Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Two Thanksgiving Stories

   Philip Koch's easel set up with White Mountain Pond, vine 
charcoal, 8 x 12", 2014

Two stories . Things that happened to me early in my four decades of painting the landscape out in the field. Both still make me smile. 

First the funny one, though in a slightly painful way.

In the summer of 1972 I was just about to leave Indiana University in Bloomington with my newly minted MFA degree in painting. I had been very happy living in an old army barracks that had been converted to married student housing. So for one of my final Bloomington paintings I was set up in a field painting the somewhat dilapidated building that housed my apartment. It was going well and I was pleased with myself. 

A young girl wandered by and stopped to see what I was doing. She looked for a long minute and finally asked me "Did you paint that?"   I readied myself for the praise I was sure would follow and pridefully responded "Yes."

The girl managed a sad smile and responded "Well, I'm only eight years old and I'm already a much better painter than you are." 

Philip Koch painting in the White Mountains, New Hampshire
June 2014

A happier story occurred the summer before. 

This was the first year I was trying my wings with painting out on location. I had discovered nearby Lake Monroe, "Indiana's Largest Lake" as the Chamber of Commerce pridefully proclaimed. Up on a distant ridge the large gravel parking lot of the extremely modest Scenic View Restaurant provided the viewpoint I needed. 

I worked away for five hot June mornings on my new painting (the Midwest I discovered can be painfully hot). As I was largely unfamiliar with this whole landscape painting business, I was lucky to be stumbling into what was probably my first genuinely professional level landscape painting. 

The back kitchen door of the Scenic View opened and out came a 50-ish woman wearing a soaking wet white apron. Peering at my canvas she told me she worked as the restaurant's dish washer and that she'd been watching me from the window over her sink. Finally she just had to come out to see what I was doing.

Unlike the upstart young artist in my first story, this woman loved the painting and said "How much does it cost?" Honestly I had no idea as I'd barely sold any of my paintings before and never one to a complete stranger. And how much could a dishwasher in rural Indiana afford anyway?  Out of nowhere I heard my lips say "Oh, it's $60." 

A moment of silence. Then the woman said, "This is the view I see out my window everyday at my work. I think this painting should be on my wall. That's a lot of money. Could I mail you ten dollars a week until I pay it off?" 

I was surprised. Actually stunned is more like it. Something about her made me nod my head, and more remarkably, hand the wet painting to her right then and there. Mind you I thought this was the most accomplished painting I had ever painted. I hadn't even photographed the thing yet. But the woman's straightforward sincerity had bowled me over.

As promised the next Monday an envelope arrived in my mailbox. In it was a ten dollar bill. The next week the same thing happened. And the following four weeks the same thing continued without interruption.

All these decades later I have sold hundreds of landscape paintings. Mostly they go to lawyers, physicians, and stockbrokers. But one of them always stands out in my mind as my favorite art collector. Her name is lost to me. But I do know that for many years she used to wear a wet white apron.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Photo Survey Washington County Museum of Fine Arts Exhibition

Here is a collection of photos from my current exhibition, The Mirror of Nature: The Art of Philip Koch at the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts in Hagerstown, MD. The show opened with a spirited crowd on Friday, Nov. 7. I gave a slide presentation and gallery talk on Sunday, Nov. 16. The show continues through Feb. 22, 2015.

Normally on this blog I write commentary about my work and philosophy. Just for this time though I'd like to let the work speak for itself.

Saturday, November 8, 2014


Above is the view of one of the walls in the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts' Bowman Gallery hung with my paintings for their show that opened last evening, The Mirror of Nature: The Art of Philip Koch. The show will run in this Hagerstown, MD Museum through Feb. 22, 2015. Back in 1995 the Museum hung a smaller exhibit of my work in the same space. This new show included much more work and fills more of the Museum's galleries. Yet for me standing in the galleries last night I was struck with the sense I and my work were returning to an important chapter from my past. 

In fact one of my favorite paintings in the new show is titled Returning.

So often the world seems to bowl us over with a river of sensations. If we took in all of this deluge consciously we'd be completely overloaded.  I think we'd be unable to move. We had to evolve to be selective about what we notice.

Philip Koch, Returning, oil on canvas, 28 x 42", 2008

Instead most of what's going on around us and even inside of us remains outside of our awareness. We can become so distracted by the needs of the moment that we lose touch with big parts of ourselves. 

Who hasn't noticed how sometimes certain things or people just seem to thrust themselves into our emotional foreground. For example when I happened upon the red house that would become the subject for my painting Returning,  I realized a mysterious urge to go back and look at it again. And again after that. There was something about the scene that triggered a long buried memory of how I feel about things. 

I grew up in a remote house in a deep forest on the shore of northern Lake Ontario. As I think now of those early years the most  vivid image that come to me is the forceful presence of the old growth forest. Insanely unpredictable patterns of naked tree branches casting shadows onto the trunks of large trees. That image the surrounds every notable event of my childhood. 

We can't recall all of even the most important events of our early lives and gradually they sink below the surface of conscious memory. Yet they remain like smoldering embers of a still hot fire in our unconscious minds. They lay there dormant for years, warming the bedrock of who we really are.

I think at the heart of art is this recalling of these lost pieces of ourselves.

At one time my painting Returning had a prominent figure reaching to open the porch door. Yet somehow he seemed beside the point. I painted him out and let the foreground tree take center stage. And with that the painting sounded a deeper and more true note. I was putting the spotlight on the form that most aptly told the story the painting wanted to tell.

 Here's the painting as it looked last evening at the opening reception for Washington County Museum of Fine Arts' exhibition.

A painting that particularly grabs at you is doing you a favor. It is holding up a mirror to you to show you another side of your real nature. Perhaps my painting Returning will return to you something important you'd temporarily lost sight of.

Upcoming Slide and Gallery Talk:

Philip Koch will give a slide presentation and gallery talk on his painting career at the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts on Sunday, Nov. 16 at 2:30 p.m. Free and open to the public. All invited!