Friday, December 18, 2009

Celebrating Winter and Some Personal History





This is a wonderful little oil by the Canadian painter Lawren Harris from the earlier part of the 20th century. He's a fantastic painter and it is a shame he's so little known in the United States. Working at the same time as the American artists Rockwell Kent and Grant Wood, he shared their ability to see the geometric forms in nature and celebrate them while still bathing them in brilliant sunlight. It is a painting about the visual delight that winter brings. As I write this our first major snowstorm in years is sweeping into the Mid Atlantic where I live. Like Lawren Harris, I grew up in the North and love the look and feel of winter, so this seems a perfect image to open with.

Celebrating. Well, I am tonight. This morning I finished packing up four big wooden crates with 22 paintings just as the shipper's truck pulled up. Crating large oil paintings and lots of works on paper under fragile glass so they can make the trip safely is no small thing. I'm delighted to be finished with the job so I can get back to my easel and work on new paintings again.

Here's one of the smaller crates being loaded on their truck by the two guys who work for the company. The work is headed all the way across the country to the Clymer Museum of Art in Ellensburg, Washington at the edge of the Cascade Mountains. They have winter there, big time. This show is part of the national tour of the Unbroken Thread: Nature Paintings and the American Imagination exhibition organized by the University of Maryland University College.



Years before the Clymer Museum of Art was founded, I lived in Ellensburg for one year right after my painting graduate school experience at Indiana University. It proved a difficult time in my life. Grad school was the first time I got to work at length with really good painters as my teachers for an extended time. I had learned a lot and had made some solid friendships there. I was sad to leave the supportive embrace of the school to take a job teaching painting at what is now Central Washington University. I was though delighted to have landed a job teaching art three days a week that paid enough to live on. I was getting too old to be a student anyway, so off I went.

It's a funny story. Apparently one of the people who had taught painting at the University had been caught having faked his credentials. A long and drawn out battle was fought over whether to fire him or not. Bitter recriminations abounded. He eventually was told to leave, but not before all the faculty in the art department had had their feelings hurt so badly in the faculty brawl that they had all pretty much stopped speaking to each other. I was hired long distance to come to Ellensburg to teach painting but had no clue what sort of environment I was parachuting into.

Fresh from the warm and supportive environment of my MFA painting program I was totally unprepared for the reception that awaited me. I found no one at the new University wanted to even talk to me. Ignorant of the just concluded battle over firing my predecessor, I immediately decided they didn't like me. It took months before I realized that it wasn't just me that the other faculty were avoiding, nobody was talking to anybody else either. This was a big life lesson about how first impressions can sometimes be deadly wrong.

Plus as any new teacher has too, I had to begin the long trial and error journey of learning how to become a teacher of art. It isn't as easy as people imagine it, and I made more than my share of mistakes. I left after that first very difficult year to come back East to teach at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, where I still live and paint. To be honest, I left Ellensburg with a sign of relief. A new beginning was what seemed called for and in truth, Baltimore provided exactly that. The year in Ellensburg had carried for me some disappointments on both professional and personal levels. Never did I think I would see the place again.

Now I'm going back to Ellensburg in February for a gala opening reception at the Clymer Museum on the 5th. My wife Alice who had only heard about the place in my stories is going to come along so I can show her a piece of the puzzle of my life before I met her. It's a happier state of mind that I'm carrying with me as I return to the little town than when I left all those years ago, so I feel like celebrating.

Here's the exhibition announcement card for the Clymer Museum show that arrived just this morning. All invited. Happy winter everyone!



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