bemusing musings of a bewildered brush-wielder

the ebony hillbillies, praxiteles, and the tapping of feet

The Ebony Hillbilly, pencil on Italian paper, 6″ x 10″

Yesterday, I was brimming with excitement to head to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  I rose early, armed with nothing but sketchbooks, and wove my way through the Long Island Rail Road and the NYC subway system.  I was on my way to the Greco Roman section of the Met, to draw a statue by Praxiteles.  As I made my way out of the final subway car, I heard a familiar sound around the corner.  It was the Ebony Hillbillies.

The Ebony Hillbillies is a music group that performs in subway stations around the city.  The lead fiddler has a huge bone pierced through his ear, long dredlocks, and a winsome grimace as he lays into his fiddle.  The bassist has a soft, relaxed smile, and a nod for anybody who will stop.  The guy who plays some kind of washboard instrument is just cool.  I bought a cd by them a few years ago.  Beyond their dashing looks, they are some of the best musicians I’ve ever heard.  They range from Cajun zeideco to Vivaldi, from Scottish marches to Motown.  They are incredible.

I took out my sketchbook, and began sketching.  As I worked away, I noticed that every time an attractive woman passed by, the lead fiddler would do some jazz improvisation that flew up the neck of the violin, right in the middle of a song.  The more attractive, the higher the note.  He would look at the other members of the group, and if they nodded “yes”, then it was agreed that the woman was, indeed, beautiful.  If they shook their head “no”, then she wasn’t up to par.  All this without a break in the music.

During a break, I spoke with them.  I told them I was an artist, and would love to paint them, if they were willing.  They were all thrilled with the idea, but each one lives pretty far away… Westchester, Lower East Side, Queens.  Who knows, maybe I can make something work.

I continued on to the Met, and sketched the statue of Praxiteles.  The statue is a final statement, by the Greeks, on mathematical perfection in human form… an idealized essence.  I can’t describe how useful it is to regularly sketch from statues, such as this.  It is like practicing scales on the piano, developing dexterity, allowing your senses to perceive beauty in line, gradation of light.

Praxiteles, pencil on Italian paper, 6″ x 10″

Leaving from the Met, I walked further downtown to meet with a fellow who I met in the city, and who reads this blog.  Reading the entry “Cassie,” he was moved by the drawing of the fallen bird, and was interested in purchasing it.  We met up in midtown Manhattan and had a wonderful time talking.  I’m glad the drawing is in his hands.

So, I have to digress to another scene altogether.  Ten years ago, I sat in a huge barn in Smithtown, New York.  Kevin Burke was playing jigs, reels, and airs.  This famed Irish musician has a gift of interpretation, giving immediate life to tunes that are hundreds, if not thousands, of years old.  As he performed his tunes to a rapt audience, I suddenly became aware of a steady rhythm that resonated through the entire barn.  Kevin Burke was leaning into his fiddle, his shoulder bouncing, his gaze far off… and the audience was keeping time to his reel.  I looked down at the floor, and realized that every last person was lightly tapping their feet in time with his music.  The cumulative light tap of eighty feet turned into a hushed heartbeat that infused Kevin Burke’s music with life.  It was a moment to never forget.

As I paint, and go about my day, I oftentimes find myself wondering if my work belongs to a people.  I am so afraid of becoming a gallery painter, with my works going from easel to gallery wall to collectors wall, with nobody in between.  I want my paintings to belong to a people, in whatever capacity that might be.  As I returned from Manhattan, thoroughly fulfilled by my long day, I checked my blog to see if there was anything happening.  There were eighty or so visits to the site, everyday, for the past few months.  As I sketched in a subway, as I copied the statue of Praxiteles, as I delivered the drawing of the fallen bird, as I write this blog… I’m aware of a steady rhythm of feet, a hushed heartbeat, that is keeping time with my paintings and drawings.  I am so fulfilled, and I wanted to thank you all of you, the readers of my ramblings.



7 responses

  1. maggiebird

    Hi Kevin,
    What a great post about the musical conversation! It always amazes me how musicians communicate through their tunes. Thanks for your blog; if your paintings aren’t “for the people,” your blog surely is.

    October 20, 2010 at 4:55 am

    • It seems all of us pencil and paintbrush wielders are forever amazed by the language of music… doesn’t it seem like the highest aspiration of painting? I’ve read that, in Renaissance times, the highest aspiration was poetry… I’m just rambling now, but I wonder if the plastic arts have changed their high water mark?

      October 26, 2010 at 5:10 pm

  2. Anonymous

    Check out I think you will find it awesome. They are playing live on a Halloween trip next friday from South Norwalk, aboard the Annabel Lee. As to your very moving essay, I believe the success of your art is in its responsiveness to the people you come in contact with, and your ability to say something about the subject to the viewer. Art, music regardless of genre is a social comunicative medium. It is dead if it awakens no one. Never lose your sensitivity. K

    October 23, 2010 at 8:37 am

    • They are amazing, I would love to go and see them! Thanks so much for your words, they really struck me. “It is dead if it awakens no one”- such a thought.

      October 26, 2010 at 5:04 pm

  3. *******

    And never fear. Both your art and your writing belong to the people.

    October 24, 2010 at 10:15 am

    • Truth be told, I’m always aware of my fear of the possibility of becoming detached from the audience… but perhaps this concern it isn’t altogether unhealthy? I don’t know entirely, but maybe it is a healthy concern which, in moderation, keeps an artist on course. Thanks so much for the encouragement

      October 26, 2010 at 5:15 pm

  4. jo-ann

    Thank you, Kevin! Just love admiring your work…this latest drawing instills in me such a feeling of gratitude for artists of many realms who add so much intangible joy to our lives. You are such a precious link to a world lying just beneath the surface of the one we all see.

    December 15, 2010 at 6:07 am

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