Sunday, June 16, 2019

"-Isms" and Art

I was listening to a podcast today in which four artists were talking about art.  Not so much about their art, but rather, the bigger art world.  They talked about modernism, post-modernism, post-post modernism, photo realism, abstraction, surrealism, representationalism, and a lot of other "isms" that have come and gone.  And they talked about where their art fit into not just these "isms" but also the meta-picture - and by that they meant the bigger world of art in which all these isms were specific factions.  And they talked about what it meant to be working in all/any of these -isms in a time in which all can be considered equally valid.

After a while, I got pissed off.  These guys were talking about making and doing art like political analysts talk about politics.  Everything has to fit into some faction or another, and there can't be any overlap.  So you choose your big faction - say, realism versus abstraction - then you decide which sub faction and sub-sub-faction you want to work in, all the while keeping in mind the Big Picture of where your art fits in (or not) with everything else being produced today or over the course of all eternity, and what statement you're making by working in your particular style.


I couldn't care less about factions.  I have friends who create beautiful and loose landscapes, others who make wild abstractions, and others who make small figurative sculptures.  I like their work because the artists are good at expressing themselves in their chosen media.  I look at the work and see, not just paint on canvas, but something of the artists themselves.  Richard's work is completely different from Genie's, and both are worlds apart from Margaret's.  But each one is working in a unique way that they developed in order to see their worlds and make their own statements.  They are working in ways that they HAVE to work, because nothing else will do it for them.

And that's what I do.  I make art about people, and I want to tell their stories on paper or canvas.  That's what I seem to be called to do.  And Richard and Genie and Margaret are all called to do different things.  We can't help ourselves - we're doing what we have to do.

But these guys in the podcast were talking about art as if they were choosing a style of art to make in order to be "relevant" to the art world.  That's art-making as art-world ladder climbing.  It's not art as personal expression.

Years ago, I saw an exhibition of student art at one of the country's premier art colleges.  I saw a lot of stuff that was clearly intended to be "artier" than the next guy.  I saw lots of personal styles and lots of high-quality execution, but not a lot of personal expression.  A similar exhibition at my alma mater, UNC Asheville, showed artworks that were sometimes crude in concept or technique, but also expressed raw feeling.  Give me that kind of work any day.  Keep your "isms".

Saturday, June 08, 2019


When I was young, I thought ceremonies were a waste of time.  "Just do it and get it over with."  Mention of an upcoming ceremony would prompt some serious eye-rolls.  Who has time for that?

After being in the Navy for a bit, though, I began to see ceremonies in a new light.  The military has a lot of them: awards, promotion, retirement, change of command, you name it.  These events weren't just something to get through as fast as possible, they were major milestones in people's lives and careers.  Ceremonies put a marker on the occasion and recognized its importance.  They put a dividing line on the "before" (say, when somebody was an Ensign) and "after" (when they were a Lieutenant jg).  At that moment, somebody's life changed.  And ceremonies put a public face on it.

So ceremonies had a value in themselves.  But some ceremonies really meant something, while others were just pro forma events.  The difference lay in how the ceremony was conducted.  When those carrying out the event knew what they were doing, and really meant what they were saying, ceremonies could be surprisingly powerful.  When they were just ticking off boxes, because "that's the way it's done", then they could be a waste of time.

I remember one retirement ceremony that followed all the accepted protocols.  Say this, present that, salute, say another thing, because that's in the script.  The individual went off to life as a retired Navy officer and we went back to work.  It had all the emotional impact of a Geico commercial.  A few weeks later, we had another retirement ceremony.  Same basic script, only this time, the officer conducting the ceremony and the retiree knew what each element in the script was all about, how it was relevant in this particular case, and they conveyed that to all of us in attendance.  It was incredibly powerful.  And it totally changed the way that I conducted military ceremonies for the rest of my career.

Fast forward to today and I find myself in the wedding ceremony business.  I'm seeing the same concepts here that I did in the Navy.  In some weddings, the couple, officiant, planners, and others follow a rote script.  They do this, that, and the other thing because "that's the way it's done", not because it has meaning to the couple.  It's just something to get through.  Tick enough boxes and boom, you're married.  Another Geico commercial.  Let's go eat.

I feel sorry for those who are just ticking the boxes.  They seem to be outside the event, watching it, rather than immersing themselves in a major change-of-life moment.  Are we doing the First Dance correctly?  Do I have any new emails on my phone?  Is the caterer skimping on the roast beef?  The DJ wasn't supposed to play that song.  Who's on the dance floor and who's sitting it out?

But those that really put a lot of thought into what they're doing, and why they're doing it, have some extremely moving ceremonies.  The officiant says things that apply directly to the bride and groom.  The bride and groom say things to each other that reach deeply into their relationship.  The bride may wear a piece of jewelry that belonged to her much-loved grandmother.  The father-daughter and mother-son dances aren't just something on the agenda, they mark a permanent change in the relationship between people who still love each other very much.  For those of us who are bearing witness, these moments can bring tears to your eyes.

For those who are planning a wedding, or any major life-event ceremony, put some thought into what you're doing.  Just do the things that mean something to you.  And throw yourself into it.  You don't get that many chances for a major celebration.  Enjoy it!

Tuesday, June 04, 2019

Works In Progress

Four weeks.  Four wedding paintings.  That's the spring wedding rush in this studio.  At the moment, three of the paintings are underway and the fourth will start this weekend.

As mentioned in my last post, the first of these paintings didn't start very well.  The concept was good, but my execution wasn't.  While waiting for the first dance, I had started putting in the outdoor environment, with the idea of putting the bride, groom, and others in later.  That method didn't really fit with the way my brain works and I ran into all sorts of issues once the people started going in.  So the next day in the studio, I wiped it out and started over.  This let me get the important parts of the painting - namely, the couple and family members - positioned where they made the most compositional sense.  That painting is now nearly finished and here's how it looks right now (click on the images to enlarge):

The second painting got off to a great start.  It was a surprise for the bride and groom - they wanted an artist but the bride's mom said "nope, too expensive, not in the budget", while at the same time already having me lined up to do just that.  I love surprises like that!  We decided that the subject of the painting would be the return walk down the aisle at the end of the ceremony.  And the bride and groom gave us the perfect setup.  So when they spotted me painting away at the reception, they were over the moon.  This was one of those paintings where everything was working from the get-go, which made it loads of fun.  No wiping it out in the studio the next day!  Instead, I've made some progress on it and here's how it stands right now:

Last weekend's painting required a road trip to Atlanta.  I am NOT a fan of driving in Atlanta.  So I hit the road way early and took the scenic route down through Sylva and Franklin, rather than driving interstates all the way.  Got to Atlanta and ran into seven lanes of traffic slowed to a 5 mph crawl because an 18-wheeler was parked on the side of the road.  Yep, it wasn't blocking anything.  Sheesh. But I'm glad I gave myself plenty of time.  And this painting was a Special Case.  The couple had booked another artist, but she backed out with just a few weeks to go.  So in order to uphold the honor of wedding painters everywhere, I took on the job.  The couple wanted the subject to be the first dance.  To liven up the composition and color, we decided to place them outside in the courtyard, which was the bride's favorite part of the facility anyway.  So here's how the third painting stands right now:

So one painting is almost done, two are in about the same level of completion, and a fourth starts Saturday.  I'm spending a lot of time in the studio and really having a good time.