Sunday, November 28, 2010

My Family on the Hudson River

What the heck are these musicians doing on my art blog?

For anyone who spends time over Thanksgiving with relatives they don't often see, this holiday is fascinating. We went up to the Hudson River Valley just north of New York City to spend a few days with my wife Alice's nieces and their families. The arts run deep through this family.

On Saturday night we went to party honoring our nieces' dad, Dave Herman, on his 75th birthday. Dave from the '60's up to the '90's was the leading rock DJ on the radio in New York. On the left is Buddy Booker, the husband of our niece Melissa, playing with Melissa's brother Rich Lerner on the right. (Buddy sports impressive dreads that unfortunately don't show in this photo). I don't get to see live music all that often and listening to these two play I was knocked over at how talented my relatives are. Buddy and Rich are both professional musicians.

Watching live music up close you realize some similarities between musicians and visual artists. Painters and guitar players both have a physicality to their work you'd never guess just listening to a recording or standing in a museum. Playing guitar is a dance for the fingers and ears, while a painter's efforts lean more towards hand and eye. But both really have to work their bodies to translate the art from something immaterial to something that has a powerful physical presence. I left the evening infused with their generosity and energy. I'm lucky to have them in my family.

But there's a family of another sort up there for me too. Way back in 1970 I entered my graduate painting program at Indiana University feeling more than a little lost. I was struggling to do surreal paintings of imaginary planets and was pretty much going in circles. Then I discovered the 19th century American painters of the Hudson River School. Though I'd never seen them before, they felt immediately familiar as their paintings looked so much like woods along the shore of Lake Ontario where I spent my childhood. They painted the wilderness along the Hudson with the same sense of attachment I felt toward my boyhood forest. It gave me the courage to paint something directly out of my own experience. It was like going home.

Above is a photo of the Hudson showing the mountains coming right down to the riverbank. Below is a picture I took last Friday of my daughter Louisa walking along the west shore of the River just below Nyack, New York. As you can tell, it was cold.

Here below are two oils from the area by Thomas Cole, the founder of the Hudson River School. What I learned from Cole was that you should love what you're painting. He certainly did.

And below is a beautiful oil by another member of the School, Sanford Gifford. Gifford was extremely sensitive to light and atmosphere and he grafted that onto the vocabulary Thomas Cole had popularized. I've learned from this man too.

You discover your family by spending time with them. With these departed 19th century painters, that's not possible. But you do have their work. And you can come to this amazing area along the Hudson River and see for yourself the landscape that inspired them. I'm not a Hudson River School painter, but I'm supremely aware of the common thread that runs through both their work and mine- a delight in the mystery of the deep forests, and awe in the face of nature's vastness. Coming up to the Hudson River Valley was a means to visit my painting relatives. They said to say hello.

My niece Jennifer's son Willie plays in a new band (ROLF) and performed Saturday night in Nyack (the birthplace of Edward Hopper, one of my other painting relatives. Hopper grew up just a couple of blocks from the Community Center where Willie played). That's Willie on the guitar in the blue t-shirt.

And (below) later that night Willie played again with his uncles Sam (center) and Max (right). They are amazingly musical.

My other niece Melissa is a jeweler. Her company is called Indivijewel Designs. Below is the table in her studio holding some of her collection of beads. Standing over the table it's hard not to become mesmerized by the patterns and hues of these tiny beads. You realize how much like a painter's palette this collection is. It's a huge table and she needs every inch of it to give her enough choices for scale, rhythms, and colors to pull together into a necklace or bracelet. Like painting in oil, it's a slow cumulative process putting together a coherent piece of jewelry. And just like a painter, she's methodical, moving forward through many trial-and-error steps. Artists of any kind at bottom are putting things together. We're searching for those unanticipated combinations that set a unique and authentic mood.

I could have spent all day in her studio, but I was too scared I was going to knock something off the table. Please, nobody give her a kitten for the holidays.

And here's Melissa the jeweler.

And here's some of her work-

Melissa is having a holiday open house of her jewelry Tuesday, Nov. 30 from 5-9:30 in the New City, New York. She's partnering with a nonprofit that will send a pair of shoes to a needy child for every piece of jewelry purchased ( For more information you can contact her by email-

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

One of these 3 images is not by Philip Koch. Can you tell which?

OK, you're sharper than I'd suspected. Yes that's Warhol at the top- a silk-screened Brillo box from 1964. Two years later I became an art major at Oberlin College in Ohio. Warhol was big with some of my art professors. Personally I never found his deadpan response to the world all that interesting. He was extolled as holding the mirror up to America's culture of mass media and advertising imagery. The idea was that by presenting us images like a box of Brillo soad pads as art he would force us to see ourselves in a new light.

The thing was what with TV and Newsweek magazine, we were already up to our gills with such imagery. Bringing it into the art museum too didn't seem to me to change that fact. I've always thought an artist not only showed us what they were painting, but also revealed how they felt about it. With Warhol, you never knew. It always seemed he was playing coy with us.

Fortunately the tree of art has many branches. Warhol sits out on one big limb entertaining us with his Elvis's, soup cans, and leering bright colors. I'm way over on the other side of the tree. And I want to celebrate something very different.

Painting has had a mission through the centuries of reflecting that living itself is a completely wild endeavor. Sometimes exciting, other times overwhelming, it's one vivid experience. The best artists invented ways to combine shapes and colors into miraculous compositions brimming with energy and excitement. Their work pulsed against your eye with a living forcefulness. But in addition to ravishing our eyes, paintings also prod us to face big questions- "Who are we?" And especially important to landscape painters, "Where do we come from?"

Each generation has a slightly different way of envisioning the natural world. My landscapes don't look like the work of a Winslow Homer or of a Grant Wood. I'm from a different time. It's up to painters like myself to come up with the images we need in 2010 to understand our place in the world. Brillo and Campbell's Soup have very little to say in this department.

My two oils shown above are The Red Whisper, oil on canvas, 30 x 40", 2005 and Deep Forest Pool, oil on panel, 16 x 20", 2010. Both will be in my upcoming solo show at Edgewater Gallery in Middlebury, Vermont from Dec. 1-31, 2010. Both oils are done entirely out of my imagination. Red Whisper is a panorama of a dream-like world. It is a image of a celestial light shining down on the sea like the force of life itself. It's a little bit of a personal vision by which I'm trying to summarize some of the mystery of creation, and the delight of being alive here with you all on this earth.

The Deep Forest Pool oil is much quieter in its evocation of a slightly spooky dark woods. I grew up in just such a place in northern New York State. As a child I found the woods sometimes a little frightening, and I don't think that's a feeling that ever leaves us. But along with that can come a sense of magic. Ponds in forests are usually very calm and perfectly reflective of the trees that crowd near them reaching for the sunlight caused by the water's opening to the sky. The rhythms you see of trees reflecting into that very black water are amazing. There's a natural inventiveness in nature (it invented us for example). Places like this remind us of that.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Guessing Where that Painting Was Painted

Here's a painting I shipped north yesterday to Edgewater Gallery in Vermont for their Featured Artist show for December (Dec. 1- 31). There's a public reception Saturday Dec. 4 from 5 - 7 p.m. Any readers of this blog are especially welcome to come by and say hello. This one is Trees at Lake Conroe, oil on canvas, 42 x 28".

Inevitably when people really respond to one of my paintings at an opening reception they come up to me a little excited and announce they know exactly the spot where the piece was painted. I'm always temped to tell them "You're right." Because in a real sense they are.

Let me explain. A painting is a little like a springy trampoline for one's imagination and memory. In all of us both those capacities tend to get rusty and need to get provoked back into action. That's where the art part comes in. If my painting is really well painted it is saying something important to the viewer using the unique language of shapes and color chords. Form and color affect us in ways that aren't logical and rational. They seem to speak to the deeper layers of our personality. They are particularly good at expressing emotions and memories that are difficult to put into words.

Think for a minute how often your emotions and memory have been triggered by unexpectedly hearing a song from back in your teenage years. You temporarily lose yourself into the images and feeling the song calls up in you. What's important is that a particular song takes each person to a place and time that's unique to their own life. My wife Alice is pulled back to her earlier years in the Bronx. I go back to upstate New York where I was a boy or to Ohio or Indiana where I did college. You have your own places.

Painting is more like music than not. It reaches into the mysterious corridors of your psyche and hauls out some forgotten baggage for your recollection. I think we have an emotional need to do this re-visiting of our past experience. It's as if it isn't done with us.

If you come to the exhibit I'll be having at Edgewater Gallery, one of the things I'll be urging visitors to do is to look at the whole exhibit and pick out the piece that's their favorite. Then I'll tell them the piece they picked out is their self portrait. At first they're puzzled, but soon most people nod and agree the painting holds a particularly meaningful kernel about their inner lives.

So where was the oil Trees at Lake Conroe painted? In the literal sense, I began the painting in Texas about an hour north of Houston. But what really caused me to stop and paint this particular road was how much the place reminded me of my old driveway through the woods near Rochester, New York. One of the things I loved so much about where I grew up was the deep forest. A favorite memory is that of craning my neck to look up to see the light catching the tops of the trees. It seemed the trees were impossibly tall, so the canvas I chose to paint on had to be really vertical. For me it's more a painting of upstate New York than Texas. A lot of people walk around carrying beloved images like that in their heads. Where's yours?

Monday, November 15, 2010

Dressing for Success with Winslow Homer!

The longer I paint the more my eye focuses on how great painters presented their ideas rather than what they painted. Here are three wonderful paintings where the great 19th century American Winslow Homer gives our eyes some delightful fashion tips (OK, I'm kidding about the fashion tips part, but he does show us how inventive he can be in his paintings. Images courtesy Art Renewal Center). Let's take a look at what Homer can do with arranging his costumes to pump up the expressive volume.

At the top is Homer's watercolor Early Evening. The two women at the right have the spiffiest aprons. Both women stand totally erect, and without their aprons blowing off to the left, they'd look like two telephone poles. Almost undoubtedly the diagonal sweep of the aprons was something Homer consciously inserted into his scene, knowing it would breath life into his women. It's a note of visual surprise. Without it, these two women wouldn't draw our attention the way they do.

Below is Homer's oil Girl in the Orchard, where he takes the woman's outfit and does the exact opposite, letting the fabric fall straight down. The figure seems as vertical as a pillar on a Greek temple. But her job visually is to contrast as dramatically as she can the wildly wiggly and diagonal tree trunks that surround her. Homer understands that playing off of opposite qualities against each other makes the visual energy that drives a great painting. It just feels right when you see it done so well. The woman seems lost in thought, the trees perhaps echoing the liveliness of her internal monologue.

And below is Homer's watercolor Portrait of a Lady. It's a close up view letting us see all the folds and creases of the model's dress. Yet look at how light Homer keeps the shadows in her clothing. He doesn't want us to get lost in the fabric as he has bigger things in store for us.

This woman too has a strong emotional presence. This feeling has to be evoked in the viewer, and Homer uses all his tricks to make it happen. He wants us to feel this woman genuinely connects with her garden surroundings (too often, figures in paintings don't). An obvious invention by the artist is the arm of what looks like a rose bush reaching out in front of the woman's legs at a 45 degree angle. Just to the right of the endmost leaf, a slashing highlight continues that thrust downwards and to the right.

He doesn't stop there. Higher up he poses the woman's forearm to run exactly parallel with this same rose branch. Notice the little black accent of her belt showing you the angle of the elbow, and the strong note of the black scarf emphasizing the thumb side of her closer hand. Winslow is telling us where to look.

For dessert he wraps a black headband around her hair and sure enough, the same key diagonal appears again. What's so amazing about a painting at this level is how it creates this abstract network linking rosebush, forearm, and headband together with a shared movement while making it look so natural. Most viewers won't be aware of his compositional tricks, but they'll savor their mysterious flavor nonetheless.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Quick tour of new Koch exhibit in Baltimore

Viewers often ask me about where a particular painting was done or what I was thinking about when I made it. A new show of my work and that of an abstract landscapist, Emily Demsky, opened in Baltimore yesterday at the JLP Gallery at Green Spring Station in Lutherville. It runs through Jan. 7, 2011.

This Thursday night, November 11, there's an opening reception from 6-8 p.m. If you're in the area please come by and say hello.

I thought it would be fun to give a quick tour of my oils in the show.

This is Late Winter Sun, Roland Park. It's of a lovely older neighborhood at the north end of Baltimore. I painted this from life on a series of frigid January days.

I'm standing in a shadow that runs across the whole foreground. While it was colder standing there, I liked that shadowed spot as it placed some cooler blues and violets in the front of the painting to contrast the warm colors in the distance. While I was working on this painting the front door of the house opened and the owner came out to see what I was doing. It turned out she had been one of my painting students from years before. Small world.

Above is The Reach, a nautical term for how the boat's sails are trimmed, but I like how the title implies a broader meaning. Certainly the sailboat is determinedly making its way towards something important. This painting was inspired by a walk I took one night with a full moon on the beach at Edward Hopper's studio on Cape Cod. I was staying there during one of the thirteen residencies I've enjoyed in that famous American painter's studio.

Below is Falls Road Bridge, Mount Washington. This was painted near my studio in the Mount Washington section of Baltimore. I parked by the side of Falls Road, right at the entrance of the oddly-named Robert E. Lee Park. Again it was cold so I painted this one huddled in the front seat of my van.

Other artists might use a camera and paint back home from a photograph, but I find I get more vivid results working directly from nature. There are special things you learn about a place only by spending hours there. Some secrets reveal themselves only slowly and can't be captured within the click of a camera shutter.

Below are two little twin oil paintings from Caves Road, a heavily wooded area northwest of Baltimore. I was drawn to the place as it reminded me powerfully of my boyhood home on the shore of Lake Ontario just outside Rochester, N Y. In both paintings I wanted to express the overarching presence of the trees that give the neighborhood its strong personaltiy. At the left is Friday Afternoon, Caves Road and on the right is Forest House, Caves Road.

Here's a view of those two little oils with their larger neighbor, Northern Pines, Morning. This is also a painting done primarily from memory of a pond in Maine just outside the entrance to Acadia National Park. One of the joys of painting landscapes is that you get to call the shots as to how things should look. In this painting one of the things I enjoy the most is how a yellow sky contrasts against blue green waters. In a painting you can make things like that happen. And in this long horizontal painting I wanted the pines to stand erect to create an opposing gesture to the water.

Below are two paintings I began sometime ago. At the left is Houses on the Hill, Mt. Washington. It's just off of Smith Avenue near the village of Mt. Washington and just a stone's throw from my studio. It's a deliciously hilly neighborhood. I loved the way the houses stood up so vertically against the sloping hillside. I also like the solid geometry of the dark rectangles in the house played off against the diaphanous branches.

At the right is a little oil painted on Owings Mills Boulevard out in that northwest suburb of Baltimore, very near the broadcast facilities of Maryland Public Television. It's titled Forest Stream, Owings Mills. The shapes tree limbs generate can almost seem to come out of a fantasy. Here the lighter branches at the left reach out in an unexpected way, creating almost a "keyhole" shape above the stream.

Finally here below is Shawna Potter who works at the JLP Gallery looking at the last two of my oils. At the left is Caves Road II, Baltimore. This painting was actually a very important one in my development as a painter. It marked one of the first times I experimented with inventing an arbitrary color for the background and making it look believable. In this case I used a subtle violet-grey to play off against the swoop of the yellow orange foliage.

There was a wind rustling the thousands of leaves as I painted and I used an agitated brush stroke to evoke that surrounding energy. I remember when I was working on this painting I was bombarded by falling acorns, one of which made me jump when it bounced off my palette with a loud bang.

At the right is Northern Sky, one of my most recent oils. Like the vertical painting at the left, it creates a balance between yellows and violets, but this time with an entirely different mood of serenity and gentle expansiveness. Caves Road II, Baltimore feels a little like a strong cup of morning coffee, whereas Northern Sky lulls me like putting my head on a soft pillow after a long day.

Here's a link to JLP Gallery's website.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

New Book on a Rediscovered Painter

Isn't this an amazing bustling composition!

It's by a painter known today by very few, but at the beginning of the 20th century the artist was widely considered one of the country's most promising rising stars. The above oil painting is Shoe Shop by Elizabeth Sparhawk-Jones (from the Permanent Collection of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia). An art critic writing in the New York Times reviewing a 1907 Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) exhibition exclaimed Jones was "knocking at the door" and added that a work by her teacher, the legendary William Merritt Chase looked "tame and stilted by comparison with the jubilant performance of Miss Jones." (How that line must have burned good old Chase).

I found that juicy review in the new book by an old friend of mine, Barbara Lehman Smith, who I met, of all places, in a step aerobics class at my gym some years ago. We're both still kicking, which goes to prove exercise is good for you. Below is another Sparhawk-Jones oil I love.

Elizabeth Sparhawk-Jones, Rittenhouse Square, oil,
private collection

Barbara was then starting to write a book on a little known painter, Elizabeth Sparhawk-Jones. This all began when Sparhawk-Jones' papers were accidentally sent to the office where Smith was working as a public relations writer. Saved by chance from the incinerator, the papers and scrapbooks of the painter intrigued my friend to begin what became a years long research project. Elizabeth Sparhawk-Jones had gone from being a hot young star artist (while still in school at PAFA she sold paintings for the equivalent in today's currency of $50,000) to complete anonymity. That's not the kind of story any artist likes to hear about any fellow artist's ultimate fate.

Sparhawk-Jones studied with some of the best, including William Merritt Chase, the central American Impressionist painter at PAFA, one of the two oldest art schools in the US. The other one is the school I've taught at in Baltimore since 1973, the Maryland Institute College of Art. I learned Sparkhawk-Jones had grown up in Baltimore and that her father had been the minister at the historic Brown Memorial Presbyterian Church in the Bolton Hill section of Baltimore. The church lies only a couple of blocks from the classrooms where I've been teaching drawing in MICA's 1904 Main Building.

How could Sparhawk-Jones who grew up in a neighborhood I knew so well have gone from being a young superstar (she was collected by luminaries such as Hollywood's Claude Rains, a star from the film Casablanca) to an almost unknown artist?

Sparhawk-Jones' father suffered from severe chronic depression back in a time when that disease was considered totally scandalous. Like everyone then, he struggled to conceal his illness. Finally unable to function, he was forced to leave his post at the church near my school. Some years later his emotional equilibrium began to return and he secured a position ministering to a socially prominent congregation in Philadelphia.

Elizabeth Sparhawk-Jones, The Porch, oil,
private collection

Here's the book's cover.

Below is a wonderful portrait of Sparhawk-Jones by a classmate from PAFA.

Elizabeth Sparhawk-Jones, oil, circa 1910,
by Alice Kent Stoddard, 27 x 20", PAFA

Elizabeth Sparhawk-Jones, Soldiers Bathing,
Addison Gallery of Art, Andover, MAA

Here's an example of the work of Sparhawk-Jones' key teacher, William Merritt Chase.

In her twenties and already something of a star, Sparhawk-Jones' emotional life collapsed as she fell victim to the same clinical depression that had interrupted her father's life. Formerly a vivacious and extroverted painter, she withdrew from the world and suffered her pain privately. She stopped painting. This was at a time when there were no effective antidepressant medications. In short, she must have gone through hell.

Years passed and her depression gradually receded. She resumed painting, but her later work was of a fundamentally different character. Despite her prolonged absence from the art scene, she was able to gain a new following for the more modern and introspective work. She had exhibitions in New York at the prestigious Rehn Gallery and at Graham Galleries.

Elizabeth Sparhawk-Jones, Leda and the Swan,
watercolor, 27 1/2 x 20", private collection

Elizabeth Sparhawk-Jones, Injustice,
watercolor on linen, approx. 40 x 20", PAFA

Also later in her life she came to know art and artists well outside of the traditional realism of Chase and the PAFA of the early 20th century. One artist whose work she enthusiastically supported was that of the African American painter Horace Pippin. Below is his oil Card Players.

And she became especially close to the American modernist Marsden Hartley. One of his oils is pictured below.

Sparhawk-Jones' career speaks of incisive talent and vision, perilous fragility, and the possibility of healing. It also shows an amazing artistic evolution. My personal favorites are the earlier work in her career, but I have to see her late darker imagery as an authentic response to the emotional difficulty she faced. She has quite a story. Smith's book is especially good at evoking the times in which she lived and chronicling the personalities of the remarkable number of artists and writers she held as close friends.

Barbara Lehman Smith will be appearing Sat. Nov. 13 at Greetings and Readings of Hunt Valley (just north of Baltimore) as part of their Book Fest! from 1-4 p.m.

The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia will host a talk by Smith on her
book on February 23 at noon as part of their Art-at-Lunch series.

The website for the book is here. If you're interested in purchasing it links are provided.

There's a Fans of Elizabeth Sparhawk-Jones Facebook Page you can join.