I have now been in Germany one month. I am drawing and painting on the street as a way to connect with the German people and their culture. I am meeting so many cool people this way. A lot of people sneak a peek as they walk by. Because I am usually sitting either on my fold up travel stool or right on the paving stones I'm eye level with the small children and it's often the children who tug their mothers in for a closer look. Sometimes a conversation ensues this way but more often it's usually just a soft "Schön" (nice) after a brief pause to look and they are on their way.
Today I had a young Turk named GökAy ( pronounced "Gek A") who kept me company for something like two or three hours while I drew the giant tower of St Martin's Church (said to be the largest brick tower in the world). At one point he excused himself only to come back a little later with two warm and creamy lattes for us to share. Off and on GökAy explained some of his personal spiritual beliefs which included reading a poem off his phone that he had written that morning. From time to time he would shift to speaking in low soft tones in a not Deutsch foreign language. I'm not sure if he was praying or making comments under his breath about the German girls passing us by. It was really cool to have his company while I was on the street today and also helpful because he took on the role of my interpreter when people stopped to talk (including two Muslim women with a child in a stroller). One of the women was asking if I would be will to do her portrait. I with out the help of my new friend I would have never known what this woman was trying to say.
Drawing what I see helps me to see because it causes me to pause. When I am paused to draw I begin to see what is really there (on a much deeper level) then would otherwise be possible had I just captured the image on my phone. Sometimes while I am drawing a particular view, I see a tourist pull out there phone and take a few pictures and then quickly move on. It only takes them an instant to capture the image that may take me three to four hours to draw. For me the drawing is the doorway into making a painting. The drawings and the paintings become a way for me to begin to build a relationship with a place which intern makes my life richer as well as it gives me something valuable to share, as well.
I have been in Germany now for about a week and a half. I am very slowly adjusting to life in a foreign country 4,391 miles away from my home (according to my GPS). I am staying here with a local sculptor named Martina Kreitmeier who I met at an artist residency in Virginia earlier this year. Tina lives in the small farming village of Vilsheim 44 miles south west of Munich. Driving is so different here. When ever we go somewhere we travel on narrow country roads that weave through the beautiful Bavarian countryside connecting village to village. If we do end up on a highway it won't be the big interstate highways I am used to in the US, these highways are usually just two lanes of opposing traffic with no speed limit.
Thankfully I have yet to see any of the strip mall sprawl that is so common back home. Everything here I see looks very well built, solid and classic. I have not seen one home with asphalt shingles. Every home, out building, barn and store in Germany has a clay tile roof. This is a roofing system you would only see on the most expensive of homes in the USA. The stores are tucked into the quant village centers sporting very modest signs. I went into our local pharmacy and every thing was lined up on wooden shelves like I see in the old movies that date back to before the 1950s. Here the cities often have the old city center with buildings dating back to the middle ages and then on the outskirts you will find the modern architecture, but again, these are usually very nicely built when compared to American building standards. Many of the larger German cities like Munich and Dresden where completely destroyed during WWII and needed to be rebuilt. I have not witnessed these cities yet.
This is Tina's sister Conny Kreitmeier and her band Stimmuligsbüro Kreitmeier to give you a little taste of rock'n roll Bavarian style
Last night I was at a beer garden for a free local music festival. Let me paint this picture, imagine forty to fifty long wooden tables with benches neatly positioned under six towering ancient chestnut trees. Every table is completely full of people eating Pommes frites (French fries) with mayonnaise and sausages. Everyone of course has a tall beer in giant liter size glass mugs. Up at the front is a "rock band" of youngish looking guys playing a very Bavarian version the Ghost Busters song complete with accordion, stand up bass, classical guitar and a small drum kit. Oh yeh, and their wearing lederhosen which, in case you don't know, are long cut leather shorts that look like they would last a lifetime and seldom need washing. (dry clean only?) They lace up the side and are sometimes beautifully embellished with floral patterns both tooled into the leather and or embroidered.
I'm a talker and left my crippling fear of people back in high school but being here in Deutschland only knowing a smattering of German words is presenting a real challenge to my ability to connect. Most of my conversations begin with a timid, "Do you speak English?" which usually quickly leads right into a brisk talk with an occasional "Oh, ah...how do you say..?" complete with wrinkled forehead and finger tapping to the temple, but otherwise faultless English where at some point they almost always apologize for their poor language skills. And then I'm thinking of how I made my flash cards and downloaded my learn to speak German apps on to my phone but still only have the command of a fist full of very basic German words and phrases. Two nights ago Tina and I were eating dinner at a beautiful out door restaurant in the medieval city of Landshut next to St Martins church (The tallest brick tower steeple in the world btw). I needed to go to the bathroom so I rehearsed how to ask for directions to the WC with Tina in her mother tongue. Going inside the restaurant I said in my best Bavarian accented Deutsch to the first wait staff I saw, "wo ist die Toilette?" to which he replied "Around the corner, down the stairs and just to the left" in perfect English with hardly a trace of an accent. WTF, Really?!?!
This environment is enchantingly beautiful and quaint but it is also very different in so many ways. I know that getting acclimated to a foreign country takes time but sometimes I feel overwhelmed by the challenge and sort of adrift; sometimes I feel almost disembodied from myself and lost. Much to my relief I am finding that continuing with my art making practice while I'm here is what the doctor ordered doing in order to keep me grounded. Yesterday I took my little beechwood travel easel strapped to one shoulder along with my old leather bag full of paper and drawing materials slung over my other shoulder and I walked the tree line up the hill, out side my pig barn studio, looking for a place to draw. In a short time I settled on a wonderful view that looked out over the valley dotted with poplar, linden and oak trees. The fields, some recently harvested, some just plowed, and still others standing tall with corn, looked almost like a victorian crazy quilt or better yet, they looked like a Grant Wood painting. I set up to draw in the shade of the oaks sitting in a grassy path littered with a slender kind of acorn that I had never seen before. Over the next three hours I covered my paper with red and brown chalk along with touches of sienna water color. Taking a few breaks for stretching and picking wild black berries, I put the finishing touches on my drawing and then packed up my easel. By the time I was walking over the threshold of my studio I felt surprisingly, right at home.
I drove to Chicago last Friday leaving in the early afternoon. I wanted to be in the River North Gallery neighborhood for the annual summer gallery walk. The are other gallery neighborhoods in Chicago but River North still feels like home to me after so many years showing on Superior Street at Ann Nathan Gallery. At 92 Ann has now gone into retirement and I now go with out gallery representation but I still like to go and visit this world from time to time. Going to a large city like Chicago and visiting the galleries and museums there is like getting a cultural bold transfusion. The Grand Rapids Art Museum is a joke! It's permanent collection is frustratingly small and its pre packaged shows all seem carefully chosen to not ruffle the feathers of its constituency. This being the case, being in Chicago, even for just a day, is just what the doctor ordered for this artist. Chicago is a home away from home.
This summer I made a very important discovery inside the preferences of my iPhone. I found that I could set up the GPS to avoid toll roads and major highways. This is has totally been a game changer for how I travel. This has become my preferred way to do my road trips when I have the luxury of turning a 2 1/2 hour drive into a 6 hour drive. It takes a lot longer to get where I'm going but maybe "getting there" is not were the real action is. Maybe that schmalzy framed poster in your sister's bathroom that she bought off Etsy that declares:
Focus on the journey, not the destination. Joy is found not in finishing an activity but in doing it. -(Somebody other than me said this.)
I guess you could say that I have begun to take my journeys more seriously these days. Going back roads to Chicago took me though Gary Indiana for the very first time in my life and I was shocked by what I saw. At one point I turned off the main drag to go down a neighborhood street. I just chose one at random. I could hardly believe what I saw. Houses being taken over completely by over grown bushes, trees and tangles of vines and weeds. Empty lots where houses once stood now completely over grown like a jungle littered with an amount of trash that would fill several full size dumpsters. There were chuck holes in the street I had to drive around because some of them were actually large enough to swallow up the whole front end of my Toyota. And mixed in with disytopian crumble were a scattering of houses where people still lived. I saw a couple kids playing in wading pool and two boys swinging whiffle ball bats at each other. This looked like the set of a zombie movie. It made Detroit look like a paradise. The curious thing for me was how I never hear people talking about Gary Indiana. It's almost like it no longer exists. And you know, it's right up next to Lake Michigan. You could live in Gary and take the commuter train into Chicago and be there in 15-20 minutes. Could this city rise again? Is it's time at hand or is it just too late and to far gone?
Friday, June first I drove into Grand Rapids from Ann Arbor finishing the last leg of my journey home from my two month long residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. I felt a mixture of emotions as I passed the sign on I96 letting my know that the exit for Fuller Ave was in 1 mile.
I don't live at 106 Fuller Avenue any more but for the past 11 years I did. I drove on past the exit and got off at the Wealthy Street exit that would take me to my new home on Division in the Grand Rapids Michigan Heartside Neighborhood. When I caught my first glance at my new apartment my heart sank at what looked so cold, white, empty and lonely. I bit the bullet, rented a U-haul and went shopping. Target, St Vincent DePaul's and Archive Antiques; I needed everything, from a can opener to a bed and bed linens. I haven't added up what I spent but I walked to my car in the Target parking lot pulling two shopping carts loaded full behind me.
When I finally had everything unwrapped and put away I was completely exhausted. Collapsing on my new (secondhand) king size bed I slept a full eight hours that night (I can't remember the last time I slept eight hours un-interrupted.) I woke up not sure at first where I was. Saturday was a hard day because I felt so washed up on the shore alone. I went through my phone list of contacts and realized there where really only a small handful of people I could count in the territory of "close friend". I started sending texts most of which left my phone mute for a long time until Bill responded to my invitation for a lunch date. A ship on the horizon responding to my smoke signals!
Today feels much better as I type away on my laptop at the Lantern coffee house barely a five minute walk from my apartment door. I think in some ways the artist residency suspended some of the hard reality of my marriage's ending. Through out the separation I had been living in the carriage house in the backyard so again the marriage was over but not really. Now it is really over, over and over. The reality of this huge life shift is now hitting with full force. I know deep down that some of the aloneness I feel is an important part of the rebooting of my life. It's almost as if I am downloading important new software and while this download is in process some parts of my life are kind of shutting down for awhile. Its natural, it's what needs to happen and I remind myself of this as I sometimes feel a deep sense of loss.
I am also very excited because of the way my life continues to open up in new ways. I am encouraged by some of the new relationships I now have with people who live in other parts of the country and other countries. I have a new level of freedom that I have never experienced before. The question remains if I in fact want to remain in Grand Rapids. I may want to move to another city and have a fresh start where there aren’t all the constant reminders everywhere of the life I had before. I may want to find a city that will have more opportunities for my work as an artist to stretch out and grow.
Yesterday morning after nearly two full months, on the 29th of May, I drove off the grounds of the Virginia Cultural Center for the Creative Arts to make my way back home to Grand Rapids Michigan. At the VCCA exit there is a hand painted sign that lets you know that you are "Now Entering the The Real World".
I had decided to make my way home staying off the large highways and toll roads. I booked Airbnb rooms to stay over night in Cleveland and Ann Arbor. I knew driving back roads would add a lot of time to my travels. I wanted to make this more then just a drive back home. I was looking for adventure!
One of the things I discovered staying of the interstate highway system was that much of small town America does not seem to be doing so well to put it mildly.
It seemed the very small towns where the hardest hit. Some times there would be entire block of buildings abandoned and some sitting crooked on their crumbling foundations. Boarded up in front with evidence that the last attempt towards life was either an antique store or a haunted house. When I some times took the time to park my car and take a stroll. The sadness and heart break of these zombie buildings and dying towns became palpable. I wanted to ask the old men coming out of the convenience store, "What happened to your town? How did it die and how do you feel about it?" I didn't ask but I wanted to.
I wondered how this had happened to these little towns. Was it the lost traffic when the big inter state highways were constructed? Was it the super stores like Walmart and Costco in the nearby by towns that siphoned off all the business from the small locally owned stores? Is America just kind of rotting from the inside out with it's billions of acres of GMO corn, factory farms, nightmare president, fast food chains, and hidden away meth labs? I found this quote below on a the history.com website:
I am writing this blog from a coffee shop on Euclid Avenue in downtown Cleveland. I poked my head into a the Subway to ask about the parking out front if it was only for 30 minutes. Sherry who was just getting the shop ready to open said yes just 30 minutes. Then she asked which car was mine and I told her the little blue Toyota. She told me that she will keep the parking police away by letting them know if belongs to one of her workers. I will soon find out of this generous offer from a complete Cleveland stranger worked. I hope to get to the Cleveland Art Museum and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame before I hit the road for Ann Arbor late this afternoon. Hey did I just see a medieval Knight walk by on the other side of the street?
I am in my last week at the artist residency here in the Virginia Cultural Center for the Arts. Grand Rapids and my life there feels so very far away. Central Virginia and the Blue Ridge Mountains feels like my new home. Sharing lunch and dinner meals with culture makers from all over the world has become my new normal. If I could only find a way to take this way of life home with me. Who knows, perhaps I can.
My 30 year marriage to Brenda Beerhorst officially came to an end two weeks and one day ago on May 7th 2018. Our separation began April 10th 2017. It was then that I moved into the my carriage house studio and out of our home on Fuller Avenue where we had lived since the summer of 2006 when we came back to Grand Rapids after living in Brooklyn New York. So much has happened over this past year. So many lessons learned, tears cried, and adventures had. I am grateful for the years that Brenda and I lived together. There are so many good memories to think back over and fat photo albums to page through. These documents of the rich journey that we walked together. Fortunately we have parted good friends with six children between us. In some ways you could say that our journey continues only on much different terms. I know that we both have a lot of growing to do as we each discover what life looks like on the other side of our marriage.
The sea rocks have a green moss.
The pine rocks have red berries.
I have memories of you.
Speak to me of how you miss me.
Tell me the hours go long and slow.
Speak to me of the drag on your heart,
The iron drag of the long days.
I know hours empty as a beggar's tin cup on a rainy
day, empty as a soldiers's sleeve with an arm lost.
Speak to me... Carl Sandburg, 1926
Leaving my marriage has allowed me to rediscover my self. I'm sorry if that sounds cliche but it's true. I have been rediscovering who I am and what is important to me. One of the ways this is coming about is through poetry. Lately comfort and inspiration has been found in the work of Carl Sandburg; thanks to a tattered old sepia toned pamphlet published by Simon & Schuster back in 1926 I picked up in a musty smelling used book store in downtown Milwaukee. Before that it was Charles Bukowski and before Bukowski, Robert Bly and his book Iron John. I have been committing some of my very favorite poems to memory and I have been doing the same with music, particularly the Rolling Stones. Looking for a Friend and Wild Horses are now book ends in a new cluster of cover songs bringing new life to my repertoire.
I wrote the the words, "a wanderer and observer generally" at the top of the painting I was working on yesterday. I wrote these words in silver paint so that in the early evening slanted light streaming into my VCCA studio makes the letters float on the surface of the canvas. I plucked these words out of my beloved Carl Sandburg poetry collection from a sentence that came at the end of a paragraph that described Sandburg's life before he became famous. He had held many different kinds of jobs through out his life. "Before a single verse of his had been touched by type he had served his days and nights at the trades of men" The author explains that it was this rich history of work experience that gave Sandburg the ability to fashion such rich and authentic poetry. It is my hope that some how through the process of all the hundreds (thousands?) of dippers I changed, hundreds of pizza's made from scratch, grocery store dumpsters I rooted through and countless weeds I pulled from our kitchen garden; that these life experiences will some how sift down into my paintings. Into the songs I sing and the conversations I have as I daily to step into this new life I am learning to live one day at a time choosing to go forward as a wanderer and observer generally.
I Have been traveling since I left Amherst Virginia April 29th. I found my self in South Philly visiting my daughter Rose after leaving Williamsburg Brooklyn. I got to her neighborhood early so I had about four hours to kill. I found a neighborhood coffee shop and settled in with my laptop among all the twenty-something hipsters and wrote a blog post. Rose and I had arranged to meet at 6:30 when she would be home from work so at about 4:30 I left the coffee shop and took off to explore her neighborhood. South Philly feels and looks working class. The row houses are packed tightly in on very narrow streets. The two story buildings all have very understated facades with very few adornments. The main streets are filled with shops: hair salons, pizza/sub shops, dry-cleaners, shoe repairs... it all felt very lively with the sidewalks filled with people. It was nice to see people sitting on stoops enjoying the sunny late afternoon. It was nice to see people gathered in small clusters of conversation.
I found that the more I pointed my camera to snap a photo the more alive the neighborhood became to me. I began to see beautiful and strange things everywhere I looked. I became so intent on what my next photo would be that at one point I stepped off the curb with out noticing a biker barreling down the street at full tilt. He blew past me so fast and so close that I could feel the breeze from his bike. After that near catastrophe I made sure to look both ways before I began to cross the next street.
I have been on the road a lot lately. Today I drove out of Williamsburg Brooklyn to Philadelphia on my way to visit my daughter Rose. The thin little female voice coming from my iPhone was right there to faithfully guide me every mile of the way. I was on the New Jersey Turnpike for a good stretch of the way. In spite of how importantly that particular road figures in Mrs Springsteen's discography, I found it a boring route. I was hankering for the scenic route so I paid my $5 and got off the turnpike.
I ended up in Burlington New Jersey, a city that looked like it had seen better times (a long time ago). A city that has yet to experience the juggernaut of gentrification many inner cities across the country have enjoyed. Burlington is a city still very much in ruins. I pulled into a gas station because my oil light was flashing and bought a couple quarts of 10W 30 Gulf motor oil. (I'm driving a 2001 Toyota Celica thats seems to be oil thirsty.) The Indian man presiding over this particular dumpy Gulf station made change not out of a cash register but from a thick wad of bills he pulled from his pocket. I asked him if he sold maps and he just looked at me dumbfounded for what seemed like a long time but was probably just half a second until he said "What?". I repeated my request, "Do you sell road maps, you know...like we used to use when we traveled before smart phones?" He seemed both bothered and confused suggesting I try Walgreens. After I fed my Toyota its motor oil I got back on to main street, pulling a U-turn, and made my way into the Walgreens parking lot across the street. I bought a $15 Road Atlas, a $10 magnifying glass and a $1.25 bottled water.
I turned off my GPS, pulled out onto Main street and promptly got lost. I must have forgotten how to read maps. I was wanting the scenic route to Philly but even with my magnifying glass and my brand new map (which just looked like a confusing jumble of lines, numbers and had very few streets named). Well it wasn't long before I had my GPS turned back on, my little Toyota back on to highway 76, and my newly purchased Road Atlas tossed into the back seat.
My artist residency at the Virginia Cultural Center for the Arts came to an end last Sunday morning. I packed up my studio. I filled all the little holes in the walls from my nails, push pins, and staples then I painted those walls and the table tops flat white. After breakfast I packed my car and drove off with my phone GPS pointing the way to New York City.
Now that the residency is over and I'm looking back, I realize that my experience was as much about the people I met as it was the art I created. I find that when I meet other artists there is a kind of instant camaraderie and this made the time spent at the VCCA feel almost like a family reunion. So now it's over and it leaves me looking for ways to continues these kind of interactions in my life. I also come away with a whole cluster of new friends all over the world that I can remain in contact with and perhaps even visit.
The word that came to me often during my month long residency was liminal.
What is a liminal space? In anthropology, Liminality (from the Latin word limen, meaning "a threshold") is the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of rituals, when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the ritual is complete. During a rite's liminal stage participants "stand at the threshold between their previous way of structuring their identity, time, or community, and a new way, which the rite establishes"
I love this definition from Wikipedia for the way I feel like it describes so beautifully the state I find myself in right now. Before beginning my residency, I moved everything out of my carriage house studio where I had been living for the past year since My separation began from my 30 year marriage (I had been using the space as my studio for 11 years). I moved all of my artwork, tools and other belongings to the basement of the apartment where I will eventually make my new home and studio. Of course it wasn't only about moving my stuff, it was in the act of moving where I began experience in a very concrete way that my marriage had come to an end. One way of life was ending in order to make way for a new way of life.
And now it's the gypsy life for me. Because of circumstances beyond my control my new work/live space in Grand Rapids Michigan will not be ready to move in May first as had been originally planned but now the landlord is saying June first. This has made me officially homeless. I have been stitching together a patchwork quilt of places to stay across the country. That quilt looks like going from Manhattan to Brooklyn, to Philadelphia, back to Grand Rapids for a night, then to Milwaukee for a couple days then to Grand Rapids, then up to Belair Michigan (Spitting distance from beautiful Travers City) for two weeks and then finally I can settle into my new home.
I'm an artist. I make pictures with paint, charcoal, watercolor and ink. Some times I make sculptures out of wood and I paint them with oil paint thinned with linseed oil, rubbing the color deep into the wood grain. People will ask me "why did you do that, why did you scrape away the paint like that?" Or they may ask me, "why did you put that bird floating right in front of the girls face so we can't see her properly 'cause now the bird's in the way?" Some times they ask me: "Why do you only paint women and mostly young women?" There have been so many questions.
These are all good, honest questions and I have various answers to all of them. I have answers so that I don't look stupid, like a deer in the middle of the road, unable to get to the other side 'cause she's caught in the tractor beam. Sometimes I am in the middle of my answer when a chunk of me sort of splits off and stands just off to my side and says something (in a voice thankfully only I can here), something like: "What the f-ck are you talking about? You are so full of shit right now!"
The honest truth is I don't really know what I'm doing most of the time. I am just making the next mark, mixing the next color, carving out the next limb. I am fumbling my way forward like a man picking out his outfit in a dark closet grabbing a shirt and tie just hoping it makes sense when he steps back into the light. I am swimming below the surface of my consciousness. I am following the lead of my feminine intuition and she's speaking a language I can just barely make out. I think that God has built the situation like this so I feel stupid and totally dependent on Her because the truth is: I AM totally dependent on her. King Nebuchadnezzar made the fatal mistake of looking from his palace thinking his current splendor was some how the result of his own efforts. This mistake sent him directly into seven years on all fours eating grass like an ox while his royal robes turned to rags and his finger and toe nails grew into long corkscrews. I'd rather feel stupid from time to time rather then suffer some version of O'l King Nebuchadnezzar's sorry fate. I will remind myself that all that I have is a gift from God. She is generous with me because she loves me. Her love is different than the way others love me because her love is not dependent on my good behavior. She loves me in-spite of my self. She keeps taking my senior picture out of her purse and showing me off to everyone who will listen. Why? Just because I'm her's. I'm a parent to six children and I understand some measure of this kind of parental loving madness that burns on some kind of heaven's fuel. With this in mind, I will continue to create my humble offerings in the hopes that I may be bringing into the world something that will touch somebody, some where, at some time.
So the next time someone asks me why I do it that way or what it means I will just turn the question mark upside down and let it become something like a fish hook. And I'll to cast that line and hook down into the supple mind of my visitor and say something like, "Well why do you think I may have done it that way?" If have a feeling I will learn a thing or two if I can remind myself that my visitors generally know more than I do and are there to teach me and it's very seldom the other way around.
I am seven days into my artist residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. I am here with several other creatives working on various projects from all over the world. The most common place the fellows seem to be from is New York city, or as they tend to say: "the City" There are other visual artists as well as several writers most of whom are working on novels but there are a couple poets tossed in as well as a screen writer on her way to Cannes Film Festival next month. There are also two classical composers each with their own grand piano and clutter of various recording gear. Alex is who is only 26 years old and about to begin a doctorate program at McGill next fall shared with me what he was working on. He placed to large sheets of hand written score in my hands and a set of headphones on my head and proceeded to hit play on his computer. I didn't know what to think of either the music or the score since I can read music about as well as I can read Latin even tho I have studied both at one time in my life. His piece sounded very contemporary and strident. I really wanted to like it but it was just to many light years away from the Rolling Stones who have been dominating my play lists this Spring.
I have had some other awkward moments like when Nancy shared off hand at breakfast that she was Jewish and I proceeded to steer (more like crash) the conversation smack dab into the Holocaust. She said that it was too heavy of a conversation topic for that early in the morning and politely excused herself. Nancy is a very sharp and elegant elderly woman who teaches French literature for Bard University inside a maximum security prison in New York. Last night I happened to be sitting next to Nancy at a poetry reading. I was absent mindedly bouncing my leg until she deftly put her hand on my thigh along with a withering glance that made clear that if I didn't real it in at that moment that I just might loose my limb altogether. Am I getting it across to you that these are pretty dang smart people doing interesting stuff. Hey, does that make me smart and interesting because I am now keep this company...?
Our food here is just a little too yummy and plentiful. I have already gained four pounds. Yikes! Eating Ben & Jerry's after 9PM I'm sure is not helping. I did go to the gym at Sweet Briar Women's college yesterday to do a work out. I think it may be one of the most beautiful campuses I have ever seen. It is well over a hundred years old and built into the rolling Virginia mountain landscape as if it was not so much built but rather just grew there. The student housing are beautiful old brick homes each with a slate roof totally out of another time exceedingly more lovely than ours. There is a huge Italianate mansion in the middle of the campus that had once belonged to the family that birthed the college in memory of there 16 year old daughter Daisy who, tragically drowned in the small lake on the property, leaving earth for heaven much too early and in doing so for ever broke her mother's heart. The idea to begin a first rate women's college grew from the soil of this mothers tenderized and harrowed heart. (Rumor has it that they came close to shutting the campus down last year because of increasingly decreasing enrollment and yet some how it remains open, clean as a whistle and neat as a pin).
After my work out in the gymI drove around the campus to explore. Snaking my way along the narrow roads that are laid down like asphalt ribbons through out the campus I came to the boat house which is built alongside a beautiful little lake. Parking my car I walked up the road were I happened upon two young women actually sitting on the seemed mettle roof of the boat house totally oblivious to my presence and completely lost inside their conversation. I couldn't quite make out what they were saying but their secret conversation was beautifully punctuated with girlish laughter every now and again. Even tho I was missing out on their girl secrets, I'm pretty sure Daisy"s ghost who is said to appear from time to time at night time in the boat house was catching every word and laughing along with them.
I set out from Kalamazoo Michigan Wednesday around ten in the morning driving my 2001 Toyota Celica. This car feels like driving a go-cart after driving the 2015 Chevy Malibu i had leased for the past three years. With the new old car I no longer have Satellite Radio but I do have a CD player (and a cassette player tho I haven't owned a cassette in like 25 years). I was given a Lou Reed double CD for my birthday last week which was all I listened to for the entire 10+ hour trip. I hadn't been on the road more then a couple hours when I started to feel sleepy. I pulled over and picked up a four pack of Red Bull at a convenience store. I think this was my first experience with this crazy ass drink. I can't tell you what it tastes like. I wouldn't be able to even begin to describe its flavor except as a kind of non flavor. It did how ever give me the wide eyed awake effect after I had put down two from my four pack.
Driving through Michigan and down through Ohio was pretty uneventful. It's when I hit West Virginia that things got weird. I was amazed at the degree of poverty I was seeing. Busted up trailer homes with all kinds of trash and odds and ends just kind of littered down the mountain side. Skinny dogs chained to posts, barns mostly caved in but still trying to stand like a boxer in his last round, houses that were way past needing a good coat of paint. But more then anything else was a deep and palpable sad feeling. This is the very same feeling I have when drive past Gary Indiana on the way to Chicago, its the same feeling I get driving through the strange new grass lands of downtown Detroit where stubborn half burned house refuse to fall. What I was seeing was up close and personal because my GPS thought it would be a good idea to take me off the larger highways and down into the hills and hollers for long stretches of busted up road. Witnessing this kind of derelict poverty gives a person the idea that, despite the access to Walmart, rural America isn't doing so well. I had to fight the urge to just pull over and walk up to a trailer front porch and introduce myself. I couldn't help but be curious as to how West Virginians live their rough and tumble lives? Do they stare at iPhones like we do? Do they hunt and fish? What kind of drugs do they like best? What do they do to make their money and how much do they make in any given year? I had all kinds of questions but I decided to just keep driving while the Red Bulls kept my eyes open and my reflexes sharp.
I have been an artist for as long as I can remember. Ever since I was just a kid I found simple delight in making things. Some of those earliest memories are from when I was five years old. I remember doing drawings of our cat sleeping using a ball point pen on notebook paper. I drew my mother sitting in her green Lazy-Boy where she liked to smoke and stare off into space. (Staring off into space was the depressed side of mom which was when she made a great model because she was statuary still for hours. The other mom was manic mom which could clean the house from top to bottom like a with a vengeance or perhaps laying out in the sun in the front yard topless.) Growing up with a mother who had a bipolar disorder and was often going off her meds meant that there was constant turmoil in our home. As I look back, not only did I get some much needed positive reinforcement from making stuff, but I also found comfort. As you know the more you do something the better you get at it and the more you are rewarded and the more your identity becomes permanently fused with your performance. Perhaps the creative zone I found became my safe haven. When I was a little older I used plastic molds filled with Plaster of Paris to make Disney characters which when dry and out of their molds I painted with Testors enamel paint. This was the same paint I used on my model cars that I bought at the Five & Dime. The drugstore next door sold 45s which is where, in 1969, I bought my very first record: Sugar Sugar by the Archies. That February my mother went to sleep and didn't wake up.
I just finished reading A Generous Vision by Cathy Curtis which is the story of Elaine De Kooning. Elaine was the strong willed, very talented painter married to William De Kooning who was one of the leaders of the New York school of abstract expressionism. Curtis writes: "Elaine mentioned in passing that her work was a way of coping with the jumble of thoughts constantly churning through her mind. Painting she said, is constantly an act of having to pull myself together. The built in structure of working in a series had a mentally quieting effect that allowed her to focus on the task at hand."
In the Summer of 2016 I found myself in a serious depression made even worse by a gnawing anxiety. I stopped being able to make art. This was to be my first real artist block in my thirty year career as a visual artist. Not only had I lost the refuge that had always been my go to to feel better but I entered a crisis of identity because if I wasn't making art I wasn't an artist and if I wasn't an artist, then who was I? Along with this identity crises was came the anxious question of how was I to make a living and go on providing for my family? After awhile I was able to pick up a back breaking job with a man who remodeled kitchens and bathrooms. My role was doing the tear out and carrying rubble to the truck. I only lasted in that circle of hell for a couple months. My next circle of hell was my job doing adult foster care at a mental hospital. My supervisors were all about the age of my eldest children. It was here that I had the wind literally kicked out of me with a boot to the stomach, a flesh wound on my forearm from a clients angry teeth, and a lot, a lot of spit in my face. I was paid $10 an hour for my diligent services.
Lost in the deep dark woods of depression my wife became exceedingly kind and patient with me through it all. She kept encouraging me to go back into the studio to find a way to begin working again. Eventually I heeded her advice I began a series of a still life drawings. I set up a still life in my studio of a clock sitting on a stake of books and a shell. This particular arrangement of items wasn't particularly exciting but it did become a place to begin. To make it easy for my self I decided to keep the subject the same. Every morning I would draw the same humble still life, just as it was, not changing a thing. Using different kinds of drawing media I let myself be playful with each session, sometimes really making a mess. I tried different things with water color, ink and charcoal that I had never done before. I didn't care anymore because I wasn't making these drawings to exhibit or sell. They were just was just for me. These drawings were for my eyes and my pleasure alone. Each session lasted around an hour and a half. Towards the end I would finish by writing into the drawing what ever I was thinking or feeling at the time. It was like making an entry into a personal journal where I could write what ever I wanted. I felt completely free! It was as if with every drawing, I climbed another rung on the ladder that was slowly taking me up out of my deep hole of hopelessness.
Interestingly, this series of little drawings lead me into an entirely new development in my painting. I got the idea to photograph my daughter Pearl and make several large paintings from the same photograph carrying over the same playful approach I assumed while doing my still life drawings. This new portrait series grew into the largest and perhaps most ambitious exhibition of my career at the Urban Institute for Contemporary Art in Grand Raids Michigan one year later.
Sometimes the things we treasure are taken away for a time but then we get them back and when we do we have a renewed appreciation. We have a fresh outlook. This is how I chose to frame my own experience. I worked my way through a paralyzing artist block and in the process I rediscovered how art making helps me maintain my own mental homeostasis.
In this video I am musing about the function of art. Here I suggest that art may be much more important than we ever realized. When we think about how difficult is is for an artist to go about making a living as an artist in a culture where art is seen as not necessary in the same was as having a car, clothes to wear and food in the fridge are. We must ask our selves why do artist continue to meet this nearly impossible challenge by making work against all odds? Could it be that the very spark of life in a culture comes from the art making? Is the artist voice the canary in the coal mine?
This is his heart
His heart is the kite trying to break free from its string.
His heart is the song that wants to be sung.
His heart is the ladder that reaches to the roof.
His heart is the dog on a chain with his food out of reach.
His heart is the candle burning too fast.
His heart is the key to turn in the lock
His heart is the salesman knocking on the door.
His heart is the spigot that won't shut off.
His heart is the rooming house with a room to rent.
His heart is the dry log ready to burn.
His heart is the seed that sinks into the earth.
His heart is the heel worn down to the left
His heart is the fledgling pushed from the nest.
In the process of writing this blog I have already written and then accidentally lost all of my content twice. This will be my third attempt. It is more than a little ironic since I am attempting to develop the idea of how the best art making tumbles into life on the broken back of the mistake. All of the best painters understand that they ride a mysterious balance between complete control and wild abandon.
In the series of paintings that I have been developing over the past nine months I have been making room for rough edges. I'm leaving paint brush strokes broken and obvious rather that blended and smooth. The grid that was the guid to transfer the original drawing remains showing through here and there. If I was a magician I would be showing you how the girl slips out of the back of the box before the swords start going through. Yes the magic may begin to dissolve a bit but on the other hand the implication is the very heart of punk rock- You can do this too.
In the painting above I loaded a large brush with a liquid dioxin purple glaze and let the paint make its way down the canvas. Each drip made its own path as it was tugged on by gravity. The result leaves us looking at a young woman through a veil of purple tears, purple rain or maybe a cell of her own making. As much as I love a ruler and a straight line the paint left to its own devices reminds my that the creative path jig jags. The true life journey meanders, stops and starts with out a rhyme or reason. Just because it does and that's a good thing.
I'm thinking lately that a painting is really the accumulation of events. The painting is the result of the many descions a painter makes along the way. With this new batch of paintings I am making that decision process more obvious because I have stopped covering my tracks. I want to let the process become evident. I want to pull back the curtain and allow the viewer come and join the journey and perhaps become transformed in the process.
We are building the StudioBeerhorst team. When people ask me what I do I say I'm a painter and then they say, a house painter? and then I say no, a fine artist. The problem with this getting to know you jive is they don't really know what I'm talking about. How could they? People have vague and romantic notions of artists from what they may have seen in movies. It's like when I meet doctors and I think Grey's Anatomy. The actual making of things is only a portion of what I in order to maintain a healthy studio practice. From day to day I'm investing in relationships, taking photographs, making videos, posting to social media platforms, cleaning and organizing the studio, emailing-incoming-out-going, packing and shipping work, reading, thinking, doing research and most importantly, staring off into space. This is not a complete list but it at least gives you an idea of why I need help to be successful.
I was watching a documentary about Lady Gaga the other day and it became clear to me that we know who she is because she assembled an excellent team around her. A team of people who love her and she loves back. Working together they have built something both beautiful and visionary. Her story got me wondering what my team might look like.
Just this month I have begun working with my very first intern, Sinjin Paulus. Sinjin does civil war reenactments. In order to save money he taught himself how to sew his own historically accurate clothing. He's very well read. He is a self taught historian with wide breadth of knowledge which makes for great lunch time conversations. He helps with what ever needs doing around the studio, from preparing and stretching canvas to digging the Wonder Wagon out of a summer's worth of tangled morning glories.
Pearl is our official videographer. I am convinced that the fact that we raised our last GoFund me campaign goal in five days and then went almost a thousand dollars over in the following week had a lot to do with the beautiful video she shot and edited. I love working with Pearl! I'm sure we made well over a hundred pizzas together over the years she was still living at home. Pearl and I just click and there is nothing quite like that.
Eric Tank is our official photographer. I have had the delight of watching Eric grow from hobby photographer to full fledged pro over the past several years. Eric is a blue flame of a man. He is one of the deepest thinkers I know with a vast knowledge of theology and a lousy christian in the best ways possible. Sometimes I think he is my personal priest, too holy for a collar who prays through his lens redeeming everyone with the click of a shutter. Including me.
Suzanne Beverage has stepped into the role of creative director. Suzanne became famous for her transformation of local vintage clothing store Scavenger Hunt from just another vintage store into what many people remember as the "Heart of Grand Rapids". If CBGB's had been a vintage clothing store it would have been just like Scavenger Hunt. It wasn't just a place to put together you look but a place here outcasts finally found a place to belong. Suzanne has a special gift of not only making places look and feel cool, she also has a special knack for building people into teams who work really well together.
We are still looking for an attorney and an accountant. You know who you are. Join the StudioBeerhorst, a place were we create art that makes you more alive. Don't wait! Contact us today.
I had the opportunity to spend two weeks at the Golden Apple Artist Residency this summer on the beautiful coast of Maine about an hour south of New Brunswick Canada. I had been invited by Shelly Stevens who runs her enchanted program with husband Greg Stevens to apply and I'm so glad that I did. They were generous in giving me a scholarship which brought the cost down enough to begin to make plans on how I could come up with the rest of the money I would need to make it happen. I was able to raise the rest of the money needed through a GoFund Me campaign which reached its goal in the first week and then went $800 over in the following week. (I started to get the idea that this was an adventure I needed to take.) This was my first artist residency of my career and even though I had an idea of what it might be like, the actual experience took me far beyond my expectations.
It was significant for me to be removed from my home turf and placed into a brand new environment that helped me to think differently and perhaps work differently. Sitting on a giant slab of granite looking into the bay littered with lobster boats and buoys I couldn't help but think how different this all was from Lake Michigan. At one point I noticed a little crab the size of silver dollar in a small tidal pool. I scooped him up onto the dry rock and immediately he rose up high on his little crab legs with his pinchers held high as if he was saying "You want a piece of this?" I actually starting laughing out loud which I'm pretty sure was insulting because he skittered of sideways back into the dark recess of his hid out.
I had ordered $600 of art materials from Dick Blick having them sent directly to the Golden Apple address including eight wooden panels. I got all of these panels started and was developing them all together going from one to the other as the days went by. I was able to make a lot of progress this way. When I needed a break I would go for walks on the grounds often ending up sitting along the shore of the bay just kind of being there in a mindful sort of way. Our meals were all provided for us and the food was delicious and super healthy. There were three other artists at the residency with me and we often fell into good conversations (and plenty of laughing our heads off) eating our meals together on the back patio looking out onto the bay.
With out question one of the most impactful aspects of this artist residency was the experience of working alongside of three very talented and highly motivated artists. As the days progressed we became more and more comfortable with each other, letting more of our selves be revealed. As we got to know each other we learned from each other. We inspired each other and even though we have gone back to our separate lives we know share a foundation to build on. I look forward to how these different personalities and points of view will go on to influence my work over this fall and winter as I continue my work in the studio.
Speaking of relationships, there were 91 people who contributed to my GoFundMe campaign with donations between $200 and $10. I would not have been able to have the experience I had if it were not for the generosity of these donors several of who chose to remain anonymous. I remain very grateful to these people and humbled by their example. It is experiences like this remind me of the value of being surrounded by good people.
I have been taking photographs of women beginning this Spring and on through the summer. I began with my daughters Pearl and Rain and have moved on to young women that are no relation to me at all. In fact some of these ladies I have simply approached on nothing more than a hunch that they would do well in front of the camera. So far I've not been wrong. Each woman who comes into the studio reveals deep insights and unique points of view that frankly I would expect to discover in someone much older.
The photograph has become a powerful spring board into making the painting. I enjoy the process of taking the photos for the opportunity it affords me to get to know the model. I have to create a connection with the subject in order to develop the painting. It is all about relationship. Relationship with the model and relationship with the canvas as I build each painting. My hope in this series is to capture some portion of the nobility, the unique powerful beauty and wildness present in each of these women. Each one a queen presiding over her queendom. Perhaps making her portrait will reinforce and extend her majestic rule.
I have added here a little three and half minute interview with Stephanie Eslick who I met one day at the Lightfast coffee shop. I went over to her table and introduced myself and the project I'm working on. We exchanged contact info and from there set up a time for her to come to the studio. She did a fantastic job in front of the camera and was nice enough to share some of her thoughts. Watch the video and here why she doesn't want to be famous and why she's drawn to people who are comfortable in their own skin.