I was fortunate enough to spend another week with the Nanatuck Group, a loose group of painters gathered by Mary Erickson that live for a week at a time in a rented house on the St. George peninsula on Maine’s mid-coast. Here are some of my pieces. (I also interviewed two artists for feature articles and finished up my book on art in the Wind River Mountains during my week there.)
There’s no place like home, is there?
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
To purchase any painting, please contact me at email@example.com.
It was a dark and stormy night.
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
My last two paintings have been higher key than my usual paintings. The colors are brighter and a bit more saturated. I think I know why. I wore sunglasses during the block-in stage for both of them.
It was an experiment prompted by two forces. One, I had noticed that the cheap sunglasses I had bought at the Jackalope Gas station made colors look more intense. I wondered what would happen if I painted while wearing them. Two, about a month ago I was painting in Maine and I set up facing the sun, because the crazy glare on the ocean was so cool looking. I painted right into the sun, and yeah, it gave me a headache. I’m lucky it didn’t snowblind me. I posted about this on Facebook, and within hours, I received an email from my optometrist insisting that I promise to never do that again.
He’s not your typical optometrist. Macular degeneration runs in my family, so my eyes most likely are especially susceptible to damaging UV rays. So he had good reason to rattle my cage. But the email also made sense because he and I do not have a typical patient-doctor relationship.
On my first visit to his practice, I asked him a few questions about his job. That’s typical; I’m curious how other occupations are. Anyway, he was doing that doctor thing they do at the beginning of an appointment—getting things out, turning things on, reading papers, making notes. I asked him if his floor was bamboo. He said no. Then he asked me why I asked. I told him that I had noticed long lines running down the wood, so I thought maybe it was bamboo. He smirked, sat back, and said the floor looked that way because it was installed incorrectly. He had contacted Home Depot and paid for a consultant to come to the office, examine the rooms and halls, and recommend flooring. He purchased the recommended flooring, and continued on to hire the installation team at Home Depot. The installers arrived, looked at the flooring that had arrived at the jobsite, and told my eye doctor that this flooring was absolutely the wrong thing for the office, and they were going to have to remove the previous flooring to put this kind down, and it was going to cost and take time.
It took even more time when they found asbestos under that old flooring.
Meanwhile, he was audited by one of the insurance companies. Who knew this was a thing? The insurance company didn’t believe something about one of his claims and opened up the investigation to include all claims filed by my dear optometrist. That insurance company was my insurance company. I can’t remember the name. That’s not my fault. The name of the insurance company is so incredibly generic, it does not deserve any capitalization. One shouldn’t capitalize generic terms. I’m not joking—the name of the company is something like Vision Care.
So vision care or whatever audited my poor poor optometrist and he almost just shut down the whole practice. Or commit suicide. I think and I hope he was joking about that last part.
Anyway, so that was my first visit. About 20 minutes of discussion regarding optometric office management, and 20 minutes of determining how out of focus my eyeballs are.
The second visit ended in confrontation.
We were talking about macular degeneration, and discussing the efficacy of some of the OTC drugs/supplements that are designed to address it. (He agreed with my choice.) He reiterated that I should always protect my eyes outdoors. I asked if I could wear a hat instead of wearing sunglasses, and he said sure. I told him I wondered because of bounce light. After all, isn’t snowblindess caused by bounce light? He refused to acknowledge the existence of bounce light. He became indignant. I dropped it.
The last time I went, we discussed contact lenses. My prescription wasn’t a problem, but the shape of the contacts—well, of one of the contacts—was unusual, possibly a special order. Doc explained that most eyeballs are similar. One unit of measurement is the axis of the eyeball. He told me I have crazy axes. I said what. He said that they are shaped weirdly, almost nubile. Nubile eyeballs.
I was sort of at a loss for words at that point, and the appointment was wrapping up. I told him that I thought maybe Crazy Axes would be a good prison name for me. He was startled, stumbled backward slightly. He asked if I planned on going to prison. I responded that I had no desire or plan to go to prison, but I feel better about the whole thing now that I have a prison name, should I need it.
Doc was perturbed. That was the last time I saw him, but after that I did get the email. Which prompted the sunglasses today. Which explains the high key of my paintings. Ω
I was thrilled when Tony Winters asked if I would like to join him and artist Robin Kappy in an exhibition in the East Village. That neighborhood is in my top 3 in NYC—lively, and still gritty and diverse like much of NYC used to be. But our art is hanging in the lounge area of a theater, and I didn’t know what that would look like.
When Tony and I went to the space to patch the walls and touch up the paint, I got a good sense for the joint. TNC Gallery is in the Theater of the New City, a community theater complex that hosts off-off-Broadway plays ranging from classics from Chekov to radical political pieces from local playwrights. I met Crystal Fields, the woman who has held the whole crazy thing together for 40 years, and immediately loved the vibe of the staff and the building. Shambling, creative, energetic…suddenly things changed from an exhibition in which I felt lucky just to participate, to something really cool that seems beyond a typical art show.
I have 12 pieces in the show, an even dozen that are decidedly uneven–in that some paintings will please some people and others will please a different crowd. There are triangle paintings and quick plein air studies and large atmospheric studio landscapes. It’s a bit varied, but it is an accurate snapshot of where I am currently in my painting. My fellow artists are wonderful friends and better painters than me–so check them out. I wrote about us, here. I’m goosed for the opening, which is this Tuesday night, March 20, from 5:30-7:30 p.m.
When I mentioned the exhibition to my friend Ray Rizzo, he immediately said he wanted to be a part of it, somehow. This was and is a thrilling prospect. Any project Ray picks up turns out to be unpredictable, creative, and somehow utterly professional while staying in the precarious moment. He will be out of town on Tuesday, so he suggested a closing party. My fellow exhibitors OK’ed the idea, so Ray will be playing some music and doing lord knows what else from 4:30-6:30 p.m. on April 30.
I hope you can come see the show, whether it’s at the opening, the closing, or some time in between. Ω
Beauty is an experience. Beauty is subjective. Beauty is a kick in the pants.
The definition of beauty is elusive, but for many artists, beauty is a siren song, a guiding star, a raison d’être, a passion. The three artists participating in the exhibition “Along the Hudson River: Three New York Artists,” on view at the TNC (Theater of the New City) Gallery March 20 through April 30, all have different ideas of what beauty is, but those views are sympathetic, consonant, mutually supportive.
Robin Kappy actively seeks beauty. It’s not just what she finds in nature, fodder for her artwork. It’s also what she sees and responds to in her clients. Kappy’s day job is working as a psychotherapist.
“I used to struggle, going from painting and drawing to the different perspective of being present and listening to clients,” says Kappy. “But I slowly integrated myself as a therapist and an artist. In a way, it’s the same thing—listening and observing, looking for and seeing what is beautiful in the model in front of me and the client in front of me. I have discovered that this is what my clients come to me for, though they may not realize it: I find the beauty within them.”
But what is beauty? “I think about that all the time,” she says. “It’s a complex question. Beauty is an experience. We can think of what’s beautiful and what’s not, but if we open ourselves up… there is beauty all around us, every day. By not being open to it we miss balancing ourselves, we miss seeing that there’s beauty all around us. I did have this fleeting thought that we are all moving toward beauty, even if it is a movement, a quest for something, toward making a perfect gadget, for example. We strive to reach our highest potential. That is beauty.”
So what is the role of artist for her? A means of expressing this beauty?
“I don’t know that I’m trying to communicate anything other than I love to draw and paint, and I think it’s because it gives a language to something that doesn’t have words,” she says. “That’s my experience of whatever it is that I’m painting. Kids act out their feelings. They don’t say ‘I’m angry,’ they act out their feelings. They giggle when they see something they like. It’s experiential, not yet put into words. It’s an expression of someone’s felt sense.”
Kappy points out that Eugene Gendlin is the origin of this concept of “felt sense,” which says that our mind and body experiences the awareness of progress or a next step based on a feel that is beyond the five senses. Perhaps this is the land where true beauty resides–a land that encompasses the entire universe, if we are willing to focus on it.
I, the writer of this post, am another of the trio featured in the show “Along the Hudson River: Three New York Artists.” In my paintings I try to suggest the way a scene feels to me, a way that sometimes demands exaggeration.
Sometimes a scene seems to call for a representational reading, and in those cases, I paint more tightly. But over the last year, I’ve often found myself breaking down scenes into triangles. Working on location, I try to accurately capture the colors of the landscape in front of me. The basic shapes are blocked in, but within them, I find the sub-shapes breaking down further into triangles. It is an exploration of how light (and thus color) is fractured, refracted, reflected, and suggestive of movement. Triangles signify many things for me, including directional arrows. Triangles have served as symbols for humans for millennia. I leave that additional research to anyone who wants to explore it, as I did when this natural urge to paint triangles took over a painting back in March 2017… and I wanted to figure out why.
I want my paintings to communicate the harmony and beauty of nature—and also to explore the intersection of human-made elements and natural forms, the place of humans in nature, and conversely the role of nature in the human world. Where I live, at the confluence of the Harlem River and the Hudson River in Inwood, Manhattan, nature and monumental structures (bridges, buildings, shipping channels) live in peace. I hope my paintings suggest the energy, movement, light, and peacefulness that pervades a nature-kissed Manhattan.
Tony Winters is the connector of this trio. In demand internationally as an architect, Winters has a keen interest in the Hudson River School of painting. His dedication to painting has taken him through the acclaimed Grand Central Academy, and he was the recipient of a Hudson River Fellowship. (His friend Kappy lives in Chelsea, in view of the wide Hudson; Winters lives south of her in the West Village. Winters and I are painting companions.)
Whereas Kappy is intent on presenting the beauty in both people and places, and thus is represented by many of her portraits in this show, Winters selected landscapes for “Along the Hudson River: Three New York Artists.” He, too, is concerned with the beautiful, and from another direction, making this show three views of beauty.
“I am trying to convey a feeling–a feeling that elevates the spirit,” says Winters. “Nature teaches us we’re part of a much bigger world, way beyond human culture, and that is inspiring. The world of rivers, mountains and trees has a magic I’ve loved since childhood. Part of that magic comes in the form of beauty: You notice nature never makes an aesthetic mistake, whether in the shape of mountains or clouds, ripples on water, color combinations on a beach – it’s always harmonious. To convey that feeling of connection and harmony is the height of artistic achievement in my opinion.
“Where does the experience of beauty come from?” Winters asks. “Our brains and our minds have evolved, so a lot of it goes back to instinctive survival mechanisms—the search for food, reproduction. But we also have an aesthetic response to something a tree or flower is doing. Why would that be? Why do we respond aesthetically to signals from plants? It seems that nature, having endowed us all with free will, uses emotions to guide our actions through persuasion. We’re not just stimulus-response robots, nor are other living things. If we were, we’d all live just by reflexes, we wouldn’t need strong emotion. But we do, and plants and animals provoke it–nature decided to give us a kick in the pants. Fear, obviously, has a survival value for our bodies, but what about beauty? I believe we are more than our bodies, we have an inborn need to feel wonder and awe, and beauty is our gateway to that experience.”
For Winters, making art is an antidote for the stress (and illusions) of daily life, but once he’s there–making art from life, from nature–art becomes something more than a mere antidote.
“Human society is so charged with primate responses like aggression, territoriality, sex and pecking orders we easily get overwhelmed and pulled into that familiar state of mind, rooted in survival instincts, basically. Nature, like meditation, gives us a chance to disconnect from that mindset for a while. And when we do, suddenly the world seems much bigger, and we see our place in it from a different perspective. So art is not just an antidote—it’s an active way of connecting with dimensions of life we may fail to notice, day to day. We are part of nature. We constantly forget that because we make our living as a species by controlling nature. But nature is our ancestral home, and when we connect, it’s like discovering long lost relatives. Practically speaking, painting is a great way to connect–we like to be out in nature, but we also like to be doing things. Painting, fishing, hunting–in all these situations, we have to adapt to the pace of nature as opposed to the pace of human society. Nature is slow and cyclical. It lends itself to meditation and slow contemplation. Painting is well suited to this pace; it matches up well with that. The meditative quality of painting is a chance to really slow down and connect.”
So we are left with a premise that sounds like the start of a joke: An architect, a psychotherapist, and a journalist walk into the world of art…
And each of them discovers that beauty is beyond the literal elements. Each of them does something different with this topic. And each of them brings with them an ongoing, personal encounter of “the rat race,” day jobs that inform them and allow them to explore how humans truly move through the world, a path that encompasses both raw nature and human constructs and hierarchies.
# # #
TNC Gallery is located in the Theater of the New City, at 155 First Avenue between 10th and 11th streets, in New York City. There will be an artists’ reception for “Along the Hudson River: Three New York Artists” at TNC on Tuesday, March 20 from 5:30-7:30 p.m. For more information, go to theaterforthenewcity.net.
Once, long ago, the most excellent band Rodan said they would agree to an interview if they got to ask questions of me as well. I agreed, and it went OK. I still remember their question about how I wipe my butt, which seemed to be equally motivated by bathroom humor and some Freudian idea one of them had. My answer truly surprised them.
Recently, the tables were turned again, when Ann Trusty and John Hulsey sent me interview questions for their artistcentric website The Artist’s Road. It felt weird being the interviewee. But I dearly love Ann and John, and was honored that they would want to hear from me.
Check it out here. It will be behind a paywall pretty soon. Subscribe to The Artist’s Road if you like it–their articles are pretty beefy and helpful. Ω
A few months ago, a friend of mine asked for advice on what materials to get his girlfriend for plein air painting. His last name is not Rockefeller, so I put together the least expensive list of things I could find, without sacrificing quality too much. For $110 you can dive headfirst into plein air painting.
I didn’t address the easel issue, because that is where one can really go off the rails. One could buy a new Soltek easel for $600+ or one could use painter’s tape to secure a cheap canvas panel to an old board and lay it on a picnic table, against a rock, or in one’s lap.
The paints I chose were acrylic because they are arguably easier for a beginner, and solvents present another issue. I didn’t address the water issue, because it’s really not that big of a deal. Frankly, if you can’t solve the issue of having a water dish for your acrylics, you are toast. Painting itself requires a lot of improvisation. Get your Macguyver on. Cut a disposable water bottle in half, dip a cup into a stream, fish a coffee cup out of a garbage can–rarely is a painter left flat-footed for water or a container. I’d worry about dehydration and thirst if water is that scarce where you are.
Anyway, here are the basics, including a split primary palette–a warm and a cool of each of the primary colors, plus a few other key colors. Hope this helps some people. Ω
I grew up in a house that backed up to the 14th Tee of a private country club golf course. My family didn’t belong to the club. My parents weren’t about to spend that kind of money on a club membership, raising six kids.
A lot of my friends in the neighborhood did belong, though. I was a frequent guest of them at the country club pool. In fact, I was so frequent a guest that I was always brown as a biscuit by mid-July, and became so strong of a swimmer that the country club coach asked why I wasn’t on the swim team. The shit hit the fan when he found out that this kid he saw all the time wasn’t even a member.
At times I wished we were members of the country club, but not often. Some of my best friends were. They and their families seemed like really good people for the most part, from what I recall. But there was a fairly large contingent at the club who were boorish. The dads were overweight, the moms were underweight, and both were often drunk. It was good fun to watch certain members zoom up in a golf cart, drunkenly chop at the ball on the 14th tee, curse, and veer away down the fairway, while we ate dinner and watched out our window. And let’s not talk about the clothes. Yeesh.
In high school, I was in the Spanish Club my sophomore year, but as far as my parents knew, I was in the Spanish Club my junior and senior year, too. But those weren’t Spanish Club meetings that were making me come home late. They were detentions.
In college I despised the Greek system because in my freshman year I watched my best friend be humiliated over and over by his “frat brothers” who hazed him as a “pledge.” I couldn’t understand why he accepted the abuse. If somebody slapped my head and called me those names, I would have given them a nice Hawaiian punch. I mercilessly made fun of the fraternity at my small liberal arts college, via a humor column in the student newspaper, and on more than one occasion, I went to frat parties at UofL and flipped the breakers on the fuse box, yelling into the dark, “Frats suck and you all buy your friends!”
So I guess you could say I’ve never been a joiner.
I don’t feel a need to formalize a friendship with other people, pay dues, go to meetings. I would feel pretentious putting letters after my name. I’m a registered Democrat, but I was an independent for years before aligning myself with a party.
But in September, I joined something. Not just a club, but a GUILD. Now, the word “guild” is a dirty one in my vocabulary. I hate the idea of excluding someone from a trade organization until they meet the real or imaginary standards of the establishment. Always seemed elitist, exclusionary, and bullshitty. Nevertheless, Tammy Lucas offhandedly asked if I wanted to be a member of the Wind River Valley Artists Guild, and I found myself immediately saying, “Sure!”
I don’t know.
I imagine that I won’t be terribly active in the organization. After all, it’s located in Dubois, Wyoming, and I live in NYC. It’s not that I’m super close with a lot of the members. I’m sure I know a few because I have experience and connections in the Dubois art scene, but I have no idea who is on the roster. But I’m proud to be a member of the WRVAG nonetheless.
Is it the quilts that members sew, some with depictions of birds so wonderful, each square could be its own piece of art? Is it because their yearly painting and sculpture show is surprisingly big and of good quality even though Dubois is a town without a stoplight?
I think it is for two reasons. First, I love the Wind River Valley. I am eager to make permanent connections there. I’ve already made some good friendships with people in the town of Dubois, and elsewhere in Wyoming.
The second reason is related to the first. Life can be hard in Wyoming. Most of the people I know who live in the Dubois area have more than one job. The high school football coach has a bead store and carves art out of moose antlers. A real estate agent is also a trout fishing guide. A rancher also works at the Bighorn Sheep Interpretive Center. But the artists in the area do all that they need to do to make a living, AND they put together a show and support each other. That’s my kind of club.
I won’t be putting “WRVAG” at the end of my name on papers, letters, or paintings. It’s funny even to type that. But I’ll be paying my annual dues and stay a member in good standing.
Nobody is more surprised than me. Ω
Every once in a while, fortune truly smiles upon me. An example is meeting Mary Erickson, an artist, a connector, a lovely person. I met Mary at a painting event in the Adirondacks, and we got along well, in part because most people get along well with Mary, and in part because we shared a love of birds, nature, and painting.
Mary likes painting Maine, but she likes to do it with friends. So she started renting a house called Nanatuck outside of Port Clyde, and inviting painting friends to stay for a week and share the costs and cooking. This expanded into six weeks, and a rotating cast of characters.
It’s impossible to describe how Mary manages to stay out of people’s business, encourage their endeavors, smother any emerging drama, foster fellowship, and in general create an environment that is productive, fun, and drenched in beauty. For a week at the end of August, I was a part of the Nanatuck tribe–there to write about artists, but also to be a part of the whole experience.
Painting-wise, I was a guppy among whales. Don Demers was there, and I was reminded how no matter how good a photo of his work may be, it is even better in person. I don’t know of another marine artist who is better at capturing water, sky, and atmosphere. Everyone else was also represented by high-end galleries and enjoying considerable success with their art.
Unless you drive to a bigger town to shop, you will find that chicken costs more than lobster in Port Clyde. So what is a hungry artist to do? I sampled lobster rolls from various shacks, and came away the most impressed by the roll at The Happy Clam. I must admit that the delicious spätzle that was an option for a side dish swayed my opinion somewhat. On my last full day in Maine, I came close to a lobster hat trick–I ate leftover pasta with lobster for breakfast, and had a lobster roll for lunch. Alas, no lobster at dinner. Tough luck, huh?
Maine. The ocean is manganese. The rocks are volcanic, with folds and layers forming ridged granite with much personality. Fog coming off the ocean is grey and cool. Cormorants, American goldfinch, mergansers, gulls, and blue jays are common. Kingfishers, osprey, cedar waxwings, eiders, Canada geese, and chipmunks abound. Pines turn the landscape a deep dark green. The sun can be brutal. The people are friendly. The blueberries are small and flavorful.
My first painting was pretty bad. I was just getting used to the colors. I was trying to figure out how to get verticals into the vistas. The weather was so changeable, and the tide was dramatic and seemed quick.
I soon realized that paintings of any size at all would require two painting sessions at the same time of day. Two of my paintings were completed that way. I painted one triangle painting 80% on site, and it might be my favorite of the trip. On my last day at Nanatuck, I started a painting that went nowhere. But when I finished it up back home in NYC, it turned out well.
The renewal of old friendships and the development of new ones, the art-making, the food, the beauty of Maine, the simplicity of our days were fantastic, but the most important aspect of my week at Nanatuck was being Bob Bahr. At home, I am Daddy. I am a husband. I am a writer known only on the phone and online. I am a painter who posts to Facebook and Etsy. At Nanatuck, I was a person, relatively unknown, free to be me, free to be social or antisocial, free to be generous and gregarious or reclusive and resting, free to experiment or to paint traditionally, free to let my personality come out. I am loved at home, but I am old news, seen in one way. Being around supportive people, creative people with little experience with me, allows me to reestablish what makes me, me. I don’t know if this makes much sense, but I can’t stress how important it is.
So, thanks, Mary.