Archive for March, 2015

Daily Life of the Mind

March 31, 2015

Cluttered Corner of one of my Studio Spaces

Cluttered Corner of one of my Studio Spaces

Sentences are strewn around like forgotten laundry, images are piled up like last week’s dishes. Lyrics end like the half-opened magazine on the bathroom floor.

Kit Rachlis, describing Neil Young’s songwriting

My daily life of the mind falls somewhere between James Joyce’s Ulysses and James Thurber’s The Secret Life of Wallter Mitty. I wake up, expecting a mantra, and it usually presents itself politely somewhere between the shower and kitchen. As the day unwinds, visual and auditory stimuli come tumbling in and insert themselves into certain mental niches, attempting to give some kind of shape and meaning to my day. I assumed all my life that all people live that way day-to-day, but now I think maybe not. I find this amusing (sometimes) because I think there would be some who think that a public school teacher does the same thing every day and experiences the same routine–walking the halls and standing in front of classes spewing verbiage. Not me–there are too many things clattering around inside my mind looking for a place to find meaning. The jumbled picture posted above is probably an accurate visual record of the kind of mind I carry about on a typical school day. It is unfortunate that the work area of my desk looks similar to that.

Continued Work on the Gas Station

Continued Work on the Gas Station

Today was art history–Impressionism and Post-Impressionism. As I moved the students through the theories of these artists, especially Paul Gauguin and Paul Cezanne, all I could think of was the gas station watercolor at home awaiting my return. Several Gauguin and Cezanne observations were waiting to be put into practice once I got back to my life’s passion.

When the late afternoon sun cast its bright light through the windows on the north side of my studio, I put Eric Clapton’s Backtrackin’ LP on the turntable (old Slow-Hand turned 70 yesterday!) and cranked up the volume. Leaning over the drafting table, I found myself overflowing with gratitude that Clapton at 70 and I at 60 are allowed to continue doing what we love to do most–create art. As I began chipping away at this composition, my mind drifted back to images, smells and sounds that I knew when I was growing up in smaller towns. Grown men coming to work everyday to do what they had been trained to do–pumping gas, checking oil, changing tires, providing basic engine repairs. I heard in my memory those clanging bell cables announcing a car’s entrance to the pumps. I heard once again the clunk of Coke bottles dropping in the vending machine chutes. I saw the cigarette and candy machines inside hte office and heard the ringing of the cash register and the thump of the cash drawer flying open. Throughout the day, the hypnotic highway noise had its way of dulling the senses in the hot, drowsy summer air. I remember the smell of gasoline, oil and grease. I could close my eyes and see once again the grimy red shop towels hanging from the pockets of the mechanics and grease monkeys, and could hear once again the slamming of the car hood after the oil and radiator were checked. Nearby the air compressor hissed, while tools and tire irons clanked loudly as they were dropped to the concrete. Walt Whitman could write a poem “I Hear America Singing.” I can still hear the gas stations singing in middle America.

Thanks for reading.

I paint in order to remember.

I journal when I feel alone.

I blog to remind myself that I am not alone.

Art as Spelunking?

March 30, 2015
Stolen Afternoon Moments to Resume work on the latest Watercolor

Stolen Afternoon Moments to Resume work on the latest Watercolor

Art is an act of tuning in and dropping down the well. It is as though all the stories, painting, music, performances in the world live just under the surface of our normal consciousness. Like an underground river, they flow through us as a stream of ideas that we can tap down into. As artists, we drop down the well into the stream. We hear what’s down there and we act on it–more like taking dictation than anything fancy having to do with art.

Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way

The bulk of my school day was unusual, but worked well for me. It was the first day of EOC testing, and my assignment was to keep a classroom full of 10th-11th grade students relatively quiet and engaged in homework assignments for five hours, while a large portion of our building was testing. The students followed the instruction, and I found myself seated in front of them, working on ideas, reading five volumes of my old journals from 2001-2002, and digging down to the roots of some things that have lingered with me for decades. The students remained engaged in their tasks, and I was free to explore ideas. I couldn’t have ordered up a more perfecct agenda for the day. It was a very productive and appreciated five hours.

However, EOC testing, plus a schedule of regular classes afterward, leads to a much longer and draining day. By the time I did get home I was exhausted, but when I bent over this watercolor, my enthusiasm and energy seemed to rise once again. I’m focusing on the damaged framework exterior of this abandoned gas station, and find myself getting lost in a myriad of details and textures in the shadows of all that wood, glass, dust and grime. I’m enjoying myself.

I love the Julia Cameron quote above, and it dovetailed nicely with some notes I had recorded a decade-and-a-half ago from my readings of Heidegger. I love his metaphor of following a path into the dense, dark woods, making one’s way to a clearing in the midst where light suddenly breaks through. I have been excited by that picture for years. As my philosophy class is wrapping up the 18th-century Age of Enlightenment, I like calling up Heidegger’s metaphors regarding the pursuit of knowledge, hacking one’s way through the thickets, following dark paths, and feeling the experience of epiphany once the light breaks through. His German words are rich indeed: Weg, Holzwege, Lichtung.  Those along with Kant’s essay Was ist Aufklärung have always fueled my imagination.

The reason for my gas station subject is that I was visited by an idea as I was about to fall asleep the night before I left for the college tour, that I should return to some primal subjects of my past that I haven’t pursued in a few years. Hence the abandoned filling station with all those attendant memories from my childhood. I’m experiencing some deep feelings as I work on this one, and am interested in seeing where the painting takes me.

Thanks for reading.

I paint in order to understand.

I journal when I feel alone.

I blog to remind myself that I am not alone.

A Weekend of Letting Go

March 29, 2015
A Satisying Saturday University Tour

A Satisfying Saturday University Tour

Sam Houston State Univesity, Huntsville, Texas

Sam Houston State University, Huntsville, Texas

I always thought that when we accepted things they overpowered us in some way or other. This turns out not to be true at all, and it is only by accepting them that one can assume an attitude towards them. So now I intend to play the game of life, being receptive to whatever comes to me, good and bad, sun and shadow forever alternating, and, in this way, also accepting my own nature with its positive and negative sides. Thus everything becomes more alive to me. What a fool I was! How I tried to force everything to go according to the way I thought it ought to!

Letter to Carl Jung from a former patient

I regret to see the close of this weekend, as it offered more gifts than I could possibly describe. Saturday, rising at 5:00, I boarded a tour bus with AVID students from my high school and toured two college campuses, returning 14 hours later. The rosy-fingered dawn (Homer’s words from The Iliad) and the warm light from the occasional farmhouse as we journeyed south filled me with an aesthetic delight, and in the soft glow of the reading lamp provided, I was able to get through the first 82 pages in my re-reading of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. I love to drive cross-country, but love more being driven, so I can read, ponder and scribble in my journal without interruption. Walking across the sprawling campuses of Sam Houston State University and Navarro College, I was filled with the exhilaration of memories of my own college years more than forty years old now. The look of wonder in my students’ eyes reminded me of my own overwhelmed state when I made my first college tour, trying to decide where to go after high school.

An Excellent Beginning to my Sunday

An Excellent Beginning to my Sunday

Getting home Saturday night, I had no energy left for reading, so I sat and watched some TV and opened a bottle of champagne I had purchased for New Year’s Eve, but never put to use. Drinking alone is not my idea of a perfect way to end an evening, but it guaranteed a good night’s sleep, and waking shortly after 9:00 Sunday, I was ready for a full day. Following my shower, a good healthy breakfast, and a long stretch of tidying some of the rooms of my house that had been “junked” with the contents of my art booth from last weekend’s show, I finally sunk into my leather living room chair and read with delight further into The Fountainhead, allowing an hour of uninterrupted reading and journaling. I didn’t see it coming, but reading this book suddenly filled me with the impetus to begin a new watercolor ASAP. I was smitten with the urge because of this story of a young architect that wanted the prestige of his profession, but was terrified of creating art:

Then he found himself suddenly in his glass-enclosed office, looking down at a blank sheet of paper–alone. Something rolled in his throat down to his stomach, cold and empty, his old feeling of the dropping hole. He leaned against the table, closing his eyes. It had never been quite real to him before that this was the thing actually expected of him–to fill a sheet of paper, to create something on a sheet of paper.

Beginnings to a New Watercolor

Beginnings to a New Watercolor

Closing my book, I dashed to my living room drafting table and readied my supplies. It didn’t take long to find in my computer files the image in my mind’s eye that I had considered the past couple of days–an abandoned filling station in Lexington, Texas that I always see when I travel to Portland to do business with the gallery down there. I have never felt the discomfort of the young man in this novel–leaning over a blank sheet of paper, expecting a world to come into focus beneath my pencil or brush has been the most rewarding of experiences throughout my life, creatio ex nihilo, watching a creation swim out of the void and into focus. When I realize that I am the one making that happen–I cannot describe the feelings that course through my being, but they are not feelings of sickness or doubt.

After some time spent in the preliminary stages of this painting, I decided I needed to “christen” another one of my recently arranged working spaces.

Solitary Reading Time

Solitary Reading Time

Moving down the hall, I took up residence in my newest study area, and re-opened Anthony Storr’s Solitude: A Return to the Self. This book has engaged me since 1988 when I purchased it new. He argues that the individual does not have to find ultimate meaning in life through relationships, that many healthy creative spirits throughout history have maintained fulfilling lifestyles in solitude. My reading today took me through several texts of Carl Jung, William James and Abraham Maslow. I was struck by the text that I quoted at the top of this blog entry, from one of Carl Jung’s former patients. I also drew sustenance from the following:

Maslow realizes that the creative attitude and the ability to have peak experiences depends upon being free of other people; free, especially, from neurotic involvement, from ‘historical hangovers from childhood’, but also free of obligations, duties, fears and hopes.

Reading this piece resulted in an avalanche of ideas tumbling all around me, and I could not seem to write fast enough in my journal to encapsulate them all with adequate words. As the emotions began to rise, music began to flow through me, and reaching for my guitar, I began to do something I haven’t done in years–compose a song.

Working on an Original Composition

Working on an Original Composition

Starting with the hook “Letting Go”, I was surprised at how fast a chord progression emerged, and the words started coming so fast I decided to start recording on my phone instead of writing. I enjoyed the new flood of liberating ideas and tunes that comingled.

The Final Staging Area

The Final Staging Area

Once I captured all the music I thought was going to happen for the day, I decided to move to my study and spend some time in my favorite rocking chair. There was still plenty more to write in the journal, and I really wanted to return to the art and writings of Robert Motherwell, who had captured my attention and affection a few days ago. There were still some more things I was wanting to read about the surrealist notion of psychic automatism and its ability to open fresh channels for making art.

It’s been a whirlwind of a day, but I managed to do what I really craved–read, write, make art, make music and enjoy life.

Thanks for reading.

I paint in order to understand.

I journal when I feel alone.

I blog to remind myself I am not really alone.

An Experiment in Psychic Automatism

March 27, 2015
An Experiment in Psychic Automatism

My Afternoon of Psychic Automatism

Psychic automatism offered Motherwell a means of countering his will. Doodling thus represented for him “a process in which one’s whole being is revealed, willingly or not.” Later, after he read a useful book on the subject of children’s art, he replaced the term “doodling” with the more accurate “artful scribbling,” but the effect was the same. It was not a style, but a method that tapped deep roots and became a means of access, a way of getting to the authentic self, the preconscious. He liked Saul Steinberg’s designation of it as “the brooding of the hand.” 

Edward Hirsch, The Demon and the Angel: Searching for the Source of Artistic Inspiration

After two consecutive days of horrendous grading (the bane of my teaching profession), I found myself too wiped out this afternoon to pursue a studied watercolor, or even to read a book. I’ve been focusing on Robert Motherwell for a couple of days now, especially his early journey into surrealism and his theories of psychic automatism. I’ll write more of this when I’m not so wiped out. I really need to retire to bed, as the day has been exhausting.

Being unable to focus my mind the way I prefer, I decided to follow Motherwell’s lead and just “let go” as my high school art teacher continually urged me to do.  I laid out twelve large sheets of paper, mixed several colors of ink, drew out a large watercolor brush, and let my hand doodle over each page without any sense of a priori judgment. I just let the hand move, and watched what happened, deciding each time when to stop and move on to the next space. After setting them aside and gazing at them from a distance for awhile, I then decided it was time for my 2-mile exercise walk, and away I went. I have not looked at the ink doodlings since, choosing only to post this picture of what I did late this afternoon in a drowsy fog.

More on this later.

Thanks for reading.

I paint in order to discover.

I journal when I feel alone.

I blog to remind myself that I am not alone.

Every Day a Hook, a Mantra, a Rai·son d’ê·tre

March 26, 2015
My Newly-Furbished Working Space at Home

My Newly-Furbished Working Space at Home

If you can’t find your inspiration by walking around the block one time, go around two blocks–but never three.

Robert Motherwell

At the close of each day, I find myself scribbling in my journal, and smiling inwardly at a TV show long ago that I refused to watch–Doogie Howser, M.D. I seem to recall that he closed his episodes with a computer diary that he pecked at before going to bed. Oh well, I’ve done that since the 1980’s in my handwritten journals, but I owe this practice to Henry David Thoreau, not a fictional TV character.

I don’t have any art work to post from today, as it has been covered up in grading and school administrative details. However, as the day unfolded, I realized that it is my daily practice to find something, anything, to serve as a “cause” for the day. A reason to exist. Something toward which to strive. A mantra, if you please. So . . . as I finished my second class, the idea dawned on me to convert my third bedroom at home (which is always getting junked up) into yet another working space–a space to dream, to create, to read, to write, to work on art projects. It took awhile to carry out and store all the debris, but the photo above shows what I carried in and what I put on the walls. This is the right side of the room. The left side, which I worked on some time ago, is below:

Left-Hand Side of my New Working Space

Left-Hand Side of my New Working Space

Once everything was in place, I rewarded myself with an hour of reading and writing while sunk into a comfy sofa. Robert Motherwell and James Joyce provided my mental and aesthetic stimulation for the day, amazing me with their remarkable erudition and creative eros.  My artistic style has never approached that of Motherwell, but I love his mind, his command of language, and truly enjoy looking at his art. My complete collection of Motherwell books were stacked on the study table, and I perused them for an entire hour, before leaving for my daily two-mile exercise walk. As I read and recorded my observations, I looked occasionally to see what was before me now,a more pleasing environment:

The View from the Sofa

The View from the Sofa

I am not trying to make a mountain out of a mole-hill; I feel badly that I allowed a valuable room in my house to fill up with debris and become a storage unit. Now I can live here, work here, relax here.

Sorry I don’t have anything more interesting to report today. But this was my mantra for the day, my highlight of the day. And I can now close on a positive note.  More and better tomorrow, I trust.

Thanks for reading.

I paint in order to remember.

I journal when I feel alone.

I blog to remind myself that I am not alone.

Plein Air Painting and Thoughts from an Ancient Chinese Canon

March 25, 2015
Winter Tree Study in Stovall Park

Winter Tree Study in Stovall Park

The artist should not only paint what he sees before him, but also what he sees within him. If he does not see anything within him, he should give up painting what he sees before him.

Caspar David Friedrich

Though we travel the world to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Today, while re-reading the Six Canons from Xie He, a sixth-century critique of art from a Chinese thinker, I thought upon the first canon: Engender a sense of movement through spirit consonance. One interpreter renders the final item “spirit resonance” or “vitality.” It was said that the Chinese critics thought if a work of art did not contain “spirit resonance”, then there was no reason to spend any more time looking at it. I decided to ponder this while taking my exercise walk tonight, and take my supplies with me just in case. As I strolled Stovall Park, I came across this bare-bones winter tree waving in the rising winds signaling a possible storm. I set up an easel, the storm moved around me, though there was some drizzle (it’s watercolor, so no bother), and after thirty minutes I decided to stop with what I had. Just as last weekend, when I gazed into the tree tops at Richard Greene Linear Park, I found myself attracted to the movement of the limbs in the crown of the trees, gently dancing in the high winds. This is a study I want to pursue further, as I have never been satisfied with my tree studies in paintings. For most of my life, I have admired the anatomy of trees in winter, with all their contours exposed, and wished to capture them on paper. Finally I’m getting around to trying more than just once or twice. I cannot explain my connection with nature, but I’ve always been moved by Emerson’s words from his first book Nature:

The greatest delight which the fields and woods minister is the suggestion of an occult relation between man and the vegetable. I am not alone and unacknowledged. They nod to me, and I to them. The waving of the boughs in the storm is new to me and old. It takes me by surprise, and yet is not unknown. Its effect is like that of a higher thought or a better emotion coming over me, when I deemed I was thinking justly or doing right.

Stopping after 30 Minutes

Stopping after 30 Minutes

I am not a horse person. I do not ride. But I’m always amused that when I set up an easel adjacent to an empty pasture, it doesn’t stay empty very long. I don’t pretend to know horse psychology, don’t know if they expect me to feed them, reach out to them, or if they’re just curious at the new side show. But I do love their company, and think few animals are more magnificent than horses.

One Should Never Paint Alone

One Should Never Paint Alone

Thanks for reading. It’s been another good day and night.

I paint in order to understand.

I journal when I feel alone.

I blog to remind myself that I am not alone.

Late Night Ruminations Concerning Artistic Authenticity

March 24, 2015
Staring at Watercolor Sketches Late at Night

Staring at Watercolor Sketches Late at Night

see in painters prose writers and poets. Rhyme, measure, the turning of verses which is indispensable and which gives them so much vigor, are analogous to the hidden symmetry, to the equilibrium at once wise and inspired, which governs the meeting or separation of lines and spaces, the echoes of color, etc. . . . But the beauty of verse does not consist of exactitude in obeying rules, when even the most ignorant eyes see at once any lack of attention to them. It resides in a thousand secret harmonies and conventions which make up the power of poetry and which go straight to the imagination.

Eugene Delacroix, Journal, September 19, 1847

In my art history classes, we are neck-deep in the opposing theories of the Neoclassical and Romantic painters of the 18th and 19th centuries. I never really know just how much of this content (if any) resonates with my students, but it makes my blood pump hotter, and quickens my pulse. This debate is not merely academic with me, as the personal matters extend all the way back to my college days over forty years ago. In those days, I was tagged as Neoclassical, though they used a different vocabulary to describe my work then.

The debate divides painters between the drafting, compositional, structural ones (Neoclassical) and the painterly, organic, emotional ones (Romantic). I have always been tagged with the former–I draw, I structure, I try to discern rules for quality compositions when I make art. My college professors said my oil paintings were “colored drawings.” They were right. In the ensuing years, I have found my niche in watercolor because I regard this medium as an extension of drawing, and it feels natural to me.

But now in my senior years, I feel things more deeply, embrace beauty more passionately. And when I regard my own work, I continually wonder how one finds the key to creating art for an emotional response rather than a rational one. I find some comfort in reading that Andrew Wyeth and Edward Hopper struggled with the same sentiments. They feaered that label of being “illustrators” and “technicians” rather than artists.

Another Exercise Walk Yields a Winsome Subject

Another Exercise Walk Yields a Winsome Subject

When I took my exercise walk this evening, I was held by the attraction of this magnificent tree glowing in the setting sun. As I gazed at it, charged with emotional energy, I thought of my own recent attempts to render trees in watercolor. And I wondered what it would take to raise the quality of such paintings from the standard of illustration to one of beauty. How could I learn to paint trees with a druidic feel, rather than illustrative, such as one finds in an encyclopedia?

My apologies if this entry comes across as rambling. But this is where I am tonight, and I’m fascinated with these conflicting notions that have coexisted in the art world for centuries.

Thanks for reading.

I paint in order to remember.

I journal when I feel alone.

I blog to remind myself I am not really alone.

Rebuilding My House Afresh

March 23, 2015
A Walk in the Cool of the Evening

A Walk in the Cool of the Evening around Stovall Park

 . . . put no trust in any thought that is not born in the open . . . 

Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo

Reader beware: With this blog entry, I’m filling in the gaping chasm of the past couple of weeks.

The past two weeks have kept me, for the most part, on the road and out of my house. Hence, the blog hiatus. But now I’m clawing my way back to the life that eluded me. Most of the past two weeks have been good, indeed sublime. But I have missed the sweetness of solitude and stillness. This evening the weather was so delicious that I dropped all my school work, pulled on my walking shoes and drove to the nearest park for a leisurely two-mile stroll. Nietzsche certainly called this one right: there is indeed an invigorating pulse to the kinds of thoughts we produce when we are ambulatory and feeling physically stretched. As I breathed the clean air, thought better thoughts, and considered the possibility of working this exercise into a disciplined routine, I remembered, “Oh yeah, the Blog.”

When spring break commenced two weeks ago, a high school friend whom I last saw in 1972 contacted me, purchasing one of my watercolors.The timing could not have been better. I chose to drive the painting to St. Louis to deliver to him personally, and visit my parents for the first time since Christmas. The windshield time from Fort Worth to St. Louis was soothing to a great degree, as I chose to drive through the cool moist night, arriving about 8:00 in the morning. Visiting with my family and then seeing my high school comrade for the first time in over forty years was unspeakably wholesome. I wish I could have chatted with him for a week, as age had not subtracted from him one iota of his mental quickness and interest in the same matters of life that keep my attention.

Cedar Two

Cedar Two

Cedar One

Cedar One

While in St. Louis, I attempted a pair of plein air watercolors of a cedar growing adjacent to my parents’ driveway. It had been awhile since I had done this kind of watercolor sketching, and the time spent working on these gave me a deep-seated sense of satisfaction.

Bowman Gallery

Bowman Gallery

Driving back to Texas, I allowed myself one day of rest before hitting the road again, this time south to the Gulf. The small town of Portland, just east of Corpus Christi, is where the Dinah Bowman gallery is that carries some of my work and invites me on occasion to do a watercolor workshop. Nine enthusiastic students were awaiting my arrival and we spent two days together in perpetual wonder. I am still moved by what I saw of their creations.

Watercolor Workshop

Watercolor Workshop

The two days were splendid, as we worked together, exploring watercolor and talking of its possibilities. My former student Mike Catlin now manages the gallery and is the one who brought me into their fold. Dinah is a very well-connected artist in the artist and university circles in south Texas and her energy and ideas kept my head spinning. I was sorry to have only two days to invest in that territory, as so many artistic possibilities thrive there.

Returning to Arlington, I resumed high school and college duties, and devoted every hour of the evening till midnight, getting ready for a major festival: Art on the Greene, held at Richard Greene Linear Park in north Arlington.

My Booth at Art on the Greene

My Booth at Art on the Greene

The weather for this Friday-through-Sunday festival sucked beyond all description, with heavy rains and cold weather soaking the park Friday and Saturday, successfully driving away nearly all the potential patrons. Sunday was a better day, weather-wise and patron-wise, but not enough to make up for the dreary pair of days preceding. I did manage a pair of plein air watercolor sketches of winter trees as I sat outside my booth with nothing better to do.

First Plein-Air Watercolor Sketch

First Plein-Air Watercolor Sketch

2nd Plein Air Watercolor Sketch

Second Plein Air Watercolor Sketch

Watercoloring never ceases to bring me abundant pleasure, and I never tired of focusing on the trees towering above me, thinking of all those splendid Andrew Wyeth drybrush studies that have always peaked my enthusiasm.

A new week has commenced today, and with it another series of grading deadlines, meetings, and professional development requirements. Tomorrow will be a strenuous day with two meetings added on to the normal teaching schedule. Scheduling disasters such as that leave me in a grouchy mood, but I figure if I get enough sleep tonight, having exercised pleasantly with the evening walk, that I may perhaps be sufficient for tomorrow’s demands.

Closing Out a Beautiful Night in my Favorite Spot

Closing Out a Beautiful Night in my Favorite Spot

Thanks for reading. I anticipate that I’ll be more consistent in blogging this week.

I paint in order to remember.

I journal when I feel alone.

I blog to remind myself that I am not alone.

“Rain Air” Replaces Plein-air

March 21, 2015

image

My second attempt at Plein-air watercoloring was aborted by a rain storm. It’s hard to stay motivated at an art festival when weather chases the patrons from the park.

Practicing Some Plein Air Sketching at the Festival

March 21, 2015

image