Vessel Work or “Paint, Do What You Will!”

Vessel Work. Acrylic and ink on canvas. 18" x 36"
Vessel Work. Acrylic and ink on canvas. 18″ x 36″

A still-life of prismatic containers divides cold winter light into rainbow jets of color, filling my studio space with a brilliant playfulness that leaps away from November’s funeral pall. My assignment was to rework an old watercolor sketch based on a dream about water basins. It became a meditation on the warmth, love and trust inherent in my art practice.

In October I began volunteering at Vine Arts Center, a local community-run gallery in my neighborhood. During one of our exhibition discussions, another artist discussed his view of people in the world as “vessels,” each in a varying state of being filled, empty, or something in between. Vessels can be reservoirs for anything we can imagine inside them. They can be a potential space or a void. They can be man-made or naturally occurring. Vessels can be filled with physical matter or the intangible. Vessels can be broken or leaky. They hold valuables or transport. Vessels can protect. In short, vessels do a lot of work. I frequently find myself pondering this metaphor as it relates to art and the human condition – I have been curious about how to incorporate it in my work.

With this commission, I decided to start with a simple composition of arranged “vessels,” the various containers, plastic jugs, mason jars and empty fruit cups repurposed for paint that litter my studio. I “filled” or imbued the skeleton drawing of the piece with the “core” of my own formal artistic sensibilities: expressive color and brushstroke patterns, heavy contrasts between muted, cold tones and vibrant, living hues, struggle between linearity and ambiguity, representation and abstraction. Throughout the process, I paused to examine my thoughts and actions, took notes, looked inside to acknowledge the intuition that guided my hands, something I have rarely done on purpose. In this way, Vessel Work feels like a deliberate meditation on the spiritual, inner aspect of art creation and what it means to me personally.

Warmth and radiation of light are treated with paramount importance. The elements in the working space are tied together and interconnected by their participation in light, their energetic vibrations in the field. The work is related to love – making a painting about (simply) what I love to do is freeing and spontaneous without constraints of any kind. And yet there must be constraints, that tension between rule and misrule, which mystifies and generates beauty. And through this sensibility comes trust. Trust that the work will become what it will – I am reminded of Schmendrick the Magician from “The Last Unicorn,” yelling “Magic, do what you will!” as he grasps at the reigns of a force he can’t control. I cling to trust that in the end, the painting and the artist (and yes, the client) will be satisfied if I play to my strengths, challenge my skills accordingly, and take risks in the creation of the illusion. Trust that in painting no act is final, and the painter therefore has relatively less control than it would seem.

(Monumental) Work in Progress

Flight of General Robert E. Lee. Acrylic on canvas. 18" x 24"
Flight of General Robert E. Lee. Acrylic on canvas. 18″ x 24″

Waking up one morning shortly after the recent Charlottesville, VA riot, I read a headline about Baltimore, MD’s confederate monuments being removed by overnight work crews. Gleefully scanning through the report, one particular photo in the article caught my eye and I immediately wanted to make a painting after it. In the image, a hulking Robert E. Lee and mount are lifted by a crane and balanced by work crews as they are carried away from a public-facing pedestal. Onlookers line the background snapping photos with their phones as the piece is hoisted up and away, towards a consuming yellow light at the top of the frame.

For some time I have wanted to challenge myself to paint in a traditional/classical style as a way to exercise my formal drawing, composition-building, and glazing skills. The Romantic movement painter Eugene Delacroix’s work has been a particular favorite of mine, with deep contrasts, expressive brushwork and attention to narrative drama and intrigue in his choice of subject. The snapshot of General Lee’s flight from public presence in Baltimore brought to mind several epic paintings of horses and social struggle rendered by Delacroix. Below is an example I chose to guide my work on this piece.

Removal of a Confederate Monument at Baltimore, MD, or Flight of General Robert E. Lee (working titles). Acrylic on canvas. 18 x 24.
Removal of a Confederate Monument at Baltimore, MD, or Flight of General Robert E. Lee (working titles). Acrylic on canvas. 18 x 24.
Eugene Delacroix. Collision of Moorish Horsemen (1843-1844). Oil on canvas. 32 x 39.

A revelation in working at this style has been the liberal use of dull gray tones, something that is fairly alien to my regular practice. The muted earthy hues contrast sharply with areas of color to help direct focus and create drama, a use of color I am beginning to more fully understand. In order to achieve the lush, complicated surface in Delacroix’s work, I’m working at glaze layers and attention to detail where I want the viewer to focus. At this point, I’ve blocked in most of the compositional elements and contrasts, and the surface is ready for finer treatments of the overall atmosphere, details, and stylistic features. Lastly, I am intrigued by the conceptual interplay of painting in a “historical” style while calling into question the notions of history, justice and public space currently in debate.

Watersheds

Returned from the mountains I recognize something
Unlocked inside me. Deep in my core
As if my parts and the gears of my mind have aligned. And
Yes now the universe eddies up through my vacant gates:
Eyes, ears, mouth, nose, skin, ventricles, foramina, lodgepole spine. And
All corporeal channels.
With a satisfying click and thud, the river key turned. And
I am centered, weighted and primed.

I realize this at the gymnasium today
Sprinting uncharacteristically through my 1.25 mile run.
Legs not tiring, spring-like, reed-paddled. Yes
I run like a river unleashed
Around banks, parallel fish, and the rocks
Something unlocks inside me. And
When it is over my un-dammed watersheds eject
A river of brine brewed thick in my season of trouble
Soaks my shirt and shorts, my socks
Free flowing now to the unknowable air, drying salt flats on my cheeks.

And yes, I ran like a river
Ran for who I am, was and will be
Ran for the ones before and the ones that are now. And
Mostly, I ran for the land.

Fjellhytte (Mountain Home) Still Life

Fjellhytte Patio Progress
Fjellhytte Patio Progress

Emerging darkly from the petrified air, a wooden plaque carved onto Smokey The Bear warned fire danger was “extremely dry, extremely high.” No campfires, no grills, no cigarettes, no huckleberries under the desiccating pines of Northwestern Montana. Grandma had texted (expertly, with many emojii) “we can’t see our mountains!” The drive up highway 83 this year, approaching our mountain refuge, was brimming with smoke. Flowing downwind from blazes in Idaho and Washington, the roil blotted out Montana’s Big Sky, tainted the Sun and Moon with toxic orange, and sent Glacier Park road-to-the-sunners scrambling back to the drawing board, travel guides and gas station free attraction brochure stands. Continue reading

We Were Warned About Time (Excerpt)

Blueberry and Grasshoppers

“Ook-see-kook-see-koo-la-ma-vee!” Dad is yelling at our irreverent laughter, as we bounce along in his old truck, heading north into the pine lands above the prairie of my childhood. On our way to the Hiawatha Festival, the long, even Minnesota plains highway has buckled into sudden hills, the truck jaunting up and down, and my sister and I are throwing our tiny hands up – the family truck has become a roller coaster.

“Ook-see-kook-see-koo-la-ma-vee! The grasshoppers are gone, it’s Saint Urho’s day!” The legend of Saint Urho, as bellowed happily by Dad, involved an embattled plague of locusts pursued by a giant exemplar, armed with a pitchfork and some irresistibly humorous gibberish. Long ago, Urho drove the insect horde out of Finland because they threatened the grape harvest, and the Finns were so rapturously thankful for the salvation of their wine-making crops, they beatified the brute…or so the story is told by Dad. In other, more esoteric versions, Saint Urho was known to drink large quantities of pungent fish stew, which in turn gave him a supernatural vocal quality. Full of piscine broth and thunderous of voice , the great Saint yelled nonsense and rhymes, shattering the ears of the grasshoppers. They were sent swarming away, holding their heads, toward more quiet and hospitable crops. Still, other versions indicate Saint Urho was simply someone’s joke, a figment conjured from imaginations of some area drinking buddies, more out of jealousy for the Irish Saint Patrick than out of pious observance.

Quixotic, retired exterminator Saint Urho stands at the Gateway to the Pines in caryatid relief, gazing down the quiet highway towards those who approach Menahga. The blueberry town at some point adopted Urho as its patron and protector, and the story was passed down by the jealous Finns who may have dreamed him up. I think of him as a benevolent presence between the birch and pine woods surrounding these fading central Minnesota towns. In Menahga the veracity of the Saint’s tale doesn’t matter, only that his legendary protection is important, even though most everybody there is Lutheran.

Getting Wild

Wapiti Wild Dad is the hunter. Mom is his cheerful accomplice. Before the Cities, I accompanied Dad, chasing pheasants I could rarely mark, using Mom’s multicolored shotgun. Once, I tracked a whitetail with Dad. We crawled yards that November day, dragging our bodies along scrub. Dad cut a crablike path leading to a perfectly triangulated shot at our resting game. Long after, I felt like a weakling for popping the rifle trigger and aiming way low, blasting the South Dakota prairie in the face to spare the doe her life. Her coal eyes had fanned pity in me; I couldn’t take her, snuff her out. I don’t know if he was aware I pardoned the whitetail, spoiled the kill. Now, we were driving west to track larger game. The Sioux call them “wapiti,” Dad told me. Mom called our truck “White Magic Bus,” with I-90 west miles tumbling behind us. Continue reading