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.