Spring is just around the corner

Spring plein air painting of an upstate farm, by little ol’ me.
On this last day of February, when it’s 2° F. and blowing, it’s good to recollect that spring is just a moment away. Officially, it starts in twenty days. Unofficially, here in Rochester the snow pack should be melted by the end of March, and no matter how daft Mother Nature is, we will not see any snow showers after the first week of May.
Just how cold has this winter been? The coldest since the 1970s, according to meteorologists.
Plein air painting of Jamie Grossman’s waterfall, by little ol’ me.
Those same meteorologists warn that the warm-up is going to be very, very slow. Makes sense, considering the Great Lakes are a frozen block of ice (except ours, which is very stingy with its freezing). Nevertheless, in a few weeks the bravest of us plein airpainters will be outside again, stomping our heavy boots against the hard ground, and recording the first breath of spring—the clear, china-blue skies, the rising color in the twigs, the freshets of water everywhere.
Plein air painting of Sea Breeze Amusement park, by little ol’ me.
Which means it’s time to check your brushes, order fresh paint, clean out the pochade box, repack your backpack—in short, do all those tasks you meant to do last autumn but didn’t get around to.

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

Sometimes metaphor is an uphill battle

Winter lambing, underpainting, by little ol’ me.
If you were properly brought up on James Herriot, you know that a late winter blizzard can play havoc with lambing. This is not just an historical oddity; last spring a mid-April blizzard in Northern Ireland killed 17,000 lambs and sheep. Cold is not their only enemy. Weak and stranded sheep are at the mercy of predators. 
I’m apparently in the minority in being a fan of snow, but it’s a great thermal insulator, it supplies us with all the fresh water we need, and it sweeps the world clean. I think it makes a perfect metaphor for grace. As for the lamb, I assume that needs no explanation.
The Scapegoat by William Holman Hunt, second version, 1854–6.
William Holman Hunt made a similar assumption with The Scapegoat. The painting was deeply meaningful to the artist, who painted two versions following a crisis of faith. The painting identifies the scapegoat of Leviticus 16:22 as a prototype for the Messiah as “suffering servant” as described in Isaiah 53:4.
The Scapegoat by William Holman Hunt, first version, 1854–5.
After struggling for two years to make something of it, Hunt showed the painting to the Belgian art dealer Gambart:
“What do you call that?”
The Scapegoat.” 
“Yes, but what is it doing?”
“You will understand by the title, Le bouc expiatoire.”
“But why expiatoire?” he asked.
“Well, there is a book called the Bible, which gives an account of the animal. You will remember.”
“No,” he replied, “I never heard of it.”
“Ah, I forgot, the book is not known in France, but English people read it more or less,” I said, “and they would all understand the story of the beast being driven into the wilderness.”
“You are mistaken. No one would know anything about it, and if I bought the picture it would be left on my hands. Now, we will see,” replied the dealer. “My wife is an English lady, there is a friend of hers, an English girl, in the carriage with her, we will ask them up, you shall tell them the title; we will see. Do not say more.”
The ladies were conducted into the room. “Oh how pretty! What is it?” they asked.
“It is The Scapegoat,” I said.
There was a pause. “Oh yes,” they commented to one another, “it is a peculiar goat, you can see by the ears; they droop so.”
The dealer then, nodding with a smile towards me, said to them, “It is in the wilderness.”
The ladies: “Is that the wilderness now? Are you intending to introduce any others of the flock?”
Sometimes metaphor is an uphill battle.

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

Abstract-Expressionism bails me out

Underpainting of a hailstorm. That’s painting #6 underpainted; one more to go.

When I had a composition problem on this underpainting of a hailstorm, I reached back to an old friend: the color field painter Clyfford Still.

Living on the Lake Plains as I do, I know that a level field is perfect for growing crops, but not so attractive for painting. It resolves into bands—a border of green at the bottom, an expanse of gold, a distant, straight hedgerow of green, and then the sky. (This is the same problem with painting Lake Ontario, with its regular shoreline.)
1956-D, 1956, by Clyfford Still
Clyfford Still’s compositions—while emphatically non-representational—still carry the whiff of the natural world about them. In part, this comes from their texture: they may be of color fields, but they are gloriously impasto. But in part it comes from the shapes themselves, which are evocative of the real world.
One of Still’s devices was to lay a contrasting band right along the edge of his canvas, which is then elegantly and perfectly balanced against the other shapes in his canvas. So when I find myself at a loss about how to deal with that edge band of grass that always shows up in a flat landscape, I go and potter among Still’s paintings for a while.
1952-A, 1952, by Clyfford Still
Perhaps it is because I grew up with them. Buffalo’s Albright-Knox Art Gallery owns 33 paintings dated between 1937 and 1963, and they are as familiar to me as my own skin.
That’s small potatoes compared to his oeuvre. The majority of his paintings were never sold in his lifetime and are now on display at the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver.

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!

How many artists does it take to screw in a light bulb?

Much better. Underpainting done. Boys remain, rocks have changed.
I decided to take one more look at Friday’s painting before scraping out the boys on the rocks and repainting them. I used Photoshop to analyze the painting; it’s much easier to hit CTRL-Z than spend three hours repainting something you shouldn’t have changed.
Turns out that the problem wasn’t the kids; it was the foreground rocks. I should have realized that, since on Saturday Carol Thiel told me she didn’t think the perspective worked, and she’s almost always right.
Jane Bartlett stopped by at lunchtime yesterday. I kvetched at her that when painting from an office chair (still a temporary necessity) I can’t get far enough back from my painting. Jane suggested that if I turned my easel 30°, I could step out onto the landing and get a better sense of the big picture. Now, why didn’t I think of that?
When I was done beating my head against the wall, Sandy shifted my easel for me. Four artists, one easel, and I’m back in business.
My easel, rotated.
So, back to the original question:
Q. How many artists does it take to change a light bulb?
A. Two. One to do it and one to say, “Pfft! My four-year old could’ve done better than that!”
A. Three. One to pile hundreds of light bulbs in the corner and smash them, one to glue light bulbs to an embalmed shark, and one to rail against the darkness.
A. Four. One to change it, and three to reassure him about how good it looks.

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!

Three boys in search of a painting

It’s easier to remove the kids when you haven’t really painted them completely, but, darn, they’re cute!
This is the second time I’ve tried to put these three boys in a painting, and the second time it’s been an awkward fail. It’s hard for me to just excise them, since I’m fond of them. They’re my cousin’s children, and we were rock-climbing together in South Gippsland when I snapped their photo. That they’re all in high school now tells you just how long this has been rattling around my hard drive.
But either they or the spray are messing this painting up. Although all scale in rocks and people is relative, I think they’re twice as big as they should be, so today I will scrape them out and try again.
If I had a dollar for every time someone has told me, “I can’t draw a straight line” I’d be a wealthy woman. The fact is, I can’t draw a straight line, either, and there are lots of times when I rather spectacularly mess up, as I did here.
Underpainting. Sadly, I think it would work just fine without the boys, although my daughter Mary insists the plumes on the left look like rabbit ears. But for my concept, it needs evidence of human existence.
There is no secret gnosis in painting. It’s just a long slog to success. He who doesn’t quit, wins.

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!

Made without hands

Diptych with Saint John the Baptist and St. Veronica, right panel, by Hans Memling, c. 1470.
Nothing divides the Christian world faster than the subject of idols. Protestants generally follow Clement of Alexandria, who wrote, “For we are not to delineate the faces of idols, we who are prohibited to cleave to them; nor a sword, nor a bow, following as we do, peace; nor drinking-cups, being temperate.”
Catholic and Orthodox believers generally follow St. Basil the Great, who asked, “If I point to a statue of Caesar and ask you ‘Who is that?’ your answer would properly be, ‘It is Caesar.’ When you say such you do not mean that the stone itself is Caesar, but rather, the name and honor you ascribe to the statue passes over to the original, the archetype, Caesar himself.”
Icon-painters follow a very strict (and relatively modern) protocol, but there is a small class of them for which no human agency is claimed: the Acheiropoieta, or “Icons Made Without Hands.” These are always images of either the Virgin Mary or Jesus. They are said to have come into existence miraculously or during the life of Christ.
There are more of these than you might suppose. In Orthodoxy, the most famous are the Image of Edessa and the Hodegetria. In Catholicism, they include the Shroud of Turin and the Virgin of Guadalupe, which sprang into existence in 1531 in Mexico.
 Among these should be counted a relic that went missing in the 17th century. In its day, it was one of the most famous wonders of the Christian world, a symbol for the Corporal Works of Mercy. This is the Veronica, a strip of linen veil on which a compassionate bystander wiped Jesus’ face on his way to the Cross.
King Abgar receiving the Image of Edessa. 10th century icon at St Catherine’s monastery, Mount Sinai.
The name Veronica is a conflation of Latin vera (true) and icon (image). It originally referred to the veil itself, but over time was applied to the nameless woman who held it. Veronica became closely identified with the Via Dolorosa and Stations of the Cross, but she is an early-Medieval invention. By the end of the 12th century, pilgrims were recording visits to the veil in Rome. By 1300, the Veronica was one of the Mirabilia Urbis, or wonders of the city, which pilgrims were expected to visit. It had its own chapel in Old St. Peter’s Basilica.
The Veil of Veronica, by Domenico Fetti, c. 1620
As with all icons, the Veronica was extensively copied by free-lancers, until the 17th century when the Church threatened copyists with excommunication and put the Veronica away for safe-keeping. Where it ended up is a mystery. There’s a relic case in the Vatican (and some others scattered throughout Europe) but nobody has seen the actual veil in a few hundred years.

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!

How’d that happen?

Underpainting (incomplete) of river snags, 48X36, by little ol’ me
My friend Sandy Sibley told me that my underpainting of northern lights reminded her of the Canadian painter Emily Carr. That’s quite flattering, but I don’t quite see it myself.
Yesterday’s underpainting went a little bit slower—in part because it’s complicated, in part because I’m working the color organization from my psyche, and in part because working from a chair is giving me terrific upper arm pain. (This too shall pass.)
Cedar Sanctuary, 1942, by Emily Carr
But it struck me as funny and strange that today’s painting reminds me of Emily Carr. It could be the subaquatic coloration of the distant trees, it could be the massive, simplified shapes, or it could be the vague menace of the foreground tree itself.
Born in Victoria, British Columbia, Emily Carr attended San Francisco Art Institute for two years before traveling to London to study at the now-defunct Westminster School of Art. A short-lived teaching gig in Vancouver ended due to Carr’s unladylike behavior—she smoked and swore. Once more she traveled abroad—this time to France, where she came in contact with Fauvism and post-Impressionism.
Blue Sky, 1932, by Emily Carr
Until 1927, Carr labored in obscurity, often quitting painting entirely. At an exhibition of West Coast aboriginal art at the National Gallery in Ottawa, Carr met members of the Group of Seven. “You are one of us,” Lawren Harris told her, and her role as a significant modern Canadian painter was assured.

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!


Underpainting of Northern Lights. Got a lot of work to do here before it’s intelligible.
On January 1, I made a pact with a friend to periodically check up on our progress toward our 2014 goals. Mine were:
  1. Regain where I was in October in terms of health and work;
  2. Finish and hang my show at Roberts Wesleyan opening 3/24;
  3. Get a workshop schedule together for 2014 and market it;
  4. Get my house on the market.

That seemed reasonable at the time, even while recovering from cancer. But man proposes and God disposes, and I landed back in hospital with a significant bleed, which means my recovery started again from scratch on February 4. 
No lifting, no bending, and I won’t even drive until after I see the surgeon on Thursday. However, today is the day when we check in with each other to see how we’re doing at meeting our goals.
Same painting, gridded. The red suggests my year so far, I think.
So where am I?
  1. I was able to walk 2.6 miles yesterday and painted for almost three hours. Some days are better than others, but the general trend is positive.
  2. Of the seven paintings I plan to show at Roberts Wesleyan, I have 2.5 underpainted, and five gridded. That’s terrifyingly behind schedule, but I’ve decided to show them in whatever phase of completion they’re in. Cancer is part of this “God and man” thing, isn’t it?
  3. I’ve done absolutely nothing to put a workshop schedule together for 2014.
  4. My first appointment with my Realtor was interrupted by my hemorrhage and hospitalization. This week she cancelled. On the other hand, I can’t do the detailing I want to do to sell it, either, so we’re at a stalemate.
Yeah, it’s a swank little studio, but it’s attached to more house than I want or need at this point in my life, so it’s going on the block. In the highly desirable Duchy of Oakdale. Call Angie Flack Brown at Keller-Williams in Rochester if you want it.

What goals did you set at the beginning of the year? How close are you to seeing them realized?
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!

Art is what’s left when you take all the function out

One of the biggest quality-of-life problems in Western New York cities is the number of abandoned houses. The city in which I live (Rochester) aggressively destroys them. About five years ago, Buffalo launched a program to tear thousands of them down. At $16,000-20,000 a clip, these demolition programs put a strain on already-diminishing tax bases.
I was born in Buffalo in 1959. My home town and its neighbor, Niagara Falls, have 49% of the people they did that year. Rochester has done slightly better, but still has only 63% of its 1959 population.  The houses they’ve left empty are a danger to the communities left behind.
“You gotta get rid of all those shacks that have been run down to the ground, that are endangering property values, that are endangering people’s lives. They can set fires in them, drug dealers stash stuff in them,” said David Franczyck, Fillmore District Councilmember.
A vacant city lot redeployed as a dahlia farm in Rochester.
In the past five years, Buffalo has torn down about 4,600 houses. My ancestors came through the German neighborhood on the East Side; this neighborhood is now as depopulated as your basic farm town.
What happens with these vacant lots? A few are maintained as urban gardens by neighbors, but the  majority are grassy lots that look like missing teeth in the urban grid.
Artfarms billboard.
In Buffalo, a group called Artfarms is encouraging artists and farmers to design large-format sculpture for the East Side’s vacant properties and nascent urban farms.
This fledgling program received a $35,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts last April. Whether it can grow a viable program remains to be seen, but since it’s my home town, I wish it the best.
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!

Painting with blood and guts

Marc Quinn’s Alison Lapper Pregnant is a beautiful, difficult work that would not have been possible before the modern era.
One of my children works with severely handicapped adults. His duties include stopping clients from smearing feces on the walls. These non-verbal, intellectually-broken adults share a means of communication with some of the more rarified intellects in the art world.
From left: Lucas, 2001, by Marc Quinn, sculpted of human placenta and umbilical cord. Self, 1991, by Marc Quinn, sculpted from the artist’s own frozen blood.
Last night my kids and I were discussing the worst trends in millennial art. We came up with the following list:

·         Bodily fluids and excretions
·         Abortions
·         Nail clippings
·         Placental anything
·         Tumors
·         Body parts
·         Things in formaldehyde
What struck me was how self-referential this art is. They aren’t just Vagina Monologues, they’re My Vagina Monologues. It’s not just a bullwhip in an anus; it’s a bullwhip in Robert Mapplethorpe’s own anus. It’s not just art about abortion, it’s a project where Aliza Shvarts impregnates herself and then induces as many abortions as possible.
Piss Christ, 1987, by Andres Serrano, outraged the American public because it received public funding. It seems almost quaint in comparison with more contemporary bodily fluid art, much of which offends even my sensibilities and can’t be posted here.
This is the final step in Cartesian dualism: when you get to the point of ultimately rejecting the non-material, all you’re left with is your own body fluids. Can such art have any lasting meaning or value? I’m afraid it can; if we are the age of self-centered nihilism, such art perfectly represents us.
This is not to say that modern sensibilities cannot inform art beautifully. Alison Lapper Pregnantis a beautiful, difficult work that would not have been possible before the modern era, when our ideas of disability have undergone such a profound shift. But even this is a one-off in the oeuvre of its creator, Marc Quinn. He diddles endlessly with a work called “Self,” which is a frozen sculpture of his own head made from 4.5 liters of his own blood, and has been known to sculpt in feces.
But some of us are repulsed by this, which tells us that nihilism hasn’t completely triumphed. To counter it, we should ask ourselves why we are not nihilists—and then paint the answer.

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!