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. 

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Corona Virus: In the Beginning

In just three or four short weeks, the corona virus has gone from zero to out of control.  To be perfectly selfish, I'm happy I'm semi-retired and live in a rural area in the North Carolina mountains.  Yes, the wife and I are over 65, so we're in the high-risk category.  But self-quarantine is not too difficult to do here.  We don't have to go anywhere much, just the dump, post office, and grocery store.  I go down to Asheville to work in my studio, and I'm alone there.  My life drawing sessions are cancelled for the duration.  My proposal-writing work is always done from home.  So we're in fairly good shape.

As mentioned in the last post, I got a scare during my time at Muscatatuck a couple of weeks ago.  Three people got very sick.  Turned out they had the flu, rather than Covid-19, but the scare was real.  As I write this, the Defense Department has not cancelled next month's training.  I expect they will, but just in case, I notified them that I will not be at next month's training.  I love doing that work and believe it's important.  But while important, the training is not critical to our students' missions, it just helps them do their jobs (all supporting military bases and operations) better.  On the other hand, coming down with Covid-19 could kill me or my wife.  That's not a risk I'm willing to take.  And if that means I don't get called back to do the training anymore, so be it.

In this area of North Carolina, there aren't many cases yet, but they're growing every day.  Asheville has 12 cases at the moment and it's clear that the virus is spreading through the community.  What that seems to mean is that some/many people are asymptomatic and are passing the virus without actually getting sick themselves.  The only way to know for sure how broadly it has spread around the community is to test everybody, and that, of course, won't happen.  Our governor has closed all public schools and taken some other measures.  Buncombe County (where Asheville is) and Asheville itself have implemented some more.  I live in Madison County, north of Asheville.  We don't have any known cases yet, but our county manager has requested everybody implement shelter-at-home procedures.  That's a smart call.  I manage the art gallery at Mars Hill University, and the school is basically closed, with students doing their classes online.  We closed the gallery and have no idea when we might be able to have a show again. 

Meanwhile, New York is getting hit hard and the federal government in Washington is proving to be incapable of handling the crisis.  Trump downplayed it for weeks, then grudgingly accepted that it was dangerous.  But his words and actions have been totally irresponsible.  His touting of unproven capabilities for a lupus drug to counter the corona virus has led people to hoard the drug at home, meaning the real lupus patients can't get it, and nobody knows if the drug does anything to the coronavirus anyway!  And one man has died because he took something with a similar name and it killed him.  Meanwhile, none of the federal agencies, all "led" by people who are trying to prove they're loyal to Trump rather than accomplish their jobs, are getting much of anything done.  The real leader in the country is Governor Cuomo of New York.  He's doing news conferences every day, telling New Yorkers the straight scoop, implementing the measures he can, and trying to get the equipment and supplies needed to fight the virus.  With little/no help from the feds, I might add.  And today, Trump said he wants to have the US open for business again by Easter, which is two and a half weeks away.  What a dumbass.  That will just lead to more sick people, more overloaded hospitals, and more deaths.

So I'm doing what I can, which is to sit tight and have as little direct contact with other people as possible.  Not only am I trying not to get the virus from others, I'm trying to not pass it on if it's already in me.  I'm washing my hands, carrying disinfectant wipes around with me, using those blue medical gloves, and staying away from people.  And I'm afraid we'll have to be doing this for a year or more, until a vaccine is available.

A truism from the Lord of the Rings:
“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Afghanistan Training



I spent the last week at the Muscatatuck (pronounced "mus-CAT-a-tuck") Urban Training Center, helping to train another group of Defense Department civilians who are heading to Afghanistan for a year.  I'm doing this every month now.  For me, it's the unicorn of day jobs: it's an important mission, it's something that I can do pretty well, it's a helluva lot of fun, and I get to work with some wonderful people.

To answer your first question first, yes, we're still sending civilians to Afghanistan.  These are the people who run much of the day-to-day operations at the bases so that the soldiers can concentrate on doing their mission outside the wire.  These civilians do the financial management, manage contracts, run the dining facility, manage the gyms and physical training facilities, take care of personnel records, manage the local hires (yes, we hire a lot of Afghans), maintain the vehicles, keep the HVAC up and running, you name it.  Most of the civilians will interact with Afghans frequently, if not continuously.  The training we do at Muscatatuck gives them important insights into how to bridge the cultural differences so that they can accomplish their jobs from day 1.

Our training is immersive.  The students are effectively already working on a base in Afghanistan and they have to go outside the wire with their military security personnel and meet with various Afghans on a variety of issues.  And these are real Afghans, too.  Each of our training events builds on previous ones, so things get more complicated the further along they get. 

I had a great team of students.  I'm using the word "team" advisedly, because that's the way they operated: as a team.  Every one of them got to lead the team on a training event, but every one of them also needed help from the rest of the team as each of the events went on.  They would jump into a discussion whenever they had something to contribute, and on occasion they pulled their team leader back from the brink when he/she was about to go off in the wrong direction.  It was wonderful to see.

I've been doing this training for quite a few years now and have gotten to know our Afghans pretty well.  And the more I work with them, the more I see just how good they really are.  Most have been doing this training longer than I have - many were here when I came through the course in 2011.  They know the issues that need to be worked, and they know how to direct the conversation.  And they know how the events can go completely sideways, and when that happens, they know when to let it go and when to rein it in.  Every time we do this training, I see them showing more nuances and aspects that I hadn't seen before. We are very, very fortunate to have these men and women to train our people heading downrange.

The corona virus was turning into a Big Thing this week and we had a scare when three people got really sick.  Turned out they all had the flu, rather than Covid-19, but it was still serious.  Our training might get shut down for a couple of months if the scare continues.

Friday, March 06, 2020

Destroying Artworks

Yesterday, I was working away in the studio on several different projects.  One of them was trying to decide what to do about one particular artwork.  It was a charcoal and pastel portrait that has been sitting there for a few weeks.  I didn't like it.  It was overworked, had a somewhat awkward composition, and had been a fight since the very beginning.  The young woman who was the subject had liked it.  So, rather than trash the artwork right away, it sat in a corner for a while.  Maybe I'd give it to her.  Maybe I shouldn't.  I kept kicking the decision down the road.

I trashed it yesterday.

That's not the first time.  Actually, I trash a fairly large proportion of my works, maybe 50%.  Which brings up the question, why?  Why throw away something that has a lot of time and effort put into it, especially when somebody appreciates it?  Why throw away so much work?

Well, I look at something and ask myself, would I be willing to exhibit that work?  Exhibiting something means that I'm comfortable with putting my name on an artwork and telling the world, "this is what I can do".  If it doesn't meet that standard, there are two choices: change it or destroy it.  Otherwise, it's just another substandard thing that's cluttering up my studio, and trust me, I have enough things cluttering up my studio right now.  Hell, I could put on three simultaneous shows of my own work at any one time.  So adding stuff that I wouldn't want others to see is not something I want to do.

Regarding changing an artwork, yes, I do that sometimes.  Usually it fails, but  it works out occasionally.  A successful change requires me to get into the right mindset.  It sounds corny, but I have to be "one with the painting", meaning the painting and my brain have to be in synch.  If not, it'll be a failure.  The painting also has to have an underlying composition that works and a subject that's interesting.  Just like you can't fix a house with a bad foundation, you can't fix a painting that has a bad composition.

And if I decide a painting has failed?  Two options.  One, sand it down and then slap a coat of oil primer on it.  That gives me a new blank canvas.  Or, if I've already done that a time or two and have decided that this particular canvas is jinxed, it goes into the trash.

And, as for that young woman who liked the artwork that I later destroyed, well, sorry.  Even if I gave it to her, I'd know that there was a substandard piece of art out there with my name on it.  That's intolerable. 

And, yeah, I'll probably give her one of the other artworks where she's the subject ...

Monday, February 24, 2020

Artists I Like

You know how you can go a long time without doing any housecleaning?  Well, over the past few days I've been housecleaning my studio.  Literally.  My dust bunnies were more like dust buffalo.  Damn things were chasing me around the room.  So I got busy and have been cleaning up, throwing old stuff out, dusting (cough cough), and discovering things I'd totally forgotten were there.  I still have another day or two of work, but the studio is feeling much better.

Just now, I realized that I haven't done any housecleaning on this blog site for quite a while.  I went through my "artists I like" section and discovered that several of the links were no longer good or hadn't been updated in a few years.  So I tossed those out.  And, since I'm always searching for new artists, the ones I'm looking at now are not the ones I was looking at X years ago, the last time I updated this section.  So I added some new artists to the list.  Here are some words on who the new ones are and why I like 'em.


Adam Miller is a really skillful and talented painter.  Not only can he paint some wonderful figures, but he puts them into situations where they are actually saying something.  I've been thinking about how to do that with my own work, and then ran into Adam's paintings, and now have some new thoughts burbling away in the back of my brain.  Actually, one of my new paintings was already influenced by his work, but you wouldn't know it unless you listened to a way-too-long description from me.


C.W. Mundy is an American old-school painter.  He paints people, portraits, landscapes, seascapes, still lifes, you name it.  Cutting-edge he is not, but damn, he's good.  I've copied a couple of his paintings in an effort to learn something from him.  I did learn something - I learned that I really have to up my game.


I've written about Nick Alm in previous posts here, here, and here.  He's a Norwegian figurative artist.  While his subject matter (a bunch of young Norwegians getting drunk in cafes) doesn't resonate with me, how he puts his paintings together does.  They are far more structured than you might think at first glance - they're really based on abstract compositions that are made up of people.  This painting, for example, is a large V-shape that focuses attention on the young lady sitting on the table, and fades off to the right, and is bounded by a hard vertical on the left.  I have tried a few times to create a painting with this approach and have failed.  Another effort is on my easel right now.  One of these days, maybe the light will come on and I'll know what I'm doing.  Or not.


Jerome Witkin has been one of my very favorite artists since I was studying art at UNCA back in the early aughts. He's not afraid to tackle heavy topics, like the Holocaust, nor deeply personal subjects.  He can tell a story in an incredibly powerful way.  And, as I know from personal experience, he's the nicest guy in the world.  While his work has been very influential to me, I discovered that I cannot structure and paint like he does.  His paintings are small stage settings that are carefully constructed with an eye toward overall composition, color, movement, and narrative.  I have done a couple of model-in-the-studio paintings that follow his example, but beyond that, his approach doesn't work with my brain.  No matter - he's one of the best painters in America today, so enjoy him.




Saturday, February 15, 2020

Training at Muscatatuck

I spent this past week up at the Muscatatuck Urban Training Center in Indiana.  I was on a team that worked with a bunch of Defense Department civilians who are heading to Afghanistan for a year.  We do a pretty intensive training program that's a lot of fun and very rewarding.  I've written about it before on this blog.  If you're interested, you can check out posts here, here, and here.  Basically, it's immersive training.  They live on a base, have to coordinate with their military security force to convoy out to meet with Afghan officials, plan for the meetings, learn to work with an interpreter, figure out what's really going on within the Afghan organizations and between the people, and put together a briefing for the Colonel at the end.  The Afghan officials and interpreters, by the way, are real Afghans.  The course puts all their classroom education to practical use and stretches their own personal capabilities.  It's really good stuff.

There were two very noteworthy things that came out of this particular class.  One was my team.  This was a very diverse group.  Some had military experience, some had been in Afghanistan before, some were technicians, others were managers, there were both males and females, and there was a variety of ethnic backgrounds.  When they started, they were a bunch of individuals with only a rough idea of what they were going to be doing.  Gradually they pulled together.  Every training scenario that they went through showed improvement.  Then, in the very last training event, one that is very ambiguous and much more difficult than it appears, they nailed it.  The senior Afghan role-player said at the end, "THIS is the team that I have been waiting for!"  And he's been doing this for years.  I'm not taking credit for this - my role was to mentor the team and guide them along.  They had to do the work.  But they did a fantastic job.  I've been floating on cloud nine ever since.

The other noteworthy item was one of the students.  He was on the other team this week, not mine.  He had been through this training a couple of years ago and then gone downrange to Afghanistan.  A couple of months into his assignment, his vehicle hit an IED, which banged him up, but he stayed in-country.  A month or two later, an Afghan National Police officer turned on his team and sprayed them with gunfire.  Our student woke up in a hospital in Germany.  He's been recuperating ever since and is still dealing with PTSD.  But, and this is a very big "but", he volunteered to go back to Afghanistan, and fought hard for the opportunity. 

You have to wonder, why would a civilian volunteer to go back to a place where he had very nearly been assassinated?  I talked with him a few times.  He's an impressive guy, very cheerful, very positive, big smile all the time, and very smart.  He was thoroughly enjoying the training and looking forward to his new job downrange.  When I asked him why he was doing it, he said, "I didn't get to finish the job."

So this is the type of man that America can still produce.  Makes me proud.  And I'm proud to be able to help train people like him.

Wednesday, January 08, 2020

Trying to Title a Painting

I completed a new painting a bit over a week ago and have not been able to come up with a good title for it.  Sometimes titles are easy.  For my charcoal and pastel portraits and figures, I've just used the subject's name plus the number in the sequence.  "James #4", for example.  These artworks are studies of the specific individual, so titling is easy.

This painting, however, is different.  Here's an image (click on it for a larger version):


The subject here is more ambiguous.  Everybody I've talked with has seen something different in it.  I know what I was thinking about when composing and painting it, but nobody else has interpreted it that way yet.  And that's not a bad thing at all. 

Many years ago, I was taking a painting class, and our homework assignment was to paint a still life.  So I went home, threw a bunch of things together, then winnowed them down to just two things: my Navy officer's hat and the old teddy bear from when I was a kid.  I liked them because of the contrast in colors and textures.  The hard black, white, and gold of the hat contrasted with the soft texture and warm browns of the teddy bear.  Here's how that painting turned out:


I thought it was an interesting study, certainly more so than the usual apples or flowers, but that was about it.  Then, in class, we critiqued each other's work.  When they got to this one, one of the other students said that he saw a military father who was going off to war and wasn't coming back, and the kid was going to have to grow up without a father, and it was one of the saddest paintings he'd ever seen.  Holy cow.  I thought "damn, it was just a still life ... ".  But I also learned that I can't control what others see in an artwork.  Everybody else comes to the viewing with a very different background, mood, likes/dislikes, and outlook, so everybody is going to see each artwork through their own lens. 

And so it is with my newest painting.  I expected that people would have different interpretations and I wasn't disappointed.  But I also realized that an artwork's title has a lot to do with how people interpret it.  Had I told these other people what the title was beforehand, I would not have heard some really interesting ideas.  Some of the interpretations:
   - The young woman has been through some very bad experiences, but she has come out on the other side and is moving forward with her life.
   - Civilization has collapsed and those left are learning to live with the results.
   - The girl represents innocence, and she's coming to realize the world as it really is.
   - The girl represents strength and confidence, able to handle anything the world can throw at her.
   - Hard times are coming.
And there are more.

So how do you come up with one title that can accommodate all those interpretations?  I haven't been able to.  I tried crowd-sourcing the title in a Facebook artist group and got a wide range of suggestions.  Most were simple and descriptive.  None covered all the interpretations I've heard so far.  I'd done this once before (written about in this post from 2018) and got a great title.  Not this time. 

At the moment, just for my records, I have a title.  But I'm not sharing it here.  I'd rather hear more new interpretations from others. 

Friday, January 03, 2020

Year In Review

About this time of the year, people often take a look back over the past year.  Well, okay, normal people do it sometime in December.  I'm lazy and held off until early January.  But hey, better late than never, right?

A few statistics.  Over the past 12 months, I've done 23 oil paintings that survived to get a title.  There were probably half as many again that got wiped out or otherwise destroyed.  Of the survivors, 8 were commissioned wedding paintings.  That's a good number for me, I think.  Any more and making the wedding paintings would be too much like a real job.  As it is, they're still a lot of fun and a great creative challenge.  Of the other paintings, ten were oil on panel figure and portrait studies, done during our weekly life sessions, most with some touchup work over the next day or two.  Another painting was a revision to a portrait from a few years ago - it was enough of a revision that I considered it a new work.  The remaining four paintings were total creations: "Reflection" is a psych study of a young woman, "The Conversation" is two people not having one, "Siren on the Styx" was a total invention from my subconscious (I think, but damned if I know for sure), and "Moving On" was my last painting of the year.

Oil painting wasn't my only medium.  I did 31 charcoal and pastel works on paper that survived to get titled, and maybe half again that number that went into the garbage.  All were figurative works.  I started the year doing two portraits for a couple who really deserved them.  I also did several portrait and figure works based on photo sessions with the lovely Natalie and Jazmin, both of whom are great models with a real talent for projecting their personality.  When I'm working from photos, I don't just copy the image, I try to find something that goes beyond what the camera saw.  In one case, finding that "something" required using Natalie's head from one image, arms from a second, and body from a third! 

Two more of my charcoal and pastel pieces were commissioned portraits.  Almost all the rest were studies that I began in our regular life sessions and then completed later.  At one point during the year, I did a big cleanup in the studio and found a bunch of old charcoal drawings from my life sessions between 2004 and 2010.  Some of those were fairly decent (maybe that says that I haven't learned anything since then?) and I thought I'd touch them up with pastels.  Most of those turned out well while some went in the trash. 

I also got to work with the WLOS TV news crews this year for another courtroom session.  Those are always interesting and fun.  Cameras are not allowed in federal courthouses, so news outlets will use artists to capture something of the proceedings.  This year, it was the sentencing of several county employees convicted of corruption.  I've written about the experience before.  Courtroom proceedings can be enjoyable as long as you're not one of the participants in the proceedings!

So that was a pretty good year.  For this year, I'm hoping to do about the same number of wedding paintings.  I want to see if I can do something more with the charcoal and pastel works (not sure what "more" means yet), and I want to develop a series of oil paintings along the lines of the last one completed.  It's ambitious, but if you're not striving for something, then what are you doing?