Nothing lasts forever

The Descent from the Cross (c. 1435), by Rogier van der Weyden. The majority of his work was probably destroyed; we can only guess at its extent.
I recently wroteabout the destruction of Egyptian antiquities during their recent political revolutions. This is by no means the only targeting of antiquities in the current Muslim insurgency. The demolition of the Buddhas of Bamiyan by the Taliban in 2001 is the most memorable example, but Hindu sites across Asia have also been targeted.
Iconoclasm—the deliberate destruction or mutilation of religious art and symbols for politico-religious motives—has a long and broad history. Sometimes this occurs to oppress a disfavored religion or ideology, and sometimes it occurs to purify a movement from within.
English Altarpiece (c. 14th century) destroyed during the Dissolution.
The Protestant Reformation, in particular, showed marked hostility to graven images—at least until it could replace the preceding genre with its own. As a fan of Rogier van der Weyden, Jan van Eyck, Robert Campin and other Early Netherlandish Painters, I’ve often wondered about the destroyed altarpieces of northern Europe. There were certainly masterworks we will never know about; were there great painters also lost to history forever?
Bildersturm (or Beeldenstorm, if you’re Dutch) was a series of violent outbreaks against religious icons during the 16th century. In France, these took the form of unofficial attacks by Huguenots that were resisted by the Catholic majority. In Germany and England, looting was organized by the government (after forcible conversion of the population). In the Low Countries, the religious revolution was closely tied with the political revolution that was the Eighty Years War.
Relief in the Cathedral of Saint Martin, Utrecht, damaged during 16th century spasm of Reformation iconoclasm.
Protestant leaders like Huldrych Zwingli and John Calvin actively suppressed religious imagery within churches under their control. Martin Luther was less dogmatic, allowing artists like Lucas Cranach to create Protestant altarpieces to replace the Catholic ones. (These Lutheran altarpieces, in turn, were subsequently threatened by a wave of Calvinism a few decades later.)
In the Lowlands, the furor touched off on August 10, 1566, when the chapel of the Sint-Laurensklooster in Steenvoorde (now in northern France) was looted. This touched off a wave of iconoclastic destruction that rapidly spread north. Within two weeks, the attacks had spread to Antwerp, Ghent and Amsterdam.
Looting of the Churches of Lyon by the Calvinists 1562, by Antoine Caron.
In England, Henry VIII had already looted the rich monastic properties of their treasure, but it took the Civil War and the Commonwealth to finish the destruction of English medieval church art. Between the dissolution of the monasteries in 1535 and the restoration of Charles II in 1660, almost the entire treasury of pre-Reformation art in England was destroyed.

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!


He was a Friend of Mine, Jack Owen, watercolor on paper. A demon cat for all you cat fanciers on the internet.
Happy Thanksgiving!

I don’t feel like working any more than you do, but if you’re bored, here are some turkeys from the Museum of Bad Art (MOBA). I’m proud (and relieved) to tell you that no student of mine has a chance of ever being featured in their gallery.


Waterfall, Anonymous, oil on canvas. Best thing about this? It came from a flea market in Buffalo.

Trees, wheelbarrow, and birds, Anonymous, oil on artboard. I’m almost certain a tree that big would tip that wheelbarrow right over.
The Picnic, Anonymous. Move over, Manet. Le déjeuner sur l’herbe has been pwned. 

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 high price of being female

We call this Paleolithic relief The Venus of Laussel but we really have no idea what it is. Perhaps it’s the world’s first self-portrait by an artist.
In the art world, it’s no big secret that there’s a high price to be paid for being a woman. The chart below was assembled before the recent $142.4 million sale price for Francis Bacon’s “Three Studies of Lucian Freud,” but the reality remains the same. Masterworks by female painters are consistently devalued in the marketplace.

Having participated in roughly a billion art shows, I can assure you that even if it’s getting better, it’s still very much a man’s world out there. On every level, paintings by male artists earn more money than those by female artists.
From the Economist, The Price of Being Female, May 20, 2012
I came of age during the Modernist era, which associated creativity with virility. It was not, in fact, until I was much older that I began to learn about great women artists like Artemisia Gentileschi, Rosa Bonheur, or Käthe Kollwitz. This shows you how pervasive was the myth that art is a man’s province. In fact, I would say that the question of whether women could even make good art was still an open one in the 1960s and 1970s.
A recent survey of Paleolithic stenciled handprints by Professor Dean Snow from Pennsylvania State University certainly undermines that view. After sampling a number of European caves containing Paleolithic artwork, he estimates that about 75 percent of the handprint art in them was done by women.
Handprints at El Castillo in Spain, among the world’s oldest art.
In human populations, there is general sexual dimorphism of hands—the most reliable part being that the ratio of the length of the second digit (index finger) to the length of the fourth digit (ring finger) is greater in women than in men. However, even this isn’t foolproof; in modern European populations, it is only true about 60% of the time.
“I thought the fact that we had so much overlap in the modern world would make it impossible to determine the sex of the ancient handprints. But, old hands all fall at or beyond the extremes of the modern populations. Sexual dimorphism was greater then than it is now,” said Professor Snow.
That in itself raises a fascinating question: what in modern life suppresses gender dimorphism? Is it our abandonment of traditional gender roles? That in turn comes back to the question of what, in fact, are our traditional gender roles?
A museum replica of cave paintings at Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave in southern France.
Paleolithic cave art has been presumed by modern social scientists to be talismanic, bringing good hunting to its creators. Of course, hunting is a traditionally male activity in a hunter-gatherer society, which means it must have been made by men. But is it true that men were the predominant hunters in Paleolithic society? And was primitive man as singlemindedly religious as we’d like to believe, or is it possible that the cave artists were decorating those spaces for the sheer joy of it?
Analysis of the cave art really tells us more about our own biases than anything.
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!

Freedom from want

Freedom from Want, Norman Rockwell, 1943
This Thanksgiving Day the average American will consume more than 4500 calories, accordingto the Calorie Control Council. I’m all for eating right, but I think the capacity of our nation to throw an annual bash is an unequivocally good thing.
Thanksgiving is the most universal of American holidays—celebrated by people of all religions, by new immigrants, and by wanderers like my friend Martha in Edinburgh, who has located a 6 kg. turkey and a circle of friends to share her holiday.
Freedom of Worship, Norman Rockwell, 1943
Perhaps that’s why Norman Rockwell chose it to illustrate Freedom from Want in his Four Freedoms series. The painting celebrates family, love, and happiness. Critics who call it an illustration of American overconsumption perhaps don’t notice that there is almost no food on that table. There is no wine; there is only water in plain, clear glasses. The black suit and white table are almost Puritan in effect. What abundance there is comes straight from the hosts’ hands, and the joy around the table comes from each other.
Freedom of Speech, Norman Rockwell, 1943
The arresting composition may be why this painting is one of Rockwell’s enduring favorites. Many of his covers for the Saturday Evening Post were done as one-dimensional knock-outs, with no perspective to speak of. This view from the bottom of the table, with its luminous white-on-white table set starkly against Grandpa’s black suit, is a masterwork of composition. (Rockwell said that it was the easiest of the four paintings.)
Freedom from Fear, Norman Rockwell, 1943
Rockwell painted the Four Freedoms in seven months’ time, during which he lost 15 lbs. They were based on President Franklin Roosevelt’s Annual Message to Congress in 1941, which were dark days for those in opposition to Nazi Germany. As we take time from holiday preparations, it’s worth contemplating Roosevelt’s words:
In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.

The first is freedom of speech and expression—everywhere in the world.

The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way—everywhere in the world.

The third is freedom from want—which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants—everywhere in the world.

The fourth is freedom from fear—which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor—anywhere in the world.

That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation. That kind of world is the very antithesis of the so-called new order of tyranny which the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb.
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!

Catacombs of Priscilla

The orans posture (hands up, pleading) is a common trope in religious art, but the audience implies a preacher. From the newly restored Catacombs of Priscilla. (All images from the Catacombes de Priscilla website.)
Newly restored frescoes in the Catacombs of Priscilla have ignited a firestorm of speculation about whether the early church allowed women priests. I read these stories thinking this was another case of the popular press suffering from too little knowledge. Now I’m not at all sure they’re wrong.

The dominant cults of Rome at the time, including the Imperial Cult, honored women as members of the imperial family, priestesses, and goddesses. The Christian citizens of Rome would not have found a woman in the role of priestess to be particularly strange.
Among the images in the Catacombs’ Capella Graeca is a fresco of the Fractio Panis, showing six men and one woman breaking bread in the Eucharist. No, she’s not the central priest, but then again, is there one?
Paul—often cited as the authority for keeping women from religious roles—refers to Phoebe as a “deacon” in Romans 16:2 and clearly held Priscilla in high regard as a teacher and missionary.
That the catacombs are called after Priscilla and not her husband, the Consul Aquila, is in itself informative. The couple is mentioned six times in the New Testament. Acts 18 claims that the couple had recently come from Rome to Corinth where they met the apostle Paul (implying that Christianity had been taught in Rome before Paul got there).
Paul’s prohibitions against women preachers seem to conflict with his delight in the work of women like Priscilla. But this is just another example of the syncretic thinking of the ancients, which we moderns seemingly cannot embrace. It was Aquila who became a bishop in Asia Minor and not Priscilla, but Christianity had a way of adapting itself to the political realities of place. At any rate, they were both martyred, so for them it’s all water over the dam now.
A beautiful image of Christ with his lambs from the Catacombs of Priscilla.
The Catacombs of Priscilla are among many such catacombs in Europe. Generally, these were also used for religious services when Christianity was suppressed. In the case of the Catacombs of Priscilla, that was the mid-second century through fourth century AD, a time of intermittent but violent suppression of the new Christian religion.
This was not an insignificant site in the early church. Two early popes—Marcellinus (296 -304) and Marcellus I (308-309) and many martyrs are entombed there, and many other popes and martyrs were once there but have been removed elsewhere.

The previous interpretation of the frescos was that they illustrated the deuterocanonical story of Susannah. Why such a minor story would receive such treatment in such a prominent tomb is inexplicable, and the Fractio Panis, above, makes no sense in that context.

There are three major burial chambers in the Catacombs:  the “arenarium” or sand-quarry, the cryptoporticus, (an underground area to get away from the summer heat), and the hypogeum with the tombs of the Acilius Glabrio family, of which Priscilla was a member. 
It would be a pity to view the Catacombs of Priscilla only through the lens of gender equality. It contains some of the earliest known wall paintings of saints and Christian symbols, including the oldest known Marian paintings, from the third century AD.
Still, the gender equality question is fascinating, and this meticulous restoration brings the issue to light.
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!

Beauty and the human brain

Polka Dot Shirt, mixed media on canvas, by Erich H. (Autism Services of WNY)
A recent report suggests* a link between autism and synesthesia,  a neurological condition in which stimulating one sensory or cognitive pathway triggers involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway.
The report is rudimentary in the extreme, being based on an online survey. This is no surprise, since the whole question of synesthesia is largely unstudied. That’s a pity, since managing neuroplasticity has so much potential for some of the most intractable diseases we humans face. Who knows whether the cures for Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, ALS, or Huntington’s might be found in the ability of the brain to work along duplicate pathways?
Guitar, acrylic on canvas, by Erich H. (Autism Services of WNY)
When I read this story, my thoughts immediately went to a young man I’ve known since before he was in short pants. It’s no surprise that Erich can draw and paint beautifully. I’ve known his mother since she was in short pants and she’s a very talented woman. 
Batman and Tops with Hearts and Candy Bars, mixed media on paper,  by Erich H. (Autism Services of WNY)
I asked Erich’s mother if she thought synesthesia contributed to Erich’s painting ability, and she answered, “Possibly. He does have perfect pitch, too.”
Yellow Ceiling Fan on Black, mixed media on canvas, by Erich H. (Autism Services of WNY)
Erich is hardly alone in being a talented artist with autism. For the past decade, Autism Services of Western New York has run an art program for its clients. Not only are they exposed to various materials and resources, but their work is shown regularly in commercial and public venues across the greater Buffalo area.
If you’re interested in seeing their clients’ work in a real-world setting, check here for a list of venues. If you’re on Facebook, like Autism Services of Western New York on your news feed. 

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 trials of a young art-school graduate

Meeting of Fronts, from Jeff Swartout’s senior show went to New York and was sold. Heady success for a young kid.

One of the groups affected disproportionally by the 2008-13 economic malaise has been recent college graduates. About half of them scrape by either unemployed or marginally employed. It’s always taken time for kids to find their niche, but it appears to have gotten tougher in the last five years.
Art students, however, have always expected to cobble a living together after graduation. Sadly, many of them leave their field, since it’s an unreceptive world that pretty much leaves the young artist to flounder without mentoring.

A cat, drawn in multiple poses by Jeff Swartout. Hard to take on big projects without the structure of a studio, but one can always draw.
I’ve watched the career of one young artist with considerable interest. Jeff Swartout is a 2012 graduate of Alfred University and a talented young painter.
When Jeff’s painting, top, went on to New York and sold in May of 2012, I was optimistic about his chances of success. “It was a hugely validating experience,” he said. In a normal market it would have opened the door to more opportunities, but that didn’t happen. “In the back of my mind I knew I wasn’t experienced enough to live on my own or make a living as an artist.”
Jeff has great painting chops, but he can’t really see a clear path forward. When I asked him where he wanted to be in twenty years, he answered, “I don’t know.”
“I could do anything and be happy as long as I’m learning something. The more I think about it, and look back on my past work, the more I think I want to pursue illustration/animation,” he said.

That confusion is common enough at that age, but it’s made more difficult because in our society, artists get almost no help in establishing careers.  However, even without a clear goal, Jeff knows the first step is to get out of Binghamton and move to a vibrant regional art market. His choice is Asheville, NC. “I just want to marinate in a different culture for a while,” he said. “I fell in love with North Carolina, felt inspired, and loved being so close to the deep outdoors. Plus, Asheville is such a cool and progressive city.”

And figure studies, done this year, by Jeff Swartout.
To that end, he’s working nights at Kohl’s and looking for a second job. It’s a good plan. Although we New Yorkers have been trained to think of Manhattan as the Center of the Known Universe, a good regional market actually makes more sense for an emerging artist.
Almost every college student expresses doubts about career choices, but the art major has the added burden of having spent his or her formative years hearing from almost everyone how an art major is a dumb idea. “Before college I had so many aspirations, and somewhere between my sophomore and senior years my motives changed. I’m still figuring out what the root of that is and if it’s ultimately helpful or harmful.”
But I’ve observed that most young people actually like what they’ve chosen once they actually start working. For one thing, work is a structured activity. Your job assignments take the place of your school assignments.
That’s a luxury artists don’t have. “Without a studio, peer review, or advisors to discuss my work with, I found after college that I didn’t know what to do with myself,” Jeff told me. “The motivations I had to draw before and after college were completely different because I got so caught up in assignments and projects that when I no longer had a prompts, I floundered.”
Jeff’s path may never involve a conventional job, but he may be getting to the recharge point all the same. ”I’ve recently inhaled a gust of inspiration, so perhaps that will change as I practice.”
Stick with it, kid. The world needs what you’re selling.

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!

Working under duress

Annunciation to Joseph, c. 2000, by little ol’ me. Who likes hearing upsetting news?
I was recently diagnosed with cancer. It’s kept me from doing much of anything these past few weeks, as I’m in a sort of paralysis of awe and anxiety. This is why I’ve been writing about art theory and history and not so much about practical painting.
Yesterday my doctor was reviewing the charts from my 1999 bout with a different cancer. “And you were running 900 miles a week,” he finished up.
I laughed. “I was actually running 30 to 36 miles a week then,” I said. “And the odd thing is, I’ve been ramping up my mileage all summer, and now I’m doing 25 miles a week.”  Last winter I realized that scrambling around rocks while teaching plein air painting in Maine would require a lot of endurance, so I started training harder.
Carnations and Clematis in a Crystal Vase, Édouard Manet, 1883. Manet dealt with illness by painting some exquisite small florals; you just know they are flowers from his bedside table. I don’t think I have this kind of ‘sweet’ in my character, but, then again, Manet probably didn’t think he did either.
When I had cancer in 1999, I made exercise my top priority. If I wasn’t hooked up to an IV, I walked or ran. It was how I kept sane. And my first resolution with this round of cancer is to do the same, even if it uses up all my limited energy. In retrospect, running is probably why I’m still here.
Twice now I’ve ramped up my workout the year before I learned I had cancer. No, exercise doesn’t cause cancer. Rather, sometimes God tells us to do something that we don’t understand at the time. Listening to the voice of God is pretty hard for people who have been trained to think rationally rather than intuitively. But when we succeed at it, we rapidly realize God has his hand firmly on our shoulders.
Carrying the Cross, from A Child Walks With Jesus, 1999-2000, St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, Rochester.
Right before my last diagnosis, I agreed to do Stations of the Cross for St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church in Rochester. It took me ten months to do 26 sketches, but in retrospect, I think the cancer shaped the work in ways I couldn’t have foreseen. The work also shaped my faith, because it addresses the fundamental question of the Christian experience: did Jesus really give us an end run around the inevitability of sin and death?
Oddly enough, I recently made a commitment to do seven large paintings on the subject of God and man in the environment. I have no idea how being sick can affect this work; I won’t know until I break this paralysis. But I will, and it will. That I know.

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!

Feminist design, for real.

An outdoor toilet block in an orphanage in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. No lights, no doors and a pit toilet. (Photo courtesy of Douglas J. Perot)
My friends have gotten a mighty good laugh at Bic’s totally pointless For Her ballpoint pens. But if you think all work of interior and industrial designers is trivial, then consider this story from Delhi, which tells us there is a link between the lack of proper bathrooms and sexual crimes against women.
Women in the Bhalswa neighborhood have the choice of paying a rupee to use a toilet in a communal toilet block, which is one of two serving a thousand households in their neighborhood. When it isn’t open—which is frequently—they are reduced to squatting in a nearby field.
The interior of a pit toilet in an orphanage in Port-au-Prince. Although there are no doors, the orphanage is secured and girls are safe when using it. This is not the case elsewhere in Haiti or many other parts of the world. (Photo courtesy of Douglas J. Perot.)
In either case, the danger of molestation is high. Neighbors estimate the rate of abduction from the toilet blocks to be about one a month, and women using the field are frequently harassed or assaulted by men.
More than half of India’s households don’t have sanitary facilities, and for the lowest-caste Dalits, that percentage is far higher. More Indians have cell phones than toilets. Considering how cheap cell phones are and how expensive bathrooms are, that’s really no surprise.  
Occasionally plein airpainters end up in a situation where they have to relieve themselves outdoors. Any woman who’s done this has a small sense of the vulnerability of the third-world woman without a bathroom.
Sanitary water and sewer lines have enhanced the development of private bathrooms but did not create them. Before there was running water in homes, there was the garderobe, which was a pit toilet that emptied outside the house. 
When we think of “bathroom design” in America today, we think of clever storage, heated towel bars, and granite tiles. But these are very recent innovations. My house was built with one family bathroom containing a tub, commode and pedestal sink, and a half-bath on the ground floor. The doors on both rooms were designed to lock, and the walls were covered with ceramic tile to facilitate cleaning. That was pretty much state-of-the-art in 1928.
A Toto Washlet and its remote control.
Now there is the strange (to our eyes) toilet of Japan, the Toto Washlet and its variations, which are available in 72% of Japanese households. These toilet seats incorporate posterior washing, feminine washing, seat warming and deodorization. Some models raise and lower the seat automatically.
Modern bathrooms did not spring fully-formed from a scientist’s brain. They were created iteratively, starting from the humble outhouse and working forward. Most 20th century improvements were made by industrial designers at the factory level and interior designers at the consumer level, and the quick-and-easy solution that brings universal sanitary facilities to the third world will probably come about in a similar way.

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!


An Everyman moment for the modern world, from Amy Stein’s Stranded.
Every once in a while an artist comes up with an idea that’s so universal I wish I’d thought of it. Amy Stein photographs people stuck at the side of the road.
Stein’s artist statement demonstrates the disconnect between what we say we’re investigating and what we actually create. Her essay is full of pap about “the despondence of the American psyche as certainty collapsed and faith eroded during the second term of the Bush administration.” But get past that, and the idea is simple and affecting.
From Amy Stein’s Stranded.
Most of her pictures are of cars and people, but the mobile home brought a smile of recognition. Our first house was pre-fabricated, built by kids at Orleans-Niagara BOCES. We bought it at auction and it was the biggest purchase we’d ever made, by far. Imagine our distress when we learned that it had been pulled over for a traffic violation and would spend the night parked next to a gravel pit. I didn’t sleep that night, visualizing thousands of stones in unseen punk hands aiming for all those uninsured new windows we had just paid for.
From Amy Stein’s Stranded.
Every breakdown has its backstory. Yes, it’s an isolating experience, but it is always personal, never political. We are late, we are in trouble, we are too broke to go buy oil, or we need that car to last six more months until we finish graduate school. Despite her rhetoric to the contrary, that’s the reality behind Stein’s pictures.
One scenario familiar to northeasterners is missing: the winter storm that lands our car in a ditch. A Google map, here, explains why: Stein, who is based in LA, never made it up here where the winds blow cold. Stein is intentionally artless and unheroic , but stripping away the conventions of earlier photography doesn’t actually move us; quite the opposite, in fact. Her empty emotional space is a pause waiting for an idea. Someone else should move in and fill it.

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!