Saturday, January 22, 2011

Transitions / Connections, December 15-17

Shown above:  Morning Light, Nye Park at Norton Street; and  The Pines Near Lookout Shelter, both oil on panel, about 6" x 9".

These are the last two paintings of the 2010 phase of my ROC-ART project (the project will continue through much of 2011).  Despite the contrasting subject matter, they share enough in technical approach and spirit for me to consider them a pair. And the way in which they wrap up the first year of the project while opening up a fresh sense of direction has prompted a relatively long reflection:

While all of my 2010 ROC-ART stops were both challenging and rewarding enough to make my local "tour" as valuable as anything I've done with my Itinerant Artist Project, my last stop of the year, in north Rochester, stood out as the most affecting.

No doubt that has something to do with my having felt at least a tentative sense of belonging in a setting – a depressed, racially mixed neighborhood with little sense of social mobility – that contrasts starkly with the world I grew up in. Yet it’s also part of my hometown, only a few miles from where I live. I knew, of course, that such contrasts exist in our community. But I know in a different way now, having been a guest there for a few days. (I’m also aware that the west Norton neighborhood is a place where someone with my artist’s earning power might more reasonably be expected to live).

At the same time, I gave my best while I was there. This may not mean anything tangible to anyone in the neighborhood other than my host. I can’t pretend that people walking home form work in the dark, in a blizzard were especially uplifted to see someone out there sketching the way a certain telephone pole slanted or how street lights clustered in the distance. But I know I was engaged in an energetic dialogue with the place, being as present and responsive as I could. The artist in me thinks that matters somehow.

And then there were the gifts (apart from my host’s much appreciated hospitality) that the place gave back to me.  Most unexpectedly, I came home with a chunk of red rock from the Genesee gorge that I’ve been working into some of my paintings (see “Rock Art” post, two entries back). Second was the painting of houses on Norton Street, which I felt compelled to do even after I’d wrapped up my visit. The composition had caught my eye when I first arrived. And the morning light on the third day demanded to be documented, even if I felt too spent at the time to tackle another painting.

I was essentially heading home at the time and could only allow myself 45 minutes to work. The result was an exercise in reflex and instinct – and more fun than I usually have when painting. A few days later I tried to bring the same approach to different subject matter, in Mendon Ponds Park. I don’t know if it’s the resulting images that I enjoy so much or the spirit behind them, but both paintings feel like a special gift from north Rochester.

At any painting stop – whether on a US tour or here in Rochester – I have to come to terms with an unfamiliar setting, try to establish a sense of belonging through creative response. Finding subject matter that I respond to and then finding a way to paint it more or less effectively can transform my sense of dislocation into a bigger sense of connection with the world. And sharing this experience by showing my paintings extends the sense of connection – or communion – further.

These are some of the reasons why I paint, even though I usually find painting to be a very uncomfortable and difficult activity.

These are also some of the reasons why I like to embed my painting process in a dynamic social outreach context – such as the Itinerant Artist Project. Art is a deep medium in an age of shallow media. For both my own sake and art’s sake and (to the very small extent that I can contribute) for the public good, I want art to be all it can be, at least once in a while.

Art tends to be considered a personal act. Even humble artistic efforts, though, can have social value, too, because collective meaning is renewed through countless creative interactions. For me (and for most artists I know) the creative effort and the public good go hand in hand, at least ideally. In our culture, though, it’s hard to uphold that point, or even to allow oneself to take it seriously.

I do these outreach projects partly in order to take that ideal seriously, and amplify it. I also do these projects because I like how the outward risk, adventure, and reward reflect and highlight the inner risk, adventure, and reward inherent in any creative process. Plus, once in a while I like having nothing to do other than being an artist in residence.

My warmest thanks to all of my 2010 hosts – essential collaborators in the process, who were uniformly wonderful; to my project sponsors; to everyone else who has offered to host or otherwise helped the project along;  and to anyone who has read this far…

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

North Rochester, December 13-15

In early December, when three people walked into the old frame shop near Culver and University where I was looking through a stack of abandoned moldings, I didn’t really expect one of them to be my next host.

Among them, though, was Danny Deutsch, the owner of Abilene, whom I'd met before. And he had heard of my project.  I explained that for my last stop of 2010 I wanted to stay in a north Rochester neighborhood.  Did he happen to know anyone who lived there and might want to be a host? He sort of grinned and pointed to his friend, Cheryl Bagley.  This is the view from her window:

Serendipity plays a big role in my Itinerant Artist Project (IAP). Before I started doing art tours I attempted to control a lot more of the painting process and my life in general. I was especially cautious about exposing myself to unexpected influences, other people’s ideas, and new places.

The IAP and related projects like ROC-ART have encouraged a shift in attitude. Being fretful or guarded doesn’t work too well. So I at least try to welcome the unexpected and see where it will take me.

Nye Park, off of Norton Street, near St. Paul, is a street I’d never been to, in a part of the city I barely knew. I have to confess that I’d only been through the general area two or three times in my life, and the neighborhood was somewhat alien to me.

It was late afternoon when I arrived, with a bitter wind and lake-effect clouds bringing dusk on early. My host wasn’t home yet, so I drove a few blocks to the Genesee gorge, to get my bearings, more contact with nature, and a walk.  Nature felt inhospitable in the gorge – icy cliffs, a roiling, dirty river, more wind – but I was glad for it. Glad also to recognize the Seth Green Trail, the paved road that took me from a parking lot off St. Paul down to the river, at a point more or less directly beneath the Driving park Bridge. I’d been there on a geology field trip in the ‘90s. And once more, several years later, to put in a canoe.

The painting of the bridge that leads off this blog entry was done from a photo I took near the low end of the Seth Green Trail. When it's 10 degrees, dark, and snowing outside, I tend to paint inside and sometimes will work from the 2" monitor on the back of my digital camera (with memory and sketches playing an important role).

Painting from life was pretty much confined to views from inside the house looking out, two of which I tried the second day.  And I did some other paintings based on a snowy walk I took with Cheryl on the second day:  north to Seneca Park, across the Genesee on a pedestrian bridge, and back, via the Route 104 bridge. It was a wonderful, long trudge. The best part was the elegantly engineered ramp that  leads gradually up the west gorge wall from the pedestrian bridge. Half way up the ramp we were met by a large, mixed flock of birds, one of which I later painted.  This next panel is really 2 small, separate paintings:

That evening, after a second exceptionally good dinner and a game of Dazzle (a board game of my own devising that I play with friends)... I wanted to do another painting from life, which meant finding a window to look out.  I'd already noticed the Christmas lights next door and sort of wanted to paint them.  So I did.  Cheryl later told me that the curious mound of snow in front of the bush that I saw and suggested is a shrine to the neighbors' deceased daughter.  If I'd known I might have avoided painting it out of respect, but maybe painting it was not a bad thing:

The Nuthatch painting and the second painting shown in this entry (a view of the neighbor's house) were actually done on the third day.  By the time I left -- after a few days of getting to know my host and her cozy house, and after several exploratory walks at all times of day -- I felt a curious attachment to the neighborhood. Going back to Brighton and Pittsford, my usual stomping grounds, felt like a bigger transition (and almost a longer journey) than coming back home from California.  The suburban world I was returning to did not make as much sense and somehow did not feel as real or honest after my short stay in north Rochester.

I found myself unwilling to drive straight home and instead drove further north, to the lakeshore, where I stood a while, as churning gray-brown waves battered the long, snowy beach, and the wind blew light flurries from ragged snow clouds. 

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Rock Art, December 23

During my December stay in north Rochester, I took an evening stroll down the Seth Green trail, into the Genesee Gorge.  While gazing at the massive icicles that had formed along the shale and limestone exposures, I noticed a layer of rock -- about a foot thick -- cutting a reddish line across the otherwise gray cliffs.  

Then I recalled having been there before, in the '90s, on a geology field trip.  This was the Furnaceville hematite, a low-grade (oolitic!) iron ore.  It had been used, I'd been told, to make a reddish brown house paint in the 1800s. It had been popular especially for painting barns. 

I climbed up a short, snowy slope and grabbed a small chunk. I was intrigued by the possibility of painting with Rochester's only mineral pigment. A week or so later I used a hammer to break up the small rock and then grind it into a powder. I mixed some with water and made a few quick, improvised watercolor sketches.

I mixed the rest with acrylic medium to make a sort of gesso ground for a few panels.  Lacking proper grinding equipment, I was left with a very gritty gesso -- rather like sandpaper when it dried.  But, still, I like the thought of painting some future Rochester scenes on Rochester rock.  Rock-art for the ROC-ART project.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Atlantic Avenue Postscript

My time in the Atlantic Avenue area was quite pleasant, except that I'd come to the stop with my creative expectations raised too high.  Because I already liked that part of the city so much and had wanted to paint there for so long, I was constantly aware that two days was not nearly enough time to do justice to the subject matter.  I could work there for months, and probably should. 

So when I got home I did another painting of the area - this view of Atlantic Avenue.  I hope to do more eventually.

Friday, December 31, 2010

Atlantic Avenue, November 3-5

I’ve never been quite sure where – or what – the neighborhood of the arts is, but the area loosely defined by Atlantic and Anderson Avenues has always been one of my favorite parts of Rochester. 

In the comfortable mish-mash of residential, industrial, and commercial development I have found a lot that interests my eye (and mind). There are billboards and weeds, smokestacks and factories. Some of the city’s most important cultural institutions and cafes are found just few blocks from train yards, tilting houses, and crumbling wasteland. There’s something both dynamic and arresting in its endless array of odd juxtapositions, pleasing geometries, unexpected oppositions, and the fine balance between down-and-out and up-and-coming.

For some reason I’m especially intrigued that a place like the Barrel of Dolls is right across the street from the New York Figure Study Guild – one of the region’s more vital art centers, where the human body is studied attentively but (one assumes) with such different intention. Yet both are there, at the margins and off the beaten path for different reasons.

Here is an enlarged detail from the second painting shown above:

When I started the ROC-ART, the one thing I knew is that I had to make a stop in the Anderson-Atlantic area. Finding a host proved easier than expected. When I was at the Dryden Theater one day in early spring, I asked the sometimes ticket-taker (and sometimes writer for City Newspaper), Kate Stathis, if she knew anyone in the area who might want to put me up in exchange for a painting. She said she would, and that was that. 

Here's the view from the 3rd floor of Kate's house.  The back of the flatiron building is my favorite wall in all of Rochester:

Being a guest in unexpected places has its benefits.  I'd been curious about the Greek wine, retsina, but had never tried it.  Kate had some on hand, and it went well with her feta cheese, garlic and tomato pasta.

The first painting I did at this stop, of Anderson Alley at night, isn't shown here, as I have yet to make a scan of it.  That painting was made for of the opening show at the Shoe Factory, which took place a few days after the painting was finished.  Meanwhile, here's another view of Atlantic Avenue:

On a somewhat sunny late afternoon, at the very end of my stay, I decided to look for inspiration in a  different direction -- the other side of University Avenue. Because I'd met my host at the Dryden Theater and because we both like the Eastman House gardens, I used my last hour of daylight and energy to paint this final composition. 

It's something I'd wanted to do for years, but the complexity, the difficult scale, and my sense that the sundial garden (as I call it) is more an experience than a scene had kept me from trying.  On tour I think less and paint more. And there's sometimes a sense of urgency or necessity that keeps me from talking myself out of taking chances.


Gibbs Street, September 7-8

Having a mentor can be a good thing.  I think this is especially true in a field such as fine art, where the “career path” is not at all clear, the incentives are mainly internal or invisible, and it’s easy to feel lost when just about everyone else you know seems to be moving through the game of life more briskly, with the reassurance of collectively valued trappings: job, salary, family, retirement accounts, etc.

In my efforts to follow an artistic path, I‘ve often been sustained more by the assurance that someone understands what I’m doing than by anything else.  As Mark Twain said, “I can live for two months on a good compliment.” Good criticism can be useful, too.

I’m fortunate to know people who care deeply about art and whose insight, wisdom and interest have helped to keep me going – not only lightening my spirits but helping to illuminate the way.  A few of these people may even understand my art better than I do.  At least I like to think so sometimes.

For example, I was feeling discouraged by the results of my 7th ROC-ART stop – at a residence on Gibbs Street – until I showed the paintings to Jeff Ureles.  Jeff is someone who can see a landscape painting I’ve done and tell me what philosophers I’ve been reading (or should be reading).  When he looked over the set of Gibbs Street panels and declared them among the better paintings I’ve done lately…I decided to believe him.  Although by “better” he may just have meant more alive with creative struggle.

Shown here (above) is an enlarged detail from the second painting I did at this stop: a rainy night scene done on a black panel.  The detail shows how loosely I was working. The painting shows more or less what I was seeing from the guest room window around 11 pm my 1st night.  However, what had really caught my interest was the pattern made by lamplight on the textured sidewalk, so I tried again:

This second night scene was rushed; I was too tired to focus and wanted to get to bed (although I was also avoiding trying to sleep because I didn't think I'd have much luck - too many loud vehicles, car doors, a student outside my window playing harmonica).

Since I was staying near the Eastman Theater for this stop, I might be forgiven the presumption of invoking the names of Mozart and Beethoven when discussing my painting process.  It’s only because I found this wonderfully insightful thought in a recent music review:

A composer’s greatest achievements are often inspired as much by his [or her] deficiencies as by his natural talents.  Beethoven [did not] have the easy facility for counterpoint that Mozart possessed, but… it seems to me that his difficulty in working it out is perceptible to listeners, and this gives his counterpoint a force that we find nowhere else, as if we experience the willpower necessary for its conception.

Charles Rosen, New York Review of Books 12/13/10

Similarly (though on a much humbler scale, of course), I tend to think that the emotional or spiritual content that some people notice in my paintings makes its way in not as the result of any skill I possess, but through the struggle involved.  My perpetual sense of not knowing what I’m doing when I’m painting can be very stressful. However, it may allow something into the work that’s better than anything I could control.
Not being in control or finding oneself in unfamiliar territory (external or internal) can feel threatening, but such states can also call forth the creative self’s best energy.  I guess that’s one of the main ideas behind the Itinerant Artist Project.  Yet in painting I still tend to want control and to resist disorientation.  When the painting process gets the better of me on both counts, it usually takes me a long while to feel at ease with the results, even if they are interesting.

But I digress – and have failed to even mention my wonderful hosts:

Tom and Marianne Kroon were among the very first people who offered to be hosts for my 2010 ROC-ART project.  I believe they saw my December ’09 IAP exhibit at the Mercer Gallery and responded to a notice on the wall about my plans for a local “tour.”  The offer was made irresistible by their address
.  Unlike many of my friends, I don’t get to the Eastman Theater or Java's very often, and when I do I don’t tend to cross Main Street.  So residential Gibbs Street  was an exciting and novel prospect.  It also made clear early on that my project would indeed take me not just around the county but into the heart of downtown Rochester.

As some of my previous stops show, I like urban subject matter. 
When I finally made it to Tom and Marianne's, though, I had trouble figuring out what to paint.  I felt very much at home with my hosts but could not come to terms with the surroundings.  Maybe my energy was just low.  At any rate, all else being equal, I decided to make the most of the comfortable chair and table in my guest room and did most of my paintings looking out the window - first at night, and then in the daytime:

It made sense to paint the Eastman Theater, an important landmark that was staring me in the face. 
As a painting subject, though, it was awkwardly situated – a grand structure spread across the end of a small street. And the perspective was tricky. There were students walking by at all hours, even in the rain, so I painted them, too. That was another challenge.  People rarely find their way into my paintings, partly because I want to focus on the abstract poetry of landscape or present it as a contemplative setting; people introduce a narrative element that can interfere with that.  But it's also true that I don't have much practice painting people, so it's safer to leave them out. 

In the end, though, the difficulty I had with the surroundings forced me into a position where I was willing to take some chances and work a little bit recklessly.  That's probably a very good thing, even if it was uncomfortable at the time.  By the same token, these could become some of my favorite paintings from the ROC-ART "tour"
– once I can associate them with what I gained rather than the discomfort of the experience.

Meanwhile, back in the Gibbs Street neighborhood, I finished up by grounding myself in a simple, straightforward scene:

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Pittsford, July 26-28

"This is the strangest painting stop I've ever made," I said in greeting, as Bill met me at the door of his Pittsford house. Strange because it was so close to home: I'd gone to the same high school as my hosts, Bill and Laura; and they live in a small housing tract just a stone's throw from my old junior high school - and not much further from the house where I'd spent most of my life.

Plus, at our level of acquaintanceship it would have been much more normal, natural, and appropriate - at least by conventional standards - to be meeting for dinner somewhere. Instead I had my duffle bag full of stuff and was moving in for a few days.

"Hi, Itinerant Artist," said Bill.

(Bill, among other things, plays lead guitar for the Chinchillas).
After a tour of the lawn and garden, I met the two cats and the two kids - Patrick and Simon. This was my 1st local "tour" stop with children in the house. On other tours I've always liked having youngsters around.

This was no exception, except that my guest room turned out to be Simon's. I didn't mind his Sponge Bob sheets or anything, but had to wonder if he resented being displaced. When he responded well to my painting of a plastic pink flamingo a couple of days later I sensed that, if there had been a problem, I was at least briefly forgiven. Later Simon showed off some of Patrick's very cool artwork. It's nice to be accepted by younger people. But still, as curious as it felt for me to be moving into a house a few miles from home, it must have been curiouser (to borrow a word from Lewis Carroll) for Patrick and Simon.

Bill, meanwhile, seemed to think I'd be painting mostly around the house, yard, neighborhood... which is what I sometimes do. But I had come already knowing that I wanted to spend my time painting the rolling farmland of south Pittsford. Just a quarter mile away, big puffy clouds were floating over wide fields striped with greens and the bright gold of freshly cut wheat stubble. Off I went to get a painting done before dinner.

This is the 1st painting I did at this stop.  I only had about 45 minutes, so it was hastily done.   The next image is an enlarged detail from the painting (as is the previous bit of cloud):

Speaking of intentions, I'd timed the stop to coincide with the full moon. I didn't just want farmland but to be out near the farmland when the moon was brightest. It's the sort of thing - especially with my own house closer to the city, that I dream of: easy access to moonlit countryside.

I have something of an obsession with the moon. After dinner I rushed off to see (and quickly paint) the moonrise.

And later still, when all the neighborhood was getting ready for sleep, I went out to observe the effects of moonlight on the tract houses and their lawns and driveways. I walked around for quite some time, sketching and marveling and seeing not a soul. What could easily be described as an ordinary setting during the day became a realm of mystery and wonder - even moreso because of the contrast with how most people conventionally view such a place (even those who live there and like it; even me two hours earlier). I felt like waking up everyone in their sleepy houses and telling them to come out and see where they lived: not in suburbia but in an amazing universe.

(The sense of being a lone witness was happily banished the next day when Laura later told me that she and some friends had enjoyed a similar walk with similar feelings some time ago).

Unfortunately, my late night inspiration didn't translate very effectively into art. Maybe because I was too sleepy. Maybe because Bill was still up watching TV, and I got too caught up in an episode of Futurama to concentrate on painting. Maybe because painting night scenes isn't always easy. But I made a try at it. One can sometimes learn by trying:

On the second day I started to do stronger work. I'd come to paint picturesque farmland and was surprised to get better results by sticking around the house, doing a painting of the front window and garden; a painting of the pink flamingo who resides in the backyard hosta patch (see painting at the start of this posting).

As Bill sort of had to remind me, this is how the project is supposed to work. My hosts' world turns up new and unexpected subject matter; new things provoke fresh creative dialogue. Turning life in a subdivision into a painting may take more conceptual effort than painting a pretty field, it may force me to give more of myself to the enterprise.

That evening, Laura and I went to a nearby hilltop to watch the full moon rise. It was a highlight of the visit, but I decided not to do another moon painting.

For my third painting on the second day, I went back to open space and night, but with more conviction and confidence and better energy than the day before. Also, Bill and I were watching Jon Stewart while I painted. Maybe that helped. 

Using a black panel, I could suggest the telephone lines by scraping into the blue-gray paint with the sharp end of a broken paintbrush. This technique can make a painting a lot more interesting or ruin it in a few seconds.  Here's are two close-ups:

Choosing what to paint is almost always a big challenge. At home I seem to spend most of my time trying to decide what to paint. On tour, I force myself to spend more time painting than choosing, but by the last day I always have such a backlog of ideas that the strain of choosing often shows. Sometimes the last few paintings have a special intensity of very focused, direct action (see my 1st stop), but if my focus doesn't hold, they instead show signs of indecision and scattered energy.

The three paintings from the third day are a mixed bag. The sky paintings were meant to convey my fleeting sense that the big puffy clouds floating over the little houses carried some sort of judgment. The contrast between the clouds' grandeur and out little lives below could be uplifting, but I decided it should have an ominous edge...and painted too much darkness into the clouds.

On reflection, I think the dark gray in the big cloud sits too heavily, but the next close-up shows a part of the cloud where the paint still has lots of life:

The second "house and ominous cloud" painting was done after I'd taken a small tour of the Mendon Center Elementary School grounds - which are located right behind this house. 

Incidentally, my school tour consisted of jogging barefoot around the playground for 10 or 15 minutes.  35 years ago, when the place was a junior high school, a friend and I got out of dodgeball and baseball by running during gym.  We ran outside, even during thunderstorms, and our classmates probably thought we were odd, especially when we stopped wearing shoes.  At age 49, I may have appeared even odder, but my feet and the grass enjoyed a 35 year reunion.

Speaking of the past, this last painting (done from sketches made the night before) was an attempt to recapture something I'd seen in the same place several years ago, when the houses were new. The trees had filled in, though, and I couldn't find the right composition.  Insistent memories can be turned into strong paintings, but sometimes they distract from the process of seeing what is at hand.