Thursday, October 18, 2012

Paris is for (Art) Lovers

This week I am gearing down a bit and retouching some works finished earlier in the year.  Most of the paintings for my January show at the Marshall-LeKAE Gallery are finished, and new paintings have just recently been delivered to Cobalt Fine Arts in Tubac.

However I did want to write a few lines about our recent trip to England and France.  Last month my wife and I decided to take the opportunity to visit England, where my wife's brother is currently living and working, and use that as a chance to see as much of London as possible - as well as to pay a quick visit Paris for a few days.

When it comes to art, I am a little firm in believing that you haven't even begun to get a taste for the greatest art out there, until you have been to Europe.  So much of the legacy of the greatest art ever made can be found in France, England, Italy, Germany, Spain, and countless other locations on the continent.  As a student in Aix-en Provence, France in 1996 I was fortunate enough to be able to both see many of the works of the great Impressionist masters that I so adored, and to also see many of the places they painted.  As my friend, the artist Jean-Claude Quilici remarked in an interview - many of the places where the greatest artists painted have hardly changed.  Many of the villages, for example, in southern France, where Van Gogh, Cezanne, and others worked - many of them have been altered very little with the passage of time.  So it presents the unique opportunity for an artist to both look at the best European works, and see the places where they are made.

Foremost in my mind, always, is Paris.  Paris has been a nexus for world art for a very long time.  It was the mecca of the Impressionist movement.  And though many artists didn't live in Paris itself, the city was a source of both inspiration and exhibition opportunities, and was ringed with towns and villages that artists called home.

For me, coming back to Paris in 2012 was especially sweet.  In 1996 I visited the city twice, pretty much taking the opportunity to see as many galleries and museums as possible.  And also to meet up with my friend Jean-Claude Quilici.  I was 20 years old then, a boy from small town North Carolina.  Now I am 37, with a wife and son and another son on the way - and with an art career I could scarcely have imagined during those days when I haunted the Louvre and Musee d'Orsay back in 1996.  I was pleased to find, on a personal note, that it was not as hard as I thought it was to speak French as well as I did back then.  I remembered probably 88% of what I knew while I was living there, and got many compliments on how well I spoke.  I probably shock people there because the feeling you get from the French is that they don't expect ANY American to speak French.  It's always a pleasant surprise for them.

However during three days in Paris and the remainder of our days in London, I was reminded very directly why the act of pilgrimage isn't just a religious act - artists too, I think, must show a certain devotion to knowing their roots, and wherever possible, must go to the places where great works are, and where they were inspired.  Though I am a self-taught artist, I have always thought that it is very important that you learn from the best.  So rather than worry about some somebody who is a passing fad - I have always told myself, if you are going to be a painter, go learn from Monet, Manet, Renoir, Sisley, Pissarro, Van Gogh, Quilici, Gary Ernest Smith, Vlaminck, Derain, Cassatt, and many others.  Start at the top and try to tap into the best.

At one point during this trip my wife and I went to take our 3 year old son to the restroom at the Musee d'Orsay, and in order to get back to the place where you can start your visit, you had to pass through the rooms that were stacked wall to wall with all the great masters of Impressionism.  We walked right up to Manet's "Luncheon on the Grass" and I told my wife "If you can catch a glance, look around you.  You are looking at the best of the best."

London also was not to be missed, and there were indeed some wonderful artistic gems to be found there.  We visited the National Gallery, which also had an exceptional display of impressionist work - and I caught glances of other amazing works during our hurried visit there.  One of Van Gogh's original "Sunflowers" is there, and when we walked in the door I was carrying our 3 year old son Liam - and Liam pointed to Van Gogh's Sunflowers and said "That painting looks like one of your paintings da da!" (He calls me 'da da' instead of dad)  I've gotten some nice compliments on my work through the years; this one might have been one of the best.

Another gem which is a little off the beaten path is the Courtauld Gallery.  This gallery touts itself as one of the finest small art museums in the world, and I think that title is WELL earned.  You will find such masterworks there at Manet's "Bar at the Folie Bergere", which was the last large Manet completed at the end of his life.  Van Gogh's self portrait with a bandaged ear was there also - which was very touching.  I told my wife that it was quite something than Vincent wanted to document even one of the worst moments...the self-inflicted mutilation of his ear.  He was so unsparing in his artistic view - even of himself.  It made me think of Monet painting his wife Camille on her deathbed.

So yes, if you believe in doing great work, or that you want to attempt to - you have to see the masters of Europe.  If you have to, see them at the best big-city gallery you can make it to, even in your own country.  (Here in the states, galleries like the National Gallery in Washington DC, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Met in New York come to mind)  But if you can see those great works, and get the added uplift of walking those same cobblestone streets and enjoying making those footprints - your work and your life will ever be the wiser for it.  Mine sure is....

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

In Remembrance of Artist Paul Sheldon

It was with great sadness that I was told a few days ago of the passing of the artist Paul Sheldon.  Mesia Hachadorian, the director of Cobalt Gallery, called me this past Friday and informed me that Paul had died very suddenly the previous Wednesday.  We both shared the shock and sadness of the moment - that horrible and huge feeling you get when your mind has to try to process your world going forward - without one of your friends in it.

I thought back and I could not remember specifically when I had met Paul.  I ran into him coming and going from the Max Gallery when he and I were both represented there.  I got to know him a bit better when he came on board at another gallery where I also showed work, Cobalt Fine Arts in Tubac.  Paul and Cobalt Gallery did very well together, and it was there that I ran into him regularly, during demonstrations and other occasions.  At some point I began to kid him by saying "Well Paul, we should at least be friends because when we both kick over they'll say that we were two of the best Arizona colorist painters!"  It was all a joke at the time - I could not have imagined that I would now be writing a blog and he would no longer be with us.

As artists Paul and I shared one thing that was unmistakable - a great love of color and a curiosity to see what extreme color statements could do in the confines of a painting.  I don't know if Paul would have identified with Fauvists, as I have, because I never actually heard him talk of painting movements or where he thought he fell in the greater scheme of things.  I actually almost appreciated that because many of us who have found our style that we love and are known for - many of us don't spend that much effort worrying about how we will be remembered on exactly where we fit.  We just do our work and go at it with the sense that it doesn't require that much talking about.  Paul seemed very much that way.  He just painted and didn't expound.  Sure he did demonstrations of his work, as we all do - but he was never preachy or self-consumed.  It was more like a sort of 'have a look if you want' mentality that I very much respect.

I last saw Paul a few months ago when we got together to play music.  He played the hammer dulcimer.  He dropped by our house, set up his instrument in our son's play area and he and I ran thought a series of tunes matching my 12 string guitar to his dulcimer.  After a lot of fooling around we decided that "Tequila Sunrise" by the Eagles and "Too Sober to Sleep" by Justin Rutledge were the best songs for the two instruments, and we practiced them a few times.  Paul had a great natural ear for music.

At about that moment I was on my way to look for a gallery in Santa Fe around that time, and we talked a few times on the phone quite extensively about ideas for showing work - and he and I even discussed a possible trip through Colorado to look for galleries.  Paul had just gotten himself a fine new truck and was eager to make a big trip of it.  It stands in my mind now that we all have that in our lives.  Those plans we want to get to but never come to fruition.  The lesson - if you have a mind to do something, do it before anything else gets in the way.  You may not have tomorrow to take a road trip with a friend and see the mountains of Colorado.

There is one great consolation when we think about the life of an artist who has left us - the work.  The work will remain as long as people care to preserve it.  So many lives come and go on this earth, people spend their time and they are gone with little more evidence than the gravestone.  Artists have a buffer against their mortality in their work; and so we can look again, maybe even with new eyes, and be thankful for the beautiful colors and glowing images that an artist leaves us.  He put himself into those works, so he will, by default, remain with us.

Paul, if I could speak to you I would say thank you for your friendship and thank you for the work that you have left us to enjoy for many years to come.  I was very glad to know you - and if it happens that there is something on the other side for us when this life is over, I hope it's full of neon-cowboys, Arizona sunsets, and old Western Movies.

Thank you Paul.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Saguaros - and NO I Don't Get Tired of Painting Them!

Hello everyone - sorry I've been a little absent.  I tend not to blog like a madman.  I prefer to write something when I actually have something to say, rather than all to the reams of drivel and blabber floating around out there on the internet. 

This week I am working on a new 30 x 40 of Saguaros on a hillside of blooming brittle-brush.  This painting, and a legion of others that are sitting and drying in the studio gave me the idea for this blog post - some thoughts about one of our great Arizona icons, the Saguaro cactus. 

Since we are planning a saguaros show of my paintings at the Marshall-LeKAE Gallery in Scottsdale for March of 2013, I thought it might be nice to reflect a little on the giant cactus that has been so much the centerpiece of countless paintings by me - and other Arizona artists. 

I remember once talking to Max Mikesell, who formerly ran the Max Gallery in Tucson some years back, and I remember Max saying that it seemed to him that some artists who paint saguaros hadn't even looked at them.  Almost as if they had some general idea of what a saguaro should look like; two upturned arms, very "roadrunner and coyote" kind of landscape stereotype.  And he mentioned that even though my saguaro themed works weren't strictly realistic, they still showed evidence that I had taken some time to look at them...and indeed I have.

What is most important if you are an artist painting Saguaros is the realization that they provide on of the most prominent verticals in a landscape dominated by big skies, small, round trees, and huge horizons.  Saguaros cast your eyes up to the vertical, and thus balance a landscape much the way that a pine tree might well do back east in the woods.  But the cool thing about saguaros is their amazing shapes and individual character.  I've told people that they might well be one of the few plants that I think actually have personality.  You see them swell with the summer rains.  You see them hold up and hold firm when monsoon storms rip through the area.  And you see them lord over the landscape like giants - standing tall and proud even in the hottest, most brutal parts of Arizona summer.  I have called some among the series of saguaro paintings that I've done "Giants of the Desert", and it seems to me that they are indeed giants who stand over us in the fiery heat of our surroundings.  When you come to know them and the fact that they grow so slowly that they are frequently 50 to 75 years old before they even sprout a single arm - you then realize that in mature saguaro forests, you may be looking at 150 or 200 year old plants.  Plants whose duration dwarfs the lifetime of humans.  I remember a biologist saying that was one of the problems of long term saguaro studies; that it is hard to study them in a sustained way because that might take three generations of scientists.  Imagine...

(I'll note for the record also that people still get a laugh at me because I have the habit of saying "Sa-Guaros" with a hard "G".  Whereas most of the locals say "sah-wa-ros".  Oh well, I didn't grow up here, and some habits die hard.)

For me, I guess it's fair to say that I've set myself up and studied them as intently as Monet did Rouen Cathedral, or his poplars.  I have never gotten tired of looking at them, and always been keen to understand the unique personality of the plants as I studied them.

I love the world in all it's landscapes and variety.  But there will always be a soft spot in my heart for these wonderful "Giants of the Desert." 

Saturday, April 28, 2012

The "Tension" of Details in a Painting

This week I am working on two new Saguaro paintings intended for a show in March of next year.  Some of you guys may know that I have to work on paintings far in advance of their delivery date due to the fact that the paint is so thick that it needs extended time to dry.  Good thing I have the super-dry Arizona air to help me there...

Recently I exchanged paintings with a wonderful California painter named Ken Christensen.  Ken is a member of the "New Fauves" painters group; a group of contemporary artists working roughly in the Fauvist manner.  ( you can visit Ken's website at )  When I saw the beautiful painting that Ken sent me, I found myself thinking about how much and how little detail is necessary in a painting.  I found myself thinking this because Ken struck such a perfect balance of essentials - without feeling compelled to paint the hair on a fly's neck from a mile away.

This is what I refer to as the "tension" of details.  It's a little like tuning a guitar or violin - the strings reach a point where they are of the right tension and the sound of an instrument in tune comes pleasantly to your ears.  Ken's paintings do this very, very well.  He may be one of the best I've seen yet.  Though I am still a devoted admirer of my mentor Jean-Claude Quilici, who also strikes a beautiful balance of detail and non-detail in his work.  Awhile back Ken mentioned to me via email that when he lived in France one of his favorite painters was Jean-Claude Quilici -  a fact that put a smile on my face and perhaps told me that Ken too had taken a lesson in Quilici's own ideas about how much detail was essential for painting.

Much of this, I am sure, boils down to temperament.  I am a painter who delights in essentials.  Broad swaths of color, thick paint, etc.  I get uncomfortable with smaller and smaller details - though the sensible side of me knows that details are essential.  I would be most happy putting on paint with a trowel if I could - but I know that small touches can enhance the bigger ones.  So I usually press on all the while trying to balance the little with the big.  Though I see the big more prominently.  I still marvel at painters who can do a painting in a day.  Commonly I will work a week on a painting.  I remember one December a few years ago, I worked on one painting all month.  People tell me this is a long time - but I think about Michelangelo lying on his back working on the Sistine Ceiling for 4 years and it seems like nothing at all.

Too little detail in a painting can be irritating and unsatisfying, at least to my mind.  Case in point, the longer I've lived the less I actually liked the great Fauvist master Matisse.  A few years ago my wife and I saw a show of works at the Phoenix Museum of Art and there were several Matisse paintings featured; honestly, some of them looked like bad preliminary sketches.  Like he had simply blobbed on some shapes with a turpentine wash coat and to my surprise - signed them!  My wife even shaking her head.  Mind you, that is not to say that Matisse's entire body of work is bad or irrelevant - not at all.  But that those we saw were very low quality, and not reflective of some of the better Matisse paintings I've seen in the past.  I've always believed that those artists we commonly consider "Masters" can't simply be considered so because their name is in the corner of the paintings.  You must earn it every time.  Every time.  A true master, if he were a baseball player, for example, would step up to the plate and try to hit the ball over the fence every time.  He would try to put it out of the stadium if he could.  At no point should you step up to the artistic plate and think that you can maintain things if you only hit a double.

On the too much detail thing, I don't really feel the need to call anyone to account.  Realists, if they are good at what they do, have already proven that they can paint and have excellent powers of observation.  One that comes to mind who is a great talent is the artist Mario Robinson   (  What Mario can do with only his pencil - such portraits that will leave you breathless and amazed.  Mario's work is more than realism because his portraits evoke a mood and sensibility which is hard to describe - but which is plainly evident when you see them.  It is realism, yes, but MORE than realism, and that's a great feeling to evoke.  Another "more than realist" painter who is well known but whose work I only just saw in person recently at the Scottsdale Salon,  is Joseph Todorovitch.  His painting "Receive" was breathtaking.  Joseph is no secret in the art world, but it was the first that I had seen of one of his original oils with my own eyes, and it left a deep impression on me, even after viewing nearly 200 works at the Scottsdale Salon.  Most realists who are good at what they do have proven that they can paint - though realism is not the temperament I seek in my own work, and I openly reject realists who think that those working in other forms of painting are not as skillful as they are.  One can point out, in fairness, that there are realist artists who don't paint every hair and grain of wood - but who work in realism generally.  They too have extended the frame of realism as it is sometimes considered.   

The crux of this "tension of details" discussion is really this - that an artist must find the working style that aligns best with their temperament.  Perhaps what is most enjoyable is seeing the variety of temperaments at work when you see the myriad of different ways that emotion is put down on canvas or paper.  It's like looking for poetry.  Too many words and it's prose - too few words and it's not poetry.  That is the "tension".  That's the beauty.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

'Master', Signal of Achievement, or Meaningless Word in the Arts?

This week I am working on a new 36 x 48 in. painting of poppies in bloom at the foot of the Catalinas. On Saturday of this week I'll be doing a paint in gallery demonstration at Cobalt Fine Arts in Tubac. Anyone free to stop in will be most welcome - the Cobalt Gallery has some of the best contemporary artists in Southern Arizona.

Today I wanted to write a brief bit on a word that has echoed in my head for years - the word 'master'. In the arts, the term is used, in it's most basic sense, as a kind of reverence for someone who is generally accepted to be extremely skillful, unique, original - or all of these things. Of course when we speak of "the old masters" we know that we are talking about those artists who have filled the museums that we all enjoy. Yes, the term is a kind of reverence, and in MOST cases, at least with regards to the artists of the past, it is a term that is justified.

But what about today? I must admit that the word 'master' as it relates to living artists is a term that is frequently misused. One of the prime ways that it is misused is when an artist refers to themselves as one. When you call yourself a master, in your promo materials, in your bio materials, etc - you are claiming to be both the soapbox and the person standing on it. I think that being deemed a 'master', if the word is to be used at all, is a designation that should be left to others, not to the artist themselves.

It seems to me that if you call yourself a 'master' then you are greasing the slopes towards arrogance. I once told a friend about the day that I realized what the difference was between arrogance and confidence; it's simply the manner. An arrogant person believes that they are great and seems intent to tell you all about it - and to surround themselves with people who may be cowed into uncritical adoration. A confident person offers up the fruit of their abilities, will defend their visions with equal gusto - but a confident person will never beat another person over the head with what they have done. They will simply say "Here it is. I believe in this. I believe in myself." I have heard, firsthand and second hand, the diatribes of arrogant so called-masters. Some so self-assured as to insult those who disagree with them on matters like politics. This is nuts for an artist, because art is a kind of middle ground where people of all backgrounds and all beliefs can stroll the same turf. Art is truly a unifier. Even myself, I will admit to a rare comment or two on politics, but the last time I did speak on a particular matter, I also said that I know I am speaking to people with lots of different views, and I want my friends to know I respect our differences. I trust that as long as we are civil, we can even profit from the discussion. A great piece of art doesn't have party affiliations. And it shouldn't.

There is only one man I would call a 'master', and that is Jean-Claude Quilici. He has been my dear friend, cohort, and inspiration for many years. He is my master, and as long as I live I don't suspect that I'll have another. But one of the main reasons I call him my 'maitre' as we'd say in French, is that I have NEVER heard him refer to himself that way. He is a painter. Many think he is a master. But I would dare say he spends probably not an second of his time thinking of himself that way. That's the key.

It's a little like the explanation I remember Jean-Paul Sartre gave when he refused the Nobel Prize for Literature. He said that it was a way in which the literary establishment kills your career by saying that you are, in essence, finished, and that you have nothing more to say. He later said that he believed his work was more alive in his later years because he refused the prize. I.e., he refused to admit he had reached any kind of plateau - and he just kept working. I feel that the use of the world 'master' in art represents the same kind of plateau effect. And I still think it is more sensible term for others to consider when one's life's work is finished.

Whether or not people will one day call me a master, I don't worry about that. I don't want to let anyone kill what I hope is an upward progression in my work by admitting that I've reached some pinnacle. All that is illusory, in my mind. I only concern myself that I should put my head down when one painting is finished, and then start thinking about the next thing - and so on and so forth. Art is many paths - many trails. I am only on one of them. My fellow artists on are others. (Some insist that their trail is the only one in the woods - but some of us know better.) Where I started and where I end up is really only something that others will decide when my life is over. So it's best not to worry about being a 'master', or putting people into a state of hollow adoration while you are alive. There will be a point, of course, when my life and all the paintings are done - then people can say whatever they want!