Hot Summer Sky, 48 x 66 inches, oil on canvas.
Later this week I'll drop off the painting above at the Memorial Art Gallery in Rochester, New York, for its 64th Rochester-Fingerlakes exhibit. Hot Summer Sky was accepted into the show, and I was asked to provide a statement to go along with it.
An artist's statement is one of the biggest pains in the ass you can imagine having to write. Always concerns over being honest, and at the same time hoping you hit the mark in what those making judgments are hoping and expecting to read, to have the right artistic gravitas. Yet not be sounding like a pompous ass.
Or, comfortably plopped into middle-age, you can hopefully leave those concerns behind, all but the honesty.
So, here's what I wrote:
Hot Summer Sky
15 years ago I stood in the beautiful, vaulted space of a massive hay barn in eastern Oregon. I was there with my wife, Darby Knox, to introduce her to my extended family, my mother's aunts and uncles. I stood next to her, in this place I'd visited frequently while growing up in the Pacific Northwest. I'd played there as a child, and was left misty eyed over the life I'd missed, in this gorgeous country, amongst people I loved and admired so much. Darby said quietly, Why don't you paint any barns? They are spectacular.
I kind of scoffed at the idea. They're kitschy, I replied, maybe the most over-exposed subject in American painting.
She gave me a bump and a smile, and said, They don't have to be.
And that's where it started for me, a new body of work. Trying to take a common subject and make it something new. To turn a subject of sweet nostalgia and American pie into something contemporary and iconic, representational to an extent, but imbued with the energy and surface of expressionism.
For me they are monuments to people like my aunts and uncles, men and women who greeted the day the same way they did their nephew, with smothering hugs, bone crushing handshakes, and enthusiasm for the life at hand.
As for kitsch, as a good friend of mine says of his prodigious storytelling, The facts are just the jumping off point.
Thirty Barns <--- this link right here!
The link above will take you to a short video slide show of the development of the 30 paintings.
I started the series of thirty barns the first week of November. My aim was two fold- a series of studies to get me focused on some of my painting for this year, and to have a series of small pieces to end the season with an on-line show.
From that stand point, it was very successful. But it was even more successful on another, unexpected level.
The way I work has evolved over time. From my original intentions of being a very direct painter, I have slowly developed a very different approach- applying layers of color, over days, weeks, and often months. The approach has developed as my concerns with painting have changed, but primarily because it allows me to achieve color effects and surface textures that provide the atmosphere I am after. The approach is slow. I find color layers most cleanly when it is wet paint going over dry. Because I love oil paint, not so much acrylic, that requires setting a painting aside at some point so that I don't start mixing wet layers, and end up with mud. But I am my father's son- I work. In order to keep working, I have developed the habit of working on several paintings over the same period of time- often a dozen or more. Occasionally way more. With larger pieces, they are moved around the studio. But with the 30 small paintings I set them on runners on my large studio panel, and they were all there at once. And an unexpected conversation developed.
At the studio each day, it's pretty much Finn, Uly and me. Conversation is, well, not something most would understand. Lots of grunts, growls, and negotiations for a quick break or a bone.
This conversation- with the paintings- was different. A Me, Myself and I, sort of thing, except it was a little like having 30 of me- or variations of me. Talking with one another.
Laying in the first blocks of color is always the most exciting part of a painting, filled with bold movement, bright color, and possibility. Usually by the third or fourth layer- on the third or fourth day- questions start to crop up, and the possibility of doubt sets in. And usually at this point, I have to sit and stew, looking at a piece, debating possibilities, trying to work out a good painting from the initial gram of an idea that got things rolling to begin with.
But with this series, I would put the piece back on the easel, in amongst the rest of the pack. I'd step back, and the change made in the piece would make the whole different. Kind of like a new kid walking onto the playground. The whole dynamic changes, and illuminates each individual. Sometimes the changes in the piece just worked on would initiate something similar in another piece. Or something opposite, Or completely different, just ideas spurred onward. But an ebb and flow developed that seemed to make solutions easier to find. Sometimes. A few were abandoned and replaced with new starts, the initial idea not being strong enough to maintain momentum. Or just lost.
But the whole experience lead to me questioning my work process. It would be valuable to have my large work more exposed during the painting, to be able to see more than one at a time- to be able to bounce the bigger ideas back and forth, so each informs the other.
I'm afraid I need more space.
How to paint. To compose a picture. To lay paint on canvas....... or panel.
My approach has evolved at a pace similar to a Galapagos tortoise. But I arrived where I am by studying other painters, and trial and error. I really do think you learn from failure, rather than success, telling people all the time what I believe to be the secret of painting: 500 bad paintings.
Well, you have to be paying attention. 500 without a vocabulary of self criticism would be 500 down the drain. After a few thousand paintings I still feel like I learn something everyday. Failure. Facing it, then recovering.
I started out to be a watercolorist. Winslow Homer's Blue Boat is still one of my favorite paintings, and I love the watercolors of Thomas Aquinas Daly. But off I wandered. I still paint in watercolor, but there was an itch to keep exploring, following a thread. My teacher and mentor Richard Beale suggested pastels as a transition to oil.
I worked in pastel for several years, first as an illustrator, then as a painter. But there was that thread, leading....... somewhere. Larger was the impetus. I wanted to work on a larger scale, and oil seemed like the logical answer. Either oil or acrylic, and I'd used acrylic as an underpainting for my pastels, and knew it wasn't for me.
So I picked up oil, and ended up thinking, What have I been doing? I'm an oil painter.
This all happened over about 20 years. Tortoise like, me.
So what's all this got to do with T-bows barn? Well, I know how I paint and why. The result of all the mistakes. Years of watercolor, and then pastel, have brought me to approaching painting in a way that feels natural to me, like I am laying down uneven, broken veils of color, one over another, till the painting seems finished. A conversation, laying paint dawn, pulling some of it off. Talking in paint, in color, in tone. Usually.
Where did this come from? Well, the shape is reminiscent of Thiebaud's cakes, and that may have been a subconscious push. Paint like frosting. Where does this thread lead? Anywhere? Maybe its just a short thread. One painting. Who knows. It was very fun and satisfying to paint.
Here's where I started.
Here's where I am at as of Friday. Close on a few.
I saw my buddy Lexi at the Genesee Valley Hunt Races last weekend. She was giving me some well-deserved grief for not having posted in --well, ages. Her beau Sam was more low key, but confirmed that, yes, I'd been dropping the ball.
I'm going to post again- other than this one- soon. Lots to share and say, but I've hit the end of the season burnout. Last show of the year is in Bethesda this weekend, then a little time to re-charge, and back on the horse.
Wow. Been six weeks since I posted. OK, don't go thinking I've been laying around, just watching television. I drove to Denver for the Cherry Creek Arts Festival, then flew home for 10 days, then flew back for a show in Jackson, eight days in Yellowstone, then drove to Crested Butte, Colorado for a show, then to Portland, Oregon to fly home again. So any sittin' I was doing was behind the wheel of the Jug.
There was some great fishing, hiking, and visiting with friends and family. And somehow in the middle of that there were some advances in my painting I am really excited about, changes that will enable me to move in a new direction.
So it won't be six weeks before the next post. A couple/week til I'm back on the road for Labor Day. Catching up on my gowin's on.
The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame was my brother Todd's favorite book. At least when he was young. It was the adventures of Toad that most entertained my brother, and he would entertain me with his retelling of Toad's catastrophes.
I found kinship with Ratty, who says somewhere along the way, There is nothing - absolutely nothing - half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats. Well, until last week.
I headed out for Denver a bit late last Tuesday - no surprise there - but looking forward to the show as I am feeling pretty good about the work I have put together this spring. By Thursday morning I was looking to arrive right about on time as I headed across Nebraska. At about 9, a truck pulling a big horse trailer was merging down the on-ramp along I 80, I switched left, came around admiring the handsome buckskin in the trailer, and merged back right ahead of the truck/trailer.
Corn Crib, Summer, 30 x 30 inches, oil on linen.
And the back fell off the van. Or it felt that way. A tremendous lurch, the back dropped all out-a-whack. I looked in the rear view, expecting to see daylight and the truck trailer running over all my paintings. But the van was intact. I checked the passenger side rear view and there was a huge shower of sparks jetting out the back. And then a blur passed me on the shoulder to the right, dropped down in the ditch, and launched off the far-side. My wheel cleared the barb wire fence by at least ten feet, sailed 50, 60 feet and landed in a corn field. I could see the corn vibrate as the tire continued on it's way - doing about 70 mph. Fortunately it was a big field.
All the visions of long-ago driver's-ed flashed through my head. Shouldn't I be battling to keep control, to keep from going into some highway death-roll? My life flashing before my eyes? I've always known the Jug was not a high-performance, quick turning demon. It's not her job. She's a tank. Turns out she really likes to go straight. I put the blinker on, pulled over, a few calls to AAA had me a tow truck in 20 minutes. The great guys at Moguls Transmission in York, Nebraska got on the phone and found me some salvage parts, and had me back on the road by 3:30. An advantage to driving an old ...... I mean vintage, Chevy van is parts are plentiful.
The show in Denver was great, I'm leaving a few pieces behind. Off to get a matching pair of tires, then up to Wyoming to fish for a few days, and on to Yellowstone for some drawing/painting/hiking/fishing.
When you have your car worked on, always check the lug nuts yourself.