Thursday, November 25, 2010

Self Portraits of Whom?

Wednesday evening I drove through heavy Atlanta traffic to reach the Buckhead Diner for a 6:30 reservation. I was meeting a special friend I had not seen in several years. The conversation was only the slightest bit awkward for the first ten minutes, and then we talked like we'd seen each other last week. But there was so much catching up, and so much fascinating comparison of notes, that the valet parking closed before we moved from the table, the manager brought us our keys, and I believe we were the last patrons in the restaurant, nearly five hours after we sat down. We thought two hours had passed.

One of the hundreds of things that came up during the evening was that my inner artist does not look like I do on the outside. For one thing, I know the artistic inner me is clean shaven. I'm sometimes startled to see my beard in mirrors for this reason. He's also got darker hair than I had even before I started going gray - almost blue back (mine was dark brown before it went gray in my early thirties).

This led my friend to ask a brilliant question, "So when you do a self portrait, who are you painting?"

I was dumbfounded for a moment. I started to talk and had to stop, grin, and look off to the side for a minute. Then I laughed and said I had never thought about it. After a few more moments I explained that I was painting my external self, the way I see it. But I was not painting my inner self. I said I'd never tried to paint the inner self.

Since then I've given that further thought. (One of the great things about my relationship with this friend is the number of things he's placed in my closet of "things to ponder.") There are actually several internal versions of "me" and each has a different appearance in my mind's eye. For instance, there is Virgil Tangelo, who is certainly an internal Steve, and has actually been one way I see myself since junior highschool. Virgil has a beard, but it's red. He lives a romantic roving life, like some early 20th century British adventurer and explorer (or at least he does in his head). The Virgil side of me is closest to the surface when I read certain fiction, and when I travel through some new place alone, especially if I get lost and enjoy it. I've drawn or painted Virgil four or five times, now, including the two examples here. (Two more paintings with Virgil here and here.)

And there are aspects of my interior sense of self which emerge in the portaits of my external face. All of the portraits emphasize or play with certain visual elements. And one of the fascinating things about self portraits is the way they reveal how the artist "sees." It can be jarring for others, including a portrait subject, to view the results. History has many instances where a subject, or the subject's family, hates a portrait, and has it destroyed, or refuses to accept it (or pay for it). I just read about one of the last annual portraits of Elizabeth I, which was rejected by the queen because it made her look too old. She did not see herself that way.

We all have a self, I think, which is not the same as what we see in the mirror. Many people I've known admit to having several different inner selves, as I do. For me, the self that paints is possibly the deepest and strongest - the one that I can trace furthest back into my past. And while I do have a sense of how that "me" looks, I have never tried to paint that portrait. The artist has never done his own portrait.

So I will have to see what happens, now that this notion has been laid before me.

Illustrations in this post:
Self Portrait 5, Self Portrait 1, Self Portrait with Colored Beard, Virgil's Escape, Self Portrait 2, October Trip Painting 8 (Virgil Rides a Friend)

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Painting the Bench at Wilson

When I sat down on the large central lawn of Duke University's East Campus to capture students painting the big wooden bench in front of their dorm, I knew I would have to work a lot from memory. They kept moving around. I might have 20 seconds, if I were lucky, on any given pose for each figure in the sketch.

So I worked fast, and since each figure is captured in the spot they were then, but the other figures were from moments earlier or later, this exact arrangement of the figures never occurred. That's one of the odd things about this kind of sketch - it's a scene stretched over time. Like a novel written from different character's points of view chapter-by-chapter; it's all the same story, but the figures move through it one at a time, never quite all at once.

This sketch is also featured at our sketch and photo blog about Durham, NC - "Top of the Triangle"

Friday, November 19, 2010


Another subject that keeps coming up in my paintings is the wind. I've had strong feelings about breezes and wind all my life, particularly as it affects trees and grass around me. I immediately relate to human beings who have sensed a presence, a deity, in the air. Few things exhilerate me like a blustery sunny day in autumn.

But I'm never remotely satisfied with the results of my various attempts. Some have been pretty wretched, in fact. This is the latest, and it's not so much done as I'm done with it. It's overworked and scrubbed, in person. I had to fuss too much to find it. Completed (or worn out) in August.

I expect this to come back again. Maybe next time I can do better with it - get closer to what I mean, to what I feel, and handle it more spontaneously, with the paint handled more rapidly and with more confidence. Lay it on and leave it...

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Sunny Spot on a Pebble Beach on the Linville River

The last of the mountain trip sketches... We always spend some time on the Linville River, skimming stones, wading (no matter how cold the water) and playing Pooh Sticks from one of the pair of high bridges. This time, as Dearest waded, and Youngest rock hopped dry footed into the middle of the river, I sketched some of the wildflowers and leaves. Rosettes of primrose leaves, dried stems of grasses, the light violet blooms of New England Asters, and fallen sycamore leaves gave me plenty to observe closely. A small bumble bee even got into the drawing.

As usual, it felt like five minutes to me, but it was actually closer to forty five. drawn in my horizontal book, "Horizon I" with 2H pencil. About 6 x 16 inches. Click for a closer view.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Life Is about Art

(Chicken-pot-pie, eaten at the dinner described below...)

We were having one of our animated dinner table conversations about life, the universe, and everything, and something caused Oldest (22 and a Sophomore at the NC State College of Art and Design) to toss in the comment, "Life is for art." It took me several twists and turns in the conversation to catch his tone, and to come back, during a pause, to say to him, "You really meant that, didn't you." He just shot me a grin and that laser look in his eyes, the one that's always been his silent equivalent of, "D E F I N I T E L Y." I mentioned Oscar Wilde (who wrote that life imitates art - for example, that London hadn't been foggy until artists painted it that way...), and then the conversation moved in other directions.

But I keep coming back to his remark, and I've told the story to a number of people over the last few months.

During a recent drive to Atlanta, GA and Columbia, SC, I was listening to From Eternity to Here, and therefore thinking about space, time, entropy, determinism, Special and General Relativity, gravity, quantum mechanics, the Big Bang, and more. Several times I had to turn off the rental car's CD player to howl with laughter and delight at some revelation of how things fit together, or to gasp and stare amazed out the windshield while ideas moved around in my head and I tried to predict the twists I thought the author (Sean Carroll) might propose next. Some of it was really hard to follow (especially since I couldn't see the diagrams) - but other parts made sense to me and the epiphanies were like seeing the Grand Canyon appear through parting mists...

And during one of the noisier moments, when I was awestruck by the mathematical concepts that allow all things (even black holes - maybe especially black holes) to be described in terms of "information," it struck me that riding along with the "everything" and the "information" are complex human concepts like emotions, and philosophies, and ART. Many layers of meaning are held by creatures of great complexity and then communicated using intentional arrays of the stuff of the universe. And other people GET THE MESSAGES. The SCALE of what is going on when we describe the ineffable in a work of art... and when someone else GETS IT... From the Big Bang to this? Even when something simple, like making an image with a knife in a pie crust, is noticed by someone else (message received - even if it's not much more complex than "flower"), we are playing a marvelous, clever game in a playground incredibly rich in forces, atoms, and "information."

I could hardly breathe. I thought my smile might endanger other drivers (and leave permanent stretch marks on my face).

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Blowing Rock

We take our autumn vacation each year in Blowing Rock, NC. It's a pretty town, beautifully set, with lots of colorful maples in the fall.

Mountain towns are different than Piedmont towns, the two having been settled and founded by diverse groups, with almost opposing views on issues like slavery, the purpose of the farm, and styles of local government. 150 years after the start of the War between the States, the architecture is different, the landscaping is different, and even how you are greeted on the street is different in Eastern NC vs. Western NC. I recall my first semester at UNC Chapel Hill, where the two cultures meet, how people from the two halves of the state seemed to stick together in their own groups. As a transplanted Northerner*, I had never noticed it before then.

This sketch is my first attempt to capture a view of Blowing Rock. I have always felt the camera can't capture enough in one shot, and photographs have always disappointed me. This is the Blowing Rock Museum (on the right) - a tiny white building which is only open a few hours each week. The larger building to the left is the Martin House, and has been home to some of our favorite shops over the years. In my mind's eye I can leave the boundaries of the sketch and head left down Main Street to Kojay's Coffee. Or I can move just a little to the right and see the playground where our children have played every autumn for almost twenty years, and where the line of benches is set to observe the street over the beds of Japanese anemones and bleeding hearts, a perfect place to eat our regular dose of Kilwin's ice cream.

* I feel like a person of dual citizenship. I moved to NC as a teenager, and I learned the manners of this slice of the South. I would not willingly move from North Carolina, and in my head I hear a line from an Indigo Girls song, "When God made me born a Yankee He was teasin'." Yet when I visit the Midatlantic States, particularly NY north of Westchester County, or the west half of Connecticut, I feel at home there, too.