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
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
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