From inside my pointed little head

Fantasia, by little ol’ me. 11X14, or something. I think the light shape needs work but it has potential.

Due to a medical emergency (not mine) our regularly scheduled blog entry will be delayed tonight.  It will keep.
In the absence of that, here’s a sketch I painted today. It’s neither plein air nor a studio painting, but a mental image based on a glimpse of something I saw while sitting in traffic up near Bear Mountain. Is there a large painting possible? Sure. Will I do it? Maybe.

There are still spots open in our mid-coast Maine plein air workshops! Check here for more information.

Those days when you don’t get anything done

A distraction. Definitely a distraction.

On the advice of a management consultant, I’ve decided to write down what I do every day, in the hope that I can hire some of it out and have more time to paint.
I set out with the goal of doing a small landscape sketch from my imagination, based on a trick of the light I saw at Harriman State Park on Friday. That is an hour’s painting, tops, so I should be able to manage it, shouldn’t I?
Here goes:
6:30 AM—I announce to my poor beleaguered husband that in five minutes I’m making our bed with him in it.
6:40 AM—I realize it’s not a school day, which means I can’t use the same threat on my son.
7:50 AM—I natter at said husband that he will miss his interplant shuttle if he doesn’t leave NOW. (This, I think, is displaced nagging because my son doesn’t have school.)
8:35 AM—I am called “honey” by a construction worker. Makes my two hours of daily exercise seem almost worthwhile, don’t it?
9:30-10:30 AM—I wait for Tony, whom I’ve hired to rake out the former year’s leaves for me; he doesn’t show.
10:30-11:30 AM—I dragoon my son into helping me clean floors. He vacuums; I mop. Normally, I would never do this on a work day, but he’s off school and I know that (like all teenagers) he secretly loves household chores. I want him to be happy.
11:30 AM-1:00 PM—a friend and former student, now in crisis, stops by to ask me to pray for her.
1:00-2:00 PM—I have an expiring rewards card from Mayer Hardware, and I’ve been saving it to buy quarts of alkyd paint for patching wall cracks. While I’m rooting around among my house-painting supplies, I take the tops off a bunch of old paint cans so they can harden in the noonday sun.
2:00-5:00 PM—People around here have been complaining because the only food left in the house is kippers, ketchup, and corn flakes. Yielding to pressure, I traipse off to buy groceries and paint.
Hard to see how I can hire much of this out. But I’m curious: why did I have more time to paint when my kids were younger?

There are still spots open in our mid-coast Maine plein air workshops! Check here for more information.

Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image

My class at Highland Park.

Saturday was an exquisite day. My plein air class went to Highland Park to paint under the cherry blossoms. As we were packing up, inevitably conversation moved to what is possible in this life of ours, and how our view of God shapes our sense of our opportunities.

“I grew up in a church where every week I said, ‘I am a poor, miserable sinner,’” said one member of our little posse.
“I believe in a benevolent creator God who loves me and wants me to be happy,” I responded.
Painting by Carol Thiel
Of course both are true, and neither is complete. Unless one takes time to get to know God, one is at the mercy of every charlatan or self-deluded fool who claims to represent him.
As an artist, I make things that some other people regard as idols, so I’ve considered the Second Commandment. Perhaps the sin of idolatry isn’t in the craftsmanship that creates a golden calf at all, but in this kind of reductio ad absurdum of the character and nature of God. After all, would the children of Israel have fallen for something as absurd as the Golden Calf if it didn’t have a grain of truth embedded in the lies?
Meanwhile, a tiny bird was twittering on a limb next to us. Barely larger than my thumb, it hopped and sang, sang and hopped. It was nothing short of a miracle in its small, perfect joy. It would be presumptuous of an artist to imagine that he or she could make anything as lovely, but it’s a noble aspiration to try to capture a whisper of it to sustain us through the cold seasons.
How can one improve upon perfection?
if you’re interested in joining us for a fantastic time in mid-Coast Maine this summer, check here for more information. There’s still room in my workshops.

Fool for love

Stanley Spencer, Self portrait with Patricia Preece(Fitzwilliam Museum, London), 1936

I would hate to have anyone thing that only women are hoisted on the petard of sexuality. Today, I am writing about the loveliest—and perhaps the strangest—of 20th century painters, Sir Stanley Spencer.
Spencer has three distinct bodies of work. They are so unlike each other that the uninitiated would be forgiven for not realizing they’re by the same artist. First are his religious paintings, to which I will return later, but which range from the austere beauty of the Sandham Memorial Chapel to the Botero-like figures of his Biblical narratives (except, of course, that he was doing these figures before Botero was born). Second are his landscapes, which are perfectly drafted, intimate views of the English countryside. But today I want to talk about his destructive obsession with the artist Patricia Preece.
By 1925, when Spencer married fellow artist Hilda Carline, he was already a respected British painter. The couple had two daughters, Shirin and Unity and by all appearances seemed happily married. In 1929, Spencer met Preece, and became infatuated with her.  Divorced by his wife in 1937, he married Preece a week later. Preece continued to live with her partner, Dorothy Hepworth. 
While she frequently posed nude for her Spencer, the marriage was unconsummated. Despite this, Spencer signed his house over to Preece.
Nude Portrait of Patricia Preece by Stanley Spencer, 1935. Is it obsession, loathing, or what?
Spencer remained, in his way, devoted to his ex-wife, Hilda Carline, visiting her during her mental breakdown and writing her letters after her death from cancer in 1950.
I’ve never decided what was driving him in this relationship. Was it obsession, loathing, self-loathing, or what? Regardless, the paintings themselves are brutally honest, and brilliant in that honesty.
Have a wonderful weekend. I promise to get off the subject of figure painting before next week.
Meanwhile, if you’re interested in joining us for a fantastic time in mid-Coast Maine this summer, check here for more information.

Woman as vegetable, draped in Saran-Wrap

My first successful nude in a naturalistic style, as a student in Cornelia Foss’ class. Foss intentionally arranged the model to make her insecurity apparent. I draw much better now, but I still like this painting.

I received an email yesterday asking, “What do you mean your house is full of paintings of ‘women commodified, bent, begging, enslaved, wrapped in plastic, suspended, dancing, resting, exhausted…’?”
Well, really, why the heck not?
Most studios do figure with artfully arranged spot lights, arranging the figure in some variation of an Odalisque. In some ways, this is easier on the beginning artist, but I haven’t liked it since Cornelia Fossturned me on to natural-light, naturally-posed figure when I studied with her at the Art Students League.*
After all, if the figure is supposed to tell us something about our humanity, what can we learn from woman-as-sexual object, happily twisted into an archetype of the female ideal?
 

Odalisque by Jules Joseph Lefebvre,1874. This same pose is being duplicated in studios across America even as we speak.

The Odalisque is also a portrait of commodification, but its primary purpose is titillation. Consider this portrait of Marie-Louise O’Murphy de Boisfaily by Francois Boucher:

Louise O’Murphy by Francois Boucher, c. 1752

If the model looks absurdly young, that’s because she was 15. By that age, she’d been passed around between Casanova and King Louis XV of France for two years. She went on to a long and illustrious career as a courtesan and wife, but, really, who wants to glorify that career path?
*Two other objections: artificial light narrows the chromatic range of human skin. Gone are the lovely greys, blues, and greens, the subtle interplay of warm and cool on the skin. Instead, there are two colors—highlights and shadows. Every subtlety is blown away by that demanding light. Furthermore, the pattern of shadows is pre-determined. You might as well paint from a photo.

There are still spots open in our mid-coast Maine plein air workshops! Check here for more information.

When I had No Clothes On

Not our anonymous naturalist, alas, since I haven’t any pictures of her. A nude by little ol’ me.

After dusk last night, a shifty-looking fellow rang my front bell and abruptly thrust a sheaf of paper bound in hemp string into my hands. It was a leaked copy of a memoir by a local naturalist.
It’s much too long to quote in full here, and not all the people mentioned are dead. But I thought you might enjoy a few passages that relate to yesterday’s interview with Michelle Long:
If I had ever given the matter a passing thought, I suppose I had always assumed, vaguely, that models tended to be either Parisian waifs like George Du Maurier’s Trilby, characters from Anaïs Nin’s erotica, or at the very least, the glamorous mistresses of painters.  But it is not so at all. 
Wherever there are art classes, there are also intelligent and creative naturists picking up a few spare bucks by modeling, it seems.  Since my salary at [excised] was piteously small, I had realized at once that some moonlighting would have to be done. I had considered baby-sitting, but now that I knew modeling was a possibility, it struck me as the very best possible night-time job: fancy being paid perfectly good money for sitting around with no clothes on and doing absolutely nothing![1]
Modeling was almost always good fun, and only occasionally did I have to struggle with my sense of the absurd.  One day, I looked down from the model-stand and found myself face-to-face with [excised], who had been my high school Girl Scout troop leader!  A very strange feeling indeed.  Modeling at Nazareth College initially made me a bit nervous; there is something deeply weird about being nude in the same room with a nun…
Then there was the public nature of the work.  Now and again, I would go to a restaurant or an art film, and people would recognize me…  Sometimes I would unexpectedly come upon myself at an art exhibit or a gallery opening. Once, this happened when I was out with colleagues from [excised], and I was reduced to hiding behind partitions and doing what I could to distract them from looking too closely at the nudes.  When a particularly striking recumbent semi-nude charcoal sketch of me happened to be reproduced in the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, I thanked my lucky stars that it did not include my face.  My mother, however, could not be fooled: ‘I’d know that bottom anywhere,’ she said…         
Our photographer also liked the idea of re-creating classical paintings with live models.  Mount Hope Cemetery, that great Victorian necropolis, is the perfect setting for this sort of thing.  More than one mausoleum there is a dead ringer for the Treasury of the Athenians at Olympia.  Thus it came about that two female naturist buddies and I half froze ourselves impersonating the Three Graces (minus the conventional diaphanous peploi), dancing hand in hand before the classical portals of some wealthy family’s tomb on a chilly day in early spring.  The pictures are really very pretty, though I cannot remember precisely why one of us[2]had chosen to wear a spangled feathered 1920’s headband for the occasion…[3] 
Nude modeling in cemeteries is not for the faint of heart.  Every time we heard a car approaching, we all had to race behind the mausoleum to put on our bathrobes, knowing perfectly well that there was some poison ivy back there.  Better a case of poison ivy than an arrest for public nudity, in however artistic a cause.[4]  We managed to get in about half an hour’s uninterrupted work at one point, but then a car actually came up the hill right towards us!  We dove for our bathrobes and hid behind the mausoleum, hearts in our throats, fearing that it was the police.
But no!  It was our friend [excised], who had heard about the project, and had been so eager to be part of it that he had apparently driven to the graveyard and through the graveyard in the all-together![5]  We managed to get in about twenty solid minutes of being The Judgment of Parisbefore the light faded.[6]  Freezing cold, we all gratefully and hastily put on our clothes, then drove over to my place, cranking the heat in our cars at full blast …
Each of us knew a few other models, for Rochester Institute of Technology often holds two life-drawing classes simultaneously, and models, although they tend not to be very chatty with the students, do talk with one another on breaks.[7]
           
Hence, when the opportunity arose, we were able to put together an artistic Feast of Misrule that is probably still remembered as far away as Syracuse and points beyond.[8]  The charming and persuasive [excised] had somehow managed to talk the local branch of the YMCA into renting their entire building to the Rochester naturists for a whole evening, one a month or so, for a whole winter….  In an ideal world, every urban naturist group would simply own its own YMCA.  Most of us, I think, were childish enough to take an enormous delight in using the other sex’s locker room.  The pool was enormous, and the gymnasium offered plenty of room for (sigh) volleyball.[9] I seem to remember that one month, we were even able to hold a nude dance, with waltzes, of course, between the sets of squares and contras.[10]
The Feast of Misrule was billed as a workshop for artists and models, but its main goal was to allow everyone a chance to get on the other side of the easel, if only for a night.  We did end up with more models who wanted to paint and draw than artists who were willing to take a shift on the podium, but that worked out perfectly well: one or two models at a time are about all beginning artists can cope with.
 
The ploy worked brilliantly; we models turned out to be no worse at life-drawing than your average beginners are.  We were merciful to our brave artists, who were mostly modeling for the first time.  In a spirit of charity, we did not insist on any long and difficult poses.  All of us who wanted to attempt it had the chance to take part in a two-person pose, and everyone who felt up to it tried to draw one.  Finally, when we had amassed a large enough collection of portraits of one another, we posted our work on the walls of the big front room, and, for a touch of authenticity, added a few curatorial-looking labels on white three-by-five cards.  One optimist even added a price-tag.  I seem to recall that the Head Naturist of Syracuse mounted one of his drawings on a larger piece of paper and drew it an ornate baroque frame.[11] 
Then we poured out the wine and arranged fruit and cheese on the table, and opened the great double doors to invite all of the other naturists in.  It was, I expect, Rochester’s very first all-nude art gallery opening.  If only we had been able to find a nice naked string quartet, it would have been absolutely perfect.  As it was, the Feast of Misrule was an event to remember; a truly star-studded evening out, and a delightful change from horrible, horrible work. (© 2013, Amy Vail, Rochester, NY.)
Yes, we have a good time in our studio!  And if you’re interested in joining us for a fantastic time in mid-Coast Maine this summer, check here for more information.


[1]There are very few genuinely enjoyable jobs that you can do with your clothes off.  Babysitting is not one of them.   I have always hated babysitting.  Indeed, I earned eternal exemption from changing any and all family diapers by throwing up on one of my dear nephews halfway through the process.
[2]Not I.
[3]Incidentally, doing normally private things in a graveyard has fine, if not entirely respectable Classical antecedents. If Catullus and Martial are to be believed, the less expensive Roman professional ladies did this kind of thing all the time.
[4]Even my liberal parents would have been grieved by such an arrest.  Worst still, it would have become an humiliating family joke for the next two or three generations.
[5]Driving naked is very good fun, but it is not legal in all states.  (I cannot believe it is legal in any cemetery.)  I believe my dear Head Naturist of Syracuse only avoided an indictment for driving naked in West Virginia by dying before the date of his trial.  May he rest in peace, nude, as he would have wished.
[6]All right, then, the Judgment of Craig.  The pictures are striking and not unattractive, but Craig has too many tattoos to be an entirely convincing Paris.
[7]Not all models are naturists.  It takes more than a willingness to take your clothes off to be a true naturist.  You also have to put up with volleyball (shudder) and be willing to participate in an annual chocolate pudding war.  I always tried to avoid the volleyball, but it was not always possible.  The pudding, however,  wasn’t  bad at all; it is an excellent conditioner for the hair, though devilishly tricky to get out of your ears.
[8] I adore Syracuse.  Ah, Syracuse, City of Lights!  Would I were back there now!
[9]What is it with some naturists and volleyball?  Don’t they know that they are just catering to conventional stereotyping?
[10]Now, nude waltzing is witty and original, and far to be preferred to boring old volleyball.
[11] I lost my heart to him that evening.  He is enshrined him forever in the Detrimental Hall of Fame.

Take off your clothes for fun and profit

A post-manifesto painting, and it ended up being my favorite of Michelle ever.

“There are pictures of nude women everywhere, and nobody seems to care,” my son-in-law once said of my home. He’s right. I’m passionate about the subject of subjugation, so there  are paintings of women leaning on every available space: women commodified, bent, begging, enslaved, wrapped in plastic, suspended, dancing, resting, exhausted… and then a few recent post-manifesto ones where I stopped thinking and caught something delicate, introspective and sweet.
For the vast majority of these paintings, my model has been Michelle Long. I want something more from my model than simple presence. “If the situation calls for it, I register some emotion, but by default I am being myself. I try to be neutral but not by wiping myself as a totally clean slate,” Michelle told me.

Why would anyone—especially a very smart and capable young woman—decide on a career of stripping off her clothing and sitting utterly still in front of others? While I was starting to work out my feminist manifesto, Michelle was (unbeknownst to me) on a parallel track. “When I was in my mid-twenties, I was thinking about how society has become so sexualized. My naked body had to be about sex. I wanted to take control of this by physically doing something about it. My life isn’t defined solely by my sexuality. It isn’t the whole of who I am.” But that, she says, is not relevant anymore; she’s worked it out.

Some days it’s a ukulele, some days it’s dancing. That’s why it’s called “a break.”
Given a choice, Michelle prefers working one-on-one with professional artists, or in small groups. For her the most stressful situation is “when artists don’t treat me professionally, or don’t take themselves professionally.” She likes to be able to collaborate with artists, rather than present a tabula rasa on which artists record their own impressions.
The model’s eye view.
That is probably a reflection of her keen and restless mind. She’s been a serious and dedicated swing dancer for 15 years and sings with Gregory Kunde Chorale. She manages two bands: Gorden Webster in New York and Roc City Stompers in Rochester. 
In her spare time, she loves listening to live music and playing Eurogames, whatever the heck they are. “They’re very social and there are multiple ways to win,” chimed in her partner, Tyler Gagnon. She’s learning to play the ukulele, and added, “I love drinking gin.”
Want to join us for figure painting? Contact me here. And I’d be hard-pressed to figure out how to include a figure model in this summer’s Maine workshops, but if you’re interested in joining us for a fantastic time in mid-Coast Maine, check here for more information.

Painting by Numbers

That’s not a lighthouse, but the Summerville Coast Guard Station in Rochester. And it sold fast, so maybe they know what they’re talking about with this blue.

Maine lighthouses are among the most iconic of images. Does that mean that painting them is a good idea?

It depends on what you’re after and how you execute your work. Thomas Kinkade made a fortune painting lighthouses. Still, he died unhappy, and he’s unlikely to be remembered as a seminal figure in American art.
The problem with Thomas Kinkade isn’t that he couldn’t paint, and it isn’t that he spent too much time reading Komar and Melamid… it’s that all his buildings look like they are on fire. (Split Rock Light by Thomas Kinkade.)
Nevertheless, it’s perfectly possible to paint a sensitive, honest lighthouse or lobster boat. They are iconic for a reason: they speak to us of labor, of man’s relationship to nature, and of the sea.
Surf in Maine. Not iconic at all, and the size of a paperback novel. Oops. Oh, well… I still like it.
In Painting by Numbers: Komar and Melamid’s Scientific Guide to Art, the authors—who are themselves artists—set out to determine what were the “most wanted” and “least wanted” paintings in various countries. Most of the book describes, laboriously, the methodology of their polling process. It’s so absurd it’s funny.

America’s least-favorite painting is:

·         Paperback book size;
·         Thick, textured surfaces;
·         Geometric patterns;
·         Darker shades;
·         Sharp angles and bold stark designs;
·         Colors kept distinctly separate;
·         Gold, orange, peach and/or teal.
America’s most-favorite painting is:

·         Dishwasher-size;
·         “Realistic-looking;”
·         Outdoor scenes;
·         More vibrant shades;
·         Wild animals in their natural settings;
·         Persons in group, fully clothed and at leisure;
·         Fall scene;
·         Soft curves and playful, whimsical designs;
·         Colors blended;
·         Visible brush strokes;
·         Blue.
OK, that’s a lighthouse, and I personally like it. Well, I painted it, so I ought to. Whole lotta blue.
It turns out that lots of people like landscapes, and they also like blue. If that’s true, and if they’re also satisfying to paint, why turn our noses up at them?
Whether you want to paint an iconic view of Maine or something more individual, there’s still room in this summer’s Maine painting workshops. Check here for more information.

The Poetry Pole

The Poetry Pole in the depths of Spring.

Of the lovely things to sprout in my neighborhood, the one with the longest-lasting bloom is the Poetry Pole around the corner. I first noticed it on March 18 while walking with friends; the poem was Mary Oliver’s Wild Geese, a seasonal and apposite statement, for when women walk in flocks, they frequently “Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.”

And, what the heck, here are some of those wild geese.

At the beginning of last week, the poem had changed. Once again our neighborhood Poetry Vendor touched not only on the season, but (quite innocently, since the world hadn’t exploded into violence yet) on the spirit of the week* to come.

Suddenly the archetypal  
human desire for peace  
with every other species  
wells up in you. The lion  
and the lamb cuddling up.
The snake and the snail, kissing.
Even the prick of the thistle,  
queen of the weeds, revives  
your secret belief
in perpetual spring,
your faith that for every hurt  
there is a leaf to cure it.
(from Amy Gerstler’s In Perpetual Spring)
I don’t know who the Poetry Vendor is; I know who I could ask, but I like receiving this generous gift from a stranger. As I sort through my complex feelings about this wonderful little town in which I live, I wonder how common Poetry Poles are, anyway. Do you have one, or something like it, where you live?
The leaf that cures my hurt flow in streams of living water…
*This being the age of rapid communication, we no longer have time for any “spirit of the age.” A week is all we can remember at one time.

Count Your Blessings

Man at the blood lab today, sketched by little ol’ me.

I set out each day with a plan. Today (as usual) it had crumbled before 8 AM. My son hasn’t felt well, so instead of heading to my studio, I took him to a lab to have blood drawn.

Between the news from Boston and the news from West, Texas, it’s been a dreadful week. One can barely look away from the news, but focusing on it leaves us feeling deflated. But if faith is the opposite of fear, then this black hole of fear and grief is an unacceptable place for the child of God to linger.
Easer to say than do, egh?
As is my wont, I pulled out my sketchbook to draw. My attention was drawn to a man in the prime of life (in other words, about my age), with alert, intelligent eyes. He was well-dressed and well-groomed. He was also assisted by an aide and wearing a helmet and on a walker. As I sketched him, I pondered what cataclysm had laid him low.
My mother liked to say, “You don’t have to look very far to count your blessings.” She did not mean that we should take pleasure in others’ misfortune, but that around every corner is a person who would rejoice at the blessings we take for granted.
It was a long wait. An elderly man said loudly to his wife, “Now, I’ll have to divorce you.” A bad joke, I thought, between an obviously affectionate and long-married couple. Then I listened closer. Her sharp looks as he talked to the phlebotomist were to catch him before he stumbled, for he was suffering from dementia.
People at the blood lab today, sketched by little ol’ me.
A man came in with his middle-age daughter. He leaned forward and fell asleep as she did a crossword puzzle. Occasionally he would startle awake and say, “It’s slow here today,” and then doze again.
We are all given a choice—we can focus on the grief that swirls around us, or on the gift of life, the enormous mystery and miracle that is the breath we take every few seconds. We can focus on the long line at the phlebotomist’s office, or the fellow travelers sharing the wait with us.
Have a blessed weekend.
There’s still room in this summer’s Maine painting workshops. Check here for more information.