The "Nature" of Art

Went over to the Eastern Shore of Maryland on Friday and stopped in at one my favorite museums, the Academy Art Museum in Easton, MD. Here's a picture of its main entrance. I'm not sure what the original building was built to be (meeting hall, church, school?), but its conversion to an art museum was beautifully done. I love the classy silhouettes of the old building. Hey, why shouldn't art come in an attractive package?

One thing I like to do some of the time is to look at art that is outside my usual realm. Brian Young, the Museum's Curator was giving a talk that afternoon on the Museum's recently acquired gift of 50 pieces of primarily minimal and conceptual art from the Vogel Collection. Brian is a real enthusiast for this branch of the tree of modern art, so I wanted to hear some of his stories about the art and how it found its way to the AAM. It is a very good thing to listen to people who have different ideas than the ones you hold. It shakes you up and freshens your thinking. And Brian's talk did that for me. Afterwards I headed out to go painting in the marvelous tidal marshes of the Eastern Shore.

I've always had a curious stance towards modernism. I began to study painting when minimalism was already an established fact along with all sorts of other questioning of what art-making was supposed to be about. Perhaps ironically for someone who ended up a landscape painter, my initial exploration in my first sculpture class was doing performance art (though in those days we called it "doing happenings").

My first year in painting I was looking to the wonderful bright hues in the work of the artist Mark Rothko and doing extremely minimal paintings. Actually I learned a lot from that period and its influence can still be seen in the colors I choose in my current work.

One thing I feel strongly is that for me, I am most creative when I have something outside myself to bounce my thoughts off of. I drove down to the nearby Blackwater Wildlife Refuge (no relation to the military contractors) and started nosing around.

Here's the finished piece I did that afternoon, Blackwater Refuge I, vine charcoal, 8 x 12".

Though I had come thinking to focus on the water and sea grasses, instead my eye was unexpectedly caught by the tree line back on the shore. The photo below shows what it was- two intriguingly shaped holes in the otherwise solid wall of foliage (they are just above my right hand). Their felicitous rhythm seemed completely counter to the sobriety of the long row of dark trees. Yet the two very different kinds of shapes, while contradictory, also complemented each other.

Painting uses visual means to grasp at complicated thoughts like that. In your own life aren't their people or situations where things that at first seem in opposition to each other can actually work together? My afternoon that day had been sort of like that- going to a lecture on conceptual art and then rushing out to create art that was more about the experience of looking than thinking. It all worked, and I had a great day.

Below is the happy artist with his completed drawing.


  1. Lovely drawing Philip.!I love to see folks drawing outside-its my favorite way of information gathering for the studio work.
    I too entered college during that time. Rothko and Frankenthaler were a great influence on me. Although I am a representational painter, I think the fascination I have with transparency comes from those early influences.

  2. Hi Philip! I wanted to pop by and say thank you for your advice on Stape's blog re washing off Cadmium yellow and wearing gloves. Thank you! I'll be following your advice asap.

    I pleased you replied as it has brought me to this great blog. It's fascinating to read about your process and what captured your eye. I love how artists often see things and get excited by them whereas others might miss them. Focusing on the holes in the foliage is inspired and the final piece has a real rythmn to it. Great work! I look forward to seeing more from you and reading your advice and insights in your posts.

  3. Deborah,

    Sounds like you and I have both traveled a great distance from our beginnings in the art world. Thanks for your comment on my drawing. And interesting that you too do a lot of charcoal drawing outside. Maybe we can start a movement.

  4. Caroline, thanks for your kind words. I could sing the praises of disposable gloves all day. They have saved my hands- it one paints a lot you have to take care of your "original equipment."


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