On my recent visit to the home and studios of Bill and Jean Stephens, I got a look at a wall full of work Bill has been doing. The little grove of trees (where Jean built her human-sized nest of branches and twigs) fascinates Bill, and he’s been doing an extensive series of paintings and drawings inspired by it. Recently, he took a small suite of these paintings and sanded them down, erasing upper layers of the paint and revealing far more abstract and beautifully colored areas underneath: from representation back to abstraction with a technique that almost fits into the Japanese gutai sense of letting the erosion of materials become an essential part of how a work of art will turn out. In this case the erosion is intentional. I really like what he’s ending up with, though he may be tempted to reverse course and start finishing things more. But unfinishing a painting is an interesting idea. Take it back in time to something that wasn’t actually visible at any point along the way.
Jim Mott’s saguaro from his stay in Tuscon
Jim Mott, my friend the itinerant painter, has modified his M.O. just slightly. He’s an itinerant painter who now, sometimes, becomes a . . . hm. . . sojourning painter, I guess. Not to put too fine a point on it, technically speaking, he goes somewhere now and hangs around longer. Until lately, he’s been doing very long-distance laps for the sake of his painting. He’s a soul with a stopwatch ticking for the act of seeing (which is life, isn’t it)? He usually goes to a faraway place, like Washington state, and then comes home slowly, like Odysseus (but without nearly as much bloodshed along the way), through Idaho and Colorado or whatever, Wyoming, say. He stays with people who feed him in exchange for a painting of their surroundings. No money changes hands. Only hospitality for a tribute to the ordinariness of the place.
In Arizona not too long ago, he tried a new tack. He stuck around for a month and did minature Joseph Campbell day-trips out and back, over and over again, right around Tuscon. He came home to Rochester with shots of some fresh work, and I told him I thought it opened up a new way of exploring his relationship with people and landscapes far from home. Every day he would generate a new GPS point on the map, using a computer–would this count as some kind of self-fulfilling sortilege? I hope so. It would be cool and James Merrill-y to think of it that way, but it was digital divination as Stanley Kramer might have filmed it: his lottery delivered him to the runway of an airport one day and a dried-up aqueduct on another. (Go to the train station and paint it, Charles Hawthorne told his students. Go to this ditch and paint it, Jim’s computer told him.) Sticking to plan and principles, he got out his paints and looked hard. Which means the looking is much easier and rewarding, for all the rest of us, now that he’s back. I’ll never think of my Garmin app in the same way again.
Some of my favorite paintings by Jean Stephens are the ones she’s done of bird’s nests. I recently visited her home and studio, where she lives and works with Bill Stephens in Honeoye Falls, south of our home in Pittsford–I spent most of my time talking with him and Bill Santelli. It’s a fantastic place, secluded at the end of a private lane, with an artificial pond infiltrated by rushes and cattails, bird houses everywhere, and a long slope that descends from behind their place to a small grove of neatly, evenly spaced trees. In this little copse, Bill rakes the leaves into long, sinuous mounds that meander around like the paths of enormous moles. Jean has been taking all the dead limbs and twigs and building a human-scaled nest. I wanted to take it home and curl up inside it.
The Mezzanine is one of my favorite novels, which is why I like to think of Nicholson Baker as a Rochester homeboy. The entire novel took place on an escalator that once existed downtown here. From the intro to an interview with Baker in The Paris Review:
Few other authors would notice, as Baker did in The Mezzanine, that late-twentieth-century American men trying to pass through a door at the same time always say “oop” to each other instead of “oops.” After some twenty-five years of writing, Baker’s reputation is as unusual as his work. He has been praised, widely and enthusiastically, for his style, humor, originality, and empathy. (As Martin Amis once put it, “Throughout his corpus there is barely an ordinary sentence or an ungenerous thought.”) At the same time, some critics have very publicly loathed a handful of his books, most vociferously Vox(“tedious”), The Fermata (“repellent”), Checkpoint (“scummy”), and Human Smoke(“childish”). Many of Baker’s talents are self-consciously small: meticulously inventive phrasemaking, a masterfully intimate tone, and a superhuman gift for observation. He has a Dutch-painterly reverence for everyday rituals and objects—a belief that they will start to glow with significance if we only pay close enough attention. This has left Baker open to the charge that the work itself is trivial, quaint—a bubble of old-fashioned belletrism floating through a harsh modern world. (Leon Wieseltier, writing in The New York Times, once called Baker’s novels “creepy hermeneutical toys.”)
What’s disguised by Baker’s cheerful tone, however, is his passionately sustained conviction that we should honor the details of our lives rather than getting carried away by projections and abstractions. In this quest, Baker has seemed continually willing to risk puzzling his fans and inflaming critics; he has shown an indifference to publishing fashions that few authors could have sustained. One index of this independence is that, although Baker has been published for his entire career in magazines such as The New Yorker and The Atlantic, he has never held a staff position. “I felt I had to be someone who would leap in from outside,” he told me, “and do some nutty thing and then run away cackling.”
Baker is fifty-four years old, but you can still see the teenager in him: he is self-consciously tall and shy, and his face turned red, often, when we talked about his books. He lives in a rambling eighteenth-century house on the border of Maine and New Hampshire. We spoke there for several hours, first in the kitchen and then in the living room, next to the fireplace in front of which he wrote A Box of Matches. Later, Baker drove me to a restaurant in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where, as we entered, a man exiting at the same time very distinctly said, “Oop!”
The Southern Oregon Artists Resource would like to congratulate SOAR member, watercolorist Sue Bennett of Jacksonville, Oregon, whose painting “Moon Music” was selected by the Britt Festival to illustrate their 2015 concert poster! The poster will be unveiled at the Taste of Summer celebration of the Britt Festival season opening on Saturday, June 6, 2015. You can learn more about Sue’s experience and the painting in an article in the Jacksonville Review, which will be on the streets and their website by the time we publish this notice. Way to go, Sue!
Alpaca Shearing Day
at Caprice Vineyards
Saturday June 6th, from 9am-5pm
970 Old Stage Rd, Central Point
Come watch the boys and girls get their summer haircuts!
Alpaca Shearing Day is an Open Farm Day from 9:00am to 5:00pm
This is a fun day where you can watch the alpacas go in for their haircuts all fluffy and come out as skinny as can be!
Alex says,”it’s time for a haircut,
“Now that feels better!”
Not only will the boys and girls be getting trimmed up but we will also have
food, (yummy BBQ), music, and of course, wine!
Enjoy live music from 11am-5pm!
Doug Warner will be starting the show off from 11am-2pm!
Phil King will then take over from 2pm-5pm!
Throughout the day there will also be live fiber demonstrations of shearing, spinning, carding, and knitting the fiber. Also watch demonstrations on Wet felting. Make your own wet felted soaps…yes soap.!
Watch the fiber from the alpaca turn into a scarf!
It will be a fun day. Something for everyone to do! Bring the kids down and enjoy in all of the wonderful activities that will be going on!
Angle of Landscape, detail, Larry Poons
A nice reflection in Artsy about the Larry Poons show at Danese, one of my favorite galleries in NYC. I saw the last show of his latest work there a while back. Like Thiebaud, he’s as prolific as ever, regardless of age. The work seems somewhere between late Monet and 50’s AbEx, with his color reaching back to the French, for me at least. Bonnard, maybe?
Plaid Pantry, oil on plywood, (2010), 9 7/8″ x 10 3/8″, David Rosenak, at Portland Art Museum
“It can be such an insane, strange undertaking to be an artist.” –Sarah F. Burns
But it can be worth it. To wit, from Sarah F. Burns:
David Rosenak has become sort of a mentor (for me) or an example of having integrity as an artist. So, to set the stage for how he has been an example, I’m going to share where my head is/was. I felt — and still feel — internal pressure to legitimize my obsession with art by turning it into a business. But I’m not capable of “branding” myself with a style and making pieces that are predictable and popular. I absolutely think art is a noble profession and if people sell their work well enough to put food on the table, I think that’s awesome! It’s great when art can be appreciated widely, but if you’re an artist you also know there’s an icky, slippery slope . . . when you’re making art mainly for other people. On the other hand, most of us are not simply expressing ourselves for its own sake, but trying to reach out and connect to some unknown viewer in an authentic and sincere way.
(untitled) 2013, oil on plywood, David Rosenak, 18 3/8″ x 16 3/4″
Along with that struggle, there is the battle for technical skills, real ideas and the essential but unpredictable spark of magic that makes good pieces work. It can take years to even come close to making something really special. Years of self-examining, persistent, steady work. To be really great, you have to start young and have some successes; many of those successes are self delusions, but that’s no matter, they keep you going, keep you pushing forward. After all that you still may not have achieved something great, or may not get recognition until you’re gone. It can be such a strange and insane undertaking to “be an artist”.
So here I am, needing to justify all this by making it a business and I meet David. The time when I meet him and first see his work is at a point where he has achieved something special through years of trial and error and persistence. His work is desired by collectors, galleries want to sell his work, and David simply says “No, thank you”. He does not sell his work. I repeat — his paintings are not for sale. He has goals for his work, for sure. He doesn’t create it “for himself” – as the corny line goes. He wants it to be seen in the world by as many people as possible. He knows how long they take to make, how hard he worked to make something he is truly proud of and he wants to cast them in a place where they have the best chance to grow.
And he knows they are precious. They take months and months to complete. He puts scores of hours into each piece. Because time stops for no man, his window for making them is pretty small – as it is for us all – but heightened by the fact that ten years ago David discovered he has Parkinson’s disease, which causes tremors, making painting tiny things a challenge. When he first noticed the tremor it was in his right hand, and after three years he trained himself to paint with his left. (This is so typical of David. Persistent.) Now he can only paint on his good days, still with the left hand.
More interesting things about David: he is color blind. When David was young and testing out his influences, he tried a few paintings in the style of Wayne Thiebauld, but since Thiebaud’s thing has a lot to do with color, David realized he was trying on someone else’s shoes (we all do that when we’re young, but some of us never grow out of it). Then he noticed his primary teacher was making some greyscale paintings, and he realized he’d been fighting a battle with color he had no hope of winning, so he switched to greyscale in 1981 and hasn’t looked back.
David has painted cityscapes since the late 80’s; he showed me a few scenes near his house in a medium sized scale. And they were cool. Then he made them small (nothing larger than 20″ and most average 10″ on the long side) and bam! They suddenly really worked. As the scale was becoming more intimate, the subject moved closer and closer to his home. All the views are of his back yard or his view toward downtown Portland (Oregon). Since he has the subject, scale and approach settled, he is focusing on compositions, and they get more and more mature. He likes to joke that he is essentially making the same painting over and over again in an attempt to improve it. And he has many plans for new paintings within that framework. The adage of freedom coming from limitations is really true, I guess.
Since his subject matter is his yard and what he can see from it, it’s useful to say something about his home. He has a wild, artsy little compound in SE Portland, full of cats and dogs and amazing plants, and all tended to by his neighbor and long time friend, Moe (Maureen). Moe is a gardener and you see in the paintings records of Moe’s work and their friendship. David lives kind of like a cat, moving around his territory, napping, enjoying bits of shade or bits of sun, walking over to his studio a few blocks away to paint, taking the bus across the river to his day job. His paintings are the way a cat would record things because they feel so still, yet so full of life. Like a cat, they contain long moments of stillness while being ready to spring to action at any second. They’re also neutral like a cat. They’re not saying, “Let’s go do this!” or “Think this!” but, “This is fine as it is. I’ll find a comfortable place here.” They say, “I see it all, and it’s fine.”