Friday, December 22, 2017

My Dog and Vestibular Disease

One of my dogs got hit with vestibular disease last week.  "Got hit" is the right term. She's recovering now, but this has been a very hard week on all of us.

Indy is a 14 1/2 year old Shih Tzu.  She has always been a bit of a tomboy, meaning she has always been active and ready to run and play.  On Tuesday evening last week, she was her normal self, chasing the laser light around the house at full speed, barking, pouncing, and having a great time.  When we went to bed around 11:30 she settled in to her bed.  About 1 am, though, I woke to a strange scrabbling noise.  Indy was flopping around on the floor next to her bed and then threw up.  I picked her up but she couldn't stand, couldn't control her movements, and looked like she was having a seizure.  I did what any responsible dad would do: I panicked.  Actually, I got dressed as fast as possible, wrapped her in a blanket, loaded her into the car, and headed to REACH, the emergency veterinarian for the Asheville area.

The staff at REACH was great, as they always have been for us in the past.  The doctor evaluated Indy with vestibular disease.  This is a sometimes-nasty condition that is not uncommon in older dogs.  It is not that well understood, but appears to be a condition in the inner ear or possibly the part of the brain that deals with balance.  The dogs basically suffer from vertigo.  In most dogs, they will have difficulty walking, have a head tilt, or suffer from nausea.  In Indy's case, it was really severe.  She would lie on her side, legs stiffly out, a panicked look in her eyes, and sometimes would try to roll over.  It appeared that anything to her left was like falling off the cliff, and "up" was somewhere over her right shoulder, no matter where her shoulder happened to be.  The doc gave her some medicine to treat the nausea and told me that the only thing to fix the vertigo was time.  Most dogs would see improvement in a couple of days, with recovery in about two weeks.  So back home we went.

As it turned out, Indy's recovery was much slower, probably due to the severity of the attack.  She showed almost no sign of improvement on Wednesday.  On Thursday, she was calmer, but still clearly suffering from vertigo and unable to even sit up.  On Friday, we took her to her regular vet, who had already read the report from REACH and confirmed the diagnosis of vestibular disease.  He was concerned about her lack of progress, though, and said we'd have to revisit Indy's situation in a few days.  If she wasn't improving by then, we should think about putting her down.  Worrisome, to say the least.

By this time, we were pretty exhausted from the 24/7 care.  She couldn't eat or drink normally, which meant we had to watch her closely and provide water and food when she was ready.  For water, we used a syringe to squirt it into her mouth while she lapped it up.  Our vet recommended baby food mixed with pumpkin from a can (just pumpkin, not pumpkin pie filler).  We used the beef baby food. The pumpkin provided Indy with fiber to help keep her system functioning.  She loved it.

Urinary events and bowel movements were very problematic since Indy couldn't stand and was extremely averse to soiling her bed or normal in-home environment.  We put puppy training pads on her bed, which required one of us (me) to sleep on the floor next to her bed so I could change the pad and clean her up when something happened.  Urinary events were generally accompanied by a good bit of wailing, not from pain but from distress.  Bowel movements were a different matter since she basically stopped them for a few days, which really worried us.

I mentioned 24/7 care.  To keep an eye on our patient, we made up a bed on the floor next to hers.  I've been sleeping there (correction: TRYING to sleep there) every night since this started.  Something happens every hour or two that requires us to do something: change pads/clean the dog after a urinary event, flip her over occasionally, give her water or food, console her when she whimpers, that sort of thing.  Janis and I have been tag-teaming: I take the nights, then she takes over early in the morning and I try to get a couple of hours of sleep in a real bed.  One or the other of us has been with Indy ever since this started.  It wears you out.

On Saturday evening, I had to take her back to REACH because she hadn't had a bowel movement in several days nor a urinary event in half a day.  She was miserable and we were worried that something more serious was going on internally.  We wound up seeing the same doc as the first time. After a thorough check, she reported that Indy's internals were functioning normally and that it was probably stress that kept things from coming out.  The doc was very concerned about Indy not being able to walk or even sit up, though.  She suggested giving Indy an acupuncture treatment to stimulate the muscles.  I thought, what the hell, sure, and so we did.

As it turned out, this was acupuncture augmented with electrical impulses.  Indy's reaction?  She went to sleep.  In the photo, I'm holding her head up and she's snoring.  The doc said we should see some improvement in 12-24 hours and sent us on our way again.

Sunday, though, was not a good day.  We saw no improvement at all.  In fact, by late in the day, I was starting to think about which day this week would be best for putting her down.

Monday, though, saw some changes.  Indy was able to sit up for the first time.  She did the normal dog head-shake, the kind where they're just getting the hair out of their eyes, which is not something you'd expect to see in a dog with vertigo.

Tuesday was better.  She sat up further, bracing herself on her front paws, although the rear legs were still immobile.

On Wednesday, Indy woke up with the attitude that she was sick and tired of lying around in her bed, and it was time to get up and go.  She had three self-initiated physical therapy sessions: one in the morning, one in the afternoon, and one in the evening.  Each session was longer than the last, and each was INTENSE.  This little girl worked her ass off.  And she continued into Thursday morning with a long session from 3-7 am.  Just wouldn't quit, even when I was trying to convince her to lie down and go to sleep, dammit.  The highlight, though, was that she was finally able to get her butt off the floor and actually stand up for a few seconds.  You have no idea how glad that sight made me!  You can see her determination in the photo:

Later on Thursday, she continued to make progress.  By the end of the day, she could actually walk about four feet or so.  It was a very crooked walk, but she was moving on her own.  She even got to her water bowl, where she drank, albeit with great difficulty.  Amazing stuff.

Now it's Friday morning and we have another milestone to report.  I took Indy and her sister Soozzee for their walk this morning.  No, we didn't make Indy walk - I put her into the doggie stroller and headed out.  A few minutes down the road, she started whining, so I put her on the grass, where she squatted and peed.  This was her first pee outside in over a week.  I put her back into the stroller and we went on a ways.  At a flat spot, I put her on the ground again and after stumbling around a bit, she actually had her first normal, outdoor poop since this all started.  Wow!  A normal poop and pee again!  Folks, we are movin' forward!

Speaking of pooping and peeing, until this morning, we have been using puppy training pads.  We're now changing over to doggie diapers.  She's mobile and we don't want to have to chase her around the house with the pads.  Actually, we're chasing her around the house anyway because she's like a toddler, bouncing off walls and furniture, and we are trying to prevent the hardest hits.  But after our experience this morning, the diapers are just a safety measure.  She may not need them very long.  We'll see.

If you're reading this because you're a friend of ours, it looks like Indy will be with us for a while longer.  Exactly how much movement she can regain still remains to be seen, but I am so encouraged by the unbelievable work that she has put into it.  I don't care if she's a bit wobbly for the rest of her life, at least she will be with us.

If you're reading this because you Google'd "vestibular disease" and landed here, it's probably because you have a dog or cat that's going through something similar.  It's a very scary time.  Vestibular disease hits hard and fast and the recovery process is all about time.  Somebody has to be with your pet 24/7 to provide them with water, food, change pads, and whatnot.  As they improve, your role changes from ICU nurse to physical therapist.  Fortunately for us, Indy is responding and recovering.  Most animals do; however, a few do not.  And sometimes what's initially diagnosed as vestibular disease can be something much more serious, like a brain tumor.  I hope that's not the case with you.  At any rate, this has been a very long post, and I hope it has provided some insight into how you might have to treat your dog or cat.

Meanwhile, I'm just happy that Indy is going to be with us for a while longer.

UPDATE - December 29

Unfortunately, things did not go well with our beautiful Indy.  Indy gradually was able to walk and even run, which gave us great hope.  However, she was able to do that by sheer force of will.  The vertigo never let up and, in fact, it gradually wore her down, both physically and in spirit.  After 15 days, she spent all her day lying on her side, occasionally struggling to do something, anything, but not having the strength to overcome the debilitating condition.  Our vet determined that it wasn't the milder form of vestibular disease, but almost certainly due to a tumor on the brain.  A fix is very delicate and iffy, with a long recovery.  So yesterday, rather than submit her to a long and painful process that had no guarantees of success, we took her in to the vet for the final time.  At 4 pm, she crossed over to the other side.

Good God, that hurts.

So if you're here because your dog may have vestibular disease, watch for the rate of improvement.  If Indy had the common kind, she would have improved significantly in the first 72 hours.  But she was one of the smaller percentage with more serious and permanent damage.  We lost our little girl.  I hope you don't lose yours.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Seeing Colors

I was recently listening to a podcast of a great interview.  The podcast is the Savvy Painter; the interviewer is Antrese Wood, and the interviewee was Frank Lombardo.  Frank is an outstanding artist who lives and works right here in my county (see his work on his web site), so it was cool to hear him on a national podcast.  Among the interesting things that came out in the interview is that he's somewhat colorblind.  Yes, you read that right: a fantastic artist is color-challenged.  That hits home with me because I am, too.  I'm what they call a "mild deutan", which is a type of red-green color blindness that makes it difficult to tell some colors apart.  This is particularly true when they're the same light/dark value.  Put a yellow and green, or blue and purple, of the same value next to each other, and my eyes won't see much (any) difference.  Change the value of one or the other slightly, though, and I see them clearly.  Not only that, but I can mix up paint to match the colors.

After hearing Frank talk about his color blindness (which is evidently much worse than mine), I've been thinking about how we see colors.  Frank noted that color vision comes from the cones in the eyes.  Most people have three sets, generally called the red, blue, and green cones.  A very few women have four sets: red, blue, green, and yellow.  Their color vision is really good.  But other animals have even more.  A mantis shrimp, for example, has 16 types of receptors and can see visible, UV, and polarized light (wow).

Having the physical ability to see colors, though, and actually seeing them, are two different things.  I've learned over the years that the more I paint, and have to see and match colors, the more colors I see.  Sometimes I'll see a range of colors in something that, years ago, I would've just passed by.  It's the same as any other physical ability: if you don't exercise it, it won't work for you.

So the other day, I was walking my dogs.  The sky was perfectly clear and the snow was on the ground reflecting the colors around it.

This is the scene that first caught my eye.  There was a brilliant blue sky, a seemingly equally brilliant blue reflection in the show, with bright highlights from the late afternoon sun.  But look at the colors a bit more closely.  Yes, the sky is brilliant, a cobalt blue higher up (maybe with a trace of red?), getting lighter and slightly more cerulean blue toward the treeline.  The reflection on the snow, though, is not as saturated as the sky.  It can't be: the sky is pure light, while the snow is a reflection, meaning that some light is lost in the process.  So the blue on the snow is a bit grayer and, to my (color-blind?) eyes, a touch redder, too.  And the highlights on the snow?  They're not white, they're actually very light yellow-orange, which is the color of the light coming directly from the sun. So if you want an extreme example of what can happen with a warm/cool color shift, here you are!

Once I saw that, I started looking around more to see what other colors jumped out at me.  Here's a shadow on the side of the hill:

I think you can see the orange light more clearly here.  Look at the shadow, though: how strong is that blue, and what color is it?  Okay, I'll help: here's a blown-up section of that shadow:

Pretty dark, darker than I would have thought.  And here's a clip of the sky that was directly above this blue shadow:

As you can see, the sky is a much clearer blue because it's pure light.  To paint the sky, I'd use cobalt blue.  To get the reflection, I'd use cobalt blue plus a warmer earth tone, maybe a touch of burnt umber or burnt Sienna.  

And then, finally, here is the bank above the shadow:

This was just beautiful to me: the yellow-orange light, the blue shadows, the bright blue sky, and I'm even seeing some reds along the top of the ridge line.

Cool stuff, isn't it?  The more you use your eyes, the more things you learn to see.  And the more I can see, the more pleasure I have in just looking at the world.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

New Wedding Painting

Steven and Marissa
Oil on canvas, 24"x30"
(Click on the image for a larger view)

I just finished a new wedding painting commission for a wonderful couple.  Steven and Marissa asked me to do a painting of the first dance at their reception.  I went to the hotel (quite fancy) in Charlotte last month, set up my easel a couple of hours in advance, and continued to paint throughout the event.  And it was quite the event!  Steven, Marissa, and all their friends and family came to party.  Everybody had a great time, even me.  I was bopping away at my easel while the dance floor was jammed.  Just about everybody came over to see what I was doing, many of them quite frequently, and it was fun talking with them.  Some of the people in the final painting are there specifically because they came over to chat!  Yes, it was a great time.

Painting at a wedding is kinda/sorta like being an outdoor landscape painter in the middle of a hurricane.  Everything is changing and moving at high speed.  People come and go.  The noise level picks up and quiets down.  One minute nobody is around you, the next there are 20 people looking over your shoulder and asking questions.  All of which, really, made it fun.

And doing a live painting at a wedding reception builds on things I've done previously.  I started surreptitiously sketching other people many decades ago (don't ask) and have continued to draw and paint people ever since.  I work as a courtroom artist for our local TV station on occasion.  In Afghanistan, I sketched the locals during our frequent meetings, and all those drawings wound up in the collection of the Smithsonian Museum of American History in Washington.  All of that was a great preparation for this line of work.

Some wedding artists give the couple the painting at the end of the event.  I can't, no way.  The first day just gets the basic idea down.  It takes a lot of work to go from the first very very rough painting to something that I'm ready to put my name on.  Over the past several weeks, I've continued to work on the painting, getting feedback from Steven and Marissa as well as my Primary Critic, my wife, who is NOT SHY about sharing her ideas.  That can sometimes be frustrating, but she's almost always right, or at least on the right track, so I value her opinion.  Finally, a few days ago, I got the thumbs-up from Janis and from Steven and Marissa.  Done!

So now I need to play catch-up on all the other artwork that's been waiting in the studio.  There are four or five pieces that are partially finished that each need another day or two.  I've had an idea in the back of my mind for a larger painting and even have the canvas stretched, toned, and ready to go, but haven't been able to get to it yet.  And I've been looking at two other artists whose work I want to study.  One is a new (to me) artist whose work is much more free and expressive than mine.  I want to study his work, reverse-engineer it to learn the process, and then see how much of that can be applied to mine. The other is an artist I've known of for some time.  I found a book of his in our local Barnes and Noble and want to go through some of the exercises and do some learning.  So: more to do than there is time to do it in.  Yep, I'm happy.

If you'd like to know more about my wedding paintings and how that process works, visit the website I built for it:  I think you'll enjoy it!

Monday, November 06, 2017

A Bit of Success

I had a bit of success this past week and wanted to share it here.  Two of my paintings were juried into the Grace Center's annual juried art exhibition.  They're very different paintings, although they are both figurative paintings about real people.  

Cinderella's Seamstress
Oil on canvas, 48"x48" 

Saddle Up
Oil on canvas, 50"x40"

I went to the opening reception on Saturday night and was blown away when both of them won awards.  Saddle Up got an Honorable Mention while Cinderella's Seamstress was awarded Best of Show!  Absolutely amazing.  There is a lot of really good work in the show, so I was happy just to be in it, but to have both pieces recognized like that is something out of this world.

I had a great time talking with some of the other artists as well as other art professionals.  One woman had a beautiful collage in the show that had so much to say in addition to being so wonderfully made.  We had a short conversation but I'm hoping to talk with her in more depth sometime soon as I'd love to have some insight into the way she puts her pieces together.  Something tells me that her basic process is not that different from mine, but the medium and end results are so very different.

The show will be up until the first week of January.  If you're in the Mills River area, I recommend stopping by to see it!

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Painting a Wedding Reception

This past Saturday night, I was the live painter at the wedding reception in Charlotte for two lovely people.  Yes, I painted.  Live.  At the reception.  And I have to say: it was a blast!

I've posted on here before about being a live event painter.  This time, I thought I'd share some thoughts about how I go about it and what the experience is like.  I was contacted a while back by the couple who had a general idea about what they wanted.  We talked on the phone about some of the different options, along with the pros and cons of each, and decided that we would focus on the couple's First Dance.  This is my favorite subject for an artwork as it allows for greater creativity in composition and subjects.  I coordinated with their wedding planner, the venue manager, and the photographer to ensure that we were all on the same sheet of music.  The venue manager had a few specific requirements that were quickly taken care of and we were ready to go.

On Thursday, I put my painting rig together and got it ready to load into the car.  There's quite a bit of stuff needed, and I've made up a checklist to make sure nothing gets left behind.  There's the easel, canvases (two: one with a cool tone and one with a warm tone), paints, brushes, palette, rags, medium, and solvent, of course.  I need an easel-mounted LED lamp to ensure there's enough light to paint by, which also requires an extension cord, which also requires gaffer's tape (not duct tape) to prevent tripping.  Then there's an industrial mat to protect the hotel's expensive carpet.  I also have my camera and ancient MacBook so I can photograph important things (like the first dance) and then work from the photos later.  Trash bags, baby wipes, brush soap, lots of business cards and flyers, a copy of the contract and other important details, scissors, and a few other odds and ends.  All of it needs a rolling toolchest (thanks, Lowe's) to haul it around.

On Saturday afternoon, I drove down to Charlotte.  I checked into my hotel, changed clothes, and headed out to the Marriott City Center.  I only went to one wrong floor before finding the right location, then quickly set up my stuff.  The Marriott staff was extremely helpful and went out of their way to make sure I had what I needed.  They'd never worked with a live wedding painter before, so my rig and I got a lot of attention.  The wedding planner, Lauren Kelley, owner of Kelley Event + Design, and her staff, had all the details well under control.  The DJ was Mike with Split Second Sound, and he turned out to be an outstanding MC and DJ - he had that place moving all night long.  And I enjoyed working with the photographers of Capture Me Candid - they were very creative and easy to work with. 

Once we were set, I started painting.  My goal was to have something on the canvas before the guests started coming into the room.  That meant I had to decide on the composition and get it and the newlyweds roughed in before they even arrived.  Not a problem, really: a few small sketches to try out some options and a workable composition presented itself.  And I was off and running.

To say that the guests were intrigued by the idea of a live artist is an understatement.  None had ever seen anything like it at a wedding, and only one had even heard of the idea.  People came by the easel continually all night long, asking questions and keeping an eye on how it developed.  I had a great time talking with all of them.  This was a great crowd, really enthusiastic, and with some sharp questions and observations.

The painting itself developed over about five hours into a very rough first draft.  I decided to put the couple over towards the right side with the crowd circling behind them and to the left.  Actually, the last time I was at a reception, everybody was sitting during the first dance, and I'd planned on something similar, but this crowd was on their feet, and that necessitated a few changes!  I also included the parents of the groom and the mother of the bride.  My goal for the first night was to establish the lights and darks, keep the brushwork lively, and capture the spirit of the evening.  Here's how the painting looked at the end of the night:

The painting is now back in the studio to be brought up to a much higher level of finish.  Today I worked on correcting the perspective (it was way off, but that's to be expected when you're winging it) and developing the walls and ceiling.  Then it's on to the figures: first the couple, then the parents (not to the same level of detail) and then the rest of the crowd.  I estimate it will be a 2-4 week process.

So stay tuned - I'll post the finished version here as well!

Thursday, October 19, 2017

A Workshop on Drawing Portraits

I ran another of my Portrait Drawing Workshops this past weekend.  I've done this one several times before and we've always had a good time.  This class was no exception.  It's a 2-day workshop that goes for about 4 hours in the afternoon.  We don't hire models as we already have enough in the room already.  I have a format that seems to work pretty well.  And I use an unexpected book as a primary reference.  Each of these statements needs a bit of explanation.

These workshops go for no more than four hours because I've found that my students tend to hit the wall at that point.  At three hours, they're still going strong; at four, their eyes start glassing over and the enthusiasm takes a marked downward turn.  So rather than flog a dead horse, I wrap things up while there's still life left in them.  A couple of weeks ago, Robert Hagan ran a workshop in my studio that went from 9-5 for three days with one hour off for lunch.  I saw that the students came close to the saturation mark about the time we broke for lunch.  The break restored our enthusiasm and we wrapped up in the afternoon before we ran out of steam altogether.  So four hours seems to be the maximum amount of time to keep people cooped up and focused on something before they need a break.

I run my workshops in the afternoon.  The reason is simple: I don't like to get up early in the morning!  I did that for many years and don't want to do it again if there's any way around it.  And since I'm the one setting the schedule for my own workshops, there's definitely a way around it.

My portrait workshops don't use hired models.  Instead, all of the students model for each other.  This exposes them to a wide variety of differences in features.  They all have different eyes, noses, mouths, chins, hair (including a lack of), head structures, proportions, and so on.  I shift them around so they don't draw the same individual twice in a row.  And they all get to experience being a model for a bunch of artists and having their features analyzed in a class discussion.  So far, everybody has had a good sense of humor about it. 

For the format of the workshop, I start with a discussion of the basic structure of the head.  I don't break out a skull and have them draw it as that approach never really did much for me.  Instead, I show them a way to quickly build an armature for the head, a quickly sketched basic structure that they could stretch, compress, turn, and arrange as needed.  Then we look at all the various features: eyes, nose, and so forth, and talk about how they're formed and what to look for in each individual.  We also talk about proportions: the relationships between all the different features, some ways to analyze them, and getting them down on paper.  And then we draw each other, one at a time.  These are generally quick drawings, about 15 minutes to draw and then maybe 10 minutes or so to do a group critique.  This is a portrait DRAWING workshop, after all, so they should be drawing as much as possible.

As for my primary reference book, it isn't one about drawing portraits at all, at least not in the traditional sense.  It's The Mad Art of Caricature! A Serious Guide to Drawing Funny Faces, by Tom Richmond.  Yes, my portrait reference is a book about caricatures.  Tom Richmond is one of the best in the world in this field.  You look at one of his figures and you know instantly who it is.  In caricature, you have to identify what makes an individual face unique and then exaggerate it so it's (a) recognizable and (b) funny.  In portraiture, you have to identify what makes an individual face unique and then render it at least somewhat realistically so it's recognizable.  The actions are very similar.  Richmond's book does a much better job at describing everything that goes into capturing the essence of an individual than any fine-art portrait drawing book I've ever seen.  I found my copy at my local Barnes & Noble, but you can get it at Amazon too (of course).

So we had a successful workshop.  I was really and truly impressed by how far the students came in just two days.  Everybody, and I mean everybody, showed improvements in their abilities to see the differences in features and to accurately capture the features in pencil on paper.  It really felt good to see that.  One of the students even asked if I could do this workshop once a month!  Umm, no, but I do give it about two or three times a year.  Maybe I'll do one that's a bit more advanced next time, or focus more on the "drawing" aspect rather than the "seeing".  

Monday, October 09, 2017

A Workshop with Robert Hagan

Last week, my studio was the site of a workshop by Australian artist Robert Hagan.  As you can see from the photo (taken on Day 1), we had a full house of students to soak up whatever this popular artist could teach.  I took the workshop, too, and learned a lot while having a good time.

So how did this come about?  Last summer, I saw a posting on a local artist board, looking for a place that could host the workshop.  I didn't know anything about Robert, but looked him up and discovered that he has a very different style of painting from mine.  And he travels around the world giving these workshops.  So the combination of learning some very different painting techniques while seeing how a pro runs a workshop was too much to pass up.  I volunteered my studio as the location and we took it from there.  It required a good bit of coordination to get everything lined up, but we did it, and Wednesday morning we kicked off the workshop.

Robert is quite the personality.  He is a largely self-taught painter focusing on popular subjects such as people on the beach, cowboys, horses, cattle drives, and similar themes.  Things that I just don't paint.  And as a self-taught artist, he has a very different way of putting paint on canvas.  Many of the things he did are variations on traditional techniques, such as scumbling, but his approach and tools were not at all traditional.  I found it to be quite liberating.  In fact, I have a commission coming up in a couple of weeks and had been wondering how I was going to make it livelier than my usual working style.  Now I have a pretty good idea of ways that I can loosen this commission up.

The other aspect that I wanted to focus on was how he ran the workshop.  I run art workshops several times a year and am still figuring out how to make them effective and fun.  Robert certainly hit it on both counts.  He had us all working from photos so that everybody was making the same paintings.  It was very interesting to see how each student developed their own images.  He's very energetic and personable, too.  No big or sensitive ego.  He's good at what he does, knows it, and wants to share his skills with the students.  He spent a lot of time one-on-one with each one of us, making sure we understood what we were doing.  Very effective and enjoyable.

Robert worked our tails off, too.  We started at 9 am and continued, with a lunch break, until 5 pm each day.  Which meant that I had to be up at 6 am every day in order to get the studio open shortly after 8 for all the early birds.  At the end of the day, the last people trickled out around 6 or later.  Long days.  Now, I am NOT a morning person.  I spent many years in the Navy getting up at 5:30 or 6 and I just don't do it anymore unless it's absolutely necessary.  Not only that, but I was on my feet all day.  I can't paint sitting down.  So three long days of standing wore me out.

At the end, I'd achieved my goals: I'd learned some new techniques and learned a lot about how to run a good workshop.  And we all had a good time.  It took me two days to get my studio back to normal and I just finished today.  So tomorrow, I can start playing with new paintings and try some of these techniques.  Lookin' forward to it!

Monday, September 25, 2017


My last post was about the sorry state of affairs regarding the surface Navy, with a particular focus on the non-existent training of new surface warfare officers.  This post is about a bright spot in training.  Last week, I went to the Muscatatuck Urban Training Center to train another group of civilians who are headed to Afghanistan for a year.  (Muscatatuck, by the way, is pronounced "mus-CAT-a-tuck").  This is something I've been very fortunate to be involved with since my return from Kandahar five years ago.  I've written about this training several times and you can click on the "Muscatatuck" label on the right for photos of the place and comments about previous classes.

There was an interesting twist to this group of students.  Of the seven in my group, two are heading out to support our goals in Syria.  They won't spend their entire tours in Syria; rather, they'll be based in one of the neighboring countries and will go into Syria when and as needed.  Both of these individuals have tremendous experience.  Both were a lot of fun to work with as well.  Neither came in with the attitude of "I've been there, you don't have anything to tell me" - no, they came to learn.

One of the key things that I try to stress with students is working as a team.  No single member has all the answers, and success in each of these training scenarios requires all the team members to be present, in the game, and ready to jump in with the appropriate question, answer, or suggestion at any moment.  The Lone Rangers will fail downrange.  Fortunately, with this group, there were no super egos.  Everybody pulled together.  The two with the most experience did something even better: they deliberately played supporting roles, rather than leading roles.  This gave the students with less real-world experience the chance to be the team leaders.  As one who was in that situation six years ago, learning by doing is the best way to internalize the lessons.

So my team did a super job.  The mistakes that were made were due to breakdowns in communication by those outside the team, and they learned from the experiences.  The last scenario is the most complex of all and the young lady serving as team leader was the quietest and most reserved of the group.  But she knocked it out of the park.  I couldn't have been more proud.

So to those who complain about "government bureacrats" being lazy, I say stuff it.  You haven't seen them do what I've seen them do.  And to those seven who are, as I write this, on their way to war zones, I say well done, work hard, and come home safe!

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Navy Operations

There have been a spate of incidents lately with Navy ships, including two instances of destroyers colliding with merchant ships resulting in the deaths of 17 sailors.  As a former Surface Warfare Officer, I take a personal interest in things like this and looked into it.  What I found was appalling.  Junior offices aren't getting the training they need and the ships are being run way too hard with no downtime for training and maintenance.  I got so pissed off that I could (literally) not see straight.  I calmed down today enough to write my useless Senators and Congressman.  The problems with the Navy are directly attributable to Congressional malfeasance with regards to the Defense budget.  Rather than repeat myself, here's what I wrote to them:

There have been several incidents over the past several months of Navy ships running aground, colliding with civilian ships, or having other accidents.  As a former Navy Surface Warfare Officer, this is of grave concern to me.  Several articles in professional military journals have noted that this spate of incidents can be traced to three things: poor training for surface warfare officers, extremely high operational tempo, and inadequate time for maintenance and upkeep.  All three have their roots in inadequate funding, something that Congress can, and must, fix.

When I was a junior officer, I went through months of training, including 16 weeks in the Surface Warfare Officer School (SWOS).  Here, we received intensive training on maritime rules of the road, ship driving, engineering, navigation, supply procedures, preventive maintenance, and much much more.  We spent considerable time in simulators, including ship driving and damage control.  This class was critical to making me functional when I reported to my ship.  However, that school no longer exists.  It was closed down in 2003 due to budget cuts.  Instead, junior officers were given a stack of CDs and told to go through them after they report to their ships.  So for the past 14 years, the Navy has been sending untrained officers to run billion-dollar surface ships.  At the same time, the officers have to run their divisions, take care of their people, stand watch, carry out their collateral duties, and earn their qualifications.  This is a recipe for disaster.  Would you give a stack of CD’s to a young college graduate and tell him to learn how to fly commercial airliners on the job?  Essentially, that’s what the Navy surface warfare officers have had to do for the past 14 years.

This has been compounded by staffing issues.  For decades, the Navy has worked on ship designs to minimize the size of the crews.  This approach assumes that all personnel are perfectly qualified to do their jobs from Day 1.  As we’ve seen, that is not the case.  The situation is made worse by not even having the personnel to fill all the billets. 

The second issue is operational tempo.  My first ship was homeported in Japan.  We were underway 75% of the time.  Since then, the number of ships has dropped, but the number of ship-days deployed has remained the same.  That means that all ships are being run harder than ever.  That leads directly to the third issue: lack of maintenance.  Navy warships are extremely complex machines.  They are routinely operated in manners that put high levels of stress on all their systems.  Keeping them fully operational requires a lot of time pierside to carry out preventive maintenance and fix the things that wear out or break.  Our ships are not getting that time pierside.  Instead, the under-manned and under-trained sailors and officers are expected to keep the ships operating with baling wire and bubblegum.  When they’re not trying to learn the systems, that is, because they weren’t trained on the systems in the first place.

And this has been going on for FOURTEEN YEARS.  When most Navy careers end soon after 20 years, this means that a whole generation of Navy surface officers have lacked the training to effectively do their jobs.  They have to learn on the go.  Which means that they learn maybe 20% of what they really need to know.

You, sir, as a Senator, bear responsibility for this state of affairs.  Despite years of warnings by senior leaders in the Navy and other services, you have failed to provide adequate budgets for training, operations, and maintenance.  You have failed to eliminate sequestration and that has severely limited the military’s ability to adjust to limited resources.  At the same time, you have stood by and allowed our operational requirements to remain the same while reducing the resources to accomplish them.

Our military can no longer do more with less.  We can do more if you provide the resources.  If you won’t, then we have to do less.  Or more of our sailors will be killed.

The sailors who died on the John S. McCain and the Fitzgerald weren't killed by their Commanding Officers or by the officers on watch, or even by an enemy like the Taliban, ISIS, Al Qaeda, or North Korea.  They were killed by senior Navy officers who allowed this to happen, and by Congressmen and Senators who failed to provide adequate funds and resources.  There is so much blame, and so many people responsible.  Unfortunately, probably none of them will be held accountable.  Instead, the CO of the ships will take the fall, while the flag officers and Congressmen who cut the resources will continue on their merry way.

You, sir, should end sequestration and provide an adequate budget for our fleet sailors.  Failure to act on your part will kill more sailors.  It’s as simple as that.

Your constituent,
William E. Rohde, CDR, USN (Ret)
Mars Hill, NC

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Latest Artworks

I haven't posted any new artwork on here in quite a while, have I?  Okay, time to play catch-up.  I've been working on several different things.

I've got a new wedding painting on my easel right now that I'm close to finishing up.  No, it's not ready for prime time yet, so you can't see it, but at least you know it's there and it has been sucking up a good bit of studio time lately.

I've also got a double-portrait commission pretty much done.  The one who commissioned it is going to come to the studio soon to give it the thumbs-up or thumbs-down.  Once I get a thumbs-up, you'll see it here.  Again, it's something that has been taking up a good bit of studio time.

I've done several more new pieces in my charcoal and pastel series.  Several focus on Astrid, a lovely young lady:

 Astrid #1

 Astrid #2

 Astrid #3

 Astrid #4

 Astrid #5

Astrid #6

I see some of these as more successful than others.  My favorites are #1 and #4.  I'd like to hear what you think - leave a note a tell me!

We had a young man sit for our Wednesday night group a couple of weeks ago as a portrait model.  Nicholas has very distinctive features and was an excellent model, as well as being a really fascinating subject of study.  Here's how his portrait turned out:


The next week, we had a new model, Jazmin.  I was pretty happy with her head and face at the end of the session, but didn't like the way everything below her neck turned out.  So the next day, I wiped out the body and reworked it entirely.  This second try turned out much better:


So there you have it: most of my artworks over the past many weeks.  There were a bunch of other attempts in addition to these, but they were failures and consigned to the trash bin.  My failure rate seems to hover around 50% - that is, half of the things I start wind up looking pretty bad, at least to my eyes.  Of the ones that are not failures, maybe half are okay, some are not bad, and a very few are pretty good.  Many years ago, one art student told me that he never had failures.  I told him he wasn't trying hard enough!

Monday, July 31, 2017

New Car Features

A couple of months ago, we bought a new car, a Mazda CX-9.  It's Mazda's large, 3-row SUV.  After living with it for a bit, I wanted to share some thoughts on this car in particular and new cars in general.

To set the stage, we had two cars, a 2005 Volvo V70 (the station wagon) and a 2008 Nissan Frontier.  The Volvo got walloped in the back a few years ago by a 91-year-old guy in a Cadillac.  We had it straightened out and it looks and drives great, but with 130K+ on the odometer and an accident on the CarFax, the resale value is about equal to a Big Mac with an order of fries.  So we're keeping it until it dies.  The Nissan was a good truck, but we didn't really need a truck anymore.  It was going to need a new set of tires and a new battery before winter, and if we did that, then we may as well keep it a few more years, and by then the resale value would be many thousands less.  So we decided to sell the truck and get something new, on the order of an SUV.

Long story short, we sold the Nissan almost immediately and bought the Mazda.  The CX-9 was at the top of my short list because all the comparison tests from places I trust (Car and Driver, for example) hailed it as responsive, fun to drive, high quality, reliable, and fun to drive.  Did I say I like a car that's fun to drive?  Yeah.  The Nissan wasn't.

So we've had it for a few months and yes, it's fun to drive.  Quiet, too.  And comfortable.  Feels like a much higher-end nameplate (think Audi, Land Rover, or Infinity) due to the high-quality materials in the interior.  And the engine is unbelievably powerful, especially when you consider it's a dinky 2.5 liter 4-banger, but the turbo gives it more torque than any of the V6's its competitors have, and it's as smooth as a sewing machine.  All in all, Mazda did a helluva good job.

But I'm not here to brag on a new car.  I wanted to talk about one major item that is significantly different from all my previous vehicles, something that is (I think) common to almost every vehicle made today.  And that is the onboard electronics.  I'm really stunned at how fundamentally different the electronics have made the entire vehicle.

To go back to the Volvo a second, I learned a few years ago, when I installed a new radio/CD/bluetooth unit, that computers controlled the whole car.  Turning the light switch didn't turn on the lights, it sent a signal to the computer, and the computer turned on the lights.  And it's that way with everything.  But it was all invisible to the driver, because the switches and gauges all looked and operated just like they did in most all other vehicles.  You can hop into our Volvo, instinctively adjust the seat and mirrors, throw a CD in the stereo, and be off, without any issues.  It's as easy as a flip-phone.

The Mazda is a different story.  If the Volvo is a flip phone, the Mazda is an iPhone 7.  Not only is everything controlled by computers (note: plural), but those computer capabilities have exploded.  Some switches are done by touch screen rather than a knob or button.  You can choose what your gauges show you.  It has capabilities that you can only learn by going through the manual.  It probably has capabilities that aren't in the manual.  Here are some of its features:
   - Lane guides.  It has a camera that watches for lane lines and if you start to stray, it'll gently tug you back or give you a warning.  Not only that, but it has different warnings for drifting to the right or left.  It was cool for a bit, but then it got annoying, so I turned it off.  Took me a while to find the instructions on how to do that.
   - Blind spot monitoring.  It has two side-looking radars in the rear bumper.  If somebody gets into your blind spot, you hear beeps and see flashing lights on the side mirror.  It beeps at me when I'm backing out of the garage because it doesn't like the door edge.
   - Adaptive cruise control.  Set the cruise control and it'll hold it within a mile an hour.  Come up behind somebody, though, and it'll slow down to match their speed.  Pull out to the next lane and it'll speed right back up again.  All this courtesy of a forward-looking radar.  Not only do you choose the speed you want, but you can choose the distance to follow the car in front.  I haven't figured that part out yet.
   -Remember when all you had to do to change stations was to punch a button?  Not anymore.  Now you have to choose which menu to use and then scroll through options that include AM, FM, Sirius, BlueTooth, Pandora, CD, and some other things I've never heard of.
   - Integrated navigation system.  Supposedly you can enter an address or pick a point of interest and it'll give you turn-by-turn directions on a screen and through audio.  I haven't figured it out yet.  I do know that you can have at least two different views on the nav screen and that it's very accurate.  When you're on an interstate or major highway, it'll show you the speed limit for your stretch of road.  If you're at or below, it's in green; go above the speed limit, and it's in red.  I don't see green that much.
   - Heads-Up Display.  This gives you your speed, the speed limit, and maybe a few other bits of information projected up onto the windshield in front of you.  It's pretty cool.  If you wear polarized sunglasses, though, the information disappears.  But if you turn your head sideways, it comes back.  So you look a bit like a goofus, turning your head sideways periodically.
   - The A/C system (sorry: climate control system) has three zones: front, middle, and rear.  I remember when "climate control" was how far you rolled down the windows.
   - Pull into the garage at night and shut the car off and the lights stay on for a while so you can get out and into the house.  You can adjust the time they're on.  I don't know how to do that.
   - USB ports everywhere.  I had to buy a USB plug for the cigarette lighter (er, 12V Auxiliary) for the Volvo and Nissan, but now the ports are apparently a Must Have for any vehicle that will transport kids.
   - Headlights that turn with the steering wheel.  Seriously.

That's a sample of this car's features.  The thing is, so many cars these days have them, and if you read the car reviews, everybody seems to expect this level of features.  Even Toyota Corollas have things like voice recognition, touch screens, and computer-assisted driving to maximize gas mileage.  I get the feeling that I've been asleep since 2005 and am going through future shock at seeing how far automotive technology has come since then.

The logical extension of all this technology is, of course, self-driving cars.  I can see a day in the near future when everybody is sitting in little pods, entertaining themselves watching YouTube videos, while the car does all the work.  Not for me, though.  I think my next car is going to be something made years ago, something with a manual transmission, a carburetor, and NO COMPUTERS at all.  Yes, I love the Mazda and we'll keep it until the wheels fall off.  But I'm old school and I also like things that are simple and uncomplicated.  And "uncomplicated" is NOT a word that describes the Mazda or any other car made these days.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The Yellowjacket Wars

This isn't an art post.  This is a post about war.  Specifically, my war against the yellowjackets.  There is death and gore discussed here.  Parents, be advised.

Three weeks ago, I was doing some yard work.  I brought the wheelbarrow around to a spot next to the birch tree and set it down.  A minute later, BAM!  I was stung hard on the ankle.  I backed off but BAM!  BAM!  Two more stings, one on the leg and one on the arm.  Damn, they hurt.  I got away and nursed my wounds a bit and then went back out to do some recon.  Seems that I had set the wheelbarrow down almost right on top of a new nest of yellowjackets.  These are nasty little buggers, a type of wasp that is very aggressive and can sting multiple times.  So not only was I walking wounded, but a strategic part of my yard had been taken over by the ISIS of the insect world.  And they had seized my wheelbarrow.  This meant war.

So I studied the situation from about 20 feet away.  The level of activity indicated a modest-sized Combat OutPost (COP).  COP Stinger's main gate was easy to locate: a hole in the ground about an inch and a half in diameter.  There was a lot of traffic going in and out.  A bit of research (thank you, Mr. Google) indicated that any assault on the COP should take place after dark, when all the bastards are home and quiet.  So I made my preparations.  At about 9 pm, when the light was almost gone, I put on my body armor: heavy jeans with the pants legs tucked into my socks, high-top boots, and a hooded jacket.  My weapons consisted of a flashlight, a full can of wasp insecticide, and a rock.  From my observation point about 20 feet away, I verified that there was not visible activity, then launched the assault.  I emptied the whole can of wasp killer into the hole, blocked off the entrance with the rock, and quickly withdrew.  In and out in one minute.  The SEALS couldn't have done better.

The next day, though, there was still activity around the strike zone.  Their numbers were considerably reduced, but the area and my wheelbarrow were still under the bastards' control.  They had built a new main gate to their COP a foot or so away from the one I'd attacked.  It also seemed like the enemy fighters were physically smaller than the previous day.  So I resupplied my weapons and at about 9 pm, I conducted a second strike.  In, out, and another gate blocked.

The next day showed similar results: a smaller level of activity, another new gate, and definitely smaller fighters.  My guess is that the eggs were still hatching and the youngsters were having to fill in for the slightly older fighters who'd been killed in my two assaults.  So while I had decimated the yellowjacket population, I had not eliminated it.  And I still couldn't get to my wheelbarrow.

I struck again that night.  And again the next.  Two more cans of insecticide were dumped into the nest.  The next day, there were only two of the little bastards wandering around, seemingly lost, unable to find their way into the nest and unable to figure out what to do next.  I rated the battle as a success, with COP Stinger being effectively eliminated.  And I retrieved my wheelbarrow.

I was out of town for the next week.  This past Saturday, I went out to mow my weeds.  Everything was going well until BAM!  I was stung on the ankle.  I dumped the lawnmower and hightailed it out of the area.  As I was going into the house to take care of my new wound, BAM!  BAM!  Two more stings.  One of the little assholes was still on my boot, trying to get at my foot.  He became an ex-asshole pretty quickly.  We located another and chased him out of the house before he could do any more damage.

Okay, so where did these guys come from?  I thought COP Stinger was eliminated.  Another careful recon showed that COP Stinger was, indeed, inactive.  However, there was a new nest about 20 feet away.  It was much busier than Stinger ever had been.  Where Stinger was a medium-sized operation, this was a full-on major enemy base.  And I'd run the mower right over it.  So Little Bastard Air Base (LBAB) had to go.

The next question was: how?  I'd used four cans of wasp killer before COP Stinger was finally destroyed and it took four days.  I wanted something more effective.  I had an answer right there in my garage.


Okay, it wasn't really napalm, but gasoline is close enough.  That night, I suited up in my body armor again, grabbed my equipment, a Coke bottle full of gasoline, a butane lighter, and a kabob stick.  After my recon showed that Little Bastard Air Base was quiet, I launched the assault.  I poured the gasoline down the main gate and quickly withdrew to let the gas stifle them and soak into the infrastructure.  Ten minutes later, I came back, lit the end of the kabob stick on fire, and shoved it into the hole.  Whoooomp!  (No, it wasn't like in the movies, with a big fireball and a WHOOOMP!!! that rattles windows a mile away.  It was just a little whooomp and a small flame coming out of the hole).  After a bit, I sprayed some water on it to put out the fire and retired for the night.

Sunday, though, showed that Little Bastard Air Base was still active, although significantly reduced. They were still using their main gate since I hadn't blocked it off.  Damn, those guys are tough!  However, I was able to retrieve my lawnmower and mull over my next move while finishing the yard.  Well, not all the yard.  I stayed 20 feet away from LBAB, so now there's a small area of high weeds right in front of the birch tree.

Although the napalm attack did not eliminate the buggers, it did seem to be much more effective than the wasp spray.  And it was a helluva lot more fun.  So that night, I suited up and conducted another assault with the gas.  This time, I brought a rock to block their main gate after the attack.

Result: mission kill on LBAB.  There were only a few dazed survivors in the vicinity, apparently stragglers who couldn't figure out how to get back into the base.  They seem to be wandering off.

So the Great Yellowjacket War of 2017 seems to be a success.  I'm not claiming total victory yet, as other nests may crop up in the next few weeks.  If so, they can expect the Wrath of Rohde to come down on them with no mercy.  And ALL options are on the table.  

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

The Nature of Figurative Work

This will be a kinda stream-of-consciousness post here as I'm still thinking this through.  As is pretty obvious by now, I'm a figurative painter.  I've always been interested in the figure.  Way back in the mid-70's (yes, I'm that old), I was an art major at Memphis State University taking a bunch of required courses, including ceramics.  The instructors wanted me to throw pots, but pots bored the stink out of me.  Instead, all my creations were figures of some sort: a "vase" shaped like a head (it was really hideous), various figurines, that sort of thing.  Years later, in a continuing-ed painting course at Maryland Institute College of Art, the teacher had us doing abstract and non-objective works so that we could have a better understanding of basic composition, color, and other issues.  I learned about that stuff, but the figures kept creeping back in.  My senior show at UNC Asheville was all figures.  After I established my own studio, I did a series of still lifes using old children's toys and stuffed animals.  They were really figure works using stuffed animals as stand-ins.

Okay, so I'm a figurative artist.  The next question is, which artists are my influences?  Which ones do I want to emulate to a greater or lesser extent?  That's a bit trickier to answer than it first appears.  It gets into the purpose behind the art.

Some artists use figures as a way to tell their own story.  The figures in the painting may or may not be realistic and recognizable, but their identity is not that important.  Instead, it's all about the context in the picture, and the context is the artist's story.  Think of the Renaissance paintings, for example, in which individual figures are used to tell biblical stories.  More recently, Norman Rockwell's paintings are narratives that use his neighbors as role-players.  The figures are recognizable, but their role in the painting has nothing to do with who they really are.  Currently, Jerome Witkin is using this sort of approach to make some unbelievably powerful images about the Holocaust and other social issues.  I do this sometimes to tell a specific story, as in these paintings:

You Don't Understand
Oil on canvas, diptych, 40"x62"

Oil on panel, 52"x40"

Another approach is to use the figure as an object of beauty, or of study.  In this case, the identity of the individual isn't important, nor is there a story.  It's more about making an interesting image, or of showing the beauty of an individual form.  There's a lot of this type of work out there.  Google "figure painting" and look at the images and this is the type of work you're going to see.  It's most often a pretty young nude woman and could come out of any life drawing and painting session.  One artist who takes it to an extreme conclusion is Philip Pearlstein.  I gotta say, I can't stand his work.  Why?  Because Pearlstein may as well be painting a slab of meat.  His paintings are studies of formal compositions using people and other objects.  There's no story to tell, and there's no interest in the figures as individual people.  Take this painting, for example:

Two Nudes and Four Duck Decoys
Philip Pearlstein

You know a lot about the bodies of these two women, but you have no idea about them, personally.  And there's no reason they should be hanging over some duck decoys except that it makes for some interesting shapes and color contrasts.

Let's contrast Pearlstein with another artist who did a lot of nudes lying around in the studio, but who had a very different approach.  Lucian Freud seems to have channeled his grandfather in order to dive into the psyche of the people he painted.  Even though his sitters had poses similar to Perlstein's, and Freud's color palette was very similar, Freud's subjects are very real and very individual people.  This painting, for example:

Two Women
Lucian Freud

I feel like I know something about these two women, just from the way Freud painted them.  They have life in them, there's a relationship between them, and I get a sense that there's a lot going on behind their eyes.  They're not just two people arranged in a composition.

This is the approach that appeals most to me: getting something of the subject's personality, character, and individuality into the image.  These days, I'm not so much interested in telling my own stories because I don't find my own stories that interesting.  It's more interesting to learn something about the person I'm working with, even if I don't know them or even speak to them.  As an example, here's a drawing of an Afghan bazaar merchant who was sitting in one of our meetings in Kandahar province:

Bazaar Merchant

What struck me about this guy was his dignity and composure.  He seemed like an honest, hard-working guy, intelligent, and reserved.  That's what I was trying to get in this drawing, not just an interesting face.  I think it was successful.

That's the same kind of approach that underlies most of my work.  Over the past couple of years, I've been experimenting a lot with new technical approaches.  I've been looking at several artists, particularly Mark Demsteader and Nick Alm, because their chiaroscuro lighting and compositions are technically excellent and have a lot of dramatic impact.  I've been experimenting with this chiaroscuro with the models who've worked with me in the studio.  But what has really driven my work is trying to get some of the models' personalities.  The dramatic lighting and compositions are tools to help the story but they're not the end in themselves.

Jennifer #5
Charcoal and pastel on toned paper

I can explain a lot of my technical approach when I run a workshop, including lighting, anatomy, and connecting your eyes with your hands in getting the image on canvas or paper.  One thing that I cannot explain is capturing the personality.  When I'm working with a model, I am always conscious of that individual as a person.  I can clinically look at them to analyze the shape of their skull or the way the shadow of the jaw falls across the neck, and I can explain that to students.  What I haven't figured out is how to explain that I'm aware of them as Jennifer, or Amy, or James, or whoever.  That part is the filter that processes the analytic stuff.  I don't know how it works, it just does.

Last week, I had a new model work with me in the studio.  You're going to see a lot of new artworks come out of that session over the next few weeks.  Here's one in progress to whet your appetite:

Saturday, June 03, 2017

Courtroom Art

I'm working as a courtroom artist with WLOS TV (the ABC station in Asheville) on the trial of the minister of the Word of Faith church in Spindale, NC.  This is a real horror story of a cult that demands obedience to church leaders in matters as major as choosing your partner in marriage, to as minor as the proper way to manage a roll of toilet paper.  They practice communal living with multiple families in a house so that everybody will be under observation at all times.  These people are a Christian equivalent of the fundamentalist Wahabi sect of Islam, which features rigid adherence to strict rules for everyday matters, intolerance of individual thought, and hostility to outsiders.
The more I heard, the more I was stunned that this kind of behavior can go on in this country.

But go on it did, for many years.  Two Assistant District Attorneys were members of the church, along with several sheriff's deputies, and they killed any attempt to file charges against the church.  Additionally, I was told that two officials in the county clerk's office were members, and they would pass on anything they heard to church leaders within minutes.

One of the church's practices was something called "blasting".  The official name for it was a "prayer session", a much more innocuous term, and I noticed that is the only way that the defense attorney refers to it.  Basically, in a "prayer session" or "blasting", a person who is deemed to need help with staying on the right road is surrounded by many other church members who scream at the individual, hit, push, shake, and otherwise use very violent means to drive out any demons.  That anybody would voluntarily submit to this just boggles my mind.

This trial is about one particularly violent blasting.  The church minister, Brooke Covington, learned that one young member, Matthew Fenner, was gay.  This is a major sin in the Word of Faith church.  She called for a blasting on him and it went on for 2-5 hours, depending on the witness.  He was choked, pounded, bruised, shaken, and screamed at over that entire time.  He could not ask for it to stop because that would just make it worse.  When it was over, he was taken back to his church group house.  The next night, he was able to sneak out of the house and get to safety.

The minister is now on trial for assault and kidnapping.  The assault charge is for the particularly brutal "blasting" that Matthew endured.  The kidnapping charge is based on the fact that he was under constant control of other members of the church and not allowed to leave.  Four other people have been charged in this case and their trials will come later.  From what I have heard, I fully expect other charges to come down.  The FBI is apparently still investigating the group, so possibly some federal charges will be pending.

How much of this did I know beforehand?  About zilch.  I had heard of a cult in the area that had been in trouble with the law over the years and that was about it.  On Wednesday, I got a call from WLOS asking if I could be a courtroom artist for them.  The judge had prohibited cameras from the courtroom, so an artist was the only option.  I jumped at the chance, since I find courtroom artist duties to be challenging and fun.

So here are some of the drawings from two days in court:

Judge Gary Gavenus and the defendant, Brooke Covington, the minister of the Word of Faith church.  The judge is outstanding: he runs a tight courtroom.  He's done some things that I've never seen a judge do, but he's keeping both the prosecutor and defense attorneys on their toes.

This is Matthew Fenner, the young man who survived the "blasting" session brought on by Covington.

Sarah Anderson was one of the participants in the blasting.  She was supposed to be "in authority over" Matthew - a church term meaning that she was responsible for keeping him on the straight and narrow.  She and her husband lived in the group home with Matthew and many other people.  Since then, she has left the church and divorced her husband.  She's one of the others facing charges in this case.  The fact that she voluntarily gave testimony that could be used against her in her own trial was an indication to me that she's trying to make things right.

Danielle Cordes is another former church member who participated in the blasting.  She was a close friend of Matthew's and she left the church just a few weeks after the event.  The stories that Sarah and Danielle told fully corroborated Matthew's claims of really horrific treatment.

For more information on the case, check the first day and second day of WLOS reports that include my drawings.  An AP report that has a bit more informatio has been printed in multiple newspapers around the country; try the one at the LA Times.  For much more information, check the blog of John Huddle, a former member of the church who has been providing many details of church operations over many years.