Friday, December 31, 2010

Atlantic Avenue, November 3-5

I’ve never been quite sure where – or what – the neighborhood of the arts is, but the area loosely defined by Atlantic and Anderson Avenues has always been one of my favorite parts of Rochester. 

In the comfortable mish-mash of residential, industrial, and commercial development I have found a lot that interests my eye (and mind). There are billboards and weeds, smokestacks and factories. Some of the city’s most important cultural institutions and cafes are found just few blocks from train yards, tilting houses, and crumbling wasteland. There’s something both dynamic and arresting in its endless array of odd juxtapositions, pleasing geometries, unexpected oppositions, and the fine balance between down-and-out and up-and-coming.

For some reason I’m especially intrigued that a place like the Barrel of Dolls is right across the street from the New York Figure Study Guild – one of the region’s more vital art centers, where the human body is studied attentively but (one assumes) with such different intention. Yet both are there, at the margins and off the beaten path for different reasons.

Here is an enlarged detail from the second painting shown above:

When I started the ROC-ART, the one thing I knew is that I had to make a stop in the Anderson-Atlantic area. Finding a host proved easier than expected. When I was at the Dryden Theater one day in early spring, I asked the sometimes ticket-taker (and sometimes writer for City Newspaper), Kate Stathis, if she knew anyone in the area who might want to put me up in exchange for a painting. She said she would, and that was that. 

Here's the view from the 3rd floor of Kate's house.  The back of the flatiron building is my favorite wall in all of Rochester:

Being a guest in unexpected places has its benefits.  I'd been curious about the Greek wine, retsina, but had never tried it.  Kate had some on hand, and it went well with her feta cheese, garlic and tomato pasta.

The first painting I did at this stop, of Anderson Alley at night, isn't shown here, as I have yet to make a scan of it.  That painting was made for of the opening show at the Shoe Factory, which took place a few days after the painting was finished.  Meanwhile, here's another view of Atlantic Avenue:

On a somewhat sunny late afternoon, at the very end of my stay, I decided to look for inspiration in a  different direction -- the other side of University Avenue. Because I'd met my host at the Dryden Theater and because we both like the Eastman House gardens, I used my last hour of daylight and energy to paint this final composition. 

It's something I'd wanted to do for years, but the complexity, the difficult scale, and my sense that the sundial garden (as I call it) is more an experience than a scene had kept me from trying.  On tour I think less and paint more. And there's sometimes a sense of urgency or necessity that keeps me from talking myself out of taking chances.


Gibbs Street, September 7-8

Having a mentor can be a good thing.  I think this is especially true in a field such as fine art, where the “career path” is not at all clear, the incentives are mainly internal or invisible, and it’s easy to feel lost when just about everyone else you know seems to be moving through the game of life more briskly, with the reassurance of collectively valued trappings: job, salary, family, retirement accounts, etc.

In my efforts to follow an artistic path, I‘ve often been sustained more by the assurance that someone understands what I’m doing than by anything else.  As Mark Twain said, “I can live for two months on a good compliment.” Good criticism can be useful, too.

I’m fortunate to know people who care deeply about art and whose insight, wisdom and interest have helped to keep me going – not only lightening my spirits but helping to illuminate the way.  A few of these people may even understand my art better than I do.  At least I like to think so sometimes.

For example, I was feeling discouraged by the results of my 7th ROC-ART stop – at a residence on Gibbs Street – until I showed the paintings to Jeff Ureles.  Jeff is someone who can see a landscape painting I’ve done and tell me what philosophers I’ve been reading (or should be reading).  When he looked over the set of Gibbs Street panels and declared them among the better paintings I’ve done lately…I decided to believe him.  Although by “better” he may just have meant more alive with creative struggle.

Shown here (above) is an enlarged detail from the second painting I did at this stop: a rainy night scene done on a black panel.  The detail shows how loosely I was working. The painting shows more or less what I was seeing from the guest room window around 11 pm my 1st night.  However, what had really caught my interest was the pattern made by lamplight on the textured sidewalk, so I tried again:

This second night scene was rushed; I was too tired to focus and wanted to get to bed (although I was also avoiding trying to sleep because I didn't think I'd have much luck - too many loud vehicles, car doors, a student outside my window playing harmonica).

Since I was staying near the Eastman Theater for this stop, I might be forgiven the presumption of invoking the names of Mozart and Beethoven when discussing my painting process.  It’s only because I found this wonderfully insightful thought in a recent music review:

A composer’s greatest achievements are often inspired as much by his [or her] deficiencies as by his natural talents.  Beethoven [did not] have the easy facility for counterpoint that Mozart possessed, but… it seems to me that his difficulty in working it out is perceptible to listeners, and this gives his counterpoint a force that we find nowhere else, as if we experience the willpower necessary for its conception.

Charles Rosen, New York Review of Books 12/13/10

Similarly (though on a much humbler scale, of course), I tend to think that the emotional or spiritual content that some people notice in my paintings makes its way in not as the result of any skill I possess, but through the struggle involved.  My perpetual sense of not knowing what I’m doing when I’m painting can be very stressful. However, it may allow something into the work that’s better than anything I could control.
Not being in control or finding oneself in unfamiliar territory (external or internal) can feel threatening, but such states can also call forth the creative self’s best energy.  I guess that’s one of the main ideas behind the Itinerant Artist Project.  Yet in painting I still tend to want control and to resist disorientation.  When the painting process gets the better of me on both counts, it usually takes me a long while to feel at ease with the results, even if they are interesting.

But I digress – and have failed to even mention my wonderful hosts:

Tom and Marianne Kroon were among the very first people who offered to be hosts for my 2010 ROC-ART project.  I believe they saw my December ’09 IAP exhibit at the Mercer Gallery and responded to a notice on the wall about my plans for a local “tour.”  The offer was made irresistible by their address
.  Unlike many of my friends, I don’t get to the Eastman Theater or Java's very often, and when I do I don’t tend to cross Main Street.  So residential Gibbs Street  was an exciting and novel prospect.  It also made clear early on that my project would indeed take me not just around the county but into the heart of downtown Rochester.

As some of my previous stops show, I like urban subject matter. 
When I finally made it to Tom and Marianne's, though, I had trouble figuring out what to paint.  I felt very much at home with my hosts but could not come to terms with the surroundings.  Maybe my energy was just low.  At any rate, all else being equal, I decided to make the most of the comfortable chair and table in my guest room and did most of my paintings looking out the window - first at night, and then in the daytime:

It made sense to paint the Eastman Theater, an important landmark that was staring me in the face. 
As a painting subject, though, it was awkwardly situated – a grand structure spread across the end of a small street. And the perspective was tricky. There were students walking by at all hours, even in the rain, so I painted them, too. That was another challenge.  People rarely find their way into my paintings, partly because I want to focus on the abstract poetry of landscape or present it as a contemplative setting; people introduce a narrative element that can interfere with that.  But it's also true that I don't have much practice painting people, so it's safer to leave them out. 

In the end, though, the difficulty I had with the surroundings forced me into a position where I was willing to take some chances and work a little bit recklessly.  That's probably a very good thing, even if it was uncomfortable at the time.  By the same token, these could become some of my favorite paintings from the ROC-ART "tour"
– once I can associate them with what I gained rather than the discomfort of the experience.

Meanwhile, back in the Gibbs Street neighborhood, I finished up by grounding myself in a simple, straightforward scene:

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Pittsford, July 26-28

"This is the strangest painting stop I've ever made," I said in greeting, as Bill met me at the door of his Pittsford house. Strange because it was so close to home: I'd gone to the same high school as my hosts, Bill and Laura; and they live in a small housing tract just a stone's throw from my old junior high school - and not much further from the house where I'd spent most of my life.

Plus, at our level of acquaintanceship it would have been much more normal, natural, and appropriate - at least by conventional standards - to be meeting for dinner somewhere. Instead I had my duffle bag full of stuff and was moving in for a few days.

"Hi, Itinerant Artist," said Bill.

(Bill, among other things, plays lead guitar for the Chinchillas).
After a tour of the lawn and garden, I met the two cats and the two kids - Patrick and Simon. This was my 1st local "tour" stop with children in the house. On other tours I've always liked having youngsters around.

This was no exception, except that my guest room turned out to be Simon's. I didn't mind his Sponge Bob sheets or anything, but had to wonder if he resented being displaced. When he responded well to my painting of a plastic pink flamingo a couple of days later I sensed that, if there had been a problem, I was at least briefly forgiven. Later Simon showed off some of Patrick's very cool artwork. It's nice to be accepted by younger people. But still, as curious as it felt for me to be moving into a house a few miles from home, it must have been curiouser (to borrow a word from Lewis Carroll) for Patrick and Simon.

Bill, meanwhile, seemed to think I'd be painting mostly around the house, yard, neighborhood... which is what I sometimes do. But I had come already knowing that I wanted to spend my time painting the rolling farmland of south Pittsford. Just a quarter mile away, big puffy clouds were floating over wide fields striped with greens and the bright gold of freshly cut wheat stubble. Off I went to get a painting done before dinner.

This is the 1st painting I did at this stop.  I only had about 45 minutes, so it was hastily done.   The next image is an enlarged detail from the painting (as is the previous bit of cloud):

Speaking of intentions, I'd timed the stop to coincide with the full moon. I didn't just want farmland but to be out near the farmland when the moon was brightest. It's the sort of thing - especially with my own house closer to the city, that I dream of: easy access to moonlit countryside.

I have something of an obsession with the moon. After dinner I rushed off to see (and quickly paint) the moonrise.

And later still, when all the neighborhood was getting ready for sleep, I went out to observe the effects of moonlight on the tract houses and their lawns and driveways. I walked around for quite some time, sketching and marveling and seeing not a soul. What could easily be described as an ordinary setting during the day became a realm of mystery and wonder - even moreso because of the contrast with how most people conventionally view such a place (even those who live there and like it; even me two hours earlier). I felt like waking up everyone in their sleepy houses and telling them to come out and see where they lived: not in suburbia but in an amazing universe.

(The sense of being a lone witness was happily banished the next day when Laura later told me that she and some friends had enjoyed a similar walk with similar feelings some time ago).

Unfortunately, my late night inspiration didn't translate very effectively into art. Maybe because I was too sleepy. Maybe because Bill was still up watching TV, and I got too caught up in an episode of Futurama to concentrate on painting. Maybe because painting night scenes isn't always easy. But I made a try at it. One can sometimes learn by trying:

On the second day I started to do stronger work. I'd come to paint picturesque farmland and was surprised to get better results by sticking around the house, doing a painting of the front window and garden; a painting of the pink flamingo who resides in the backyard hosta patch (see painting at the start of this posting).

As Bill sort of had to remind me, this is how the project is supposed to work. My hosts' world turns up new and unexpected subject matter; new things provoke fresh creative dialogue. Turning life in a subdivision into a painting may take more conceptual effort than painting a pretty field, it may force me to give more of myself to the enterprise.

That evening, Laura and I went to a nearby hilltop to watch the full moon rise. It was a highlight of the visit, but I decided not to do another moon painting.

For my third painting on the second day, I went back to open space and night, but with more conviction and confidence and better energy than the day before. Also, Bill and I were watching Jon Stewart while I painted. Maybe that helped. 

Using a black panel, I could suggest the telephone lines by scraping into the blue-gray paint with the sharp end of a broken paintbrush. This technique can make a painting a lot more interesting or ruin it in a few seconds.  Here's are two close-ups:

Choosing what to paint is almost always a big challenge. At home I seem to spend most of my time trying to decide what to paint. On tour, I force myself to spend more time painting than choosing, but by the last day I always have such a backlog of ideas that the strain of choosing often shows. Sometimes the last few paintings have a special intensity of very focused, direct action (see my 1st stop), but if my focus doesn't hold, they instead show signs of indecision and scattered energy.

The three paintings from the third day are a mixed bag. The sky paintings were meant to convey my fleeting sense that the big puffy clouds floating over the little houses carried some sort of judgment. The contrast between the clouds' grandeur and out little lives below could be uplifting, but I decided it should have an ominous edge...and painted too much darkness into the clouds.

On reflection, I think the dark gray in the big cloud sits too heavily, but the next close-up shows a part of the cloud where the paint still has lots of life:

The second "house and ominous cloud" painting was done after I'd taken a small tour of the Mendon Center Elementary School grounds - which are located right behind this house. 

Incidentally, my school tour consisted of jogging barefoot around the playground for 10 or 15 minutes.  35 years ago, when the place was a junior high school, a friend and I got out of dodgeball and baseball by running during gym.  We ran outside, even during thunderstorms, and our classmates probably thought we were odd, especially when we stopped wearing shoes.  At age 49, I may have appeared even odder, but my feet and the grass enjoyed a 35 year reunion.

Speaking of the past, this last painting (done from sketches made the night before) was an attempt to recapture something I'd seen in the same place several years ago, when the houses were new. The trees had filled in, though, and I couldn't find the right composition.  Insistent memories can be turned into strong paintings, but sometimes they distract from the process of seeing what is at hand.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

High Falls Postscript

My favorite thing about the High Falls “studio” was seeing the Genesee brewery outside, just across the gorge, with its amber buildings, the bright “Genesee” sign, the curious little array of smokestacks and scaffolding.  For my first day or so at High Falls, I was walking around with the Chinchillas' Genesee Beer song continually (and cheerfully) popping into my head.  I might even have been humming it when no one was around.

I’ve always liked the falls and the brewery – the “beer factory” as some people living nearby call it – but I only had a sightseer’s superficial acquaintance with them.  Being on site for two long days, I felt my relationship with that part of the city taking a big step forward.  In a strange and pleasant way, I became a part of the whole scene. 
Usually on tour I do all the paintings I can while staying at a given place but don't do any more paintings from that location after I leave.  That’s partly to avoid getting too drained – the 2-3 days takes a lot out of me – and partly because there's always the next stop, and my focus moves on.  With a local tour, that changes a little. 

So my High Falls work didn't feel complete until I'd done a more careful study of the Genesee Beer sign, something from the railroad tracks where I’d walked on my last evening, and a finished painting of the falls.  The last will have to wait, but shortly after getting home from High Falls I painted the first two. 

 Here’s the Amtrack station at dusk. This improbably rural-looking scene is in the heart of downtown.  The buildings, lights, cars, and noise are abundantly present, just outside the frame.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

High Falls, June 29 - July 1

In my 25 years since grad school, and with the exception of a few stray months in residencies and subletting friends’ spaces...I’ve never had a real studio. By real studio, I mean a bright, spacious, open room with high ceilings, big windows, not much clutter, and nothing much to do except paint.

That’s part of why I was excited to set up shop in the Small Gallery at the Center at High Falls. For two days I had about 1000 square feet of space, two wide desks, and a wall of windows looking out over one of Rochester’s most distinctive settings.

My first painting of the High Falls stop (above), however, was done from the nearby Pont de Rennes footbridge.

I had arrived later in the afternoon than anticipated and was anxious to get a pretty good scene painted pretty fast. I chose the view looking north because I wanted to start out with something picturesque that included the river. And the drama was a lot subtler and easier to work with than the view of the falls. For some reason I’d misplaced my black and gray panels and had to resort to red ochre (the color is evident around the edges of the brushwprk). The colors in the landscape that I was trying to capture didn’t harmonize with the red so much as fight to overcome it, or match its pitch. So the result is kind of bright and active.

I later attempted a quick painting of the bridge and brewery. The light was going fast, and so was my it ended up looking pretty slapdash:

In an urban setting such as High Falls, the biggest challenge is deciding what to focus on; everywhere you look there’s something interesting. In a more natural landscape I can often find a scene that encapsulates or distills the general look. In the city, I’m always trying to choose and feeling torn when I have to pick one view over the next. During my stay at High Falls, I had more trouble than ever, partly because for those two days Rochester was treated to an ongoing succession of the most delightful looking cumulus clouds: Even the most mundane scene looked a little bit enchanted.

The lower part of this painting (above) is the gray shale of the gorge wall.  And here is is an enlarged close-up of the sky:

The next painting is an early morning scene from the second day, done on a black panel. I left it less finished than most of my paintings. It has a sense of mystery and abstraction that I thought would get lost if I kept painting:

A view of the falls from an office building was left unfinished for a different reason: I thought it was interesting as an exploratory sketch of a complex space from an unusual perspective. But I didn’t think the scene would make much sense visually if I painted it in. It’s the edge of the falls, railroad bridge and a hint of the Inner Loop seen from a window 6 stories up:

Another falls painting started but not developed:

As a High Falls artist in residence I felt some obligation to be accessible – and some interest in the interactions. Among the more memorable visitors were a young woman who seemed to like watching art in process and a young father who discussed how having kids had taken him away from art – except for sketching children (something I wish I could do better).

When I painted outside, I seemed to become more of an overt curiosity, and people were more likely to come up and talk (instead of pretending to understand why I was there or assuming I wanted privacy).

At any rate, the wide array of subject matter, my difficulty focusing and fluctuating energy level led to more "unfinished" paintings than I usually end up with on tour - and more variety of style. This set of paintings from High Falls  almost looks like a group show.

With the falls, the factories, the old buildings, the railroad, and forgotten paths, one can have a pretty memorable ramble through the High Falls district – especially at night.

These night scenes (above and below) were done after a long exploratory walk on my second night. The people I ran into and the places I went left me pretty fired up. Even if I’m not checking out spots that most people would avoid because of their inaccessibility or potential danger, walking around at night can feel charged with a sense of mystery and newness. Even with cars driving by I felt, at times, like the first explorer on an unknown planet.

Because I like to show enlarged details of the brushwork, here are 2 close-ups of the State Street at Night painting:

Curiously, I never finished a painting of the falls themselves. On my last morning I had planned to. But the morning light - and the novelty of being in the gallery before the general public - put me in good spirits, and I decided to jog around the 2nd floor galleries while they were empty. On my 3rd lap I noticed that the view out a certain window might be a good backdrop for an interior scene. Not having done an interior for a while, I decided at least to make a quick pencil sketch. One thing led to another and soon I was sitting there painting, while the public trickled in.

Later I only had time to get another painting of the falls started:

A final detail (and special thanks to High Falls director and host Sally Wood Winslow for making this stop possible):

Friday, July 9, 2010

Clifton, June 2-4

When Bob Emens contacted me last December about hosting, I knew I’d have to make his place part of my local “tour.” Not only was he the first person to make an offer after reading about my project in Mark Hare’s column, but his location – the hamlet of Clifton in rural SW Monroe County – added useful geographic diversity to my list of stops. And there was an added hook: Bob farms and pickles garlic scapes (see: Luke's Originals). How could I resist the chance to paint a garlic scape landscape? The time for that, Bob said, would be early June, right before the scape harvest.

A scape, incidentally, is the flower stalk of the garlic plant – typically cut from the maturing garlic plant before flowering, to allow the garlic bulb to develop more fully. The scape has been gaining popularity as a vegetable in its own right. This painting of a scape (above) was done on my second evening, as I waited for a dinner of pasta with garlic scape pesto.

I arrived on a hazy Wednesday afternoon. First off, I got a tour of Bob’s handsomely built house (he’s also an engineer and designer), and his extensive property. Then, after months of eager anticipation, I settled down to do my first garlic scape landscape. More exactly, it was a small field of garlic plants with the neighbor’s house in the background:

Here’s a second version:

I have to admit that painting garlic scape landscapes wasn’t as fun as thinking about painting them, but the effort connected me to the place and made me appreciate dinner more: grilled salmon with garlic scape pesto, and dill pickled scapes on the side. Fortunately my brief adventure in Clifton was just beginning.

After dinner we drove to the local cemetery – a small, square parcel of mowed grass with simple stones and several trees, including a venerable, dark spruce. I’m not someone who is necessarily drawn to cemeteries, but this one made me feel pleasantly – if oddly – at home. The place expressed simple beauty, and a sense of being cared for, despite evidence that some local teenagers had driven a pickup truck through some of the rows of gravestones.

I think it was partly the ploughed field along one side of the cemetery, stretching out and up across a large, wide hill that gave the place a special resonance. My spirit felt settled and uplifted at the same time. Late dusk charged the setting with mood and inspiration rather than spookiness – although I was a little unsettled when Bob, in another corner of the cemetery, started conversing loudly with no one I could see or hear. I’d forgotten he had a cell phone.

I did some sketching and made a tiny oil study but couldn’t quite figure out how to convey what appealed to me through paint. To use one of Bob’s expressions, I couldn’t get my head around it. Two days later I tried again, but in daylight. To get the mood and effects of dusk I’ll have to go back sometime with better focus.

A detail:

That first evening Bob also took me by Clifton’s main church. The next night, after meeting a sister of Bob’s who helps to keep the church maintained, I made a painting of it. The thick stroke of pale yellow paint is meant to be the headlights of passing car.

I'd never heard of Clifton before this project started. "And that's the way we like it," said Bob (and a couple of other locals I met), who also referred to it as "the town time passed by." There's more pride than regret in that epithet, and whenever plans resurface for a NYS Thruway exit in southwest Chili, residents of this hamlet rally to fight it off.  I'm glad they've succeeded so far. For me, living for a spell in Clifton provided a true break from the hustle and bustle and tension of urban and suburban Rochester. At times – walking quiet roads, poking around by old barns, hearing the birds and smelling wild roses – I felt closer to my childhood in rural Massachusetts than to what I'd known of Monroe County.

The dark side of this rural idyll was the poison ivy. I had been to nearby Black Creek Park before, and a walk around Bob’s property reminded me that poison ivy in this corner of the county grows about as aggressively as anywhere I’ve been. So for sitting down and painting I stuck to the cultivated portion of the property and nearby roadsides.

That was actually a good thing, as it got me looking around more than I might have. This painting and the one shown at the beginning of this posting were done along the road into Clifton center, between breakfast and a late lunch. In 5 hours, one walker and about 2 cars passed by. I sat in an aluminum lawn chair with old webbing that Bob said was about to break. It held up until I’d finished the 2nd painting, and then I fell through.

Here's the barn painting again, followed by some detail shots: