Three artists, one view

It’s not what you paint, it’s how you paint it.

Asters by Björn Runquist, 12X24. Courtesy of the artist.

Last week, I got a text from Björn Runquist that read “Asters!” and included a photo of the roadside along Maine 131 in Thomaston. I was out on American Eagle teaching, so I couldn’t rush over there. On Monday, Ken DeWaard and I went chasing after Björn’s view. Route 131 is narrow, heavily traveled, and has a wicked ditch, making parking and set-up difficult. That meant all three of us painted from the same place, at the same angle. Björn’s painting is beautifully finished; Ken’s and mine are still incomplete.

It’s common enough for us to paint in the same place, but rare that we would choose the same frame. Within that, different things attracted us. Björn concentrated on the broad sweep and the punctuation of greens. Ken was interested in the big sky. For me, the asters were right at eye-level, so I painted a forest of purple.

Ken DeWaards asters, 18×24, courtesy of the artist.

Bearing in mind that they’re at different stages of completion, are any of these paintings ‘better’ than the others? Subjected to formal analysis, they all finish strong. They’re properly drafted, have good composition, clear focal points, and use color competently. None are boring.

Therein lies the juror’s conundrum. Their ‘quality’ rests on how you, the viewer, respond emotionally to them. In that, they’re radically different. Ken, Björn and I are roughly the same age, have the same social background, and use the same alla prima technique. I’m not going to psychoanalyze my peers, let alone myself, but we each bring different sensibilities to our paintings.

My asters, 12×16.

That’s why painting matters, of course. It’s also one of the many paradoxes of art. Most consumers respond to paintings based on subject matter—for instance, they look at boat paintings because boats mean something to them. The objectivity of time renders the subject less important, and the artist’s inner life becomes paramount. Vincent van Gogh is not an Immortal because the art-loving public has an abiding love for Arles. Heck, most of us have never been there.

Last week, I told you about an exercise where my students have to paint a scene chosen by committee. (Joe Anna Arnett called me an ‘evil genius’ for this lesson, and it’s the greatest compliment I’ve ever received.) The subject matters, yes, but what you bring to it ultimately overrides content. Never worry about a peer painting the same thing as you—he simply can’t.

A footnote: please check out Peter Yesis’ wonderful flower paintings. He’s willing to take on those flowers petal-by-petal, something the rest of us never dare do.

Lonely children, beautiful art

A day painting a mural with kids reminds me of how precious friendship is.

Joe Anna Arnett painting with two girls in Pecos, NM.

Jane Chapin bought a beautiful but worn adobe building in Pecos last winter. Her goal is to create a new Art Center for the town. This will be a place where kids can get more art education than they do in school. The art center will also be a base for adult painting workshops.

Regular readers may remember Jane as the organizer of our trip to Argentina in March. She’d planned to paint a mural with schoolkids in Buenos Aires at the end of that trip. They would work from artwork done by the Pecos kids. In return, she’d bring back artwork from Argentina that would become a mural in Pecos. This cross-cultural effort collapsed with the world shutdown from COVID-19.

My students pitched in too. Here’s Jeannie Cole working with a young lady named Mariah. (Photo courtesy of Linda DeLorey.)

Normally, art centers take a percentage of tuition as their fee from instructors. As Jane sketched it out, the new art center would work differently. We teachers would teach our workshop and then do a project with the local kids as our contribution. I don’t often teach kids, but I like them just fine. I was looking forward to working with them.

Then COVID-19 hit, and the whole world ground to a halt. The county dragged out the process of issuing permits. Building renovations are still only half finished.

New Mexico imposed draconian limitations on visitors, so that hotels and B&Bs were essentially closed. My workshop only happened by the grace of God and the graciousness of Jane and her husband, who moved the whole operation to their home in the mountains above town.

Jane and a few of her minions.

As of last week, the Pecos school district was doing remote learning only. This is absurd: to date, all of San Miguel County has had 103 cases and no deaths from COVID. This is a remote, rural, poor community, with some 30,000 people spread out over 4700 square miles of mountainous terrain. That means lousy or non-existent internet and cell-phone service. And it means extended isolation for these kids, who haven’t been in school since the end of March.

Jane gamely changed the mural project so she could salvage something for these kids. Instead of an exchange with Buenos Aires, she would have the Pecos kids paint their own images on the walls of the Pecos Art Center. She transcribed the drawings to the walls, and worried that nobody would show up.

But they did, and both kids and parents were enthusiastic. There were enough volunteers, including artists Joe Anna Arnett, Lisa Flynn, Gail Ewing, and two of my students, Jeannie Cole and Linda DeLorey. We were able to work very closely with the kids, and most of the mural got painted. It’s lovely, a sign of promise and hope.

Not finished, but most of the way there.

But the greatest joy of that day turned out to be the simplest thing. We watched these youngsters play together, chatter, run around and simply have fun. Their happiness was palpable. They’ve been lonely. One mother admitted to me that she’d allowed her daughter’s best friend a socially-unsanctioned sleepover, because the girls have been so sad. I lived in the country. I know that kids who ride the bus do most of their socializing in school.

I left shaking my head at the utter stupidity of adults. Kids don’t die from COVID. While they could bring it home to their families, the chances are pretty remote in a place like this. Yes, children are resilient, but it’s creating completely unnecessary hardships for them.

I’m sorry for skipping Monday’s post. I got in at 2 AM, and there was nothing left in my tank.

Two fine painters taken by cancer too soon

Both will be remembered as far more than the sum of their work. We should all aspire to that.
Jorge, by James Asher, courtesy of the artist’s website.
When I met painter Jim Asher, he and his wife, Joe Anna Arnett, had just learned that he had untreatable esophageal cancer. One would never have known that from their demeanor. They had invited the painters of Santa Fe Plein Air Fiestato their home, a 1930s adobe that was featured on This Old House. Despite their personal disaster, they soldiered through.
Jim and I talked briefly about his diagnosis, as I’m a cancer survivor myself. We talked much more extensively about the North Atlantic, which they both knew well and loved.
Joe Anna Arnett and James Asher, courtesy Santa Fe New Mexican.
In the normal course of things, I would not have attended his memorial service. However, I was in New Mexico with our mutual friend, Jane Chapin. It seemed wrong to send her alone. 
The service celebrated Jim’s life’s work, which was notable and well-recognized. But the central theme was love. Jim loved his family, friends, fishing, poetry—and, of course, painting. Others mourned the loss of that love; I walked away with a keen regret that I hadn’t met him decades ago.
That same day, another fine painter, Walter Lynn Mosley, died on the other side of the country. Walter had been suffering visibly from throat cancer since long before he told the world, growing thinner with each passing month. I knew him from the Art Students League but mostly kept up with him through my friends in New York Plein Air Painters, and, of course, on Facebook.
Walter Lynn Mosley, courtesy Cloud Gallery.
Walter was a Brooklynite by choice but a Southerner by birth, and it showed in his manner. He was a kind, gentle, man, humble in his very fine painting skills. His graveside service will be private, and his family asks that donations be made in lieu of flowers “to local artists and faith communities in his honor.”
In neither case did my thoughts leap to their work when I heard of their deaths. I thought of the men themselves and of the people they left behind.
Once, a long time ago, I was moaning about some material setback, now long forgotten. “In the end,” my wise friend Toby told me, “what does it matter? We all end up in a recliner in a nursing home somewhere.” Or a hospital bed, or if we’re exceedingly lucky, we can have a quiet death at home.
That is inescapable. None of us take anything with us—not our work, not the encomiums we have earned here on earth, not even a passport stamped with our good works on behalf of others.
Williamsburg Bridge Sunrise, Walter Lynn Mosley, courtesy artist’s own website.
“The grave’s a fine and private place/But none, I think, do there embrace,” wrote Andrew Marvell in the 17th century. We may have invented a whole new world since then, but that truth remains inescapable. We still must seize the day.
And if we’re remembered as nothing more than painters, we hardly deserve remembering at all.
Jim was, at the end of his life, able to peek through heaven’s doors twice, and he came back to tell his family about it. “The next time, I think I’ll stay,” he told them—and he did.
A week before he died, Walter posted a video on Facebook where he claimed healing through Jesus Christ. You may scoff, but he has that final healing now. Godspeed to both of them, until we meet again.