Saturday, December 7, 2019

An Artist's Voice

A painter’s voice

A while back I posted some thoughts on the passing of Russell Chatham where I mentioned the dilemma of being compared to others while trying to develop one’s own “voice”. I was asked to expand on that and thought it might be worth doing. 

It is true that we are each an amalgam of our lifetime of exposure to others influence, and all those contributions help create the language we as painters use to both observe and respond to our world. And it does not matter what ‘style’ one paints, from abstract expressionism to cubism to realism or any of the other “isms” that get thrown around in the world of pigeonholing fine art. All painting is representational, and all is an attempt by the painter to observe and respond to the inner or outer (or both) world we find ourselves in a way that gives us deeper meaning. I think that when an artist is successful, that meaning becomes shareable. 

There is a long tradition in the apprentice model of learning where any artist learns things from others before them (or alongside them) who are seemingly doing a better job of it than the apprentice, and emulation is a common reaction. 

It can also be a trap.

When I was in art school, Andrew Wyeth was a big deal. Many of us “realists” (as opposed to “representational” which is all encompassing) studied Andrew Wyeth’s voice in detail, and painted paintings that mimicked his work to the best of our abilities. This is an old technique in art schools everywhere, not unique to mine. But I realized at some point that I was not speaking with my voice, but with Wyeth’s, so I began to pay more attention to his (and others) PRINCIPLES rather than style. That change kicked me off onto my own path and for better or worse I have tried to keep to the trail.

There are many Wyeth “clones” out there, people who stayed with the Wyeth style, painters who felt most comfortable speaking with his voice than their own and I have met plenty of them. Mind you, I was on that path too so this is not a judgement, just an observation. Most of the ones I know are phenomenal painters who have successfully tweaked Wyeth’s voice to work for them, but I admit that I feel a little estranged from them. Kind of like meeting Elvis impersonators, some of whom are extraordinarily talented individuals, but without a voice of their own. I am often confused by what I am looking at, because I knew what Wyeth was doing, the underpinnings of his conversation with the world, which were unique to him. Those underpinnings were what gave Andrew Wyeth’s paintings so much depth. Wyeth’s paintings are not about his paint, they are about what he FELT. I don’t see the same depth in those who mimic him because his paintings were the perfect union of knowing what he wanted to say and saying it with his own unique voice.

Just to be clear here… I am in no way making any comparison of myself to the great Andy Wyeth. His influence on me is just the scaffold on which to make the point. 

Part of the process of finding my own voice has been looking at others work over the years from a principle of painting or drawing standpoint, or not looking at others work at all. For many years I stopped going to galleries and museums to look at other’s work and worked in my own isolation struggling through the processes of tweaking my own painting to do what I wanted it to. It is important to note that there is a significant underpinning to my journey of study and experience that equipped me to do so. This does not mean I don’t look at other’s work, but I don’t study it. I just let it impact me as viscerally as possible. It also does not mean that I am any model of success with my own beliefs. It is a process that is never perfected.

Eventually, I think every painter has to do two things:  One, have a point. Have something you need to express, something you can articulate. And two, spend the time finding your best unique voice to express that point. Every painter has to give him or herself permission to do both.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

So long, Russell Chatham.

On Sunday, November 10, American landscape painter Russell Chatham passed away. 

"Bare Trees and Hayfields in November" Russell Chatham

Many years ago when I was fairly unknown, those who did see my paintings mentioned that it reminded them of a painter named Russell Chatham. This is back before the internet days and I had no idea who this guy was, or why anyone thought to compare us. I spent my early years trying NOT to paint like Andrew Wyeth, to find my own voice, only to be told I sounded like this other guy. 

Someone told me he had a book out, and after failing to find it at the library I went down to Elliot Bay Book Store in Seattle since they had a reputation for having or finding any book. The fellow at Elliot’s told me they had no books by or of Russell’s work, but he was represented just downtown at a gallery called Kimzey Miller. He thought they might know more. 

So I walked uptown from Elliot’s and found Kimzey Miller Gallery, which happened to be having a showing of Russell’s work, and they had a few of the books “One Hundred Paintings”. While I was there I walked around and looked at Chatham’s paintings and did not see the connection, but you do not get to control others impressions and the comparisons, whether warranted or not, and they kept coming… including a reference in a large article done about my work in Southwest Art Magazine later. 

Russell was by then a seasoned and well loved tonalist, and his paintings were far beyond my abilities and skillset. They simply glowed… Over time, the best explanation of this comparison came from another painter and friend, Kent Lovelace, a lifelong friend of Russell’s and instrumental in the production of his early lithographs. Kent thought that we “looked at the same things”. I can agree with that, and later realized that Kent belonged in that same assessment. We were all painting the same places, responding to the same things. California, Washington, western mountain states. 

As I purchased a copy I was chatting with them about why I was looking for the book, and Terry Miller found that interesting enough to ask for a studio visit. That visit led to my representation by the gallery, my first one-man major show, and a several year relationship with them. So now my paintings were hanging next to Chatham’s at KMG and there was, to my eye, no viable comparison to be made. Not that it is necessarily a bad thing, just not what you want when you are trying to develop your own voice.

Though not directly influenced by Russell’s work (at least consciously), his impact on my life and career turned out to be weighty. I was later represented by three other galleries that also represented Chatham’s work, in Wyoming, Montana, and New Mexico. Although I still see no resemblance, I cannot help but feel grateful for the association. 

The last time I saw or spoke to Russell Chatham was 2002 when I shared billing with him and Kent in the last show Geoff Sutton did at his gallery Sutton West in Missoula, Montana. Russell was out of sorts that night and went home early after the post-show dinner. He was entering a phase of his career that was upended by financial and personal misfortunes that we were not aware of at the time. I did try to contact him (a best regards) later through a mutual writer friend who was going to meet him in California, but she was not successful locating him. He had returned to his early origins on the West Coast and was staying out of sight. Even Kent could not get ahold of him. (It is true that if you were female, you had a better chance…)

So, in the 2002 show card I am posting here, I find myself standing with two phenomenal painters, two of which have left us for the Orion Belt, and I must say, it feels sort of lonely to be the only survivor on the card.  

Travel well, Russell Chatham.

Russell with Kent Lovelace, back in 1984...

Friday, May 31, 2019

Scaffold Easel

Ok... the amazing scaffold-rolling studio-easel system is done. I decided to move all of that to this place, as I dont want to clutter the page up too much with this sort of thing.

So, here is the description. It is a standard inexpensive 'bakers' scaffold. I needed one for my storage in hatfield, and to use on the high work in the new studio and show space here in Harwich. By attaching some wood attachment points with the scaffold pins and bolts with wing nuts, there is nothing on the scaffold that is not easily removed if the scaffold needs to be a scaffold.

after the attachment points were made (simple chop saw carpentry) I made a tray and angling system for the largest panels along the 6' side. On the ends, I made two smaller adjustable easels, one a standard shouldered easel, and the other a table easel for paper paintings and small things. The entire system rolls with fingertip ease on the 6" casters. It's home is in the north end of my painting area, but can easily roll out into the show area if I need more space around me. The back side is also a work space, for doing shipping or other tasks that need a flat area.