Change is an inevitable part of growth, but it’s not easy

We like certainty, but plans are to some extent illusory; things can and do change in an instant.

Sunset sail, 16X20, oil on canvas, Carol L. Douglas, available.

I’ve noticed a strange split this year—my east coast workshops are sold out, and my western ones are languishing. To be completely accurate, my Acadia workshop has sold out 1.5 times, because as people made plane and car reservations, they realized the difficulty and expense of travel to smaller markets. They dropped out and were replaced by others on my waiting list. I’m extremely blessed to have had a waiting list.

That list is now exhausted. I have a last-minute opening at my Acadia Sea & Sky workshop (July 31-August 5, 2022), because one of my students is waiting on a nitrogen oxide sensor and microchip for his GM truck. As GM has nearly 100,000 vehicles sitting in lots waiting for microchips, my optimism is dimming. I told him I’d ask if anyone wants his seat, so if you’re interested in a last-minute jaunt to Maine, let me know.

Owl's Head Early Morning, 8X16, oil on canvas, available.

This strange year, by the way, is not limited to just me, or to the painting workshop market. I’ve talked to people across the tourist industry in England and Maine and heard much the same laments. There’s an international labor shortage and things are still topsy-turvy from COVID.

It’s not that business is down—it’s not—it’s that it’s spotty and weird. We each have our own explanation. I’m hearing a lot about travel concerns, particularly the cost of rental cars. Another teacher says Zoom is killing his workshops. It’s easier to stay home and learn on one’s laptop.

Skylarking 2, 18X24, oil on linen, available.

At this point in the summer, my workshop schedule should be set in stone, but instead I’ve been dithering about my western workshops. After much agonizing (and advertising) I’ve decided to cancel Steamboat Springs and Cody.

That leaves only Gateway to the Pecos Wilderness, August 28-September 2. I kept it because it’s accessed through a major airport (Albuquerque), where I’ve found car rentals to be manageable.

Equally importantly, Our Lady of Guadalupe Abbey, which has inexpensive accommodations, did not burn down in the Hermit’s Peak wildfires this spring. I wish that last sentence was a joke, but this year has been a wild ride.

Beautiful Dream, 12X16, oil on canvasboard, available.

Lastly, there’s my second watercolor Age of Sail workshop aboard the schooner American Eagle, September 18-22. Although I’d have said Captain John Foss was irreplaceable, he’s made a mighty good stab at it in his replacement, Captain Tyler King. Tyler has the same equable temperament and top-notch sailing skills as John. When Tyler turns 70, I’ll be 107, and it will be time for both of us to retire.

Change is, of course, an inevitable part of growth, but it’s not easy. We like certainty, but plans are to some extent illusory; things can and do change in an instant. By not traveling so much in September, I’m making room for other opportunities. I can hardly wait!

Happy Independence Day!

Breaking Storm, oil on linen

In just four years, we’ll be celebrating the 250th anniversary of our grand social contract. Here’s a challenge to you to paint what challenges us.

Breaking Storm, 48X30, oil on linen. Available. Apparently, every time I paint the flag it involves a boat.

In just four years we’ll be celebrating the 250th anniversary of our grand social contract, the United States. At my age, it’s not unreasonable to wonder if I’ll make it. I have no doubts about Uncle Sam; he’s tough.

I was 17 at our bicentennial. The world should have been my oyster, but that wasn’t exactly how it played out. My older sister and brother had died in two separate, horrific accidents. Every memory from the time is tinged in bleak.

Six bucks a pound, 12X16, was painted in 2020 when lobster dropped to that price. It was $7.70 on my local dock on Friday, at the same time that diesel fuel has doubled in price. Not everyone is getting rich in the current inflation spiral.

However, I loved history, and I spent lots of time with people much older than me, people who decorated their homes with antiques, debated the strategies of the Civil War, and pored over Eric Sloane books.

I never believed that there was any hope I’d live long enough to see our semiquincentennial (my beloved siblings having set such bad examples), but I’ve never doubted our nation’s fundamental toughness. We’ve been through far worse—civil war, repeated cycles of boom and bust, political corruption, world war.

Striping, 6X8, oil on canvas, available.

Interestingly, we’ve never suffered a famine. The economist Amartya Sen has argued pretty persuasively that famine and democracy are inconsistent with each other. Famine occurs not only from a lack of food, but from inequalities in the food-distribution systems. While the Dust Bowl and the Year Without a Summer produced local hardship, people could and did vote with their feet.

When I hear young people talk about us having approached the ‘limits’ of democracy, I remind them that, as they love to eat, they have a strong interest in preserving democratic institutions.

Safety check, 6X8, oil on canvas, long gone to another home.

At 17, I’d have been surprised by the issues that convulse us today—not because they’re so different, but because they’re so familiar. I have a foster brother who came out as gay in the late 60s, I am from a multiracial city, I lived in a Jewish neighborhood, and abortion has been legal in New York since 1970. Race, religion, sexual preference and abortion are discussions that have been going on for my whole life. The difference is the bandwidth they take up today. We had just exited the Vietnam War at the time of the Bicentennial, and that was where our hearts and minds were concentrated.

However, there is a difference, and it has to do with our reaction to violence. In May, 1970, the National Guard fired on anti-war rioters and killed four students at Kent State. The nation was convulsed, and that event galvanized anti-war opinion. Last week, 53 illegal migrants died in an overheated tractor-trailer in Texas and we just hunker down and wait for the next catastrophe. We’re inured to death, which is a very frightening thing.

I don’t want to add to the ugliness of the world, but I do think it’s time to think about bigger issues. The problem is that social-justice art doesn’t pay, which is why I have a storage-room full of the stuff. But sometimes these things need to be painted.

My friend Mark suggested I create a challenge to artists to paint about social justice, and to post their work publicly. To this end, I have created a public group is on Facebook, here. I ask just three things:

  • The work be genuine painting, not just billboards of angry words;
  • We must respect differing opinions and try to understand the thinking that went into work with which we disagree;
  • No political arguments; if you feel strongly, paint your feelings, don’t engage in verbal invective. I’ll just delete the comments.

And on that note, happy Independence Day! Enjoy your cookout!

An unknown woman who changed art history

Behind every successful man is a woman, they say. She’s not always his wife.

Portrait of Johanna Bonger, 1905, Johan Cohen Gosschalk

Johanna Gezina Bonger is an unknown name to most of us. She was described by those who knew her as ‘cheerful and lively’ and ‘smart and tender’, and her remaining portraits depict a woman of grace and intelligence. For her times, that would have been enough, but she also changed the course of art history.

Johanna was born in 1862 in Amsterdam to a large middle-class family. Unusually for the time, she pursued higher education, including a stint at the British Museum library. She became an English teacher, which is where her story would have ended had she not met one Theo van Gogh. She rejected his first proposal, an indication that she was a woman who knew her own value. A year later, she said yes.

Portrait of Theo van Gogh, 1887, Vincent van Gogh, courtesy Van Gogh Museum

Theirs was a sadly short marriage, lasting less than two years before Theo died of what was recorded as dementia paralytica, a symptom of syphilis. Theo certainly didn’t transmit it to his wife, who lived a long and productive life. The couple had one son, named Vincent after his uncle.

Theo’s death left Johanna and her infant child relatively impoverished. Their assets were their Paris apartment and around two hundred paintings by her late brother-in-law, Vincent van Gogh.

Van Gogh’s legacy as a painter was not yet established. The critic Albert Aurier, who was his greatest champion, died suddenly of typhoid in 1892. Van Gogh’s former friend, artist Paul Gauguin, was disinclined to help the young widow market his late competitor’s work. Although today we think of van Gogh as the primary figure in Post-Impressionism, at the time he was on the fringes of acceptability. Most art experts thought his pictures were worthless, and told her so.

Johanna van Gogh-Bonger with son Vincent Willem, 1890, Raoul Saisset, Paris

Thankfully, Johanna ignored them. She moved back to the Netherlands, opened a boarding house, and began to tirelessly promote Vincent’s work. For extra income, she translated short stories from French and English. Meanwhile, she raised a toddler.

“Mrs Van Gogh is a charming little woman,” wrote the now-forgotten painter Richard Roland Holst, “but it irritates me when someone gushes fanatically on a subject she knows nothing about, and although blinded by sentimentality still thinks she is adopting a strictly critical attitude. It is schoolgirlish twaddle, nothing more. The work that Mrs Van Gogh would like best is the one that was the most bombastic and sentimental, the one that made her shed the most tears; she forgets that her sorrow is turning Vincent into a god.”

Her son Vincent was 11 when Johanna married painter and art critic Johan Cohen Gosschalk, who shared her appreciation for her late brother-in-law. He helped her organize an exhibition of van Gogh’s paintings at the then-new museum of modern art in Amsterdam, the Stedelijk. Johan died after a decade of marriage, and Johanna then organized a retrospective of his works.

Before her own death, Johanna arranged for her late husband to be exhumed and reburied in France with his brother so that the inseparable pair could lie together in eternity. Photo courtesy Yannbee Dutch Wikipedia.

Through her second widowhood, Johanna continued to tirelessly promote Vincent. She arranged showings of his works and translated and published the brothers’ correspondence. The Letters of Vincent van Gogh established his reputation as a suffering genius. By saving and selectively showing his works, over and over, Johanna created the modern myth of Vincent van Gogh, which in turn influenced 20th century art in incalculable ways.

Johanna lived to age 62, working on the van Gogh letters right to the end. But as important as her art legacy is, her personal legacy is also arresting. Her grandson Theo was executed as a resistance fighter during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. Her great-grandson, also called Theo van Gogh, was a filmmaker who was murdered by an extremist for making a movie with Ayaan Hirsi Ali that criticized the treatment of women in Islam. Courage and vision run in that family.