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:

Sunday, July 4, 2010

North Irondequoit Postscript

Concerns about my upcoming California trip cut my visit with Peggi and Paul to a short day and a half. We agreed to get together for another afternoon of art and hospitality later on in the spring. And we did, in early June. The results were: another fine hike, a painting of a heron we saw at surprisingly close range during that hike, and an excellent lunch of homemade pizza followed by tapioca pudding – something Peggi and I share an enthusiasm for. Paul, too?

Meanwhile, after California but before the return visit, I’d been listening to CDs of P & P’s current band, Margaret Explosion, while driving around and thinking about my time in north Irondequoit whenever I got near Lake Ontario. This painting from west of Rochester, along the Lake Ontario State Parkway, was done in late May. In spirit it connects to the set from Peggi and Paul’s, so I'm including it here.

North Irondequoit, May 9-10

On May 13th I flew out to California to be artist in residence at the Gunn High School in Palo Alto and to do a short itinerant artist stint in Napa Valley. Before I left there was -- barely -- time for my 3rd local "tour" stop, with Peggi Fournier and Paul Dodd. (For an insightful alternate account of this visit, along with a cute photo of a fawn, see this entry from Paul’s blog, Pop Wars).

I'd known about Paul and Peggi for a long time. Back in the late '70s my younger brother had told me about a Spanish teacher at the high school who fronted a New Wave band, Personal Effects. That was Peggi, and Paul played drums. Somewhat later I became a fan of their Xeroxed proto-blog, the Refrigerator. They were doing web design before most people knew what that meant and generally seemed to be on the cutting edge of local culture. I'd only bumped into them a few times before and was pleased for the chance to get to know them better.

I was also pleased to find that they live on a quiet street surrounded by woods, near the southeast corner of Durand Eastman Park; and that they are more down to earth and congenial than my imaginary conception of them -- abstract icons of coolness -- had suggested. On the negative side, I arrived with a serious sleep deficit and some anxiety about the upcoming California trip.

A good long walk helped. Paul and Peggi are serious walkers and have miles of trails to choose from, in and around Durand Eastman Park. I've lived in the Rochester area for almost 40 years but had never taken the time to explore this substantial pocket of woods and wetlands. It was a treat. So was dinner.

In between I tried to find something to paint. Not that there was any shortage of worthy subjects. But woods have an "all around" effect, more setting than scenery, and it can be hard to focus in on a composition. The more picturesque scenes I'd noticed on the walk were too far away to hike back to with my paints, so I opted for a view from the master bedroom window (shown above; details below).

The graceful trunks and branches, the delicate leaves, the rather diffuse atmospheric quality imparted by the window glass reminded me of a Chinese paintings. The effect would have been better conveyed with the calligraphic brushwork and delicate washes of ink painting. I felt very clumsy pushing oil paint around on a small panel, but some good energy came through. These details amplify some of that energy.

Later I drove a few miles to the shore of Lake Ontario to look around. It was nice to be near the lake, but was too tired to finish anything. This might be called an oil sketch showing headlights, sunset and the road along the lakeshore:

By morning I felt rather desperate to do what I considered a strong, distinctive painting. I should note here that Paul is a noteworthy painter, and his paintings – usually portraits, often in series or in grids – tend to convey a sense of purposeful concept. While my Itinerant Artist Project paintings emerge from a concept-driven project, each one is an arbitrary, unpredictable and often (at the time of painting) frustratingly incomplete response to an unfamiliar setting, a new world, an experience of people and place that I’m trying to come to terms with and honor in some satisfactory way.

After some poking around I decided that the brightly colored chairs in front of the house could provide a key image – with structure, personality and even metaphorical value. Actually painting them was a challenge, moreso because of all the warblers in the vicinity.

I’m a low-key birder who gets fanatical during warbler migration. Sitting still to paint while life moves on is rarely easy. With over a dozen warbler species singing and passing through the treetops around me, it was impossible. Every few minutes I got up to look around with my binoculars.  (In case you hadn't noticed, the finished painting is shown at the start of this blog entry).

There are no warblers depicted in these painting details, but the magnified brushstrokes do have a feathery, flitting quality:

This view of Lake Ontario at sunset was done with help from a photo taken the night before.

Most of my paintings are done from life, but sometimes I work from a combination of memory, sketches and the monitor on the back of my digital camera. The results are sometimes good, but there’s usually more interactive energy in paintings done from life. In any event, quality of response is my primary aim in painting. There are no strict rules about what works and what doesn’t, but you know when you’re getting it and when you’re not.

After another walk (see Paul’s blog), I drove back to the Lake Ontario shore to paint but chose a view looking south – across Eastman Lake.

When describing my personal approach to painting, I like to paraphrase Kuo Hsi from Sung Dynasty China, who said his ideal was to bring together the subject, the medium and the artist's spirit in a way that does justice to all three.  And I often mention clouds or trees as examples when describing the wonder of one or two brushstrokes being able to convey the reality of paint, subjective feeling and the image of something observed (e.g. a cloud), all at the same time.  This detail shows a cloud. 

And finally a little study of the house without chairs, just before I headed back home.