The art museum in Rochester, NY, the Memorial Art Gallery (MAG), just purchased two of my vine charcoal drawings for its Permanent Collection. This brings full circle my years as an artist. In the fourth grade I was taken on a school trip to MAG. It was the first museum I had visited. And though I didn't know it at the time, it had a profound impact on me.
Above is my drawing Monhegan Dawn, 7 x 14", 2006, one of the new acquisitions. It was drawn from life on Monhegan Island in Maine early, as the title suggests, one morning. The view is of Manana Island, essentially one huge dome shaped rock that shelters the tiny Monhegan harbor from the open sea.
I grew up just outside Rochester on the shore of Lake Ontario. One of my favorite things to do was studying the Lake. While it was often very rough, I loved the times were when the lake calmed and the breezes blew out from the shore over the water. It's surface would take on the look of a shifting abstract painting. My parent's told me these ever moving areas of ruffled up water were called cat's paws. I remember thinking that an odd name at the time. Years later though, after dedicated study of the feline species, I can see the connection with the unpredictable and capricious way cats can move. In drawing Monhegan Dawn I was seeing part of my childhood in those cold Maine waters.
Below is the other piece, Shore II, 8 x 12", drawn on a bridge over Otter Cove on Mount Desert Island in Maine. It's a piece that looks strikingly the way that beach where I grew up did back in the 1950's.
It was September, late enough in the year for the sun to cast long shadows over some of the rocky fingers of land. I happened upon the place just when the entire foreground was dimmed by shadow. But within minutes the light shifted to spotlight the stand of two pines. Their irregular silhouette added some needed syncopation to the landscape Within an hour's time the sun had moved again so much that every tree was equally lighted, making for a jumble of visual overload.
I don't use a camera to make my paintings, ironic as both sides of my family were Eastman Kodak people. But I find it's the slowness of drawing or painting from life that brings with it a special advantage- you stand there working at your easel longer. It you work long enough, you're more likely to discover some critical aspect of the idea that otherwise might have been overlooked.
The great Hudson River School painter Frederic Church did a famous oil from the same spot back in the mid 19th century, Otter Creek. He of course had turned his back on the view I'd chosen and instead
concentrated on the mountains behind me. I get a kick out of following those old painters around.
Remember that fourth grade school trip to the MAG? I do only partially. One thing was that the docent who took us through the old master galleries had been given marching orders to stop and talk about only paintings where everyone had kept their clothes on. My friends and I quickly discerned this pattern as we gingerly were led past any painting with exposed body parts. And as you can imagine we giggled through the tour with all the sophistication typical of 9 year old boys. Looking back, I bet some parent had called to complain to the Museum after their child on a similar school tour had been encouraged to look at a nude. What's a beleaguered Museum educator to do?
But one other thing stands out in my memory- actually the only painting I remember from the tour. It's Winslow Homer's My Studio in an Afternoon Fog and is one of Homer's real jewels. What attracted me
as a kid was that unlike the figures in the Renaissance paintings with their odd costumes, this painting looked like it came directly from my own experience. Why it conveyed such a powerful mood I couldn't put in to words back then. I was unconsciously sensing how a master like Homer could marshal color and light to expressive heights.
Look at the color of his sky- warmed up with raw umber and hints of yellow, and then cast your eye down to the cold colors he's chosen for the water. If anything, he seems to be putting a spotlight more on whitecapped waves than on the obscured sun. It's his way of surprising us viewers.
Another touch that's just marvelous is the warm almost black wall of rock that he runs diagonally across the front of the painting. It's made way more emphatic than the diminutive buildings. Yet it feels just right. It's as if Homer is placing a barrier between us and his studio, keeping it more of a dream than something we can reach out and touch. It's one powerful painting, and though I didn't know it at the time, it was prodding my imagination to start moving in a whole new direction. Thanks Winslow.