Saturday, June 30, 2007

Kindred Spirits

Last week, a friend of mine told me about a book he'd just spotted. It was a slim volume of paintings and drawings of the war-torn Bosnian landscape. He said the artist was pretty good, a former student of Ben Long's, and her paintings looked a lot like the ones I was doing.

So I found the book on, ordered it, and just finished reading it today. The book is called "Ruined Landscapes: Paintings of the Balkan War Zone". The artist is Laura Buxton and the text was written by Ross Yockey.

I had three reactions in succession while going through the book. The first was "Wow, these are good". The second was "Damn, she's painting my pictures!" And the third was "Damn, she's already painted my pictures, got 'em exhibited, got 'em sold, and published a book about it besides!" Ever had that experience, where you're busting your tail to do something nobody else is doing, only to discover that somebody else has already done it?

There certainly are a lot of similarities. We were both there at pretty much the same time. We both have done paintings of shot-up buildings. We both paint in a loose but realistic manner. The similarities are such that I was left wondering what the hell I could add to what she's already done.

The difference is that she did her paintings on-site, sitting right there looking at the building or bridge or whatever the subject was. I'm doing mine from ten years and half a world away. I'm using old notes, sketchbooks, and really badly exposed photographs as sources. While we're both looking at what war leaves behind, I'm looking at "war" in the abstract sense and she was looking at it in the real world.

When I was studying art with Virginia Derryberry, one of my art teachers at UNCA, her mantra was to "make it personal". It always resulted in a better picture. One of my paintings from that time was a remake of Manet's Olympia. I was working on a series about aging, and wanted to change Manet's nude young woman on a bed, attended by a servant, into an old woman on a hospital bed, attended by a nurse. With Virginia telling me "make it personal", I changed the generic old woman into my mother, who had died of cancer eleven years earlier. Then I changed the generic nurse into me. The painting was a cathartic experience, since I still had some leftover issues from her passing, and the process helped me through them. It also resulted in a better painting. Here 'tis:

In painting these Bosnian pictures, I've been trying to make it personal - they have all been about scenes or experiences that left a strong mark on me. After seeing Laura's book, though, I'm not sure how much else I can say with these landscapes. I still have a few images from that time that I want to get on canvas, but I'm thinking that now I need to work less from past experiences and more with current ones. In other words, sit my butt down in front of real places and real things and real people, and paint them, not some abstract memory.

Actually, I've been kinda thinking along those lines for a while now, but it seems to have taken this book to kick-start it.

Anyway, the artist is Laura Buxton. You can see some of her work at this web site:

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