A tonic after two days of Dead Baby Art

The Lord Is My Shepherd, Eastman Johnson, 1863
Yesterday Jane Bartlett sent thisto serve as a tonic for the two days I spent thinking about what she called Dead Baby Art. Another artist, Kristine Greenizen, calls it Damien HirstSteak Spectacular: spectacle that has little about the craft and thought of art in it.
To our modern eyes, The Lord is My Shepherd looks quaint, but it was painted in 1863, shortly after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued. There were roughly 4 million enslaved blacks in America, and by no means was emancipation assured.
A Ride for Liberty: The Fugitive Slaves,  Eastman Johnson, c. 1862
“This painting is a statement, a teachable moment, and even harsh in its own way, but an expression that does not arrive before the work of art does,” Jane wrote. The message has not been divorced from the medium itself.
Johnson accords this young black man the dignity of assuming he can read and understand Scripture. Of course, you think, but that was by no means the universal opinion in 1863. The assumption that a black person could and should direct his own spiritual life was a politically- and religiously-charged issue at the time.
 Portrait of an Old Man in an Armchair, Rembrandt van Rijn, 1654
The painting appears dark to our modern eyes, but Johnson is deliberately modeling his technique after Rembrandt. Rembrandt did not always enjoy the cult-like status we accord him today. He was rediscovered in the 19th century by French intellectuals who saw in him a champion of realism (most notably, the poet Charles Baudelaire).
Johnson is classified today as a “genre painter” for his depictions of slave life. It would be more accurate to call him social realist in the tradition of the Barbizon painters before him and the Ashcan School who would follow. By using a technique he associated with social realism, he is making the political nature of his work perfectly clear. That we no longer see his paintings as revolutionary is a testimony to his (and other artists’) polemical skills: they have thoroughly converted us to their viewpoint.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

Personal performance art, revisited

Portrait of Dr. Samuel D. Gross (The Gross Clinic), 1875, Thomas Eakins. Who knew Eakins was such a visionary?
Yesterday, I had a minor medical procedure done, which—as is the nature of these things—will be followed by a slightly-less-minor medical procedure. While discussing scheduling, the surgeon mentioned that he could do it either at an outpatient surgical center or our local hospital.
“How about an art gallery?” I inquired. “It would be perfect. This has all the great narrative themes: love, death, gore, fear, sex, nudity, pathos.”
The Agnew Clinic, 1889, Thomas Eakins
He studied the papers in his hands. “Unfortunately, your insurance doesn’t cover you for performance art,” he answered. “However, after January 1, 2014, under the Affordable Care Act…”

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

I don’t object because it cheapens sex, but because it cheapens art.

William Blake’s The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with Sun (1805). This is what conceptual art used to be about.
The Daily Mail reportedthat a young British art student plans to have sex in a public gallery for a project entitled Art School Stole My Virginity. It’s both sad and quaint that he imagines there’s anything left to shock in the act of sex. We Boomers, after all, got there long before him.
It’s the debasing of art I object to. Every time someone has a half-baked idea, they gussy it up and put it in a gallery. How often do they think they can do this before the word “art” has utterly no meaning?
Think of British art at the end of the 18thcentury—Reynolds, Stubbs, Gainsborough, Romney, Blake, Lawrence, Turner, and Constable, to name just a few. To paint at their level, they had to be great thinkers as well as great technicians.
In 1759, the English poet Edward Young published an essay called Conjectures on Original Composition. This argued that originality and creativity were more valuable than classical training. His ideas were seized by Goethe and the rest of the Sturm und Drang movement.
Nothing new under the sun, except perhaps that the murals in Pompeii were in a brothel, not a gallery.
On a practical level, the Cult of Genius meant artists were no longer considered craftsmen but intellectuals. The above artists were painting in that zeitgeist. It was appropriate in their case, but it ultimately led to the divorce of idea from technique that ends with sex being considered fine art.
The truly amazing thing would be if the kid made it through art school without losing his virginity. Or made it through art school without deciding he’s gay. Or actually practiced to master his art, which I suppose is part of the point, since virgo intactacan be loosely translated as “never having practiced.”

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

The Witty City

The restored Hotel Lafayette.
My home town of Buffalo, NY is certainly one of the most beautiful cities in America. Each time I return, it’s in better repair.
Take the Lafayette Hotel, where I stayed this weekend. I remember it as a dilapidated building with one room open to the public. Local and out-of-town acts played the Lafayette Tap Room, using the former lunchroom as their Green Room. It was as if Father Time had locked the lunchroom door in 1960, not even bothering to clear away the dishes. I had lunch there yesterday; it is exquisitely restored to its 1911 grandeur. In contrast, the ballrooms, lobby and bar are all flamboyantly Art Deco in character.
Bar at the Hotel Lafayette.
Future Buffalo men watching the Bills from the mezzanine at the lunch room of the Hotel Lafayette (now run by the Pan American Grill people).
Next door is the former Adam, Meldrum and Anderson headquarters. There is a streak of whimsy in a city that maintains signage for a department store that’s been gone since 1994.
AM&A’s dress ads on Washington Street.
1912 Electric Tower.
Down the street is the Electric Tower, built in 1912 as a copy of the electric tower at Buffalo’s Pan American Exhibition. It is a Beaux-Arts confection of white terra cotta tile, an outstanding example in a city full of terra cotta architecture.
Buffalo’s City Hall
My favorite building, of course, is City Hall, which appears to be giving the finger to the world. In 1929, it was designed with a passive cooling system that took advantage of the prevailing Lake Erie breezes. Trendy, huh?
Stainless Steel, Aluminum, Monochrome I, Built to Live Anywhere, at Home Here (2010-2011, Nancy Rubins)
Somehow, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery has managed to continue obtaining fine work, despite the economic woes Buffalo has endured for the last half century. It has acquired an exuberant mash-up of aluminum canoes by Nancy Rubins for its front lawn. In a northern city threaded by fantastic waterways, it’s somehow topical (although, as the title indicates, that’s beside the point).
Across the street at the Burchfield-Penney Art Museum, there’s a son et lumière projection called “Front Yard.” Mercifully, it was cold, so our windows were rolled up. Thus we missed the soundtrack, which is computer-generated from local weather station readings. At the opening, “viewers were treated to work by ’70s heavyweights Hollis Frampton, Paul Sharits and Steina Vasulka,” reported Colin Dabkowski in the Buffalo News. (The visuals change constantly.)
That’s so Buffalo—centered around the weather and redolent of the age of mullets. All it needs is a paean to Lou Reed (dead yesterday at age 71) and a reference to sports and it would be the perfect Buffalo experience. But don’t think I’m critical. Both installations are more thoughtful and grounded than the anodyne sculptures by Tom Otterness acquired by the Memorial Art Gallery in Rochester, which are redolent of nothing more than a tag sale in Manhattan.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

Two books I keep recommending that people buy, over and over…

Trouble is, I never remember their titles when I’m asked. 

The first is Kevin Macpherson’s Landscape Painting Inside & Out, which is a nice introduction to plein air painting by an extremely competent teacher and painter. If you like this book, you might also try his Fill Your Oil Paintings with Light &Color.
I was teaching in a small town in New Mexico when the dusty little square suddenly filled with painting students and their teacher, Kevin Macpherson. To me, that was the equivalent of a provincial singer suddenly confronted by Maria Callas, and I was quite unnerved. But he was extremely gracious.

The second book is The Group of Seven and Tom Thomson by David Silcox. If you want to understand the northern landscape, you must study the Group of Seven. However, painters from any region can benefit from studying how they paint into traps, see landscape mosaics, and use stylish design. And their ideology—the power of the Great White North—ain’t bad, either.
Daughter getting married in two days! Hanging on by a thread.
Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

That mysterious synergy between artists

Pokeweed and ferns set off those florist flowers.
When the creative process is working well between two people, there’s what a friend calls “flow.” Solutions seem to flow naturally into the openings created by problems.
Jennifer Jones makes smashing statement jewelry out of repurposed buttons, gems, earrings, brooches (and the occasional tiny hot sauce bottle). She spends most of her days arranging enamel flowers; who better than to help me arrange fresh ones for my kid’s wedding on Saturday?
Jennifer Jones, hard at work arranging baskets.
We chose the flower colors weeks ago (with the bride’s connivance, of course) and were quite smug about them. And they worked fine in the bouquets. But when we got to the flowers for the church, they were, frankly, boring.
Jennifer stood back, eyeballing her creation, and asked, “You got any pokeweed in your back garden?” The chances of someone deliberately leaving pokeweed in one of our highly-manicured, postage-stamp gardens are nil. But I’ve kept one for two years, ever since costume clothier Gail Kellogg Hope and I had a chat about its dyeing properties.
The florist flowers. Yes, that’s goldenrod in the back, and yes, I paid actual money for it (since it’s already passed here in WNY).
Pokeweed has flashy bright-pink stems, large lance-shaped leaves and grape-like clusters of dark purple berries. (Evidently it is used in folk medicine and food in some cultures, but since it also contains plant toxins, I steer clear of it as a food source.)
I went out with a flashlight and clipped several stems of pokeweed and a few ferns, which are now turning gold. The result was far better than anything I could have expected from the florist blooms alone.
My cousins run a fantastic flower shop called Flowerflower. They specialize in using native plants, but since they’re in Australia, that tends to run to crazy-looking banksias and other things suited to their topsy-turvy continent. Yet somehow the pokeweed seems just as exotic, even though it’s as common as dirt in American farmyards.
The final count—27 vases, two baskets, seven bouquets, four corsages, 11 boutonnieres. Oh, and there will be no painting class on Saturday! 

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

It was a gorgeous summer in Rochester, too…

Clouds over Barben Farm in Honeoye Falls.
This week, I’m taking a look back at my summer, both in Maine and in Rochester. 
Catherine, Sandy and Carol at Powder Mills Park in Pittsford.
We often light on a place here in Rochester and paint there through a season, but this year we were gypsies.
Perhaps the nicest thing about this summer was the opportunity to work with so many new artists. In particular, I loved the challenge of starting to teach Amy Vail to draw.
The weather in Rochester seemed to be perfect more often than not—clear and bright, and never too hot. We would head for shelters on the threat of rain, but it usually didn’t materialize.

There are many good options at Schoen Place. This one provides some cover.

Another option at Schoen Place is looking north over one of Pittsford’s remaining working farms.

Isabelle Ekeze watercoloring at High Falls.

Sam Horowitz paints to an audience during the Lilac Festival.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

And the things that we ate!

My personal favorite will always be codfish, here served with polenta with kale. But it’s equally likely to be grassfed beef, or a curry, or chicken stew.
This week, I’m taking a look back at my summer, both in Maine and in Rochester. 

Fresh greens with nasturtium blossoms.
When I arrived at Lakewatch Manor at close to midnight last Saturday, there was home-made hummus and bagel chips with za’atar waiting for me.  And I left after a predawn breakfast of fish and organic spinach. The innkeepers are food revolutionaries of a kind that Maine seems to specialize in. 
But others might prefer Apple Cider Doughnuts from the Willow Bake Shoppe in Rockland. Baked, not fried.
They believe in sustainable practices and healthy, organically-produced foods, they practice permaculture, and they buy local. That might mean buying grassfed meats from Sap Bush Hollow farms in Schoharie County, New York, or seafood from Sea Hag Seafood in Tennant’s Harbor, ME, whose founder just received an entrepreneurial award.
Or organic thick rolled oats with ground flax with fresh berries. Oh, where did I put my flourless chocolate torte photo?

In fact, they’ve so changed my thinking that I’ve been musing about making my next house one where I can keep chickens.
Our lunches were always delicious! Since my usual on-the-road lunch is a Clif bar, this was definitely several steps up.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

Oh, the places we went!

Rocks off Port Clyde.
“It’s opener, out there, in the wide, open air.”
(Oh, the Places You’ll Go! by Dr. Seuss)
This week, I’m taking a look back at my summer, both in Maine and in Rochester. 
There are more places to paint in the Rockland area than we can ever explore in a single week, but here are a few of the ones we visited.
Painting among the trees. (Photo courtesy of Christine Haley)

Beautiful Camden harbor, with its fleet of schooners.

Chickens on Monhegan. (Photo courtesy of Nancy Woogen)

Owl’s Head view.

Tennant’s Harbor view.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

Seven days of wood smoke and crackling leaves—Little Ol’ Me

New York Catskill Farm, pastel. I decided to shun-pike from New York City to Rochester after Rye Painters on Location one year, and found this fantastic site along the way.

I’m in Maine for my last 2013 painting workshop! The frost isn’t quite on the pumpkin (at least not in Rockland or Rochester) but autumn is in the air. I’m leaving some fall landscapes for you.
As I’m fishing through my memory for autumn paintings, I realize I’ve painted a heck of a lot of them myself.  Perhaps that’s because the Northeast is so glorious in the fall.

So here is a tour of some places I love to paint. I hope you get a sense of the spirit of place that drives my painting:
Nunda Autumn, pastel. This is the view from the Kellogg farm in the Genesee Valley, and I wish I could get back there soon to paint again.
Finger Lakes marshes in autumn. I have painted in the Finger Lakes more than anywhere else (often with my former painting partner Marilyn Feinberg). It’s where I realized that northeast landscapes are not about depth of field; they are about the tapestry of surface.
The Dugs in Autumn. Right after the Finger Lakes come the lower Adirondacks. This is a marsh formed by a beaver dam just north of Speculator.
Maine Surf. And then there’s Maine. Beautiful in every season. I painted this in Rockport several years ago, during a nice rainstorm.