Friday, December 2, 2011

The Dreaded Artist Statement

The bi-annual Ohio Wesleyan art faculty show is up at the Ross Art Museum on campus. Why am I always blind-sided when the folks from public relations ask for an artist's statement? Here we go, another verbal disfigurement of whatever it is that I do as an artist. Whenever I finish writing an artist's statement I feel as if I have just given birth - not to a child, but to a miscreant. One starts so earnestly to render up in words the mysterious impulses and obsessions of creation, but it always ends up sounding like pretentious bullshit.

The best artist's statement ever written, by Manet:

"There's only one way of going about it. Take a look and then put down what you see straight away. If you've got it, good. If you haven't, start again. All the rest is nonsense."

A close second, by Jasper Johns:
"Do something. Do something to that. Then do something to that..."

(or something to that effect.)

I decided to update my old statement that has given good service for a decade or more. Several things have changed since I wrote my first fledgling artist statements.

First, I no longer feel I have to justify representational painting. It's an old habit left over from my student years at a time in our culture when painting from observation was stupidly regarded by that smallest circle of the Art World Hell (museums, academics, and critics) as atavistic and, more stupidly, as historically finished, done, chapter over.

Second, I no longer feel I have to argue that what I do is serious WORK! (It's more serious than that, it's PLAY!) My father and grandfather and father-in-law, in fact all the father figures in my life, have passed on. No more need to justify the legitimacy of my calling. Michelangelo was right when he said, "Painting is for women."

Third, I no longer feel I must write a manifesto.  Art ultimately defies logic and reason. I'm suspicious of anything that seems too organized and logical. 

Fourth, I no longer need to cite my influences. Artists I respect will see the debt I owe and respect me for that. Artists I don't respect will think I'm original and envy me for that.

Fifth, I avoid writing about Art, and confine myself to writing about art.

So, here it is, the latest:


"All our knowledge has its origins in our perceptions."   - Leonardo da Vinci

"To understand ourselves we need to look searchingly at our landscapes for they are a clue to culture, and our ordinary everyday landscapes at that, not just the national icons."
                                                                                                - Ken Taylor, Landscape and Memory

My work begins with what lies immediately at hand, having learned over many years of painting that no fantasy can match the strangeness and complexity of the familiar. My curiosities often lead me into spaces and environments that most people would not regard as proper subjects for landscapes. Marcel Proust said, "The voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes." The commonest environment is full of doorways into magnificence. Seeing is, for me, the first and most engaging problem of painting.

Seeing does not automatically follow from the act of looking. The muse must be courted, beguiled, sometimes, it seems, even bludgeoned. The painter wrestles against millions of years of evolution that have shaped the practical function of the sight sense. We isolate and identify, sort and categorize the useful from the not useful, the desirable from the not so. To the painter, however, the colors on the backside of a bus or a patch of pavement are as likely to induce rapture as an orchid or a mountain sunset. To be born blind and have one's sight restored was Monet's wish, for then he could see without prejudice. Only when the tag is removed from the experience can we see "what has really existed." To paint is to revisit and renew ancient, pre-verbal forms of experience - the experience of the infant for whom color and light are immediate, sensuous fascinations; pure sensations that foreshadow meaning. Rational thought is no guide in that realm. We grope with brushes and colored mud toward something dimly seen, but strongly felt. To paint is to revisit this landscape of the interior, and to return with riches.

Proust again: "Our vanity, our possessions, our spirit of imitation, our abstract intelligence, our habits, have long been at work, and it is the task of art to undo this work, making us travel back in the direction from which we have come to that place where what has really existed lies known within us."

My paintings of the past two years confront the changing urban landscapes of the central Ohio region. Man's uneasy presence in the American landscape is a continuing fascination. I work mostly on site, keeping alive a tradition of several centuries. The immediacy of the actual environment and the sense of urgency that is imparted to the process of painting by the transience of light, season, and weather is an engaging problem. Balancing these studies are large canvases that are longer meditations worked out in the studio from drawings, photographs, and experimental play at the palette. (Play is the most serious work. Ask any child.)  The small paintings are, for me, like haiku - abbreviations that unfold and expand in the eye. The larger works are crafted fiction that somehow tells a deeper truth than mere reporting of the facts.

The small figure paintings in the show were painted in Italy in the summer of 2010. They were all executed in acrylics, exploiting the fast drying nature of the medium to explore interactions of under-painting/over-painting, mark-making and optical mixing, as well as transparency and opacity. They are part of a larger series of 21 paintings that take as their subject the comings and goings of figures in the two main piazze of Cortona, where I lived. The piazza, as an urban invention, is a kind of stage, with entrances and exits and displays of small human dramas enacted by those who pass through, hence the title of the series, Cortona Palcoscenico, which comes from the Italian word for stage. The human stories - a mother attending to a child, old men gathering to share stories, tourists consulting their maps - are essentially unchanged from ancient times, despite the touchingly contemporary give-aways such as the plastic water bottle or the cell-phone. This is compelling to me as an artist.

Frank Hobbs

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Thanksgiving Road Trip 2

I left the Huntington Museum and crossed over the Ohio River to pick up Route 52 which threads along the river to Cincinnati and beyond, passing the birthplace of Ulysses S. Grant. At every intersection along the way, Black Friday shoppers queued for position while I, blissful in my dissent from the consumerist madness, pushed on. At South Point, OH, a highway sign announced that the town owns the distinction of being the southernmost place in Ohio, from which three states are visible!

Passing the town of Ironton, former heart of America's pig iron industry (so the sign says,) my eye was caught from the highway by an immense cement factory, long abandoned and in ruins. I took the nearest exit and doubled back a few miles to find it. A monument at the entrance records the numerous safety awards the plant received from the state going back to 1927.

The ruined factory was completely open, no fences, no threatening signs. Only as I had finished a long circuit through the remains of the once-thriving plant and was approaching my car did I see a small sign warning that anyone caught trespassing would be charged with a felony! Given such a magnificent wreck as this, I would probably have still taken my chances even if I had seen the sign first.

Thanksgiving Road Trip

Like so many Americans at this time of year, I too found myself behind the wheel of my car heading home for Thanksgiving in Virginia. The return trip was more relaxed. At my leisure, I could point my car down strange byways just to see what there was to see.  Since moving to Ohio four and a half years ago, I've been curious to know more about my new piece of the country.

I stopped for the night in Charleston, WV, and spent the morning hours wandering beneath the elevated interstate roadways that slice through the city. Homeless men gathered in small groups outside the mission to drink coffee. A tent city behind the mission proclaimed its solidarity with the Wall Street occupiers.

From Charleston I headed west to Huntington to cross over the Ohio River to Route 52, and Ohio. Before leaving West Virginia I stopped in at the Huntington Museum of Art where a beautiful show of prints by early 20th century artists was on display: old familiars like Brangwyn, Pennell, Haden, John Taylor Arms, as well as some new (to me) etchers, such as Kerr Erby, Martin Lewis,  and Levon West, who studied with Pennell. Martin Lewis, I learned, was a friend of Edward Hopper and taught him the techniques of etching. Hopper' etching a single figure on a lamplit street corner owes a lot to Lewis.

At the Huntington Museum there was also an exhibition of contemporary artist Lenny Lyons Bruno. Born in a coal camp in 1947, and self-taught, her work mixes found paper and quilt materials with acrylics in large-scale constructions that relate to her life. Later, at home, I Googled her and learned that she now lives in Lexington, VA, my old neck of the woods. She chose for her show a quote from Marcel Proust:

"Our vanity, our possessions, our spirit of imitation, our abstract intelligence, our habits, have long been at work, and it is the task of art to undo this work, making us travel back in the direction from which we have come to that place where what has really existed lies known within us."

The choice of Proust's words to headline the exhibition eerily synchronized with a train of thought I'd had earlier while driving. I had found myself returning to the word "apparition" to describe my experience of making of a painting. In so many artists' work today, if their statements are to be believed, everything stands for something else, usually an abstract notion like "the self," or "society." An apparition, on the other hand, is something immediate, unknown and, because of that, maybe even a bit scary. The dictionary says an apparition is "a ghost or ghostlike image, or, the appearance of something remarkable or unexpected.." Before such a vision one can only experience it.

In the act of painting, the experience of the subject precedes language, knowledge and rational intelligence. A subject doesn't render up its meaning into neat symbols - it's too complex. Things can't "stand for" or signify anything else, at least not while one is painting them, because one has not fully seen or understood what is there.  The subject, in the act of painting it, exists in a self-sufficient reality of visual relationship. Shape, color, texture and space announce only their presence For me, this is the "traveling back" that Proust speaks of as the task of art. To paint is to stand in a kind of ecstasy before an experience one doesn't really, fully understand, even though, according to Proust, it is "known" within us. We are almost embarrassed by the simplicity of this and feel compelled to explain it by ascribing all kinds of pretentious meanings to what we have experienced. We labor, as a psychology professor I had in college used to say, to produce the "passport of credibility" that explains what it all means, and that exonerates us from the crime of lapsing into a pre-rational state.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Seeing: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Working from observation, one quickly realizes that the whole process of seeing is complicated. Most of us take seeing largely for granted, just as we do our ability to speak our native tongue. We navigate space with hardly a thought except when some ambiguity - the lack of a clear overlap, an episode of camouflage in the visual field - interrupts the seamless division of figure and ground that dominates our perceptual process and wakens a higher than usual alertness as we struggle to make out what's going on.

Seeing is not the automatic result of looking. People assume that everyone sees equally and that artists are those who have a "talent" to do something with what they see. In fact, most of us, artists included, go through our days in a kind of auto-pilot mode, filtering out 95% of the sensation that greets our eyes. Artists, when they are on duty, are different only in the decision to look, to direct the gaze, to spend time attending to the appearances of things. (That is one thing artists have in common with thieves: they both look inappropriately long at things.)

The common utterance, "Ahh, NOW I see!" whenever a new understanding comes washing into our minds is telling. The kind of seeing that allows painting to go forward is a kind of opening, a shift in perspective, in which the relations between things alter, configuring sense and meaning where before all was opacity and obscurity. Everything is as it was before, only we have changed. The texture of our thoughts in those moments seems to change, not unlike the experience of those magic 3-D illusions that come into being when we shift our focus a certain way.

Annie Dillard's marvelous book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, explores this business of seeing throughout, but especially so in a chapter titled, not inappropriately, "Seeing." A section in which she talks about those who are newly sighted after being born blind has always struck me as important information for students of painting. For many years I gave this essay to my students. I think I will start doing it again.

From Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard, an excerpt from the chapter, Seeing:

I chanced on a wonderful book by Marius von Senden, called Space and Sight. When Western surgeons discovered how to perform safe cataract operations, they ranged across Europe and America operating on dozens of men and women of all ages who had been blinded by cataracts since birth. Von Senden collected accounts of such cases; the histories are fascinating. Many doctors had tested their patients' sense perceptions and ideas of space both before and after the operations. The vast majority of patients, of both sexes and all ages, had, in von Senden's opinion, no idea of space whatsoever. Form, distance, and size were so many meaningless syllables. A patient "had no idea of depth, confusing it with roundness." Before the operation a doctor would give a blind patient a cube and asphere; the patient would tongue it or feel it with his hands, and name it correctly. After the operation the doctor would show the same objects to the patient without letting him touch them; now he had no clue whatsoever what he was seeing. One patient called lemonade "square" because it pricked on his tongue as a square shape pricked on the touch of his hands. Of another postoperative patient, the doctor writes, "I have found in her no notion of size, for example, not even within the narrow limits which she might have encompassed with the aid of touch. Thus when I asked her to show me how big her mother was, she did not stretch out her hads, but set her two index-fingers a few inches apart." Other doctors reported their patients' own statements to similar effect. "The room he was in... he knew to be but part of the house, yet he could not conceive that the whole house could look bigger;" "Those who are blind from birth... have no real conception of height, or distance. A house that is a mile away is thought of as nearby, but requiring the taking of a lot of steps... The elevator that whizzes him up and down gives no more sense of vertical distance than does the train of horizontal."

For the newly sighted, vision is pure sensation unencumbered by meaning: "The girl went through the experience that we all go through and forget, the moment we are born. She saw, but it did not mean anything but a lot of different kinds of brightness." Again, "I asked the patient what he could see; he answered that he saw an extensive field of light, in which everything appeared dull, confused, and in motion. He could not distinguish objects." Another patient saw "nothing but a confusion of forms and colours." When a newly sighted girl saw photographs and paintings, she asked " ' Why do they put those dark marks all over them?' 'Those aren't dark marks,' her mother explained, 'those are shadows. That is one of the ways the eye knows that things have shape. If it were not for shadows many things would look flat.' 'Well, that's how things do look," Joan answered. 'Everything looks flat with dark patches.' "

But it is the patients' concepts of space that are most revealing. One patient, according to his doctor, "practiced his vision in a strange fashion; thus he takes off one of his boots, throws it some way off in front of him, and then attempts to gauge the distance at which it lies; he takes a few steps towards the boot and tries to grasp it; on failing to reach it, he moves on a step or two and gropes for the boot until he finally gets hold of it." "But even at this stage, after three weeks' experience of seeing," von Senden goes on, " 'space,' as he conceives it, ends with visual space, i.e., with colour-patches that happen to bound his view. He does not yet have the notion that a larger object (a chair) can mask a smaller one (a dog), or that the latter can still be present even though it is not directly seen,"

In general the newly sighted see the world as a dazzle of color-patches. They are pleased by the sensation of color, and learn quickly to name the colors, but the rest of seeing is tormentingly difficult. Soon after his operation a patient "generally bumps into one of these colour-patches and observes them to be substantial, since they resist him as tactual objects do. In walking about it also strikes him - or can if he pays attention - that he is continually passing in between the colours he sees, that he can go past a visual object, that a part of it then steadily disappears from view; and that in spite of this, however, however he twists and turns - whether entering the room from the door, for example, or returning back to it - he always has a visual space in front of him. Thus he gradually comes to realize that there is also a space behind him, which he does not see."

The mental effort involved in these reasonings proves overwhelming for many patients. It oppresses them to realize, if they ever do at all, the tremendous size of the world, which they had previously conceived of as something touchingly manageable. It oppresses them to realize that they have been visible to people all along, perhaps unattractively so, without their knowledge or consent. A disheartening number of them refuse to use their new vision, continuing to go over objects with their tongues, and lapsing into apathy and despair. "The child can see, but will not make use of his sight. Only when pressed can he with difficulty be brought to look at objects in his neighbourhood; but more than a foot away it is impossible to bestir him to the necessary effort." Of a twenty-one-year-old girl, the doctor relates, "Her unfortunate father, who had hoped for so much from this operation, wrote that his daughter carefully shuts her eyes whenever she wishes to go about the house, especially when she comes to a staircase, and that she is never happier or more at ease than when, by closing her eyelids, she relapses into her former state of total blindness." A fifteen year-old boy, who was also in love with a girl at the asylum for the blind, finally blurted out, "No, really, I can't stand it any more; I want to be sent back to the asylum again. If things aren't altered, I'll tear my eyes out."

Some do learn to see, especially the young ones. But it changes their lives. One doctor comments on "the rapid and complete loss of that striking and wonderful serenity which is characteristic only of those who have never yet seen." A blind man who learns to see is ashamed of his old habits. He dresses up, grooms himself, and tries to make a good impression. While he was blind he was indifferent to objects unless they were edible; now, "a sifting of values sets in... his thoughts and wishes are mightily stirred and some few of the patients are thereby led to dissimulation, envy, theft and fraud."

On the other hand, many newly sighted people speak well of the world, and teach us how dull is our own vision. To one patient, a human hand, unrecognized, is "something bright and then holes." Shown a bunch of grapes, a boy calls out, "It is dark, blue and shiny... It isn't smooth, it has bumps and hollows." A little girl visits a garden. "She is greatly astonished, and can scarcely be persuaded to answer, stands speechless in front of the tree, which she only names on taking hold of it, and then as "the tree with the lights in it." Some delight in their sight and give themselves over to the visual world. Of a patient just after her bandages were removed, her doctor writes, "The first things to attract her attention were her own hands; she looked at them very closely, moved them repeatedly to and fro, bent and stretched the fingers, and seemed greatly astonished at the sight." One girl was eager to tell her blind friend that "men do not really look like trees at all," and astounded to discover that her every visitor had an utterly different face. Finally, a twenty-two-year-old girl was dazzled by the world's brightness and kept her eyes shut for two weeks. When at the end of that time she opened her eyes again, she did not recognize any objects, but, the more she now directed her gaze upon everything about her, the more it could be seen how an expression of gratification and astonishment overspread her features; she repeatedly exclaimed: 'Oh God! How beautiful!"

I saw color-patches for weeks after I read this wonderful book. It was summer; the peaches were ripe in the valley orchards. When I woke in the morning, color-patches wrapped round my eyes, intricately, leaving not one unfilled spot. All day long I walked among shifting color-patches that parted before me like the Red Sea and closed again in silence, transfigured, wherever I looked back. Some patches swelled and loomed, while others vanished utterly, and dark marks flitted at random over the whole dazzling sweep. But I couldn't sustain the illusion of flatness. I've been around for too long. Form is condemned to an eternal danse macabre with meaning: I couldn't unpeach the peaches. Nor can I remember ever having seen without understanding; the color-patches of infancy are lost. My brain then must have been as smooth as any balloon. I'm told I reached for the moon; many babies do. But the color-patches of infancy swelled as meaning filled them; they arrayed themselves in solemn ranks down distances which unrolled and stretched before me like a plain. The moon rocketed away. I live now in a world of shadows that shape and distance color, a world where space makes a kind of terrible sense. What gnosticism is this, and what physics? The fluttering patch I saw in my nursery window - silver and  green and shape-shifting blue - is gone; a row of Lombardy poplars takes its place, mute, across the distant lawn. That humming oblong creature pale as light that stole along the walls of my room at night, stretching exhilaratingly around the corners, is gone, too, gone the night I ate of the bittersweet fruit, put two and two together and puckered forever my brain. Martin Buber tells this tale: "Rabbi Mendel once boasted to his teacher Rabbi Elimelekh that evenings he saw the angel who
rolls away the light before the darkness, and mornings the angel who rolls away the darkness
before the light. ‘Yes,’ said Rabbie Elimelekh, ‘in my youth I saw that too. Later on you don’t see
these things any more.’”
Why didn’t someone hand those newly sighted people paints and brushes from the start, when
they still didn’t know what anything was? Then maybe we all could see color-patches too, the
world unraveled from reason, Eden before Adam gave names. The scales would drop from my
eyes; I’d see trees like men walking; I’d run down the road against all orders, hallooing and

Read the full chapter, Seeing, from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

"What can education learn from the arts..."

Carl Jung gave us the name for the strange phenomenon of synchronicity,  "the experience of two or more events, that are apparently causally unrelated or unlikely to occur together by chance, that are observed to occur together in a meaningful manner."   -Wikipedia

Four days ago I was in my studio putzing around. Of all the things in that space that might have commanded my attention, the one object that succeeded was Herbert Read's little book, The Philosophy of Modern Art, which I opened and began to read. I read the book years ago, and haven't been back to it since. Until a few days ago.

Since then, as I was getting syllabi ready for the beginning of classes, I happened across an old syllabus of a former colleague of mine in which she quotes this intriguing statement from Elliott Eisner of Stanford University:

"One of the first things that work in the arts develops is a sense of relationship, that nothing stands alone. Whether in music, theater, or painting, every aspect of the work affects every other aspect. Attention to relationships is a fundamental mode of thinking that the arts not only invite but require."     (-thanks to Bevin Engman, Colby College)

Wanting to read more, I sought out Elliot Eisner online. I came across one of his lectures in which he traces the thinking behind some of the early models for educational theory, such as the model of schools as factories that is responsible for many of the ills of the system today. Eisner states that a new vision is needed,  and articulates the reasons why the arts are the best model for education. And who should he mention as his influence?

"The contours of this new vision were influenced by the ideas of Sir Herbert Read, an English art historian, poet, and pacifist working during the middle of the last century. He argued and I concur that the aim of education ought to be conceived of as the preparation of artists. By the term artist neither he nor I mean necessarily painters and dancers, poets and playwrights. We mean individuals who have developed the ideas, the sensibilities, the skills, and the imagination to create work that is well proportioned, skilfully executed, and imaginative, regardless of the domain in which an individual works. The highest accolade we can confer upon someone is to say that he or she is an artist whether as a carpenter or a surgeon, a cook or an engineer, a physicist or a teacher..."

It's a brilliant essay. Reproduced here courtesy of the encyclopedia of informal education,

What can education learn from the arts about the practice of education?


Saturday, May 7, 2011

"... a Hobbs painting among its peers ..."

Brett Busang is a painter, writer, and critic who maintains a lively, informative, and cathartic blog called Painting is Dead and So Can I,  which I highly recommend to anyone for whom the word, "curmudgeon," has a certain appeal. We both lived for a time in Richmond, VA, haunting its alleys and byways with our easels while successfully eluding the glaring spotlight of both fame and fortune. Busang is not known for mincing words on matters artistic, so when I heard that he'd mentioned me in a recent post on his blog, I prepared myself as one might before stepping out into a hailstorm. Following is an excerpt of his post, which you may read in its entirety by clicking the link at the bottom.

"Frank Hobbs doesn't live in Richmond anymore, but professes to like it and may well return.  Choice of residence aside, Hobbs' contribution to the landscape is worth revisiting. 

His most visible work revolves around the poetry, if you will, of transportation.  It's formally exciting and has a terrific punch.  But his river paintings are, in my view, more compelling.  They are striking enough to attract art accumulators whose comfortable yearnings go only so far.  To see a Hobbs painting among its peers can be unsettling; if you don't watch yourself, it'll you wake up.

In his river paintings he gets at two very essential things: the vitality of fluid motion against the monumental forms of piers and bridges.  His delineation of
things is strong and subtle.  His bridges span the river, keep the traffic moving, and are not likely to cave in.  He understands that less is more, but is willing to show the effects of age - which can mean a lot on a bridge.  Because of his superior grasp of form, he never loses the big shapes that constitute an abstract design. 

Whether intentionally or not, Hobbs has made paintings that represent, not only a familiar subject, but something that does not cater to sentimental prejudices.   He's made good paintings and good paintings last." 

Painting the Cowpasture River

Long before I was ever a painter and looked at things with a painter's eye - before I even knew what a painter was - I knew and loved the Cowpasture River. Each July, on the first Friday after the 4th, from the time I was a boy, my father and I would leave Lynchburg and wind over the hairpins of Route 501, heading west for Bath County, Virginia, and the Cowpasture River. He and I, and a small army of other fathers and their sons, were reenacting a ritual that began in the early part of this century when the first group of Lynchburg men began journeying by train to Clifton Forge, and from there, by wagon and Model-T over the dirt and gravel path that is now Route 42, to camp and fish along the banks of the Cowpasture.

Over the years a small camp evolved. Army tents, pitched on the ground, gave way to wooden tent decks, then to small screen enclosures, and small cabins. The roads were improved. Families began to join the procession.

Conditions were basic and rustic. My father's generation loves to tell stories of the old days before running water or flush toilets. Even into the 1960's, my generation remembers the magical time before electricity came, when we read books or played games by the flickering orange light of kerosene and propane lamps, and drank mouth-numbing sodas from Depression-era ice-boxes filled with huge, slick blocks of crystal clear ice that an ice company in Clifton Forge, now long gone, used to truck in.  

Courtesy of Jim Thomson

Courtesy of Jim Thomson

John Owen, second from left. Courtesy of Jim Thomson

 I continue to this day to return to the river as to an earthly Valhalla. I would not be surprised if just beyond St. Peter's gate the Cowpasture River came into view. But now I am a veteran of fifty summers, and other motives mingle with the former ones to bring me there. I still go to the river to enjoy its benedictions, but I also go there to ply my trade - to prospect for paintings. Although it's pleasant working on the Cowpasture River, it presents me with a unique difficulty: I have trouble seeing it at all.

As anyone who seeks to do a particular job must learn to see and think in the specialized terms of that profession, a painter, in order to do the job of painting, must learn to see and to think as a painter. Claude Monet, the great Impressionist, defined the painter's challenge this way:

"When you go out to paint, try to forget what objects you have in front of you, a tree, a field... Merely think, here is a little square of blue, here an oblong of pink, here a streak of yellow; and paint it just as it looks to you, the exact color and shape, until it givees your own naive impression of the scene."

Monet often said that he wished he'd been born blind and then had his sight restored so that he could see pure sensations of color, unencumbered by meaning.

Now I am painting along the river bank, looking toward the camp. This is my problem: how does that streak of yellow over there stop being the Big Dock, where my cousin Graham used to entertain us younger kids with his antics, imitating a man, perhaps Clyde Barrows, getting shot repeatedly before falling into the water? How does that dark greenish shape over there stop being the stretch of quiet water below camp where the white-trunked sycamore trees shade the surface, the place where John Owen, my first patron, loved to cast his fly line?

Courtesy of Jim Thomson

Wherever it is that one paints, it is a struggle to see things on their own simple, visual terms. Meaning is the conjugal partner of sensation. The two do not want to be teased apart, to be disentangled, the way that painters seek to do. At the Cowpasture River, every sensation sets up a ripple of memory and association. I struggle to keep my professional distance. My subjects hide from me behind a thick, shifting gauze of memory. When I paint the Cowpasture River I am never alone. I am surrounded by ghosts. I meet shades of myself and the people I have loved at every turn. The mirthful sound of laughter rings in my ears. The acrid smell of kerosene smoke is in my nose. The taste of ice-cold grape soda is keen on my tongue.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Two Ways of Seeing a River

A poignant essay by Mark Twain speaks to the ways that "knowing" affects, and often conflicts with, "seeing."

Two Ways of Seeing a River
An excerpt from Mark Twain’s 1883 book Life on the Mississippi.

Now when I had mastered the language of this water and had come to know every trifling feature that bordered the great river as familiarly as I knew the letters of the alphabet, I had made a valuable acquisition. But I had lost something, too. I had lost something which could never be restored to me while I lived. All the grace, the beauty, the poetry, had gone out of the majestic river! I still kept in mind a certain wonderful sunset which I witnessed when steamboating was new to me. A broad expanse of the river was turned to blood; in the middle distance the red hue brightened into gold, through which a solitary log came floating, black and conspicuous; in one place a long, slanting mark lay sparkling upon the water; in another the surface was broken by boiling, tumbling rings that were as many-tinted as an opal; where the ruddy flush was faintest was a smooth spot that was covered with graceful circles and radiating lines, ever so delicately traced; the shore on our left was densely wooded, and the somber shadow that fell from this forest was broken in one place by a long, ruffled trail that shone like silver; and high above the forest wall a clean-stemmed dead tree waved a single leafy bough that glowed like a flame in the unobstructed splendor that was flowing from the sun. There were graceful curves, reflected images, woody heights, soft distances, and over the whole scene, far and near, the dissolving lights drifted steadily, enriching it every passing moment with new marvels of coloring. I stood like one bewitched. I drank it in, in a speechless rapture. The world was new to me and I had never seen anything like this at home. But as I have said, a day came when I began to cease from noting the glories and the charms which the moon and the sun and the twilight wrought upon the river’s face; another day came when I ceased altogether to note them. Then, if that sunset scene had been repeated, I should have looked upon it without rapture and should have commented upon it inwardly after this fashion: “This sun means that we are going to have wind tomorrow; that floating log means that the river is rising, small thanks to it; that slanting mark on the water refers to a bluff reef which is going to kill somebody’s steamboat one of these nights, if it keeps on stretching out like that; those tumbling ‘boils’ show a dissolving bar and a changing channel there; the lines and circles in the slick water over yonder are a warning that that troublesome place is shoaling up dangerously; that silver streak in the shadow of the forest is the ‘break’ from a new snag and he has located himself in the very best place he could have found to fish for steamboats; that tall dead tree, with a single living branch, is not going to last long, and then how is a body ever going to get through this blind place at night without the friendly old landmark?” No, the romance and beauty were all gone from 
the river. All the value any feature of it had for me now was the amount of usefulness it could furnish toward compassing the safe piloting of a steamboat. Since those days, I have pitied doctors from my heart. What does the lovely flush in a beauty’s cheek mean to a doctor but a “break” that ripples above some deadly disease? Are not all her visible charms sown thick with what are to him the signs and symbols of hidden decay? Does he ever see her beauty at all, or doesn’t he simply view her professionally and comment upon her unwholesome condition all to himself? And doesn’t he sometimes wonder whether he has gained most or lost most by learning his trade?

Friday, April 29, 2011

Gravitational Forces

All artists have ancestors. Mine are numerous and varied. As a young painter setting out in the early 80s, I came under the gravitational pull of Edward Hopper. No influence has ever been as powerful for me  as was the Edward Hopper retrospective at the Whitney in the late 70's or early 80s. The great late work I had known, but I'd never seen his early work, or his student paintings: small palette knife paintings of the rocky coast of Maine, streets and houses, stairwells and alleys, bridge overpasses, city rooftops, railroad yards... I knew these images! They were images of my hometown, Lynchburg, Virginia. Why hadn't I seen it before?  Great art teaches the eye a way of seeing.  I started painting in Lynchburg's seedy, down-at-the-heels downtown in 1980. Growing up there, I'd inherited the general prejudice against that quarter of town, seeing it as a squalid, dangerous, and tragic place. Thanks to Hopper, I saw it with new eyes, literally. It was here, on the streets, bridges, and parking lots of downtown Lynchburg, that I did my first plein-air urban landscapes. 

This painting was done in the long shadows of an early Sunday morning from the top level of a parking lot. From there I could look out at the red brick building across the street. Lynchburg's topography was unusual. The city was built in the 18th century, on sculpted terraces rising up from the James River. From one street you could look down on the rooftops and facades of the buildings on the next street. 

At that time, the basic problem of painting for me had boiled down to the challenge of simply seeing the color and shape of things, and learning to mix equivalent colors and relationships in paint. I learned that painting small and quickly was the best way to learn certain fundamentals of painting. It was liberating to be free of my earlier preoccupations and anxieties about developing a "personal style," and just give myself to the "suchness" of the world, my own little piece of it.

I did this painting in the Spring of 1982 from the window of a frame shop, Halley's Antiques, where I was working. It was a kind of talisman for me. The James River lies beyond the buildings on Commerce Street, with the bluffs of Madison Heights rising up as a backdrop. The building on the right was a hardware store where I used to go with my Grandfather when I was younger.

I modeled these early efforts after the simplicity and directness of Hopper's early paintings. I was thinking a lot about his Parisian studies that spring and certain ways that he conveyed the transparency of budding branches against the sky using opaque paint and optical mixing. Also, Hopper's statement appealed to me: that his only aspiration as a painter had been "to paint sunlight on the side of a house." With this little 8" x 10" canvas, I felt for the first time that I knew what my life as a painter was going to be about. It still is a touchstone when I get too far off base. 

Other landscapes from the 80's in Lynchburg, my first paintings after college:

One might say that light is the true subject of all visual art, since light is the necessary condition for seeing anything at all. It certainly is what I consider my subject. If you paint outdoors, it doesn't take long to realize that the extremes of day are more fertile than midday. This was done in the early morning, an old gas station with a serpentine stucco facade. The building behind was used as a hospital in the Civil War. Like many of Lynchburg's historic buildings, it has gone the way of Joni Mitchell's famous song.

A railroad culvert and the derelict Piedmont Mills that face the James River and the Madison Heights bluffs. The riverfront sported many defunct industry buildings and warehouses in the 1980s. Most of them have disappeared in the past twenty years.

In the early part of the 20th century the iron foundry along the James River and the railroad collaborated to build the Williams Viaduct, a beautiful arched bridge that spanned the James. It used to figure in the Guiness Book of World Records as the bridge having the most complicated system of off-ramps of any bridge in the world. The ramps serviced the Glamorgan Pipe Foundry and other industries along the river.

I used to wander around beneath the Williams Viaduct in all kinds of weather. On this particular winter day, it was like Chartres, or some other European cathedral, shrouded in fog. 

When I started out teaching, I held some of my first landscape classes near the Williams Viaduct. At the time my students had mixed feelings about painting such "ugly," urban subjects. Now, the riverfront is the site of an annual Bateaux festival, numerous restaurants and walking trails, plus a public fountain in the river that looks more like a water-main break than the public monument it's supposed to be. Unfortunately there's little left of the original architecture.

At some point, the powers-that-be decided that the Williams Viaduct was simply too beautiful to keep (my own theory) so they tore it down and replaced it with a larger, wider, more "efficient" structure. The earth moving it required to accommodate the new bridge's massive scale completely altered the landscape of downtown Lynchburg. It was never my intention to celebrate these changes by painting them. I just felt compelled to witness and put down what I saw happening.

This was my last painting of the Williams Viaduct after the new bridge was completed and the process of demolishing the old bridge had begun. The piles of rubble in the sunlight reminded me of Giuseppe Abbati's small 19th century painting of Tuscan marble blocks. It took about 6 months to put up the bland, prefabricated steel and concrete of the new bridge. It took over a year to knock down the Williams Viaduct. I was there when the massive wrecking ball slammed into its graceful arches. Despite all the photo-ops over the preceding years, with the local Congressman wielding an icepick to show how dangerously decrepit the Viaduct was, all the wrecking ball's impact managed to do was scuff off a  few tiny pieces of concrete.

The old bridge was a unique and magnificent work of design, tailor-made to fit the unique topography of Lynchburg. The new bridge might as well have been lifted from any American interstate. Some of us felt the old bridge should be kept as a monument, or as a public space for a farmers' market perhaps, but the liability costs were too great, I was told. The Lynchburg Museum has in its collection a letter written by Thomas Jefferson, who kept a home not far from Lynchburg. Business, and money, are all that Lynchburgers care about in the end, Jefferson wrote. I left Lynchburg not long after this.

Monday, March 14, 2011

New Work

I stayed home over my school's Spring Break. No trip to Florida, no trip home to see family. Just one sweet week to work in the studio without monitoring time. I managed to wrap up some larger studio paintings (I won't say "finish") that I've been tripping over since last Spring. A few smaller pieces are included as well.

The Ohio River from Athens County, Ohio, Winter, oil on canvas, 36" x 96"


 Frozen River - The Scioto Near Delaware, Ohio, oil on panel, 24" x 48" 

Silo and Rails, Delaware, Ohio, oil on canvas, 48" x 36"

Bridge Over the Ohio, Spring, oil on canvas, 36" x 48"

Mill Silos, Prospect, Ohio, oil on canvas, 20" x 16"

Cylinders and Cubes - South Columbus, oil on canvas, 20" x 16"

Farmers Co-Operative, Marion, Ohio, oil on canvas, 20" x 16"

Excavation for New Building, Delaware, Ohio, 16" x 20"

The Kanawha River in Charleston, West Virginia, oil on panel, 16" x 24"

Flooded Fields in Eastern Ohio, Spring, oil on canvas, 14" x 36"

Monday, March 7, 2011


Camouflage is about making things disappear. How things appear, and disappear, is the game of the artist so it isn't surprising that it was an artist who invented the camouflage that military forces use to disguise soldiers and equipment. Abbott Thayer was born in 1849 in Boston but spent much of his childhood in rural New Hampshire. At 18 he studied at the National Academy of Design in New York and later in Paris at the Ecole des Beaux-Artes with Leon Gerome. In addition to being a painter, he was also a naturalist who took a keen interest in how color and patterning in nature disguised the contour of animals, insects, and plants. He wrote an important book called Concealing Coloration in the Animal Kingdom: An Exposition of the Laws of Disguise Through Color and Pattern (1909) and carried on a correspondence with then President, Theodore Roosevelt, who took issue with many of Thayer's assertions.

In this watercolor of Thayer's, a Copperhead snake is concealed against its background by means of shapes and colors that visually link with elements in the surrounding space, interrupting the continuity of the snake's contour. The ability to distinguish "figure" from "ground," a key mechanism of perception, is defeated by nature's manipulation of visual elements.

Here are some early photographs showing military experiments with Thayer's theories:

One of Roosevelt's bones of contention with Thayer was the seeming contradiction presented by the strident coloration in certain animals such as pink flamingos. Thayer's arguments were based on his observation that at certain times of day, particularly sunset and sunrise when the Flamingos' mating or feeding were active, their color would conceal them against the pink skies of their habitat.

The main principle of camouflage is to break down the object's contrast with its surroundings by relating it visually to its context. Who but an artist, who makes his life out of the phenomena of vision, would notice the many subtle ways that nature achieves this magic trick?

So, what does camouflage have to do with painting? Anyone who attempts to paint a slice of "nature" from observation will soon notice the peculiar way that the visible edges of objects can break down and become lost in their surrounding environment. The lighted planes of a bottle may "connect" with a similar adjacent area of the background, breaking the continuity of the outline and creating a new, aggregate shape. A dark shadow plane of an object may dissolve into a larger shape of related tones. In the photo below, on the right side of the still-life the dark bottles and pitcher visually link to their dark surroundings and lose their edges. The dark shoe atop the terra cotta pot is clearly silhouetted dark against light, except where the toe penetrates the shadow of the pitcher.

Painting from observation is a meditation on appearances, and appearances are provisional, not absolute. These composite color shapes, the progeny of light, are ephemeral, unique, and without precedent. They are formed out of relationships, not things. We carry no stored memory of these  shapes, no symbol for representing them, no name to call them. They exist in the moment's looking and disappear again when the light has changed. Learning to paint from observation we begin to notice such phenomena and, dare I say it, "imitate" these elisions, or joinings of one thing to another in the painting. The payoff for the painter is that elusive quality, Light.

Although Abbott Thayer is better known for his portraits and his paintings of angels, for which his children posed, the landscapes that he painted around Mount Monadnock in New Hampshire, where he lived, are among Thayer's most stirring and evocative works. Like their ancestors, the paintings of the Hudson River school, Thayer's paintings embody that sense of awe at the raw American landscape, but there is a feeling of the new century, a new energy that expresses itself in the vigorous brushwork and palette knife work. In these works you can sense the same rapt attention of Abbott Thayer, the Painter, and Abbott Thayer, the Naturalist. Both depend on visual attention to the particular ways in which form and space reveal, and conceal, themselves.

Links to Abbott Thayer's work:
Abbott Handerson Thayer

Monadnock Art: Friends of the Dublin Art Colony