May you live in interesting times

History runs in fits and starts. So does your artistic development.

Breaking Storm, Carol L. Douglas

“Scotch and soda, jigger of gin…” crooned my husband early one morning as we trekked over Beech Hill. That’s a Kingston Trio song from 1958. It set Doug to musing that music changed a lot more in the three decades from 1960 to 1990 than it did from 1990 to the present.

That’s how history works. It’s linear, but it runs in fits and starts. There are long periods of stasis and then periods of rapid change.

The decade I was born in gave us portable coolers, the polio vaccine and birth control pills. It also gave us the integrated circuit. That, of course, changed the world.

In recent decades we’ve been coasting, building incrementally on the gains of the Computer Age. Then, bam! COVID. Change often comes as a complete surprise. It’s also often messy, difficult and painful.

Coast Guard Inspection, Carol L. Douglas

The years 1346–51 brought the Black Death to Europe. That in turn brought the end of centuries under the feudal system. Similarly, the Chinese Cultural Revolution was a decade of brutal paroxysm that finally obliterated the rigid feudal system of old China. As bitter and awful as the two 20thcentury world wars were, they ushered in modern society. Few of the unwitting participants in these cataclysms enjoyed them, but all of us who follow have benefitted.

That’s true of artistic change as well. It can be, frankly, disheartening. We’re potting along painting in the usual way, feeling like we’re turning out good work, and suddenly something shifts. Everything we paint seems horrible to us.

Wreck of the SS Ethie, Carol L. Douglas

This is an inevitable rest-stop along any creative journey. It’s important, because it signifies growth. You have three possible paths out:

  • Scuttle back to what you were doing before;
  • Quit and do something else for a while;
  • Find ways to quiet that awful voice in your head.

Obviously, I recommend the third path, but the other two are very common (and self-limiting) reactions. How can you avoid them?

Remind yourself of a basic fact: you haven’t suddenly forgotten how to paint. Dissonance is part of growth. Even experiments that fail are valuable; they’re an essential part of the painting process.

Stop wiping out the canvases you don’t like. Sometimes a painting is uncomfortable to look at because it’s pointing the way forward. It can seem like an awkward outlier when you do it. Five years later, you realize it was a bellwether and the best thing you painted that year. You’ll blunt your development if you wipe out everything that makes you uncomfortable.

Don’t seek validation through your friends’ opinions. They’re unlikely to see the potential in an ungainly effort. In fact, group-norming of any kind can be deadly to change. This is no time to be assessing whether something is ‘good’ or ‘bad’—it’s time to simply produce a lot of work.

Beautiful Dream, Carol L. Douglas

Discomfort with change can sometimes result in paralysis. If that’s you, try falling back on strict exercises that force you to stop thinking about results and start thinking about process. That’s where “painting a day” exercises are invaluable. If you don’t feel like joining a formal one, make one up for yourself.

Art as information

When we paint, we speak to our present generation, but we’re also speaking to the future.

Giant deer from the replica of Lascaux.

The Irish elk was one of the largest deer that has ever lived. Its range was vast, across all of Eurasia from the Atlantic to Siberia, feeding on the same boreal woodlands that appeal to modern moose. Males had ridiculous showy racks. Some scientists think those racks were their downfall, because they made grazing too difficult.

What we know about them is limited mainly to fossils, and to the cave art of Lascaux (17,000 years old) and Chauvet Cave (30,000-35,000 years old). The interpretation of paleolithic art can be problematic, colored as it is by our own preconceptions. However, the animals themselves are straightforward, rendered with an eye to detail and description.

Lion painting replica from Chauvet Cave, courtesy Brno museum Anthropos.

At Lascaux, they include aurochs (the wild cattle that preceded our domestic cows) and a large animal that looks like a unicorn. There are big cats, horses, ibex, red deer and bison. At Chauvet Cave, the walls feature predators: cave lions, cave hyenas, leopards, bears, and rhinoceroses. Many of these species, like the Irish elk, have been extinct for millennia.

Fossils can be reconstructed, but they’re often just bones. They almost never give us a sense of musculature or color. Real-time paintings coupled with the fossil record give us a much more rounded view of these extinct animals.

Meanwhile, in Australia, scientists discovered a 17,300-year-old painting of a kangaroo. (Well, it’s a line drawing, and it’s been partially obscured, but it’s certainly a marsupial of some sort.) In Indonesia, there are cave paintings of a wild pig (45,000 years old) and a buffalo(44,000 years old). All of which tells us that there’s a whole world of undiscovered art underground, for those with the courage to go spelunking.

Nakht and Family Fishing and Fowling, Tomb of Nakht, c. 1400-1390 BC, courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The fruits, vegetables and game that we eat have been portrayed in art since the ancient Egyptians. These paintings tell us a lot about the evolution of the human diet, including when certain staples appeared in different parts of the world.

Dutch Golden Agepainters were focused on the abundance of their trade-based culture. That makes them a treasure-trove of information about food (and ships’ rigging, and window hardware, and almost every other aspect of 17th century European culture). Their traders were importing goods from all over the world, and the Dutch artists recorded it all. When we look at their paintings through the lens of art history, we tend to gloss over the taxonomy of what’s shown. However, the meticulous painting style that was prized in the Dutch Republic makes these paintings a scientific and historical resource.

Still life with monkeys, 1630-40, Frans Snyders (Flemish), courtesy National Gallery of Prague. Does that lobster call into question the story that they originated as food given to prisoners in Massachusetts Bay Colony?

Photography and our current excessive written history seem to have erased the need for paintings as documentation; that’s one reason for the explosion of abstraction in the 20th century. But, surely, that’s a short-sighted view. The nameless cave-painters at Chauvet Cave weren’t painting lions to preserve them for history—and yet they did. When we paint, we speak to our present generation, but we’re also speaking to the future. How that’s interpreted, and what it will mean, is beyond our current understanding.

Portrait of a hardscrabble hill farm

This farm is down on its luck, but it’s been in the family for five generations. How much longer can it survive?
Hill farm with logging truck, by Carol L. Douglas. 16×20, oil on canvas. The black flies will go as soon as it dries.
On Wednesday I found an old hill farm to draw in East Fraserville, Nova Scotia. I found a place I could safely pull off the road, so I set up my safety cone and got to work.
I’ve been assessing my reaction to painting locations and including that in the painting. On Tuesdayand Wednesday, I was aware of a low-level anxiety, coming from the hilly, narrow roads and the steep shoulders I was working from. This is an 80-kmh provincial highway, which translates to a 55-mph state road.
Just when I thought it couldn’t get any more uncomfortable, I saw a logging truck snake down the long hill toward me. To be fair, these were very careful drivers, but I have a healthy respect for their top-heavy loads.
It’s a narrow, fast road, and this is not what you want to see bearing down on you while painting.
My painting became less about looking down on the house and more about its relationship to the high road. It is a lovely old place, similar in age and style to my own, but it’s in bad repair. Still, they had hospitable, woofy dogs, gamboling cats, and an impeccable garden. I figured I’d like the owners.
I met the husband in the early evening. He was a tall, sturdy, upright fellow of about my age. He told me that blueberries are depressed right now. They’re paying $.20 Canadian per pound, which is $.15 our money. Worse than that, the big growers had warehouses full last year and refused to take any from smaller growers. His crop rotted in the field.
He has hundreds of acres of land earning no revenue, so he’s taken an outside job. He kept apologizing for the condition of his house. Since he and his wife raised five daughters and sent them to university from that farm, it began to look downright heroic.
“People ask me why my house is down in a hole, but the road used to be where my driveway is now,” he told me. The high road was built in the 1950s.
The house in 1888, before it had a porch. (Tinted photo courtesy of the owner.)
He showed me a tinted photo of the house taken in 1888. What follows is my best recollection. The man on the far right is his great-great-grandfather. His great-great-great grandmother is the older lady, and the other woman is his great-great-grandmother. The two gentlemen to the left were named Crossman; there’s a nearby hill named after that family. There’s also a dog, if you look carefully.
His great-great-great grandfather died when his son was 14. He was climbing a fence while hunting and accidentally shot himself under the arm. He walked to a neighbor’s house, sat down on a stump and bled to death. Two days later, one of those Crossman fellows brought the widow to East Fraserville. In a hardscrabble world, necessity wins out over sentiment. But who are we to criticize? Today we marry for love and half our marriages end in divorce.
This is an underpainting I started yesterday. Hopefully I’ll finish it today.
The house has been in the family ever since, although its glory days are now long gone. Farming’s never been an easy road, but it’s worse when small producers are being squeezed out, as is happening in Nova Scotia right now. I wonder how my new friend feels about being unable to farm his family homestead. I wonder if any of his daughters are interested in it, or whether it will pass out of the family when this generation passes on.

The way to end all wars

Hitler and Churchill were both artists. Who would have won a painting throwdown?

Mary’s First Speech, by Winston Churchill (courtesy Wikiart)

The Battle of Britain was a military campaign between the Royal Air Force and the German Luftwaffe. It was brutal and bloody, with 90,000 civilian casualties, 40,000 of them fatal. It is remembered as the first major campaign fought entirely by air forces. The United States hadn’t yet weighed in against the Axis powers, and Britain and Canada went it alone against the greater strength of German air forces.

The Battle of Britain was also the only battle in history where both leaders were artists. If, in June of 1940, Britain and Germany had instead engaged their premiers in an art competition, who would have won?
“I am an artist and not a politician. Once the Polish question is settled, I want to end my life as an artist,” Adolf Hitler said. He was bitter at his failure to gain acceptance at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna, and in Mein Kampfblamed that failure on ‘the Jews’.
The Courtyard of the Old Residency in Munich, by Adolf Hitler (courtesy Wikipedia)
Hitler was rejected twice by the academy. His problem was his portfolio, which was heavy on architecture, light on portraiture and figure. One professor, noting his excellent draftsmanship, suggested that he apply to the School of Architecture. As a drop-out, he would have had to return to secondary school first, and he was unwilling.
Hitler described himself as a ‘student’ of Rudolf von Alt. However, there is no fantasy and little of the natural world in Hitler’s work. He showed a profound disinterest in the people who should have inhabited the architectural spaces he drew. If they appear at all, they are static columns. His painting style was far more conservative and pedantic than the leading lights of fin-de-siecle Vienna, such as Gustav Klimt.
Tree at a Track, 1911, by Adolf Hitler (courtesy Wikipedia)
Winston Churchill did not pick up a paintbrush until the age of 40, but he had more than four decades to practice his great avocation. “Winston found hours of pleasure and occupation in painting,” wrote his daughter, Mary Soames.
“It was a ‘love affair’ with painting – I think that is the only way to describe it. Problems of perspective and colour, light and shade gave him respite from dark worries, heavy  burdens and the clatter of political strife.” Painting enabled him “to confront storms, ride out depressions and rise above the rough passages of his political life.”
Churchill took up painting in June 1915. His sister-in-law was painting in watercolor at the family home, Chartwell. She gave him her son’s kit and urged him to try it. He was so enthusiastic he bought an oil kit the next day.
Lakeland Scene near Breccles, by Winston Churchill (courtesy Wikiart)
“The first quality that is needed is audacity. There really is no time for the deliberate approach,” he said. As a very busy man, he had no patience with the idea of traditional training. “Two years of drawing lessons, three years of copying woodcuts, five years of plaster-casts, these are for the young… We must not be too ambitious. We cannot aspire to masterpieces. We just content ourselves with a joy ride in a paintbox.”
Churchill used painting to chase off the “black dog” of depression that haunted him through his life. By 1921, he was showing his work. He would submit pieces for jurying under pseudonyms so as not to influence jurors.
Churchill loved to paint en plein air, and his paintings are full of light and color. While he was not a master painter, he worked within the style and mood of his times, unlike the reactionary Hitler. If I were the juror, I’d give the first-place ribbon to him. Then again, I know how it ended.

Levitating lobster boat, and an unsalvageable ghost ship

"Working boats, Bay of Fundy,",Carol L. Douglas.

“Working boats, Bay of Fundy,”Carol L. Douglas.
In the Canadian Maritimes, boats are sometimes left to rest on mudflats as the tide drops. Occasionally I’ll see that here in mid-coast Maine, but nowhere near as frequently. It’s something that interests me, and I’ve painted it before, in Rising Tide at Wadsworth Cove.
On the last day of my Trans-Canada adventure, I painted two working boats resting in the Bay of Fundy. This painting was, I thought, unsalvageable—the only one I did on that trip that I couldn’t redeem.  I had spent considerable time drafting, only to realize after I finished that the boat in the back appeared to be levitating.
My lobster boat appears to levitate here, too.
My lobster boat appears to levitate here, too.
Yesterday I realized that the boat seems to be levitating in my reference photo, too. I spent considerable time repainting the foreground to anchor it, only to conclude that the lobster boat is still floating. I have concluded that levitation is just a Canadian reality.
Fundy Ghost is the name of the foreground trawler, and it’s an odd choice. This nickname is sometimes applied to the most famous ghost ship of all time, the Mary Celeste. She was launched as Amazon in 1861 from a shipyard on Spencer’s Island in Nova Scotia. On her maiden voyage, her captain fell ill and died. She suffered a collision in the narrows off Eastport and rammed and sank a brig in the English Channel. In 1867, she was wrecked off Cape Breton Island and sold as salvage to an American. He went broke in the process of restoring her.
The Mary Celeste painted as the Amazon, 1861, by an unknown artist.

The Mary Celeste painted as the Amazon, 1861, by an unknown artist.
After a major refit, the Mary Celeste headed from New York to Genoa, Italy, under the command of Captain Benjamin Briggs. Briggs was an experienced sailor, an abstemious Christian, and a married man. He brought his wife and infant daughter along on the trip, leaving his school-aged son with relatives. His crew were all experienced sailors of good character.
Eight days after Mary Celeste left harbor, a Nova Scotian boat named Dei Gratiafollowed her out along the same route. Midway between the Azores and Portugal, it came upon the Mary Celeste moving erratically under partially-set sails. The ship was deserted, the binnacle damaged and the lazar and fore hatches left open. The small yawl that served as the boat’s lifeboat was missing. Everything pointed to an orderly emergency departure, but the Briggs family and crew were never heard from again.
With great difficulty, Dei Gratia brought the Mary Celeste into Gibraltar. Salvage hearings found no evidence of piracy, fraud, or foul play.
Eventually, Mary Celeste returned to New York, where her bad reputation caught up with her. After rotting on the docks until 1874, she went into the West Indies trade.  She regularly lost money. In 1879, her captain, Edgar Tuthill, fell ill and died in Saint Helena.
"Rising Tide at Wadsworth Cove," Carol L. Douglas

“Rising Tide at Wadsworth Cove,” Carol L. Douglas
In 1884, a group of Boston shippers filled the Mary Celeste with junk and heavily insured her. Her captain, Gilman C. Parker, deliberately ran her aground in Haiti. Parker made the mistake of selling the salvage rights for $500 to the American consul, who promptly reported that the cargo was, in fact, worthless. The conspirators in Boston were arrested. Parker was additionally charged with the capital crime of barratry. He died three months later, the last victim of the cursed ghost ship of the Bay of Fundy.

Art is history

Photo courtesy of Olesya Lysenko, Russia

Photo courtesy of Olesya Lysenko, Russia
In an isolated field in northeastern Finland, a group of one thousand human effigies have stood watch since 1994. They are The Silent People of Suomussalmi, and they were the brainchild of artist Reijo Kela. Although his work is often called “site specific,” his scarecrow army actually wandered around since its birth in 1988—including a tour in Helsinki—before coming to rest in Suomussalmi.
The Silent People were created by Kela as part of performance piece, Ilmarin Kynnös, which documented the life of a farmer in Suomussalmi in the early 20th century. This period included the bloody invasion of Finland by Russian troops in the Winter War of 1939-40 and the subsequent depopulation of farm areas in the post-war period. At the end, Kela’s farmer fades into the people of history, the Silent People.
Photo courtesy of Olesya Lysenko, Russia

Photo courtesy of Olesya Lysenko, Russia
This part of Finland has been, until modern times, been called the Land of Hunger. The famine of 1695–1697, for example, killed a third of Finland’s population. The Silent People’s clothes hang from their frames in mute testimony to that.
Scarecrows are ephemeral creatures, made to last a season or two and be replaced. A scarecrow built in 1988 would be, in dog years, quite dead. Yet the Silent People remain meticulously dressed, their peat heads lovingly plumped up. They are maintained by the young people of Suomussalmi through the auspices of the Suomussalmi Youth Workshop.
Kela had initially intended the Silent People in his film to be played by actual humans, but was unable to hire actors. He then commissioned the first 240 stick figures to be made by the Youth Workshop, whose mission is to train local unemployed kids. That number of scarecrows corresponded to the number of unemployed youth in the town, which has fewer than 9000 inhabitants.
Photo courtesy of Timo Newton-Syms, United Kingdom

Photo courtesy of Timo Newton-Syms, United Kingdom
Each June, a group of kids and adults arrive at the field carrying replacement crosses and trash bags filled with clothing. The figures are stripped, revealing the Silent People to be a field of crosses. Some of the youngsters dig fresh peat heads for the figures (in lieu of straw) while others redress the figures in fresh clothing, which includes pullovers, shirts and undershirts. The old clothes are taken to the dump to be burned. In late September, the same group goes back to the field to dress the figures for winter.
The town works hard to maintain the figures primarily because it has economic benefit: the Silent People have become a tourist attraction. But there’s also identity involved. “To me, these effigies are the people of Kainuu. Life here has been so tough, they have been fighting to earn their living and their daily bread, really. So they are not people who make revolutions. They are humble, but they still, somehow they’re proud in their humility. They are not people who you can crush under your shoe,” a woman told researcher Karen Vedel.
Ours is a very young country in comparison to Finland, and yet I see our ancestors also marching away from us into a misty past. The challenge lies in telling our similar story without merely copying The Silent People of Suomussalmi.

Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?

Chelsea Workhouse: A Bible Reading (Our Poor), by James Charles, 1877.
All Rochester has been talking about the city bulldozing a tent city occupied by the homeless right before Christmas. We’re at the Sturm und Drang phase of the political theater; close on its heels will be the farce. In the spirit of Ebenezer Scrooge, let’s revisit the history of the workhouse.

Charity, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, engraving
The first recorded almshouse in Britain was founded around 900 AD by Æthelstan; there is an almshouse from the 12th century still functioning in Winchester. Some almshouses were attached to monasteries; others were independent. Monks, nuns and their lay helpers cared for lepers, the poor, pilgrims, or the sick; the terms “hospital” or “hôtel-Dieu” were also used, because the work of almsgiving and medicine overlapped.
Hôtel-Dieu de Paris, circa 1500. 
After the population of Europe was laid waste by the Black Death, laborers (in one of the few examples in history) found themselves in great demand. In 1388, the Statute of Cambridge introduced regulations restricting their movements, which effectively restricted their wages. This legislation also made county government responsible for the poor. Ultimately this would be refined to include a formal tax for poor relief and a system of oversight by each (church) parish vestry.
Collecting the Offering in a Scottish Kirk, John Phillip
The problem of the poor was exacerbated by Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries. The religious had not only provided charity, they had provided employment. A few years later, The Poor Relief Act of 1576 established that the principle that if the able-bodied poor needed support, they had to work for it. This would remain the theme of public assistance right up to the 20th century, with harsh penalties for idleness.
Poor Blind East End London Stepney Workhouse, 1890, print, artist unknown
The beginning of the 19th century was a lousy time to be poor. Mass unemployment followed the end of the Napoleonic Wars. This combined with a series of terrible harvests and the industrialization of rural employment to swamp the parish-by-parish relief system. The New Poor Law of 1834 required that the indigent enter poorhouses to get help. The tenor of the time meant that some administrators were gung-ho to make a profit on the unpaid labor of the people they were supposed to be helping. The work was backbreaking—crushing stones or “picking oakum,” which meant unraveling old ropes so that the fibers could be reused for caulking timbers in boats. In 1862, girls under 16 at Tothill Fields Bridewell had to pick 1 pound of oakum a day, and boys under 16 had to pick 1½ pounds. Over the age of 16, girls and boys had to pick 1½ and 2 pounds respectively.
Some Poor People, Henry Herbert La Thangue
In America, the workhouse often took the form of a poor farm, which might be in the same complex as a prison farm. These were municipally run, and, like the workhouses, operated until the Social Security Act of 1935 provided basic support for the elderly.
An Almshouse Man in a Top Hat, Vincent Van Gogh, 1882
The “tramp” or “hobo” has existed since antiquity (in the form of the “wandering beggar”). They became more common with the Industrial Revolution, with its ill-paying, marginalized casual labor and endemic housing shortages. In the United States, trainhopping became a viable means of transportation after the Civil War, used by hobos. These migratory homeless men developed their own culture, signs, and language. The tramp or hobo was homeless, but he was very much a working man, in contrast to the “bum,” who stayed in one place and was generally not motivated to work.
Hobo and Dog, Norman Rockwell, 1924

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!

Back to Castine in July

Castine from Fort George, 1856, by Fitz Henry Lane, The town is a little more populous today.

We interrupt the feverish painting of a lobster buoy to announce that I will again be painting in the 2014 Castine Plein Air Festival from July 24 to July 26.
Castine is a beautiful old town off the beaten path in Hancock County, Me. It is home to the Maine Maritime Academy. Like my home turf in New York, it has been under Native American, French, English, Dutch, and American dominion. But it’s a rare gem in that all those levels of occupation are clear to the casual visitor. They have great museums and their historical society has taken the time to clearly mark out historic sites.
One of two paintings I did at Castine Plein Air in 2013 of the tide turning at Wadsworth Cove.
Castine’s location at the mouth of the Penobscot River estuary gave control of the interior, which meant access to furs and timber. This is why it was settled early (seven years before the Plymouth Colony) and tussled over frequently. It was briefly the capital of French Acadia.
It even had a nobleman-gone-native, in the character of Baron Jean-Vincent d’Abbadie de Saint-Castin, who was married (in succession) to two Abenaki women.  Unlike New York’s Sir William Johnson, however, he appears to have been the real thing, rather than a jumped-up fur trader granted a title.
And the other one.
But all this history is overlaid not by the ruins of great mill towns, as it is here in New York, but with a “stunning collection of beautiful landscapes, rugged coastlines, historic architecture, and an abundance of New England charm,” as the Castine Arts Association quite accurately boasts.
This year, painters will be working on site for three days, with the festival culminating in a sale at the Harborview Room at the Maine Maritime Academy. They’ve doubled the exhibition space—which is grand, because it was tight—but they can’t double the hotel occupancy in the area. If you want to catch this fantastic event, you’ll book somewhere early.

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