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I Remember Better When I Paint

Editor’s Note: As an advocate for the arts, it’s important to me that the power of the arts for healing gets the attention it deserves. I have not seen this documentary (though it is not newly released), but it was recommended to me by a fan of one of my clients. The reviews are so impressive, and the memory loss associated with Alzheimer’s is such a concern for so many, that I wanted to share it with you.

I Remember Better When I Paint, narrated by Olivia de Havilland, is the first international documentary about the positive impact of art and other creative therapies on people with Alzheimer’s and how these approaches can change the way we look at the disease. A film by Eric Ellena and Berna Huebner, presented by French Connection Films and the Hilgos Foundation. Among those who are featured are noted doctors and Yasmin Aga Khan, president of Alzheimer’s Disease International and daughter of Rita Hayworth, who had Alzheimer’s.

The Hilgos Foundation’s mission is to support and encourage the ongoing process of artistic creation with people who have memory problems and/or Alzheimer’s and who require assistance in creating art that is meaningful and enriching. The Hilgos Foundation was created in memory of Hilda Gorenstein, an accomplished painter whose career spanned 75 years. She died at age 93 and left behind her the legacy of an inspired artistic life. Choosing to call herself Hilgos, Ms. Gorenstein was known for her beautiful marine paintings, which are now in collections all over the world. She was such a skillful painter of water vessels she was chosen to paint an enormous mural depicting the history of the U.S. Navy for Chicago’s Century of Progress celebration in 1933. She completed hundreds of paintings in the last three years of her life, while she struggled with profound memory loss. The vestiges of her early, masterful renderings of waves, birds, and boats remain, but have been transformed into a new system of spontaneous, personal gestures, bordering on the abstract. The sophisticated color choices and compositions of these late works reveal how sharp her artistic eye remained up until the very end of her life.

The Hilgos Award provides student funding at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago to support and encourage the ongoing process of artistic creation. The award was established by family and friends in memory of the artist Hilgos, who studied at the Chicago Art Institute as a young woman, graduated in the 1920s, and became a well respected painter and sculptor, specializing in marine themes. Hilgos painted well into her 90′s. She returned to painting with several Art Institute students even after suffering memory loss, which almost forced her to stop painting. An award has been created in her spirit and memory at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

See a gallery of Hilgos’ watercolors at the Hilgos Foundation website for inspiration and hope for those who struggle with, or who are caring for a loved one who struggles with, Alzheimer’s and/or memory loss.

The website has a link to an article with fascinating insights on the connection between art and a brain failing due to Alzheimer’s, which you can access directly here:

I Remember Better When I Paint has been released as part of a DVD package which includes the documentary as well as a series of short supplemental films that further highlight special programs and flesh out the how-tos of organizing an outing, a creative workshop or recreating social bonds between people with Alzheimer’s and their families.

To buy a copy of the DVD package:

Learn more and read reviews and comments on the film’s website:

Be sure to check out the blog – this film is still touring 4 years after its initial release, and most screenings are free!

Art is an ark

photo (3)There’s Spoon and then there’s everything else in contemporary music. When Parquet Courts released Light Up Gold, after a few listens, I thought: hm, look out, Spoon. I emailed the hosts of Sound Opinions praising them for ranking the Parquet Courts debut as one of the brightest moments in music last year. Yet I regret to confess that I actually ended that email with the something like the following words, knowing Jim and Greg love Spoon: “Move over, Spoon. There’s a new sheriff in town.” (Me with my giddy crush on “Master of My Craft”.) Though the second effort from Parquet Courts has a few tracks that rank with the best from Light Up Gold, in general it left me a little crestfallen. It sounded as if they were being petulantly difficult, upping the noise and monotony—which worked on their first album. Now they sound as if they’re daring you to not to like them—just to prove they didn’t care if anybody would pay to hear them assert their defiant low-fi integrity. I still love them on principle, but I’m not as in love with them now, if you know what I’m saying. (I once had a pet theory that Sinead O’Conner shaved her head because she was too beautiful to get taken seriously with a full head of hair.) In other words, PC seems to be pushing back against the risks of popularity they know they might achieve if they upped the production quality to Spoon level—which they do perfectly, just to show you they can, on one or two tracks from Sunbathing Animals. If Parquet Courts would just relax and make the irresistibly gut-punching music they know how to make, pop-punk songs offset by complex, poetic lyrics, in such a seemingly effortless way, imagine a concert where they would open for Spoon. Who could top that?

That’s a long way to say They Want My Soul may have already become my favorite Spoon album. Better than anyone recording music right now, Spoon is concocting the most sophisticatedly beautiful songs that also invite your limbic brain to the shindig. They split the difference between The Beatles and The Replacements. (Britt Daniel put it another way once: “Marvin Gaye meets Iggy Pop.”) After nearly twenty years of recording, Spoon keeps going for the brass ring: they are trying to be a timelessly great rock band, as if such a thing were possible anymore, given music’s incredible fragmentation and the inescapable obscurity so many great musical artists face. (There are great bands now, but are they rock bands?) Spoon keeps defying its era, dissecting old rock and roll songs and assembling new ones, unpacking new sounds from old ones. Daniels once listened to Revolver on repeat, until (as I like to imagine it) the memory of it was playing involuntarily in his head day and night. I read somewhere that he had an exasperated girlfriend who asked him, “Does it always have to be about rock and roll?” I visualize her on her way out the door with Daniel calling out, sotto voce, to himself really, with a smile of relief on his face, “All the plants are gonna die!” Spoon is living on the same corner as Lennon and McCartney or R.E.M.—hoping to be popular because they are brilliantly good. Critics back around the time of Gimme Fiction were predicting Spoon could break out and do exactly what R.E.M did: achieve big popularity and still win critical raves. I don’t get the impression they are immensely popular, even though you can hear them in all sorts of unexpected places. They are still near the top of every critic’s list. I can’t even find the new album on the Billboard rankings. Too soon? Am I looking at the wrong list? I feel like Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer when I venture onto that website. I’m a little more at home on Pitchfork, but not that much. On the other hand, so many of my friends don’t get it. They listen and shrug or they actively don’t like Spoon. It’s as if I’m surrounded by people who have secretly agreed to pretend they despise motherhood or beer or Abe Lincoln.

I discovered Spoon about a decade ago. My son, Matt, was in the house, getting ready to head somewhere with his friends. Outside, I walked up to his friend Al Swinburne, in the driver’s seat of his car in our suburban driveway, where he was running the engine, a couple other friends in the back. My wife and I had known all of them since they were in kindergarten, give or take a year or two. As we caught up with one another, in the mix Al was playing I heard those first gorgeous carousel-like organ notes from “Anything You Want.” I kept talking, but not for long. About thirty seconds into it, I shut up and said, “Who is that.”  He said, “A band called Spoon.” I got more and more thrilled by what I was hearing, and he said, “My brother let Britt Daniel crash in his Boston apartment for a couple weeks.” Shortly thereafter, I told my son, Matt, “Listen to this.” He and I drove to Cleveland to hear them at the Beachland Ballroom, getting there early, standing at the edge of the stage. Matt jumped up and stole the set list afterward, and now, nine years later, I still have it on my wall.  What a dork.

Thanks to Al and Ian, I was a Spoon disciple before anyone knew Gimme Fiction was on the way, which is when the band started getting attention in the mainstream press. Anything You Want remains my favorite Spoon song, and after ten years, when it starts playing, it sounds just as fresh, as innocent, as joyful as when I heard it in my driveway—a song I believe could have shot up the charts in the 60s, even though it was composed and recorded decades later. A couple others are right up there with it, in my list of all-time favorites: “The Figures of Art,” which is its equal for all the same reasons, and “The Fitted Shirt”(which was side-by-side with “Anything You Want” on Girls Can Tell, for one of the all-time greatest one-two punches of pop rock and roll), and now “Rainy Taxi”andLet Me Be Mine.” (I would include “Like Ice Cream,” from Daniel’s stint with Divine Fits.) As About 1:50 into “Rainy Taxi,” Spoon briefly hits its cruising altitude and seems to achieve the musical equivalent of perpetual motion. (Parquet Courts rides that same tailwind in “Master of My Craft” at around 2:16 after the best line from the album, “Socrates died in the fucking gutter!” Innocent joy isn’t part of the bargain with PQ. But it’s a funny line.) Bottom line: half a century after The Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan and established rock and roll as the only music that was going to matter for a long time, Spoon is keeping the pure heart of it alive in ways no other band seems to be attempting with the same intensity.

Spoon samples from the past in its own way. They’ve internalized what’s great, and they try to do it justice by making something new that measures up to it. They’re traditionalists, not obedient to what’s preceded them, but dedicated to liberating new opportunities from inside earlier practices. They have absorbed, if not memorized, a large portion of pop music from the past half century, starting, I think, with songs recorded the year Eno was born, 1966, and then picking and choosing from various tracks ever since, seeking a path forward for a new tune by dissecting the way bands tackled musical challenges half a century ago. Or just a few years ago: Daniel was studying Dr. Dre from 2001 while Spoon was making the new disk. It’s a perfect fit: he and Dre worship a certain kind of restrained beat, and they’re both minimalists, getting the most from the smallest quantity of sound. The perfectionism of that cushiony soundproof studio texture—it’s there in the best work of both artists.

Spoon always sounds like Spoon, but you hear echoes of dozens of influences from one song to the next. As a New York Times writer put it, they build songs the way a magpie builds its nest, drawing materials from all over the place. Like a great DJ, they’ll grab the core of a previous song, the beat and the rhythm of a few notes, and spin something completely new from it. “Got Nuffin” and “Rainy Taxi” both begin by echoing the rhythm and guitar textures of “Gimme Some Lovin’” by the Spencer Davis Group. The opening of “Got Nuffin,” at the same time, evokes 25 or 6 to 4 by Chicago, and then moves on to become something completely different. One lone blogger, a while back, pointed out that the first few bars of “The Fitted Shirt” sound a lot like the opening for a lesser-known track from Heartexcept the Spoon track seems much harder to get a fix on, in a good way, as if two time signatures have been superimposed, one for the drums and the other for the melody. It’s typical: the opening seconds of a Spoon song can sound instantly familiar, even if they’re entirely original, and then the song becomes what it is—not a pastiche or a cover, but a reworking and discovery of the untapped potential still coiled in an earlier work. Tear Me Down always feels to me like a track that didn’t make it onto Let It Bleed. Daniel said that he immersed himself in both Revolver and the soundtrack for the remake of Solaris when the band was recording Gimme Fiction.

Spoon songs don’t wear out for me. After ten years of listening, some of the earliest are still fresh. I’ve found some of the most lasting tracks in their catalog for me can be found on their first recordings: Telephono and Series of Sneaks. They’re raw, minimal, and physically aggressive, essentially punk, and yet the sound of each instrument is exquisite and rich and there’s a quietness that hovers in the songs, as it usually does with Spoon ever since, isolating each instrument and voice. Hi-fi punk. No crumbly low-fi distortion anywhere. The sound of a Spoon song is something Daniel and Eno work themselves to death to get right—there isn’t a note where they don’t intend for it to be and the sound is usually both lush and roughly commanding. The production values get massaged until it feels as if the entire song has turned your skull into a soundproof studio. The purity of the sound is sacrosanct.

Yet, on some of the new tracks, depending on the system I’m using to play it, the loudest tones seem to thin out and get brittle and too crispy, as if the microphones can’t handle the volume so that even certain layers of the track on the CD sound like an mp3. I noticed this on one of the best songs from Transcendence, “Trouble Comes Running.” It felt like something I was hearing through the single center speaker in the dashboard of a 1964 Chevy, before there was eight-track. The effect is more pronounced and more common throughout the new album if I’m listening on an iPod shuffle, but even the best stereo doesn’t deliver “Rent I Pay” at the same level of quality as anything on Gimme Fiction. On the older recordings, the guitars, piano, organ, bass, drums, all sound as if they’re playing at mid-volume in the studio, no matter how much you crank it up—the tones of guitar, snare drum, cymbals, are all pure and distinct and full-bodied. I don’t get this impression on some of the great songs here: “Rent I Pay,” “They Want My Soul,” “New York Kiss.” Ostensibly, the outside producer they brought in likes his tracks “distorted and dirty” so maybe that’s what’s happening. My son doesn’t hear it, but it lets me down, just a little, every time I play those tracks. It’s puzzling. It’s my only cavil: everything used to be perfect, at a Dr. Dre level, in a great Spoon song, and this could be the strongest album they’ve ever recorded, and yet on these few stand-outs they seem to be messing with the formula.

Since the 80s, I’ve purchased only two vinyl LPs: Girls Can Tell and Kill the Moonlight. I haven’t broken the seal on either those disks. You see, I don’t own my old turntable anymore, and I haven’t bought a new one. They sit, unopened, like a pair of time capsules, under an antique table, awaiting their first listen. Some day, I’ll actually buy and set up a turntable and play them. Until then those purchases represent a pledge of allegiance, a ritual of faith, more than an act of consumerism. I’m sad to report that I download almost all the music I buy now, or just queue it up on Spotify much of the time, and yet I still buy each new Spoon album on disk. When I listen to most new music, I’m invariably doing something else. When the latest Spoon arrives, once again the world is just as it was on the day Sgt. Pepper’s came out or when I brought home the 45, in its little paper sleeve, with Paperback Writer on the A side and Rain on the B. (That, by the way, was the greatest one-two punch in rock and roll history.) Not long after it arrives, I carry a new Spoon CD to the best stereo in the house, slice it open, and start playing it, while sitting on the carpet a certain distance from my old Boston Acoustic floor speakers and my cheap subwoofer, with dials I keep adjusting for each song. I actually stare at the music, as if I were watching a movie. I do nothing but listen. I listen and remember what music once was, and what it is, right now, at least while Spoon is playing.

Selling without selling out

An inventory of Gertrude Stein's favorite objects

An inventory of Gertrude Stein’s favorite objects

Interesting post from Brain Pickings on how to succeed–in the sense of making money (in my book, Van Gogh succeeded even though he wasn’t a “success”)–without lowering your standards:

 . . . for many working artists, who straddle the balance between creativity and commerce, art swells into a form of uncomfortable self-consciousness . . . cartoonist Hugh MacLeod captured this perfectly in proclaiming that “art suffers the moment other people start paying for it.” Such sentiments, argues artist Lisa Congdon in Art, Inc.: The Essential Guide for Building Your Career as an Artist (public library), are among the most toxic myths we subscribe to as a culture and reflect a mentality immeasurably limiting for creative people.

It includes a nice compare-and-contrast guide to the “Starving Artist Mindset” and the “Thriving Artist Mindset.”

Never give up

make your bedmake your bedThis is one of the best commencement addresses I’ve ever heard, and though it isn’t addressed to artists, it certainly applies to anyone who struggles in obscurity with few tangible rewards. From Admiral William H. McRaven, who has been a Navy SEAL for 36 years. “Every morning in SEAL training our instructors would show up in our barracks room and the first thing they would do was inspect my bed. Every morning we were required to make our beds to perfection. It seemed ridiculous at the time since we were aspiring to be real warriors. But if you make your bed every morning, you will have accomplished the first task of the day and will encourage you to do another task and another and another, and by the end of the day that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed. The little things in life matter. If you can’t do the little things right, you’ll never be able to do the big things right. If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed. If you come home from a miserable day you will come home to a made bed. A bed you made.”

It applies to painting as well. What you make is what makes you.


Bansky pastiche, done with Lego blocks

Bansky pastiche, done with Lego blocks

A Banksy re-imagined (in a Lego medium) at

I’m shamelessly stealing this link from Heather Armstrong’s blog, Dooce, which is worthwhile simply for her fantastic photographs of her kids and dog. The frisson of her potty-mouthed Mormonism is cool and occasionally she lists a ton of odd/fun/interesting things she’s finds while maundering around the Internet. She’s like Kottke; she must spend half her life surfing the Web, she comes up with such randomly good stuff. Or she’s got Snowden on retainer, combing through his archives for her.


Humans of New York


Unidentified NY painter on Instagram

Unidentified NY painter on Instagram

“It seems that the more I tried to make my life about the pursuit of art, the more money controlled my life: collecting unemployment insurance, the humiliation of borrowing money from friends and family, tossing and turning at night while trying to figure out how to pay the rent. To survive I had to work hard jobs and afterwards I’d feel too tired and too stressed to paint. It’s very hard to create under those circumstances. Creativity is a delicate process. Often times I wonder if I should have just pursued a career for the first half of my life, obtained some degree of financial security, and then transitioned into art.” from Humans of New York instagram feed

If you wait to make money and then paint, you’ll never paint. Gotta juggle.

Signature style

albrecht_durer_signature_monogram_necktie-rece9d3580b2244b9bf08dd07899ac993_v9whb_8byvr_324Business Insider ranks Albrecht Durer as having the fourth coolest signature in human history. For some reason, it always looks kind of samurai to me. Go Al. Ahead of Picasso, but behind Banksy. (That’s just wrong.) Somebody needs to unseat John Hancock.

Current exhibitions

Baboon, detail

Baboon, detail

I have work in several exhibitions this month and into September:

Next April I’ll be showing new work in a two-artist exhibition at Oxford Gallery.


Stalled, but still looking


Rochester, from the roof of the Genessee Brew House

So it isn’t Niagara Falls, but it’s our falls.

After a few months of either scrambling to put together and then take down the solo show in Chelsea, as well as working feverishly on a book proposal with Peter Georgescu, I’ve got a little down time between writing sessions. I haven’t painted in weeks, and my batteries are recharged, which is good, because I have a two-artist show at Oxford Gallery in April, and I need to do more than a dozen new paintings for it, but at the moment I can’t. Soon though.

I did a little yard work this weekend. On Saturday afternoon, after a brief thunder shower, I sat under our cherry tree that drops one or two butterscotch-colored leaves every day, as it always does starting in late July, getting a head start on autumn mid-way through the summer. It’s been especially cool for about a week here in the eye of the polar vortex, but aside from a little too much rain for a few days, I’m loving the weather. I think our cherry, which serves as a huge beach umbrella over our brick patio, has been fooled, at night, into believing it’s October already.

It’s been a summer of fulfillment in our yard, bushes and trees and plants I put in back in 2004 have matured, fully grown or at least as large as I’d like them to be. Everything in the garden and lawn seems developed now, after all these years of tending, feeding, pruning. In the spring, I raised the beds around the patio and wheelbarrowed half a yard of topsoil into the boxes I built with pressure-treated lumber and anodized door hinges, so that the lengths will form a half-circle around the back of the bed. As a result, the dahlias are nearly seven feet tall already in some places, because of the new soil and the excellent drainage, and everything else is thriving in these intermittent showers we’re getting, along with plenty of sun: rudbeckia, phlox, begonias, campanula, shasta daisies, nasturtiums and a few petunias here and there. Nothing exotic or labor intensive, but I’m looking at all of this growth now and thinking how much I’d like to paint a few of those flowers for the show next year. Over ten years, I’ve learned  how to guard all this growth behind our house. I used a daily spray of stylet oil to subdue the white leaf mold that was starting to thrive in the phlox after heavy rains, and I’ve been plucking the tomato leaves that have developed the blight of dark spots they get every year now, as well as spraying them with an organic fungicide sample that came with something else I ordered online recently. Miraculously, the new fungicide seems to have inhibited all the mildew and mold. The leaf spots have slowed down, but aren’t going away. The combination of treatments eliminated the powdery coating on the peonies and the phlox–if left unchecked it would have quickly covered the entire plant and killed the foliage. The flowers would come back next year, but they would have turned into a cluster of horticultural zombies this summer.

This year, finally, I’ve also figured out how to protect the bird feeders from both house sparrows and squirrels. I found a few sites on the Web that showed how people had used lengths of monofilament, fishing line basically, dangling strands of it down around all sides of the feeder. It wards off the house sparrows, but not chipping sparrows, goldfinches, chicadees, nuthatches or house finches. House sparrows are not the brightest of birds. It’s been years of having to try different feeders and never finding anything that defends against the sparrow gang, so now we get a steady traffic of better birds. Meanwhile I also finally discovered how to defeat the squirrels. The feeders hang on seven-foot metal hooks in the middle of our back yard, and until now squirrels have been able to leap high enough to get over the plastic disks we’d used as baffles, but now I’ve got three-foot long lengths of stovepipe, basically, attached just beneath the feeders and the squirrels can’t cling to it. It’s a Rube Goldberg contraption, and it looks silly, but it works. The feeders are too high for them to jump up and grab from the ground. So we’ve had a great year for birds. We even had a robin singing on top of our house every day, most of the day, for nearly two months, and then a quartet of screeching blue jays moved in, and the robin quietly headed a few doors down for a less crowded roof. It’s a continuous game to assert dominance in the air and trees over our yard: even a hummingbird was chasing a chickadee around relentlessly, dive bombing him, no matter where he perched, but the game eventually got old. The chickadees come and go unmolested now.

So there’s a kind of order and abundance around our home that hasn’t been in evidence until this year. The summer has been calm, but with a hint of suspense in the way heat and distant thunder mix it up while patches of blue sky appear between magnificent white cumulus clouds overhead. The air has been quiet for days, a breeze high in the sweet gum and the pear tree but down in the garden not even enough movement to stir the wind chime. Nothing toils nor spins ’round here, other than one human resident who works seven days a week. All the other creatures eat when they feel like it and seem to pretty much fool around the rest of the time. Things are happy to just be whatever they are, accomplishing nothing, and that’s more than enough for someone who enjoys watching nothing much happen. The crickets haven’t yet started their incessant chirp, which is when August starts to feel lifeless and abandoned, but that won’t bother me. We’ll be heading to California so Nancy can attend our daughter’s baby shower and maybe I can get in a round of golf with my son and son-in-law.

Ed and Nancy Weber, friends for twenty years, picked us up yesterday afternoon and we headed down to the High Falls District to have a hamburger on the roof of the Genessee Brew House. Ed parked on the west side of the river, near Kodak, and we walked across the Pont De Rennes bridge. A lot of streaked water, a typical ochre color, was coming over the falls, full of silt from the rains we’ve been having, but with long white sprays trailing down too. The base of the gorge is a long way below the walking bridge, which was designed by the man who designed the Williamsburg Bridge. Even at that height, the last time Ed had been there he’d spotted a beaver on a little island directly under his feet. On the roof of the brewery we watched lightning off to the east and the south, but felt only a couple drops of rain. It’s easy to forget that Rochester is built around a waterfall, and when you look at our little skyline from that roof, it’s a mixed bag, newer pastel colored buildings, abandoned-looking brick structures, and a beat-up old freight train creeping along tracks just over the falls, as well as the modern towers, including the Xerox building. Kodak is off where you don’t notice it, on the other side of the river, which is probably for the best. On the way back to the car, our friends spotted some new acquaintances they’d made on their last visit to the restaurant, so we walked over to where three people were sitting on one of the bridge’s benches, aiming their cameras and binoculars at the peregrine falcons on top of a communications tower and a red brick building beside the falls. The family of falcons used to make their home at the peak of Kodak tower but, along with most shareholders, they’ve found other places for their nest eggs and now they reside in the Art Deco wings on top of our Times Square building. We introduced ourselves to the others, and my new friend Don offered me his binoculars.

“Just be sure to put the strap around your neck,” he said.

“Yeah, I understand,” I said, and I did. They were perfectly focused already to see the falcons, which were still fairly small in the glass, perched at the top of the building, quietly looking at the river. The falcons were doing pretty much what we  were doing: just paying attention. If you’re a painter, it’s what you do.

Butler Midyear: see it if you can

Miracles of Modern Science, John Younger, oil, 68" x 48"

Miracles of Modern Science, John Younger, oil, 68″ x 48″

I was pleased to be included in the 78th Midyear Exhibition at the Butler Institute, and to have been awarded an Honorable Mention for Carpe Diem: Autumn’s Last Flowers, which was one of the works in my solo show at Viridian Artists this summer. The catalog for the show arrived today, and it was heartening to see so much great work in the exhibition. I made it into last year’s Midyear as well, yet the work in that show I found a little discouraging, though chalked it up to the fact that I was looking at thumbnail reproductions. This year, though, even at such a small scale, the bulk of the art looks great. There’s a marked emphasis on the human figure and portraiture, and some of my favorites in the show depict people set in unexpected settings, or presented in surprising ways, all rendered with amazing skill: Miracles of Modern Science, by John Younger, Brooklyn, by Marc Winnat, and Earth Angels, by Allan Charles Orr. It’s cheering to see so much representational art, many of them beautiful in a way that isn’t cloying. Plenty of abstract work got into the show. Even without the award, I was honored to be included.