My First Art School was a Sandbox

The first four years of my life we lived a house with a sandbox in our backyard. It was a substantial wooden construction that my parents had replenished with new sand by the time I, the youngest of three, came along. Pulling my hands across the sand's soft surface delighted my tiny fingers. And best of all were the amazing patterns that magically emerged on the sand in my fingers' wake. In a funny way, that sandbox was my first art school.

Humans have been "playing in the dirt" like that for our whole history. It's embedded in minds, this love of making simple shapes and patterns on a flat surface. Here above is an oil by Willem de Kooning (1904 - 1997). In addition to being vividly colored, the painting shows some of that "sandbox playfulness" with the artist dragging his brush, scratching back over previously drawn shapes, wiping out and so on. Looked at as a design on a flat surface, the painting has a certain appeal. Also the woman's spacey expression leads me to think de Kooning had a sense of humor.

When I began studying painting in the late 1960's at Oberlin College there was still quite a buzz in the air about de Kooning. In the Art Department we chatted on about "surface" and "flatness'. In the one sided way beginners often understand things, I grabbed onto this notion like it was a lifeboat. 

Time passes. By my senior year at Oberlin I found myself increasingly drawn to something that hadn't been on my radar before. 

There was a view out the kitchen window of the run down second floor apartment I'd rented. I'd find myself gazing out at it for minutes at a time. I lived in back of Oberlin's famed Conservatory of Music, smack in the middle of its unassuming parking lot actually. In the late afternoons, the Conservatory building would cast a long shadow over the closer half of my view, but the farther spaces held the light longer. In the farthest distance a row of imposing pines would become highlighted with sunlight. There was something elementally beautiful here I thought. The way the light would change from midday to late afternoon, and how that would transform the feeling of the space. I think my first really good painting was a view of that late afternoon parking lot with the distant spotlighted pines. Wish I still owned it. 

Here's one of my largest paintings, The Morning, oil on canvas, 42 x 84" now at the Art Essex Gallery in Essex, Connecticut. It's a celebration of how a painting can plunge you back into its depth.

That parking lot and pines watercolor from back in Oberlin days was the first step I realize now in what would become my life long involvement with landscape painting.  We can cast our gaze up from our desks, to a window and beyond to rows of unexpected contrasting forms. They march off to the horizon, and beyond. It's a perfect metaphor for the myriad levels of our own experience. A painting, if it's a good one, wraps all those conflicting spaces together into a moment of masterful coherence. It's a reminder that life, at least some of the time, can feel whole, meaningful and very satisfying.

Those childhood lessons I absorbed in my sandbox are still with me. The designs we make on a flat surface have an enormous expressive potential. They also can magically bind together the most wildly ambitious composition that otherwise threatens to come apart at the seams.

Flat design is a ready tool for painting. For example, in my oil The Morning, I stack long horizontal row after row of water and land upon each other as if they're going to continue through the entire composition. But reaching the sky things shift as the two orange rows of clouds tilt up on a subtle diagonal. What I was doing was finding a way to link the far distant clouds to the leaning dark pole in the foreground. That's where my sandbox design training came in handy- it had taught me on a gut level there was something special that happens when lines move away from each other at right angles. 

We have to think of a painting as both a flat surface and as a window flung open to another world. 


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