This is your world without art

This is your world without art.

My little corner of the world was rocked yesterday by a report that a staggering number of young New Yorkers are deficient in math and languages, according to new state tests. The district in which we live—which was once among the very top schools nationwide—achieved a piddling 59.8% language and a 52.7% math proficiency rating. (That is still far higher than our state and county averages.)

We moved to this district for its reputation for iconoclasm and excellence. As administrators chase the brass ring of higher test scores, our district lags. I’m almost resigned to that. What really irks me was this paragraph I read in Valerie Strauss’ excellent essayin the Washington Post:

The rationale here is muddled at best, but the detriments are obvious. For instance, young students in New York State who are developing as they should will be placed in remedial services, forgoing enrichment in the arts because they are a “2” and thus below the new proficiency level.               

In other words, these ‘deficient’ students must devote all their free time to raising their math and language test scores, leaving no time for such luxuries as art or music. Our kids already receive minimal arts education. Schools operate as if the only legitimate form of education is intellectual gavage. This is despite the fact that there’s absolutely no proof that this force-feeding does anything to improve test scores or, more importantly, create educated, aware, productive citizens.

Art is a luxury only if civilization is a luxury.  We are fools to believe we humans don’t live primarily in the emotional and physical realms. (Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs is a curiously intellectual way of expressing this truth.) Ignore the physical and emotional needs of children, and watch just how much they don’t learn.

This is all depressingly familiar. Rochester’s School of the Arts (SOTA) has been a fantastically successful school in an otherwise moribund district. Its graduation rate was comparable to the best suburban districts at a time when the district as a whole could graduate fewer than half its students. Yet when the district needed to cut costs, it started with SOTA.

American visual arts and music have turned into one long booty call. That is not the fault of the arts themselves; it is the fault of a civilization that declines to teach art.

We can’t afford art? The as-yet blank check for implementing Common Core standards is estimated at anywhere from $1 billion to $16 billion nationwide.

Scads of money are being made on Common Core—including by the textbook publisher Pearson, which is being paid by the Gates Foundation to create materials which they will then sell at a profit to schools nationwide. On top of that, there will be fat consultancy fees paid by districts to learn the system, and a panic of tutors relentlessly drilling students found to be deficient.

Schoolchildren may no longer have time to draw and paint, but we do. Join me in October, 2013 at Lakewatch Manor—which is selling out fast—or let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in 2014. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

The one thing every plein air painter should know

If I were asked to list the most important skills for a plein air painter, they would include cleaning brushes, packing efficiently, and drawing (of course). But I would add a skill taught to me by my young assistant, Sandy Quang.

Every artist worth his or her salt carries plastic shopping bags. (Here in Rochester they are called Wegmans’ bags but they probably have a different name in your neck of the woods.) They can be recycled in any number of ways: as trash bags, as emergency wrappers for damaged tubes of paint, or to schlep dirty brushes back home. I always pack three in my backpack, and another half dozen in my teaching bag. They’re really annoying in their natural state, however.

In its natural state, a plastic shopping bag is a pain. It bounces around, wraps itself around stuff, and generally takes up far more space than its real volume.
First, smooth the bag out so the corners are flat and the handles are straight.
Then fold the bag in half…

And half again.
From the bottom, start folding it in triangles…
...until you reach the handle.
Almost there!
Fold the handle back toward the bag, also in triangles.
And stuff it in the gap.
Yeah, like this.
Voila! A perfectly neat bag to drop in your backpack.
And if you keep a stash of them, you might qualify as OCD Painter of the Year.
But THIS, my friends, is the sound of a new computer installing Adobe Creative Suite. Tomorrow I might actually start to make sense again!
 Join us in October, 2013 at Lakewatch Manor—which is selling out fast—or let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in 2014. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

Sixteen scurvy navvies

The Halve Maen passing Hudson Highlands, 40X30, oil on canvas (also available in Giclée print)
This painting is hanging in Sea and Sky: A Personal Journey, now through October 18 at Lakewatch Manor, 184 Lakeview Drive, Rockland, Maine (call 207-593-0722 for more information).

I painted it to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s 1609 voyage in the Halve Maen. He and a small crew of sixteen scurvy navvies sailed from Amsterdam to Newfoundland. From there they turned south, skimming along the Atlantic coast until they eventually made landfall at Cape Cod.

They then sailed to Chesapeake Bay, after which they worked their way north along the coast, poking into bays and inlets. Much of the Hudson River is a tidal estuary of brackish water, so Hudson and his crew must have been thrilled as they headed north, believing they had finally found the fabled Northwest Passage. They sailed up to modern-day Albany before realizing their mistake.

This was the beginning of the end for Henry Hudson (he would be set adrift in a James Bay ice field a mere two years later) but the beginning of European hegemony over what would eventually become New York.
The Last Voyage Of Henry Hudson, John Collier, 1881. I prefer to believe they made it to the south end of James Bay and walked back to habitable climes, stopping at a Tim Horton on the way.
 Had Hudson wandered just a few miles west, he would have come face-to-face with the New World’s greatest military power, the Iroquois Confederacy. It’s fun to speculate whether they would have squashed his small force like bugs, feted them, or merely ignored them.
As far as we know, however, they didn’t encounter the Mohawks. They might have seen the Mohicans near Albany, but I chose to represent them with Lenape men.
The Halve Maen itself is a mere speck in the painting. That tiny speck is the first inflamed node of the Black Plague, the first stomach twinge of a cholera epidemic. It was so small, and so inconsequential, but it represented the ultimate destruction of their Eden. 

Hudson wasn’t the first European the natives had encountered; Albany had a French trading fort in 1540. Verrazzano had encountered the Lenape when he sailed in Hudson harbor in 1524. But these people were not the forerunners of colonists in the way Hudson was. The Dutch, English and Iroquois inexorably displaced the Lenape and Mohicans in the Hudson Valley. Where they failed, smallpox succeeded.

I turned the natives’ faces from the viewer because I don’t want to presume their reaction—probably because I have no idea what my own reaction would be. In making the boat so tiny, I was taking a page from Pieter Bruegel the Elder, who frequently put the significant action of his paintings in a corner of an otherwise panoramic canvas.

Headwaters of the Hudson (Lake Tear of the Clouds), 40X30, Oil on Canvas (Private Collection)

I also painted Lake Tear of the Clouds (which is the headwater of the Hudson) for the same show. Although I used a misty Adirondacks highland setting for it, it is not in fact a pool in which a canoe would likely be abandoned. The canoe in the painting was inspired by one I saw in a tidal pool at the Passamaquoddy Pleasant Point Reservation near Eastport, Me. The connection between the Adirondacks and Maine is deep and not easily fathomed.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, ca. 1590-95. Bruegel frequently put the significant action of his paintings in a corner of an otherwise panoramic canvas, and it’s an idea I love to borrow.

 Join us in October, 2013 at Lakewatch Manor—which is selling out fast—or let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in 2014. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

Oh, the places we’ve been!

This may be a first in computer history: a blog entry written by hand, using a pen. I don’t recommend it; it’s cumbersome and slow and when you’re done you just have to type it in again. Plus, I’m not sure anything I wrote made any sense.

If the puff of blue smoke and whiff of brimstone hadn’t convinced me, the Last Rites performed by the IT department proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that my laptop had suddenly morphed into a doorstop.

It’s possible that my computer expired rather than look at any more dresses on the Internet. However, I recently received a chunk of change in exchange for a painting. My dear Prius is eight years old and has been gunning for a spa day. It’s a very smart car, so I knew enough to walk to the bank to deposit the check. But it never dawned on me that my laptop might actually pay attention to what I enter into its spreadsheets.*

It is now time for that most painful of tasks: comparison shopping. There are a million ways to make a wrong choice in today’s marketplace. (Some people enjoy shopping. Imagine that.)

Should I get a tablet? I travel a lot; my luggage is always too big. My IT department immediately vetoed that. I can hardly argue since he programs on both platforms. “A tablet will never give you the power you need and the apps are still primitive in comparison,” he said.

Former laptop, now doorstop or paperweight. Goodbye, Old Paint.

I purchased this laptop before the Great Crash of 2008. That’s a good long life for a laptop, but my kids have had the same brand and their laptops both had catastrophic fails. So brand loyalty alone is no guide.

At this point, someone always suggests that I buy a Mac. Been there, done that. I don’t want to pay the premium for the hardware or buy new software. PC architecture allows my IT department to upgrade hardware every time I start whining. (He has to; he’s married to me.)

We keep a spare laptop for emergencies. I can type on an old version of Word but there’s no card reader and no way to access any of the 15,000 or so photos on my hard drive. “This is why I tell you to store your photos on the server,” grumbled the IT department. Then he fished around and found me an old external card reader.

I always look for the silver lining. Perhaps my new computer will allow me to comment on my own blog, I mused. And I was chuffed to realize that my go-to guys for computer advice—besides the afore-mentioned IT department, of course—are my three daughters.

*I know inanimate objects watch carefully to see if you recently got paid, but how does my dentist know when I’ve suddenly come across a little gelt? He just told me I need a new crown.

Join me in October, 2013 at Lakewatch Manor—which is selling out fast—or let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in 2014. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops! If you want to study in Rochester, drop me a line here.

The art of practice, the practice of art

Carol Thiel’s field sketch of Durand Lake, done last Wednesday evening. About 9X12, and about three hours from easel up to easel down. If you read yesterday’s blog entry, you know that I was amazed she could get any kind of a painting out of the scene.
This morning a young woman named Cherise Parris led worship at our church. She is the daughter of two accomplished and well-known Rochester musicians (Alvin and Debra Parris) and she’s been singing since she first drew breath. She has a powerhouse voice.
Cherise uses her voice like an extension of her own self, as a tool to express an idea. I’ve had voice lessons and I’ve sung in choirs, but I’ve never gotten past the point where I’m focused on creating a tone. On the rare occasion when I forget, I usually get a jab in the ribs and a sharp hissed “Mom!” Here’s the truth: I just don’t care enough about singing to actually practice.
There’s a meme based on Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers: the Story of Success” that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to make a craftsman. The number seems arbitrary to me, but there’s certainly truth to the idea that, as Thomas Edison is alleged to have said, “Genius is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration.”
I got two pictures by email today from Carol Thiel. Carol took my workshop last October, and has since taken my classes when her work schedule permits. One painting was done before she started studying with me; one was done last Wednesday evening in my class.
A painting done by Carol Thiel last year at the Adirondack Plein Air festival, right before she took my workshop. A nice painting, but she has developed a more sophisticated palette and value structure over the past year.
“They were sitting near each other and I was struck by the difference,” she said. “Both were painted in approximately the same amount of time,” she added. “The Adirondack painting had different conditions—a very dull, cloudy day—but nowadays I would be able to see some other colors in the clouds, darken the darks, etc.”
I appreciate that Carol sees value in my instruction, but there are two parts to this. The first is good teaching, but the second is that she listens to and practices what she learns.
It takes a long time to get to the point where you use a paintbrush as an extension of yourself. I asked Sandy Quang today whether she is there yet. (She’s been studying with me on and off since she was sixteen; she’s 25 today.) “Half and half,” she answered. And I think that’s about right.
All of which reminds me of that old saw: “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” “Practice, practice, practice.”

If you want to take a workshop with me, join me in October, 2013 at Lakewatch Manor—which is selling out fast—or let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in 2014. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops! If you want to study in Rochester, drop me a line here.

When good painting locations go bad

Carol’s set up of Durand Lake. Nice mackerel sky, heralding rain (correctly, as it turns out).

 I’ve painted at Durand-Eastman Park for years. I’ve painted on the beach, along Zoo Road, and most often on the embankment facing Durand and Eastman Lakes. These are steep-sided glacial fingerlings reaching back from the shore of Lake Ontario, separated from their mother lake by a narrow strip of land. 
This location is handicapped-accessible. It has picnic tables. It has parking. It had a Porta-Potty, and it’s always several degrees cooler than inland.
Speaking of skies, this was what we had at sunset. Not all that paintable, but interesting for having that fine spun cotton below the altocumulus layer. That Lake Ontario skyline is inexorable, however, and it is matched by an equally flat shoreline. If the clouds don’t cooperate, you have a whole lot of nothing.
With a little manipulation, one could create the illusion* of the stillness of the Adirondacks. Durand Lake seems to disappear through a twisting inlet that gives the impression of limitless possibility. A tree trunk curves fetchingly over the inlet and the sun would often etch that line in lovely contrast to the still, golden water below.
  
So when Carol Thiel and I were kicking around ideas for painting spots, it seemed like a reasonable option for a particularly gorgeous summer evening: limpid, luminous, neither hot nor cool, with ever-changing clouds. It held the promise of a great sunset.
That thud-thud-thud is the sound of jet-skies.
But what the heck happened to my reliable view? The tree that had once dangled fetchingly over the inlet was obscured by new growth. The forms of the lake-shore were overrun with undergrowth, monotonously green in color. The duckweed that usually provides a golden-chartreuse foil was in extremely short supply.
Carol painted it, and did a credible job of finding interest in the scene. Virginia and Lyn turned their backs on it and painted Lake Ontario instead. Now, there’s a thankless painting! The person who can find a composition on the Rochester shore of Lake Ontario—outside the harbors themselves—that’s anything other than a series of horizontal bands punctuated by scrubby trees wins a prize: a freeze-pop in your choice of colors.
One thing we are never in short supply of here in Rochester is trees, so Catherine was wise to default to drawing them. (This park is home to Slavin Arboretum, which is an awfully interesting tree collection.)
And, if you can believe it, they took away the Porta-Potty.  And as sunset moved in, so did a dense, obscuring cloud cover. I really should complain to the city.

“We haven’t come across a Lock 32 this year,” said Catherine, by which she meant that we hadn’t found a painting location that mesmerized us. It must be easily accessible from the city, it must be handicapped-accessible, it must have a bathroom, and it must be interesting. I hate to reprise hits from the past, so I ask my Rochester friends: do you have any brilliant ideas?   
*Durand-Eastman is a particularly noisy park. The traffic on Lakeshore Drive is usually drowned out by the ever-present jet-skis rumbling along the lake. But paintings don’t have soundtracks, thankfully.

Join us in October, 2013 at Lakewatch Manor—which is selling out fast—or let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in 2014. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

Buoy auction!

As I’ve mentioned here before, I recently painted a Merdonna and Child for an auction to raise money for Penobscot East Resource Center. You can see my buoy here
When you’re done leafing through these, you can see all the buoys here. (And I hope you will consider bidding on them to raise money for this organization, which you can also do by emailing the director.) There are more than 60 buoys altogether, and they are very fine work indeed. These were selected under no greater organizing principle than that I liked them. But you may find others you like much better. If so, would you let me know? 

Paula Dougherty’s “Seabirds”

This is colored pencil. As absurd a notion as doing trompe-l’œil using fist-sized pastels. And yet it works. The artist says this is a combination of “realistic and mythical seabirds.”  She’s from Brooklin. 

Julie Reed’s “Dressed to Krill”

“This little buoy has been hanging out underwater and has come up dripping with a net covered in krill! Who knew zooplankton could be so beautiful?” says Julie Reed, who–when she’s not beading–is a nurse and volunteer EMT in Deer Isle. 

Jean C. Burdo’s “Seaside Village”

I don’t usually respond to folk art, but this is awfully well-executed, whimsical, and curiously true to what a Maine seaside village looks like. 

Mary Ellen Kelleher’s “Zinnias & Bugs”

“Oh, buoy! Is there anything better than a day in the garden,” it asks.  Great flowers and a luscious blue sky…. and the painter is from Rockland. 

Audrey Yankielun’s “Number 2”

How did Yakielun look at a buoy and see a pencil? Was she a bean-counter in Westfield, NJ before (as she states on her website) “walking away from my corporate position in 2007?” No idea, but she made me say, “I wish I’d thought of that!”

Jill Hoy’s “Dancing Tree”

No mystery to this: it looks like a Tom Thompson or Group of Seven tree, so of course I like it. Hoy operates a gallery in Stonington, and I think I’d like to wander up to see it on one of these trips. 

Persis Clayton Weirs’ “Torrey Pond”

Having just painted a buoy myself, I’m in awe of the control needed to do this work on this surface. Torrey writes, “A mile walk back into the woods from our house leads to a beautiful wild pond. Cat tails and lily pads line the shores and spread into the shallows. Torrey Pond is a haven to eagles, water birds, beavers, snapping turtles and an occasional visiting moose visiting from the mainland.” 

Rebekah Raye’s “The Owl & Pussy Cat Set Sail”

Well, why not? (I think I actually saw their beautiful pea-green boat in Camden harbor last month.)

Join us in October, 2013 at Lakewatch Manor—which is selling out fast—or let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in 2014. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!