Monday, September 30, 2019

Ulysses S. Grant

I just finished reading the Autobiography of Ulysses S. Grant.  When I was growing up, the common knowledge was that Grant was a brutal but effective general, a drunkard, corrupt, and one of the worst Presidents we've ever had.  My own research into my family history, which includes two great-great-grandfathers who fought on the Confederate side, had shown me some indications that this common knowledge may not have been accurate.  So I picked up a copy of his memoirs to learn a bit more.

What I found was a very different man.  Grant was a good writer.  His Autobiography turned out to be surprisingly readable, giving an easy-to-follow first-person narrative of the world from his single perspective.  He was also very honest, owning up to his own limitations and failures as well as successes.  And rather than being personally corrupt, he came across as having high moral and ethical standards.  He did not appear to be a drunkard at all.

Grant's military style is still the gold standard today.  He clearly saw the strategic battlefield, far beyond the geographic limitations of his particular unit, even when that "unit" was the entire Union Army.  And he was very aggressive.  "Move fast, hit hard, move fast again, and keep your enemies off balance" seemed to be a mantra.  That's the same mantra that our most effective military leaders use today, as seen in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Speaking of which, my experience in both those countries gave me a much better understanding of his treatment of local civilian people, even those who sympathized with the Confederates.  Grant prohibited looting, stealing, and pillaging.  Yes, his soldiers took what they needed, but it was within the norms of the day.  He demanded that his soldiers treat civilians with respect, and to a great extent, they did.

The descriptions of several battles were really interesting for me.  Shiloh, for example.  I grew up largely in Memphis and we went to the battlefield park many times when I was a kid.  My sister, cousins, and I never really understood what it was all about, we just wanted to climb on the cannon and memorials.  Much later, I discovered personal connections.  One of my great-great-uncles had fought there.  My mother's family was from Corinth, Mississippi, which was a major Confederate rail transshipment center and the goal of Grant's advance through Tennessee.  So reading Grant's thoughts and activities leading up to the battle, during the fight, and the subsequent advance on Corinth, was fascinating.  I had already been in the places he described. 

The Autobiography ended at the close of the Civil War.  I had hoped it would cover his Presidency, but no.  Additional research showed that he had a very progressive agenda, even for today.  His weakness was in selecting his administration's officials as way too many of them turned out to be corrupt.  The "drunkard" bit that was common knowledge turned out to have been fake news.

One of the things I've found while reading this and other books on history, as well as listening to several podcasts on history, and while researching my own family history, is that a lot of the things going on today have been seen before.  Some of the things contributing to the rise and also the fall of Rome are true today.  Many of the things that Grant had to deal with as an Army leader are applicable today as well.  I never realized this as a young high school and college student, but yes, you really can learn from the past.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

20 Years Ago ...

I just realized this morning that I retired from the Navy 20 years ago.  Janis and I then went to bum around Europe for several months.  This was before the interwebs were big and people had discovered blogs.  So we kept up a string of emails to friends and family to let them know (a) we were still alive and (b) what we were up to.

So through the end of the year, I'll periodically be posting these old notes.  We had a good time and I think a lot of our experiences are worth sharing.  So here we go:

Saturday, September 25

We're getting to be quite proficient at using the London Tube.  That’s their term for their subway system.  Once you get the hang of it, it's fairly simple.  Some of the trains are modern, while others look like rolling antiques.  Our phrase of the day is "MIND ... THE GAP".  Imagine it in a very loud, very stern British public school headmaster voice.  You hear it in a lot of Tube stations where they're telling you to be careful of the gap between the train and the platform.  "MIND ... THE GAP", over and over again.  I always figured that Hell would like being trapped in Disney's "It's A Small Small World" ride, where you're stuck in a little boat with no steering control and have to listen to thousands of saccharine kids voices endlessly singing "It's A Small Small World".  Now I picture it as the same thing, only punctuated occasionally with the ear-splitting screech of ancient London subway trains and an angry Voice of God telling me to MIND ... THE GAP. 

Last Saturday we walked for miles.  We found the shopping districts of Oxford Street and Regent Street.  Then we followed them down to Piccadilly Circus and found huge crowds roaming around.  We wandered into Leicester Square (pronounced "Lester") and it was awesome.  There were quite a number of live bands on the street vying for attention, dozens of street artists, jugglers, Bible-belters, families, people on their way to the theater, homeless panhandlers, and chippies dressed to kill (or just show off as much skin as legally permissible).  We got some ice cream cones and sat and people-watched for an hour.  Fabulous!  Sunday we went to a local movie theater for a matinee performance and were practically the only ones in there.  Unfortunately, the movie (Hollywood’s "The General's Daughter") was a waste of perfectly good celluloid.  Monday we went exploring in London again.  I swear, Janis can find an exclusive shopping district with her eyes closed.  This time we stumbled onto Bond Street, with shops like Cartier, Tiffany's, and tons of others.  I was looking for the good art galleries, but they're evidently in another part of town.

We've alternated between touring and getting business/chores done.  Touring is easy ... getting the business/chores done can be a bit more difficult.  Once you're away from your familiar American stores and have to conduct all your business affairs on the local foreign economy, things can get difficult.  Not impossible, just more complicated.  Things that can be done with one or two quick phone calls in the States now require six to eight calls plus an office visit or two.  And since we don't have a phone in the room, we have to use pay phones which might not let us make the call, or we may not have the change .... you get the idea.  It all takes a bit of extra work, but we think this experience is worth it.

Diana Ross got arrested at Heathrow the other day.  The Brits loved it, and the news was all over London within minutes (literally).  Janis and I are not Diana Ross fans at all, and we found both Ross’s predicament and the British reactions highly amusing.

A couple of days ago we took a tour of Buckingham Palace.  I tell you what, ol' Liz knows how to live!  We didn't see a thing in there from Wal-Mart.  My favorite room was the Gallery, where many old master paintings by some of the most important artists that ever lived were hanging: Rembrandt, Van Dyke, Vermeer, Franz Hals, and Rubens, to name a few.  Gold, gold leaf, silver, marble, and bronze were everywhere, and everything was ORNATE (in capital letters).  I also visited the Queen's Gallery, where they had a showing of some (just some) of her collection of drawings by Raphael, his teachers, and his students.  This was a very interesting show which highlighted Raphael’s background, development, and influences.

We passed by a place advertising itself as "The American Cafe and Bistro" yesterday.  A big chunk of its menu advertised no less than six different kinds of fish and chips.  They only had one kind of burger and it was advertised in little letters over in a corner of the menu.  I ask you, what do they think constitutes an"American Cafe"?  The only fish and chips I ever saw in America were in the Arthur Treacher's fast-food restaurants and they went bankrupt many years ago.  I guess the Brits never got the word.  They probably think we still drink tea, for chrissakes!

Last night we went to our first theater show in London: Les Miserables.  We thought it was a good, but not great, show.  The songs weren't as memorable as those in some other shows we've seen, but the presentation was super.  We thoroughly enjoyed the experience. 

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Traditional Indian Wedding

I just completed a painting for a couple married in a traditional Indian Hindu ceremony, right here in Asheville.  They were married at the Crowne Plaza, which is one of the few places in town able to accommodate the roughly 650 attendees, plus vendors like me and the staff.  This was the second time I've done a painting of such an event and, I gotta say, they know how to have a good time!  In Indian tradition, the groom travels in a big procession to the bride's village.  Well, we're not going between villages, not here, but we can still have a procession, with music, dancing, a couple hundred people, more music, and more dancing.  Yes, we can.  And did.  It took about an hour to go from one side of the building to the other.  You can walk it in three minutes, but hey, this wasn't about walking, it was about music and dancing! 

The ceremony itself started about 10 am ... well, maybe a bit later, because, y'know, music and dancing.  The groom came in and was welcomed by the bride's family.  Then the bride arrived.  "Beautiful" is not a good enough word ... "STUNNING" is more appropriate.  The young lady is quite beautiful in her own right and had a custom dress with peacocks embroidered on the front, and more jewelry than your average jewelry store (and more beautiful, too).  There's a lot of movement in these ceremonies: people getting up and down, moving around, coming in and going out, and I can't tell you what was going on since I don't know the language.  I focused on taking a ton of photos so I'd have sufficient visual resources to do whatever it was I was going to do with the painting.  Finally, after maybe an hour and a half, it was done, and there were more photos and lunch and mingling.  Then there was a break until the reception in the evening.  I went back to my studio, which was just a very few miles away, loaded the photos from the camera into the laptop and studio iMac, and began figuring out the new painting's composition.  Then I began blocking things in.  Later that afternoon, I went back to the Crowne Plaza, set up the easel, and really got to work.  I painted all through the reception.  There was a LOT of interest from the guests.  Many came over repeatedly to see things develop.  I had some really good conversations with quite a few of them.  Meanwhile, there was more music, dancing, eating, more music, and more dancing.  Did I say that this crowd knew how to party?  And have you ever heard Hindu hip-hop?  Yeah, it'll get you moving!  Everybody - young, old, grandparents, little kids, EVERYbody was moving.  And kept moving.  They were still going strong long after the advertised end time.  And, I suspect, they kept going after they finally had to leave the place.

The next day I worked on the painting in the studio to bring it from a crude sketch to something I could develop.  Here's how it looked (click on the image for a larger view):

The bride's family is on the left, groom's on the right.  Their stage setup had a big circle of flowers overhead and a red red red curtain for a backdrop.  I was afraid that the bright strong red was going to overpower everything else, and at this early stage, it was still a danger.  But that's what they had as their backdrop, so it needed to be there.  I gave a lot of thought to what the curtain should look like by the end, then reverse-engineered to figure out how to get there.  Another thing that had to change was the couple.  In this initial version, they're sitting side by side, looking straight out at the viewer.  That struck me as wrong.  The ceremony is about them, and their union, so they should be engaged with each other rather than us.  So I painted them out completely, let that part dry, and then repainted them in a much better arrangement.  Then it was a matter of going around and bringing each individual, and each part of the painting, up to my standards.  And here's how it turned out:

Yes, I'm very happy with the finished painting.  The red curtain is strong but does not overwhelm the people.  They're looking and smiling at each other, which is as it should be.  I managed to get good likenesses of all the people.  And there's a lot of life in the figures.  Most importantly, the couple LOVE the painting!

Going to a traditional Hindu wedding is an amazing experience.  I really hope to do it again sometime soon.  To this wonderful couple, I say thank you for this opportunity!

Saturday, September 07, 2019

Wedding Painting Updates

I've completed the wedding painting for Julianna and Andrew.  Julianna was probably the most excited client I've ever had.  During the reception, as I was busily getting the painting blocked in, several of her friends told me, independently of each other, that Julianna had been telling people "I'm getting married!" followed very quickly by "and I'm having a live wedding painter at the ceremony!"  She really wanted a good artwork of her wedding.  And she chose me.  Wow, no pressure there, huh?

Julianna and Andrew were married at the Vineyard Estate at the New Kent Winery, a bit east of Richmond, Virginia.  It's a really beautiful venue for an outdoor ceremony.  The couple decided that they wanted the painting to focus on their return walk down the aisle as a brand-new married couple.  So I coordinated with the photographers (Turtle & Hare Photography, a husband-wife team, very good, very professional) and took a ton of my own reference photos alongside them.  Then I loaded my photos into my laptop and got to work in the reception hall.

But getting a painting up to my standards of finish takes a lot more than just the couple of hours that the reception provides.  No, it takes two to four weeks.  And with a client like Julianna, for whom the painting is a Really Big Thing, it would probably be a four-weeker.  Which it was.

But I finished it last week, she approved it, and the painting is off to its new home.  And here's how it turned out (you can click on it for a larger image):

I'm working on another wedding painting right now and believe it'll be wrapped up in a few days.  Once it's approved, I'll post it here.