Thursday, December 26, 2013

Robert Genn on Life's Purpose

I subscribe to a twice-weekly artist newsletter from Robert Genn.  They talk about a lot of different things: the painting process, the business side of art, the spiritual side, you name it.  The newest is a really powerful and well-written one.  I'm going to quote the full text here.


A few years ago, Adam Leipzig attended his 25th reunion at Yale University. At Yale, he had been a theatre geek and literature major. Mingling in the party tent that summer evening, Adam listened to complaints about emptiness, wasted years, and general confusion about life's purpose. He concluded that eighty percent of his former classmates were unhappy with their lives, even though most were now in positions of power, were prosperous, and had ticked many of life's trophy boxes. In contrast, the twenty percent - the happy Yalies - were arts and history people, and those who had studied subjects for the joy of learning. Adam posited a theory: Happiness is having a purpose. People who are happy, he found, know five things:

Who they are
What they do
Who they do it for
What those people's needs are
And what they get out of it lists 151,928 book titles about finding life's purpose. It's a going concern. But life teaches that if we make others happy, we're taken care of. Somehow, our most important needs are met on a level that cannot be matched by acquisition or achievement. Focusing outward is the key.

Creative people, in particular, often stumble when asked, "What do you do?" Some find the question confronting, or downright troublesome, especially when between projects, or if there's vagueness about professional status. Many others do something else, something they feel is not the thing that defines them. Still others believe they're not yet ready to identify with the title "artist." The word itself is as loaded as a mid-summer's Ivy League mixer for the middle aged.

Adam suggests that you need only answer the last question in his formula: "How are the people you're doing it for transformed by what you do?"

This holiday season, if you happen to be mingling with the other eighty percent, you may find the question "What do you do?" unnecessary. More valuable will be, "How do you do that?" 


If you like this article, you can find more at the Painter's Keys website.  Go take a look.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Act of Painting

Robert Gamblin, of Gamblin Artist Colors, periodically sends out notes on technical issues and random thoughts.  One showed up in my in-box this morning and I thought it was particularly good.  So here it is, in its entirety:

"Dear Artist,

We simply call it painting, but actually there are two distinct parts to this art that stretches back at least 30,000 years to the caves of southern Europe. I’ve always spoken about every painting having two lives, the one it has as while coming into being through our efforts in the studio, and its next life that begins when we step back from the easel and say, “it's done.”

Our culture, for understandable reasons, tends to focus on the finished product; there are no museums devoted to the process of making a painting. At this Holiday time, I want to celebrate the act of painting.  

After having supported artists’ processes professionally for the last 34 years I feel unequivocally that the most important aspect of painting is its creation. As much as I love interesting paintings hanging on the wall, for me, this isn’t as important as the creative process itself. 

I think that making a painting is one of the most intricate things we do in our lives. The mystery of creativity requires us work with our head, our heart, our hands and our intuition. All of it comes out, brushstroke by brushstroke, though the luscious intensity of oil colors. 

It should be not be a surprise then that you feel so good while in the flow of a painting session. In that state you are pounding on all cylinders. They talk about a “runner’s high,” well there is certainly a “painter’s elation.” I feel it often. 

And by painting over a number of decades the rewards to one’s life are immense. You achieve a life-long dialogue with yourself around what it is like to be a person in this world at this time. In oils you are creating a record of your life that will endure for centuries. 

What a great privilege to be born and living in a time and place where we can pursue our art. That is a lot to be thankful for. And, from all of us at Gamblin, thank you for bringing our materials to your painting process, it is a privilege to be there.

Robert Gamblin"

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Survivors Series

Don't know if I've discussed this before, but I'm working on a series of paintings about survivors.  This is an outgrowth of my earlier series, "Meditation on War", which explored the results of combat.  I found that series to be worthwhile, but a bit of a downer.  The general theme of the paintings was "bad shit happened here".  After a while, focusing only on the bad shit got to be a drag.  I wanted to work on a theme that was more optimistic, but still dealt with some heavy and important stuff.  The answer came during a life drawing session in which our model was a woman who had survived cancer.  Her body was ravaged with the removal of her breasts, surgical cuts everywhere, and no hair, but her spirit was strong and cheerful.  I've seen the same sort of strength from wounded soldiers and others who've survived serious incidents.  This looked like a theme that I could work with.  And I thought these stories needed to be told.  Right now, I'm working on three stories.

One is of a woman who was brutally raped.  She has gone on to rebuild her life, serve in a rape crisis center, and focus on making the world a better place.  She's given TED talks, written prose and poetry, gotten married, and raised some wonderful kids.  Her attacker was eventually caught.  He had viciously attacked another woman and is now serving a life sentence.

The second is of a man who was a Marine in Viet Nam.  He was in some vicious battles - the kind where two squads start up a hill and only six guys make it to the top.  The kind of campaigns where you spend over two months fighting in the jungle and never even change your skivvies.  He went on to a successful civilian career and raised four smart daughters, two of whom are now in the military.  But he's still going up that hill many nights.  

The third is a man who was on the Bataan Death March.  He's 93 now and as sharp as they come.  Not just sharp for his age, I mean sharp, period.  He refuses to be called a "hero".  He came out of the Japanese prison camps, returned home, got married, built a small business, and raised three kids.  Now he's in a VA assisted-living facility, speaking at schools and churches, active in many social events, and probably has a busier calendar than I do.

So now I have three strong stories to tell.  I'm trying to figure out how to tell them.  I don't want to just paint portraits of these people.  Portraits are fine, but they don't tell the "survivor" story.  Other things need to be included in the picture that speak to what they've gone through.  This calls for some creative compositions, of adding, subtracting, and rearranging things until they come together.  Even the way the paint is applied is important.  And that's what I'm struggling with right now.  

I've got basic compositions worked out for the first two paintings, know what will be in them and how the'll be arranged.  My normal style of painting, though, is going to be lacking, I think.  My style is pretty quiet and descriptive and doesn't, in itself, convey much emotional turmoil.  This is fine in paintings such as "Warrior", in which a quiet and understated approach makes the impact of the loss of the soldier's legs more powerful.  

Oil on canvas, 60"x60"

But these three survivors have stories that are not visible.  To see them on the street, you'd have no idea that they'd been through such experiences.  I need a way of painting that is energetic and turbulent in its own right.  I think I've found an example of an artist whose style provides that energy.  So I'm going to do a number of small, experimental paintings, where I'm taking the basics of his approach and trying it for myself.  It's kinda like trying on a new suit to see if it fits.  And it's got to be the right suit: just as you wouldn't wear a Brooks Brothers outfit to a track meet, the painting "suit" has to both fit me and be appropriate to the task.  I don't know yet whether it will do either.

So there's only one thing to do.  I'm off to the studio to sling some paint.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Ancient History in the Rocks

I've been getting a bit more interested in geology lately.  Yes, geology.  Rocks.  The whole idea of how our world evolved, how mountains rose up, went away, and rose up again, with continental plates moving around and grinding into one another, just fascinates me.

I recently read an interesting book titled "The Rocks Don't Lie".  The author, David Montgomery, originally started out to debunk the belief that the world is only a few thousand years old and that all the mountains and everything else were sculpted by Noah's flood.  Those beliefs are, of course, easily contradicted by hard science.  But as Montgomery developed the book, he became more focused on how the back-and-forth between the science of geology and the beliefs of religion actually developed and informed each other over the past few hundred years.  The science that came out of this shows that the Earth has been around for about 4.5 billion years, not just a few thousand.  The science has also shown how our landscape has developed, and continues to develop today.

This was on my mind during my recent trip out west and to the Grand Canyon.  Since the landscape out there is relatively barren of trees, it is easy to see the big picture: big tilted plains, miles-long cliffs where fault lines have broken the surface, canyons where the layers in the rock are plainly visible, extinct volcanos, and lava fields that look like they were laid down last year.  The Grand Canyon itself is an incredible sight, but really, there's interesting stuff to look at wherever you go.  What's also really cool to think about is the same type of layers that are so clearly visible in the Grand Canyon are also below your feet right now.  Our landscape has not been static over the past 4.5 billion years, it has been continually changing.

A while back, I was reading about when and how the Appalachian Mountains were formed.  I knew that these are really old mountains, much older than the Rockies, and that at one time they were supposedly even more spectacular than the Rockies are now.  But what was really surprising to read was that the Appalachians didn't just rise and then be eroded away.  No, mountains have risen here at least twice.  One range rose beginning about 480 million years ago.  It gradually eroded almost completely away and this area became an inland sea.  The current mountains started rising about 66 million years ago.  That, to me, is amazing: plains to mountains to inland sea to mountains again.

I don't have to go very far to see indications of this history.  I just walk out my front door and look at this rock.  We've done some landscaping with river rock that was quarried not far away.  This one was part of the pile.  I got to looking at it one day because it was a bit odd-looking.  I realized that it is actually a rock within a rock.  The white part is an igneous rock, meaning that it was formed from molten rock.  I don't know what it is, maybe a type of granite.  But it was formed under tremendous heat and pressure, meaning it was formed deep in the earth.  Then the land rose until the rock was exposed on a mountain.  It broke off and landed in a stream, where it was eventually rounded into a river rock.  You can see that the edges are all rounded off.  From there, it wound up in sand.  Eventually, the rock and sand were buried under many many layers of other sediments, until it was deep enough that the pressure turned it from loose grains of sand into a rock.  Then the land rose again.  At some point, the sandstone, with the earlier river rock buried inside it, broke loose from a mountain and fell into a stream again.  The stream smoothed it out and rounded the edges.  And then it was picked up by some guys and brought to our house.

Millions of years of history, right here by my front door.  Cool.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Santa Fe

One day during my recent trip out to New Mexico, my sister and I went to Santa Fe to take a look at some galleries.  There are over 100 galleries in town, so to be effective, you need to do some homework beforehand and identify the ones you really want to see.  Then rely on serendipity to provide you with surprises.  I put together a short list of about 8-10 galleries to check out.  Some, of course, turned out to be not what I was looking for.  Others were as good as I'd hoped.  And I did find one that wasn't on the list.

One of the galleries I visited was Bill Hester Fine Art.  Bill was in Chapel Hill for a few years and carried my paintings while there.  Now he's back in Santa Fe with two galleries on Canyon Road.  It was good to see him and catch up on developments with both him and his wife Susannah.  Bill has a good collection of artists, and while I was too busy talking with him to check out the art in detail, there were a number that were really interesting.

I also visited Giacobbe-Fritz Fine Art and wound up having a great discussion with their director, Palin Wiltshire.  Palin was enthusiastic and very knowledgeable about art in general and her artists in particular.  One of them was Ben Steele (check out his works on his website or on the Giacobbe-Fritz page).  Frankly, I was blown away by Ben's work.  This young man can really create a painting in concept, in composition, and in paint.  And he is witty.  Not many paintings will make me laugh out loud, but Ben's did, over and over.  But these are not just cartoons expertly done in paint.  No, these are comments that may be light-hearted or may be pretty cutting, depending on how you take them.  Many of them reference iconic artworks from the past, and pay homage to them, at the same time putting a big smile on your face.  Quite an achievement.  So Ben is my newest artist find: sharp, funny, and really good.  And Giacobbe-Fritz is one of my favorite Santa Fe galleries.

Over at Nuart Gallery, there was another interesting artist.  Santiago Perez is sort of like a modern-day Hieronymus Bosch, only not so disturbing or threatening.  His larger paintings were crammed with odd little figures going about strange little businesses.  Where Bosch can scare the hell out of you, Perez draws you into the story, making you want to tag along with the critters to see what will happen next.  Lots of fun.

The Intrigue Gallery wasn't on my list, but I spotted it and went in.  They featured the paintings of Pamela Franken Fiedler.  These are large, sensuous images of male and female figures, primarily in black and white with specific areas of color.  This was the only gallery I saw in Santa Fe that had any figurative work that could be called "sensual" - all the rest could be rated G.  Fiedler uses models from a variety of ages - some are young, but others have been around the block a few times, and it is really cool to see them treated so sensitively and beautifully.

There was one other artist that made an impression on me.  Karen Waters isn't represented by any Santa Fe galleries, but she lives and works there.  She's a photographer of the outdoors, and combines those images with layers of textures (sometimes many layers) that give them an otherworldly feel.  I saw her work displayed in Los Alamos.  Some of her images were printed on aluminum and others on canvas or paper.  One of them, "Days Like This", is a haunting image of a lone tree.  Trust me, your computer screen will not do it justice.  I bought one of her printed images for my sister.

So I got my "art fix" in Santa Fe.  Kudos to the staff at Giacobbe-Fritz, Nuart Gallery, Intrigue Gallery, and Turner-Carroll Gallery, all of whom were happy to talk to me even when they heard that I was an artist.  Often, I've found that gallerists will turn away as quickly as possible when that comes out.  It's like they're thinking, "He's an artist, he's not going to buy anything, and he's going to ask me to look at his work.  He's a waste of time."  For the record, I never asked to show them my work, although one gallery director did ask to see mine.

My sister was a saint: she waited patiently with her three dogs outside while I went into gallery after gallery.  While I was talking with Bill Hester, her collie found a dead bird and wouldn't put it down, which caused a bit of a situation until we dislodged the carcass from her jaws.  I repaid my sister with lunch at the Second Street Brewery, a really good brew pub away from the city center.

I hope it won't be so many years before I get to go to Santa Fe again.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Grand Canyon

I just spent a week visiting my sister and her family in New Mexico.  It was a great trip - wonderful to see everybody again and fun to see both old and new places.  There's a lot to write about, but for now, I'll focus on just one: the Grand Canyon.

I'd never been to the Grand Canyon.  Seems like every time I went cross-country, it was well north or south of there.  I knew it was a neat place, but it never seemed to percolate to the top of my "must see" list.  As we were planning this trip, though, my wife suggested that my sister and I go to the Canyon (my wife did not go on this trip).  We all thought it would be good, so we locked it in.

The drive out took about eight hours, most of which was on I-40, the modern-day Route 66.  The landscape was really striking.  Long, flat, tilted planes ended in sharp cliffs, small piles of volcanic rock lay here and there, and near the border with Arizona, the road cut through a valley that had long lava fields.  It turned out that this lava area is the El Malpais National Monument.  The lava fields that looked only a couple of years old, are really 2,000 years or more old.  Shortly before hitting Flagstaff, we cut north and later west, entering the Grand Canyon from the back end.  This turned out to be good, because we got to see the some of the canyon before the sun set.  It took quite a while to finish the drive to our lodgings in the park.

Early morning from the South Rim

The next day, we walked over to the rim and it was an "Oh ... my ... god" moment.  Yes, you've seen lots of pictures of the Grand Canyon, but they are nothing compared to the impact of the real thing.  It's just so immense, so deep, and so spectacular.  We spent several hours walking the Rim Trail, stopping every few yards to look and take pictures.  It was early when we started and a light haze lay over the canyon.  The haze gradually burned off during the morning until it was sharp and clear by mid-day.  We walked all the way to the Visitor Center (about a 3 mile walk) and had a bite at the small cafe.  Then we took a bus to the head of Kaibob Trail.  We hiked about 3/4 of a mile down the trail, which was probably about an 800-ft vertical drop.  Seeing the Canyon from below the rim is a very different experience from seeing it on the rim.  It's a sheer drop hundreds of feet down on one side, and a sheer cliff going up on the other.  How they carved the trail into that mountain is beyond me.

On the Kaibab Trail

We could have gone much further down the trail, but because (a) the rim is at 7,000 ft altitude and I'm not used to that elevation, and (b) climbing up 800 ft is much more strenuous than going down, and (c) we'd already walked over 3 miles already, we turned around.  In all, we were on the trail about an hour: 20 minutes down, 40 up.  There were a few very fit and hardy hikers who were burning along on the uphill climb like it was nothing.  This not-very-fit-nor-hardy hiker was puffing like a steam engine.

Horse Train on Kaibab Trail

On the way back up, a tourist group on horseback passed us.  We both thought that was probably the best way to see the Canyon: down and back on another critter's legs.  However, that would be about 8 hours on a horse, and if you're not used to horses, you would be mighty sore long before you ever even hit the bottom ... much less do the climb back up.

Late afternoon on the South Rim

We walked back along the Rim Trail to the lodge that afternoon.  I stopped and did a few sketches here and there.  It was past sunset and just getting dark by the time we got back to the room.  We rested a bit, cleaned up, had dinner, and called it a day.

The next day, we headed back to New Mexico.  It was pretty much a replay of the drive out: 8 hours on the road, looking at very unusual (for this North Carolinian) landscapes.

Some observations:

Plein-air exhibit in Kolb Studio

- One of the first places we visited in the park was the Kolb Studio.  This was originally built on the south rim by a couple of brothers who were photographers.  Now it is a park gallery for Canyon-associated photography, paintings, and other art.  It had an exhibit of works by a group of 26 plein-air painters.  The Grand Canyon Association sponsored an event in September in which these artists, who were juried in from a large pool of applicants, spent a week painting at various places around the park.  I was blown away: these painters were good.  Normally, in a show like this, I expect to see maybe two or three who were pretty good, and a lot of others who are so-so.  Not this group.  Every one was top-notch.  The exhibit is online - go take a look.
- Late October or early November is a good time to visit.  The weather was good and the park was not crowded.  Unlike summer, when it's hot and you can barely move for all the bodies, there's plenty of room to get around.  We heard lots of different languages: French, German, Japanese, Southern Redneck, Chinese, British English, Spanish, and many that I couldn't place.
- There are plenty of warnings about hiking below the rim.  Many warn you not to try to get to the river and back in one day.  Of course, some do: one woman blew by us on the hike back to the top of Kaibab Trail, and she was barely breaking a sweat.  My brother-in-law, though, did something even more remarkable a few years ago.  He ran from the campground to the rim, then down to the river, up to the top of the North Rim, back down to the river, and back up to the South Rim, and back to the campground.  Rim to rim to rim.  He does ultra-marathons, too.
- The staff everywhere were exceptionally good: very friendly, very informative, and it was clear that they really got a kick out of working in the Grand Canyon.  Didn't matter whether they were park employees or working for the contractors.
- We saw a bit of wildlife.  On the first night, we saw several female elk and one young solitary male.  Later, there was a group of five or six females munching on grass on the shoulder of the road.  The next day, we saw a group of deer.  We looked for the rare California condor, but didn't see any.

The Grand Canyon.  If you haven't been there, put it on your bucket list.  It's something every American should experience.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Artist Interview Questions

I like dealing with students.  Talking with kids (and since I'm an old fart, "kids" includes college students) always gives me a charge.  There are always some in the group that ask really good questions, and I like to get them to speak their minds.  I've learned a lot that way and hope I've given back as well.

So when a friend of mine, who's a high school teacher here, asked if I would be a mentor to one of her art students, of course I said yes.  Well, one student turned into two, which was even better.  These kids are high school seniors and need mentors for their senior projects.  We've been meeting once a week in my studio to talk about art, their projects, and what they want to do.  These discussions are a lot of fun and it's been great to see them grow in such a short time.

One of the things they had to do for their projects was to interview somebody working in their project's field.  So I tasked them with coming up with ten questions each.  I thought this would be a breeze.  I didn't expect something so deep.  Many of their questions would require a book to answer.  Here are some of the questions they came up with.

- What inspired you to become an artist?

- How did you get where you are today?

- What is the main challenge you face when beginning a painting?

- At what point in the process of the painting do you begin to feel like the painting is almost completed?

- How has painting influenced your life?

- What qualities do you look for in people you work with or other artists?

- How do you manage balancing work/life?

- What do you like most about your career?

Some of my answers were a bit long, as you might imagine.  How would you answer some of these questions?

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Exhibits, Education, and Research

I've got work in two shows that will open next week.  One of them is the curated Citizen - Soldier - Citizen exhibit at the Lubeznik Center for the Arts in Michigan City, Indiana.  This will be of artwork by military veterans, with a particular focus on the post-9/11 time period.  As stated on the website, "the exhibit will explore the ways in which soldiers returning to civilian life use the arts to heal and communicate their personal experience."  I'm familiar with the work of some of the artists participating: Mike Fay (creator of the Joe Bonham Project), Aaron Hughes, and Ehren Tool, and I'm honored to be in their company.  The exhibit will run from Nov 2 to Feb 9, which is a good long time.  Michigan City is about 60 miles east of Chicago on Lake Michigan.

Baghdad Guard House
Oil on canvas, 31"x21"

I'll have six artworks in the show: Baghdad Guard House (above), Tent City, two paintings from the "Portraits from Iraq" series, and two pastels from the "Faces of Afghanistan" series.

A Pachydermian Portrait of King George II,
Pope Karl, and Lord Cheney
Oil on canvas, 36"x42"

The other show is "The FL3TCH3R Exhibit", a juried show of "socially-engaged art" at Tipton Gallery in downtown Johnson City, Tennessee.  They will have my "Pachydermian Portrait" (above).  Frankly, I was a bit surprised, as this one is now dated and I submitted two others that I thought were more in line with the times.  But this is the one they chose, and it's a good painting, so I'm happy to have it included in the exhibit.  There will be an exhibition opening on Friday, Nov 1, 6-8 pm and Janis and I plan to be there.

In addition to getting my works ready for these exhibitions, I've been busy with a lot of other studio things.  One is that I'm working with two young women to help them with their senior projects.  This has been a lot of fun.  Both are very excited about their projects, which is infectious, and they're working hard to learn as much as they can.  They're moving quickly through the basics of painting and are about to get into some more complex technical aspects.  I really enjoy seeing the spark in somebody's eyes when they suddenly make a connection and learn something new.

I've mentioned before that I wanted to get started on a new series of paintings about survivors.  Well, it's now underway.  I've found two people who are willing to work with me.  One survived a horrific rape, and the other was a Marine in some brutal fights in Viet Nam.  I've spent a good bit of time talking with them to understand their stories.  I don't just want to paint a portrait and say "this guy survived Viet Nam", I want the painting to say something much more about him and his experiences.  This is a slow process.  But it's been engaging and humbling to learn the stories of these people.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Looking at Artists: Jack Vettriano

The Weight
Jack Vettriano
Oil on canvas, 22"x20", 2009

This image popped up on one of my artist groups on Facebook today.  I was impressed.  It has a heavy, weighty, lonely feel to it.  It feels much like a Hopper painting, only it's better painted.  (I like Hopper, but if you really look at his works, they're not all that well painted.  He's more interested in the overall form than in light, color, or mark-making.)  The shirt here, for example, is real, not the idea of a shirt, like Hopper would have done.

I thought that I had never heard of this guy before seeing this image.  Wrong - I have seen some of his work before.  A quick Google search of images brought up one in particular:

The Singing Butler
Jack Vettriano
28"x36", 1992

I really liked this one.  It's intriguing - who are these people?  why are they dressed up and dancing on the beach?  why are servants holding umbrellas?  Additionally, the colors are rich, even in the muted areas of the storm clouds.  It's a visual treat from start to finish.

After looking at lots of his works, though, I don't care for most of them.  Yes, they are well done.  But these are not real people he's portraying: they're idealized figures playing roles.  Most of the roles are of the Rich Young Gatsby type.  Young men and women in formal wear, or women in formal lingerie, filled with ennui, sipping champagne, posing in joyless lovemaking, showing no emotion at all.  This leaves me cold.  I have no sympathy for idle rich, or the idea of idle rich, particularly in a world where the vast majority of people live in poverty and do what they can to scrape by.  Further, I'm much more interested in real people, with real emotion showing on their faces.  You won't find it here.

I had an interesting discussion with one of my gallery owners once.  (Many times, actually, but one in particular applies here.)  She was selecting figure drawings to show in her gallery.  She avoided the ones that were clearly a specific individual, particularly those that showed the face.  The reason?  Many art buyers project themselves into the art.  If the work is clearly a specific individual, they have a harder time identifying with it.  If the figure is more general (for example, if the face was turned away, or the hairstyle was more generic), then they have an easier time projecting themselves into the image.  Maybe that's one of the reasons that Vettriano's figures are so non-specific.

That doesn't affect how I work, though.  I still do specific people.  Real people have much more depth, complexity, and interesting issues than any stereotype.  And so, while I like some of Jack Vettriano's works, and I really like how he can paint, I can't connect with most of his paintings.  

Monday, October 07, 2013

End of Summer

What a great weekend.  I spent most of the weekend doing what Congress does: nothing.  Except my "nothing" was a lot better than their "nothing".  I washed one of the cars, mowed a bit of yard, walked the dogs, and spent many hours just sitting outside and reading a book.  We had two beautiful days in the mid 80's.  Light breezes, leaves falling off the trees, the sound of lawnmowers in the distance, and general peace and quiet.  I thought about going to the studio, or doing this or that project, and decided against all of it.  It was time to just sit and enjoy the last warm weekend of summer.  And do nothing.  

It was wonderful.

Monday, September 30, 2013

"Returning to Base"

Returning to Base
Oil on canvas, 36"x40"

Here's my newest painting.  It's part of my ongoing "Meditation on War" series.  I wanted to address an experience that almost anybody who has been in a conflict zone has had: fighting a war in a place that can be spectacularly beautiful.  Now, most westerners who have been to southern Afghanistan wouldn't call it "spectacularly beautiful", but occasionally it is.  My little base in Maiwand district had a mountain just to the north.  Normally it was gray and dusty, like everything else, but sometimes when the late afternoon sunlight caught it just right, it glowed.  That's what I was trying to achieve here.

Since signing this painting, I've been busy getting six works ready for an exhibition in northern Indiana.  I mentioned it in one of my previous posts.  It's the Citizen - Soldier - Citizen exhibit at the Lubeznik Center for the Arts in Michigan City, Indiana.  The exhibit is of artworks by veterans.  I'm familiar with several of the other invited artists and they are all top-notch.  I'm really honored to be included in their company.  My works will include two of the pastels from "Faces of Afghanistan", two oils from the "Portraits from Iraq" series, and two landscapes from the "Meditation on War" series.  The exhibition will be open from Nov 2 to Feb 9, which is quite a long run.  The Lubeznik Center is in downtown Michigan City, about an hour east of Chicago, on the shores of Lake Michigan.

I've also continued to work on my studies of color.  Yesterday, I found a really good article on artists colors in a technical newsletter.  Golden Paints, which produces really top-quality acrylic paints, puts out the Just Paint newsletter periodically, and they always have lots of good information for painters of all types.  This particular issue (#26) has a lengthy article on different types of pigments, and how and why they differ from each other.  After experimenting with using Robert Liberace's approach to color (primarily with color choices I had not used before), the article was really useful.  Learning is like building a brick wall: everything new builds on what you learned before.  Things I read in the "Just Paint" article made sense because I'd been experimenting with related items just a few days earlier.  I love it when things like that come together!

Monday, September 23, 2013

Two Interesting Movies

I watched two really interesting films over the weekend that had some very insightful things to say.  Both of them had to do with the Middle East, the Muslim world, and the conflict between the Western and Islamic worlds.

The first of these was "The Gatekeepers".  This is a surprising documentary film from Israel that is structured around interviews with the six surviving heads of Shin Bet, the Israeli internal security service.  Frankly, I was amazed that these men agreed to do the interviews in the first place, given the secretive, dangerous, and controversial nature of their work.  I was even more surprised by some of the things they had to say.

"The Gatekeepers" provides insight into Shin Bet's activities ever since the 6-day war in 1967.  The men discuss things that they were involved with first-hand, such as the first and second intifada, the growth of Jewish settlements in occupied territories, targeted assassination, the various peace processes, and more.  Some of their comments were hard-line, as you might expect.  Other comments were not.  They showed a respect and understanding of their Palestinian opponents that was not what I would have thought to hear.  In retrospect, maybe it shouldn't have been a surprise: these men needed to deeply understand the Palestinian (and also the later Jewish underground) movements in order to effectively counter them.  They also made clear that they thought Israeli leadership - from the Prime Minister and President to the Knesset - were on the wrong track and had squandered many opportunities for improved relations with the Palestinians, if not outright resolution of the issues.

The Israel-Palestinian issue is going to remain a flashpoint for Middle Eastern politics and policies for the foreseeable future.  This film provides some insight and understanding that will help shape your views, regardless of where you currently stand.

The second film was "The Reluctant Fundamentalist".  Based on a novel of the same name, it is a story about the evolution of a bright young Pakistani man from a poor-but-privileged family in Lahore, to a rising star in a high-end Wall Street investment firm, to his experiences in America after 9/11, to his abandonment of Western life and return to Lahore and new life as a college professor.  It is a tale that gradually unfolds as he is talking with an American journalist in tea bar.  And it is full of surprises: as the protagonist notes early, "nothing is as it seems".

The acting was superb.  Riz Ahmed played the leading role as the young Pakistani, Liev Shrieber the role of the journalist, and Kate Hudson as the Pakistani man's American girlfriend.  They all brought their A-game to roles that were powerful, layered, and nuanced.  The story was a thriller with something important to say, which is something that doesn't happen very often.

Two films in one weekend.  That never happens for me as I'm not much of a movie watcher.  But these were exceptional and I highly recommend them.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

More Experiments with Color

Oil on panel, 12"x16"

I've continued to study Robert Liberace's approach to color.  I went back through his DVD and my notes to try to understand, in a systematic way, what he was doing and why it worked.  That's the way my brain works: it has to be logical and systematic, rather than intuitive, before I understand it.  Once I understand it, it can then be intuitive.

What I came up with, in a nutshell, is that the basic skin tones in the lighted area were warm colors, slightly neutralized so they're not too intense.  As the planes of the face turn away, they shift to cooler colors.  The intermediate shadow (the dark line between the lighted and shadowed areas) is definitely cool.  Robert uses green or greenish blue and I've seen other artists use something comparable.  The shadowed areas are basically green.  Then there are the reflected lights.  These are in the shadows but are light reflected from something nearby.  They contain the color of whatever reflected them.  A purple shirt, for example (as in Robert's DVD) reflects purple light.  Skin tones generally reflect red or orange.  Highlights are basically white with a touch of whatever the color of the light source is.

At last night's life drawing/painting session, I had a chance to put those theories to work.  I put aside my normal selection of colors and went with a much more varied one with purples, magentas, stronger yellows, and greenish-blues.  I started with umber to sketch the figure and put in the shadowed areas.  Then it was on to the brighter and more varied palette.  The result is Bobbi, above.  I'm quite happy with the way it turned out.  The figure feels full and rounded, the colors are brighter yet not overpowering, and the variety in colors is interesting in itself.

I was also more careful in my brushwork.  I put down some pretty heavy strokes in places so that the strokes would help define the form.  Sometimes they were blended into surrounding areas, sometimes not.  I made a conscious effort to hold the brush toward the back, rather than closer to the ferrule, as it keeps me from getting too tight, and also focused on using a lighter touch, trying to "dance" my brush across the canvas.

One final change was to put my palette between myself and the easel.  My normal stance has been to have the easel in the center, with a small table on the left holding paper towels and other random supplies, and my taboret (which is really a Sears rolling tool chest with a glass top) on the right.  But this had a couple of consequences.  One, it allowed me to stand too close to the painting.  I studied that yesterday and found that I stood maybe 12" from the canvas, and sometimes even closer.  By standing further back, I could get a better idea of the painting as a whole.  Two, it put the color mixing surface far away from the painting.  I had a triangle that my eyes would bounce around: subject in the middle, palette down and to the right, and painting up and to the left.  By putting the palette in front of the painting, this triangle is much smaller.  And it prevents me from standing too close.  Last night's arrangement was a bit of a jerry-rig to test the idea and it worked, so now I'm looking for a more permanent solution.

So it's experimentation time.  I'm having fun and learning a lot.  More experiments to follow.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Working on my Color Sense

White Tutu
Oil on linen panel, 12"x9"

We did something a bit different at last week's life drawing session.  We had Whitney, one of my favorite models, sit for a single pose for the whole 2-hour session.  This was the result.  I think it turned out fairly okay.  One of the fun (and frustrating) things I did was to experiment with my use of color.

A while back, I bought a DVD demonstration of an alla prima portrait done by Robert Liberace.  I've been going through it, slowly, and learning quite a bit.  One of the things that I'm wrestling with right now is his use of color.  To say that it's far beyond mine is an understatement ... by comparison, he's building the Brooklyn Bridge while I'm playing with tinker toys.  Still, I can learn enough to make better things with my tinker toys.

Some background.  For many years, I stayed away from color.  I could never understand how you could mix this blue and that yellow and get a bright green, or a slightly different blue or yellow and get a very muted green.  It was just PFM (pure frickin' magic) to me.  Then, while I was taking night classes at Maryland Institute College of Art, I read "Blue and Yellow Don't Make Green", by Michael Wilcox.  It was a revelation.  For the first time, I understood why painter's colors act the way they do.  I could finally choose my colors deliberately in order to get strong or muted effects.  It was great.  I highly recommend the book.  Ever since, I've had a pretty standard palette: three blues, two reds, two yellows, three earth tones, and white.  (Okay, for you painters: ultramarine blue, cobalt blue, cerulean blue, cadmium red light, alizarin crimson permanent, cadmium yellow light, lemon yellow, yellow ochre, burnt sienna, and burnt umber).  It's a pretty versatile, one-size-fits-all selection.

Except it doesn't quite fit all.  There are times when I've needed stronger tints, or don't want to keep mixing up a particular color, or just need some more variety, so I've gradually built up a secondary selection of colors over the years.  They've helped on the occasional painting, but they've never had a starring role on my palette.

But while watching Liberace, I saw that he uses lots of colors that I've never (or rarely) touched: magentas, violets, greens, rose, and purples.  He uses them instinctively, mixing in a magenta for a cooler red, or violet for a warmer blue.  Drives me nuts.  I don't see the subtle color shifts on the model, but on the painting, it makes perfect sense.  At least, it does after the fact.  No way would I have seen that particular combination coming.

I know that my color perception is deficient.  Back when I was taking my physical in order to go into the Navy, they gave me the PIP color tests - you know, the ones where they show you a circle made up of all these colored dots, and you're supposed to see the number.  Except I never did.  I still can't.  I found a short version online tonight and proved once again that I just don't see the numbers.  The funny thing is, I can see all the different colors and could probably mix up some paint to match any one of them, but I can't see the overall number pattern to save my soul.

Nothing like a color-blind painter, huh?

So I'm probably starting from behind the 8-ball.  Oh, well, that's life.  That doesn't mean that I don't see color - I see lots of color, and the more I paint, the more colors I'm aware of.  And I don't get a whole lot of criticism about my color choices, so they must not be too far off the mark.

I decided to look at how some other painters use color.  Lucian Freud, one of the greatest recent figurative painters, used a very limited palette - apparently earth tones (yellow ochre, raw and burnt sienna) plus a tiny bit of ultramarine blue and a lot of Cremnitz white.  Another of my favorites, Peter Howson, had a palette that was all over the place but consistent within each painting.  By that, I mean that the paint scheme in one work (as well as how the paint was applied) would be completely different in another.  However, his color use in general was much broader than Freud's but still not as far out as Liberace's.  I recently got a great book on El Greco, but he was on a different planet with his colors.  And subject matter.  And pretty much everything else.

So.  All that being said, I've got a lot to learn to take my use of color to the next level.  And despite my apparent "color deficiency" according to the eye tests, I think I have the capability to do a lot better.  So I'm going to continue to work on it.  This sounds like something I'll be working on for the rest of my life.

Sounds like the life of an artist.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

One Show Up, Another Coming Up

The painting that I discussed in my last blog post is now finished and on exhibit at the Asheville Area Arts Council.  It wasn't quite down to the wire, but kinda close - I signed it about 24 hours it was hung.

Oil on canvas, 40"x50"

It was quite a lot of fun to do this painting.  I built it using my old picture-development techniques.  I thought about what I'd want to communicate, I searched through images looking for ideas, did some sketching, and then cut out, recombined, altered, added, deleted, and changed things until I had something to work with.  Then I transferred the rough outline to canvas and started painting.  You can see some of the process in a series of photos on my website at

You don't see the whole story there, though, particularly what went into the overall concept.  I started with the idea of painting something that reflected my experiences in Afghanistan.  For some reason, I connected with the image of the guy in green in this painting.  He had been at an evening meeting we had with our district governor.  I never saw him before or after.  He seemed to be pretty sharp, paid close attention to what was being said, had a good sense of humor, but never said a word.  I knew then that I wanted to draw him, but that wasn't in the cards that night.  Fortunately, we had somebody with us who took a whole lot of photographs, so I had about two dozen to work with.

But a single guy didn't tell much of a story.  I added in the elder, who is based on one that we worked closely with, a really neat guy who was a mujahedeen leader against the Russians many years ago.  But two guys wasn't enough, either.  Since I had an elder and an adult, I tried adding a young man, somebody whose age made him susceptible to Taliban recruitment.  I worked on their expressions and finally settled on having the elder be the one to be actively engaged, the adult to be open but a bit skeptical, and the youth to be potentially hostile.  That pretty much mirrored my experiences.  To further confuse things, I thought that the Afghans should be offering hospitality (symbolized by the tea and plate of nuts), but also show a potential threat symbolized by the AK47 leaning against the wall.

Next was a setting.  I tried it outside in a courtyard, surrounded by villagers, but that was just too busy, so I moved it indoors.  Initially, the door was closed, but then I thought that it would be good to open the door and establish a connection with the local environment.  That lasted a while until I realized that the open door pulled the viewer's attention away from the Afghans, and it also messed with the lighting.  So I closed it again.  That was the last "creative" decision in the painting.  Everything after that was in trying to execute the painting to the best of my ability.

I learned a lot out of this exercise.  Probably the most important thing is that I need to go a lot further with the drawing stage and work out a lot of issues long before a brush goes on canvas.  The question of whether the door should be open or closed, for example, should have been determined that way.  There were a lot of questions about lighting, colors, and values that I was wrestling with unnecessarily in the later stages.  So I need to stay with the drawing much longer.

It also seems to me that the painting is a bit stiff.  I over-painted too many areas with too great a level of detail.  I kept thinking of how somebody like Sargent would indicate a hand, which is with amazingly few strokes of the brush, or how he'd depict the plate or glasses.  I spent way too much time and paint on mine; his would have been done with a few flicks and looked much better.  So I need to work on that.

But the painting is done and in an exhibit.  We had a good turnout for the opening on Friday night.  I got to see a lot of old friends that I hadn't seen in a long time (years, in some cases).  Two of the other artists sold their work, which is always cool.  I had several good discussions about mine.  In this picture, mine is the one that's catching the full blast of sunlight on the left wall.

But the title of this post alludes to another show coming up.  That's true: I've been invited to participate in an exhibition of veterans' artworks in November.  The show is being curated by somebody out of Washington and will actually be shown in Michigan City, Indiana, which is on the coast of Lake Michigan, a bit east of Chicago.  The actual works that will go are still to be determined.  I'll keep you posted.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Preps for an Upcoming Exhibition

I've been asked to be a part of an exhibition opening next week in Asheville.  The show is titled "Thought-Provoking Art by Six UNCA Alumni".  When Robert Tynes, the curator, asked me to be in it, I had nothing on hand that hadn't already been exhibited in town.  So I said, "Sure, I'll participate!"  This was a way to get my ass in gear and paint something.

But the pressure is on.  Not only does it have to be exhibition-ready, but it has to be thought-provoking as well.  That's a pretty high bar in my book.  So what to do?  I thought of maybe doing something about the current disaster of North Carolina's idiot governor and state legislature, but I really don't want to go back to satirical political paintings again.  Thinking of politics just makes my blood boil.  I then thought about doing the first of my intended new series on "Survivors".  The problem is that I don't yet have a survivor to work with, and I'm not about to just make stuff up.  Eventually, I decided to do a painting based on my experiences in Afghanistan.  I went back through my photos, thought about how they might be used, came up with some ideas, and finally whittled them down to two.  Of those, one is now underway.

The painting is tentatively titled "Negotiation".  Three Afghan men are sitting cross-legged on the ground, looking directly at the viewer.  One is a white-bearded elder who is carrying on the conversation, one is an adult, and one is maybe a teenager.  An AK-47 leans against the wall behind them, while a plate of treats and cups of tea sit between the viewer and the Afghans.  I'm trying to make the setting ambiguous: are they a threat? friendly? what's the viewer's role? what might happen?  In other words, it's typical of most any negotiation with Afghans, particularly villagers.

I'm posting photos of the development of the new painting on my website in the "Development of a Painting" (duhh) section.  Normally, I'd do this after the painting is done just to make sure (a) the finished work is something worth looking at and (b) I can make it look like I knew what I was doing all along.  This time, though, all that's out the window.  I don't know what it'll be like, whether it'll be worth a look, and it's showing how everything keeps changing.  So in addition to the pressure to make a "thought-provoking work", I'm upping the pressure on myself, showing you the ugly side of the sausage-making process.

One last note.  I mentioned photos.  I much prefer to work from life, but that's impossible in this case, so I have to use what's available.  This painting is not a copy of one photo, it's being put together from parts of many.  At least 12 photos have contributed something so far: an expression here, the position of a hand there, the shape of an AK-47 from two others.  The overall idea and composition, though, is straight out of my head.  There is no way I could have taken a photo like this.

So go take a look and let me know what you think.  I can still change it.  Next week at this time, though, it'll be too late!

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

End of a Line

I spent last week up at Muscatatuck, training another group of State Department and USAID folks who are heading to Afghanistan.  My luck held out: once again I had a team of really sharp people.  They made my job easy.  I could just suggest a few things, make a couple of recommendations, and ask that they consider this or that aspect, and they would take it and run with it.  If anything, they made things a bit harder on themselves because they over-prepared themselves for the different events.  They did their research and knew what was going on every time.  In some cases, they had actually worked relevant real-life situations and knew much more about what would have been going on in reality than we presented in the training scenario.  So I learned from them as well.  And they definitely came a long way last week.  At first, they were a group of students sitting around a table.  By Friday, they were a tight-knit team, able to divide responsibilities, work with each other, handle anything we threw at them, and generally kick butt.  And it is so cool to see that happen.  So I'm wishing all the best to Mark, Amanda, Bernie, Bill, and Chris as they head downrange.  Good luck and stay safe!

There was a sadder note to this week, though.  This was the last of these classes for the State Department.  The drawdown that has been accelerating over the last few months means that there won't be many State Department people going out to the field in Afghanistan anymore, and certainly not enough to justify continuing this course.  So it has now ended.  That's life, of course, but you hate to see a good thing go away.

I have to say that this training program has been one of the highlights of my professional life.  Every once in a while, you get a perfect storm of an important mission, one that's fun and worthwhile in itself, and also get to work with a great group of teammates.  We had that at Muscatatuck.  The mission was critically important to those who were going to Afghanistan.  It was so much fun to do.  And my fellow trainers are a great group of people: dedicated, committed, experienced, sharp, witty, creative, innovative, and always put the mission first.  We worked like hell to make the training scenarios the best experience for the students that they could possibly be.  And we had a helluva lot of fun doing it.  I'm going to miss working with them.

But there's always the chance that one day the phone will ring and somebody will say, "Hey, we're getting the band back together.  We're on a mission from God and we need you at Muscatatuck."  I'll be there in a heartbeat.

Sunday, August 04, 2013

New Painting

The Figure Drawing Session
Oil on canvas, 22"x24" 

I finished this painting today.  This was a fun one to do.  It started during a figure drawing session, with what was initially just an oil sketch, but things were clicking with it.  So I continued to work on it, refining, changing, adding, and subtracting.  Finally it's done.

Here's what it looked like earlier.  During the initial session, I worked on the figure and roughly sketched in the couch.  The next day, rather than wipe everything out, I laid in the initial red of the couch and added the easel and light.  At this point I knew where it was going.  The next steps were to bring some more depth to the couch and figure, and to revise the easel since the angles were all wrong.  It took two tries to get the position of the easel right.  Then I needed to add some more things that said "artist studio", so I added the rug, the jar of paint brushes, and the drawings on the floor and wall.   The lighting also needed to be adjusted so that it was clearly a spotlight on the figure.  Finally, I went around the picture to bring everything up to snuff: refine the figure and couch (again), rework the easel and light, and minor touchups all over.

This is the first real painting I've done in over two years and it feels good!

Saturday, August 03, 2013

Studio Work

We had a life drawing session in the studio this past week.  This was the first evening session I've run in over two years.  And as it's still summer, I had a typical summer result: only one other artist showed up.  This didn't really matter to me, though, since I schedule these sessions for my own practice, and open them up to others because it's fun.

Claire was our model.  She's been working with my groups for maybe ten years now.  Claire is an artist, a performance artist, and a dancer, and she has a good feel for what makes an interesting pose.  This one, for example, brought out the muscles around her neck and collar bones.

Actually, it was a tough pose to hold.  To get the strain, she carried her weight on her arms and tilted her head back.  So she'd hold it for as long as she could (five to ten minutes), then relax for a few minutes, and go again.  She was a trooper.  We gave her an easy pose after this so she could recuperate.

Meanwhile, I'm about to wrap up the latest "model in the studio" painting.  Only need to do some work on one small area and then it'll be signed, photographed, posted here, and put up on the rack.  I've got some ideas for the next one.  We're going to have another life drawing session this Wednesday with a different model, and she might give me some more ideas.

I'm going to be part of a show at the Asheville Area Arts Council next month.  It's "Thought-Provoking Art by Six UNCA Alumni", curated by Robert Tynes.  Since almost all of my "thought-provoking" work has already been exhibited here in Asheville, I want to make something new.  I've tentatively decided on an Afghanistan-based image.  But I needed a canvas and didn't have one of the right size available.  So I stripped an old painting off its stretcher bars yesterday.  It was one of those paintings that was a little too good to throw away, but not good enough to be pulled out and shown anywhere, so it's been sitting on my storage rack for ten years.  (If you're an artist, you know that kind of artwork: you've probably got several of them on your storage rack, just like I do!)  Then I reworked the frame a bit because my standards for stretchers have gotten a lot more stringent since it was first made.  Now it has a tight canvas with three coats of gesso, and another will be laid on tomorrow.  Then I'll lay a tone on it and let it dry for a week or so while I'm off in Indiana.  When I come back, I'll have two weeks to get it done.  That's not a lot of time for me - some of mine can take months.  Deadlines are deadlines, though ...


Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Last Bele Chere

Can't believe it's been so long since my last post.  I've been delinquent!  Seriously, though, there hasn't been that much new that bears wide dissemination.  There are a few highlights, though.

Right after my last post, I went up to Indiana to do another training session at Muscatatuck Urban Training Center.  This time, I was the mentor to a group of three guys heading to Afghanistan under the US Embassy.  They were the best team I've had so far.  They were motivated, forward-looking, and hard-working.  I really didn't have to do a whole lot to guide them along.  Mostly, I'd just suggest: "maybe you should consider this ...", or, "what do you think a Provincial Governor would want to learn from you from your first meeting?".  And they'd run with it.  In all the training scenarios, they were extremely well-prepared.  When we threw curve balls at them (like a simulated insurgent attack, or really dicy interviews), they kept their cool and responded like pros.  It was great to be a part of that.  I wish Eric, Steve, and Deon all success in their Afghanistan assignments.

Since returning home, I've been working in the studio a bit.  I've got a painting that's almost completed now and might only need one more session.  Then it'll be at the stage where I set it aside for a few days to look at it with fresh eyes and see how badly it's screwed up.  Once it's signed, I'll post it here.  This is the first real painting that I've done in two years, and I tell ya, it feels good to be working this way again!

On Friday, Janis and I went to Bele Chere.  For those of you who haven't been to Asheville, Bele Chere is a huge, 3-day outdoor festival held downtown.  There are several stages with live bands, hundreds of street vendors (food, artists, and bric-a-brac), thousands of people, and potentially a great time.  It's the largest free street festival in the southeast.  But this is its last year: the Asheville city council has decided not to fund it next year.  Bele Chere started 35 years ago as a way to bring people back to the dilapidated downtown area.  Since then, the festival has grown from a one-day event to a 3-day monster, and downtown has changed from near-abandoned into a thriving, lively center.  But downtown merchants generally don't make any money from Bele Chere.  In fact, many close down, because the crowds generally stay on the street except when looking for rest rooms.  There have been grumblings for years about whether it's worth it, and this year the city's financial issues forced the decision.  Bele Chere may continue if somebody steps in to fund it (maybe the tourism businesses?), but chances of that are slim.  So this is probably Bele Chere's last hurrah.

So we went early Friday afternoon.  It was a good time: it wasn't too hot, it didn't rain, there weren't too many people out yet, and most everybody was in a good mood.

We had lunch at Farm Burger, which is a restaurant we'd been wanting to try anyway, and had some fabulous burgers and beer.

The Ultimate Air Dogs were doing their thing, chasing after their tennis balls and jumping into a big pool.  We're thinking of getting a small inflatable pool for the backyard and seeing if our two Shih Tzus would like it, too!

The only thing marring the festivities was a group of street "preachers" in Pritchard Park.  I put that into quotes because they weren't preaching love, they were screaming purely hateful anti-gay rants.  They were as bad as the Westboro Baptist Church morons.  Not only that, but they had their bullhorns turned up as high as they would go.  The poor vendors around them had to listen to this bullshit all day long.  Some of them fought back by setting up speakers and amps and playing songs like "I'm Sexy And I Know It" as loud as they could.  There have been street preachers at Bele Chere every year, but this was the worst lot I'd ever seen.  As to the noise, I asked a policeman if they couldn't get them to turn down the volume, and he said that they could not.  Bummer.

On the positive side, I ran across two really good artists.  One of them is Shelagh Forrest, a Florida-based photographer, whose photo business is Sacred Spirit Photography.  I found her images of the Buddhist way of life in northern India and Bhutan to be stunningly beautiful, with a message of serenity, calmness, and dignity.  Unlike the rest of the artworks at Bele Chere, her work has something important to say, and she says it very well.  The other artist is Brian Vasilik.  He's a caricature artist.  Unlike most street caricaturists that I've seen, Brian understands facial anatomy and really looks at his subjects.  I watched him draw a young girl and he skillfully captured the nuances of her face as well as her spirit.  He's easily one of the best I've seen and it was fun to watch him work.

So goodbye, Bele Chere.  We had a good time, but I think Asheville will be able to get along without it next year.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

A Letter to My State Representative, Michele Presnell (R)

I've tried over the past several months to keep this blog focused on art and life and away from politics.  The North Carolina legislature, though, has turned into a national embarrassment.  The most recent elections swept a large Republican majority into power, giving them the House, the Senate, and the Governorship.  In the past few months, they've been like going berserk, rolling back decades of progress.  Some examples:
- Kicked 70,000 people off the unemployment rolls on July 1st, and cut benefits from a max of $535/week to $350, and cut the max time from 26 weeks to 20.  Governor McCrory says he cares for the unemployed.  Yeah, taking away their lifeline is a sure bet to help them out.
- The "Gun Rights Amendment" would allow restrictions on carrying concealed weapons in only seven specific circumstances and would prohibit the state from conducting any general confiscation of weapons.  The goal?  "Fight federal tyranny."
- The "Monsanto Protection Act" took away the authority of local agricultural boards to control what gets planted in its local area.  This legislation came from Monsanto and other Big Ag companies who want to force farmers to buy their seeds.
- Forced all welfare recipients to undergo a background check and a drug test, for which they would have to pay.  The stated goal was to reduce welfare fraud and save the state's money, but a similar action in Florida wound up costing the state a lot more than it saved.
- Tried to seize control and ownership of Asheville's water system from the city and turn it over to a separate non-city board without any compensation to the city.  Asheville has filed suit to keep this $1B asset.
- Repealed the ban on gifts from lobbyists to lawmakers.
- Slashed the budgets for public schools, and shifted a large chunk of the remaining funds to charter schools.  At the same time, they eliminated the requirements for charter schools to run criminal background checks and have licensed teachers.  Yes, that's just what we need: unlicensed felons teaching our kids all day long.
- Slashed the budget for higher education.
- Taxed parents if their college kids voted anywhere other than their home, and requiring people to vote where car is registered.  The goal?  Keep them lib'ral college kids from voting in large blocs in places like Chapel Hill.  Or, better, from voting at all.
- Tried to allow a state religion and declare that the state was exempt from the US Constitution and court rulings.  Seriously.
- Tried to make it a felony for a woman to expose her nipple in public.
- Is currently debating competing budget plans that slash taxes for the wealthy and raise them for middle and lower income groups.

The most recent embarrassment (as of this afternoon, anyway; they may have done something else since then) is an effort to essentially eliminate abortion providers in the state.  They slipped some anti-abortion amendments into, of all things, an "anti-Sharia" bill.  Really: they drafted a bill to make it illegal for foreign laws to apply in North Carolina, a really pointless bill if I ever heard of one.  So they slipped these anti-abortion amendments into the law literally late at night, at the last minute, without telling anybody (or at least, anybody that might have a different idea).  The resulting hullabaloo made NC's legislature (again) a national embarrassment.  Even Governor McCrory had to issue a weasel-worded threat to veto the legislation.  Within a few hours, a Senate committee had re-worded the anti-abortion amendments and slipped them into a bill on motorcycle safety.  Again: last minute, no warning, didn't tell anybody, not even the Democratic members of the same committee.  I mean, it worked so well for them before, didn't it?  (NO.)

I've been regularly writing my state Representative and Senator (both Republicans, of course) to tell them what I think.  Not that it makes one iota of difference.  So now that this ridiculous motorcycle safety/ant-abortion bill is moving to the House, I wrote my Representative (Michele Presnell).  Here's the text:

I learned that a House committee is debating SB353, a motorcycle safety bill, that is now loaded with restrictions on women's access to abortion.  The NC legislature is a national embarrassment for its efforts to sneak abortion restrictions into completely unrelated bills, including an anti-Sharia law (which is an unnecessary embarrassment all its own - foreign laws do not apply here) and now a motorcycle safety law.  Worse, the Republican-dominated legislature is slipping these amendments into legislation without any public notice, or even notice to Democratic representatives ON THE COMMITTEE DEBATING THE BILL.  

Please: the Legislature should behave like adults, not first-graders.  If you want to debate abortion restrictions, draft a law and debate it on its merits.  Republicans have certainly proven in this session that they can write a gajillion laws in no time at all.  Quit sneaking anti-abortion restrictions into completely unrelated legislation.  All you're doing is embarrassing yourselves once people find out what happened.  There is a growing sense that all of you need to be thrown out at the earliest opportunity simply because you have no idea how to legitimately run a legislature.

Meanwhile, VOTE NO on this ridiculous bill.

The Republicans in our legislature have definitely succeeded on one thing.  They are turning me from a guy on the political sidelines (I bitch and moan and vote) to a Democratic activist.  These idiots in Raleigh are rolling back decades of slow, painful progress.  They must go.

Monday, July 01, 2013

Gettysburg Anniversary

Today is the 150th anniversary of the start of the Battle of Gettysburg.  A couple of years ago, while researching my family history, I discovered that one of my ancestors was wounded and captured there.  The fact that he survived at all is something of a miracle.

Lorenzo Whitaker was 19 when he joined Company K of the 2nd Mississippi Infantry Regiment in Iuka on Saturday, March 1, 1862.  Company K was known as the "Iuka Rifles" from Tishomingo County.  His first action was the Battle of Seven Pines in Virginia on May 31- June 1.  It was quickly followed by the battle at Gaines Mill, then at Second Manassas in August, where they routed Union forces.  Two weeks later, they routed three more Union units (4th and 8th Pennsylvania and 6th Wisconsin) at the Cornfield at Antietam, while losing almost half their men killed or wounded.  The 2nd Mississippi then retired to Goldsborough, North Carolina for the winter to recuperate and reorganize.

In the spring of 1863, Lorenzo and the unit laid seige to Suffolk, Virginia.  In June, they moved north as part of General Lee's plan to take the fight to the Union.  The 2nd Mississippi was in the vanguard of Confederate forces moving southeast along Chambersburg Pike towards Gettysburg when the fighting started on July 1.  The 2nd Mississippi hit BG Cutler's brigade of the Army of the Potomac head-on.  Cutler's unit lost about 500 men and were driven back.  Confederate troops captured one gun and limber and routed the Federal troops (the 147th New York and the 2nd Maine Artillery) from the field.  The Confederates chased the Union forces toward Seminary Ridge, but the chase became disorganized.  Much of the unit was trapped in the Railroad Cut by the sudden arrival of Union reinforcements.  This cut, which was too deep to allow the Mississippians to shoot effectively, became a killing ground.  Some escaped, but many more were killed, wounded, and captured, and their battle flag was lost.  Lorenzo Whitaker was probably one of the wounded and captured.  The unit rested on July 2nd.  On July 3rd, the remnants of the regiment participated in Pickett's Charge, where they were disciplined and effective, but decimated nonetheless.  Total casualties from Gettysburg are difficult to pin down.  It is estimated that there were just under 500 men at the start of the battle, but suffered approximately 380-390 killed, wounded, captured, or missing (about 80% of its complement).

This is the Railroad Cut today.  At the time of the battle, of course, there was no bridge, and the railroad had not yet been laid.  The 2nd Mississippi was trapped by Union forces on the ridge at left and the sudden arrival of reinforcements coming this way along the railroad bed.  The southern soldiers had nowhere to go.  Some at the far end of the cut got away, but most of the unit was killed or captured.

Lorenzo was sent to Fort Delaware, a prison camp.  Fort Delaware was a horrible place, on par with any concentration camp in any war.  It was a Union fort on Pea Patch Island, in the middle of the upper reaches of Delaware Bay, off Delaware City.  At one time, it held up to 13,000 prisoners, many from Gettysburg.  Water was putrified and food scarce.  Rats were a delicacy.  Diseases such as scurvy, smallpox, malnutrition, measles, dysentery, and diarrhea were widespread.  All had lice.  One prisoner wrote that he shrank from 140 pounds to 80 pounds during his time there.  Approximately 2700 Confederate prisoners died during captivity; 2436 are buried there.

Lorenzo survived Fort Delaware, though, and on June 11, 1865, was released, two months after Lee's surrender.  He returned home to Mississippi and became a farmer.  He married Jennie Billings on May 30, 1866, and raised six children.  He apparently died sometime around 1896 at about 55 years of age.

I wish I knew more about Lorenzo.  I wish there was a photograph of him, along with Jennie and the kids.  I'd like to know more about this man than what can be gleaned from a few recorded census and muster records and history books.  He must have been tough as nails, but he must have retained his humanity as well.  His daughter, my great-grandmother, was a cheerful and gentle woman who nonetheless had her own iron will: she defied her parents and eloped with her beau at age 21.

So as we commemorate Gettysburg over the next couple of days, and think about its impact on our country, I'm going to think instead about it's impact on me, personally.  Had anything been different there, had a bullet gone slightly right or left, or an order been given a second earlier or later, I might not be here.  The individual strength of one man, though, pulled him through multiple major battles, two years in a prison camp, and into a farmer's life in the reconstruction South, where he successfully raised a family, one of whom eventually led to me.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Studio Developments

Things are still in the "spring training" mode in the studio.  I've been doing some painting, trying to work the rust out and re-learn all the painting motor skills and instincts.  Most of the paintings have been done from old sketches - some from Afghanistan, some from old life drawing sessions.  Most get wiped out as soon as they're done.  Here's one exception:

You may recognize this from one of the pastels that I did in Maiwand.  I thought it turned out a bit better than most of the others and gave it to an Afghan friend last week.  But this was the exception.  All the others wound up on paper towels in the trash can, where they belonged.

My painting skills are improving, though.  I can see that.  Now I'm getting antsy to start on real paintings.  For the moment, I'm resisting - I'm still in "spring training", and well aware that I'm very impatient, so there are still a few more training paintings to do and throw away.  

Meanwhile, my drawing skills are doing okay.  My last post mentioned that I'd stuck a group of figure drawings up on my studio wall.  Here's what they look like:

Some of these drawings were done as far back as 2000, and two were done earlier this month.  What's interesting to me is that you can't really tell which is which.  In other words, my style of drawing has been pretty constant over at least 13 years, even during a time when I was studying art full-time at UNC Asheville.  Guess I'm an old fart, stuck in my ways ... but I don't consider it a problem.

I had an idea yesterday about re-photographing a lot of my figure drawings and putting them together into a book.  I am going to do the same with the "Faces of Afghanistan" drawings.  Both would be for sale on my website, in the studio, and at any exhibitions there might be in the future.  The price point would be well below the price for a single original drawing.  What do you think?

I went to another life drawing session at Frank Lombardo's studio yesterday.  The model was a young woman with beautiful green eyes and a great head of hair.  Here's one of the drawings:

Charcoal on toned paper, 15"x11"

Today, though, is going to be an admin day.  I've got some consulting business to take care of and then work on some promotional efforts.  I'm trying to get the "Faces of Afghanistan" artworks out on gallery walls somewhere.  I've let that slide for too many months and it's time to get moving.