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Tuesday, January 31, 2017

I would have been a dictator, but sexism

"No, I really do not want to talk to you." The Servant, Carol L. Douglas.
When I was younger, career opportunities for my Myers-Briggs personality type, ENTJ, just didn’t exist for women. “Yours is the least common type,” I was told. “And you share it with Adolph Hitler, Napoleon Bonaparte, Alexander Hamilton, Margaret Thatcher.” And, more recently, Donald Trump.

I don’t have the patience to be a genocidal murderer or even a world leader. I’d be more interested in running a cult, but, except for the wonderfully weird Madame Blavatsky that is a male-only career path, so I became an artist, the next best thing.

This has been on my mind because my church is doing a program on discerning one’s calling. Part of that involved taking the Myers-Briggs, which I respectfully sat out. I’ve taken it enough times to know that my personality, while dictatorial, ruthless, rational and insensitive, is also set in stone.

I’ve mentioned that to people who only know my public persona. “Oh, there must be some mistake,” they say. My family, who know me best, just laugh bitterly.

My son has also been Myers-Briggsed extensively. He is just like me except that he’s an introvert. I have exactly ten times as many friends as he does on Facebook, which isn’t that surprising since he uses an alias and fake picture. The puzzling part is that he likes people a lot more than I do.

Shouldn’t an extrovert like her fellow man? I often don’t. That same judging thing, the belief that people could live orderly lives if they only cleaned their rooms, often gets in the way of sympathy. This is why, I’m sure, I was turned down for the job of Savior. The answer to “WWJD” is probably not “mow them down with gunfire if they don’t straighten up.”

"OK, I'll talk if you won't be an idiot." Married, by Carol L. Douglas
“I never think about other people’s business if I can help it, and then only if they are determined to confide in me,” said my current favorite fictional heroine, Dame Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley. Dame Beatrice is, ironically, a psychiatrist. I’m sure she, like me, is also a disallusioned ENTJ.

On Sunday, our pastor—who also has Myers-Briggs on the brain—made a joke about the J component of the Myers-Briggs. That J-P preference, by the way, describes how you live your outer life. Are you structured and decided (judging) or adaptive (perceiving)?

“Ordnung! Order!” I shouted, but in a quiet, orderly way. This was church, after all. He didn't hear me. Later, Naomi and Kimberly and I talked about it. Order, we agreed, is necessary for beauty, and beauty is paramount for artists. So screw all that touchy-feely stuff. We're going for a high polish.

I have four kids, so you can bet your life that there were times my house wasn’t orderly. “But you still wanted it,” noted Kimberly. That was a great insight about the “J” personality. - You don’t actually have to succeed at obsession-compulsion to feel the impulse.

Still, my incontinent, elderly, senile Jack Russell terrier knows that if he goes out every two hours to pee, he gets a treat when he comes in. So he does, and the floors remain clean. There’s not a lot of difference between that and training myself to be alert and ready to work at 9 AM in my studio.

Js. We’re so misunderstood.


Monday, January 30, 2017

Fixing mistakes



Mt. Hayes and the Alaska Range, by Carol L. Douglas
Sometimes when we rework old oil paintings, there’s a temptation to repaint the entire surface. The new paint looks lush and full; the old paint is dull and thin. That’s particularly true when you never got past thin layers in the first place. That old turpentine-thinned paint has oxidized. The drying leaves a pitted surface on the top of the paint, which appears chalky and grey.  

You can bring the color back up in these passages by varnishing, but you really shouldn’t paint into varnish or medium, no matter what you might have read elsewhere. The “fat over lean” rule applies even to old paintings.

If your painting is thoroughly dry, you can brush a light coating of turpentine or mineral spirits over the painting. That will bring up the colors of the oxidized passages long enough for you to make your corrections. It ought to stem the urge to repaint the whole thing. Of course, if large areas of your paintings are oxidizing, you’re not using medium correctly.


On Friday I shot an extremely short video of myself changing the color of the traps in a tree line. I sent this to a reader who was wondering how much paint to use in this correction phase. It doesn’t have much in the line of production values, but it might be helpful.

The painting of Mt. Hayes and the eastern Alaska Range was painted near Delta Junction, Alaska. It was early in our trans-Canada trip. Although it appeared surface dry when I wrapped it, the thicker white paint in the river and sky squished and flattened under the weight of subsequent paintings.

This was a simple resurfacing job—and that was a very good thing, since I have no reference photos. It also gave me the chance to adjust the color of the Tanana River, which looks like light chocolate milk, it’s carrying so much silt.

Lake of the Woods, by Carol L. Douglas

I’d realized after I left Lake of the Woods in western Ontario that I’d never actually finished painting in the sky. This was a very simple fix, but I used the moment to add a little warmth to the water in the foreground.

In the last painting, I corrected a lie. I’d intended to paint a house surrounded by fields and a windbreak, but couldn’t find the right combination of side road, farm and fields. In real life, my subject was fronted by a low waste area of reeds but I’d edited that out.

Windbreak, by Carol L. Douglas
When the glaciers from the last ice age receded, they left behind millions of shallow depressions. These wetlands are known as ‘prairie potholes.’ They are significant resources for plant and animal life and support millions of breeding waterfowl, whose numbers are being threatened as the potholes are drained for large-scale farming. I really shouldn’t have excised them from the one scene in which they appear, and it makes me consider whether I want to add a studio painting that does the potholes justice.

I expected that deleting the field and reinstating the reeds would take me a long time, but it was done in fifteen minutes or so. I will probably incise a little more texture into the reeds, but it’s never going to be my favorite painting.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Shipwrecked? That was partly in my mind.

Unfinished painting of the wreck of the SS Ethie, Newfoundland, by Carol L. Douglas
When Mary and I stood at Martin’s Point in Gros Morne National Park, we knew there would be no work done that day. We’d driven there specifically to paint the wreck of the SS Ethie. This is a lovely shipwreck story featuring a Newfoundland dog and a baby, but I’ve told it before.  

However, Hurricane Matthew was rumbling up the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The beach was windswept, cold and wet. It was starting to snow. This was one of the moments in my trans-Canada adventure where I just took photos and moved on.

The Ethie’s hero, a Newfoundland dog, came from tiny Sally’s Cove, seen in the mist.

Sadly, my photos captured nothing of the grinding energy of the sea that drove the Ethie into the rocks in the first place, on a similar wintry day. Her iron remains are scattered along a surprisingly long stretch of rock-studded beach, but that doesn’t really work in a painting.

Occasionally, I like to let my subconscious do some work. I reverted to a technique I used frequently about fifteen years ago. I improvised a series of shapes on a large canvas. The only guidance I gave myself was the word “maelstrom.” I didn’t start this with any sense of up or down, and I rotated the canvas as I worked.

My underpainting.

One of my former students in Rochester recently broke his leg. He is using the time experimenting with abstract painting. “I have come to believe that representational painting is easier because there is some reference,” Brad told me. In some ways, he’s right. That reaching down inside yourself is difficult business.

I can grip on to reality too hard, and one of my current goals is to let go, at least a little bit. There are important things to learn in the completely subjective side of painting, and it’s been too long since I’ve visited it.

As interesting as this was, I had to set it aside and return to my regularly-scheduled work. I’ve just bought a new laptop. My old one was, like my old dog, falling down regularly. It had developed the whiff of corruption in its hard drive and did not want to give up its secret gnosis, by which I mean the more than 32,000 images I consult on a regular basis.

Parts of the Ethie are scattered along the shore.

I’m not good at logical, hierarchical work. For one thing, there’s too much sitting. I just get mad and punch buttons until something happens. However, two days of pacing and swearing at a machine did give that abstraction time to settle in my head. Last night I sat down and converted it to a realistic painting—of sorts.

It's not that I literally took the abstraction and applied it to the painting, or that I took my reference photos and applied them to the abstraction. The underpainting was my sense of the motion of the surf, and I plugged in details of the wreck where I wanted them. I’m pretty sure I can make something of it.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

The un-peaceful plein air paintings of Sir Alfred Munnings

Charge of Flowerdew's Squadron, 1918, Sir Alfred Munnings, Canadian War Museum
“I love it when a painter shows a little more than I had credited him or her with,” Victoria Brzustowicz wrote me earlier this month. “I had always dismissed Alfred Munnings as a facile society painter of horses and the beautiful people who owned them. Then I saw some more energetic pieces and I was impressed. These have the vitality and energy of Sorolla, I think.”

If I thought of Sir Alfred at all, I’ve only done so in passing, because his early twentieth-century horses are too twee for me. Then I came across the stupendous canvas, above, the Charge of Flowerdew’s Squadron, from the Canadian War Museum, and realized I had to reassess him.

Study of Lady Munnings Riding with Her Dogs on Exmoor, 1924, Sir Alfred Munnings, Munnings Art Museum

Raised in the English countryside, Munnings was apprenticed to a printer at the age of 14. He attended art school in his spare time. The loss of sight in his right eye in 1898, when he was twenty, did not affect either his drawing and painting skills or his ability to ride. He was married twice, both times to avid horsewomen. His second wife, Violet McBride, encouraged his career as a society painter, which resulted in his knighthood in 1944.

Munnings is famous for an inebriated defense of traditional painting, delivered to millions of listeners over the BBC. “Alfred, if you met Picasso coming down the street would you join with me in kicking his ... something something?" he recalled Winston Churchill asking him.

Munnings volunteered for the Great War, but in his mid-thirties and blind in one eye, was deemed unfit. Instead, he processed tens of thousands of Canadian horses en route to the battlefields of France.

Major-General the Right Hon. JEB Seely on Warrior, 1918, Sir Alfred Munnings, Canadian War Museum
Eventually, he was moved forward to a horse depot on the Western Front. There he painted a field portrait of General Jack Seely astride his horse Warrior, above. During this painting, artist and models came under enemy fire.

Warrior participated in one of the last great cavalry charges in modern warfare, during the Battle of Moreuil Wood in 1918. Charge of Flowerdew's Squadron (1918) is a scene from that engagement. Canadian Lieutenant Gordon Flowerdew led a charge against two lines of enemy, each about sixty strong, heavily armed with machine guns. Although about 70% of Flowerdew’s squadron were casualties, they managed to ride over the enemy lines twice, forcing them to withdraw. Flowerdew himself was fatally wounded. Though Moreuil Wood was taken and the German advance checked, a quarter of the men and half of the horses were lost.
Draft horses, lumber mill in the Forest of Dreux, 1918, Sir Alfred Munnings, Canadian War Museum
WWI was the last war in which horses played a critical part, but it was a crucial one. It has been estimated that some eight million horses, mules and donkeys died on both sides. For an artist who loved the beasts, sending them off to battle and painting them while they worked must have been terrible responsibilities.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Moving on, or moving back

"Under a milky sky (Hare Bay, Newfoundland)," Carol L. Douglas

I’m happy to announce that as of today, Watch Me Paint returns to Blogspot. I’d like to thank the Bangor Daily News for the past 17 months of hosting. It’s been a great learning experience, and there are many fine blogs on that platform that I read every day.

Astute readers may have noticed that Watch Me Paint has appeared on several platforms for the past five months. This was market research. The modern internet gives us analytic tools simple enough even for an artist to use. I know who visits my website and where they come from. That information supports what the experts say: when all else is equal, host your own blog. It gives you total control of your brand.

My students have heard me speak of group norming in terms of painting. This is when artists who work closely together influence each other’s style. This is the process by which a painting group becomes a ‘school’. It can be a powerful tool for creating new art movements, or it can be repressive.

For painters, it’s important to find working partners interested in the same questions as you are. That doesn’t mean your work will always look the same. For example, even though he was a founding member of the Group of Seven, Lawren Harris ended up being an abstract painter.

Here in Maine, we haven’t been doing much outdoor group painting recently. Meanwhile, my old friends in Rochester have been out every week. They’re having a rare, snowless winter. So I jumped when Bobbi Heath and Joëlle Feldman invited me to join them to paint in the Bahamas next month. Both of them are interested in the same fundamental questions I am: drawing, color relationships and the simplification of landscape. I expect that tropical climate has far different light than I’m used to, and am going to bring a few pigments that I don’t usually use.

I’m committed to finishing my backlog of Canada paintings before we head out. I’m making slow progress, but I’m starting with the least-finished pieces first.

"Grain Elevators, Saskatchewan," Carol L. Douglas
Yesterday I worked on a painting started in the tiny village of Hare Bay on the northeast coast of Newfoundland. Hurricane Matthew was moving in. There was a milky sky in the deep gloom of fading light. The lighting seemed to fit the mood of this small, poor, isolated town tucked in under an enormous rocky ledge. It wasn’t until I picked it up again in my studio that I felt the oppressive emptiness of the harbor.

The other painting is of a grain elevator in Neelby, Saskatchewan. This was started in a ghost town now owned by rancher Gordon Kish. Again, the light was fading. There is something immensely silent in that hour before twilight, when the shadows are long and every detail is picked out by the searchlight sun. And yet my painting is hardly still. Who knows why?

This morning it’s 12° F in Neelby and 15° F in Hare Bay. While I love field painting more than anything, there’s a time for central heating, too. 

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Levitating lobster boat, and an unsalvageable ghost ship

"Working boats, Bay of Fundy,",Carol L. Douglas.
“Working boats, Bay of Fundy,”Carol L. Douglas.
In the Canadian Maritimes, boats are sometimes left to rest on mudflats as the tide drops. Occasionally I’ll see that here in mid-coast Maine, but nowhere near as frequently. It’s something that interests me, and I’ve painted it before, in Rising Tide at Wadsworth Cove.
On the last day of my Trans-Canada adventure, I painted two working boats resting in the Bay of Fundy. This painting was, I thought, unsalvageable—the only one I did on that trip that I couldn’t redeem.  I had spent considerable time drafting, only to realize after I finished that the boat in the back appeared to be levitating.
My lobster boat appears to levitate here, too.
My lobster boat appears to levitate here, too.
Yesterday I realized that the boat seems to be levitating in my reference photo, too. I spent considerable time repainting the foreground to anchor it, only to conclude that the lobster boat is still floating. I have concluded that levitation is just a Canadian reality.
Fundy Ghost is the name of the foreground trawler, and it’s an odd choice. This nickname is sometimes applied to the most famous ghost ship of all time, the Mary Celeste. She was launched as Amazon in 1861 from a shipyard on Spencer’s Island in Nova Scotia. On her maiden voyage, her captain fell ill and died. She suffered a collision in the narrows off Eastport and rammed and sank a brig in the English Channel. In 1867, she was wrecked off Cape Breton Island and sold as salvage to an American. He went broke in the process of restoring her.
The Mary Celeste painted as the Amazon, 1861, by an unknown artist.
The Mary Celeste painted as the Amazon, 1861, by an unknown artist.
After a major refit, the Mary Celeste headed from New York to Genoa, Italy, under the command of Captain Benjamin Briggs. Briggs was an experienced sailor, an abstemious Christian, and a married man. He brought his wife and infant daughter along on the trip, leaving his school-aged son with relatives. His crew were all experienced sailors of good character.
Eight days after Mary Celeste left harbor, a Nova Scotian boat named Dei Gratiafollowed her out along the same route. Midway between the Azores and Portugal, it came upon the Mary Celeste moving erratically under partially-set sails. The ship was deserted, the binnacle damaged and the lazar and fore hatches left open. The small yawl that served as the boat’s lifeboat was missing. Everything pointed to an orderly emergency departure, but the Briggs family and crew were never heard from again.
With great difficulty, Dei Gratia brought the Mary Celeste into Gibraltar. Salvage hearings found no evidence of piracy, fraud, or foul play.
Eventually, Mary Celeste returned to New York, where her bad reputation caught up with her. After rotting on the docks until 1874, she went into the West Indies trade.  She regularly lost money. In 1879, her captain, Edgar Tuthill, fell ill and died in Saint Helena.
"Rising Tide at Wadsworth Cove," Carol L. Douglas
“Rising Tide at Wadsworth Cove,” Carol L. Douglas
In 1884, a group of Boston shippers filled the Mary Celeste with junk and heavily insured her. Her captain, Gilman C. Parker, deliberately ran her aground in Haiti. Parker made the mistake of selling the salvage rights for $500 to the American consul, who promptly reported that the cargo was, in fact, worthless. The conspirators in Boston were arrested. Parker was additionally charged with the capital crime of barratry. He died three months later, the last victim of the cursed ghost ship of the Bay of Fundy.

Monday, January 23, 2017

What has the NEA done for you recently?

"The Corn Parade," 1941, by Orr C. Fisher, in the Mount Ayr, Iowa, post office, has nothing to do with the NEA.
“The Corn Parade,” 1941, by Orr C. Fisher, Mount Ayr, Iowa. The NEA had nothing to do with this art.
People expect me to be angry about proposed cuts to the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), so my inbox has been flooded with comments about it.
“What has the NEA actually done for you recently?” I’ve asked in response.
“Well, I like their murals in the post offices,” answered more than one correspondent.
“That was the WPA,” I answered, “And you should know that.”
My first job, in the late 1970s, was in a museum. The greater part of my working career has been spent either as a self-employed artist or working for non-profits in arts-related fields. In the trenches, far from Carnegie Hall, the NEA is absolutely irrelevant.
In 2012, the NEA published How the US Funds the Arts, intended in part to demonstrate how backwards we are compared to other nations. For performing art groups, only 1.2% of revenues came from the Federal government. And performing art groups, by their cooperative nature, are more likely to need crowdsourcing of some kind than are visual artists.
"Ken and Tyler," 1985, by Robert Mapplethorpe, is NOT the piece that caused an outcry after being purchased by the NEA.   That was his self-portrait with a bullwhip, and you can look it up yourself.
“Ken and Tyler,” 1985, by Robert Mapplethorpe, is NOT the piece that caused an outcry after being purchased with support by the NEA. You can look that up yourself.
The problem with the NEA giving $30,000 to the Institute of Contemporary Photography to buy violent and homoerotic images by Robert Mapplethorpe wasn’t just the content; it was that Mapplethorpe was already a successful artist. That money didn’t go toward making new art; it went to collecting the work of a recently-dead artist, which was really about investment, not about developing new art.
Giving Andres Serrano a $15,000 award for Piss Christ not only offended the taxpayers; it set in stone the idea that we should have rules about paying for the stuff. This, falsely labelled ‘censorship’, paradoxically gave offensive art more power than it ought to have had. It’s now thirty years later and we’re still dealing with the flashback.
Government bureaucracies are slow-moving ships, whereas artists are generally light skiffs moving in the breeze. For example, the NEA frequently makes individual music grants to support “artistic achievement, significant impact, and continuing contributions to the development and performance of jazz.” Now, jazz is nice, but it’s hardly cutting-edge. Cutting edge is being done by teenagers in their parents’ basements.
Immersion (Piss Christ), 1987, Andres Serrano, caused a backlash about NEA arts sponsorship.
Immersion (Piss Christ), 1987, Andres Serrano, caused a backlash about NEA arts sponsorship.
And that’s my real beef with the NEA. It isn’t there to fund new art; it’s there to prop up art that appeals to the chattering classes.
Artnet, which tracks market prices, makes an annual list of the most expensive living artists. Consulting this list will give you an idea of what the real tastemakers in the world buy.
Meanwhile, the masses stubbornly insist on buying music, movies and paintings that reflect their ‘pedestrian’ taste. Mock it if you must, but our pop culture is a vibrant scene that’s been aspired to and copied worldwide for more than a century.
Want a copy of Robert Mapplethorpe’s Self Portrait with a Whip (1978)?  I’m not going to stop you, but you can pay for it yourself. Want a nice painting of a lighthouse? I’m not going to stop you, but you can pay for it yourself.

Friday, January 20, 2017

How to paint something that makes no sense

"Coal Seam," by Carol L. Douglas
“Coal Seam,” by Carol L. Douglas
We’ve all had the experience of loving an abstracted landscape painting, only to finally visit the site on which it was painted and realize it was much more realistic than we’d thought. Visiting Ghost Ranch with Georgia O’Keeffe in mind is an excellent example. There are iconic views that make sense no matter who paints them, like Motif Number One in Rockport, MA. On the flip side, there are things that wouldn’t be believable even in the most realistic of styles.
This was the case with the coal seam I painted along the Red Deer River in Canada’s badlands. It’s small, it’s odd, and I like it, even though I’m still not sure I’m finished.
This is what my camera saw of the coal seam. It's an excellent argument for plein air painting.
This is what my camera saw of the coal seam. It’s an excellent argument for plein air painting.
I didn’t finish the painting on-site because the vibrations from the high winds were making my easel unusable. I was shocked to look at my reference painting and see how bleached the place looks in a photo. Those seams of rock were a beautiful cross-play of color in real life.
"Goosefare Reflection," by Carol L. Douglas
“Goosefare Reflection,” by Carol L. Douglas
This summer I painted Goosefare Creek in Ocean Park, ME, which ended up being a similar abstraction. The Goosefare’s mouth changes course with every nor’easter that blows through. That means you can take any artistic liberty you want. I was interested in the sand and its reflection in the wide arc of the stream.

"Sunset off Stonington," by Carol L. Douglas
“Sunset off Stonington,” by Carol L. Douglas
Sunrises and sunsets sometimes seem artificial to me. The one above was painted from the deck of the American Eagle off Stonington, ME. I threw it down in disgust after touching up the colors last week, complaining that I had ruined it.
“What do you do with the ones you don’t like?” a friend asked.
“Swear and get back to work on them,” I answered.
In fact, after a few days not looking at it, I think the light and color are really quite accurate.
"Rain squall on Lake Huron," by Carol L. Douglas
“Rain squall on Lake Huron,” by Carol L. Douglas
I had about fifteen minutes to limb out this storm on Lake Huron before the blowing rain emulsified my paint. Finishing it was just a matter of adding some final coverage. I wouldn’t do more with it, because even though it’s just a few brushstrokes, it tells the viewer everything he needs to know.
There’s something to be said for not jumping in too fast to ‘fix’ a plein air piece. You can easily destroy what’s quirky and wonderful about it because to your tired eyes it looks just wrong.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

It’s all Michael’s fault

"Berna's rocks," Carol L. Douglas
“Berna’s rocks,” Carol L. Douglas
A few years ago, I plopped down on the front lawn at my pal Berna’s house. I’d just handed in my six paintings to Castine Plein Air. These were done and framed in two and a half days, which is a brutal schedule but one which we itinerant painters are used to.
I’m not sure why I was still fired up to paint, but I picked up my brushes and started the little sketch above. It was late in the afternoon, and Berna and I each had a glass of very cold white wine and some chips. Since I was hot and sweaty and more than a little tired, it may have been more than one glass of wine.
A car pulled up, driven by my friend and fellow painter Michael Chesley Johnson, who was staying next door. Michael’s usually a pretty dapper fellow, but he was looking even dressier than usual.
“Where are you off to?” I asked him.
“Our opening,” he answered. “We’re supposed to be there right now.”
I threw my stuff down and ran to dress. I’ve never looked so bad at an opening, and I blame Michael. It’s all his fault.

What I look like after a day's painting.
What I look like after a typical day’s painting.
Castine will do its fifth plein air festival again on July 20-22. It’s one of my favorite events. It’s well-juried, and the artwork is excellent. Castine itself is an oasis of old-fashioned amiability. I’d call it Mayberry-by-the-sea, except it’s a lot smaller and doesn’t run to a traffic light. If you were thinking of visiting Maine this summer, you might want to add this festival to your itinerary.
That incomplete painting got thrown in the back of my car. “I’ll finish it when I get home,” I told Berna, but of course there was another event and more paintings, and I never got to it. That’s all Michael’s fault, too.
Painting at Castine with Poppy Balser. I don't understand why I'm always a mess.
Painting at Castine with Poppy Balser. I don’t understand why I’m always a mess.
Then a Nor’easter blew into Castine. The tree in my painting, a supple young thing that should have weathered many more storms, suddenly was no more. I had no photos of it, because I’d had to leave in such a hurry. That, of course, was Michael’s fault.
I ran across that painting last week. It’s nothing important: just the rocks in Berna’s and Harry’s yard, incised with their house number, with a now-non-existent tree in the background. Since they still have the real rocks and the real house, they hardly need this painting, but memorizing what it looks like might help get them home at night.
So I finished it and I’ll mail it to them when it dries. And Michael will get no credit for that. That I will do all on my own.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Resolving disagreement, the art history way

Seven Sacraments Altarpiece (detail), 1445 to 1450, Rogier van der Weyden.
Seven Sacraments Altarpiece (detail), 1445 to 1450, Rogier van der Weyden.
Recently one of my kids asked me why I had her baptized as an infant. I answered her from an Anglo-Catholic perspective, citing the practice among early Christians and references in Acts 16 and 1 Corinthians. I added the medieval argument that, while babies don’t consent to baptism, they hardly consent to Original Sin either.
This question of infant baptism is the reason we have Baptists in the first place. They, along with their Anabaptist brethren, believe that baptism only counts along with a confession of faith. My favorite Baptist is a self-described ‘hedge preacher,’ Pastor John Nicholson of Siloam Baptist Church in Marion, AL. Knowing him convinced this Yankee that everything I thought I knew about Southern Baptists was probably wrong.
John challenged me to show him where in Scripture infant baptism was justified. I challenged him to show me where it was prohibited. Is baptism a statement of faith (as Baptists believe) or a sign of grace (as Anglo-Catholics believe)? John pointed out that Jesus was baptized as an adult; I pointed out that baptism is “the circumcision of the heart.” He pointed out that Peter said, “Repent and be baptized…”
And then one of us mentioned pictures. We both love art. Usually I answer almost every historical question not by citing literature but by looking at the art. But on the subject of infant baptism, the visual record is strangely mum.
Baptism of Christ, first half of 3rd century, Catacomb of Callixtus, Rome.
Baptism of Christ, first half of 3rd century, Catacomb of Callixtus, Rome.
The oldest painted baptism image I know of is from the third century, from the Catacomb of Callixtus in Rome. Whatever its virtues when it was new, it’s now not much more than a smudge. The uninitiated might think that the smaller figure is a child, but it is probably Christ, as evidenced by the flying shape—most likely a dove—to the right. The figure on the left is probably a personification of the River Jordan, a charmingly pagan symbol painted into this secret Christian artwork.

Detail of Christ as the Good Shepherd (left) and the Baptism of Christ (right), Santa Maria Antiqua Sarcophagus, 3rd century, Church of Santa Maria Antiqua, Rome.
Detail of Christ as the Good Shepherd (left) and the Baptism of Christ (right), Santa Maria Antiqua Sarcophagus, 3rd century, Church of Santa Maria Antiqua, Rome.
It makes sense that Christ’s baptism would be more important for artists than the baptism of unknown people, infant or otherwise. Why baptism was associated with sarcophagi is less clear, but there are more (and better preserved) examples of third-century sarcophagi with baptism imagery than there are paintings.
It was not until the Middle Ages, when the Seven Sacraments were first enumerated, that infant baptism—or indeed the baptism of anyone but Jesus—became a subject for painting. By that point, the Church’s position on infant baptism was well established, so such paintings tell us exactly nothing.
The Baptism of St. Paul, 12th century mosaic, Palatine Chapel, Palermo, Sicily.
The Baptism of St. Paul, 12th century mosaic, Palatine Chapel, Palermo, Sicily.
John had the last word on the subject, from Augustine of Hippo: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, love.” If only all contentious discussions ended that way!

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Is love really too much to ask?

Sir Stanley Spencer did not paint violence often, but when he did, as in “Crucifixion,” he focused on our response to it.
Stanley Spencer didn’t paint violence often, but when he did, as in “Crucifixion,” he focused on our response.
Years ago I belonged to an anti-polygamy activist group. I broke with them when they published a photo of a suspected child molester sleeping with his infant granddaughter on his chest. Yank the troll’s chain all you want, I said, but keep the children out of it.
My friend’s nephew is going to be sentenced for a high-profile crime on Friday. Yesterday his picture was published on a racist website, with frequent bandying of the n-word. He’s an adult and can take it, but they also published photos of his two little boys. Their only offense was the color of their skin.
I sent the link to my programmer husband in the hope that he could identify the host. My husband overcame his revulsion and looked long enough to tell me that there wasn’t an open-or-shut identity. “There is some obfuscation employed,” he said.
Spencer’s “Christ Carrying the Cross,” 1920, is an image of bystanders ogling violence. It’s a very real response that spans history.
Spencer’s “Christ Carrying the Cross,” 1920, is an image of bystanders enjoying someone else’s misfortune.
Beyond that, all I can do is to pray that God strikes the server with lightning and counsel my friends to ignore it. That’s easier said than done, I realize.
I am blessed with many friends. They are, on the whole, civilized people. “I hate that guy” is empty verbiage to us. I’m always shocked when I hear about real hateful behavior. And yet, if you believe our crime statistics, it’s not only all around us, but it’s increasing.
This week’s incident is race-based, but it isn’t always. Several years ago, my friend’s son was arrested for second-degree murder. The lad was (rightfully) acquitted, but that didn’t stop him from receiving death threats. His family—innocent in every respect—had to sell their home and moved to a different town.
“Knowing (the Beatitudes of Love),” Stanley Spencer
“Knowing (the Beatitudes of Love),” Stanley Spencer
In some cases, the dangerous places we live are physical. In others, violence is a mental climate, fed in part by media and the internet. It’s a pity that these have become vectors for lies and hatred, because they have been a boon in so many ways.
The people who published those little boys’ picture obfuscated their service provider because they have been reported before. They know what they’re doing is wrong. My friend would like them to creep back under the rock from which they crawled, but to me that is only a short-term solution. They’ll just crawl back out somewhere else.
None of this can be blamed on the election or any other outside force. People choose to hate, just as they can choose to love.
“I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven,” Jesus said.
Sir Stanley Spencer was a true naïf whose innocence was much abused. And yet his reactions to love and violence were very much along the lines of those suggested by Jesus. It’s why he is one of my favorite painters.
“Gardening,” Stanley Spencer
“Gardening,” Stanley Spencer
“I love them from within outwards and whatever that outward appearance may be it is an exquisite reminder of what is loved within, no matter what that exterior appearance may be,” Spencer said.
Is love really too much to ask?

Monday, January 16, 2017

Made in China

"Stone of Hope," 2011, Lei Yixin
“Stone of Hope,” 2011, Lei Yixin
Having spent my weekend with a 2” sash brush, I turned to my husband this morning and asked, “Now do I get a day off?” He reminded me that it’s a holiday.
Martin Luther King, Jr. deserves better than the national memorial we’ve created for him. It is simply terrible, the worst of art-by-committee.
Its master sculptor, Lei Yixin, is a communist-trained public artist from the People’s Republic of China. He has sculpted some 150 public monuments, including multiple statues of Mao Zedong. If you’ve never seen his other work, join the club. Lei hasn’t got an online persona as would a western sculptor. He churns out politi-prop and decorative art, a state-sponsored artist of no particular distinction.
"Abraham Lincoln," 1920, Daniel Chester French
“Abraham Lincoln,” 1920, Daniel Chester French
Lei’s sculpture of King is not a portrait in the western sense. Compare it to Daniel Chester French’s Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial. French was one of most acclaimed of 19th-century American sculptors. His work is across America, including the Minute Man at Concord. He was immersed in American hagiography, and it shows.
Lei’s is a colossus in the totalitarian sense, similar to busts of Lenin, Saddam Hussein and Chairman Mao. These have a long history, including the many colossi erected by various Roman emperors. They are an emblem of power and control.
"Bound slave (Atlas), 1530–34, Michelangelo
“Bound slave (Atlas), 1530–34, Michelangelo
Lei’s idea of King emerging from stone came from western artistic practice. In this case, the source is non-finito sculpture, practiced from Michelangelo to the present time. Michelangelo’s slaves have been interpreted in many ways, but they’re clearly emblematic of a struggle to freedom. For Auguste Rodin, the unfinished marble was more complex, as shown in his 1895 “La Pensée.” But for Lei, it’s simply a paralyzing device.
Why did we pay China millions of dollars, hire a Chinese artist to create an icon to an American freedom fighter, and import granite from China when all of Maine is made of the stuff?  In part, it’s because the Chinese government kicked back $25 million to make it possible. In part, this is what you get when art is done by committee.
While still an undergraduate, sculptor Maya Lin won a public design competition for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, beating 1,441 other competition submissions. Lin’s idea was simple: a wound in the earth that represented the loss of the soldiers. Her work was controversial at the time, but for different reasons—none of us had ever seen anything like it.
Lin believes that had the competition not been open and blind, she never would have won. Her ethnicity, her age, her gender, and her lack of experience all told against her. Her experience is a powerful argument for jurying.
"La Pensée," 1895, Auguste Rodin
“La Pensée,” 1895, Auguste Rodin
In contrast, Lei’s work was chosen by three guys on a committee. In 2006, Public Art St. Paul held a sculpture competition and symposium similar to the Schoodic Sculpture Symposium held here in Maine. Lei was one of the participants. (His hometown, Changsha, Hunan, is one of St. Paul’s Sister Cities.)
“They [the committee members] knew that a 30-foot sculpture of Dr. King was going to be the centerpiece of the memorial, and they’d been looking for several years for a sculptor who could work on that scale. And they had despaired,” Christine Podas-Larson, president of Public Art St. Paul told media.
“But when they saw publicity about how we had all these sculptors from around the world in St. Paul, they hopped on a plane,” she continued. “They knew they were going to find their sculptor. They didn’t know which one, but they knew they’d find their artist.”
For our next generation’s sculptors, shut out of the process before it even started, that hurts. For King’s legacy, that hurts too.