Monday, November 30, 2009

You Can Go Home Again

Philip Koch, Northern Pines, oil on canvas, 36 x 72", 1985

For everyone there are memories of people, experiences, and places that just stay with you decade in and decade out. They can be sources of some of the deepest inspiration. Here's one of mine. It's not that it looks like my home. Rather it's a place where I feel most at home with myself.

This is a pond in Acadia National Park in Maine. I fell in love with the spot and did a series of works there on location. They all sold and I found myself missing them. I got to thinking about them and without consulting any images of them started doing a version of the same spot out of my imagination and memory. Below is the result.

Philip Koch, The Song of All Days, oil on panel, 36 x 72", 2008

Actually I like all the ways it departs from the earlier painting. It seems a more universal statement about experiencing the landscape.

One gets busy with other things and though I always meant to go back to the original spot in Acadia, I got drawn into other paintings. Then just a few months ago I went back to Acadia and returned to the same spot for the first time in over 20 years and did the plein air vine charcoal drawing below. I am sure before long it will lead to some oil painting. Nobody is more curious than I to see what I come up with.

Philip Koch, Two Islands, Acadia, vine charcoal, 7 x 14", 2009

There are special themes for every artist. The contemporary landscape painter Wolf Kahn has painted hundreds of versions of the same set of barns on his Vermont hillside farm. Winslow Homer returned again and again to the open sea for inspiration. Rockwell Kent spoke most eloquently in his wood engravings of the human figure in a wide open landscape. If the artist keeps finding new things to say with recycling the same imagery they are doing the magic right.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Puritans, Stolen Corn, and Using Color

Philip Koch, The Return, vine charcoal, 9 x 12", 1998

Philip Koch, The Return, pastel, 9 x 12, 1998

This is my post Thanksgiving post.

There's a famous landmark in Truro, MA on Cape Cod Bay named Corn Hill. The Puritans arrived there from England with their ship's stores badly depleted. Before heading on to Plymouth, MA they went ashore and stumbled into the local Native American's store of corn. Declaring this a gift of Providence (they literally did) they then took the corn for themselves and shortly after headed to the mainland to enjoy further calamities.

The name Corn Hill stuck. When I first started having residencies in Edward Hopper's Truro painting studio, I of course started checking out all the sources in the area he painted from. His eye was so sharp you'd be crazy not to. Hopper did a fabulous watercolor or two of the houses on the steep slope of the famous hill. From near the top you can look south and see this marvelous view. A tributary of the Pamet River does several world class "s" curves for you before emptying into Pamet Harbor in the distance.

When I was first experimenting with working in pastels I did the above color version from the vine charcoal drawing I'd done at the location. As it was an early foray in the new to me medium, my color goals were modest, mostly just to work with the pattern of tones that I'd had such good luck with in the vine charcoal drawing. I think it worked out pretty well.

In our time there's a notion that hues need to stand alone, independent of a dark and light structure. It is claimed that hue alone creates its own special kind of space. While this is half true, I learned long ago that tonalities (which is my term for gradations of black, white, and greys) have an unmatched subtle magic in them. Hues love to work with darks and lights. I first organize around tonalities and silhouettes, and only then entertain dancing with all the many hues available.

Even the great 20th century colorist Matisse insisted on this. Once when he was asked by a young painter how he could learn to use color as Matisse did, the crusty French master replied the young artist should go to the Louvre and spend two full years copying the works of the Great Masters in charcoal. Honestly, that course of study would rock.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Strangest Comment this Painter Ever Received

Philip Koch, Mount Washington, oil on panel, 18 x 24"

"Would Monet Paint Mount Washington?" A motorist stuck in traffic actually rolled his window down and yelled this out to me as I painted this oil in the Mount Washington section of Baltimore. Now any artist who sets up a portable easel in a public place places them self in the front line for odd responses from passers by. I was set up just feet from traffic on a bridge over the river in the painting. The traffic was stuck in a terrible jam caused by the grand opening of a new Whole Foods grocery. It was drawing record crowds. Baltimore is a small enough town that this was a big deal.

Leaving the Whole Foods parking lot meant spending time in a traffic jam. Nothing is all bad, and my glacial progress driving in my car one afternoon allowed me time to discover the potential of the view when one was half way over the river. So I came back and set up my easel on the sidewalk, just a few feet from the inching along traffic. The view was great even if I had to breath automobile exhaust as the price of entry.

What caught my eye was the pattern of late afternoon shadows on the ancient concrete bulkhead that contains the waters of the Jones Falls river as it flows south to Baltimore's Inner Harbor. Mount Washington is an area that was almost rural in feeling when I first moved there, but a number of new commercial developments are rapidly changing that ambience. Sadly, despite their stratospheric prices, I'm a very regular customer at Whole Foods. Deepening the shame, a Starbucks went in right next door. The area was once a separate village, but it is now encircled and engulfed by urban Baltimore. I am torn between regret of losing the what was unique in this little town's past and enjoying the convenience of the new retail ventures. It is hard to rage against the advances of suburban commercial development with a latte in your hand.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Second Chances and Then More Chances

Philip Koch, Green Spring II, oil on canvas, 40 x 60",

This painting was posted for a while earlier this week and then taken back to the studio so I could work on it again. About a pound of oil pigment later, she's back to debut at the ball once again. I became aware the balances needed tuning. The sky became darker and I pruned some of the trees and finally demolished a house.

This is a painting I began sometime ago and it was based on a plein air oil. As it became a larger piece back in the studio, the centrifugal forces that always threaten to break out in all directions took over for awhile. It is a little like calming down a herd of half-wild horses and getting them back into a corral. You have to be patient and keep after them, employing both a little charm and a steeled determination.

Even so, there is a whole lot left in this painting. I tend to like paintings that aim to tell one a great deal. So often real life is overcrowded with events, movements, moods and surprises- there has to be a place in art such tumult. Of course if it is left as a confusing swirl the viewer can't get any traction on the piece and just walks on by. One of my favorite teachers in graduate school, the painter Ron Markman, used to talk to me a great deal about orchestration. He always pronounced the word with special reverence, always pausing briefly to convey the special place it held in his heart. If a painting is complex, finding the right balances can be tricky. You keep at it, trying out first one move then another. If the muse is pleased, she finally let's you close the gate and say goodnight to the horses.

Monday, November 23, 2009

A Very Short Explanation of Modern Art

"What the heck is it with that modern art anyway?"

A friend from the gym where I work out asked me that this morning. All I managed was a "well..." accompanied by a shrug and a wan smile. Later in the day I got to thinking I've been in the trenches as a working painter for four decades and really ought to be able to give a decent answer. Here goes:

We humans are emotional creatures. We use images in our heads to try to navigate our way through our lives. And we make images of the things we see and of what we imagine because doing so seems to make some of us feel better. And others seem to like looking at what we've made. Maybe it makes them feel better too.

As far as painting goes, it really involves two ways of seeing. One is to enjoy the design of the flat surface just like that of a woven Hopi rug. The other is to imagine the painting's surface as a sheet of glass behind which the painter carves out a deeper space. Often this second type is populated by people, hills, skies and the like. All painting has some of these two ways of seeing in it. Right after 1900 Picasso and Braque in France started shining their spotlight on the first aspect, the decorated surface, and toned down the deep space thing. A very big fuss was made of this and soon lots of people hopped on the Cubist bandwagon, including quite a few deep-pocketed collectors.

What's important is that these early modernist painters were returning to the earliest roots of painting where simple repetitive shapes were used to decorate an empty surface. Picasso himself was open about his indebtedness to African and other non-European artists to get him moving in his new direction. Above is an oil painting by the American painter Hans Hoffman from the 1950's that traces its lineage back to Picasso and Braque. Hoffman, a legendarily charismatic personality, was a big deal as a painting teacher in his day. Everyone who was anyone in the abstract painting world a few years ago had to study with Hoffman. He was sort of a one man modernist academy. Personally I've never been a fan of Hoffman's paintings. To me they seem a little harsh and the shapes too predictable.

A major part of the meaning of both Hoffman and before him Picasso and Braque was that they scandalized much of the public when they first appeared. These artists and the collectors willing to pay money for their work loved shocking people. I think those of us who came down the pipeline a generation or two later have trouble realizing how outrageous abstract painting looked. By now it has been around so long it can seem cozy and even a little quaint. Not then.

As some painters moved away from the exacting demands of creating convincing realistic images, which is very hard to do, all sorts of people who would never before have considered working as an artist took a second look at the profession. The ability to shock people with either upsetting or even ridiculous imagery and methods began to gain traction in some quarters as an important talent. Of course it was presented in more sober terms like "employing new channels of dialogue" but what was meant was trying to shake people up, and in some cases, freak people out.

Fast forward: Damien Hirst is currently the most expensive contemporary artist. He got his big ticket with his series of dead animals suspended in huge tanks of preservative. Many of them are cut in half, exposing their skin or fur on one side and their innards on the other. They are big, troubling objects, that always leave me feeling sorry for the animals involved in making the sculpture. No doubt many viewers have had their mortality fears stoked by his work. I know I have. Picasso, himself a master of publicity, I imagine is looking down from artists' heaven and calling down "Great showmanship, dude! "

Is Hirst's Shark great art? For me the answer is no, it relies too heavily on theatricality. I do think there is a place for such work in the art world though the one I'd assign it would be smaller. Sooner or later the fuss made over its profundity will subside. In time it too may come to seem quaint and dated, like all previous attempts to bulldoze the sensibilities of the art viewer.

Hirst isn't all bad. There is a strain of genuine melancholy to his work that invites all of us to reflect on the brief time we are alive before we too must pass from the stage. It's just that I can't imagine having a giant tank with a dissected fish in it next to the table where I eat breakfast.

I don't think the job of art is just to be pretty or happy, though sometimes it is so. Some of the most moving paintings suggest the passage of time and hint at things ending. The Rembrandt landscape below is such a painting. As the last rays of the sun slip off the top blade of a windmill a figure bends over to fish in the reflective waters of a river. Soon it will be dark. Somehow Rembrandt paints the forms and colors so well as to make me wonder what sort of a day it has been for the fisherman. It is a scene so delicately and yet forcefully painted that I psychologically fall into its world. It both simulates me and calms me. Really a remarkable painting. I don't think everyone should run out and try to paint in the same manner. But it is a picture I'm happy to live with at my dinning room table.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Second Chances: Why Art is Better Than Real Life

Philip Koch, Down to the Bay, oil on canvas, 35 x 72", 2008

Above is a painting I started over a decade ago where I repainted the sky last year for a much better result. There is the old saying that "life is a work in progress." What isn't?

I've been going through a fascinating period this fall with my work as a basement flood forced me to literally handle most of the paintings stored down there. As you're trying to gently carry them up the steps to safety you can't help but do a little re-examining . As a result, I have a whole number of paintings I've decided to make little adjustments to.

Is there anyone who hasn't mulled over in their mind something that went wrong in their life, maybe a decision that proved a mistake or something said in anger you've regretted. Once the cat is out of the bag there's often little you can do.

If you're an artist, you get issued a special white armband by The Muse to go back and get it right the second time. More than most painters, I'm a habitual tinkerer. If I lay eyes on a painting of mine I haven't seen for some time, about half the time I get an idea of how I'd like to change it. If I still own the painting, I usually do. It is a little risky, but the odds are good. For every repainting I attempt that turns out poorly there are another 20 that push the painting up to a higher plateau.

Like real life, a painting is a multi-layered proposition. If it is any good at all it has so much going on in it one cannot possibly see it all at one time, at least not in any conscious way. Rather one apprehends just part of the picture. We need to get away from it to let ourselves forget our preconceptions. Sleep on it, perhaps for a long time, and should you get a new, better idea go ahead and try it out on the painting.

Until someone invents a functioning time machine, we can't do this with real life problems. But at least knowing you can go back in time with art and get it right gives us some hope. I like to think going back into old paintings and strengthening them makes me smarter. I have a suspicion it can subtly guide me in making better choices in real time with my life.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Why I "Never" Paint Old Barns

Philip Koch, Stone City Barns, oil on canvas, 24 x 48",

Here is a painting that owes a great deal to one of the country's most intriguing regional painters, Grant Wood (1891-1942). A native of Cedar Rapids, IA, Wood conducted a summer painting school for, I believe, two seasons in the nearby town of Stone City, IA. One of his paintings, Stone City, Iowa, depicts the town as it appeared at the time. I remember seeing this painting reproduced in my 7th or 8th grade history textbook. Back then I didn't like the painting but found myself stopping to look at it often. Usually that's a sign it is slyly working its magic on you.

I was invited to have my first solo art museum exhibition at the Cedar Rapics Museum of Art by its then Director Joseph Czestochowski back in 1990. As part of the show they asked me to come out to Cedar Rapids for a week and teach a painting class. Naturally I wanted to paint the landscape myself and was strongly urged by the Museum staff to try Stone City as a source. At first I hoped to duplicate the viewpoint Grant Wood had painted from, but as so often happens, a wall of trees had grown up in the intervening years to block the panorama. Still you could drive over the little bridge depicted in the painting and wind your way up the road that climbs the far hillsides.

Undeterred, I set out exploring the surroundings and made a discovery. Back East where I'm from, wood barns have long since been replaced with those soulless corrugated metal barns that look like industrial warehouses. But this part of Iowa has the good sense to preserve their historic barns. At least near Stone City, all the farms had these marvelous one-of-a-kind working wooden barns, lovingly painted and repaired over the years. In such an open landscape, they stand out as monumental sculpture, only better as they don't make any pretense about being high art. What they do have is an unmistakable personality.

I did two major paintings of different barns and both turned out beautifully. There is a cruel irony to this as for years I had made fun of landscape painters who featured old barns. Confronted with the sensitive inventiveness of these Stone City barns, I ate my hat and succumbed to their charms. "Never say never" department.

As year have gone by I've come to deeply appreciate Grant Wood's imaginative world. He found a way to incorporate the modernist winds that were sweeping the art world of his time without losing his connection to the land and people of the Midwest he knew, and loved, so deeply.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Haunted Houses

Philip Koch, Shadows on the House, oil on panel,
9 3/4 x 8 3/4", 1982

This is another painting that's headed to the framer tomorrow morning. It's done plein air in a neighborhood that has always fascinated me near where I live. Called Dixon Hill, it lives up to its name, with some remarkably steep roads that make me glad I don't live there in the winter (unlike New England, where snow clearing is virtually on a military basis, down here in Baltimore I think the city only has 3 snowplows). I grew up in an extremely hilly section of the shoreline of Lake Ontario just outside of Rochester, NY and to me, really meaningful terrain has to have steep rises and valleys. It's a preference that speaks to how I started imagining the world as a little kid that survives to this day.

Dixon Hill is full of homes build long ago as summer homes for the wealthy industrialists of Baltimore who wanted to escape the heat and grime of the city. All the homes are architecturally distinct and all speak of being from another time. I love looking at them. Probably I've painted easily 30 different houses there over the years.

Philip Koch, Houses on the Hill, oil on panel,
14 3/4 x 12", 1983

What's funny is I grew up in a sort of California-modern style house inspired no doubt by Frank Lloyd Wright style buildings. My father scrimped for years to build a dream home and sadly only lived for a few years in it before he died. Shortly after, a new and unwelcome stepfather moved in and made the usually tough teenage years a lot more difficult than they'd have otherwise been. While on some levels I love the house I grew up in , I'd never want to paint similar modern houses. Rather I'm drawn to older buildings that have lived a long life. They have a romance to them, and in what I admit is a childish notion, I usually imagine I'd be happy living in them.

I think the older houses and their grounds have had time to grow into each other in a way modern buildings haven't. What I'm interested in is some sort of resonance between the architecture and nature. Also, the inventiveness of the old architects working within their own traditions very often lends a palpable personality to the old houses. Often they seem a little haunted, though I think happily so.

Houses on the Hill was painted literally from the same spot as Shadows on the House, it being the view right in back of me when I painted the latter. Very often when I've gotten deeply into one painting out on location, another great motif will suggest itself off to the left or right of what I'm working from. I could point to many dozens of my paintings that come in pairs or even triplets from the same location.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Can a "Happy" Painting Be Any Good?

Philip Koch, October, oil on panel, 13 x 13 1/2", 1978

Here's a painting I just took out of an older simple frame and will be taking to my framer for something a little more substantial this week. It's from a very long time ago. The fall of 1978 and my then girlfriend (and later to be my wife) Alice were taking our first trip out of town together. So it's an event that sticks in my mind. I started a painting on a beautiful but freezing morning in the front yard of my old undergraduate school friend Larry Farmer's place in the little town of Pottersville, NJ. It was absolutely freezing, but I cajoled Alice into posing in the front yard wearing only a light sweater (if I'm going to suffer for my art, why shouldn't other people too?).

I had met Larry my fist semester at Oberlin College back when we both had other futures sketched out for ourselves. Larry was a Government Major I believe and I was intending to become a Sociologist. You could say we watched each other go through some changes. Larry taught public school teacher for a few years and eventually settled into doing therapy. I didn't make it past my first 20 page term paper before realizing I needed to do something more tangible than reading sociology. Fortunately the Muse was recruiting new artists and caught me in her net. Sometimes you get lucky.

Larry has the honor of being one of the very first people to buy my paintings. I think he bought two or three back in 1970 for the then handsome price of around $30.- 60. each (it really pays to be the early bird).

The painting above was meant to celebrate a happy moment in my life. I was filled with excitement of beginning a new romance. I remember stepping outside that cold morning carrying my easel and cup of very hot coffee feeling ready to take on the world. With no particular idea in mind about what to paint, I turned and looked back at the house and front yard. A breeze was rustling through all the branches causing a network of shadows to dance over the white clapboard house. Everything seemed to fit together like the pieces in one of those interlocking picture puzzles I had spent so many hours on as a kid. I did the painting a the most fevered pace I could manage- fueled both by delight in what I saw and a urgent need to get back in the warm house. It probably came together inside of an hour and a half. For me that's fast.

There's the old phrase about a scene being etched in memory that is used too often. That said, this painting is of a day in my life that still shines right through the usually obscuring fog of times long past. Generally I hate the idea of people wanting paintings to look "happy.' But sometimes, just sometimes, it's a feeling that wells up anyway from deep in the painter's experience.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

What Should One Paint?

Philip Koch, Route 6, Yellow House, oil on panel, 14 x 15",

Ran across a painting from the '80's a few days ago that I always wanted to go back into. Yesterday I gave in and dove in.

When I was a very little boy one of my first memories was a children's record titled "Whizzer the Airplane." On the dust jacket was a beautiful illustration of a smiling airplane that was painted bright yellow. I used to thrill to the adventure of Whizzer getting lost in a thunderstorm, almost crashing , and then righting himself and fly out into clear skies again (hey, I was four, and such struggles feel like they're happening daily to you at that age). Needless to say I identified mightily with Whizzer. In the realm of feeling, I was Whizzer.

Just south of where Edward Hopper lived on Cape Cod is the small town of Wellfleet, and right by the side of Route 6 that runs up the Cape's spine is this yellow house. I did a number of paintings of it, one time standing in a 3 foot wide concrete traffic divider in the middle of four lanes of heavy summer traffic. Precarious true, but it provided the best viewpoint on the yellow house.

You won't be surprised if I tell you the house was the same yellow as my old friend Whizzer the airplane. Powerful memories of early feelings I'm convinced often get tethered to seemingly unrelated things- like a favorite illustration for children. When I first saw that house, I knew immediately its color was calling to me. I would be painting it. I also suspected I'd have a lot of success with it. To paint it would be to encounter a piece of my internal self out in the outside world.

What should one paint. Be on the lookout for things that strike an unexpected emotional chord in you. Those are the things you're meant to paint. Your batting average with them will be way up there.

Monday, November 9, 2009

A Secret Artists and Collectors Know

Philip Koch, Blackberry River Forest, oil
55 x 44", 1990

This is a short talk I gave at the University of Maryland University College at the opening reception dinner for their 2004 exhibition of my paintings A Vision of Nature.

Artists and art collectors have something in common- it is that search for that special painting. While there are far easier ways to decorate, art collectors sense on a gut level that there is a special quality they want more of in their lives.

Experience, living, is more unexpected than we adults let on. Sometimes it is even strange. The message of painting, and of my paintings, is that this is ok, and beyond that, that allowing ourselves to embrace this awkward side of our experience makes us stronger, gives us bigger lives, makes us more potent, and best of all, happier.

When someone brings a painting home and puts it up on their wall ultimately they are doing it for only one reason- they somehow sense it will make them an artist of their own lives.

A painter knows a secret recipe. I put down on a big canvas several thousand colors, shapes, layers, brushstrokes. Each of them resonate from a part of our experience- a memory of a place, or a person, or a delight, or a fear.

We put in way more than we need, for it is like a giant casting call. Everyone, each brushstroke, is allowed and even encouraged to be themselves. I accept and I value every color, every drip, every smear from the most beautiful to the most inelegant.

It starts going in a dozen different directions, and this is good for in its early stages you want a painting to be at cross purposes, to be a little insane.

My studio is really a kitchen where on any given painting I stir these ingredients at a low simmer for sometimes several months on end, sometimes longer.

I am finding out who can learn to dance with who, who must be painted out of the painting, and who needs to be given a starring role.

Finally the painting is done and taken out of the kettle to cool. And only if you listen closely, the painting whispers its secret message to you: "Yes, life can be ridiculous, sometimes crazy, yet it is often so beautiful. I was born with some of that chaos and confusion, but I made some sense of it. Spend time with me, look at me whenever you can. I am your tool to make you an artist of your own life."

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Why Titles Matter

Philip Koch, The Arrival, oil on panel, 45 x 60", 2004
Collection of Susan and Michael Hughes, Baltimore, MD

When I married Alice in 1982 we went on a honeymoon to Acadia National Park in Maine. As most newlywed couples do, we spent the time working on paintings.

The title of a painting used to matter much less to me years ago when I got most of my ideas for paintings marching around with my portable easel. Simple descriptors like "Three Pines Near the Highway" served me just fine.

Over time though I had grown fascinated with using the image of the landscape in a more mythical fashion. Often now I think of my paintings showing a glimpse of a world that exists long before or long after our present time. Maybe they exist outside of time altogether. They come about after engaging in a long, elaborate daydream. My job as the artist is to make that gel into a mental image with actual solid form and real spaces. It's not easy.

What helps me is imagining every possible aspect of the image I'm trying to create- is it warm or cold there? Is the wind blowing? Time of day and time of year? And naturally what words would I use to summarize all my thinking. It's strange, but coming up with just the right title seems to now to have to happen before I can complete the painting. It's sort of a key completing the visualization process.

This painting, The Arrival, summed up a feeling I had at the time that things were coming to a new plateau- that many threads in my work of the previous years were coalescing to allow me to make a more unique kind of painting. Discovering Maine was part of it. And also finding I could be happy creating work once again entirely out of my imagination. It was when I put this thought into words that I was finally able to realize the painting in a complete, successful way.

We are always coming to a new place in our lives. But at certain junctures this fact impresses itself upon ourselves in dramatic ways. So to me The Arrival is about just such a moment of recognition in my own life. It says in its way " I haven't been here before, but this new place is ripe with possibilities." Isn't that what any of us want from art, and from our lives.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Sitting Down to Breakfast with Edward Hopper

Philip Koch, Hopper Studio Kitchen, pastel, 6 x 8", 2004

This is a pastel drawing I did on location in Edward Hopper's old painting studio in S. Truro, MA on Cape Cod. The studio was designed by Hopper himself in 1934 (built at the height of the Depression with money his wife Jo inherited).

The studio reveals Hopper's single minded devotion to making his paintings the center of his life. An unusually tall man (over 6' 7") he saved fully half of the dwelling's space to his painting room and had to cram everything else into what was left. The kitchen is quite small and is furnished with a table and two chairs more suited to doll furniture than holding the behind of America's preeminent realist painter. In choices like these Hopper shows us his priorities.

One can learn a lot from Hopper. I know I have. He studied painting with the legendary personality Robert Henri, by all accounts a highly charismatic teacher.Hopper absorbed from Henri much knowledge about making paintings but also managed to not get stuck standing in Henri's shadow. Hopper has the self awareness to realize his own personality would lead him to a somewhat different vision.

And what a vision it was. Perhaps like nobody else, Hopper could look at the seemingly ordinary and catch ahold of its hidden romance. In particular his knack for building contrasts of bright light and sharp shadows gave us unrivaled compositions. They frequently surprise us with what he chose. Looking at a Hopper composition I often find myself saying to myself "I never thought of it like that."

Hopper wasn't a technical genius like John Singer Sargent. It's not uncommon to discern a slight stumble here and there in his work. But he found ways to work around his limitations. His paintings earned broad respect from all corners of the art world , both avant and traditional. I remember reading in the book of Robert Henri's teachings, The Art Spirit, about Henri advising his students to go out and do a masterpiece today and not wait for some future time when one would have amassed greater skills. Henri I think conveyed to Hopper the urgency of painting. Fine something that truly moves you and half the time the depth of your feeling will show you a way to make the painting happen.

I never literally had breakfast with Edward Hopper. But sitting in his uncomfortable kitchen chair to drink my morning coffee he nonetheless left me some clear hints about how to be the real deal.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Love at First Sight

Early September of 1966.

It was my very first day of classes my freshman year at Oberlin College. I was feeling more than a little bit intimidated and the fact it was pouring enough to soak the bottom of my pants wasn't helping. I'd come to Oberlin intending to be a Sociology major and my very first lecture at 8:00 a.m. that first day was by a new sociology prof who had never taught before. He was pretty dreadful as a lecturer and I was feeling the balloon of my enthusiasm for my college experience begin to deflate just a little.

Oberlin had a strict series of required courses one had to take outside one's major. Figuring I'd get at least one of them out of the way early so I could concentrate later on on my Sociology, I had signed up for Art History 101, a world art survey class. So braving the downpour once again I marched across the College Square and entered the schools largest lecture hall and sat down for the second lecture of my college career. The prof decided to make his first presentation an overview of some of the art we'd be seeing that semester. One of the slides was of the above painting by Friedrich, an artist I'd never heard of or seen before.

Years earlier when I was growing up on the shore of Lake Ontario just outside Rochester, NY, one of our favorite winter games was playing on lake's ice. Ontario gets rough from the steady wind that beats down out of the northwest from Canada. In winter the waves burst on the shore ice and spray little droplets high into the air before they land again on the ice and freeze. Gradually the ice formations grow higher and higher until a massive surreal moonscape evolves. Imagine Salvador Dali working on a giant scale as an ice sculptor and you get the idea. Best of all, often caves and tunnels under and through the ice would open up from the constant freezing, thawing and refreezing. Visually it was completely over the top. No kid under 10 could resist it.

Friedrich's painting depicts giant blocks of ice seizing a shipwreck, no doubt intended as showing nature's tragic side. Friedrich loved darkly romantic themes. But to me the painting seemed a delightful evocation of my old childhood frozen playground. I remember thinking the slide of this particular painting was the best the art historian showed us that day. And I left the class thinking maybe Art History was going to be a lot more interesting than I'd thought.

It wasn't until November of that first semester that I realized my impressions from the first two classes that first September morning were more significant than I'd realized. No, the decision to chuck the Sociology major and dive instead into becoming an artist wasn't fully formed yet. But we could see the first little cracks in the ice were starting to form.

Above is another great Friedrich winter-scape, and below is still another. This is an artist who reveled in the solemn poetry of winter.

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Voyage of the Artist

Philip Koch, Moorings, oil on panel, 15 x 20", 1985

I've mentioned before that sailboats have an unusual significance for me. It's an image that always has the promise of embarking on a voyage. All of us go on journeys- some of our making and others that come over us and sweep us along for the ride.

I was wondering about what is it that an artist does for the society. Surely we are among the least well understood members of community. Jokes and stereotypes about us abound. Last night I had a dream. Upon waking I realized it spoke to this question.

I'm living somewhere in a deep forest as one of a tribe - perhaps we're Native American. Among the tribe's children is one girl who doesn't make friends easily with the others and frequently has to play by herself. She's sometimes made fun of by the others. In the dream I confess I don't show her any special attention or kindness. One day she disappears for many hours and only returns near dusk, carrying with her three small stones. They have subtle beautiful colors but appear otherwise unremarkable. But an old woman from the tribe who is considered something of a healer spies them and her eyes open wide. Wordlessly she takes the stones from the girl and places them on a man she has been tending who lies gravely ill. As she does his sickly color turns to a healthy red and he turns to us and says "I'm coming back." And indeed he seems to recover before our eyes. We are all dumbfounded.

Thinking about the dream the first question I want to ask the girl who went off by herself into the wood is "Where'd you get those stones?"

How like the story of any artist this is. We too have to leave the group and go off by ourselves to find something unknown or overlooked. We search for it though our repeated efforts in the studio or painting out in isolated fields. It often is lonely and frequently frustrating. But with perseverance and luck, we find our own "magic stones" and bring them back to share with the tribe. And when we do our work right, it touches at least some people in deep and mysterious ways. Like the girl's stones, we give back to the group something that has been missing.

Art when it's good restores a human's spirit.