My friend Tom, the Founder and Director of the Jazz Loft, asked the famous artist/caricaturist Al Hirschfeld to paint his bandstands, and Hirschfeld painted about a dozen before he passed. So cool. Seen above is my own meta-duet with Hirschfeld. My painting is really informed by and in dialogue with his work, as I’m painting in the presence of these bandstands and the energy totally carries over.
I received a grant from New York State, through the Huntington Arts Council, to paint this portrait commission of Tom. It’s been a lot of fun working on this painting, as Tom is an animated musician, full of energy. Really enjoying the effort to capture that animation, in oil. Whenever I think of motion in oil painting, I think of the spinning sewing wheel of Arachne, in Velazquez’ painting, Las Hilanderas- suggest something, the visual phenomenon, the effect, say it without saying it. It doesn’t require precise diction or articulation of each word, but more so the sound of the sentence, the shape of the sound.
Small sketch in progress, of my friend and student, Vito, in my studio.
“Oh, give us pleasure in the flowers today;
And give us not to think so far away
As the uncertain harvest; keep us here
All simply in the springing of the year.
Oh, give us pleasure in the orchard white,
Like nothing else by day, like ghosts by night;
And make us happy in the happy bees,
The swarm dilating ’round the perfect trees.
And make us happy in the darting bird
That suddenly above the bees is heard,
The meteor that thrusts in with needle bill,
And off a blossom in mid air stands still.
For this is love and nothing else is love,
To which it is reserved for God above
To sanctify to what far ends He will,
But which it only needs that we fulfill.”
Robert Frost, A Prayer in Spring
When I was in my twenties and an art student in Italy, every day over the course of several years I would walk past this tree, which lived in a quiet corner of an alley beside the Uffizi museum. In this spot, about a decade before I arrived, a terrorist attack occurred, and a bomb was detonated by the Sicilian mafia. Five people were killed, and the buildings around were significantly damaged, and art works were lost. Several years later, the buildings restored, instead of a new sculpture being placed to memorialize the event, an olive tree was placed at this site, and that for a very specific reason. Olive trees can sustain incredible damage, and lose a significant portion of their mass, and yet they can still recover. Slowly, they will draw from what is left of themselves to create themselves anew. Nothing could better symbolize Florence’s determination to move on than such a living monument. This tree meant very much to me, and sometimes I would sit beside it and reflect on this theme.
A year and five months ago, I suffered the greatest loss of my life, watching the culmination of my entire life’s work disintegrate. Everything fell apart.
But, the olive tree grows.
I’ve moved into a new studio, I’ve received a number of nice commissions, I’ve better learned how to use my art form to help others in need, I built a new teaching website, I helped to found an international art project which is swiftly gaining momentum. Here and there, I do some small spackle jobs to help float my family as my art career regains momentum.
I’m currently in a park in Huntington Station, waiting for the third coat to dry at a nearby spackle job, and I am looking out on a field as I eat lunch and read. I’m grateful that I have the ability to work, grateful to have the mass remaining so that I am able to move forward. But I won’t deny that the remains of the blast, at the hands of those who sought to impart destruction, still sometimes reverberates through this frame, a phantom pang that reminds me of what humans are capable of, of the beauty they destroy, when they choose to be their very worst.
If I were to examine the springing, lithe line of a young olive sapling, and if I were to compare my present self with that, I could grow jealous, or even resentful. But I have a master pruner, and he leans over my branches every day, and though it is difficult to come to terms with, he knew when he planted me that one day a storm would split me in half and expose the very marrow of my being. But he continues to prune, nurses what is, and causes new growth to quickly capitalize on old growth, and an entirely new calligraphy of form springs forth. The master gardener loves me, and though I don’t understand, I trust him, and were I given the choice I would not exchange this reformation of my form for the unsullied lines that never knew what the world is.
I’ve heard that there was once, within the grove, a betrayal that was the most grievous of all. The gardener had to, himself, become one of the olive trees, allow himself to be torn and ripped out by the roots, in order that the entire grove be saved. I’m told his tree is now alive in the center of the garden, just beyond my eye sight, and though I’ve never seen it I know it’s there.
Perhaps all of this happened to me in order that I might know, to the smallest extent, what the master gardener himself went through.
And so my olive tree grows, for the delight of the Master Gardener and all who enter his garden.
“The would not find me changed from him they knew, only more sure of all that I thought was true.” -Robert Frost
I’ve been gone from this blog for four years. I will one day write down the profound, terrifying, and unspeakably beautiful story of the years the years that have transpired. But that is for another time. For now, suffice to say- I’m back.
I regularly take trips to uptown New York City, to view the paintings of Sorolla. There is one huge painting featuring enormous oxen, a boat with a billowing sail, and leather skinned fishermen- and the painting is entitled “Afternoon Sun.” If the painting is about these hulking, masculine objects, then why is the title about the sun? Did Sorolla mess up?
It is because the painting is more about the light falling on the objects, than about the objects themselves. This single epiphany is the hallmark of all great painters. It is the same in music- we listen to Puccini, or to Cesaria Evora, or to Jorge Cafrune, and though we may not understand any of the words, we still experience the transport of the melody fused together with the phrasing of the words. Immaterial light is the framework upon which we hang the skin of the object, immaterial sound is the framework upon which we hang the skin of the spoken word- but in the end, it is one inseparable structure that stands.
And so, when I set up my easel to paint, and as my brush mixes the paints on my palette, I run my eye over the patterns of light, I think about what difficult work it is to be in the dying industry of fishing, and I paint.
I pickup up my little boy, Quinlan, and placed him in the crook of my elbow, while I balanced my coffee on an obliging brick wall. I balanced the bike perfectly, and turned with the baby in my arms. Attached to the back of my bike was some child carrier type thing which we affectionately call “the rickshaw.” I stooped down to drop Quinlan gently in to his seat in the rickshaw, and I called out to Evan. Out he came from the coffee shop, his helmet on backwards. “Let’s go, buddy. Into the seat.” He climbed in to the rear carrier, popped a cookie into his mouth. All the while, Liam sat waiting, dutifully, on his new blue bike. “Dad, it’s taking a long time” Liam softly chided. “I know, I know. But we’re going to Islip beach. And dad needed to pick up his coffee, first.”
We sidled down quiet lanes in Islip, a mirthful troop of peripatetic gypsies, me on my mountain bike, the two younger boys towed behind in the rickshaw thing, and Liam peddling away. Everyone knew the routine. First we go to Main Street to pick up coffee. Then, we head down to the water. As we plodded along, with Evan singing, and Quinlan cooing, Liam trying his best to peddle in front, while I tried my best to drink my coffee quickly, before the bumps in the road relocated my coffee to my shirt. Small, cozy little homes with tiny plots of land slowly gave way to middle sized homes, with slightly larger side yards. Eventually, the sound of cars grew dimmer, the calls of the birds grew louder, and we were rolling beside larger homes, and the trees formed a thick canopy above our heads. We were leaving the residential area, and in front of us was the dark forest.
Etymologists or ecologists could provide me the definition of “forest” that might correct my use of the term, but to me and my boys, the forest is a patch of sixty five or so acres that sits between the homes of Islip, and the Great South Bay. When you go to the forest, the homes are nowhere in sight. The trees are broad, and the foliage is very dense, and there is a road that cuts down the middle. Long Island is a hectic place, a hurried place, a harried place that made the unfortunate mistake of marrying the Puritanical New England work ethic to Babylonian materialism. But suddenly, amidst the frenzy, there is an oasis. This forest, home to snakes, and box turtles, and snapper turtles, and egrets, and herons, and osprey, and deer, and birds so exotic I can’t identify them. Deep inside the woods is an exquisite, castle like estate, a stone structure that is as well built as any Medici palace I’ve ever walked through, and now functions as nature preserve. My boys quietly babbling away, I sipped my coffee as I rode my bike, and I made the same remark I’ve made a thousand times before- how did this happen? Why didn’t somebody snatch up this land, chop it down, fill it, pave it, and slap fifty condominiums on it? How was this spit of land saved from suburban sprawl? It’s the only chance that my boys have, to experience any of the wonder and awe of a Huck Finn childhood. Countless mornings, we bike down this road, and a hush comes over us every time.
Eventually, the forest gives way to wetland. As our bikes slugged along, the sky opened up, and we were surrounded by cat tail reeds. The wind moves across the reeds in waves, and the reeds whisper softly, consolingly, steadily, as if to strip from me any residual angst from expressways and highways that may have clung to my clothes. Finally, we are at Islip beach.
There is nothing so very special about Islip beach, were you to compare it with its famous oceanfront cousins. It is a bay beach that is several hundred feet wide, and looks across at Fire Island. But when Margaret and I dated, we spent countless hours sitting at this beach. Alongside a dozen other cars, we ate egg sandwiches as the sun rose. We held Easter morning church services in the gazebo, we sailed sunfishes from the western end in midday, we sipped iced tea as the sun set, and we returned to our cars when the local police officer came to kick us out. And so, when Margaret and I came to be married, this beach mattered more to us than the actual home we would move in to. The home could be this or that, but what mattered was that we had to be a bike ride away from the beach. Spring, summer, and fall, the boys climb the life guard stand, they run around the playground, they dig out hermit crabs, they learn to swim, they cry when they fall off of slides, they drop ice cream pops into the sand and rinse them off in the sea, they fall asleep in my arms as I walk along the water. Islip beach is sacred ground.
This week, I invited the seventh individual to sit for a portrait, as part of the “Nine Faces of Islip” series. My wife Margaret has urged me to paint Kay Erwood, a local figure that has devoted decades of her life to the community. “KIC- Keep Islip Clean” is the simple logo on her office door, but judging from the profound legacy she has in this town, I felt that there must be more to her story. This afternoon, I was delighted to hear Kay knock on the door of the building, and I ran down the stairs to greet her. “Hello, Kevin, thank you so much for calling me. I’m thrilled to be a part of this “Faces of Islip” thing that you are doing, I read about it in the paper. It just sounds wonderful!” Her smile was among the most contagious, uplifting smiles I’d ever encountered. She went on to say that she remembers my wife as a little girl, and that “little Margaret was so helpful, joining my KIC groups.” Though it was two decades ago, she remembers small details about Margaret, and remembers her friends all by name.
Moments later, she is sitting atop a model base, and is ready to begin posing for the portrait. Her face is lit up with a broad, generous grin, and she continues talking. As I mixed my paints, we discussed this and that, and somehow I brought up a recent bike ride. “And then my boys and I continued on to Islip beach, when we” – and suddenly Kay cuts me off. “Oh, I’m so glad you use the beach, it is wonderful down there, isn’t it? We got it all recovered from Hurricane Sandy, and I’m so glad the families are back using it again. How do you like it?” She spoke as if she were directly involved, and so I instantly realized that she must play an important role. I told her how we loved the beach, how many times a week we take ambling bike rides down as a family. She listened quietly, and said “You know, there was a time when all that was in jeopardy. Let me tell you the story of Islip beach.”
Thirty years ago, Islip beach was a terrible eyesore. A long, crumbling cement wall ran down one side, covered with graffiti. The parking lot was disintegrating, facilities were run down- it was not a destination. Above the beach and adjoining this land, Kay was friends with the woman who lived in the “castle” in the woods. Before the owner of the castle died, she drafted a will mandating that her land all be given to the public as a nature preserve and community center. But as the beach was neglected, and the castle was shuttered up, an investor group came along with a proposition: they would buy both the crumbling town beach and all the adjoining woodlands, and create a new community of condominiums. Plans were drawn up for the woods to be leveled, the wetlands to be filled with earth, and for scores and scores of tightly packed homes and condominiums to be crammed in, clear up til the water. Clearly, there was tens and tens of millions of dollars to be made here. And so, the customary, rote town meetings were held, before the fleet of cement mixers began filling the wetlands.
But Kay Erwood went to the meeting. So did her friend Nancy, and a few other women. And there was Kay, standing up in town hall, demanding that the wetlands be saved, the woods be utilized as a nature center as the will had stipulated, and that Islip beach be rebuilt. A small, petite little woman with a winning smile and a steady passion in her voice, standing up to huge construction companies and hulking development corporations- not to mention the political spectrum she must have encountered. The opposition faced by Kay and her friends must have been fierce, though I don’t know much more of the story. Kay said “Good things are worth fighting for. And that fight can take a very long time. But, we won, and they completely restored that little part of the bay, transforming it into a beautiful little spot. And now you have Islip beach, and the wetland nature preserve.”
I was three quarters of the way done with the first day’s work of painting Kay Erwood’s portrait, and I stood astonished in my studio. This sweet, bubbly little woman, who I’ve come to learn lives a stone’s throw from my backyard… gave me Islip beach. Gave my boys the “forest” of Islip. I’m sure that’s only one chapter of her career, with countless other things she’s done to contribute to the quality of life in Islip. But in one fell swoop, by saving Islip wetlands and beach, she and a few other women saved the town, in my opinion. I was in such awe of her that I had a sudden pang, and had trouble continuing on with the painting. How could I capture somebody so unassuming, so admirable, with just oil paints and linen? How could a measly ten by eighteen inch canvas tell her story? Can painting do this? I felt the limitations of my medium. I thought of Van Dyck’s portrait of Cornelius Van der Geest- the water in the eyes, the pause in the lips.
Just paint, just paint. I picked up palette and brushes, and we kept talking, and when she hopped off the model base at the end, she turned to look at the canvas. “Looks just like me, terrific job!”
“The woods are lovely, and dark, and deep,
but I have promises to keep,
and miles to go before I sleep,
and miles to go before I sleep.”
When Sorolla painted the fishing boats of Valencia, he hired the boats for the day, so that they would stay put. I get it. Commercial fishermen work hard. They are a really generous, accommodating group, especially Pete, the captain of this boat. But he’s so busy, heading out at four in the morning, that it’s difficult for me to pin down the boat and get that early morning sunlight.
I’m back at Whitecap, starting a big new painting. I’m incredibly excited to begin this work, it’s been a long time coming. First time I’ve painted in a week- and that feels way too long. I hope to have it finished, or even just far enough along to exhibit, by the time I get to the Montauk Art Fair, on August 16, 17, and 18th. You know, I find accounting to be difficult, computer work mundane, setting up tents in New York City in 100 degree heat less than rapturous, and I find building easels at night in my garage to be wearying… but oh, when I finally stand in front of the easel, and there is no sound except the distant hum of diesel engines, and the quiet breathy sweep of the brush on the linen- then I understand Eric Lidell’s words.
“God made me fast. And when I run, I sense his pleasure.” -Eric Lidell
So, my wife, children and I have all returned from California. It was a whirlwind of a trip, from the Los Altos Outdoor Fair, to the portrait demonstration, to a large series of sketches I did during a sermon at Union Presbyterian, to a bout of the flu that knocked me and my family down flat.
Here is a short progression of the portrait demonstration which I did at the Union Presbyterian Church in Los Altos. The sitter for the painting was a wonderful fellow by the name of Art, whose wife Margaret Sloan is an excellent artist (visit http://mockingbirdsatmidnight.com/). Having found out through this blog about my trip to the Los Altos area, Maggie came to my booth to say hello. She and her husband Art are both very talented musicians, and they invited me to a nearby pub for an Irish music session. Irish music sessions are basically events in which a mixed bag of friends and strangers all meet, and share tunes, and others join in as they identify the tune, or as they learn it. Art is a great fiddler, Maggie is brilliant on the tin whistle, and I, well umm, I umm paint fiddles and manage to squeak out a tune now and again. If you listen to this video, you will see me fiddling to the right, and then Maggie jumps in on the tin whistle and rescues me from what had reluctantly become a solo.
There is much more to write, bout my trip to California. I really, really liked it there. It seemed every bit as productive as New York, but it had a uniquely creative spirit nurtured by a willed, slower pace. So much happened in my visit. An hour and a half long visit with the generous and encouraging gallery owner, John Pence. A couple dozen conversations with individuals interested in portrait commissions. Learning of San Francisco’s taste in aesthetics, and how strikingly it can contrast with New York City’s. I hope to write again soon about Los Altos Land, a land of Google, Apple, and Yahoo catrillionaires, a land flowing with milk and honey, with zero humidity, Tesla cars abundant, and charming, little, freestanding bookhouses, like small birdhouses on posts, bookhouses which proliferate free literature throughout the town, as the herds of bicycles silently go zipping by, and ‘neath the towering redwoods and eucalyptus there is borne aloft from bungalow windows the melodic strain of juicer machines, their vitamin rich songs gently wafting down silent cedar avenues. Aye, indeed, were I to sell my home in New York, I’m certain that in Los Altos I could afford a spacious, charming, slate shingled mailbox.
It took me a few weeks to finish up a bunch of my paintings. It took a day to take a trip to the Omega Framing factory in Yaphank, where I selected and purchased my frame lengths. It took a few hours in my garage to cut and assemble frames for all of my paintings. It took thirty something hours to build crates for all of my paintings, and pack the crates with all of my work. It took a while for my father in law and I to shrink wrap all of the crates on a shipping palette, and load it in to the back of a tractor trailer. It took my wife Margaret a day on the computer to design a new portrait brochure, and have it shipped to Los Altos.
I’m delivering a big painting to a fellow who already purchased. In front of me is a couple days of exhibiting in Los Altos at the outdoor art fair, followed by a portrait demo at Los Altos Presbyterian. I’ll be locking in a large commission, which I’m able to paint back at my studio in Islip, and months later send back to the west coast.
The kids are asleep in the back of the shuttle, en route to the airport. The paintings arrived safely in Los Altos. The portrait brochures are printed, and awaiting us too.
And my wife is understandable asking me to get off my phone, because we’re sitting in traffic, near the Manhattan midtown tunnel.
If for a moment, I dwell on how much work it is to pull off an exhibition in California, I just think about Lewis and Clark taking a couple of years to make it from the east coast to the Continental Divide. And then, I tell myself to quit whining, in just hours I’ll be on my friend’s back porch in Los Altos.
Life is good.
Back in December, I received an email from a man named Bob in St. Louis. Through an internet search he had come across my paintings, and he was particularly taken by one of my violin paintings. All of the lawyers at his law firm were looking for a surprise gift for the head of the law firm who is an Irish fiddler himself, and Bob was selecting the gift. The thing was that all of the paintings were sold, and I had nothing similar to offer him. And so, he immediately suggested a commission of a violin painting, along the lines of a favorite from the online gallery- a red violin on a blue chair. I broke out my brushes and began to paint, delighting in the beautiful rhythms and flow of light, working long days to get it done and off in the mail. By the end of December, the painting was mailed to St. Louis, and I’m told that his boss was thrilled. It was a wonderful, enjoyable commission.
After a few weeks, I realized that there was a story in that painting. And, though the painting felt like it was complete, it seemed to me like there was a whole other story to be told. I stewed over it for a while, then I decided to go for it- a pendant painting, to match the other. Kind of like a before and after. I spent the past four months working on the second half of this painting, which I called “Spilled Stout.” Today, I finished the painting, and framed it in my garage, and I am packing it up to send it to my show in California. There is a story told with these paintings, and though I could write down that story, but then I’d be bastardizing the visual medium of the paintings. I’d like for you to see them side by side, the St.Louis painting on the left and the new one on the right, and for you to see your own story. Could I make a suggestion? Pour yourself a stout (or wine if you are sofistercated like that), and click this link for Dezi Donnelly the fiddler. While the music plays, look at the paintings, sip your stout, and wish to God that you were Irish.
So, I worked quite a bit more on this painting. I had a bunch of things that needed to be heightened, other things subdued. The risk I run, by going back in to a semi-finished painting, is that I may be exchanging spontaneity for precision.
I’ve actually learned a lot as a painter, in the past two months. I’ve been putting in some really long hours at the easel, working on various pieces, fighting for that particular glow of light, that particular saturation of color. And as I’ve sought these artistic solutions, I’ve had to reinvent some of my technique. As I’ve furthered my understanding of pairings of washes against piles of thick paint, I’ve realized something- my painting finish is inadvertently emulating that of David Leffel’s, even Sorolla’s. (Not saying I’m as good as.) And why has my painterly effect emulated theirs? Because they were trying to capture light, and a particular painterly attack is what it took to get that effect. Thick paint against thin, and the ends justify the means. Some people tell me that they want to paint more brushy, and they will ask me how to become more painterly (not that I am necessarily a brushy painter, but away from a computer screen, there is some thick paint, or boogers as my son identified). I never know how to respond to that “becoming brushy” question, as if brushiness were in of itself a pursuit. If you want to paint brushy, then see brushy.
My little guy, Evan, is a tough little bruiser of a three year old, and the fire in his belly keeps me laughing all day long. He seems slightly ashamed of his self perceived aggressive nature. But I know that, if properly directed, his aggression be a gift, a rapid river rushing, carving out hillsides and forming the landscape. It’s police commissioner Teddy Roosevelt, standing down Tammany Hall corruption in New York City. It’s Edward Elgar producing the Enigma Variations. It’s Jane Jacobs taking on Robert Moses, and saving Greenwich Village from demolishment.
Evan came to paint with me in my studio, the other day. He saw how far along this painting had come, and he stared in wide eyed wonder. He pointed up to the painting, and said “Dad, that’s my work boots, and your work boots. That’s us. You really love me.”
Being an artist is difficult, yet enjoyable. Being a father is incredibly difficult, yet overwhelmingly and inconceivably wonderful. Could an artist, could a father, wish for anything more?
“Sons are a heritage from the LORD, children a reward from him. Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are sons born in one’s youth. Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them.”-Solomon, Psalm 127, verses 3,4, and 5
So, the interview at NBC studios was incredible! I think the funniest thing is that I spend my career trying to piece together what Jackson Pollock deconstructed, and yet in my every bit of publicity, Jackson manages to eke his way in . Pollock was often heard to say “I just gotta get Picasso off my back.” I’m often heard saying “I’m more interested in the people who built the Pantheon, than the ones who tore it down.”
The Washington Square Outdoor Show went very well, with a few nice sales to a few new buyers. I’m now wrapping up a semester of classes at the McEvoy Studio, framing a couple dozen works, packing a crate full of paintings and shipping them to an exhibition in California, locking in a portrait demo outside of San Francisco, forging ahead with the”Nine Portraits of Islip”, formulating a proposal for a large painting in a major hospital, finalizing a large commission for a church on the west coast… forgive me for the bloglessness! Things are wonderful, but lark of mercy, things are busy. Good busy, though, with lots and lots of painting!
You know, in relocating my studio to Islip, my hope was to be able to approach my art career in the same fashion that the Vietcong waged guerrilla warfare. Paint, paint, paint while in the thick of the suburban jungles of mid Long Island, then launch sporadic attacks on urban fronts with finely tuned paintings. So far, all is going according to plan, because I am able to put in a good nine hours of painting at the studio, and still bike home in time for soccer practice with Liam and Evan.
After the longest break in my blog’s history, I now write to say that there have been a slough of wonderful events, one after the other.
But first- happy anniversary, wife. Nine years, tomorrow. Three continents, one desert, two oceans, one mountain, a salt plain, and now three boys. What an adventure.
What’s more, tomorrow on WNBC2 News, this Wednesday the 29th, between seven and eight p.m., I will be interviewed live, in a five minute special. The prime time news program is called New York Nightly with anchorman Chuck Scarborough, on NBC’s 24/7 news station, Cozi. The special is about the Washington Square Outdoor Art Exhibition, and how it helped launch my career. During the interview, they will be featuring some images of my paintings. This is a great chance for me to feature my work, and a great chance to talk about how the outdoor venue that began with Jackson Pollock went on to forge the careers of great realist painters such as David Leffel.
I had a great show this past weekend, at the Washington Square Outdoor Exhibition. Notwithstanding the wind and rain on the first day, there were a few great sales, and many great connections with people from all over the world who walk the streets of New York City. I will be exhibiting next weekend as well, so feel free to come out and meet me in my booth on the sidewalk, above Washington Square. I’m on the west side of University Avenue, between 9th and 10th.
The third face of Islip, two hour progress shot. Lanny is the bartender at Lily Flanagan’s, in Islip. He’s from Ireland, and he’s a great guy.
My brothers and I have a practice with Lily Flanagan’s. We walk by their window on Main Street, and if Lanny is behind the bar, we enter for a well poured Guinness, a burger, and good conversation. If not, we keep walking. You may call it elitism, but us imbibers of stout with refined pallets must be discerning.
This is the fourth day of working on this canvas, and I’m really pleased with this painting. In an effort to capture that glowing light that was falling on Jimmy’s face, I loaded on more paint to the side of the forehead, the beard, the nose to cheekbone. Three years ago, I stood in the Pitti Palace in Florence, and was in awe of a painting which glowed from fifty feet away. A painting of an old man, the light was glowing off of the canvas. There was such life, something I can’t put in to words. As I drew closer, there was thick, goopy paint clinging to the canvas. These thick impastos were globbed on, but I noticed that the thick paint was beside thin washes. Impastos, in the context of thin, turpentine washes. It was a sudden revelation, that these impastos only worked because they were sparingly employed. Were the whole canvas thick, impastoed paint, then thick, impastoed paint would have no significance. As time went by, my understanding of pairings crystallized. In order to have light, you have to have dark, in order to have impastos, you have to have thin washes. This applies to the other arts as well. In order to have the soaring harpsichord climax of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 5., it has to be compositionally surrounded by the comparatively quiet flute and brushy strings. In Hugo’s Les Miserables, in order for Jean Valjean to be grace in Christ, Javert must be the Mosaic law. In Bill Watterson’s work, in order for Calvin to be chaos, Suzy must be order. Impasto, and washes.
Between you and I, there is substantial art historical evidence that Rembrandt was a spackler, as well as a painter.
I know, I know, I know how cheesy this is going to sound. But, my wife is incredibly beautiful. I love painting her. I look at her, and I think she has the most striking, perfect features. Her gaze has such intensity. The first face of Islip, in the Chase Manhattan series. No, this blog will not feature the series in a chronological order. Nothing in my life flows that consistent and orderly.
A few months ago, I walked into the Chase bank on Main Street in Islip. I submitted a written proposal to the head of the bank, which basically said that I’d like to paint and then exhibit nine portraits of typical people from Islip. In order to obtain clearance, my proposal went from there to some figure higher up in Chase Manhattan corporation, and was then accepted. Chase Manhattan has approved of the exhibition, and pending the success of the Islip exhibition, it might perhaps travel to other banks throughout the New York area.
My wife Margaret was the first portrait. Here is the second portrait, a portrait of an old friend, Jimmy. He is the janitor at the Islip high school, and a janitor at the Islip Presbyterian Church which I used to attend. For a year, the church was kind enough to lend me their chapel as an art studio, and Jimmy was there everyday, laughing and telling stories. I’m going to be perfectly honest for a moment- I’m thrilled with this painting. Just four hours work, and it has such presence. I’ll never know what makes some portraits instantly click- it’s gotta be Jimmy’s awesome hair and beard.
“DAAAAAAAD!!!! Evan peed on the floor!” was the cry that ran through the house. Moments before, I had just emerged from the shower, hair still wet, and now my little son Quinn was on my knee, and I was wiping food off from his face. Typically a sweet, compliant eight month old, today Quinn was being quite resistant to the prunes and oatmeal that I was attempting to shovel into his mouth. “Well, Evan, is it true? Did you pee on the floor, did you, a three year old, pee on the floor?” I yelled across the house. Evan came running up, face flushed red, and he blurted out “Yes, I did pee on the floor, but that’s because you were in the bathroom, taking a shower, and you hate it when we knock on the door when you’re in the shower.” I stared at him. He had a point. “Daaaaaaad, dad, dad, dad, is it true that fossils come from dinosaurs?” Liam screamed, as though he were shot. “Dad, I’m sorry I did the pee on the floor, I never do that, it was an accident” Evan stammered. As I directed the spoon towards Quinn’s mouth, his dimpled hand shot up in the air and sent the spoon and prune/oatmeal sludge heavenward. Down it came, descending in brownish showers on tray, hair, and floor. Quinn smiled the cherubesque smile that belongs only to infants, an untainted smile which humans later trade in for words. “DAAAAAAAD, why do fossils only stick in rocks?” Liam yelled. “Daaad, I’m sorry for the pee pee, can I get dressed now?” Evan pleaded, looking like a forlorn Charles Dickens character. Quinn started to cry. Evan started to cry.
Margaret was gone for the night, off doing income taxes. I was home alone with the kids. And I still had two hours before they went to bed. I stared at the wall, and thought to myself “Okay. Billions and billions of people have done this before, growing these life forms, guiding these misshapen balls of entropy along the obstacle course of infancy, childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. But if billions of people have successfully raised children, then why is it still so overwhelming? How many millions of books about parenting have been published? Shouldn’t child rearing have been fine tuned by now? Shouldn’t child rearing benefit from the ages in the same way that technology has streamlined the raising of longhorns in the Southwest?” More screaming emerged from the other side of the house, somebody was scolding me for not having enough Transformer underwear in their dresser drawers. And as I shoveled more food into Quinn’s mouth, I said out loud “Raising children is hard. Shut up, carry on, and laugh.”
Once in their pajamas, I chased the boys around the house. Tonight, I would be a ferocious dinosaur with rabies, chasing after little velociraptors. Liam laughed so hard, that tears rolled down his face. Evan laughed so hard, he had to go run to the bathroom to avert another urinary disaster. Quinlan half crawled, and cackled and giggled with delight. I placed Liam and Evan in their beds, prayed with them, and headed to Quinn’s crib. I braced myself for the customary hour or so of fussing and half crying, in order to send Quinn off to sleep. As I held him in my arms, I parted the curtain, and the last glint of daylight revealed a dark storm front in the sky, like a giant bruise above the tree line. I sat on the bed with Quinn, and the rain began to slowly fall on the holly leaves beside the bedroom window. Deep rumbling, and the first thunderstorm of spring was approaching. Quinn placed his head against my chest, and looked out the window with me. The rain fell heavier, and the cool breeze began to sway the curtains. Quinn cooed softly. Short little breaths gave way to longer breaths, gave way to sighs, gave way to the gentle drone of sleep. In just moments, Quinn was asleep on my chest, and the house was silent except for the distant rumbling of the fleeing storm. I never knew a deeper joy.
I woke early in the morning, and headed to the studio. My students came for still life class, and I pulled my son’s boots out of my bag. I began to teach still life painting, addressing the flow of light over form, about the play of dark against light, of weathered pine against the glowing varnish of maple, of man made materials against natural forms, of rough textures against smooth surfaces, of the decaying effect of time against the luster of the new. And as I spoke to my students about their paintings, I began to paint on my own new, fresh canvas. Dad’s boots, and Evan’s boots.
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,”- that is all
ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
My Wife, painting in progress, oil on linen, 12″ x 18″
By Robert Frost
Age saw two quiet children
Go loving by at twilight,
He knew not whether homeward,
Or outward from the village,
Or (chimes were ringing) churchward,
He waited (they were strangers)
Till they were out of hearing
To bid them both be happy.
“Be happy, happy, happy,
And seize the day of pleasure.”
The age-long theme is Age’s.
‘Twas Age imposed on poems
Their gather-roses burden
To warn against the danger
That overtaken lovers
From being overflooded
With happiness should have it
And yet not know they have it.
But bid life seize the present?
It lives less in the present
Than in the future always,
And less in both together
Than in the past. The present
Is too much for the senses,
Too crowding, too confusing—
Too present to imagine.
My brother’s mother in law recently got in touch with me. She is an enthusiastic, supportive person who loves art, follows this blog, and enjoys the rambling road of my artistic career. Peggy works at Great Neck high school, and asked me if I were at all interested in speaking to the students there. The moment I heard of the opportunity, I was on board. A quick conversation with the head of the art department confirmed the general theme behind their invitation: Come, speak to the students, and demonstrate to them that right brainers can do right brainy things- and afford food, too!
The art department was incredible. The students’ work was exhibited on every square inch of the walls, and the quality was stunning. The teachers were clearly doing a fantastic job, as the classroom had enthusiasm in the air. There was no question here of momentum- in fact, I found that my speech was only a matter of me catching up to what these teachers were already doing well.
And now, I pause this blog to bring you back to an event in my own high school experience. In tenth grade at Smithtown Christian School, I found myself, like most of humanity, to be terrified of speaking in public. I dreaded standing in front of an auditorium. I dreaded attention from groups. One day, in a dark auditorium, after hours at school, I set up my violin and began to play. The auditorium was empty, and so I played with force, allowing the deep dark notes to echo and reverberate off of the back walls of the auditorium. The soft, high notes stayed ringing in the air for many seconds after the bow finished drawing across the strings. As I played some tune by Dvorak, somebody called out “Wonderful! Now, you are going to play in the worship group with us.” The head of the worship music group had wandered in a back door, and she had been listening for a while. I instantly recoiled into my shell, a snail whose antennaes had been poked. She insisted that I play this coming Wednesday, in an evening service, in front of the whole church- several thousand members. I said no. She said yes. I said no. And on, and on. Finally, I said yes.
I lay awake at night, a trembling tenth grader, wondering what embarrassment lay ahead of me. I was going to play “We’ve a Song to Sing to the Nations.” I practiced it for hours and hours and hours, until I didn’t need the sheet music. I whistled the tune as I walked. I tapped the time while I leaned my head on the window of the bus. I was terrified. But then, it dawned on me that I would remain terrified of performing in public, until I did it enough times to overcome the fear. I had to do this.
I stood on the stage, and the director of worship walked up to me. “Oh yeah, Kevin, you’re going to have to begin the song when the spotlight comes on you. The room is going to be black, and then the spotlight will come, then you’ll play a few measures, all the other lights will slowly come on, and I’ll join in on the piano.” There I stood as the events of the performance unfolded, my legs wobbly, my hands sweating. Once cued, I took my spot, and set up the music. The lights went off, the room was black. I waited for the spotlight. And waited. And waited. It was absolutely silent. The women whispered from the piano “The spotlight must think you begin your solo, while it’s still dark. You’ll have to just start.” I responded with a trembling voice “But, I don’t know the first notes. I can’t see.” “PLAY!” she said.
I brought the tune to mind, and I began to play. Oh wonderful, divine muse, inspiration descending from Elysium, oh how my fingers became these young, nimble deer, leaping and jumping whithersoever they pleased. No, really, I was playing whatever came into my head. I played sharps here, now a few flats there, I trilled on the E string, the pulsing vibrato now accenting here, the spare open string there. Staccato in this spot, now spare trilling there. And as my fingers glided over the fingerboard, I reflected on the fact that I was playing absolute, utter nonsense. I was not even playing metered music, in time. I was lost, in the dark, and I was light years away from any melody resembling the hymn “We’ve a Song to Sing to the Nations.” If I had to name my improvised tune, it would be “We’ve a Stammering Squeak to Shriek to the Captive Peoples.” As I racked my mind for the melody to the hymn, my improvisation continued, and I cursed the spotlight guy, and I cursed the spotlight guy’s mother for birthing him, and I cursed Thomas Edison for inventing electric lights, and I cursed the inventor of the violin. After a minute or two of this agony, the spotlight came on. I could see my music. I played the first measures correctly, the piano boldly asserted the new melody, and the congregation sang forth in “And the darkness shall turn to dawning, and the dawning to noonday bright…” Relieved of carrying the primary melody, I now played harmony. The song ended, and I descended from the stage and melted into a puddle of shame. People came, patted me on the back, and said that it was kind of good, like, like in this one spot it sounded like a gypsy tune. I thanked them for their condolences, and headed out the back door.
As I stood in the warm night air, my face hot and flushed with adrenaline, I thought “The worst has happened. I could not have done any worse.” I was mortified.
The next day, people came up to me, and said “Kevin, you did really great last night. That was such a cool intro. It sounded like some type of Irish, gypsy tune. What a relief to have a break from the same, stale, Christian music intros. You really changed it up. You doing it again soon?” And the consensus was in- it actually pretty good. In my panic, I had reverted to the wandering, ambling dirges that I would play for hours on end in the solitude of my room. Though it wasn’t the hymn they requested, it wasn’t a catastrophe either. That same week, they had me join the music group as an official member, and I soon came to perform in front of several hundred students a week. After a while, I was invited to retreat centers upstate New York, to play a little hymn in front of several thousand. I joined an Irish ceili band on occasion, and played reels til my hand ached. Years later, I stood on top of a table in the middle of the Thanksgiving Feast at the Charles Cecil Studios, surrounded by a hundred Europeans who floated in our artist circle, and I played jigs and reels at full dancing speed.
I came to love performing the violin in front of crowds, and this led directly into me enjoying speaking in front of crowds.
As I stood in front of the Great Neck auditorium, I shared with the students about my art career, and the response was wonderful. Mark Twain said that speaking in public should be as fluid as speaking to your friends in the pub- I couldn’t agree more. I spoke about my paintings, my effort to receive classical painting instruction, my experiences in the art world, the time I spent teaching classical drawing to inmates in a jail- and the students responded. They laughed, they leaned forward, one student cried, the group seemed engaged. As I spoke, I reflected on how I once sat in their seats and was terrified of speaking in public. What’s more, I also had sat in their seats and had been terrified by the challenge of becoming an artist.
As I sit down to type, I am struck by the difficulty of summing up the current state of affairs. In my studio, my four classes are moving along wonderfully. In fact, I was forced to turn away a student for the first time, as there are currently more students than there are openings. I’ve finalized a couple of sales, one painting which is going out to California. The corporation of Chase Manhattan bank has approved of an exhibition, which will feature 9 to 15 smaller canvases depicting the faces of people from Islip. My trip to London was incredibly exciting, as I was able to reconnect with all of the Cecil Studios painters who I’ve been longing to catch up with. There are such exciting things, my friends have done some pretty great works, and I’m energized by their dialogue. I may have landed a London gallery, in the gallery district. And as the flowers miraculously poke their soft heads through the hard, brittle scab of earth, the forward momentum of spring seems to have carried my world of painting along.
And then, this morning, the BP Portrait Awards emailed me to say that there were roughly 2,000 applicants to their show, and of that number, they have decided on the top 55. And I am not in that number. They also said something in the email about how the English beat up the Irish really good in the 18th century, and how Cornwall was taller than my great great great grandfather, and how I was always the last kid in the gym class to get picked for basketball, and how I failed my sequential 2 regents in math and had to take it twice, and how I let that one goal up in college soccer. All this in one email, while an animated figure of an Englishman in a powdered wig shook his head “no”, while shaking his finger and giggling a distinctively high pitched English giggle. I might have relayed the email to you with a smidgen of embellishment, but suffice to say, my painting was denied.
I’m pretty good at perspective- I have to be, or else I wouldn’t survive as an artist. But sometimes, for a short while, I am sad. And so, dear reader, as your eyes run across these lines of mine, I’d like you to know that being an artist can be hard. You work so hard, you give it your best, you place yourself out there, you invest lots of money, you cross an ocean with a painting, and you… fail. The courageous lion within me swells his chest, points his paw to the sky, and declares that there is a silver lining, and by God, I shall find it. But, then I realize that sometimes, it’s just grey and cloudy, and its rainy, and I’ve worn the wrong pair of shoes, and woops, would you look at that, I’ve just stepped in a puddle. And now my socks are wet. And I don’t have an umbrella. Yes, sometimes, there is no silver lining, sometimes it is just cloudy. The word “depressed” has displaced the word “sad”, as our generation has overpsychologized and disparaged this normal, healthy, reflexive, human emotion called sadness. In a post-romantic world, modernism would somehow have us believe that life should be a flat line, and that peaks and valleys are intruders. I disagree. I’m sad, I will be sad for a short while, but I’m not ashamed. Because, as I ready myself to paint for the next few hours, I remind myself of one thing and am deeply encouraged. I tried.
Now all glory to God, who is able, through his mighty power at work within us,
to accomplish infinitely more than we might ask or think.
-Paul, Ephesians 3:20
Returning home to three young boys is akin to jumping off your BMX bike at full speed- if your feet aren’t moving, you will have grass stains on your forehead. That being said, it is the most wonderful thing in the world to return home to my incredibly supportive wife, and to my giggling children.
I’m eager to write all about London, the trip couldn’t have been better. But, at the moment things are busy, so I will just relay a bit of wonderful news. I am featured in a nice article in Professional Artist Magazine! The very painting which I dropped off in London has a wonderful spot in the article about Converge, the exhibition on Central Park West, curated by Allison Malafronte. The article was written by Terry Sullivan. The Professional Artist magazine is for sale in most places where magazines are sold, such as stationary stores, and Barnes and Noble.
There is so much more good news, but I have to go scoop up my three year old son Evan because, as he said, “Da da, you can’t do Londons so many times, only the airplane one day, because you did Londons too much, and you hurt my feelings.” If Teddy Roosevelt could tell the Russian emperor to wait while he wrestled with his children on the front lawn of the White House, then I suppose my blog can wait.
So, I’ve been in London for two days now, and am having a wonderful time. I probably could write for several hours right now, except for the fact that I am so tired. I’m staying with some incredible artists, who are also friends of mine, James Hayes and Jo Rea. In central London, they have the most impressive painting studio I’ve ever seen, from which they produce various painting commissions and bronzes. It is just so impressive. James and Jo are submitting stunning works into the BP portrait competition. After they helped me restretch my canvas, they hired a driver, and had my painting delivered to the National Gallery site. Tomorrow, I’m going to sit for a small oil portrait by James, and then see if there are any additional galleries that might be interested in my work. I knocked on the door of about six galleries today, submitted my portfolio, and we’ll see if I can secure anything over here in London. Who knows?