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.