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Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Flailing around


"Spring fever"(figure sketch, oil on canvas, 24X30)
Inevitably, someone will ask me, “How long did that painting take you?” This is a question I dread, as it is unanswerable.

This figure sketch was done last Saturday and took me about four hours of actual painting time—three hours with the model, and one hour to rough in a background. But that’s misleading.

I have painted this model for years. My studio is full of paintings of her—good, bad and indifferent. To some degree, every one of them was practice for this painting, just as this painting is practice for ones that will follow. Some were trips down dead ends. Some are works that stand up in their own right.

At this point, the model and I know each other pretty well. When she’s under the weather, my canvas shows it. And when she’s full of beans (far more often than not) it shows that too.  Painting the same model or a small cadre of models allows the artist to learn the subject and produce work that’s perhaps not as superficial as might otherwise happen. (The same is true of painting the same locale repeatedly.)

Occasionally, a student will complain about this repetition, but I feel pretty secure in saying that they have my permission to complain after they nail it perfectly. Since I never do, I don’t expect any of them to be calling my bluff any time soon.

The Saturday before last was one of those days of—as my friend Brad Marshall so aptly describes it—“flailing around.” But in that bad day of painting (and I’ve embarrassed myself by showing you just how bad it gets) was the germ of the following week’s better (albeit hardly perfect) painting.

I’m distracted: it’s income tax time, and my oldest child is being married in four weeks. On top of that, it has been an enchantingly warm spring and I can’t help but think about being outdoors right now. Neither could  the model, evidently. During a break I looked up to catch her staring out the window—and that was, in fact, the pose I was looking for. (More frequently than not, the pose I want to paint is one taken by the model when she’s not consciously posing.)

Headed for the slops pile: the prior week's figure attempt. Promise you won't let it get around.
So this prior painting will go in the slops pile, where I will allow it to ferment until I am absolutely certain there is nothing left to be mined from it, at which point I’ll slash it and get rid of it. Because for every painting that is decent, there is one or more that are… not failures, exactly, but stops on the way. My friend Marilyn Fairman, who is more fiscally conservative and scrapes down paintings she doesn’t like, calls those moments “saving the canvas,” as in, “I drove over to Piseco and saved a canvas today.” (She says it’s far better than leaving it to suffer.)

We all recognize those misfires as essential to producing the work we really want to make. As my pal Mary (a writer) says, “I’m typing along, and I’ve got an awning and a flowerpot and whatever else I can throw in there; it’s really bad, it’s schlock, but I keep typing and then suddenly, if I persevere, something comes together.”

The important thing is to get past the idea that “this work is good; ergo I’m a good artist.” A good painter is simply one who persists at painting.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

A Child Walks With Jesus



This morning, I was in the sanctuary at St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church when I realized with surprise that the Stations of the Cross are on display—well, they would be, since they were made for Lent. (I don’t attend a Lenten-observing church anymore, and the calendar gets away from me.)


(If you would like to walk the Way of the Cross, it is done each Friday at 5:30 PM. The address is 2000 Highland Avenue, Rochester. Their full Lenten schedule is here.)

I made these Stations during my own personal annus horribilis, a year in which I was being treated for colorectal cancer. The quality is—looking back—uneven. No surprise there, since there were many days I could barely lift a pencil.

I was surprised to realize that they are also no longer on the internet in any form, so I dug deep into my archives and found copies of the illustrations and the original text, which I have reproduced here:


The idea of the Stations of the Cross originated in pilgrimages to Jerusalem, in the form of was later called the Via Dolorosa or “Way of Suffering”. This was an effort to understand in some small way the suffering of Christ by following him on the route of his conviction and execution.


 Gaudenzio Ferrari, Statue of Jesus climbs the Praetorian Steps, Polychrome wood, ca. 1510 Italy, Sacro Monte di Varallo (VC), Chapel XXXII


Of course, most devout Christians never get to Jerusalem. Attempts to replicate the Via Dolorosa experience for the rest of us appeared as early as the 5th century. Eventually these took the form of connected shrines, bas relief carvings on indoor or outdoor church walls, or woodcuts in bound books.

 Albrecht Dürer (1471 -1528), 'The Large Passion: The Crucifixion', Germany, About 1498

For both the points on the Via Dolorosa and the images disseminated throughout Europe, the term “Stations” was in use after about the 15th century.

By the 16th century, out-of-door Stations of the Cross were a regular sight on the approaches to many large churches—most commonly with seven settings, but ranging up to 30.


by Adam Kraft (1490) in Nuremberg

In 1731, Pope Clement XII fixed the number of stations at the modern 14. These are:

  1. Jesus is condemned to death
  2. Jesus accepts the cross
  3. Jesus falls the first time
  4. Jesus meets His Mother
  5. Simon of Cyrene carries the cross
  6. Veronica wipes the face of Jesus
  7. Jesus falls the second time
  8. Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem
  9. Jesus falls the third time
  10. Jesus is stripped of His garments
  11. Crucifixion: Jesus is nailed to the cross
  12. Jesus dies on the cross
  13. Jesus' body is removed from the cross (Deposition or Lamentation)
  14. Jesus is laid in the tomb and covered in incense.

The problem for we literalist Protestants is that Stations 3, 4, 6, 7, and 9  have no clear basis in the Bible.

So how does an evangelical proceed when asked to make Stations of the Cross for an Episcopal church? The Episcopal Church frequently hearkens back to what it calls its three-legged stool, which is in itself a recapitulation of Richard Hooker’s hierarchical ranking of doctrine:

  1. “What Scripture doth plainly deliver.”
  2. That which may be concluded “by force of reason.”
  3. That which “the church by her ecclesiastical authority” thinks and defines as true.

No room there for Veronica, no matter how lovely the story is.

Ironically, I could have just waited for the Catholics. In 2007, Pope Benedict approved a new set of Stations for Catholics, called the Scriptural Way of the Cross. Those Stations are:

  1. Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane,
  2. Jesus is betrayed by Judas and arrested,
  3. Jesus is condemned by the Sanhedrin,
  4. Jesus is denied by Peter,
  5. Jesus is judged by Pilate,
  6. Jesus is scourged and crowned with thorns,
  7. Jesus takes up His cross,
  8. Jesus is helped by Simon to carry His cross,
  9. Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem,
  10. Jesus is crucified,
  11. Jesus promises His kingdom to the repentant thief,
  12. Jesus entrusts Mary and John to each other,
  13. Jesus dies on the cross,
  14. Jesus is laid in the tomb.
One thing—the originals are the property of St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, but the right of reproduction resides with me, the artist. And that I share freely with the world. Go ahead and share them with anyone who might enjoy it.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Adirondack Wild, a plein air painting workshop

The porch at the Irondequoit Inn at dusk... a beautiful, relaxing place to listen to the loons on Piseco Lake.
A few years ago, my husband and son signed up for a father-son canoe trip in Speculator, NY. Because I’m always restless to paint, I rode up with them. And because I live near Irondequoit Bay on Lake Ontario, I naturally booked a room at the Irondequoit Inn in Piseco, sight unseen.

That was the start of a beautiful friendship.

Canoes and kayaks near the beach at Irondequoit Inn, photo courtesy of Eric & Liz Davis.

Over my life, I’ve backpacked in the High Peaks, visited Ausable Chasm, camped along the Fulton Chain, toddled through Santa’s Workshop, been to the top of Whiteface Mountain in an overheating old Chevy station wagon, scouted for “Herkimer Diamonds,” pored over old boats at the museum at Blue Mountain Lake, hiked up to Lake Tear of the Clouds. But although I’ve painted all over the world, I had—until that trip—never painted in the Adirondacks.

Irondequoit Inn from their private island on Piseco Lake.
Cool photo, huh? Taken by Eric & Liz Davis.

Several years ago, I taught in the southwest desert. It was very interesting, and I came home having made some wonderful friends and taken some great photos, but I really got no brilliant work done.


Mill Stream, on the Irondequoit Inn grounds, photo courtesy of Eric & Liz Davis.
There were two limitations. The first is that the southwest desert doesn’t resonate with me in the same way as the northeast does, despite the fact that it is theoretically more painterly, being a land of broad vistas and warm colors. The second is that distances are so great that we spent an inordinate amount of time driving.

This year I am teaching a painting workshop in conjunction with the Irondequoit Inn’s 120th Anniversary, from September 30-October 5, which is the height of leaf season in the mountains.

My painting buddies will love the ambiance of this old-fashioned Inn, with its broad porches, antique furniture and casual charm. There is a beach, an island, and three streams on the Inn’s own property, along with three wonderful lakes within spitting distance: Piseco, Oxbow, and Lake Pleasant, meaning that no long drives need be undertaken.


Weather closing in on Piseco Lake outlet.

The price is fantastic—$775, including lodging and meals—even our box lunches for out in the field! And because the Inn is doing the management, I am free to concentrate on what I do best—teaching painting.

Here is a link to the brochure, and a link to more images (in no particular order). My NYC painting pals should note that they can take the train to Rensselaer/Albany and rent a car from there. (Or, if you don’t drive, they should contact me and I’ll see what I can do to arrange a car pool.)

I do hope you are able to join us.