I was driving through Vineyard Haven, on the way to our annual Art Night dinner, and I could tell by the slowing of the oncoming traffic, that there was some kind of light show happening in my rear view mirror.
So I ducked into the boat launch lot, overlooking the Lagoon, and turned back into the light.
It was October, and, when the island slows way down, and the air is crisp, the wind has only a few stalwart vessels to buffet.
We often plan our gatherings so we can share a sunset before getting down to the feast, and the lively conversations about all things art.
On this night, I knew they would understand, if I was delayed in the hopes of capturing the details, having been in exactly the right place to observe this tapestry of color, reflected on two of my favorite muses.
Turns out we all had the same idea, on our separate island roads, with different mediums in mind,and came together, as always, fired up with that creative zeal, which fuels our souls.
Stopping everything for a sunset… what it means to be an artist.
What is the roll of creativity in an angry chaotic world. To echo to mirror to distract to remind to transport to speak truth to provide haven
My response, when the tension tipping point is reached, is to grab my cape, in a wild, Severus like fury, and circle it as armor and take my soul to refuge in the studio, there to tease apart the angers from the truths and sit with where they both intersect and where there might be something of meaning to be found.
I have a keen sense of the stairway that leads to that chamber of secrets in my artistic soul. It is a well traveled road and the passage way is woven deep into how I chose to live on the planet. As I walk that path now, the intensity of the emotions informs the process, and there are familiar touchstones left on the stair treads as I wind my way down and deep. I am not afraid to go there, only fearful I won’t go far enough.
In carrying along this dialogue I am having with myself, and a few other artists, about what it means to be a Mature Artist, I am pondering this part of the creative process, where we go to understand the profound tragedies in our world, in ourselves. How do we, as artists, make some sense of the pain and loss and fear and find the balancing beauty… both in that darkness, and in the light. And how, as artists who have been swirling their capes for half a century or more, do we recognize that pathway differently than we did when the brushes were new.
What you focus on expands, and for me, at least for now, the channels are wide open.
It is my day job, my all consuming career, to push paint around on a panel until it sings. When I started this full time, 16 years ago, I was well into middle age, but I had been dabbling since high school and there are some scraps of drawings left to remind me of the innocence of those early strokes.
This week I have been looking back at the portfolio on my website, which begins in 2000. It surprises me how autobiographical the paintings have been. No viewer will ever see it, but I can remember when, and why each of those compositions were chosen, and, upon review, how much has evolved in the ensuing light years…both technically and personally.
With each painting I have insisted on raising the bar. Sometimes that is noticeable, sometimes I slid back in a heap. It was always a conscious decision to work harder at the craft of painting, but what strikes me today is the unconscious way that the depths of the narrative seemed to drag my wayward soul into a different place.
Some wise woman along the way said that, as we grow older, it was easier to recognize what one doesn’t want, or need, and after jettisoning that…there is more room for the mystery. I made that last part up, about the mystery, but, as the years creep up on me, I am so much better at letting go of the noise. I’m finding much more to satisfy my curiosity in the silent spaces. I crave silence. That is what I need of the swirling cape of escape now.
The subject came up this morning, Herself and I talked about the cliche of artists needing angst and turmoil to plum creative depths.She had read of some artists who go to great length to fabricate a self destructive atmosphere of a narrative in order to tap into their genius.
Now, this topic may have, in some way been tweaked into her consciousness after she had hurried across the icy path from cabin to studio…in her slippers… to see why I had not answered her phone calls, only to find me furiously wielding the vacuum in the kitchen seeking out and attacking the tiny evidence of a most unwanted creature who has chosen to do battle with me…now…in the middle of our already most challenging winter. I was indeed awash in drama…albeit achingly justified.
searching around to create some artificial angst…Not me. Been there, got the T-shirt..s, and can tap into those dragons in a flash as needed.
But, as I was saying about the silence…that source is currently the cauldron of creative juices.
There now, I have gone on a ramble, again. Among the slurry of emotions this season, I’m working through my feelings about the loss of the Langmuir’s Camp Sunrise. I received a photo taken from Squibnocket Beach, just a couple weeks ago, and the top of that dear sweet roof line no longer peeks above the horizon of cliffs.
Of course, I knew it was coming. What I didn’t know is how the actuality of the void would choke my soul.
So, I’ve been reviewing my portfolio. Lining up all the paintings I have done of that camp. The count is well over fifty. Almost one for each of my “oh so mature” years.
My job now, the challenge I am setting before the easel, is to tell the last chapter of her story. Sitting in the silence. Listening, for where the story of the life of that old chicken coop, intersects with the lives of her caretakers, and artist squatters, and with the island itself.
It was a wonderful opening at the Granary Gallery last week and, though we are home, and I’m already back at work starting on the next year’s worth of paintings, the show will hang for the rest of the summer and the gallery staff reports that visitors are spending a lot of time studying those details…
A sketch of this painting appears in the catalogue that we made for this series. Here’s a peak…
It’s always fun to look back and see how closely I come to the initial ideas for a composition. In this case what I seemed to have been most focused on was the quality of those raking shadows across the clapboard. The colors and intensity within varied wildly from one side of the wall to the other and the colors of the fire escape bounced back up to influence them further. And the title, which came to me in part because I started the sketching on Memorial Day, and mostly because the colors and the lines somehow kept reminding me of those patriotic swags that drape over holiday porch railings.
This was actually the last one I painted in the series. I was winding down after spending over 300 hours working on the big one, which you will see tomorrow, and was positively bleary eyed from all the tiny details. Once again, I realized that this last one had to embody all the lessons learned about peeling paint and rusting iron, how much wavy glass to leave in and leave out, how to stay true to the architecture and its weathering and mostly, how long it takes to build up a realistic portrait of over a hundred years of the life of a giant old building, that sits on top of a hill, on an island, off the coast of New England.
I had to revisit that porcelain sink and the verdigris on the copper door handle and the cool lavender light framing the warm glow in the hallway and the barest hint of a fire escape and the sweet sharp elegance of those hairline cracks in the plaster but my favorite part of this painting was discovering upon very close inspection of my reference photos the tiny thumbtacks used to hold some old strings in place and the dearest little shadow that was cast by the one that I secretly tacked onto the wooden peg rail…
By the time I started this painting I was deep into the zone. I had found the essence of the story I wanted to tell with this series and was deeply committed to telling it honestly. I had learned how the light could change the color of the walls in every room. How the quality of that same light could alter the temperature of the shadows. Yet I was still finding little surprises along the way. Like how, in this room, on this October morning, that light could tease itself in an obscure angle in front of and behind the open door and cast a theatrical raking light right back up the wall. I wanted to play with that so I added the oar. It lives here in my studio but the painting needed some middle ground and so did the story being told. It is meant to represent the Sailing Camp Days and the now empty former hospital rooms had few traces of happily playing children. But the rainbows filtering in at the edges seem to echo their voices.
So too, would that oar return to play a roll in the final painting in this series, but you’ll have to wait a bit longer for that reveal…
So, this is where it started to get real I worked for several days laying down layers of loose color I knew it was the detail the incredibly rich detail of the stuccoed wall that was in play here and it was great fun to build up the earthy colors almost as if I had plastered it myself and replastered and repaired that replastering but at some point I think it was after I danced those dark lines of tin underneath the peeling blue paint on the ceiling I made the leap of faith and committed to take those cracks to a whole other level and, as I mentioned in the catalogue, that’s when I began to listen on a much deeper level to the stories the building had to tell.
The view of those beautiful bricks framed by the tall pair of windows made me feel as if I was looking into a corner of some 18th century European city. Transported in that way, the warm earthy colors needed to become prominent and saturated to play off the contrasting cool blues in the tiles and the sink.
For most of the time it took me to paint this I was listening to The Magus, by John Fowles. Talk about contrasts. I was 18 when I took a course on that book in college. My friend Rex had insisted since it was being taught by his favorite professor, the poet William Meredith. A whole semester dwelling deep in the psychic depths of Fowles was intense to say the least and rereading it in my mid-fifties was a wild trip down that memory lane.
What shocked me the most was how incredibly naïve I was at the time of the first reading. Learned interpretive teachings aside, I couldn’t have had a clue what was really going on in that story. Not that I pretend to understand it much better now, but the decades and layers of life lessons in between made it feel like I have grown a heavy rain sodden wool coat of flesh over that tender young college student.
The patina on the outer surfaces of this building is like that coat. Hard traveled…and well earned.
I am in love with these fire escapes. They were originally painted red and green… or maybe that’s wrong, maybe the red is from the rusting over the years. Either way they sport those colors now and, when the morning light rakes across the lagoon, they just sing against the whitewashed clapboard outside. This was my first attempt at painting the buildings and boats in the harbor and I got very familiar with my magnifying glass. It was a challenge to decide how much distortion to render from the old rippling window glass. I left just a little in because I wanted to see the lines on the rigging and the deck on the ferry. This is also the only view of the harbor where I left the telephone poles in. Artistic license is my super power.