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?