A friend of mine here in Inwood, Elissa Gore, put together a plein air event in the neighborhood. It was low stakes–no prizes, no rules, and just enough structure to give it shape. About a dozen plein air artists found their way to what we call Upstate Manhattan and painted last weekend at the inaugural Paint Inwood event.
The first day, Friday, I met up with Elissa and about four others on the peninsula in Inwood Hill Park for an afternoon painting. I aimed for an abstract depiction of the Henry Hudson Bridge, but the painting decided it wanted to go elsewhere. But at least that little spit of land that was catching the sun so nicely stayed the focal point!
That evening, the painters gathered around an outdoor piano at the corner of Seaman Ave and Isham to tackle a nocturne. I forgot the nifty hat that illuminates one’s palette and working surface, so I had to set up under a street lamp with a decidedly warm cast to its light. Between that color temperature effect and the feeble moon, I couldn’t see well. OK, I could barely see anything. I decided it was an experiment in exploring how well I know my palette. Like a good boy, I always place my colors in the same order so I can think less about where a color is and more on what color I need and how to mix it. Nevertheless, for the majority of the painting session, I could not be sure what color was showing up on my painting. Ironically, although we all know cameras lie, the camera on my phone was giving me good guidance, seeing colors in my piece that my human eye at that light level could not. It was a struggle, and it was fun, and a skunk hung out right beside me for a while, eating slugs or ticks or whatever was on the menu that evening, and the fact that I didn’t get sprayed I took as a sign that my painting wasn’t offensively bad to skunks. And it turns out that this dicey nocturne was the piece most people looking at my work liked the best!
I had been looking forward to Saturday and the chance to paint with a couple of friends. Sarah Baptist and Robin Kappy joined me at the southern end of Inwood Hill Park for the chance to fill a couple of canvases. Robin and I only finished one, from a vantage point on the pedestrian bridge over the Amtrak tracks at the entrance to Dyckman Fields. Sarah, who is a bit of a painting machine, nailed an urban scene under the overpasses by La Marina, then she did an intriguing scene at the foot of the Henry Hudson Bridge. It was hot and I got tired, and a break on some park benches with Robin, overlooking the salt marsh and all the busy birds finding food in the water and sky above the marsh, was delightful.
Sarah and I got started earlier on Sunday. We walked down Broadway and had a substantial Tres Golpes (con magú) breakfast at Albert’s House of Mofongo, and we were seated right in the windows for some of the best people watching in Manhattan. The A train was disengorging folks carrying tents, tables, food, and summer accoutrement of all stripes, heading toward one of the parks. There were people dressed to the nines on their way to church. Clubgoers were stumbling out into the blinding sunlight. Food carts were finally packing it in after a fruitful night. Sarah and I were planning.
I chose to paint the grocery store Fine Fare, which helpfully features enormous sculptures of two cows and a chicken on its roof. Truth in marketing! Sarah painted the Inwood Library, a much-used and beloved Inwood institution that is losing its home amid local politics (<cough> corruption).
The event ended with a display of everyone’s paintings at the RING Garden, located at Broadway and Dyckman. Ω
We’ve all met people who are amazingly kind and generous.
You feel good around them. You want to celebrate them. Well, in the process of
researching my forthcoming book on the history of visual art in the Wind River
Mountains (Taking Root in Rocky Soil),
I came to know Mary and Joe Back. It started something.
Sadly, I did not meet them personally. This was mostly
through their archives, which are stored in an upstairs room in Headwaters Arts
& Conference Center, in Dubois, Wyoming. Joe died in 1986; Mary died in
1991. I came to them through their life story, not their personalities. And let
me tell you, their lives bordered on the epic.
Joe grew up in Missouri but ran away from home after 8th
Grade when a mischievous drawing of his teacher earned him expulsion from
school and additional wrath from his stepfather. He found work as a chore boy
on a ranch outside of Douglas, Wyoming. Meanwhile, Mary was growing up in
Vermont under better circumstances. She attended Berea College in Kentucky, then
earned a slot at the Art Institute of Chicago. Back in Wyoming, Joe was working
on a dude ranch near Togwotee Pass, and sketching in idle moments. A visitor
with connections got him into the Art Institute of Chicago, and he bumped into
Mary while she was sketching a grizzly bear in the Field Museum of Natural History.
That was it for them. She named her pet crow after him, they got engaged, and
sooner rather than later, they made their way out to Wyoming.
The Backs ran the Lava Creek Ranch before World War II
pulled them to the West Coast for a bit of war-effort work in factories. Once back
in Wyoming after VJ Day, they continued with the ranch until age and declining
health suggested a calmer lifestyle. They sold the ranch and bought some land
east of Dubois right on Highway 26, and built a roadside gallery and a house
and studio a little ways off he road. That’s when Mary ramped up her efforts in
art … and perhaps more importantly, art education.
Mary traveled across the better part of Wyoming teaching art
on the Wind River Reservation and in other locales. Her efforts earned her
awards and honors from the governor and a host of other admirers. In Dubois,
the Backs were much loved, and a visit to the Back home meant long, lively
conversations and an inevitable sketch or two. Mary was the Johnny Appleseed of
painting and drawing in the Winds, and Joe was the real deal: A bona fide
cowboy artist, with tales to tell.
How could I resist writing a book on them?
Actually, I will mostly be editing their writings and
retelling their story, which is covered quite well by Mary’s niece, Ruth Mary
Lamb, in her book, Mary’s Way. My
book will be a companion piece, with unpublished short stories by Mary and Joe,
interviews with friends and family, quotes from old letters, and other tidbits
I have uncovered. It will be my second book with a focus on Wyoming, but it
feels more like a second book focusing on the indomitable art spirit.
I spent 11 days in Wyoming in April gathering material for the as-yet-untitled book, and now I am truly on fire to start. While there, I didn’t get much painting done, but that was almost to be expected. It snows in April in Wyoming, and the wind is ever blowing. I’m no plein air hero.
But I am a big fan of Mary and Joe Back. And I feel like I might be able to do them justice with a book. So off I go… Ω
Actually, it was trip filled with stormy nights, plenty of wind, rain, snow, and plenty of wind. Plus, it was windy.
Although I spent 11 days in Wyoming, I only came home with three paintings. I was there to do research, so the challenging weather was actually sort of a good thing in terms of keeping me on task.
Anyway, here they be. As usual, I focused on painting on unstretched canvas that I taped to a board.
I painted this painting below when I got home based on a photo and experience I had one morning while eating breakfast. I’m not done yet–I’m not satisfied with one of the tree trunks, I want more yellow/orange/brown in parts of the grass, and there needs to be some very light grey texture in the background to signify the bare branches of the cottonwoods. I may lighten the doe as well.
I have more photos from the trip that will inspire additional paintings. Ω
Through plague and
the lax drag on,
the proud puff chests.
some have heated seats.
They cut back on their meat
and wean their hunger with milk
made from beans.
Wise counsel suggests
that crocus break soil
despite the cold wind.
Jut your chins. Jut your chins!
The day is yours.
In sooty rooms
the educated brood,
the papers pile,
the poems mold.
Wake ears hear the goings on,
the treble static of patrons with thin pride
buying bottles tableside
down the street from a shut library.
Wise counsel suggests
that the prudent cut their wine
with tap water and contaminants
easing the disease
so it can feed in peace.
grass blades grow erect
songbirds grow bolder,
grey snow gives way
to new life.
Precious now, as we make last arrangements for the changes.
When I lived in Astoria, Queens, I passed an ornate (for Queens) building with a handsomely engraved sign saying “Maltese Center,” everyday on my way to the subway. I loved it, because it reminded me that I lived in a global city that has enough immigrants from a tiny country 11 hours away by plane to justify having its own center.
Then one morning, as I walked past, I noticed (how could I not?) that the sidewalk was spraypainted, with two-foot letters declaring “FUCK MALTA.” Now I realized that NYC was so big and global that not only could it sustain a Maltese Center, but it could also sustain an active anti-Maltese faction.
This was the extent of my thoughts on Malta until about four years ago, when I became acquainted with two painters in Malta, Andrew Borg and Anthony Weitz. Both became Facebook friends of mine, with Weitz becoming quite a familiar person to me. I enjoyed both of them as people, and I admired both of their work. (They know each other but I don’t think they are close.) As a curious journalist, I did some superficial research on Malta and liked what I found. Malta is currently on my bucket list.
In December, Borg contacted me because he wanted a quote from me on a poster advertising an exhibition of his work. I was happy to comply. The poster is above. LONG LIVE MALTA! Ω