Friday, December 28, 2007

The Empty Easel and the Long December

This week the easel is empty. I decided a few days ago to make my last painting, a blooming Agave, the last painting of 2007. (The image to the left is 'Saguaro at Romero Ruins' finished a couple of weeks ago). It seemed appropriate as I thought about Agaves, how they raise their central shoots as high as they possibly can and then bloom - casting their seeds to the earth before the Agave dies. Painters like myself, we do the same. We work sowing the seeds of our paintings in the world - then they go into the world and the images take own their own lives. It makes me think of that wonderful feeling you get in high-quality art galleries, that feeling of assurance that you are not alone. That you are there with the shadows of all those artists who came before you.

I find myself thinking of the Counting Crows song "Long December" that goes "It's been a long December and there's reason to believe, maybe this year will be better than the last..."

For me, 2007 was a very good year. If I am honest with myself, I should say that it was a year like many others - one which was beset with challenges and problems of it's own sort, but not such as would diminish the accomplishments of the year. In February my work was featured in Tucson Home Magazine as part of their "3 of a Kind" artist series. And in November I was featured in the "Best of the West" section in Southwest Art Magazine. It has been a godsend that magazines have written about my work, and it is my goal to continue to give them something in my paintings that will keep them thinking and keep those keyboards clicking. And as always, sales have been good and steady in 2007 - even during the slow Summers here in Arizona.

If there has been a change in my work this past year, I could probably say that the overall texture of the paintings has become thicker, creating a more abrasive surface. This has been useful in implying movement, even in the sky which is usually far away in many artist's works. I've also explored other regions, resulting in paintings of Acoma Pueblo as well as farther afield at Easter Island, and the Baobabs of Madagascar. I still see, in my mind's eye, paintings of Washington DC, of France, and new images from New Zealand. I've yet to know how they are going to materialize. They may emerge in 2008.

There is no grand wisdom to ponder when a year comes to a close - only the simple thought, the sense that time is passing. A few more lines around the eyes, a few more aches where you never had aches before...and the creeping sensation that there is no time to waste in our lives. That if we believe we are here for a purpose, it is our job to do that thing, to give it life and meaning. So that when we are older and look back on our limited time in this world, we can say to ourselves "I did it."

We are all given to one another for a time, and just as that time had a beginning, it will also have an end. So don't waste one more minute in this world - tell people how you feel, be as honest as good society will let you be - and have the courage to make the best of every moment.

It may have been a "Long December", but yeah, there's reason to believe - maybe next year will be better than the last.

Happy 2008 to everyone!

*All images are copyright Neil Myers 2007-2008

Monday, December 17, 2007

Lessons From Ansel Adams

This week I have just finished a new canvas called "Sunset in the Catalinas", which depicts that moment when the light turns at a sharp angle on the hills and Saguaros - heralding the arrival of the end of the day. It is painted with dark contrasts much like many of my other works - and it is only one aspect of the feeling a sunset leaves on someone who is lucky enough to see it from Southern Arizona. There is another moment that comes after this kind of light - and in this other moment, just as the sun is about to set, the mountains and vegetation turn a near holographic pink. This only lasts for a few minutes, but it is something that I hope to capture one day. Then as the sun goes below the horizon we see the stripes of teal and orange and pink, the last and most beautiful moment as the stars emerge and the night comes.

Contrast is a great lesson in art. I am a believer in the power and the emotional range of contrast. One of those artists that taught me about this was the American photographer Ansel Adams. Adams worked nearly his entire life in the medium of black and white photography - however his images are so incredibly compelling, I have always felt that there are inherent lessons in them - even for a colorist like myself.

It has always seemed to me that Adams has the most spectacular sense of what is was that made a good picture. Never could you say that an Ansel Adams picture is devoid of content. Even if it is nothing but a huge sky with clouds, it is immediately apparent that Adams chose his subjects carefully - that the photographic print was complete, and full of the image that it sought to render. His tactic of darkening a sky deeply so that the objects on the foreground stood out in stronger contrast is quite amazing. Ansel seemed to understand that there were photos underneath the photos - something deeper and more beautiful that the object on the surface. I've heard it said that he would wait for hours until the light or the cloud formations of a landscape were just right, and then 'click', he made his photo.

Perhaps one needs to understand, as an artist, that no every single image that bombards the senses can be made into a lasting, eternal piece of art. Part of the act of having some kind of discretion is knowing what will not work - what image, photo or painting, does NOT constitute a compelling enough image to be memorable and unique. And of course, this is a personal process for most artists. I shoot photos that I paint my paintings from - and probably 85% of the photos shot out on location stand no chance whatsoever in becoming a Neil Myers painting. For me, the image must contain a full measure of content and feeling, and if it doesn't, it's just another snapshot. I would never want those random shots to become 'just another' painting.

One critic in the Ric Burns documentary on Ansel Adams stated that "There is something about Ansel's work which is almost Gothic". And I think that standard is a good one for an artist to hold themselves to. To the creation of work that is specific, emotional, undeniable and full of content and quality.

Ansel used to say "You know it's a good work of art if you remember it afterwards."

That is the goal we all strive for. The searing into our brains of a great work, of a true moment in time, or of a large and undeniably true image. So I can only hope that others remember my paintings the way I remember Ansel's photographs.

*All images are copyright Neil Myers 2007

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Giants of the Desert

This week I am busy working on a vertical study of a large Saguaro cactus that I found near the Romero Ruins at Catalina State Park. I spent most of yesterday wrestling with the background of reddish ochre colours, all the while trying to do something with the texture and shape of the paint - and, at the same time, trying also to create something spontaneous in shape and form. I have noticed that the shapes you see in nature follow very loose patterns, and it is rare that you see straight lines or predictable angles. Rather, if you are an interpretive artist like I am, then your hand must be somewhat loose in order to create the fluid forms of nature. It is a tight balance between control and non-control.

I have tried for several years now to capture the special quality of our Giant Saguaros of the Sonoran Desert. They are really a local icon of our landscape - large, powerful plants and loom in anthropomorphic shapes all around our hills and flatlands. One thing that I have done that many artists seem to rarely try is that I have done countless works which were studies of the Saguaros themselves - rather than the more popular tactic of merely featuring the Saguaro in a larger landscape. Of course it is always in a larger landscape, but I believe that they are amazing when viewed in small groups together, or alone in one single, large canvas rendition. They are imbued with every variation of light that our desert has to offer. We see the progression of the day as it moves across the creased shapes of the Saguaros, and the eerie shadows that they cast onto the dusty ground. To me they stand alone as an object in our ecosystem that is worthy of individual study.

Another thing I do that may be considered unusual is that when I go out in search of images that I want to turn into paintings, I always look for Saguaros that are unusual in their shape or fundamental characteristics. Southwestern artists seem often to just stylize the Saguaro into a neat, easy to digest shape, with perfect arms and predictable qualities. The truth is actually that Saguaros are radical in their differences, and it is that quality that I love to explore. Some of them grow straight up and have no arms - and I believe that these are referred to as "pole" Saguaros. Some only sprout arms high up on their central trunks. Some sprout arms 1 inch above the ground. Some are partially dead and decaying, but still standing. And some of the most amazing ones are what are referred to as "crested" saguaros, where the top of the saguaro fans out into a creased fan-like shape. This is extremely rare. Among the stands of Saguaros that I commonly visit, there are only 3 that I know of. One of them is on Ina Road in Tucson, and I've painted it - the painting is at Wild Holly Gallery in Carefree, AZ.

Some people still pick on me because I have an easterner's habit of saying the word "Saguaro" with a hard "g", like "Sa-Gwaro", when the local habit is to say "sa-Waro". (I did some Internet research and one site said that the modern word "Saguaro", however you choose to say it, is a Spanish language corruption of an old Pima Indian word. So it is highly likely that we are all pronouncing it wrong relative to the name of the plant given by the local Pima Indians) However whatever you choose to call it, however you like to say it - our Saguaros are powerful icons of our landscape - rewarding to look at and wonder about, dazzling to explore with a paintbrush.

*All images are copyright Neil Myers 2007