Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Unknown Places

This week I am working on a 30 x 48 inch vertical Saguaro landscape for some clients in Scottsdale, AZ. I was never a great fan of narrow, vertical paintings but I find that I like them better and better the bigger the size gets. A 30 x 48, trusting you place the subject matter on canvas well, is a large, plunging vertical and it creates a great feel of size and verticality.

I wanted to be honest with folks reading this blog that the reason there are not thousands of blog posts by me is that I typically reserve my comments for when I actually have something that I think may be useful to say. These people who tweet or blog every time they brush their teeth or take out the trash just drive me nuts. I think that anytime you write something you should at least litmus test it in your mind to see if it's either vaguely amusing - therefore providing a little brightness to someone's day who could use it - or it should be useful and shed a little light.

I have written at great length about originality in art, and the need to seek and express new sensations that are both personal and universal at the same time. (Frequently, if a piece of music, literature, or art is only one of those things - it's not very good, in my opinion.) A couple of weeks ago I found myself enthralled by a book about the 1789 mutiny on the ship The Bounty. The book was the more recent title by Caroline Alexander. Though the book has some long, tiresome descriptions of the sailors captured and put on trial for their roles in the mutiny...what interested me most was what happened to the mutineers who went on to settle Pitcairn Island - a remote island outpost in the Pacific. It was very interesting to read about how a group of Englishmen, with some Tahitians that they essentially kidnapped - created a small society on this remote island, far detached from any part of what was the modern world at the time. What followed after those men settled on Pitcairn and burned the ship - was a fractious period where many of them killed one another, or were killed by the Tahitians that they settled the island with.

What I am getting at here was the realization that I had to admit to myself that one of the most interesting periods of history, in my eye, was the colonial period. One favor, however, that modern history and a common regard for human rights has given to us is to also realize that for Europeans to settle in places like America, Africa, South America, and the South Pacific, the wholesale disenfranchisement and often murder of the natives was required, and even celebrated by some. This should not be painted for anything other than what it was. Jared Diamond's fabulous book "Guns, Germs and Steel" did a great job telling this story. However there did emerge from the colonial period in history something unique and of use to everyone, including artists. The entering into spaces and places unknown to the Western World.

It is not, of course, that natives of all continents didn't do this as well. They have always done this - what was compelling in this case was what Europeans did when they ventured into new places with the technologies of their ocean going ships and the written languages and narratives that could capture and record what the far off world was really like, for the enthrallment of people of all nations.

If I had been alive then I might have been a willing participant in the age of exploration - but what was revealed to learned eyes came at the cost of the genocide and subjugation of entire regions full of native peoples. Whatever light was shed, cast a pall of darkness at the same time. I would have loved to explore and see such amazing places as they were being revealed - but I could not have raised my hand in anger against anyone who was there before me. Europeans had, far too often, convinced themselves that any kind of horror was justified if so called 'civilized' men were the culprits.

I should say also that my interests in 'unknown spaces' has found a great deal of enjoyment in the exploration of space and the planets. When a space probe opens it's lenses for the first time on planets like Mars, or moons like Titan - I am one of the first to want to see what they see.

Even when I was a kid I would explore wooded areas around where I lived for miles and miles. Until I knew every tree, and even until I could guide my friends great distances through the woods in the dark. It was all great fun to me...

However much a stretch the comparison might be - I think it is still useful. The same drive that would make someone disembark from a ship, or travel with Lewis and Clark across the American West, or penetrate the deepest jungles of Africa or the Pacific - the same interest and curiosity should exist within the heart of the artist. With all the world of knowledge at our backs, it seems to me that the canvas is still an unknown space, and we are getting to know our world, interior and exterior, each time we set out to explore that imagery.

Happy Holidays to Everyone!

Friday, September 9, 2011

Fortunate Tunnel Vision

This week I am working on a large 36 x 48 in. oil painting of a blooming desert spring scene - based on a photograph by the amazing photographer Paul Gill. This is the fourth Paul Gill image that I have painted, and all I can say is that his vision is a twin of my own - being that he looks for scenes in a landscape nearly identical to the ones I look for.

I found myself thinking about something that I was writing earlier this week - a sort of idea of artistic tunnel vision. I remember Paul Stanley of Kiss saying something to the effect that if you really want to succeed, stop listening to people! At first that comment seems counter intuitive. But when you stop and think about it, the realization comes that if you are really reaching - if you are going for something creative, bold, and original - you need the strength to cling to your own vision and see it through. You need to be able to shut out certain noises and criticisms and focus hard on what you feel you have to do.

I relate to Paul's advice quite well - because I have shared with a few artists my own loathing of the traditional settings for criticisms. I mean this mainly in regards to artists criticizing others' work. I have long preferred the harsh critiques of myself to myself - and that also of my wife, who is equally unsparing. Because it seem to me that when a group of artists sit around and take apart a painting - which is like taking apart a piece of sincere emotion - they are bringing to the table their own preferences about what art should be. And thus leveling their aim at the artwork of people who may not share their personal sensibilities - all the while trying to bend the art being critiqued to something of their own vision. In this way it seems to me that the artist-critic seems to want to take possession of a work they are looking at. Burn it with their own brand, so to speak.

And it is not to say that I think a work escapes criticism - not at all. When it hits a gallery wall or makes its way into a magazine or publication, you can damn sure be certain that it will be critiqued. I expect and welcome that. But what arrives there for the critique is nothing other than a product of my own visions - and it has been bent or altered to suit nobody but myself. In doing that, I feel nearer to my own vision of what a painting should be. Because it seems to me that when you feel that you are doing something truly different, you have to put the idea forth to the public directly, with the hopes that it will connect with sensitive individuals. This has happened for me, and for that I am very fortunate. But I am also sure that it happened because I was stubborn and persistent in not allowing my ideas to be diluted and watered down to suit other artists.

What Paul Stanley really knows about creativity is implicit in what he said about not listening to others; because if you would have told a member of the public in 1972 that in the following year a band would emerge, wearing kabuki style white face paint - with smoking guitars, spitting blood, fist pounding rock anthems, etc etc - they might well have laughed at you. But so many years and a zillion album and ticket sales later nobody laughs at the original KISS idea that Paul Stanley was a part of.

Now you might like KISS or you might not, but you can't even BEGIN to argue that they are somehow unoriginal!

That's creativity!

Monday, August 22, 2011

Oasis by the Shore

This week I am working on a painting of the Saint Francis of Assisi church in Taos, New Mexico. The amazing photographer Paul Gill granted me permission to attempt some paintings from his photos, and this painting is one derived from his photo. Paul is one of the most talented photographers in our region, and has a wonderful knack for finding the most drama and color in our Southwestern Landscape. Visit his website at:

I wanted to write a brief note to share a wonderful place that I was fortunate enough to visit a few weeks ago; Torrey Pines State Reserve. ( ) This is a stunning place where a large stretch of Southern California coastline has been set aside because it is one of the few remaining habitats of the rarest pine tree in the United States, the Torrey Pine. This 2,000 acre preserve sits right on the coastline within the city limits of San Diego, CA. My wife and son and I went there in the early morning and hiked several trails - one leading down to the coast, above beautiful cliffs that plunged right down into the blue of the sea. It was really special - and all the while I was there I kept telling my wife what a great treasure it is to have an unspoiled stretch of Southern California coastline - very valuable real estate - kept wild and natural as it would have appeared before the rapid development of the area. I urge anyone with some time to visit Torrey Pines and take a walk there. It was a beautiful little oasis in a Southern California that is frequently little more than a sea of cars and fumes and crowds of people.

Also, for those of you who are closer to my area, you should try to visit Catalina State Park - the Arizona Poppies are blooming along with several other species of wildflowers and the banks of washes and other areas are now coated with lovely shades of pale-pastel orange and yellow. Even some purples and whites mixed in. If you can brave the heat before the monsoon rains, there are some amazing scenes to be sketched, painted, or photographed.

Friday, July 1, 2011

The Tao of Buckethead

"There are lots of different ways to get from the bottom to the top. It's kinda like digging a hole."

I've always said that I am interested in artists who are hard to categorize. It has seemed to me that if an artist is too easily pigeonholed, or too easily described, then they are frequently less original. This formula, I'm sure, has exceptions - but not that many. Some of you may know that about 1 inch below art in my own heart is music, and just like in painting - I'm always looking for musical artists who are very original and very hard to define. One of the foremost is the virtuoso guitarist Buckethead.

I saw a live Buckethead performance at the Rialto theatre in Tucson, just over a week ago. I found that when you mention to friends that you went to see a musician called "Buckethead" they immediately look at you like you are crazy! Yes, Buckethead has become world famous for wearing a Kentucky Fried Chicken bucket on his head - and a white mask that would make Michael Myers or Jason Vorhees feel very simpatico. There is humor in the character of Buckethead, and that's not to be missed. It's a temptation of the absurd, no doubt about it. But before you get a chance to laugh too much or write this guy off as a gimmick - listen to him play. He is truly stunning. One of the greatest guitarists I've ever seen. After hearing his show, I told friends "His mellow stuff is more mellow and more beautiful than anything you'll ever hear. His fast stuff is so fast it's hard to believe than a human can play like that, and do so with such accuracy and power. His funky / weird stuff can be a cacophony of the strangest sounds you've ever heard coming from a guitar."

A little research into the international man of mystery they call Buckethead will reveal that his name is Brian Carroll and that one of his mentors is the incredibly talented guitarist Paul Gilbert, of Racer-X, Mr Big fame. Though there is much left to the mysterious when you attempt to learn about Buckethead. He is perhaps one of the only performing artists today who has a personal mythology. Grew up in a chicken coop. Chickens scratched his face off, etc etc. He almost never speaks. When he does, he speaks thru a severed head mask he uses like a puppet head. Yes - it's all a bit out there. Maybe that's where creative artistry has gone these days - however, again, before you get too stuck on the trappings of Buckethead - listen to his playing. Then, the temptation to laughter goes away immediately, and you realize that this man is a deadly serious, talented musical artist.

While listening to Buckethead play in Tucson, I had the thought "there is another lesson of creativity; ie, you have to be THAT good to stand out from the rest." But it's not enough for me to keep repeating how good this guy plays - log on to youtube and check out some of the posted videos. There is even a guitar lesson with him talking, and demonstrating guitar moves that most players can only dream about.

It shouldn't be missed also that Buckethead played lead guitar for Guns and Roses for 4 years, and played on a number of songs on GNR's Chinese Democracy CD. Wikipedia has the count that he has released 32 studio CDs.

Perhaps the key to Buckethead is that you can't really figure him out. But he never ceases to be a curiosity for us all. We can also conclude that if he weren't such an amazing guitarist, the Bucket and mask would be the subject of ridicule, and I think it would be easier for people to dismiss him. However his guitar blistering abilities will continue to force people to think twice before they ascribe some kind of circus-freak sideshow disdain to him. You can't do that with this guy - because talent may come in unusual packages, like a chicken bucket and mask - but that talent deserves respect just the same.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

What Gets in the Way

This week I have just finished three new paintings - a new Tumacacori mission painting that shows the mission from a distance through the shade of the trees, as well as two smaller works - one of the Tucson Barrio and another of the Sutherland Trail in springtime. Spring here in southern Arizona has been a wonderful inspiration to paint things as bright as paloverde blooms and brittlebrush flowers that are all around us.

The other day I found myself thinking about the kinds of things that get in the way of an artist doing their work. Oh sure, we have all been privy to those occasional feelings of "if I could have only..." and for the most part I think that's a useless emotion. I always loved a beautiful line from the Live song "Run to the Water" that goes "today we lived a thousand years, all we have is NOW." But at the same time I realize that obstacles do exist, and though I have tried not to make too big a deal out of it, the biggest thing that gets in the way of what I want to do in my life is, and has been, my health.

Some of you know - some may not, that I have had back pain for many years. This little adventure came to a head in the middle of 2009 when a schwanomma tumor was found in my spine, right in the middle of my back. It was actually growing inside the sheath of my spinal cord, and gradually had pressed my spinal chord down to a very fine filament which was all the remained to transmit nerve signals to my lower body. 4 days after it's discovery I was rushed into surgery, and was delighted that the surgery was a success. Recovery was slow and painful, but I gradually got back all the feeling that I'd lost in my legs, and the terrible ordeals of nausea, weakness, shaking, etc in my lower body was gone. But back pain persisted and still does to this day - partially because we know that my last MRI revealed inflammation still in my spinal cord. However I am able to do about 80% of all I could do before, and as it regards life in general - things have gotten much better. Still, on many days I paint, activities as menial as squeezing paint out of the tubes and putting it onto the palette can start the pain. A dull, stinging pain that weakens the muscles in the center of my back and makes it hard to breathe. So many paintings of mine - how many I couldn't know, have been produced while in regular, and sometimes very extreme pain. I've never wanted the works to reflect pain, mind you. I've always preferred that they represent a rejection of a pain-filled mentality. A striving for something beautiful despite the discomfort experienced while making it. I told my wife a few months ago that few people will likely ever appreciate how much physical discomfort has gone into the making of my paintings - yet this is so mostly because I try to de-emphasize it. Some know about it, some don't. Yes, I am a chronic pain sufferer. And I am also very aware that many people have to endure physical ordeals worse than mine, and that has to make you keep perspective.

But, the story doesn't end there. (I wish it did, ha!) In 2007 I had a golf ball sized cyst removed from my jaw. It had corroded a good deal of my jawbone and required surgery to take out. Add 2 more dental surgeries. Countless abscesses in my crowded teeth - more than I can count. Swollen jaws because of it. Add bad eyes - so bad that I can't see beyond the tip of my nose without strong contact lenses. (Just like a painter to be so blind, right) Add a deviated septum in my nose that makes it hard to breathe, and hard to sleep. Add periodic sleep troubles and the resulting exhaustion. Add lactose intolerance. Add tinnitus, ie, chronic ringing in my ears - also a disturber of sleep. And that's just what I can think of...not that the details of each of these things are important, per se. The overall result is that getting me ready and healthy to paint requires all the coordination of a space shuttle launch - and frequently I have painted when I felt horrible, lower than dirt.

At the same time - painting in spite of all these things has been something that helped me through the worst of moments. A mere 2 weeks after my back surgery in 2009 I was back to work on "Giants of the Desert III", stiff, barely able to move - and thinking to myself so this is what it feels like to be cut inside.

I could not go without saying that in addition to painting pulling me through all this discomfort - my lovely wife and son have had the same affect. The fact that I take care of our son during the week has forced me, on many days, to forget my own aches and troubles, and concentrate on taking the best care of him that I could. He was so much good therapy, because a kid just wants to be a kid - to have fun and go to the park and do kid things. My desire not to have him miss these things made me pick myself up, time and time again.

But that's life, isn't it? We could wish to be beautiful, or taller, or to have spines without tumors in them - but wishing alone would never do. The key thing is simple, plain old wisdom. That we do the best with what we have, and that's the most we can ask for. In my case, trusting the best of my paintings are preserved and appreciated by the countless collectors who have bought them - then the pain that marked their creation won't have defined them, and it won't have defined me.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Artist's Life - The Truth

This week I am working on a 30 x 48 inch panoramic painting of Montrose Canyon, a steep, rugged canyon in Catalina State Park, very close to our house. The painting is now into it's 2nd week, and when I think of the way that works of mine can stretch out, I still marvel sometimes at those artists that do works (many of them pretty good, no doubt) in 2 or 3 hours! My paintings can commonly take up to 3 weeks to do, depending on size. The big "Arizona the Beautiful II" that was sold at Marshall-LeKAE Gallery took a full month to finish - with nothing else on the easel and no diversions. Something that was on my mind this week was to perhaps share a little truth with you guys about the real state of an artist's life. I remember an article in a Tucson newspaper about how the state was displacing some low-rent artist studios in downtown Tucson, and what suprised me was not the content of the article, but the veritable torrent of abuse that flowed from the commenters logging on to the news site and basically just calling artists bums, lazy, get a job you loser type things. The reason I say this is quite shocking because I can tell you that almost all artists I know work very, very hard at their craft - some of us all the time. Sometimes no days off, nights, weekends, the entire bit. And when you do your taxes and look over your accounts at the end of the year, there is often a feeling like a protracted punch in the gut - and that feeling means that you could only be doing this if you love it. In art, you don't know when you are going to sell work, so you spend as little as you can get by with most of the time. When you do sell work, you have to immediately look at your obligations, how much for supplies to keep things going, how much for advertising and countless other required things - put tires on the car and buy yourself a couple of pairs of jeans, and then buckle down again. It is difficult, and it is uncertain, but it seems to me that if a person chooses to do this, as I have, and many others have - we make a sincere choice because we feel we almost have to. It's by no means a choice based on laziness or avoidance of work - on the contrary, it's a lot of work, with uncertain rewards and uncertain recognition. You have to love something if you are going to carry that much uncertainty and, oh yes - don't forget! Make beautiful and lasting works. And I think these things are mostly true for the other mid-career level artists, like myself. The others I know don't live in any fancy manner. Beautiful works, you may be suprised to know - come out of very modest, badly lit apartments. Paintings are carried around in old cars, and most of us don't wear gucci :) (Ok, now let's be fair, I probably wouldn't be caught dead in Gucci even if I could afford it.) Or the other thing is that artists have to have some other mode of income or stability alongside of their artwork. In my own case, my lovely wife has a normal job that keeps our family balanced - and I return the favor of her hard work by taking care of our son Liam during the week. A lot of artists I know have side jobs or trades to help them get thru - or the love of a partner who will feed them when things are slow. I worked part time at Barnes and Noble for quite awhile after moving to Arizona. But don't take any of this as a complaint - by no means. This is just the reality of a life that I and some of my friends live. I've been very fortunate to have been published in magazines, have my work collected by serious art collectors from all over, and to have been supported by wonderful galleries and sales people who really believed in the work. I do quite well, overall. However the uncertainty is always with you. So for anyone who might be tempted to stereotype artists as some kind of lazy bums, I'd suggest they ask themselves if they would deal with such a life and still be able to make beautiful works? Because there is no way to understand the life of the artist without understanding that you accept the difficulties that come with it - and the only people with the willpower to see it thru are the ones who can pull that plow and make something beautiful grow around them, despite everything else beating down on them. It is not a business for the lighthearted. But when it works, when things click - there is NOTHING like it in the world!

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Always a Good Time to Say Thanks

This week I am working on a slew of projects, mostly doing touch up work on paintings that were completed over the past month. Seven paintings are finished for my upcoming group of works themed on France and Provence in particular. Those paintings are getting their final touches as we speak, and as soon as I have some of them ready to be viewed, I will post them. What is most important to me is to take the chance to say thank you to the wonderful collectors and art lovers who have made March 2011 one of the most amazing months in my art career. At last count 15 paintings have sold, due in large part of the exposure my work received in the March 2011 issue of Phoenix Home and Garden Magazine . I've had the great good fortune to gain an entirely new group of collectors as a result of my inclusion in this beautiful magazine - and I once again send my thanks to the editors and staff of Phoenix Home and Garden. Some new things that I am working on; when the touch ups on the France paintings are finished, hopefully in the next few days, I will plunge ahead into new Spring and Summer themed Arizona works. This season I am hitting the trails, and walking in those wild, hot, snake infested thorny areas where the greatest paintings come from. I had realized recently that my a combination of my health troubles, which were acute from 2008-early 2010 had actually meant that I was not hiking as much, and therefore not taking photos and getting those original images for new works. Now, thankfully I am in better health, and I have already been out into new areas of Catalina State Park - and I'm planning a couple of new works based on scenes from a very cool part of Arizona that not so many people know - Texas Canyon. Texas canyon is an amazing canyon full of giant, round, tumbledown boulders. A rough and beautiful place. I'm all too excited to get the images onto canvas. Here in Southern Arizona spring is most certainly upon us - the birds are singing and the flowers that have the guts to bloom, despite our lack of rain, are popping out all over the place and coloring our landscape of ochres and sienna and greens. The first Paloverdes are blooming as well, and it will not be long before the land around us will be bathed in that lovely blazing yellow. Any of you folks who are able, be sure to get to Cobalt Fine Arts to see the 3 person show that I am in down there. And be sure to visit the old Tumacacori mission while you are there... back to the studio!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Moving into 2011, New Horizons on the Canvas

This week I am working on the 2nd painting is a series of paintings themed on Provence and the South of France. This one is my first rendition of Olive Trees, a subject so beautiful, and so dear to the two painters I admire the most, Jean-Claude Quilici and Vincent Van Gogh. Along with the director of the Marshall-LeKAE Gallery, I've hit upon doing a small display - a small late summer show of 8 to 10 paintings, all themed along the lines of the places in Provence that were painted by Van Gogh and Cezanne. Some of you may know that I spent a six months in Aix-en Provence as a student in 1996, and have seen many of these places with my own eyes. I am excited to do some paintings inspired by this beautiful and historic region. I too have walked this hills and the alleyways frequented by Cezanne, Van Gogh, and many others - and their charm was not lost on me, and still affects me to this day. A lot of what I have done in my paintings of the American West was to take an inspirational spark from the Provencal colorists, and plant it here in the American soil.

We are also in the process of organizing a three artist show at Cobalt Fine Arts in Tubac, featuring myself, Paul Sheldon and Fred Collins. The opening reception is planned for March 26th, and one of my featured paintings, "The Flowers of Fall" is already sold, but will be on display for the opening.

Also, I'd like to remind everyone that I will be featured in the March issue of Phoenix Home and Garden Magazine, and I encourage you all to, pick up a copy. The staff and editors of Phoenix Home and Garden have been a delight to work with, and I am very happy to be featured in this sharp, beautiful publication.

As a last note, I wanted to take a moment to ask all of you to remember the recent victims of the terrible shooting here in Tucson. On that day, my wife and son were shopping at another store only 500 yards away and they saw emergency vehicles rushing past them as they were driving home. Typically, I'm not one given to big pronouncements on this blog - and it is pretty clear that there have been deep political underpinnings to both this act of murder as well as the consequent debate over what it has meant. But I am among the camp who believes, without a doubt, that we have calm down and learn to be civil to one another again. I always loved what Edward Murrow said, "we must not confuse dissent with disloyalty". I do believe that voilent speech does affect people who are already angry and disaffected - for whatever reason. We therefore owe it to our children and our neighbors to stop letting anger dominate our discourse. This great land of ours will survive the discussion. And let's do all we can to also assure that a duly elected official can fulfill the roles that they have been elected to do - without the threat of violence against them. Gabrielle Giffords and the other victims, both living and dead, did not deserve to have their lives shattered by bullets.

Our hearts and are with Mrs Giffords and the other victims, as they recover, and as the families of the lost mourn and make the effort to go on with thier lives.

Let's remember our neighbors in Tucson.