Censored. Me. Really.

Shuttered. Closed down. Censored. Moi? Really?
My duo show with Stu Chait, Intersections of Form, Color, Time and Space was closed on July 18 by RIT-NTID’s Dyer Gallery because the nude figure paintings might be offensive to young campus visitors. It seems like just yesterday that I was saying issues of censorship didn’t raise their ugly heads here in Rochester.
At our first meeting with the gallery, I specifically asked whether nude figure paintings would be a problem. I pointed out that the primary work dealt with difficult themes of how women are marginalized in the 21st century. I am a feminist, and my figure work deals with things like religious submission, bondage, slavery, prostitution, obesity, exploitation, etc.
The Laborer Resting, 36X48, oil on canvas. Available.
These paintings were reviewed, accepted and hung by the gallery with no problems. The opening was well-attended, and there were children present. (For that matter, my son regularly schleps paintings for me, and his biggest complaint is that he’d rather be using his computer.) The show was featured in RIT’s University News  and mentionedin City newspaper. It was not until administrators saw the work that it was deemed unacceptable.
The cynic in me thinks that if I painted coy, sexy Odalisques there would have been no objection to the show. Young people are exposed to sexually-charged but non-intellectual images every day; in fact, this is part of the problem I am painting about.
Meanwhile, kids who go to malls are exposed to images like this on an everyday basis. And this really is obscene, because it uses sex to sell clothing.
If difficult issues of women’s rights can’t be examined in a college gallery, where can they be examined?
I have occasionally pulled individual pieces that were too challenging. Last month I had a show at AVIV Café and Gallery at Bethel Church on East Avenue. The director pulled one work because its depiction of starving Africa frightened children. But since he left the bulk of the work intact, this was no problem.
Aviva Sleeping, 36X24, challenges the notion that an obese woman cannot be a beautiful one.
Of course, I’m in Maine, so Stu Chait and Sandy Quang had to deal with the work of pulling, wrapping and moving around 60 large paintings. And visitors to the show will find the gallery empty. What a pity.

Sorry, folks. My workshop in Belfast, ME is sold out. Message me if you want a spot on my waitlist, or information about next year’s programs. Information is available 
here.

Woman as vegetable, draped in Saran-Wrap

My first successful nude in a naturalistic style, as a student in Cornelia Foss’ class. Foss intentionally arranged the model to make her insecurity apparent. I draw much better now, but I still like this painting.

I received an email yesterday asking, “What do you mean your house is full of paintings of ‘women commodified, bent, begging, enslaved, wrapped in plastic, suspended, dancing, resting, exhausted…’?”
Well, really, why the heck not?
Most studios do figure with artfully arranged spot lights, arranging the figure in some variation of an Odalisque. In some ways, this is easier on the beginning artist, but I haven’t liked it since Cornelia Fossturned me on to natural-light, naturally-posed figure when I studied with her at the Art Students League.*
After all, if the figure is supposed to tell us something about our humanity, what can we learn from woman-as-sexual object, happily twisted into an archetype of the female ideal?
 

Odalisque by Jules Joseph Lefebvre,1874. This same pose is being duplicated in studios across America even as we speak.

The Odalisque is also a portrait of commodification, but its primary purpose is titillation. Consider this portrait of Marie-Louise O’Murphy de Boisfaily by Francois Boucher:

Louise O’Murphy by Francois Boucher, c. 1752

If the model looks absurdly young, that’s because she was 15. By that age, she’d been passed around between Casanova and King Louis XV of France for two years. She went on to a long and illustrious career as a courtesan and wife, but, really, who wants to glorify that career path?
*Two other objections: artificial light narrows the chromatic range of human skin. Gone are the lovely greys, blues, and greens, the subtle interplay of warm and cool on the skin. Instead, there are two colors—highlights and shadows. Every subtlety is blown away by that demanding light. Furthermore, the pattern of shadows is pre-determined. You might as well paint from a photo.

There are still spots open in our mid-coast Maine plein air workshops! Check here for more information.

When I had No Clothes On

Not our anonymous naturalist, alas, since I haven’t any pictures of her. A nude by little ol’ me.

After dusk last night, a shifty-looking fellow rang my front bell and abruptly thrust a sheaf of paper bound in hemp string into my hands. It was a leaked copy of a memoir by a local naturalist.
It’s much too long to quote in full here, and not all the people mentioned are dead. But I thought you might enjoy a few passages that relate to yesterday’s interview with Michelle Long:
If I had ever given the matter a passing thought, I suppose I had always assumed, vaguely, that models tended to be either Parisian waifs like George Du Maurier’s Trilby, characters from Anaïs Nin’s erotica, or at the very least, the glamorous mistresses of painters.  But it is not so at all. 
Wherever there are art classes, there are also intelligent and creative naturists picking up a few spare bucks by modeling, it seems.  Since my salary at [excised] was piteously small, I had realized at once that some moonlighting would have to be done. I had considered baby-sitting, but now that I knew modeling was a possibility, it struck me as the very best possible night-time job: fancy being paid perfectly good money for sitting around with no clothes on and doing absolutely nothing![1]
Modeling was almost always good fun, and only occasionally did I have to struggle with my sense of the absurd.  One day, I looked down from the model-stand and found myself face-to-face with [excised], who had been my high school Girl Scout troop leader!  A very strange feeling indeed.  Modeling at Nazareth College initially made me a bit nervous; there is something deeply weird about being nude in the same room with a nun…
Then there was the public nature of the work.  Now and again, I would go to a restaurant or an art film, and people would recognize me…  Sometimes I would unexpectedly come upon myself at an art exhibit or a gallery opening. Once, this happened when I was out with colleagues from [excised], and I was reduced to hiding behind partitions and doing what I could to distract them from looking too closely at the nudes.  When a particularly striking recumbent semi-nude charcoal sketch of me happened to be reproduced in the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, I thanked my lucky stars that it did not include my face.  My mother, however, could not be fooled: ‘I’d know that bottom anywhere,’ she said…         
Our photographer also liked the idea of re-creating classical paintings with live models.  Mount Hope Cemetery, that great Victorian necropolis, is the perfect setting for this sort of thing.  More than one mausoleum there is a dead ringer for the Treasury of the Athenians at Olympia.  Thus it came about that two female naturist buddies and I half froze ourselves impersonating the Three Graces (minus the conventional diaphanous peploi), dancing hand in hand before the classical portals of some wealthy family’s tomb on a chilly day in early spring.  The pictures are really very pretty, though I cannot remember precisely why one of us[2]had chosen to wear a spangled feathered 1920’s headband for the occasion…[3] 
Nude modeling in cemeteries is not for the faint of heart.  Every time we heard a car approaching, we all had to race behind the mausoleum to put on our bathrobes, knowing perfectly well that there was some poison ivy back there.  Better a case of poison ivy than an arrest for public nudity, in however artistic a cause.[4]  We managed to get in about half an hour’s uninterrupted work at one point, but then a car actually came up the hill right towards us!  We dove for our bathrobes and hid behind the mausoleum, hearts in our throats, fearing that it was the police.
But no!  It was our friend [excised], who had heard about the project, and had been so eager to be part of it that he had apparently driven to the graveyard and through the graveyard in the all-together![5]  We managed to get in about twenty solid minutes of being The Judgment of Parisbefore the light faded.[6]  Freezing cold, we all gratefully and hastily put on our clothes, then drove over to my place, cranking the heat in our cars at full blast …
Each of us knew a few other models, for Rochester Institute of Technology often holds two life-drawing classes simultaneously, and models, although they tend not to be very chatty with the students, do talk with one another on breaks.[7]
           
Hence, when the opportunity arose, we were able to put together an artistic Feast of Misrule that is probably still remembered as far away as Syracuse and points beyond.[8]  The charming and persuasive [excised] had somehow managed to talk the local branch of the YMCA into renting their entire building to the Rochester naturists for a whole evening, one a month or so, for a whole winter….  In an ideal world, every urban naturist group would simply own its own YMCA.  Most of us, I think, were childish enough to take an enormous delight in using the other sex’s locker room.  The pool was enormous, and the gymnasium offered plenty of room for (sigh) volleyball.[9] I seem to remember that one month, we were even able to hold a nude dance, with waltzes, of course, between the sets of squares and contras.[10]
The Feast of Misrule was billed as a workshop for artists and models, but its main goal was to allow everyone a chance to get on the other side of the easel, if only for a night.  We did end up with more models who wanted to paint and draw than artists who were willing to take a shift on the podium, but that worked out perfectly well: one or two models at a time are about all beginning artists can cope with.
 
The ploy worked brilliantly; we models turned out to be no worse at life-drawing than your average beginners are.  We were merciful to our brave artists, who were mostly modeling for the first time.  In a spirit of charity, we did not insist on any long and difficult poses.  All of us who wanted to attempt it had the chance to take part in a two-person pose, and everyone who felt up to it tried to draw one.  Finally, when we had amassed a large enough collection of portraits of one another, we posted our work on the walls of the big front room, and, for a touch of authenticity, added a few curatorial-looking labels on white three-by-five cards.  One optimist even added a price-tag.  I seem to recall that the Head Naturist of Syracuse mounted one of his drawings on a larger piece of paper and drew it an ornate baroque frame.[11] 
Then we poured out the wine and arranged fruit and cheese on the table, and opened the great double doors to invite all of the other naturists in.  It was, I expect, Rochester’s very first all-nude art gallery opening.  If only we had been able to find a nice naked string quartet, it would have been absolutely perfect.  As it was, the Feast of Misrule was an event to remember; a truly star-studded evening out, and a delightful change from horrible, horrible work. (© 2013, Amy Vail, Rochester, NY.)
Yes, we have a good time in our studio!  And if you’re interested in joining us for a fantastic time in mid-Coast Maine this summer, check here for more information.


[1]There are very few genuinely enjoyable jobs that you can do with your clothes off.  Babysitting is not one of them.   I have always hated babysitting.  Indeed, I earned eternal exemption from changing any and all family diapers by throwing up on one of my dear nephews halfway through the process.
[2]Not I.
[3]Incidentally, doing normally private things in a graveyard has fine, if not entirely respectable Classical antecedents. If Catullus and Martial are to be believed, the less expensive Roman professional ladies did this kind of thing all the time.
[4]Even my liberal parents would have been grieved by such an arrest.  Worst still, it would have become an humiliating family joke for the next two or three generations.
[5]Driving naked is very good fun, but it is not legal in all states.  (I cannot believe it is legal in any cemetery.)  I believe my dear Head Naturist of Syracuse only avoided an indictment for driving naked in West Virginia by dying before the date of his trial.  May he rest in peace, nude, as he would have wished.
[6]All right, then, the Judgment of Craig.  The pictures are striking and not unattractive, but Craig has too many tattoos to be an entirely convincing Paris.
[7]Not all models are naturists.  It takes more than a willingness to take your clothes off to be a true naturist.  You also have to put up with volleyball (shudder) and be willing to participate in an annual chocolate pudding war.  I always tried to avoid the volleyball, but it was not always possible.  The pudding, however,  wasn’t  bad at all; it is an excellent conditioner for the hair, though devilishly tricky to get out of your ears.
[8] I adore Syracuse.  Ah, Syracuse, City of Lights!  Would I were back there now!
[9]What is it with some naturists and volleyball?  Don’t they know that they are just catering to conventional stereotyping?
[10]Now, nude waltzing is witty and original, and far to be preferred to boring old volleyball.
[11] I lost my heart to him that evening.  He is enshrined him forever in the Detrimental Hall of Fame.

Take off your clothes for fun and profit

A post-manifesto painting, and it ended up being my favorite of Michelle ever.

“There are pictures of nude women everywhere, and nobody seems to care,” my son-in-law once said of my home. He’s right. I’m passionate about the subject of subjugation, so there  are paintings of women leaning on every available space: women commodified, bent, begging, enslaved, wrapped in plastic, suspended, dancing, resting, exhausted… and then a few recent post-manifesto ones where I stopped thinking and caught something delicate, introspective and sweet.
For the vast majority of these paintings, my model has been Michelle Long. I want something more from my model than simple presence. “If the situation calls for it, I register some emotion, but by default I am being myself. I try to be neutral but not by wiping myself as a totally clean slate,” Michelle told me.

Why would anyone—especially a very smart and capable young woman—decide on a career of stripping off her clothing and sitting utterly still in front of others? While I was starting to work out my feminist manifesto, Michelle was (unbeknownst to me) on a parallel track. “When I was in my mid-twenties, I was thinking about how society has become so sexualized. My naked body had to be about sex. I wanted to take control of this by physically doing something about it. My life isn’t defined solely by my sexuality. It isn’t the whole of who I am.” But that, she says, is not relevant anymore; she’s worked it out.

Some days it’s a ukulele, some days it’s dancing. That’s why it’s called “a break.”
Given a choice, Michelle prefers working one-on-one with professional artists, or in small groups. For her the most stressful situation is “when artists don’t treat me professionally, or don’t take themselves professionally.” She likes to be able to collaborate with artists, rather than present a tabula rasa on which artists record their own impressions.
The model’s eye view.
That is probably a reflection of her keen and restless mind. She’s been a serious and dedicated swing dancer for 15 years and sings with Gregory Kunde Chorale. She manages two bands: Gorden Webster in New York and Roc City Stompers in Rochester. 
In her spare time, she loves listening to live music and playing Eurogames, whatever the heck they are. “They’re very social and there are multiple ways to win,” chimed in her partner, Tyler Gagnon. She’s learning to play the ukulele, and added, “I love drinking gin.”
Want to join us for figure painting? Contact me here. And I’d be hard-pressed to figure out how to include a figure model in this summer’s Maine workshops, but if you’re interested in joining us for a fantastic time in mid-Coast Maine, check here for more information.

Why am I quoting Joyce Kilmer?

There is something about this show that is a milestone for me; I’ve finally realized that painting is not perfectible, and in fact I LIKE it that way. I felt no compulsion to “hide my mistakes” or even finish this work. It’s very raw work, and because of that, it is in some way very powerful. I’m actually thrilled with how it’s come out.

And of course you’re invited. If you can’t read the above, it says:

Please join us Saturday evening
for the opening of

ImPERFECTION
Figure and landscape paintings of Carol L. Douglas

Gallery Salon and Spa
780 University Avenue
Rochester, NY 14607
(585) 271-8340
September and October, 2012
Opening reception:
Saturday, September 1, 2012
6 to 10 PM

Oh, the glamorous life of an artist

Carol L. Douglas: Nudes and Other Work
Gallery Salon and Spa, 
780 University Avenue, Rochester
Opening Saturday, September 1, 2012
6 PM-10 PM

Isn’t this a happy vision? A whole bunch of paintings varnished and drying. I wish I had a spot for them in the shade, but will put them away before I go out this afternoon to teach.

I’m prepping work for a show this week, at Gallery Salon and Spa. My neighbor stopped by yesterday, when I was covered in sawdust. She said, “Boy, the life of an artist is really glamorous, isn’t it?”
A few weeks ago, Erika Sorbello-Schramm stopped by my house and selected work for the show. This is the most interesting part of the process for me, since curators seldom see my work the way I do. We agreed that this show would include some of the nudes I’ve been working on for the past several years, which meant they needed varnishing and framing.
And frames for same, awaiting their paintings.
To look its best, an oil painting should be finished with a conservation-grade varnish after it’s had a year or so for the paint to fully cure and oxidize. The goals are protection and reversibility (because we start with the presumption that we’ve created a masterpiece which will need future conservation work).
Clamped with double ratchet tie-downs.
Like every artist I know, I’m a tinkerer. So I cut Winsor-Newton’s matte conservation varnish with a small amount of their gloss varnish, giving me a slightly satin finish. I warm the matte varnish in hot water so the beeswax in it dissolves… easy on a hot August day.
Ratchet gives precise tightening.
I love making frames. Light frames hold together easily with glue; heavier frames sometimes need reinforcement. I have long coveted a biscuit joiner, and went out last week to buy one. However, a clerk at the local woodworking store talked me out of it, encouraging me to buy a pricey drill jig instead. He showed me a video of it being used to join miters, and my resistance was overcome.  However, my intuition was correct; the bit skips on hardwood mitered corners.
It’s very easy to ding the corners.
I did meet a new glue at my local hardware store, and it may obviate the need for a mechanical joiner. It’s Titebond Molding and Trim Glue. It stays “open” long enough that one can reposition the joins without panicking, but it only needs to be clamped for about half an hour (is fully dry after 24 hours). That makes mass-producing frames much easier.
The glue.
I have about four different corner-clamp systems, but I ended up using ratchet tie-downs for this because of the size of the frames. Honestly, they work as well as anything, and cost about a fraction of what corner clamps usually run.
Tomorrow I’ll insert the paintings into their frames and package them for delivery. And then package myself for the glamorous life of an artist.

Flailing around

“Spring fever”(figure sketch, oil on canvas, 24X30)
Inevitably, someone will ask me, “How long did that painting take you?” This is a question I dread, as it is unanswerable.

This figure sketch was done last Saturday and took me about four hours of actual painting time—three hours with the model, and one hour to rough in a background. But that’s misleading.

I have painted this model for years. My studio is full of paintings of her—good, bad and indifferent. To some degree, every one of them was practice for this painting, just as this painting is practice for ones that will follow. Some were trips down dead ends. Some are works that stand up in their own right.

At this point, the model and I know each other pretty well. When she’s under the weather, my canvas shows it. And when she’s full of beans (far more often than not) it shows that too.  Painting the same model or a small cadre of models allows the artist to learn the subject and produce work that’s perhaps not as superficial as might otherwise happen. (The same is true of painting the same locale repeatedly.)

Occasionally, a student will complain about this repetition, but I feel pretty secure in saying that they have my permission to complain after they nail it perfectly. Since I never do, I don’t expect any of them to be calling my bluff any time soon.

The Saturday before last was one of those days of—as my friend Brad Marshall so aptly describes it—“flailing around.” But in that bad day of painting (and I’ve embarrassed myself by showing you just how bad it gets) was the germ of the following week’s better (albeit hardly perfect) painting.

I’m distracted: it’s income tax time, and my oldest child is being married in four weeks. On top of that, it has been an enchantingly warm spring and I can’t help but think about being outdoors right now. Neither could  the model, evidently. During a break I looked up to catch her staring out the window—and that was, in fact, the pose I was looking for. (More frequently than not, the pose I want to paint is one taken by the model when she’s not consciously posing.)

Headed for the slops pile: the prior week’s figure attempt. Promise you won’t let it get around.
So this prior painting will go in the slops pile, where I will allow it to ferment until I am absolutely certain there is nothing left to be mined from it, at which point I’ll slash it and get rid of it. Because for every painting that is decent, there is one or more that are… not failures, exactly, but stops on the way. My friend Marilyn Fairman, who is more fiscally conservative and scrapes down paintings she doesn’t like, calls those moments “saving the canvas,” as in, “I drove over to Piseco and saved a canvas today.” (She says it’s far better than leaving it to suffer.)

We all recognize those misfires as essential to producing the work we really want to make. As my pal Mary (a writer) says, “I’m typing along, and I’ve got an awning and a flowerpot and whatever else I can throw in there; it’s really bad, it’s schlock, but I keep typing and then suddenly, if I persevere, something comes together.”

The important thing is to get past the idea that “this work is good; ergo I’m a good artist.” A good painter is simply one who persists at painting.

A more formal figure painting


This commissioned work is a formal portrait of a mature woman who desired a nude painting reflecting her Central American heritage. The client wanted an impression of the beauty of a woman not matching the cliché of the commercialized American ideal of willowy, leggy and fair female imagery.

The composition features an S-curve created by the background and gold lace mantilla and subtly reinforced by the rim lighting bathing the model’s knees and leg.