Artist’s Immortality

Today I went to the Rio Grande County Museum in Del Norte to see my friend Louise and to pick up my “inheritance.” Her husband, Alex, whom I had only known in the final 3 or 4 years of his life and during some of the most rapid deterioration he experienced from Alzheimers died on the last day of July. He was a painter, a climber, a wood-worker, a traveler and a nature lover as well as a father and grandfather and lifelong partner to Louise who is a remarkable woman.

I liked what I got to know of him. He had wonderful stories, coherent explanations for things, passion for some of the things I am passionate about and his Alzheimers never interfered with his ability to communicate enough of himself, his life and his story that I couldn’t know him at all. I was sorry I hadn’t met him sooner. 

A little while ago Louise asked if I’d like to have Alex’ paints and I went to get them today. It’s a treasure trove in a wonderful old Plano Tackle Box filled with really excellent acrylic paint, new brushes, many other wonderful artist’s tools. I’m so grateful that she thought of me. 

As I put the box away in its new home and added some of the brushes to my “bouquet” so I can use them, I looked around my studio. It’s filled with wonderful people; in itself it’s a kind of legacy. My fantastic easel came my way because a local artist died and her executor was scrambling to empty the artist’s house in Crestone and get it on the market. I inherited my much loved life-long friend Sally’s oil paints. I have brushes given me by my dear friend Michael who can no longer see. My most often used tools — my Caran D’Ache watercolor pencils — are a gift from my friend Pietro in 1997 when he was still alive and I was visiting Zürich for Christmas. I store my oil paints in a wooden box made by my Uncle Hank for my Aunt Jo sometime in the 80s. ❤

There is some immortality for all those people in everything I do and the back room in this house I moved into not quite 7 years ago holds tremendous history now — and potential. 

As I drove home I heard this song on my car radio. It’s a song I love, and I have never heard it played on my radio — car or home — before. I thought it was cool. It seemed to fit.

No Where Near Being a Master

Something I wrote in 2015 about being an artist

Every time I paint, I paint a masterpiece. It’s true. I am completely in love with most of my paintings as I’m painting one and right after I finish it. Then, with few exceptions, I’m not in love with it any more. Sometimes I’m on to the next one, sometimes not. 

Maybe the reason I’m not a “master” is because I never got serious about painting. The pity there is that I’m not good at a lot of things, and I approach the surface not knowing what’s going to happen. Maybe no artist knows what’s going to happen. 

There’s a wildlife artist whose work I like very much, Greg Beecham. His work is amazing. He offers lessons — I’d like to learn some things about his technique. I’m pretty sure he uses glazes, something I’d like to try, but haven’t figured out. I watched a segment of one of his lessons and what intrigued me wasn’t him, what he was saying, or how he was painting, but how he’d literally drawn everything onto the painting surface somehow. It resembled the surface of a paint-by-number kit from back in the day. 

I approach the surface with colored pencils. Depending on the painting I’m imagining, I might have a small version in water color like this one for a BIG painting I started two years ago and that now overwhelms me. Usually I just block in main areas of color and that’s it for “drawing.” (Voiceover from the future: this big canvas ended up being an immense painting of a Sandhill Crane, no mountains at all…)

Sometimes I draw elements of the painting and then take my painting from the drawing, but I don’t normally draw much on the painting surface. In my mind there’s a difference between a drawing and a painting. I think most artists have their ‘approach.” 

I drew this painting on an envelope at a conference. There are a lot of strange things in this painting. First, I painted it in California in 2012, but it is a painting of the San Luis Valley down to the contour line of the San Juans as you see them from the 160 between Monte Vista and Alamosa, pure accident. I had never been here. It’s eerily prescient.

Second, it was inspired by the stranger than fiction tale of having written about my own family in Savior without knowing it at the time. When I did genealogical research later and discovered that, I realized that all I’m ever going to find as a writer is something about myself, and the entire planet is an immense graveyard of bones and stories. 

I integrated a quotation from Goethe as the bottom strata of the land where “I” am digging. It says: “How all in a single whole doth weave, one in the other works and lives.” This painting hangs in my living room along with another that is more mysterious, even to me. 

The World is Out There

I didn’t fully understand this painting until I’d lived here for a year. I painted it in California two years before I moved. It began as a painting for my stepson and his wife, a street scene of New York I started in oils and realized it would be better as a watercolor. Quite a distance from one to the other…

How the Watercolor Turned Out

In school, I got encouragement from some teachers and outright discouragement from others. Over the course of my life, what this gave me was freedom. I didn’t even try to make a living as an artist. I didn’t believe I could, I understood the competition and the difficulty, and art went into the “garage,” the “shed,” and now the back room. It’s good that it did. Most of us are not going to be “great artists.” I’ve had some work hang in juried shows and sold most of my bigger paintings which is good because they take up space, but I think the best I can do is enjoy painting. 



This past Saturday my friend and I went to pick apples. I picked some and then, seeing how incredibly lovely they were on the tree, I took some photos. I have had a lot on my mind in recent weeks — some of it personal, related to to me, some involving a friend who has been struggling with himself. If you’ve ever had to struggle with yourself, you know it’s no fun.

So, since I’m in an artistic slump (it happens and doesn’t worry me) but really wanted to make art I decided on an “apple a day.” Today, as I worked on the fourth apple, I thought about art philosophy and criticism.

It’s unlikely I will ever be a NON-representational artist. After spending time last week with an artist friend who had a very different philosophy and who chides me for being what I am, I’ve been thinking about that. I finally told her, “I don’t see me doing abstract paintings.”

“Why not? Your brush strokes are abstract.”

It’s not because I don’t like abstract art. I do. It’s just not fulfilling for me. My primary relationship is with nature; the important questions for me are “how does this work? What is it really? How can I see it better?” For me, a painting is a synthesis of brush strokes. It’s not brush strokes. It’s a totality. For me, it’s a way of seeing.

So, four days of apples. Some from “life” (those I picked), one from a photo. These are notecard size and I’ll use them for that.

I could hear my friend in my head saying, “You don’t have to get every little thing!” a chorus I’ve heard before. But what is it to work toward “every little thing”? (Which I don’t actually do) As I worked drawing the apples on the tree, I realized what was going on in my head. I was relieving the stress of the last several weeks. This was something I could do and which took me out of myself. I was meditating. The image — the colors of the leaves, the striations on the apples, the problem of the branch — all of it — drew me out of my self into a clearer mind. There’s not much smaller to make art with than the sharpened end of a watercolor pencil.

The Importance of a Friend with a Good Eye

I can’t speak for every painter on the planet. Sometimes it’s even a little challenging speaking for myself, but I appreciate (a certain type) of criticism. The kind I appreciate is the artist friend who can look at my work and say, “My eye goes here…” and shows me. Then suggests a solution to that, that is if it’s not where I want the viewer’s eye to go. My friend Perla Kopeloff is that kind of friend, though I don’t always agree with her priorities. Ultimately my work is my work, and sometimes I don’t care very much about the composition as in this painting which disturbed my friend who made a point of telling me where the top of the painting SHOULD be.

The painting as it is.

As I was painting, I knew what was “wrong” with it. The sky overpowers everything. The viewer wants the sky to end before the blue becomes dark, maybe even at the top of the tree. In this, my friend is totally correct. Here’s the painting done “correctly.”

Done “right” — changes everything

As I thought about my friend’s comments I began to wonder what I look at in a painting. It’s not always about composition. Sometimes there are other things.

I had three things in mind as I painted this. One was the first part of a poem by Paul Valery:

The skies immensity is potentiality, the universe, from which all things emerge and into which they all recede. And more. The blue that makes the darkest part of the sky is painted with a paint I love almost as much as I love that white dog. It’s ultramarine blue made with lapis. As a pigment, it’s very transparent and grainy, so it took a lot to get the depth of that “blue, blue” sky. That particular paint is rare and expensive, historic, beautiful and symbolic. In medieval times it was used only for the clothing of Jesus and his mother. In my painting it is the sky and the ambiguous line on the horizon where it is either mountains or clouds (part of its magic). It’s also the color of “my” jeans. 🙂

Another was a passage in (I’m pretty sure) On the Road. Kerouac was leaving the home? Ranch? of Wm S. Burroughs and his family and as he drove away he thought that against the immense sky they became smaller and smaller until every bit of them “was drowned.” It’s an incredible, haunting image and, since I’m a person who loves a big sky, it had resonance for me. If you’re an East Coast guy like Kerouac, that vast sky could feel, be, oppressive. I’ve posted photos of the Big Empty on my personal blog and had readers say the images scare them. Almost invariably those people are from the very places that give me claustrophobia.

The third thing was 2020. I painted this in 2020, began in March of that strange year filled with so much death and so many scary unknowns. My main source of solace was that very big sky. The sky, the tree, the landscape, the woman, the dog, the moment are all real. That sky was one of my sources of solace in the confusion and fear. It was a constant reminder that nothing was happening but nature, with its immense power and indifference combined, the knowledge I have whenever I’m out there that nature has the last word. Paradoxically, for me, that’s part of its soul-filling beauty. And it is home.

Perla, my friend with the good eye, invariably notices things like composition and brush strokes. I made the changes she suggested to the big crane painting — a more delineated horizon, uh, line. It had the effect of making the painting better and far more effective. But nothing in the world would induce me to change the tree painting.

Sometimes a painting isn’t meant to be pretty or harmonious or “right”. I didn’t say to my friend that the tree painting was meant to be disturbing. I also don’t think I have to defend anything or explain anything. I watched a long and VERY boring documentary of mid-20th century artists, artists like Helen Frankenthaler, Jeff Koons, Mark Rothko, Max Zorn, Joseph Stella, and others. As I listened to these people drone on and on, I thought, “Shut up and paint. It’s your work, your world. Nobody has to like it. Nobody has to understand it. You might not even fully understand it.” And yet, I’ve used this post to explain (defend?) the choices and reasons behind the tree painting. 

“Foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

The Apples of My Eye

I’ve never done much of anything with dry media except sketching in life drawing sessions and working with colored pencils, but I have a beautiful set of 48? colored Conté Crayons I got for Christmas years and years ago. Because I’ve reached a point in my painting life where I don’t know what’s next, what’s ahead for me to learn, I decided to go do something I really don’t know how to do.

Rainbow in a box…

The last time I drew with pastels (which these are, essentially, though less dusty) was when I was 14 or 15 in junior high school.

So far I’ve drawn apples.

I like apples as a subject. They’re beautiful, challenging enough when you’re trying something new, and, really, Cezanne did well with apples (the occasional pear, orange or quince) as subjects.

I’ve painted them — always my favorite kind, the inestimable honey crisp.

So, beginning this new adventure I started with an apple. It came out pretty OK, if a little tentative.

Then, yesterday, another apple (I ate the first one) a little more courageous (not like an apple is a harsh critic or anything. It’s all positive reinforcement with apples. You can’t even stay mad at them because they taste good. “Fine. I’ll eat you,” then, “Wow. Thanks for being so tasty and refreshing, apple. Sorry for the bad picture.”

I still have an apple in the refrigerator, but it’s a good idea to take a break after a success because one has the tendency to attempt to do the same thing again or better. Not the right mindset for learning.