Saturday, January 22, 2011

Transitions / Connections, December 15-17

Shown above:  Morning Light, Nye Park at Norton Street; and  The Pines Near Lookout Shelter, both oil on panel, about 6" x 9".

These are the last two paintings of the 2010 phase of my ROC-ART project (the project will continue through much of 2011).  Despite the contrasting subject matter, they share enough in technical approach and spirit for me to consider them a pair. And the way in which they wrap up the first year of the project while opening up a fresh sense of direction has prompted a relatively long reflection:

While all of my 2010 ROC-ART stops were both challenging and rewarding enough to make my local "tour" as valuable as anything I've done with my Itinerant Artist Project, my last stop of the year, in north Rochester, stood out as the most affecting.

No doubt that has something to do with my having felt at least a tentative sense of belonging in a setting – a depressed, racially mixed neighborhood with little sense of social mobility – that contrasts starkly with the world I grew up in. Yet it’s also part of my hometown, only a few miles from where I live. I knew, of course, that such contrasts exist in our community. But I know in a different way now, having been a guest there for a few days. (I’m also aware that the west Norton neighborhood is a place where someone with my artist’s earning power might more reasonably be expected to live).

At the same time, I gave my best while I was there. This may not mean anything tangible to anyone in the neighborhood other than my host. I can’t pretend that people walking home form work in the dark, in a blizzard were especially uplifted to see someone out there sketching the way a certain telephone pole slanted or how street lights clustered in the distance. But I know I was engaged in an energetic dialogue with the place, being as present and responsive as I could. The artist in me thinks that matters somehow.

And then there were the gifts (apart from my host’s much appreciated hospitality) that the place gave back to me.  Most unexpectedly, I came home with a chunk of red rock from the Genesee gorge that I’ve been working into some of my paintings (see “Rock Art” post, two entries back). Second was the painting of houses on Norton Street, which I felt compelled to do even after I’d wrapped up my visit. The composition had caught my eye when I first arrived. And the morning light on the third day demanded to be documented, even if I felt too spent at the time to tackle another painting.

I was essentially heading home at the time and could only allow myself 45 minutes to work. The result was an exercise in reflex and instinct – and more fun than I usually have when painting. A few days later I tried to bring the same approach to different subject matter, in Mendon Ponds Park. I don’t know if it’s the resulting images that I enjoy so much or the spirit behind them, but both paintings feel like a special gift from north Rochester.

At any painting stop – whether on a US tour or here in Rochester – I have to come to terms with an unfamiliar setting, try to establish a sense of belonging through creative response. Finding subject matter that I respond to and then finding a way to paint it more or less effectively can transform my sense of dislocation into a bigger sense of connection with the world. And sharing this experience by showing my paintings extends the sense of connection – or communion – further.

These are some of the reasons why I paint, even though I usually find painting to be a very uncomfortable and difficult activity.

These are also some of the reasons why I like to embed my painting process in a dynamic social outreach context – such as the Itinerant Artist Project. Art is a deep medium in an age of shallow media. For both my own sake and art’s sake and (to the very small extent that I can contribute) for the public good, I want art to be all it can be, at least once in a while.

Art tends to be considered a personal act. Even humble artistic efforts, though, can have social value, too, because collective meaning is renewed through countless creative interactions. For me (and for most artists I know) the creative effort and the public good go hand in hand, at least ideally. In our culture, though, it’s hard to uphold that point, or even to allow oneself to take it seriously.

I do these outreach projects partly in order to take that ideal seriously, and amplify it. I also do these projects because I like how the outward risk, adventure, and reward reflect and highlight the inner risk, adventure, and reward inherent in any creative process. Plus, once in a while I like having nothing to do other than being an artist in residence.

My warmest thanks to all of my 2010 hosts – essential collaborators in the process, who were uniformly wonderful; to my project sponsors; to everyone else who has offered to host or otherwise helped the project along;  and to anyone who has read this far…

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

North Rochester, December 13-15

In early December, when three people walked into the old frame shop near Culver and University where I was looking through a stack of abandoned moldings, I didn’t really expect one of them to be my next host.

Among them, though, was Danny Deutsch, the owner of Abilene, whom I'd met before. And he had heard of my project.  I explained that for my last stop of 2010 I wanted to stay in a north Rochester neighborhood.  Did he happen to know anyone who lived there and might want to be a host? He sort of grinned and pointed to his friend, Cheryl Bagley.  This is the view from her window:

Serendipity plays a big role in my Itinerant Artist Project (IAP). Before I started doing art tours I attempted to control a lot more of the painting process and my life in general. I was especially cautious about exposing myself to unexpected influences, other people’s ideas, and new places.

The IAP and related projects like ROC-ART have encouraged a shift in attitude. Being fretful or guarded doesn’t work too well. So I at least try to welcome the unexpected and see where it will take me.

Nye Park, off of Norton Street, near St. Paul, is a street I’d never been to, in a part of the city I barely knew. I have to confess that I’d only been through the general area two or three times in my life, and the neighborhood was somewhat alien to me.

It was late afternoon when I arrived, with a bitter wind and lake-effect clouds bringing dusk on early. My host wasn’t home yet, so I drove a few blocks to the Genesee gorge, to get my bearings, more contact with nature, and a walk.  Nature felt inhospitable in the gorge – icy cliffs, a roiling, dirty river, more wind – but I was glad for it. Glad also to recognize the Seth Green Trail, the paved road that took me from a parking lot off St. Paul down to the river, at a point more or less directly beneath the Driving park Bridge. I’d been there on a geology field trip in the ‘90s. And once more, several years later, to put in a canoe.

The painting of the bridge that leads off this blog entry was done from a photo I took near the low end of the Seth Green Trail. When it's 10 degrees, dark, and snowing outside, I tend to paint inside and sometimes will work from the 2" monitor on the back of my digital camera (with memory and sketches playing an important role).

Painting from life was pretty much confined to views from inside the house looking out, two of which I tried the second day.  And I did some other paintings based on a snowy walk I took with Cheryl on the second day:  north to Seneca Park, across the Genesee on a pedestrian bridge, and back, via the Route 104 bridge. It was a wonderful, long trudge. The best part was the elegantly engineered ramp that  leads gradually up the west gorge wall from the pedestrian bridge. Half way up the ramp we were met by a large, mixed flock of birds, one of which I later painted.  This next panel is really 2 small, separate paintings:

That evening, after a second exceptionally good dinner and a game of Dazzle (a board game of my own devising that I play with friends)... I wanted to do another painting from life, which meant finding a window to look out.  I'd already noticed the Christmas lights next door and sort of wanted to paint them.  So I did.  Cheryl later told me that the curious mound of snow in front of the bush that I saw and suggested is a shrine to the neighbors' deceased daughter.  If I'd known I might have avoided painting it out of respect, but maybe painting it was not a bad thing:

The Nuthatch painting and the second painting shown in this entry (a view of the neighbor's house) were actually done on the third day.  By the time I left -- after a few days of getting to know my host and her cozy house, and after several exploratory walks at all times of day -- I felt a curious attachment to the neighborhood. Going back to Brighton and Pittsford, my usual stomping grounds, felt like a bigger transition (and almost a longer journey) than coming back home from California.  The suburban world I was returning to did not make as much sense and somehow did not feel as real or honest after my short stay in north Rochester.

I found myself unwilling to drive straight home and instead drove further north, to the lakeshore, where I stood a while, as churning gray-brown waves battered the long, snowy beach, and the wind blew light flurries from ragged snow clouds. 

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Rock Art, December 23

During my December stay in north Rochester, I took an evening stroll down the Seth Green trail, into the Genesee Gorge.  While gazing at the massive icicles that had formed along the shale and limestone exposures, I noticed a layer of rock -- about a foot thick -- cutting a reddish line across the otherwise gray cliffs.  

Then I recalled having been there before, in the '90s, on a geology field trip.  This was the Furnaceville hematite, a low-grade (oolitic!) iron ore.  It had been used, I'd been told, to make a reddish brown house paint in the 1800s. It had been popular especially for painting barns. 

I climbed up a short, snowy slope and grabbed a small chunk. I was intrigued by the possibility of painting with Rochester's only mineral pigment. A week or so later I used a hammer to break up the small rock and then grind it into a powder. I mixed some with water and made a few quick, improvised watercolor sketches.

I mixed the rest with acrylic medium to make a sort of gesso ground for a few panels.  Lacking proper grinding equipment, I was left with a very gritty gesso -- rather like sandpaper when it dried.  But, still, I like the thought of painting some future Rochester scenes on Rochester rock.  Rock-art for the ROC-ART project.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Atlantic Avenue Postscript

My time in the Atlantic Avenue area was quite pleasant, except that I'd come to the stop with my creative expectations raised too high.  Because I already liked that part of the city so much and had wanted to paint there for so long, I was constantly aware that two days was not nearly enough time to do justice to the subject matter.  I could work there for months, and probably should. 

So when I got home I did another painting of the area - this view of Atlantic Avenue.  I hope to do more eventually.