edged.  Alm's paintings, by contrast, have muted colors that are still rich, much softer contrasts, and more subtle gradations between colors, shapes, and objects.  I dug through Mr. Google to find some information about his technical approach and eventually found some good info that I could use to get started.

So here's the image that I chose to copy.  It's actually a detail of a much larger painting.

What drew me to this?  The muted skin tones, transitions between one area and the next, soft edges, blending, accuracy of drawing, lots of stuff.  Look at how his shirt and her top are really just one large white shape, look at how his arm blends into her chest, how her throat blends into the shadow and then into his jaw, and how the light is depicted around her eye and down her cheek, for example.

For this exercise, I used a very limited palette, which is based on the colors he uses.  It consisted of Venetian red (an earthy but strong color), Transparent Gold Ochre (a slightly clearer version of Yellow Ochre), Mars Black (really a very very dark blue), and Flake White (a lead-based white).  That's it.  And here's how it turned out:

Maybe I shouldn't have shown you the image I was copying ...

I can whine that the colors from my iPhone photo aren't accurate and a few other things, but hey, it's just an exercise and I don't have Alm's painting skills.  It was really worthwhile to look at each area carefully to see what the colors are, how they're blended or not, where the strong edges are, how he did the shadows, and so on.  So while my copy is kinda ugly, it was still a very valuable learning experience.

So what's next?  Well, my ambition is bigger than my capabilities.   I'm looking at taking the painting that's been in progress for six months and starting over on a much larger scale.  I'll use the lessons learned from the first version, and from this exercise, in building the bigger one.  I'm probably in over my head, but as an artist friends says, "it's just a painting". 

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Scanning Old Family Photos

As I mentioned in my last post, one of the things I've been doing lately is scanning old family photos.  This is an outgrowth of my interest in genealogy.  I've been working on my family history for many decades now.  I wound up with my parents' photos, yearbooks, and other memorabilia, and my cousins have sent me some stuff that they had, and pretty soon there was a huge collection scattered in various places around the house.  With the coronavirus lockdown, this is the perfect time to sort through all the stuff, scan some photos, save some, and trash a lot.

So what do I look for in keeping and/or scanning old photos?  There's gotta be some sort of catch.  Some of these photos go back to maybe 1850, and when you have one photo of an ancestor, there's your built-in catch.  One side of my family began taking photos more and more frequently starting in the early 1900's.  This was about the time that Kodak began producing the Brownie cameras and photography became available to regular people.  My grandparents, and then my parents, were just like every other set of parents since then: their kids are the cutest things to ever walk the face of the earth, and their every action must be recorded for posterity.  That's an attitude that results in lots and lots and LOTS of variations of the same picture.  Not only that, but people in the 1920's and 30's liked to ham it up for the camera just like people today do.  They didn't do selfies, but they did the same kind of silly poses you see today on Instagram.  People don't really change that much.  Another favorite photographic activity is "photographing the family vacation".  A picture of Yosemite from 1950 looks just like a picture of Yosemite from 2019: somebody smiling at the camera with Half Dome in the background.  And, as every person who has tried to capture an amazing landscape on film has learned the hard way, big landscape experiences are rarely impressive when compressed onto slides or 5x7 prints.

Most of us take photos as mementos of our own experiences.  We can flip back through them and remember what we were doing, who we were doing it with, and laugh or cry, all based on our own memories.  But those memories don't translate to other people.  I don't have my parents' memories, so a photo they may have taken, laughing it up with a group of friends, doesn't mean anything to me.  Not unless it shows me something special about my parents.  So what I'm doing, really, is combing through the photos with the idea that future generations of our families (both on my mom's and my dad's sides) can have an idea of who these people were.  They don't need to see ALL the photos to do that.

So I look for photos that tell us something.  On my great-grandparents' 50th anniversary, three generations got together and took a whole bunch of photos.  I scanned two of them, tossed some that were poorly exposed or taken at a wrong time, and kept a very few others that might be of some interest further down the line.  The ones I scanned show the great-grandparents just a few years before they died, my grandparents and a couple of their brothers and sisters as mature adults, and my dad and his sisters just entering adulthood and full of life and energy.  So those are important.  Another set of photos came from a day when my mom and her friends, all aged maybe 15, got hold of a camera and had a field day with it.  Of those pictures, only one is worth scanning for historical purposes.  I kept several more because, in flipping through them, you get a sense of a bunch of teenage girls at play.  And there are two from that day that I would like to use to make a painting.  The exposure and compositions were terrible, which in this case made them wonderfully mysterious.

But enough words.  You came here because you wanted to see old family photos, right?  Here are five to kinda show what I was getting at.

This picture of one of my great-great grandfathers was taken in about 1870.  I have a couple of other family photos that are even earlier, but can't quite determine the year.  It's always good to get a visual on one of your ancestors.  All photos back then were stiff and posed, so you can't tell much about his personality, but at least we have an idea of what he looked like.

 Great time at the beach, circa 1918!  My grandparents are in this picture.  Change the outfits and this could be on any beach today.

 My mom was a real live wire.  Her brother was more reserved, but she could get him to open up and goof around.

 My dad was a Navy pilot in World War II, flying the B-24 (the Navy called it a PB4Y-1).  This was on their base shortly after the end of the war.

This group of cousins was all dressed up for Easter church.  Let's just say we dress a little differently these days.

Sunday, April 05, 2020

Keeping Busy in Lockdown

The coronavirus is just getting worse all over the world.  North Carolina has been under a shelter-in-place order for a couple of weeks now.  I'd say compliance is spotty.  Lots of people around here have been listening to too much of Trump and Fox News.  I've heard them saying that it's a Democratic hoax, that it's just a version of the flu, and other bullshit.
- A friend of mine, wearing gloves and a mask, stopped at a small local place to pick up some supplies.  It's owned/run by an elderly guy who wasn't wearing a mask or gloves, nor taking any other precautions.  He laughed off the threat and said he was just following Trump's recommendations.
- There's a fundamentalist church next to my neighborhood.  Last week, they had shifted to drive-in services.  The congregation stayed in their cars while the preacher set up a PA system under the portico.  That was pretty good, although it meant that everybody in the neighborhood had to hear the sermon whether we wanted to or not.  This week?  Back into the sanctuary for Palm Sunday.  Wrong answer, dude.

There still aren't many confirmed cases in this area.  I live in Madison County and there are none reported here.  Buncombe County, where Asheville is, has 31, and one death.  Henderson County, south of Asheville, has 50 cases, about half of which are in an assisted-living home.  However, the lack of confirmed cases doesn't mean much since there aren't enough test kits to go around.  People are only getting tested when doctors need to confirm it, meaning when they're already in the hospital.  So the virus is circulating here.

And we're really limiting activities that involve going somewhere.  The grocery store is maybe once a week now and we'd like to extend that.  We've been doing the post office almost every day, since we don't have home delivery, but I'm going to cut back on that.  I do go to the dump every day it's open because (a) we don't have trash pickup here and (b) taking trash to the dump doesn't involve getting in close contact with anybody.  And that's about it.

I have not been to the studio for about 10 days now and don't know when I'll get to go again.  Even though nobody else is in the studio with me, I would still have to go in and out of public spaces in order to get to the studio.  So, for now, I'm staying home.

And what are we doing here to keep busy?  Glad you asked!

Seems like the primary project is yard work.  Spring has sprung.  The weeds have already started to grow and the grass is just getting started.  We've already mowed the front yard twice.  I'm trying to get rid of all the damn moles that have overtaken the yard.  One of my coronacardio workouts is to go around stomping their tunnels flat.  Then I come back a day or two later and see where they're sprouting up again, and stomp those harder and flatter.  We've been cleaning up sticks, digging up bushes, spreading fertilizer, and all sorts of other (NOT) fun things.  At least we're out in the fresh air and sun!

J has been doing even more house cleanup.  I mean, when is she not doing it?  I guess it's the spring-clean thing.  We need to do a major overhaul on the garage sometime soon.  Not looking forward to that.

I've been working on three projects of my own.  One is getting the Alfa ready to rock.  I've been making new door panels because the old ones were really sad.  Haven't quite got them to where they should be, but they look better than what was in there.  Gotta change the oil and top up the transmission since it leaks too much, and there are several more projects waiting in line after that.

Another project is family history.  This is a never-ending jigsaw puzzle.  At the moment, I'm writing up storylines for different family branches, taking all the data collected over the years and turning it into stories.  Of course, in doing that, it raises more questions that we need data to answer, but it gives a much clearer idea of who these ancestors of mine were.

And one more project is scanning old family photos.  I've got some that go back to around 1850, with a LOT after about 1940.  No, I don't scan them all, there are way too many.  I scan the ones that I think have some sort of merit - a good look at an individual, a shot of a house that someone lived in, maybe a photo of a wedding or other key event.  I'm keeping some of the photos after scanning, but a lot are going in the trash.  I dumped all the slides, for example.  Slides tend to discolor with age, so while I could color-correct some with Photoshop, many are just way too far gone.

So that's what we're doing in lockdown.  We're busy doing all the things we said we'd do when we got time.