Saturday, November 11, 2017

Vermeer's Nudes


Recently I had the good fortune to be in Washington DC, a lovely place to be in the fall, and while there I had the good fortune to visit the National Gallery just as an amazing special exhibition of genre paintings by Dutch masters (Vermeer, ter Borch, de Hooch, Steen, etc.) was showing.  The exhibit was a revelation: picture after picture of subjects (usually women) sitting or standing in the light of a window, their clothing and features illuminated in magical chiaroscuro.  I gazed at all the paintings with a keen recognition: wow, here's where a lot of my aesthetic comes from.  Or wow: these guys shared my obsessions too.  (I'm not sure which sentence is the truer.)

The recognition was so keen that I found myself thinking, where are Vermeer's nudes?  Of all the paintings in the exhibit, Vermeer's were the ones that moved me most profoundly.  All the painters shared similar interests in observing people (again, women mostly) illuminated--revelated by light, sculpted by light.  There were many excuses for the paintings: moralistic excuses (some paintings were Christian allegories); exoticist excuses (picture girl with parrot); domestic excuses (here's my sister doing what she always does: tatting lace).  But it was Vermeer who most keenly observed the fleeting grace of a face and a figure caught in time.  I felt that his paintings were deeply compassionate, deeply loving.  And his were the paintings in which the excuse felt most deeply like what it was: an excuse.

Vermeer's most famous painting was not in the show, but it's my favorite just as it is a worldwide favorite.  Here is is:

(Girl with a Pearl Earring, c. 1665)

This painting does have an excuse--the exoticism of the earring and costume--but those details are so obviously extraneous to the real subject here, which is the sitter herself and her candid beauty.  You get the feeling that here Vermeer threw up his hands and said, "to hell with it!  I'm going to paint what I really want to paint, the only true subject: human grace."  The result is what we see.

So yes: where are Vermeer's nudes?  Was he content to create his domestic scenes of the public-private life of Delft, of women reading letters, playing music, and so forth?  Part of me doesn't believe it.  The existing paintings, to me, gesture toward hidden possibilities, or probabilities, that this artist, like so many other artists before and since, could not not have exercised the longing to understand the deeper and greater grace of the figure unadorned.  I fantasize the existence, or former existence, of a large body of drawings and paintings made in privacy, perhaps with his wife, with whom he had at least ten children.  Perhaps he sketched or painted some of those children.  Perhaps he worked with professional models, as many of his contemporaries did.  Whichever, part of me does not accept the possibility that he was content to paint fabric rather than skin.  We'll never know, of course.  But I grieve.  Wouldn't Vermeer's nudes have been glorious?

I thought of this question too as I looked at the other works in the regular collections, both at the National Gallery and at the American Art Gallery, which I also visited.  As so many commentators (feminist commentators especially) have noted, there is no shortage of nudes in art galleries.  Recalling my entry some years ago on the commentary of John Berger and his distinction between the naked and the nude (the nude being the much more common objectified woman--the woman seen and eroticized under the male gaze--and the naked being the vanishingly rare subjectified, agent-bearing woman--the woman as she "really" is, with her beauty, certainly, but her true her-ness too and her desire and her self-possession, in the fullest sense).  There are many nudes, and the nudes tend almost universally toward idealization or mythicization.  Here's Hiram Powers's The Greek Slave (1846):

I think this sculpture is very beautiful, and it is not unrealistic, but compare it with this amazing sculpture that I found in the American collection: Erastus Dale Palmer's June (1865):

Here we have the real hair, the real breasts, the real face of a living, real young woman.  How much more miraculous, to me, is this true portrait.  This bust portrait hints to me of the kind of nudes Vermeer would have painted: portraits and figures that glory in the true grace of the true human body and spirit.

I hope my latest painting, all the way at the top, shares in this work, as I hope that all of my paintings do.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Me Too


Periodically Facebook becomes a forum in which people who are feeling the sting of violence and oppression can share their experiences and express their grief and frustration.  Now is another one of those times.  The hashtag #metoo is making the rounds, signifying that the poster too--like so many other women--has experienced some form of sexual abuse, assault, or harassment.  Of course every single woman I know has either posted the "me too" or has commented on the movement (always admitting that they COULD have said simply "me too" too).  I weighed in, trying hard not to mansplain (and probably failing).  I wrote down these thoughts the other day and did NOT post them.  I will do so here:

Yes, this is the cultural movement we really need.  All honor to those who wish to own the traumatizing they have endured by posting "me too," but how do we put the responsibility where it lies--on the men who abuse and on all men for explicitly or tacitly supporting rape culture?

Even if we limit the inquiry to, um, egregious cases, we are talking about millions of men.  Millions of us.  Millions of "fine upstanding citizens."  Millions of husbands, fathers, professionals, workers, siblings, uncles, movie producers.  What would it look like to open up the wound of what I have come to think of as the dark life of men and cleanse it for the good of all?  How many men will take up this invitation?  Couched in this way, we all know the answer: approximately zero.  

We need a truth and reconciliation movement for the problem of sexual abuse, assault, and harassment.  But what would that look like?  I don't think we know.  And there's a catch-22.  None of us doesn't think that the Weinsteins and Cosbys should not be prosecuted and outed.  But each such public case in many ways only drives the dark life deeper into the shadows.  

It's absolutely up to us men.  Women can and should have no responsibility here beyond simply saying "me too": speaking to the universality of the problem.  We men need to find a language to talk to each other about the sexual abuse, assault, and harassment that we commit.  Building this culture is no small project.  I think a great deal about how we might do it, speaking especially as an educator of young adult women and men.  Have I gotten very far in thinking through the challenges?  Nope.

Here's all I know: it has to start young.  It has to start with boys and men learning ways to speak with one another honestly and openly about the dark side of our hearts and the dark side of our dysfunctional and abusive culture.  Until we create these systems of healing,    (and that's as far as I got)

The dark life of men.  In many ways, my painting occupies a shadowland in my life.  It's not as if I share these figure studies widely.  I only, in fact, share them with a very few close friends and with the models.  I don't like needing to be so secretive.  I am proud of my work.  I don't think that anything is wrong with it, indeed I think that everything is right with it, that this kind of art can and does heal.  But in a sexual-political context of completely understandable deep suspicion, I know that I have to be very careful.

It's important for me to say this: in my painting, I am not trying to abuse, oppress, harass, assault, or victimize in any way.  I am trying to understand, adore, worship, meditate, express love.  Do I know, ultimately, whether my painting is better in these regards than what a catcaller in the street might say "I'm just expressing my appreciation!"?  I like to think so.  Is my focus on women's bodies a form of what I have heard referred to as benevolent sexism?  Maybe.  But I'm not trying to save, protect, infantilize, patronize, or make anyone dependent either.  

I'm pretty sensitive about these questions, aren't I?  Should I be suspicious of that mere sensitivity, i.e., am I being defensive?  

The painting above--the first painting I've completed in several months--represents more of what I have been trying to do with my art: celebrate a woman in a moment of unguarded joy in her life and in her body.  The model, a friend and former yoga teacher of mine, is an amazing person and a wonderful teacher from whom I have learned so, so much.  I loved working with her as a model, and I so hope my art honors her.

That's an answer for me: it's all political, but it's all personal too.  And how we as men treat the actual women in our lives and in the world is what it is all really, ultimately about.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017



Here's a brand new piece.  I like it quite a lot.  Still feeling like the learning I have done with use of watercolor to evoke skin tones in light and shade is really paying off.  The big question for me is if I should abandon purple as my dominant shadow shade--it definitely comes across as an affectation if it's not over- or under-lain with a complement to make a luminous grey.  I do like lavender as a shade.

Generosity.  I got to work once again, just last week, with this very generous model--generous in her sharing of her beautiful figure and generous in her kind adaptability to my (very innocent) interests and in her sharing of the passages of her life.  I can not conceive of hiring a model just to be a figure in my studio.  If I am going to work with someone in the intimate studio space, I cannot help but hope for a human connection too.  She has become, on my side at least, a friend whom I cherish.

So I am thinking a lot about generosity, really in the context of the miracle of being alive.  I spend a lot of time (as much as I can) with my seven-year old son and his friends, nearly all of whom are girls (my son being such a gender bender).  Children are so amazingly, ridiculously, profligately beautiful. I watch them and envy them in their unself-conscious consciousness, their uncalculated, incalculable joy.  A few weeks ago, a bunch of them were playing on the Slip 'n' Slide in our front yard.  I was there, my son, three or four buddies, and one of their moms.  One of Noah's friends, a seven-year old girl, wanted to play naked, and her mom said yes (that family being kinda hippie-ish), and my son stripped down too, and so the mom and I watched our kids bulleting their sleek bodies down the splashing wet rubber stretched out across the lawn.  And I thought: oh yeah, that's what freedom means.  And then I thought, is this what we all, all we adults, I mean, are longing for--this freedom and joy to be bodies, to be in our bodies, to feel and revel in our bodies' joy?  Is this what I am seeking in my art: to go back to that Eden where bodies just were and where we could have the joy of the intimacy of each other's nakedness?

There's Oedipal stuff here, definitely, as my hunch is that it's mostly men who have this longing for a return to naturist Eden.  If the Oedipal drama is real, and so much evidence indicates to me that it is, then it is men who are more forcefully expelled from the primal Eden, and it is specifically women's intimacy and women's nakedness that signifies the return for us.  This is as good an explanation as any other that I have for why we men tend to pass through our lives bearing this inchoate aching and longing directed toward the women in our lives.  Scott, let's not forget about patriarchal domination, I hear a voice in my head say.  My answer is, I don't want to dominate anybody.  I just want the generous invitation.  "Out of woman comes a man, he spends the rest of his life getting back what he can," sings Peter Gabriel.

But that's all one side, and not particularly a big or final side.  Much more important for me is something I find it difficult to name.  Sometimes, just now and then, with my wife or my son or a friend, watching him or her, I almost literally feel a veil drop away, and I find myself gazing in wordless wonder at the body before me: exactly the fold of those lips, exactly the timbre of that voice, exactly the carriage of that body.  And the body seems almost to shimmer before me, to reveal its own fleeting, transitory nature, and with that revelation comes an utterly miraculous recognition of that particular body's beauty and the generosity of the universe that has created it.  I think if we could all live even for a while in that sense, then so much of what we call inhumanity would become impossible.  How could anyone treat anything so precious with anything other than reverence?

And the best part is that the recognition devolves back to me.  I too share that nature.  A few weeks ago, I was trekking alone, via train and bus and on foot with my backpack, from my home to the Girl Scout Camp south of Lake Tahoe where my wife and son were camping.  I broke my trek at DL Bliss State Park, on the west shore of Lake Tahoe, where I pitched my tent amid pines (and, as it later transpired, a mama bear and her two cubs), and I went swimming in the lake.  The water was perfect swimming temperature.  The first day I swam in my trunks, but the second, I got up early and found a nook-like cove where I could shed my trappings and dive from a rock into the clear water, elementally naked joining the elements.  Every summer, I go to the mountains, and every summer for the past several, I have found myself drawn to undertake such a naturist baptism.  And why not?  My sole (soul) purpose is to feel my own earthly divinity and to escape, for a little while, the illusions of civilization and adulthood.

It's glorious to revel in your own gloriousness.  Doing so reminds me that Eden is already here, all around us, and no farther away than my own skin.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

On Adventuring

Below this painting, my latest, is the text of an email I sent to a dear friend who is currently teaching abroad and having a hard time with the experience of culture shock and dislocation.  Her experience reminded me of my own similar experiences, so I was inspired to reflect a bit.  First, here is this nice painting, which I value especially for the good portrait of my friend.


Hello there, dear.  Well, I am so sorry that your adventure has been such a challenge.  I think I mentioned when we last emailed that your experience reminds me of my time in 1988 with my first wife when we went to England together with student work permits, trying to be Thoreauvian, live in the moment, and have a grand adventure, all at a time when we were generally free of responsibilities and wanting to sow our wild oats as it were.  It was just so hard.  And we are talking England here, where presumably they speak English (they do, but that doesn't mean they are culturally identical with us).  Culture shock is a HUGE thing, and then add on to that the terrible feeling of dislocation and abandonment and aloneness that comes with being so far from familiar scenery and people, and then add on to that all the general existential questions: is this what I am supposed to be doing with my life?  Shouldn't I be getting serious and finding a job with benefits, etc. etc.?  We were assailed by all these forces from pretty much the moment we walked off the plane, and, well, we did come home much earlier than we thought we were going to.  Looking back now, I have incredibly fond memories of that time and that adventure, though.  I learned so much, and I utterly fell in love with the country.  This in spite of the fact that we lived in truly horrendous flats and struggled hard to make ends meet with the poor-paying jobs we were able to get.  I certainly became a committed anglophile, and now when I go there, I feel completely at home and very happy.  And I am not sure if I could have gotten to that place without going through the harder pieces. 

Obviously as I have said I think that you are doing nothing here but just actually having an adventure, which is never easy and which is never really an adventure without all the hard pieces along with whatever good and exciting stuff comes your way.  What makes it really an adventure is not so much meeting the world outside and experiencing new people, new cultures, etc. (although all that is really important).  The more important piece is meeting parts of yourself you did not know were there.  These are not always happy meetings.  When I was in England and having all those hard feelings and realizing that I was utterly failing at being that guy who could go to England and just become that Thoreau guy who could live in the moment and be excited and happy all the time, well, that was a rude awakening and very hard to take.  But it was really, really important for me to learn all that about myself.  It set me on my true path and truly deepened me spiritually, if "spiritual" means truly knowing yourself, understanding your gifts and abilities, understanding your limitations.  I am so grateful for the experience of that journey.   You know, it's funny.  As you get older and more understanding about yourself and more secure about your place in the world, you find yourself, believe it or not, valuing your, um, weaknesses and irrationalities above everything else.  Why?  It's because growing and learning are what it's all about, the real reason to be alive, and once you've gotten good at being you and contributing positively to the world, then all the ways that you're good at living, well, they get kind of boring.  Been there, done that, got the T shirt, wore it out.  The learning edges, the places where life is difficult and painful--man, that's were the juice is.  This is why I paint.  I have no idea why I am so intoxicated with watercolor, and with painting portraits and figures especially, and that's exactly why painting is so moving and powerful for me.  If I understood the irrational longings that I am following in painting, then it wouldn't be anything like as interesting, and I probably wouldn't be a rabid painter.  All this is to say that you are clearly learning a lot here.  There is no real way you can know now what the important lessons will be in the long run.  But I guarantee that the experience you are having will pay off huge dividends in your life.

You of course have already been on a grand adventure, so I imagine it must be challenging to know exactly what this one is teaching relative to what you learned from being in Florence for a year. Only you can say, of course, and as I say, only time will tell.  It may be that this one is actually truly the real adventure and that Florence was warm up.  I value what you said about realizing you're an adult and realizing that adulting is no easy feat.  It is truly, truly hard to join the adult world, to transition into your destiny.  I'm reminded of my favorite poem by Mary Oliver:

"Wild Geese"

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting -
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Well, the world is calling to you, dear.  You are calling to yourself.  Your destiny is calling to you.  Sounds like your destiny will not be in teaching.  Fine.  Now you know that.  But you have and will find yourself having gifts that the world needs, and sometimes you will be called to exercise those gifts even when you really, really, really, REALLY would rather chill out at home or whatever.  (I certainly know that well right now.  Honestly I am ready to retire.)  I suppose life CAN be easy, especially for those with tons of resources.  But who wants a life without challenge? I certainly don't.  Parenting is the hardest thing I have ever done, and when Noah came into our lives there was at that time a whole bunch of news articles talking about recent studies that said that the happiest people in the world are childless couples.  D'oh.  Well, there's a problem with that set of studies, isn't there?  Sure, if you want a life of ease, comfort, going out to whatever restaurant strikes your fancy, having a vibrant sex life whenever you want it, etc. etc., by all means, don't have kids.  But then....  you wouldn't have the kids now, would you?  You wouldn't have all the meaning and purpose they bring to your life.  Same goes for a challenging job, same goes for the experience of living abroad.  We want meaning and purpose in our lives beyond anything, even beyond happiness, and going after those goals is where the action really is.

There is zero shame in coming home whenever you're ready to.  I and your friends and family will love you and listen eagerly to your stories and love to look at your photos (you are SUCH an excellent photographer), etc etc.  So come home when you feel like you've done what you went to do.  Don't come home just because you're crying a lot.  Tears flow, feel your feelings.  Let them be and let them express.  Make your decision about coming home from a thoughtful place in addition to the emotional place, is what I am saying.

Anyway, blah blah.  I had a lovely time playing the John Denver song at Megan's wedding today.  It wore me out, and I took a good nap in the afternoon.  Luckily we nailed the song--no big glitches.  Yay!

Anyway, keep writing to me and letting me know how you are.  I wish you could call.  If you can, feel free to try.

All best, dear.  Much hugs.  S

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Painting Like a Fiend

I can't tear myself away from the easel.  I feel a bit like Seurat in Sunday in the Park with George, who can't give the time of day to his beloved.  My wife is a painting widow, my son is a painting orphan.


The piece above is actually not brand new--I just haven't gotten around to posting it.  It represents a trend I find myself following, very much in light of my experience with the model detailed in an earlier post, the one about the visual being over.  I'll be honest, when I first started doing figurative art and working with private models, pretty much any gorgeous photo of a beautiful figure would do for me.  Not so much any more.  These days, in choosing images to paint, I find myself drawn now to images that really overtly express a kind of happiness or radiance, a contentment, a delight in being a body in the world.  I find myself painting lots of smiles, or lots of looks of smug satisfaction.  The piece above is an obvious example.  My dear friend who modeled for me was very happy to work naked, and we have a warm relationship, so I have no shortage of pictures to paint of her.  I love this one--the image, I mean.  I confess I am not entirely happy with the painted result.  But it's not bad.

Here is a newer piece in this same vein.


I love this piece.  The portrait is rockin'--best portrait I've done of this lovely model.  I love the energetic light in the piece.  But mostly I love the facial portrait.  It accurately, to my vision, captures an almost smug happiness.  That, combined with the sassy S-curve pose, yields a picture that sort of says, "yeah, I'm awesome.  I know it.  I'm so lucky to be me, right here, right now, in this body.  Life is great, isn't it?"

Finally, here's a pure figure.


This piece makes me very happy.  I love the beautiful off-balance pose, and I think I'm doing good shadow work here.  Plus I find that I have learned a lot lately about use of masking fluid.  I'm being much braver with it, putting it on and taking it off throughout the painting process, as I find myself needing to reserve white paper.  I find myself taking more time per painting, but that, I think, is just part of the game.

Indeed, if I can gloat for a minute, I have learned so much.  Honestly.  The other day I looked back over my "best paintings" file, with pieces that stretch back now nearly ten years, and there's no doubt: I am really happy with my technical proficiency now.  I love the rich realism I have attained.  The figures and portraits I've painted over the past couple years are just simply, to my eyes, really, really good.  

It feels good to say that.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Some New Portraits

Below are two new portraits that I like OK.  Below that is the text of an email I wrote to one of these models when I sent her a painting that she really liked but that hit her with the common feeling models express when they see my renditions of them: "well, that's a little shocking."



Dear ______,

I appreciate very much your kind words and your patience with the paintings and the process.  Sorry for the shock.  Yes, I always feel a little delicate about sending some of these scans--here's you, all naked and everything!  And not only naked--I recognize that my work is very intimate in that, if I'm doing it right, I'm capturing you accurately and, often, in a very unguarded and "natural" moment.  People in our culture are not supposed to love themselves and their own bodies, and yet, miraculously, when no one is looking or judging, we do.  I hope and try to capture those moments as a kind of triumph of the spirit.  If this is what's going on (and I hope it is) it's only logical for models to feel a little self-conscious when they see my work.  Sometimes they've clearly been a little jolted--wow, someone really really really saw me naked!  Heaven knows that alone is pretty rare, even between lovers sometimes, who tend to idealize each other and with whom we tend to put up some defenses even as we take others down.  I have painted my wife on many occasions, including a recent (very naked) piece that's the best piece I've ever done (and no one, alas, will ever see it, sigh--I wish the world were different sometimes), and I can say that modeling and seeing my paintings of her is in some ways more difficult for her than anything else we do together, and isn't that revealing? (no pun intended)

Or sometimes it's seemed that models have been a little discomfited because I render so, well, scientifically.  I just don't care about "flaws," in fact by the time I'm done with a painting I love everything about the model, because all that is what makes the specific created miracle of her.  It so happens that you are gorgeous from any standard, with a lovely feminine figure, lucid skin, and so forth, but even so.  Not many people do this kind of figure painting, btw.  There's a ton of impressionistic or expressionistic figurative work, meaning blurry paintings of people where you can't really tell who the people are.  There is some "naturalistic" or anti-conventional work, where the figure is grotesqued or where it features models not traditionally thought of as "models" (older, larger, dark skinned, disabled, etc.).  The only people who really try to render regular people simply and accurately are in the classical drawing cult, and I do think of myself as part of that.  Sometimes what I think I'm doing is painting portraits, but they're portraits of the whole person rather than just the face.  The specific shape of your left shoulder is just as much characteristically you as the shape of your eyes and mouth.  (This is all so platonic, curiously.  I have no idea myself why my painting side is so completely separate from sexuality for me, but it is just a different thing.)

Not every model has felt jolted.  The responses I really cherish are the ones where the model saw the painting and said something like I hope you did or implied at least: "oh, that's so beautiful, and wow, it's me!"  What I think (hope) they're seeing there is yes, they are beautiful, but too they do find themselves beautiful, every day, in those unguarded moments and have every right to do so.

I am SO immeasurably grateful to you and to all the models who work with me.  You have no idea.  Painting others in these moments of self-delight gives me permission to have self-delight.  Painting the skin of others teaches me to value and love my own skin.  For me painting women especially is so profound and moving--healing, really.  Not having any sisters and being very self-conscious, I grew up very much in awe of and frightened of women, I must admit, and painting women has so much healed this division.  It's taught me that we are all so much more alike than we are different.  We're all basically the basic miracle of bodies living in the world.  I bet studying nursing and working with patients does a lot of that for you as well.  Please though--ALWAYS tell me what's comfortable for you, up to and including not seeing the paintings or changing our agreement about the photos.  That actually happened with a recent model, btw.  She decided that she really wasn't comfortable with the identity of art model, and now her photos are deleted from every easily accessible source (I couldn't bear to completely delete them, they are so beautiful, but I offered and would have done so if she had asked). And I don't paint her anymore.  Those were sad decisions to make, but making them was the only comforting thing I could do for both of us.  

Sorry for going on and on.  I tend to do that about painting, as you well know :-).  This painting madness is my favorite cherished self-irrationality.  And the older I get, the more I cherish these irrationalities and madnesses.  They keep life interesting.  And yeah--I SO much want the lovely people who model for me to know how deeply grateful I am, how deeply honoring of you for your grace and trust.  I DO love this most recent painting of you--wow.  It's just so much doing what I want to be able to do, with both subject matter and technique.  I learned a ton in painting it.

Once I get going on painting I can't stop.  Thanks again, and best wishes for your next amazing adventure!  

All best to you, dear.  S

Saturday, March 25, 2017

"The Visual Is Over"


"The visual is over."  A dear friend of mine spoke those words to me a few days ago while we were having lunch together, talking about the blessings and (mostly) challenges of life--for her the latter are at present challenging indeed.  My heart was sore for her, listening to tales of trials and injustices she is facing.

The comment came when we were discussing my art.  I had told her the story of my collaboration with the model above, a model who had worked in the high-fashion modeling industry and experienced its many toxic dysfunctions: ridiculous expectations, an equation of moral superiority with a certain look, the whole abusive trade that exchanges beauty for money--and disordered eating, self-alienation, and shame.  This is the reality that my friend was referring to: not, I think, the visual in general but the commodification of the visual within a global capitalist frame.  "Capitalism is based on exploitation," remarked a lecturer I heard recently, an offhand comment that took me off guard.  It's easy to forget just how true that is, capitalism being the replacement of a slavery system with a wage system.  As in slavery, under capitalism, you're always still putting your heart, body, and spirit into the gears for another, to hell with your own will, desires, meaning--the only difference between the two systems is the paycheck.

So I get it--that part of the visual is over, or if it's not, it damned well should be.  "That part" equals all the ways in which the beauty of our sacred bodies is bought and sold within a value system that has nothing to do with real value, with the ways we really live, or can best live, in the world.  Our beauty is stolen from us, sometimes never to be retrieved.  And of course it's very much worse for women than for men.  Many commentators have noted the cruel irony of the modern age, that just as women (in the west, at least) are finding a voice, acquiring rights, accumulating wealth and power, they find themselves cruelly self-alienated, caught in a no-win battle with their own flesh.  Everywhere I look--and as a college professor, I watch the dynamic unfold with young women every day--I witness this holocaust of utterly needless suffering.  Yes, I too wish to end the tyranny of the visual, and I would trade anything, including all my art, if it could be ended.

This model, bless her, came to me from one of the art collaboration web sites, where artists and models meet.  She's the first such model I've ever hired.  Like my friend, she was a young woman who told me stories of a life spent navigating trials and injustices, not to mention cruel abuse.  She had learned to play the game, parlaying her very considerable conventional beauty into profit.  Hearing her speak, I was reminded of a line from Ani DiFranco's song "Letter to a John": "I want you to pay me for my beauty, I think it's only right / 'cause I have been paying for it all of my life."  She took my money, earning every penny, plus, I know, my care and my friendship to boot.  She's a delightful and wonderful person, a dear child of God, and I loved our time together.  Indeed, it was amazing to work with, well, a pro.  She was obviously very, very good at posing, at settling into the gaze of the camera, at giving her beauty generously.  She had down the fashion-model's pout.  I felt a sense of keen gratitude at being tutored in the work by such an accomplished subject.

But it was impossible for me not to feel, more and more as we worked, a sense of self-consciousness. I heard her sad life stories, and as I heard them, her face felt to me like it was embodying the sadness that her beauty had brought her.  And I found myself wanting her to break out of her habitual, practiced mold, to be "really her."  "Smile," I implored.  And she would smile, and each time she would blanch and look away, embarrassed.  And I realized--I feared--that it was possible that my own gazing and my own request to her to be "really her" were just...more of the same.  More objectification, more alienation, more demand to self-abnegate.  Certainly I realized, to my shock, that my project, which I have always claimed as a project of celebrating the truth of my subjects, "seeing and celebrating the real her," could very well be just yet another commodification--and this time perhaps a worse one, as for my pictures the model stands not just nude but truly naked.  What if I succeed in seeing "the real her"?  And what if it's a violation, a deep intrusion of privacy, to see someone so truly?

Can my kind of art redeem the visual, buy back our beauty for our own delight and good living in the world?  Can it be the antidote to the holocaust of the visual?  As I worked with this model, I so wanted it to be.  I wanted my art to save her.  I want my art to save the whole world.  That's all I have right now--lots of questions and my prayer that my painting might be a redemption song.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

A Slow Period


I've been pretty dry this first part of the year--"dry" being a very apt term when it come to watercolor blocks.  They're always curious to me, these dry spells.  They accompany depression, usually, but I can never tell if I'm dry because I'm depressed or depressed because I'm dry.  

The common feature of the dry spells is that I become un-enamored of my work.  The brush strokes all go awry.  The colors don't seem to blend right.  The efforts all seem less than futile.  I am not doing justice to my subjects, and that feels like a sin or a violation.  I don't think I would have it otherwise--don't think, for instance, that I would accept the bargain to not have the dry spells if it meant losing my commitment to doing good work.  But the dry spells are definitely the opposite of fun.

It is the case that I did a lot of painting toward the end of 2016, preparing for me show at UUCSR.  Just looking back over the blog, I find that I completed 11 paintings between September and January--a hugely productive stretch for me.  And all good work, too!  I like everything I painted during that stretch, which included some of my very favorite pieces, period.  The portraits still amaze me, and I like all those Semester at Sea land / sea / cloudscapes.  So I do try to cut myself some slack.  It makes perfect sense that I would wax arid for a while.

But now, aided by my spring break, I am back at it.  I love the painting above, of a new model.  The story of this painting is one I want to tell, because it speaks deeply to the themes that drive my art, but I need to think about how I might do that without violating the privacy of the model.  So perhaps for another blog entry.  Suffice for now to say that this piece captures the model in the kind of moment I prize: a moment of sheer grace, between all the other moments when our bodies are constrained and disfigured by our self-consciousness.

The other two pieces I've completed recently please me less.  Here is the one that really gave me fits and prevented me from even wanting to visit the easel for a few months:


I love the idea of this bodyscape.  It's incredibly graceful, the curves and the stance, the model's gorgeous figure in light and shadow.  But man....  the color just didn't come together.  I labored over it until the labor had gone sufficiently awry for me to abandon it for a while.  I also tried here to do more with masking--carving out skin highlights.  The result did not please me.  It looked too artificial, too obvious.  And worse--sin of all sins for a realist painter--inaccurate.  Shudder.

Here's a portrait I am quite fond of, however:


Yeah, this one is working OK.  It captures the model's special beauty accurately.  She and I had a good time working together, talking nerd talk and laughing.  I love a model who takes pride in her underarm fur.  And I dig her messy hair, like post-shag hair.  I hope I can say that while also affirming that my work is not, never has been, and never will be (as far as I can see now) overtly sexual.  It's only right now, as I'm looking at this, that this piece has a sort of special chaste eroticism about it.

More soon, when I can figure out how to tell the story of the top piece.  My experience in working with that model has shaken me, and I want to sort that out.  For now, yay for painting.  I told my wife yesterday, "when I'm painting, you know all is OK with me.  I have occupation, I have a reason to live, I'm living out my passion.  When I'm not painting, you have my permission to be concerned."

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Oops--Forgot a piece

And then there's this one:


Guilin, China, a Semester at Sea image.  Always wanted to paint this scenery.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

New Work

My first art show is now hung up at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation, Santa Rosa.  It's very exciting.  The ladies of the Aesthetics Committee did a great job of arranging and hanging the 36 paintings, and I have been receiving a lot of lovely comments.  I really am proud of my work now.

Here are two new pieces.  I seem to be choosing, in painting pictures of my wonderful friend Nancy, to try my hand at very complex pieces.  One was the lovely photo of her holding light in her hands.  This one I chose because I was very interested in evoking her black velvety dress.


Well, the whole picture turned out very complicated: her legs, her face, the reddish wall, the furry blanket she's sitting on.  The piece took a long time to complete.

And this one turned out much more interesting than I thought it would be too.  I chose it--the first picture of a new model--thinking it would be a quick and easy one-off.  And then, as usual, I found that her skin and the light shining on it were far more complicated than I thought they would be.  In places her skin glows.  How do you paint a glow?  The answer is with strong contrasts and with my old friend, the color orange.  


I love this piece--I love both of these pieces.  This one especially is accomplishing my highest calling as an artist: advancing, just a little bit, our understanding of the miraculous interaction of skin and light.

I am feeling good as an artist.  And lucky.  It's very gratifying to know that my paintings are making their way in the world, just a little bit.  And I feel like I will always have this blessing, this romance between me and my paintbrush.