Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Power of Place

Last week I completed this painting in Kensington Metro Park on one of those days when it's so beautiful, you're just happy to be alive to experience it. It's paintings like these that I find most difficult to sell. Not because I am in love with the painting, but because I don't want to part with the sense memories that is brings back every time I see it. It was a quiet day with a slight cool breeze, and so sitting partially in the sun, the temperature was perfect. It was too early for bugs. Jacque, my dog, played along the shore or laid in the grass by my feet, rolling first on one side and then the other to warm his fur in the sun. I have a sense of place when I look at this painting. Something that you don't possess unless you have personally visited a place and spent time there.

I'll never forget going to the Grand Canyon and seeing it for the first time after years of looking at spectacular photos and paintings. Nothing could have prepared me for the experience I had there. I arrived many hours after sunset, and so I could not see anything when I went to the edge of the canyon. I made a decision to be at the edge at sunrise, and so I set my alarm for 5am the following morning. It was very cold pre-dawn the next morning and I knew I'd never make it without coffee. There was a dining hall I had passed the night before and I hoped it was open. To my surprise, there was a line in the cafeteria. I got my coffee and headed for the first overlook, about 15 minutes away. The parking lot was about half full, at 6am! I descended the stairs in the haze of early morning light and I could just make out the opposite side of the canyon. Without sunlight, it looked flat, gray and uninteresting. At the bottom of the staircase, close to 50 people stood on the east side of platform looking towards the brightest part of the sky. Steam rose from their cups and their lips as they whispered quietly to each other in many different languages. Some people stood quietly, alone, as I was with cameras around their necks. We were all waiting for the same thing, and it brought us together in a way people come together to worship.

After about a half hour, the sun broke over the southeast wall of the canyon and its golden light caressed the north face. There was silence except for the clicking of camera shutters all around me. I was awestruck by how quickly the sun moved across the canyon, changing everything in its path. People were crying and hugging each other. My eyes welled up too. A couple from Italy hugged me...total strangers until 10 minutes earlier. They had moved from their place on the railing to let me get a better photo of the lower part of the canyon. All this was done in near silence. People whispered if they spoke at all, so as not to disrupt the experience...the worship.

I still have the photos of that morning in the Grand Canyon, and every time I look at them, I remember that experience. It's often not the beauty of the photo, or the painting that draws me to cherish it. It is the power of the place, the experience that I had there and the time that I spent.

This is what Plein Air painting is all about for me. Capturing the experience and emotion on canvas. That sense of peace, or quiet, or power or worship of a place I want to give to another. That's why I paint.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

A fews days ago, I created this video as a tribute to my constant companions over the years. Although I created it to be viewed on a full screen TV, and not as a .mov file, you can get the general sentiment of the film.

My dogs have always gone with me on my journeys. In the early days of auditioning and singing around the country, my dog Elsa would even go into the dressing rooms with me in the bowels of theaters around the country. She would sing with me when I was warming up. She loved to sing, but only to my voice. Once when I was singing a Verdi Requiem on stage for the Illinois Symphony, I came to the final movement that starts with the soprano voice singing "Requiem" rising out of total silence. Somewhere off in the distance, I heard Elsa starting to howl. I looked in despair to the stage manager and saw a flurry of activity off stage. Fortunately, I was told that the audience had not heard it, however the chorus and I certainly had. Since Elsa had never done anything like that before, I can only guess that the speaker had been left on in my dressing room and when she heard my voice, she joined right in.

This film features my current dog, Jacque who did his best to deliver everything I asked for and more. Although, he doesn't sing. I hope you enjoy his acting skills.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Working with Students

Recently I was asked to do a mural for the celebration of the 175th Anniversary of Stockbridge and the surrounding areas. This mural was done over 5 days in the Heritage Elementary School in Stockbridge. I worked with several hundred 5th graders over a period of 4 days, and then finished the final details on the mural.

It is always an amazing experience to work with students. I find that young adults have no fear and with a little instruction, can paint in exactly the style that is required. Of course, it helps if you have a strong vision for the mural, but you also have to let go of any expectations. Sometimes wonderful things can happen, like running paint that creates branches or an unexpected large flower added by a student.

In meeting with a young artist the other day, I was struck by her enthusiasm and energy. Her ideas were big, and at the time, all I could think about was how much work it would take to make them happen. Then, I remembered a conversation I had had with an older artist about 10 years ago. He had taken on several interns from the University of Michigan who were helping him with his projects. He asked me why I didn't have interns working with me to create my large murals. I laughed at him and said that it would take longer to train them and correct their work than it would to just create it myself. He smiled and reminded me gently that someday I might not have the same energy level, and that working with the next generation passed the skills on to them.

Today, I understand the wisdom of his advice. We are losing skills every year as a nation, and as artisans. The old ways of doing things are going away, and the newer "better" ways are taking over. In some cases, such as in information distribution, the new ways are better, but in others, like illustration and painting, using the computer is limiting and in some cases the technology drives the design to the point that many artist's works look similar to each other. We have a responsibility as "masters" of our trades, to pass our knowledge on so that it isn't lost in our fast-pace digital world. For my part, I am finding working with students rewarding and inspirational. I hope others will follow my fellow artist's advice.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Singing Flowers

After posting this latest watercolor on my Facebook page, one of my friends commented "Move over, Georgia!" Although I prefer to think of my flowers as singers rather than sex organs, I appreciated the compliment.

Painting flowers in plen-air is a wonderful experience. I did my first one this summer in a friends garden. ("Stairway to Heaven-Blue Iris" is currently on display at the Ed Gray Gallery in Calumet, Michigan.) What amazed me so much was the movement of the flowers even on the calmest of days. Whenever I picked out a flower to photograph, it would start swaying gently back and forth. This was not my imagination, as I am a steady handed photographer and there was not even the slightest breeze. I believe the flowers were responding to my intense admiration of them.

After taking several photos for later reference and possible studio paintings, I selected one in the field and began painting. As I painted, everything became very quiet. I started to see things in the flowers. Joy. Love. Light. Life...the patterns of the tiny veins in the petals looked so much like the veins in my hands and wrists. And I wondered, if these flowers could speak, what would they say. As time passed that afternoon, I decided that they were not speaking, but singing....wordless songs of joy intoned on the vowel "Ah...."

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Messages from the Other Side

Every now and then, I revisit some of the writings I made during my stay in the Porcupine Mountains. This extended time alone in the woods served as a wake up call for me not only as an artist, but as a human being. I was an artist in residency for two weeks and rarely left the woods for anything except the bare necessities.

However, after a week and a half in the woods, I suddenly longed for contact with the outside world. I needed to get back in touch, and I kept hearing the nagging voice of responsibility directing me to check my phone messages. " I rummaged through the stuff on my passenger seat in the car and located my cell phone. But, it didn't even display a reception bar. Instead, It said sadly "searching for service." And it kept displaying that same message no matter where I drove. In fact, I started to feel a little sorry for it, because I knew it would never find the service it was seeking.

My last link to the civilized world had been in a little town called Ontonagon. A town that was proud to announce that the most exciting thing to happen to it in the last 40 years was the addition of a Pamida store. In Ontonagon, I got two bars on my cell phone and I sat in the parking lot of the Pamida to check my messages.

The first time I checked messages I felt like a child playing hooky from the rest of the world. I felt guilty hearing my client's responsible work related messages and urgent pleas for my services. I had to call them back and leave messages that I was unavailable for a few days. In most cases, I didn't want to tell them where I was or what I was doing. Being in the wilderness seemed so much less important than what they were trying to accomplish. In one case, I even told them I was in the U.P. working on a project, although what I was actually doing felt very far removed from any work I had ever known.

But all feelings of guilt had vanished by the time I got around to checking messages the second time. I listened in detached amusement to the urgency in their voices. One client had called me six times. The first message was in a normal tone, the second time it was slightly more agitated, the second to last message demanded to know where I was and why I hadn't responded, and the last message sounded genuinely worried since it had been four days and I had not answered any of her messages. I called her back first and immediately felt the stress in her voice.

U.P. natives each have a particular way of describing the culture on the other side of Lake Michigan. One said there should be a sign for those leaving the U.P. crossing over the Macinaw Bridge saying: Ye Who Enter Here, Abandon All Hope. Another said that when he crosses over the bridge he waits to see how long it will take before he gets the bird flipped at him for driving too slow. The only birds you see in the U.P. are the flying kind. Another woman said she descends into a depression every time she has to cross over.

It was the stress in these messages from the other side of the bridge that surprised me the most. Everyone seemed to be in such urgent need. I couldn't understand the urgency. None of these things were necessary for survival. None of these messages were about life or death. Everything they called me about in a panic could have waited until I had returned.

Their messages reminded me of my own insane inflexibility when it came to deadlines and appointments. Once on a trip to Italy, I became very agitated when the bus driver made me late to a meeting. He had simply pulled the bus over at an unscheduled stop next to a cafe and gone in for an espresso and a cigarette. I watched in amazement and agitation as all the other passengers got off the bus and went into the cafe with him. Some of them even had pastries with their coffees. After about fifteen minutes in the hot bus, I reluctantly stepped outside to wait, grumbling and cursing them under my breath. Stupid Italians, I thought. How could anybody get anything done in this country if they couldn't even keep a simple bus schedule. When I arrived late to my meeting I was very upset and tried to explain what happened. But, it made no difference to the Italian I was meeting. Oh good, he said, I'm glad you got to have an espresso on the journey. I didn't have the heart to tell him that I had been too upset about being late to our meeting to go in and enjoy a cup of coffee.

Life doesn't give you a guarantee you'll be around even for the next ten minutes. There's an old saying: If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans for tomorrow. We only have this moment, now, and no more. So, I'm going to enjoy that cup of coffee from now on and maybe even a pastry, even if it makes me late, because the bus could crash a mile down the road. This isn't crazy or lazy, or irresponsible--it's real, and it's about truly living in the moment. The forest taught me what the Italians couldn't. There's no tomorrow in the forest, there's no time at all. Stand next to a 300 year old Hemlock and watch the second hand tick away on your watch. After a few times around the dial, maybe you'll understand, and then you'll hear the forest laughing.

Painter and Classical Singer in Michigan

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