Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Fiji, From the Eyes of an Artist

I have heard it said that travel is lethal to every form of ignorance known to humankind. True enough. When I was a small boy I was fascinated by the globe at my great-grandmother's house, so much so that she wrote my name on the bottom of it and promised it to me when she passed on. Today that same old brown globe sits on a shelf just to right of my desk, where I am writing this, and it is currently turned in such as way as to show the vast South Pacific, with New Zealand, Fiji, New Caledonia, Vanuatu, the Solomons, and countless other islands featured. As some of you may know, my wife and I lived in New Zealand for four years, and we both share a love and fascination with the locales of the South Pacific. Such a love of the region took us to Fiji just a week and a half ago - and I though it might be nice to recap some of the sights and sounds of Fiji for the readers of this column.

Let me first say that as it happens that you have to sometimes get thru the nightmare to arrive at the dream - this was the case in our trip down to Fiji. A short time after takeoff from Los Angeles, a man on the airplane had a violent seizure. Doctors were called for (luckily 4 of them were on the plane), they consulted and advised the captain to turn the plane around back towards LA, where the nearest hospital could be found. So what was supposed to be a 10 hour ride to Fiji turned into a 15 hour ordeal with a cranky toddler. For all those parents out there, you can well imagine what that was like with an 18 month old boy! However there was one shining spot on the trip itself - my wife and I thought we recognized a lady who was on our flight from Tucson to LA. Both of us tossed it around in our minds, and then as we were about to get off the aircraft it hit us...she was one of the actresses on the show "Private Practice". It was Amy Brenneman. At some point when we were at baggage claim at LAX we ended up again beside her and her family; both she and her daughter were watching our son Liam take his chance to run around and play with the luggage and she said "He's so cute!" At that point I said "Pardon me Ma'am, but are my wife and I imagining things or are you one of the ladies from 'Private Practice?' She nodded yes with a smile. I shook her hand and said "Nice to meet you", and told her how much we enjoyed the show. I've never been one to gush over celebs or actors, but running into someone like Amy Brenneman makes life interesting from time to time. I worked in hotels for many years, and enjoyed meeting some pretty interesting people in entertainment and politics.

In any event, after the 15 hour ordeal from LAX to Nadi, Fiji, we finally arrived. Wiped out but wide eyed, as you can imagine. The taxi ride in from the airport to the resort was one of the most eye opening things - and it reminded me a lot of Vanuatu. Though Fiji clearly had better infrastructure that Vanuatu, many part of it were still quite poor and many Fijians life without comforts that we all take for granted. Even as simple as running water. It's also eye opening to see how dirty and unkept poor towns can be. With little money to keep things clean or pave sidewalks and do necessary repairs, again these are all things we don't even think about in America and many western style countries. But if the towns may have been a little rough and life rudimentary - Fijian's more than made up for it by their warm welcome and beautifully friendly attitude.

Of course we stayed on a resort at Denarau Island, so yes we enjoyed Fiji on the high end. But there were many acts big and small that even resort employees didn't need to do. For example, the Fijian greeting "Bula" was common among everyone you'd meet on the resorts and other places. It was such a warm greeting that after awhile, you'd hear the guests children saying "Bula!" to staff and to others. Another amazing thing about Fijians is their love of family. Our son got kissed by more strangers during his week in Fiji than in his entire life before! Passing security on the way OUT of the country, he got kissed on the cheeks twice by ladies working there. At the resort, one of the doormen actually learned the baby sign for "more" so that he could ask Liam if he wanted to ride on the golf cart with him! One of my best memories of Fiji will always be standing with Liam in front of the Sheraton at Denarau Island and seeing this big, dark Fijian man pull up on a golf cart, look at Liam right in the face and put his hands together making the baby sign for "more"! What was clear was how much the people of the island love children, even those who are not their own. Quite a contrast to how kids are sometimes treated as nothing more than a nuisance to some in our culture.

Of course, being a landscape artist, it was the landscape that filled my eyes everywhere we visited. Fiji was green in many places, but still parched brown and dry in others. The islands were in desperate need of rain by the time we arrived, and the rains that plagued us for the first 3 days of the trip were quite welcome to the locals. In the countryside stretched near endless fields of sugarcane, a huge part of the Fijian economy. Cassava and others things were grown as well. But sugarcane, by it's very presence, appeared to be king. During the days when it rained the entire landscape took on a bit of a foreboding aspect - and when you looked on the fields and mountains in the dark, ominous clouds, it looked almost scary. But the break of the rains after the 3rd day opened up the Fiji that all the tourists know - gleaming and beautiful. Tropical, green, and alive.

We took 2 day trips that got us off the resort and out into the Fijian countryside. One was a trip to the Garden of the Sleeping Giant, a lovely botanical garden nestled in next to dark, volcanic mountains. There we browsed some of the most lovely orchids you've ever seen, as well as a lily pond in the middle of the jungle - something that seemed more a product of a fairy tale that realty. Even in the rain, the scene was beautiful. With dark, volcanic hills towering above the dripping wet jungle below.

Our 2nd day trip was out to a resort island called Robinson Crusoe Island. Here was a long, lovely island that was still quite small and quaint. The boat ride out there, winding its was through mangroves and other lovely scenes was equally memorable. The island itself is a small tourist island, and when we arrived we were treated to traditional greetings as well as a Kava ceremony. Kava, as some of you may know, is a drink that is enjoyed my many different island cultures in the South Pacific, but it has the most ritualistic significance for Fijians. Kava is offered as a gift of respect between tribes, and also when one wants to visit a Fijian village it is considered proper to offer a gift of Kava to the chief. In the old days, if the chief accepted you were safe - if he did not, then you better run like hell because you might be dinner for the tribe later that evening!

While on the island I went out for a snorkel while my wife and son enjoyed the beach. Snorkling was difficult on the reef which was probably a mile or so offshore, however it was still a great experience even when fighting the currents. All the colors of the fish and corals below were wilder and more intense than any artist's palette.

While I was there, I found myself thinking of something that I had told art lovers before - that I love lots of different scenes that I find around the world. I love the jungles equally as I do the deserts. Mountains as much as the seashores. I have been called a Southwestern painter because of where I live, and I don't altogether reject that notion - because my work has blossomed best in Arizona, New Mexico, and the American West in general. Just the same, though - a jungle in Fiji or a seashore in New Zealand are equally beautiful and interesting to me. Many people aren't aware that I've done 2 paintings of the giant Moai of Easter Island - and they were some of my favorites - both sold. I once told my wife when we were discussing unusual or exotic landscapes how much I enjoyed strange places, or visually challenging places, but I also said "of course the most radical landsapes aren't here, they are on other planets." Which might well explain my own fasciantions with the pictures taken by space probes of Venus's surface, and those on Mars, the moon, and Saturn's moon Titan.

Overall, I would rate Fiji an incredible experience. Travel is something that is good for the soul, and I'm sure that it's absolutely necessary for an artist. The challenge to the eye that travel brings for an artist is crucial to helping them understand their own work, and rise to the challenges of tackling new scenes that they have the good fortune to experience. Stagnation is an enemy for an artist, and the thrill of new places is often the perfect antidote. Fiji did that for me, and I hope to go back again.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Keeping it New

This week I am working on a large 30 x 40 in landscape from one of my favorite places in Arizona - Catalina State Park. As luck would have it, it seems that something is blooming there almost all the time, and some of the most extraordinary yellows can be found among the flowers lining trails like the Sutherland Trail.

Recently I finished reading the book "The Genius in all of us" by David Shenk, and in that book the author makes the very compelling argument that talent - or what some may call 'genius', is something that is much more the product of work, conditioning, and overall concerted effort - and that the old adages about a person being born with a certain ability are over exaggerated and often just plain wrong. He details sports figures, and countless others that had surprisingly humble beginnings, and who honed their crafts to such an extent that they become the best in their respective abilities.

With the information in this book, it seems to me that one could say that ability is something that is developed and made. Art is no different. I might concede that as a young man, I was moved by art on a level of instinct, before I had any other conceptions or ideas about it. But my own experience in becoming an artist, and becoming an exhibiting artist with some good credits to his name - that has been a product of nothing but work, work, work. I think sometimes people get the idea that the artist is a listless person who just daubs a few things on canvas and tries to swindle the world into thinking it's the work of genius. Nothing could be further from the truth. My mentor, the artist Jean-Claude Quilici, said in an interview that "painting is a manual craft, and you learn it by doing it." Well said. Sure there are prodigies in art, like anything else (I was not one of them :) however the book also details how prodigies are the result of people being in certain situations that allowed them to be taught well, and for their skills to grow at a very early age. Mozart's father was a music teacher...surprise surprise. Picasso's father exposed him to thorough lessons in art and draftsmanship. Even my mom taught me about drawing and shading and such - and I was not without some roots. Growing up as I did, looking at her drawings and paintings from the 1970s.

As I was thinking about this book, my conception of my own painting style lead me to conclude that it was horribly rigid. That is, what I do, I do the same way almost every single time. By no means is the image the same - but the execution, and my own learning about my craft had solidified into something like iron - inflexible. Always there but without the air of experimentation. So when I read in this book about how one of the characteristics of successful people is that they are never satisfied with their current skill level - I decided to devote at least a portion of my time to artistic experimentation. I bought pastels and have begun experimenting with them, and am looking to do both watercolors and a few figure paintings - mostly portraits. I've completed 3 portraits and 4 pastel paintings, and subsequently found myself enjoying what I was doing - because it was new and fresh, and for the fact that I was having to challenge myself to learn how to get adequate effects from the new mediums.

The other day as I was in the studio staring at the three portraits I had completed, our 18 month old son walked in and pointed straight at my self-portrait and said "Da da!" with a big smile on his face. And even though a tough assessment has led me to conclude that my portraits are a bit amateurish and need work - I find myself thinking that if my self portrait was immediately recognizable to an 18 month old boy, then there must be at least enough content there to keep working on it and refine it. Few people know that one of my first art sales ever was a portrait of the painter Renoir. Funny how we circle back to our roots, isn't it?

To me, the best artists adapt themselves to multiple mediums, and that is something that I want to continue to work on and explore. It goes without saying that my oil on canvas landscapes have built my art career - and I would not presume to know if galleries I show with would have the desire to show watercolors and pastels by me. But all I can know for now is that the experimental urge is good to for me, good for my sanity - and I believe that it will ultimately be good for my art.

Friday, July 23, 2010

The Music of the Doors, A Statement of Art

This week I have just finished a new painting of an orange tree dangling over Oak Creek in Sedona. A heavy, colorful piece that has all the peculiarity of one of my works - where even the water or the leaves give off the feeling of weighing a hundred tons.

Those who have read my blogs will know that I am a great appreciator of what seem to me to be true and powerful artistic statements, even if the aritsts in question are not oil painters or visual artists. I've long admired the Candyland-like fantasies of the architect Gaudi. And among a legion of amazing artists that I admire and respect are found countless musicians. One of which stands alone, The Doors.

The first and most obvious thing about The Doors is the persistence and the longevity of the music that they created. "Unknown Soldier" could tell the story of an American soldier in Afghanistan just as well as its implied references to soldiers and the militarism and violence of the Vietnam era. The cry "What have they done to the earth? What have they done to our fair sister?" that rings out in "When the Music's Over" could well tell the story of an oil-stained gulf coast beach today. It could well be a statement in agony over the destruction of so many irreplacable natural habitats on our planet.

Timelessness demonstrates the power of an artistic statement. Those statements that are too much a product of the time that they were expressed in tend to dissipate with the passing of that particular time. The music of the Doors is powerful because it is an inter-generational commentary by sensitive individuals, who were deeply concerned with the art of what they were saying. Some regard Jim Morrison as an American poet - and I share this feeling. Though it should not be overlooked that Robbie Krieger wrote some of the Doors' best known songs, most notably the immortal "Light my Fire." If you read Morrison's published notebooks and poems, such as "Wilderness" and "The American Night", then you realize that his sensations and words were not always a product of the rational, but in the images that they created, powerful visions were let loose on the consciousness of those who read them in print - and those who heard them in Doors concerts. Morrison was reported to have said that "real poetry doesn't say anything, it just ticks off the possibilities."

Frequently, when I allowed myself to think about my own paintings in a deeper way - I articulated in my mind a dual standard that I always wanted to strive for. That standard was beauty and originality. I think the Doors and their music also lines up nicely with this idea of a creative aspiration. Of course many of the lyrics and sentiments in the music of the Doors were dark, even darkened Dionysian visions of America and our reality. But I don't count that as ugly - I think that's beautiful. Disturbing images, or even disturbing songs can stir the mind to beauty just as much as an any other cliche of beauty can. And songs like "Summer's Almost Gone" as well as "Crystal Ship" are indeed quite beautiful on the surface. It has seemed to me that the poignant words of Morrison, and the carnavalesque feeling of Ray Manzarek's organ went hand in hand in making songs that could range you for the depths of joy, sadness, confusion, even apocalyptic sensations.

What does the music of the Doors say to artists of all varieties? Primarily, I think it drives home, with punishing insistence, the reality that there really is NO substitute for originality in the creative arts. When you realize how much timeless substance exists in the songs of the Doors, you realize that a true statement of creation - as I've mentioned above, is timeless and inter-generational. So if you wish to hang your hat with the gods of the creative arts - it should be obvious that you ought to aim for the timeless and the original. Take a lesson from the Doors, and the fact that we are still talking about them today.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Expressionism vs. Realism

"The man who deals with originality is desperately needed, but seldom wanted. For along with his promise of victory he lets loose the shadows of chaos."

David Hare writing about Jackson Pollock

This week I have just returned from beautiful Bryce Canyon, Utah - and I am working on several new paintings including a new Pueblo and a New Mexico landscape derived from a photo taken near the Guadeloupe Mountains.

I have recently heard an open discussion, sometimes friendly and sometimes not - coming from artists who are vociferous in their defense of realism. Some are saying that what is needed is a new movement that has been tagged as "Novo Realism". Several things, I think, are going on here and are worthy of talking about further.

I think that what bugs many realists is the possibility that artists who work in either expressionistic or abstract styles are not well trained. Realists are mostly classically trained, they paint from life, they go out into the field and do plein air studies, etc. They are the ones that are toiling away on reproductions of plaster casts, and going to great trouble to hone their skills so that what emerges on canvas is a fair representation of the real world. Realists know what they have done to train themselves, and they feel that art is being sold short when somebody either abides too loosely to reality, or when they don't abide by it at all. There is a reason why Jackson Pollock, as an abstract expressionist, was on the receiving end of a ton of scorn when he pioneered his "all over" poured paintings. The same process goes on today when realists look at the world of art. You could think of this situation metaphorically by saying that realists are like classical musicians, trained in violin, piano etc. Such musicians may look at a Rock and Roll guitarist and think "How can he fill an arena with screaming fans with just a few barre chords?" Mr Rock and Roll taught himself, and people are going nuts over him. As a guitar player, I sympathize with this thought, when I think about guitarists like Toni Iommi of Black Sabbath, who wrote some of the greatest rock / metal songs with very simple progressions. Complexity does sometimes represent talent, but not always. Sometimes the forms in which one operates are so laden with previously held assumptions that there is little room for the artist themselves to get out. That is why I am an expressionist, and why it suits my temperament much more than realism.

Also, we should be a bit more honest about realism. What do people mean when they are painting realistically? In the most basic sense, they mean to say that they are painting something that is a fair representation of the way the thing they are depicting really looks. But when we see a beautiful woman stretched onto a sofa, with soft light coming thru the window and forms rendered like Sargent or Whistler may have done - I don't exactly subscribe to that being real in the purest sense. We look at the woman on the sofa, we know it's a woman on the sofa - fine. But while one might want to paint those wistful and comforting realism scenes, nobody is making much of an effort to paint an unemployment line. Nobody decides to do a portrait of a devastated family who has just lost their health insurance. Few people, some have done so - but few people have the courage to paint subjects from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. I don't see plein air artists lining up to paint large gobs of oil washing up on the shores of Florida, Alabama, and Louisiana. And I sure don't see galleries or collectors wanting to show and buy these things. So what is depicted, and what is most approved of for the viewer, is a style of work that is real in look, but rarely ever real in any situational sense. This is no crime, by the way. But I interpret realism in a pretty unrelenting sense. However, I assert that art is a free engagement process. If a collector wants to buy realistic works, and the artist wants to produce them - I hope all involved go away happy. But realism is only one kind of tree in the forest. There are others, and all make the colors and shades we adore.

Another way to think of a discussion of Expressionism and Realism is something like a filter. A realist uses a dense, heavy filter - for the look of the subject anyway - and the individual touch of the artist is usually minimized in realism. An Expressionist, like myself, prefers a filter that lets only some of the subject through, and the rest is a product of gesture, light, color, and the temperament of the artist. A Realist would say that much of that applies to them as well - but an Expressionist departs sharply from this mold by not worrying too much if the rock in the landscape doesn't look like any rock that one has seen before. The rock, for an Expressionist, is a product of gesture and feeling.

I would share with realists the fact that I too respect training in art - whether that be self training or proper studio or school training. However I don't insist on this as an absolute necessity. The ancient cave paintings as Lascaux, which I adore very much, were painted by people who carried with them nothing more than the wish to express something meaningful about the world around them. And of course there is a long line from those primitive people to the Michelangelos and Raphaels of the world. But all were operating on the same instinct to make art meaningful. I find no battle between them. Neither should there be any battles between realists and expressionists. Like the trees of the forests I had mentioned - you don't hear the Oaks telling the Bristlecones to go straighten their branches if they really want to be a tree. You don't hear the Cedars ask the Paloverdes why on earth their bark is green...all forms independent and meaningful are appreciated. All are trees, no matter what the difference of forms. And bear in mind I do not argue for artistic relativism. The ability to say "that's a bad painting" is crucial if we are ever going to know what a good one is. That why I draw the line at "meaningful" forms, and expressions of art that have communicative ability. That's also why I have struggled endlessly with artists such as Barnett Newman - because despite my clear expressionist sympathies, I smell a cop-out when I see a single stripe down a huge canvas - and I resent the implication that I'm not cultivated enough to get the meaning. I'm not even sure Newman knew what he meant, or even meant to express.

So, as mentioned, I see no conflict here - other than the one we stir up unnecessarily. But if I were to offer one thought, one little tinge of competitive spirit between Expressionists and Realists, this is what I would say; if one were to hold a major exhibit of Vincent Van Gogh, arguably the greatest expressionist and pioneer of the style - if one held a retrospective of Van Gogh's greatest works, I would suggest that it is very likely that Van Gogh would bring in more interest, more media coverage, and more attendance than any realist painter, living or dead. He at least proved the value of deeply held emotion, expression and love of color on canvas. And the crowds that follow his works prove his impact.

As an Expressionist, Van Gogh stands tall - with contemporary artists like Jean-Claude Quilici, to show the power, popularity, and creative energy of art when the painter departs from the path of realism, and plows into the wild forest beyond.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Home Fires & My First Book

This week I am working on a seascape of Big Sur, in California. My wife has been telling me for years "Do more seascapes!" So I painted a small painting of Lanikai Beach in Hawaii for her, and I started the larger Big Sur painting for me. With the heavy impasto of my style, it is a challenge to create all the visual effects that one is liable to see on a turbulent coastline - but it is doable and if well worked over it can make a great painting.

A month ago I had the pleasure of visiting my home state of North Carolina, and getting to introduce our 1 year old son to the larger part of my family that he had not yet met. We had a wonderful time seeing everyone again, especially because it had been almost four years since we'd previously visited. There were lots of great meals, lots of sitting around and talking and catching up. I got to spend a little time in my dad's house, the house where I grew up - and during one visit I went out back to our old workshop, where my brother had a lot of his woodworking tools and where we used to play as kids. I don't know if I remember correctly, but I believe the old building used to be some kind of outbuilding or tobacco barn - used when my dad's house was a farmhouse and the surrounding area were just fields. Anyway, I dug around through the old building, and looked behind a shelf to see a faded piece of paper. I looked closer and saw that it was an old drawing that I had done of a WWII fighter plane. It was so faded the lines were almost indistinct and the paper was brown and crumbly. But I saw the lines that I had made in this drawing that had been hanging there in that place for over 20 years, exposed to the cold and the heat, but still there, faintly. And when I looked to the right of where the drawing was, there was a calendar on the wall that said 1988. Sure it's a cliche, time goes fast - but 1988, yes indeed, like it was five minutes ago.

Of course, on May 1st I was at Lenoir-Rhyne University to receive their young alumni "Rising Star" award, for my contribution to the arts. And lucky for me I had a chance to reconnect with a couple of my old professors, one of whom was my dear friend Dr. Augustin Quilici. It was really great because we walked right up to one another and fell into conversation just as we always did, and I was pleasantly relieved that my French wasn't as bad as I feared it may have been - after many years of not speaking it regularly. I was very pleased to learn that Augustin Quilici is, in his retirement, following a bit of an old dream of his own - to paint pictures! When I was a student in college he had several paintings around that he had done - and they were quite good. But a concerted effort was always difficult for him to make because he was a full time professor, and he understood as well as anyone the time and patience that it took to make a style and create great art. But he had set himself a studio in his home, and he is back to work. I always joked with him that there were "two Quilici painters" i.e., Jean-Claude Quilici, his well known cousin, and Augustin Quilici.

We also had the pleasure of spending some time at the beautiful Raffaldini's Vineyard, near Swan Creek, NC. Since our previous visit Raffaldini's had opened their new villa, which is unparalleled in it's beauty and location. Sitting on top of a gently sloping hill, with views of the mountains all around - I gladly declared that Raffaldini's is one of the most beautiful spots in Western North Carolina. Beautiful enough to rival other lovely places like Biltmore Estate and Stone Mountain. And it is no afterthought that the wine is of superb quality. I wonder how those purveyors of wine in California and other such places are taking the fact that a North Carolina vineyard is winning awards alongside the wines of Napa Valley? It's wonderful to contemplate. My sincere congratulations to Jay and Maureen Raffaldini for making such a wonderful place, and if you happen to visit the vineyard, ask to do a tasting with Paula Shores. She's my mom, and she'll have you laughing and enjoying good wine before you've even had a chance to think about it.

Back here in Arizona, we're getting our courage together to survive another long, hot summer. Days are crawling up into the high 90s F, and pushing 100 now. Time to retreat into the studio and work hard by a beautiful, well lit window.

Lastly, some of you may know by now, but I'd like to let the readers of the blog know that my book "Neil Myers Paintings, 2002- 2010" is now available directly from the printer at You can click on the link:

There you'll find an online preview of the book and order your copy. The initial reviews from those who've gotten their copies are all really good - and I'm extremely pleased with the result of the book. is a great source for artists and photographers who would like to publish their work.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Going Home

This week I have just finished up a lovely new painting called "Yellow Fields, Catalina Spring." After taking a hike with an old friend from college, and enjoying the particularly beautiful spring we've had here in Southern Arizona - I remembered standing by a trail and seeing what looked like a sea of yellow and gold poppies glittering in the sun. And I had the impression in my mind of just solid blocks of yellow - without reference to the thousands of individual poppies that made up the view. An overall effect of yellow settled on my vision and I thought it could be painted that way. I'm quite pleased with the result, though it is perhaps a bit more abstract than some of my other paintings of the same areas.

The other big news is that my wife and son and I are all getting ready to go back to North Carolina this Thursday. It has been around three and a half years since we have visited, and in that time I have not seen anyone from the North Carolina side of my family, except my mom and grandmother. It's going to be a lot of fun to introduce them to our son, who most of them have not met, and show him around the places where I grew up. I was explaining to him what green grass was the other day - telling him that it only grows in Arizona in places were there is sufficient water, usually irrigation. "Where daddy grew up, it grows everywhere!" I told him...a point largely lost on my busybody 1 year old.

One of the reasons for our visit is that I will be recieving the "Rising Star Award" from the alumni association of Lenoir-Rhyne University in Hickory, NC. I was a student at Lenoir-Rhyne and have my degree from there - and I had a wonderful four years of experiences that have always left me holding Lenoir-Rhyne in great esteem. So it is a fine compliment to receive an award from the University, and I am looking forward to visiting there again. I will also be donating a painting called "Rhyne Building, through the Trees" that will ship to Lenoir-Rhyne a little later in the summer to be featured at a spot on campus that is yet to be determined.

It is a funny feeling getting back to visit one's roots. For 11 years I have lived outside of my home state of North Carolina, and to be honest - life being what it is, there has been very little in me that looks back. Life, to me, always seemed to be primarily focused on where you are at the time - and for the years that we've been in Arizona this has been our reality. But still there is something you understand instinctively when you go back to the places where you once were; when you see the old high school football field where you watched Friday nite games. When you see the parks and places YOU played when you were a kid. When you see pink dogwoods blooming and remember climbing the trees. When you hear the soft southern drawl of the people from North Carolina and realize that you are back among your own. It can't help but be something understood, because I guess even the trees understand the roots and the ground that they came from.

Sometimes it's not lost on me that I have been the oddball son who disappeared into the American West! I think of the untold thousands who saw their family members get in wagons or on horses and make their way out to gold fields, ranches, and all manner of wild and open ranges. I have seen so many amazing things in my life and I wouldn't change any of it. Being from small town North Carolina was crucial in one particular way; that is, it made me intensely curious about the outside world. To other people, the small town life is more about comfort and familiarity and that's all they really need and that makes them happy. To me, on the other hand, it only made me want to know about the wider world.

So here is a toast to the Tarheel state and all the family and friends we are looking forward to seeing again. And OF COURSE I will have my camera ready, always on the lookout for a new landscape that I can paint.

As I sign off I do want to send condolences to my own extended family - we lost our uncle Brian Walters on the 22nd of April. Brian was a good man and he will be greatly missed.

And as that Bon Jovi song went - "Who says you can't go home?"

Thursday, February 25, 2010

My Favorite Artists Who are Not Oil Painters

This week I am working on a painting of the Rhyne building at Lenoir-Rhyne University in Hickory, North Carolina. I learned just recently that Lenoir-Rhyne, which is the university both I and my wife graduated from - that they are going to be awarding me their "Rising Star Award" for young alumni. After having such wonderful memories of my 4 years at Lenoir-Rhyne, from 1993 - 1997, I told them I would like to give them a painting provided that it would be well displayed. It is not certain as of yet, but it may end up in their library or alumni house.

Just the other day I was talking to the artist Paul Sheldon, and concluded that it was not really an accident that so many artists play music. For many of us it's a way to blow off steam. However it can also feel like what comes out thru music is the same kind of feeling that comes out through the paintings - only the means of expression are different. I've played guitar since I was about 13 years old. When my grandpa David Walters died in 1987, I was given his guitar - which I still have today, and I learned to play on it. He was quite a player and I heard that he used to play on radio shows with his friends.

So thinking about other artists who are NOT oil painters, here are some of my favorites...

1) Justin Rutledge. This guy is a poet with a guitar. I don't know anyone who would dispute this. A number of years ago I heard him on NPR, looked him up, and have been an admirer of his music ever since. Turns out, he enjoys art - and he and I are now friends by correspondence. If you were to describe Justin's music to anyone it would be difficult, because I've never heard anyone like him - but when you hear songs like "This Too Shall Pass", "Penny for the Band" and "Everyone's in Love" etc, it's easy to get hooked. He has a masterful sense of music and melody, with hands down the best lyrics that I've heard in music today. He has a new CD that will be released on May 4th called "The Early Windows", and I urge everyone to check it out. . You can find him on Myspace and Facebook as well.

2) Ansel Adams. I suspect that there are some people who have a kind of nostalgic view of Ansel Adams, as his images have become so much a part of Americana. But behind those stunning black and white photographs was a deeply complicated, sensitive, and extremely artistic person. I feel that all landscape painters, like myself, should do a study of Ansel and his way of working - his way of framing an image in the picture and his keen eye for granduer both big and small. Some of his images are so clear, so sharp and lucid - and then you can look at the date and see something like "1939" or "1941". It's astounding he got such images from old photographic technology. And his legacy of activism and environmentalism is truly inspirational, as he was one of those people who took it as a personal thing to fight hard for the preservation of our pristine wild places in America. Here is one of America's finest artists period, and I suggest all landscape artists make a good study of Ansel and it will make them better painters. .

3) Antoni Gaudi. My main feeling with regards to Gaudi is a true reverence for someone who bucked the conventional in the most extreme of ways - often in one of the most conservative art forms, that of architecture. Gaudi's structures seem to go from candy land childlike visions to the towering and awe inspiring "Sagrada Familia" in Barcelona. The fact that one could make buildings that seemed to undulate and flow like liquid - and that these were viable buildings that could stand the test of time - that is extraordinary. He is a true original.

4) Frank Lloyd Wright. Another true original in the field of archetecture. His homes and structures have frequently given me the feeling that I was looking at buildings that were easily 50, 75, or even a 100 years ahead of their times. Like Gaudi, Wright allowed himself the full reign of his imagination, and even though I hear that some of his buildings are not structurally stable, they leak, and have other problems - as an artist and an individual he was incredibly significant. It also emerges, once you learn a bit about him, that he was not always a nice guy - especially with regards to his family life. But the artist is there, and though I wouldn't want him for a dad and probably not even for a friend, he was unique and therefore notable.

5) KISS. The rock band Kiss has been a cultural phenomenon in America since the early 1970's. The reason I mention them as an artistic inspiration, is that they were the biggest and most flamboyant proponents of a kind of rock-theatre, the idea in general being to heighten the experience of a rock and roll concert by making the performance theatrical. Face makeup, explosions, dripping blood, flaming and smoking guitars, drum risers, etc - Kiss took some of the things they loved best about the act of performance and did it to the n'th degree. And to their credit they have countless fantastic songs that have stood the test of time even without regard to their performance style. I must admit, I've always preferred the original Kiss with members Paul Stanley, Gene Simmons, Ace Frehley, and Peter Criss. And I've recently soured a bit on Kiss recently because it has become abundantly clear that Gene Simmons is a massive egoist, who seems much more interested in stuffing dollars into his pockets than being a musical artist. This is not an issue of confidence, mind you. Most of us creative artists have to be stubbornly confident in order to create things. Arrogance, or, one could say, the belief that gravity doesn't affect you anymore - that does not make you a good artist. That makes you a bullheaded primadonna. But despite all this, I rank KISS very high on that list of original creative artists.

6) Carl Sandburg. The poetry of Carl Sandburg took a grip on me when I was in college, and that grip has never let go. His beautiful free verse style seemed to me to be an improvement on the groundbreaking work of Walt Whitman. Sandburg's work is something rooted very firmly in the soil of America, in the city streets of our towns and deeply connected to us generally. His work comes across, to me anyway, as a hybrid of prose and poetry. Sandburg once offered a definition of love as "The touch of two hands that foils all dictionaries." He was a true creative person, and someone who was dedicated to their own vision of poetry.

7) Jack Kerouac. I must admit that I go back and forth on Kerouac's work. And by that I mean that his form of spontaneous prose seemed at times to be rambling and rolling along with so little object as to just be words - and at other times it seemed to be some of the most sensitive and descriptive work since Proust. (Truman Capote once said of Keroauc's work "That's not writing! That's typing...") However the entire spectre of bop prosody was very original. It was at its best in works like "On the Road", "Big Sur" and "October and the Railroad Earth" and was less effective in other works. But it was original and thus retained an inherent power and freshness which has assured Kerouac legacy. Ginsberg, the poet, does get credit in this same spirit of work - but Kerouac was the most visionary of that group of writers. In 2008, a stroke of luck allowed me to see the original "On the Road" scroll that Kerouac wrote the book on - at the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe, New Mexico. What a pleasure to see the breathless stream of words that Kerouac produced, that went on to be one of America's legendary books.

8) The Drive by Truckers . Around 2003 a good friend of mine gave me a CD by an Alabama band called the Drive by Truckers. I put it in the player in my car and immediately fell in love. I've since seen DBT twice in concert, met and spoke to Patterson Hood (who has a painting of mine that I sent him awhile back) and have not ceased to be impressed by this roughshod group of Southerners who seem to embody intelligent rock music with biting social commentary. DBT music is often narrative driven and full of stories - quite the antidote to a world full of jingles. Via DBT I also learned of an amazing songwriter who ranks equally good named Jason Isbell. I've spent time with Jason at two of his shows, and he's a great guy and a terrific songwriter. He used to be a member of DBT where he penned such knockouts as "The Day John Henry Died" and "Never Gonna Change," and he now tours and records with his band the 400 Unit.

9) Deanna Johnston. Back in 2005 my wife and I were watching the TV show "Rockstar INXS" and a blond lady stepped up to the mike to do the song "Should I Stay or Should I Go" by the Clash. When I heard this lady sing, I sat up straight. This woman had a power, a force like I'd not seen or felt since listening to Janis Joplin for the first time. Her voice had a punch that hit me immediately, subtle, powerful, and memorable. Her later performance of the song "Long Train Running" on the show literally blew the roof off the place. Sometime later I got in contact with Deanna and we have been friends by correspondence for around 4 years. Deanna continues to make great music and I would especially suggest you check out her EP of original songs "GFN", available at .

These are just a few musical, literary, and architectural artists that inspire me. All of them have a quality of distinction that is important to appreciate in the creative act. I've long believed that the impulse to create is more or less universal in most of us - however some grab a mike, or a guitar, or a drafting board or a pen to express it. Art is vast, for sure, and that's a fertile and beautiful landscape we can all appreciate.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Ten Years After, a Decade Between Canvases

This week I have finished doing a touch up job on a painting of two bouquets of wildflowers. This 36 x 36 inch painting was actually done in 2008, but I had hung it on my wall, feeling that - even after it was signed and initially considered done, that it needed something else. Trouble was, I didn't know what it was then - so I put it on my living room wall for around a year and now that I've just done the rework, I'm glad I did. A very mediocre work is now a tolerably good work, and so naturally I found myself reassured that it would not have been the right thing to put the work out in a gallery in 2008.

We have just celebrated the holidays, and a hair's breath after came the new year that is also leading us into a new decade. Of course every self-indulgent blogger with a keyboard and an itch in their brains is gonna take a moment and be philosophical about where they've been, and what has happened in the course of the previous ten years. As I explained to my infant son, that a year is actually quite meaningless in the cosmological sense, or in the greater sense of the world. In the span of the universe, a year isn't even one zillionth of a grain of sand on the beach of existence - however it is the human mind that assigns meaning to time as it relates to time on earth. I always liked the line from the Kansas song "Dust in the Wind" where they sing "nothing lasts forever but the earth and sky." And when I think of this I think of the beautiful rock peaks of the Catalina Mountains that gaze down on our home - and I remember that they looked exactly the same, virtually unchanged, as they did in old historical photos taken over a hundred years ago. The mountains care very little for human time.

So when I rewind ten years and remember where I was as we entered the year 2000, I was actually standing in the middle of Quay Street in downtown Auckland, New Zealand, with my wife and two friends, screaming and yelling with the thousands of revelers - and toting around a bottle of 101 Southern Comfort. That night I saw a long parade of craziness - a drunk girl walking on broken glass on Queen street. Another guy hurling a whiskey bottle from to top of the Hobson street bridge - and it actually HIT a guy down below on the shoulder. I got kissed by some random girl yelling "Happy New Year!" (Jelena didn't hold that against me...I didn't have a chance to fight the girl off! ...Or did I even try :) And I remember calling my mom later that night to let her know that the Y2K business didn't mean anything - everything was still functioning, in New Zealand anyway - and so it seemed the world would continue after all.

Around that time I was doing a handful of paintings of the North Shore bays in Auckland, trying to fancy myself a new Monet who was going to capture the various times of day on canvas, as the light glanced off the sea. But I quickly bogged down in not being entirely satisfied with the effects I was getting. I then began to do more writing than painting, and this trend continued, for the most part, until sometime in 2002. Jelena had been giving me subtile hints, like buying me canvases and leaving them on the seat of our car - and I began to rethink painting and have some original ideas. And when I showed some paintings to friends where I worked at the Sebel Suites - they started immediately wanting to buy them. And I sold them for some almost criminal bargains - being only too flattered at the time that people were crazy enough to pay what they did for those works. One painting, a painting of Otago on the South Island of New Zealand - even caused a prolonged argument between Jelena and I because she insisted that we keep it, even after several friends wanted to buy it. And we still have it today; it hangs in our living room.

So I guess we can say the seed had been planted - or more correctly, RE-planted at the end of our stay in New Zealand, in 2002 and early 2003. When I came to New Mexico in 2003, there was something firmer and more determined, and more vibrant in my works. Even I noticed it, and found myself curious to move along with it and see how it went. Now after countless shows and sales and successes, it all seems like a million years ago. And it's only with effort that I realize that it was only 7 or 8 years ago.

I don't really know if I can look over the past decade and say that great leaps have been made in the world at large. In some respects that is always true, as science and technology advance, to whatever extent we secure our own lives, without really contributing to a fullness of life - or giving it deeper meaning. But I, like many Americans who took it personally - was a different person after the 9/11 attacks. After the shock of the experience wore off a bit, what remained was the lesson that human depravity was alive and well. And that for every brave soul who would save a friend, or even risk themselves for a stranger - the black heart of human cruelty abounds to this day. The more I thought about it, it became clear to me that if humanity persists in being unable or unwilling to surmount the differences of nation, tribe, religion, and cultural and lifestyle differences, then there is no reason to believe that the world will change in the slightest. At least not in the ways that really can affect human happiness. So in one sense we have indeed advanced ourselves with lots of groovy gadgetry and apps that turn our phones into portable back-scratchers, etc - but we have not managed to secure peace and understanding for future generations. As my writings and concerns are largely about Art, I think that only when societies stabilize and learn to coexist with some quality of understanding, then art will thrive. I should be pleased entirely if no artist ever had to paint about war again - no more "Third of May"s by Goya, no more glistening bayonets to the horizon. But I know better, and do not expect such a fortune anytime soon.

Art will go on. Jim Morrison said in an interview that the music of The Doors could not help but reflect that chaos surrounding it; a very true and profound statement when one considers he was talking about the late sixties and all the cultural and societal changes, and the Vietnam War. And the Art of 2010 will no doubt do the same. I, on the other hand, actually hope that somewhere in my own work there will be some grasp of the larger span of time, and if one looks at my work and feels the heat of nature and color, then I would be fine if no concept of time was applied to it. A mountain painting in 1910 of 2010 ought to glow in paint, so as to tell us something grander about life in general.

I've always appreciated this quote from John Adams:

"I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain."

So let's hope that a world of "painting, poetry, music, etc" can replace the fragmented world we know today. Not for the reiteration of pipe dreams of fantasies, but for a better life for our children, and the countless generations to come. Let us work towards a foundation upon which art can rest firmly, and do its part to contribute to human fulfillment and human happiness.

I wish everyone a happy, healthy, and peaceful 2010!