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.