One day a few years ago, I signed up to put my art on the Hygienic Gallery's then-new art network page. The Hygienic Restaurant (which wasn't... hygienic, that is), on Bank Street in New London, Conn., was a fixture in my youth. Then, it was open all night, and was at times a tough place, a low-down dirty shame kind of place and a funky all-night-diner kind of place. Now, it's an art gallery kind of place, and a mainstay of downtown New London.
So I signed up to put my work on its homepage, and in short order, got an email from a woman named Lori who made wonderful animal paintings and also was a Red Sox fan. She'd grown up around here, but was living in Long Island. We became friends, sharing emails and art over the internet, and eventually meeting. I'd say we are friends for life.
Her husband moves around for work, and so he and Lori and their dogs are living now in New Mexico. It's a long way from anywhere, I think, but she's painting and making friends and rescuing animals, and learning her way around.
This painting is of Lori's dear old dog, Sassy, who died this week at the age of 17. She reminds me very much of my old girl, Kaja, who's about 14.
I know that when I open my heart and my life to a dog, it means opening myself to the pain of losing that dog. I miss every dog and every cat I've had, and when I hear of the death of a beloved pet, it brings all those deaths back. But I'd never trade the joys of sharing this life with these pets. Never.
I pulled over to the side of the road, in Indiana, I think, and looked up a small hill. Four cows, three of them in a line someone could have drawn with a ruler, stared back at me.
I stared. They stared. I stared. They stared. Finally, I took the photo and left.
Cows probably wonder what the hell we are looking at.
Here is something (it's long, I know) that someone sent me. It's brought me through some tough times, and I think some of you will like it:
Letter to the Student of Painting
"Your day contains a great measure of freedom. Your responsibility as a painter is here within the walls of the studio and in the setting of the landscape. You have the opportunity to exercise genuine mastery at every step, and it is in this spirit of grand possibility that I hope you will reflect on the advice made plain here.
Do not grieve too long for the troubles of the outside world. There is important work to be done here. We can best express our care for all others by attending to our work well.
Allow yourself the peace of purpose and the knowledge that to make another attempt with the brush is a noble thing. If you accept the discipline of the truest principles of art, then yours is the reward of an unbroken line of tradition.
Therefore, you may earnestly free your mind of all heartaches, sadness, and transitory despairs. Creation is above these things.
Your vocation is as real and as true as any other. Those who denounce the artist as idle manifest a deep ignorance of the nature of art. Have faith that the civilized will somewhere, at some time, value your well-wrought works. It is a miracle that the world keeps its havens for art and yet it does. Know that to create art is to do a necessary piece of work. The most noble pleasures and measureless joys result from such endeavors. True art is undeniable and it is a gift for all humanity.
The threefold responsibility of the artist is: to creation, to individual talent, and to humanity. For creation - the whole of nature - we must cultivate prayerful awe. This is our source of work and our refuge as well. We should seek harmony with nature. For the individual talent - long hours and years of steady industry hope to find our abilities fulfilled, our minds, hearts, and hands put to valuable service. In this way, we maintain the sanctity of art. Lastly, we make to humanity a willing gift of all we do. Our control over the material world lasts only a lingering moment and it takes a generous soul to build the ambition of a lifetime and then to hand it over in trust to the future.
Painting requires the bravery of solitude. Painting requires disciplined labor. To be a painter is to search the world with a benevolent eye for every subtle beauty that the infinite world offers.
Here is the opportunity to give your honest effort and to add in any small way to the legacy of art. Cultivate patience in your heart and you will improve. Learn to see well and your hand will become sure.
No pain or doubt can invade the honest soul engaged in the communion of creation. We artists must love the world with our deepest selves and forgive it at every turn.
To paint even a little passage with a measure of quality is to achieve a life's triumph.
Spend your days wisely with the best thoughts and works of those who have walked the road before you. Search their paths, their timeless inspirations, and the lineage of their genius. Learn your craft well and your talent will mature into its full possibility. Keep an obedient heart before nature. She is the master above all other masters. Nature is the concrete manifestation of all that remains true and sublime. Let us always be thankful for her abundance and hopeful that we might approach her in our art. Nature will renew every generation of painters, ready to illuminate the minds of those who practice the art with what is calm, rational, beautiful, sublime, and eternal.
Such is the purity of your vocation. Treat every moment before the easel as a quick and tender opportunity. Invest your most noble self. Give your most noble self. To be a painter is to enjoy a precious state of life." (Charles Philip Brooks)
Today felt like a painting day, the first one in a looong time.
I've been painting, but I've been distracted with wedding issues and housekeeping issues and dog issues and commitment issues. Today, though I had errands to run and chores to tackle, I painted and it felt like something different, something solid.
"Roses" is one of three paintings I worked on today. I don't usually paint still lifes, but the roses (left over from Erika's wedding) are so beautiful, I just had to try. The painting itself is a tad more white than this photograph; I couldn't get the whites without blowing out all the detail!
So it was a good day, and it feels like the start of a good stretch, and I am thankful.
The wedding is over, and life is returning to normal. And I am finding, day by day, hour by hour, tasks I've left undone, promises I have failed to keep, chores I've simply ignored.
I spent much of the day just trying to figure out how far behind I am.
With all this, of course, comes a necessary assessment process. Are there things I planned on doing that really don't need being done? You bet. Letters I intended to write, art shows I meant to enter, calls I really and truly thought I would make... I've swept a passel of these things into a virtual wastebasket today, and my guess is that no one will even notice.
All that makes me question, of course, how much of what I - or anyone - deems so important really and truly is.
A friend admitted recently that, faced with that odd springtime swarm of ladybugs, most of whom ended up dying in her house, she'd pretty much just left them there, at least for a while. In turn, I admitted that I've been tossing paint-soaked paper towels all over my studio, and leaving them there, sometimes for weeks. Has anyone died from this sort of slobbiness? No. Not so far.
We've got food in the house and gas in the cars. If we go for a few days without fruit or lettuce, if the floors should have been swept on Sunday, if the electric company really wants its money, well, all those shoulds will surely become dids.
And as they do, what's important - people, family, love, pets and, of course, art - rises to the surface. I will remind myself, again and again, that the rest of it is ephemera. Worrying about it is a waste of time. And feeling guilty about it all is simply self-defeating.
The important stuff is here, and now, simmering on the stove, watching TV in the other room, sleeping at my feet, reading these words. That is all that matters.
I had fun with this one. Real fun. There's a ton of paint on this piece, and I must say, it didn't photograph as well as it looks in real life. I shot a couple of detail pix, though, which should give you a better idea. When it's dry enough to move again, I'll reshoot it.
I'm embarking on a series of cowscapes. They won't all be this big, but some will. I like painting them, and it seems like people like seeing them, and buying them - so it's a mooooving marriage and I intend to milk it for all it's worth.
I painted with flowers, making the bouquets and corsages, and the arrangements for the head table
at Erika and Jon's wedding.
My stepdaughter Erika has now been Mrs. John Mowrey for more than 48 hours, and Peter and I couldn't be happier.
The wedding took place on Saturday, at Christ Episcopal Church in Westerly, R.I. Erika's friend Margaret was her bridesmaid, and Erika's daughter Samantha was her maid of honor. Jon's daughter Jenna was the flower girl, and Erika's son Ashton was the ring bearer. Jon had one groomsman, Bill Goins, and Dennis, Samantha's boyfriend, served as the usher.
Peter and I walked Erika up the aisle and gave her away.
Those were the outlines. What filled them in was truly beautiful, truly moving.
The day had been cold and rainy, thick with thunder and lightning and heavy with downpours. But as 2:30 neared, the clouds moved away.
Erika dressed in the rectory, and then the bridal party was to walk down Elm Street to the front door of Christ Church.
There we were, four women and a girl, in beautiful, shimmering dresses, holding beribboned bouquets, and as we opened the rectory door and stepped out onto one of the most beautiful streets in America, the day cleared, and we walked on sunshine and laughter and love, as drivers honked their horns and waved, and a blessed, sacred union waited inside the church.
I have never had such a walk, and never will again. It was as close to perfect as any 100 yards could be. If my mother were alive, it would have been absolutely perfect.
The bridesmaids walked up the aisle. Jenna and Ashton walked up the aisle. Then the music changed, and the doors opened, and Peter took one of Erika's arms and I took the other, and to my absolute amazement, I began to weep. We walked together, the three of us, who have gone through hell and back together, and with joy and love and sadness, we gave Erika to Jon.
The ceremony finished with applause and music, and from there, the night went on, with great fun, and good food, and music and dancing and friendship. It was a beautiful, moving day, which I will remember and cherish for the rest of my life.
I made two of these small arrangements.
Erika and Jon
Ashton, our 7-year-old grandson, who took most of these photos
I painted "The Red Church" late last month, and really wasn't happy with it. But I posted it, because honestly, that's part of the deal I've made with myself about this blog. I post, good or bad, pleased or displeased.
Some of you were kind enough to look closely at the painting and offer some suggestions - and they really helped! I changed the church from red to white... I darkened darks and lightened lights... I added a forsythia. I saw that the aspect of the azaleas was incorrect, and I added hoizontality (is that a word?) to them.
And now, it's a pretty cool painting. I really like it - especially in person.
On another note, I am gearing up for the Paradise City show in Northampton, Mass., over Memorial Day weekend. The other day, in Borders, I picked up "American Style" magazine and saw the article listing that show as the third-best in the nation (the top two are in Kentucky). I gulped, again feeling something approaching panic. But I am painting away, and more than anything, am excited.
And on yet another note, I have been accepted into the Wickford Outdoor Art Festival, in Wickford, R.I. This takes place July 10 and 11, and is a really wonderful show. I am amazed and thrilled that I got in.
A few days ago, I did something that would have made my mother proud. I waged war on a creeping juniper, and I won.
This thing was about 10 feet long and 8 feet wide. Its main root was (and still is, actually, as I couldn't get it out) the size of my wrist. The shrub, true to its name, had crept along most of a prime, full-sun garden bed at the side of our house, and then had spewed itself out into the yard.
It was fat, and healthy, and happy as could be - and I couldn't stand it.
Most of the problem was that I needed the sunny space it occupied. The rest of the problem, I've realized, is that I just don't like shrubs. I also don't like ground cover. So a shrub that acts as ground cover just has to go.
I pulled and chopped and dug and yanked. I lurched and tugged. I used all my muscles, all my weight, all my dogged determination. And when I thought I must fail, I brought in the heavy artillery: Memories of my mother, pruning the wegelia.
My mother had a particular passion for pruning, and especially for pruning the wegelia, a row of graceful, pink-flowered bushes that lined one edge of our driveway.
Annually, she would wage war on these bushes, hacking away at anything she deemed superfluous.
There was a lot that she deemed superfluous.
Every year, she'd be out there for days, cutting and chopping and shaping and pruning, heaping discarded branches into piles and them hauling them to the street for the trash men to take. When she was done with the wegelia, she'd start on the lilacs, or the rhododendrons, or the raspberries, or any other bush that seemed to be getting the upper hand.
She was relentless, dogged, unstoppable.
So I thought of Mom, and I waged war.
And I won!
I hauled eight wheelbarrow loads of creeping juniper into the woods. Eight!
Soon, I will enlarge the newly revealed garden (it's lined with beautiful cobblestones, surprise!) and transplant my roses. I hated killing that healthy plant, but I think there's always a little collateral damage when it comes to gardening.
Saturday was my last day painting in West Hartford for a while, and as the day wore down, I found myself feeling a little wistful about it.
It's not an easy gig. It means getting up at the crack of dawn, packing the van, making sure to bring all the right stuff for all contingencies. It means driving nearly an hour and a half, finding a place to park (right in front of the gallery, really, if I am going to make it work all day) and loading up the meter with quarters.
By the time the store opens at 10, I am all set up. I plug in my little iPod music machine and begin painting. I stand for five or six hours. If it's hot, I swelter. If it's cold, I freeze. I paint - good, bad, and everything in between - in public, with all the world watching. Sometimes, I am miraculously lucky, and can't make a bad stroke. Sometimes, the painting comes very hard. (This Saturday was like that).
So it is hard, and tiring, and frightening. But there is something magical in it, something life-affirming and joyous. And I am aware that, in a funky and American-eccentric way, I am carrying on the long tradition of the European street painter.
The painting is fun, and when I make a good one out there, it's great. But for me, the best part is the people I've met. Lizzie and Al are my special favorites. They are a father and daughter who have come to visit - and paint - for most of the Saturdays I've been out there. Lizzie was a little nervous, at first, to paint - and that is understandable. It's scary, to put brush (or knife) to canvas, while all of West Hartford walks by and watches. But with some urging from her dad and myself, she began to paint with me, and she was superb.
This Saturday, no urging was needed. She stepped up to the canvas and painted with ease and happiness.
Thea is another friend I've made there in the Center. She's a tall, exotic beauty who adores dogs, and really gets my paintings. She commissioned me to make one of her mother's aging dog, and while my painting brought tears to her eyes, her gift brought tears to mine.
So I'm out of the Center until some time in July. Next weekend is Erika's wedding. Then there's my birthday. Then our yard sale. Then Paradise City. Then I go to Canada, painting. Then, July 3 and 4, the Niantic Art Festival. Then, with luck, and if Center Framing will have me, I'll be back on LaSalle Road.
p.s., I'm making postcards with my summer schedule of shows and outings. If you're not on my mailing list, please send me your street address and I'll make sure to add you.
Beside me, as I made this painting, ran a small but energetic brook. It was only maybe five feet across, but it rushed and raced and crashed onto its rocky bed, tossing up spray and cool air and the sounds of a much bigger stream.
I was talking with a friend recently about how so many people seem to need to do this very same thing, to make themselves appear as big and important and powerful as possible. Everywhere you turn, some days, people are telling you how wonderful they are, how much more talented or professional or knowledgeable than that other guy over there.
I worked for decades in an industry where industrious and constant self-promotion helped you get the better jobs, the better pay, the better connections. I look back and see how that sort of activity changed me, made me into someone I really didn't like, and I feel lucky to have gotten out with my soul intact.
Now, of course, self-promotion is part of the job. But it is so different. Now, I am not spending my days saying how great I am, how much better I am than others - now, I spend my days not asking people to look at me, but please, please to look at what I made!
On another note, I'm reposting my painting and Nancy Reed Jones's from the day we painted together in Montgomery, N.Y. (Spring in Benedict Park)