“…from Hell’s heart I stab at thee…

•January 28, 2014 • 1 Comment

Ahab Portrait 1…for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.” Eloquently stated by Captain Ahab from Melville’s “Moby Dick”. A few months ago I received an email from a gentleman out west who had come across my self-indugent blog. He asked about the puppets; inquiring which were available. I suggested to him that if he was interested in something  in particular, something of his own choosing, I could put together a marionette specifically for him. There are conditions of course. I’m not Gepetto so making puppets is not my day job. An open ended “due date” would be nice. Also I was interested in trying something new with the construction so if he was willing to be patient he could have a a custom puppet whose armature was entirely unique (at least to me). He agreed and I asked what kind of subject he had in mind. “Captain Ahab”. “Oh”, I thought. “This is going to be fun. I never would have thought of doing a puppet of Ahab myself.” I was in.

I hadn’t made any puppets in almost four years. The large scale puppets I made for the show in Columbus were the last ones I had made. I was really happy with how they turned out, using a mortise and tenon type joint for the elbows and knees. I’m willing to wager that mortise and tenon joint probably isn’t the proper term but I feel the disclaimer of my identity above absolves me of any responsibility in being exact with my carpentry vocabulary. The joints are a bit more work but once you have a pattern and a system you can knock out the pieces with some efficiency. This type of joint allows for a bit more control and more realistic movement. (Let’s be honest here. I’ve seen some really good puppetry and some puppeteers can work a Marionette and make it move like Fred Astaire. When I’m at the reins they move more like one of the  cadaverous protagonists in a George Romero movie). I also wanted to try out a new type of control bar. In particular I wanted to get the legs to move with a bit more control.

I had the benefit of having seen a great show of Czech puppets in Columbus not too long ago and took a ton of pictures trying to accumulate as much reference material for construction methods as possible. When I walked into the show I could feel a huge grin stretch across my face. There were rooms and rooms of puppets. Old and modern, traditional and experimental. Like a kid in a candy store. I wanted to incorporate some of these Czech methods into this puppet.

I began with a drawing of how to construct the armature. I planned most of it out in my head and then made adjustments through drawing. The thing I like about working on the puppets is that it is a very different process for me then when I am drawing or painting. Having spent the last two summers studying at the Academy, I had learned to slow down, to analyze, to plot, plan, and execute down to the smallest detail. I really love that process. But the puppets I make more spontaneously. Making it up as you go along is a nice (and necessary) counter to the structure I have been imposing on myself in my two dimensional work.

The joints were constructed like the ones in the rod puppets but I reduced the scale a bit. If the puppet was too large he would be too heavy to be comfortable to work with just one hand supporting the weight. Also I wanted to make sure that any supplies I needed did not have to be anything special. I wanted to be able to walk into any DIY store, pick up what I needed, and then get back to work.

Originally I was going to use a long rod descending from the control bar to support the puppet and allow for movement. Basing it on the Czech puppets the rod would pass through the head of the puppet and attach, by a hook bent into the wire, to a eye screw in the torso. This would allow solid control and dispense with the extra strings on either side of the head. I also wanted to modify how the legs were controlled. Two wires, one on each side of the control bar were bent in an “L” shape and inserted through the control bar. Using the thumb to control one wire and the index and middle finger to control the other the puppeteer could keep a firm grasp on the control bar and easily make make the legs kick forward rather than an awkward “kind of forward but kind of to the side” motion of my earlier puppets. Granted, the control bar was not the thing that solved the erratic movement issue. The joints and the hips being made of a single threaded rod did that. The new leg controls gave greater movement however. (I also made a hinged ankle for the non-peg leg which I was pretty pleased with.)

Instead of a solid spine I made one of heavy cord with knots that held three wooden “ribs” in place. This would allow the figure to bend and twist in ways that earlier designs wouldn’t. All together the parts worked great. However there was no way I was going to be able to ship this guy out west in a reasonable way with the solid rod running down from the control bar. I opted to go back to the three string control for the head. This reduces the control for flexing the spine but I think I can work that out for a future puppet.

I started reading Moby Dick to get a feel for the character. The book is great but dense. Melville really paints a vivid picture. You can almost smell the fish and salty air. I haven’t finished it yet but I will (Seriously, I promise. Just don’t give me a due date for that either) I remember watching the movie version from the 50’s with Gregory Peck as Ahab. I’m pretty sure I watched it as a kid at my grandmother’s house on a Saturday afternoon. It had to be on Superhost. If you are my age and live in north central Ohio or further north you have to know Superhost. superhostHe was a guy on TV (WUAB I think, out of Cleveland, channel 9 on the ol’ dial on the idiot box) that dressed up as a Superman-like character and hosted a Saturday afternoon show  whose staple fair was primarily Godzilla films and old monster movies like Dracula and Frankenstein. I still love those movies. Superhost was the Saturday afternoon version of Big Chuck and Little John. Man, I loved staying up watching Big Chuck and Little John. That opening scene where King Kong attacks the TV station https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sqI5_RA-o4s  …… seems I digressed a bit. Back to the puppet.

So when I started working on the head the Gregory Peck image was in the back of my mind. It’s not supposed to be him but he was kind of the inspiration. I tried to make him all gnarled and rough. I think he turned out well. I wanted to reference other parts of the book and the film and I though about a life spent working the sea. Personally, I won’t get on a boat. I can look at the water but setting foot on a boat will lead me to “feeding the fishes” as a couple of my seafaring (Lake Erie-faring) friends would say. Plus, I’m very uncomfortable around deep water so reading Moby Dick is as close to “going to sea” as I’ll ever get. While the sculpting compound was still soft Ahab HandI wrapped  heavy twine around the hands to put in some textures like Ahad had spent his life pulling ropes on sails and tying knots. It also sort of references him being tangled in the rope at the end of the book (Peck went out in a very dramatic way in the movie which differs from the book. That is one of the most iconic scenes in film, I think). I painted the grooves purple and pink; bruised and scarred. Battered. I took liberties with the peg leg. First of all  I thought of Ahab as a fiendish, callus man driven by a single obsession. He seemed like a guy that would strike up a Faustian bargain with Ol’ Scratch. With that in mind I recalled the Czech devil puppets. They had one “regular” foot and the other cloven. Perfect. I made sure to put a little black end cap on his peg leg, apparently held on with a leather strap to hint at this iconography. The peg was made from the jawbone of a whale. I decided that I would take further Peg Legliberties with the figure and add a little primitive scrimshaw to the peg. This isn’t in the book but I like to imagine a man of Ahab obsessiveness in his cabin at night, the whale oil lamp swinging as the ship rocked on the rolling seas. In the distance he hears whale calls and he sits at a rough table scratching images of the white whale into his leg.

Ahab HarpoonHis ensemble turned out pretty well but I still need to work on my tailoring a bit. Outfitted in a vest and coat with a striped hat on his head and a harpoon on his back Ahab is ready to hit the high seas.

If you’re interested in a “one of” puppet of your own send me a note. But don’t call me Ishmael.

Ahab Full 1

The Bre Project by Ryan S Brown

•November 30, 2013 • 1 Comment

This isn’t my usual type of post but this is a story that should be told frequently. The Utah based painter, Ryan S Brown, has a kickstarter project that I think everyone should know about. He has been kind enough to let me post about it on my little blog.

Mr. Brown has been working with a young model who has been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer that began as pain in her legs. After a series of tests it was determined that she had a rare form of cancer that affects young people and is related to the growth rate of her bones. Terrible enough that this young girl now has the challenge of overcoming this disease but she is also a dancer which somehow makes the affliction even more tragic. His kickstarter project is to raise money to create a series of paintings documenting Bre’s treatment and overcoming of this disease. The money will be used to allow Mr. Brown to focus solely on these works, procure a venue, frame the paintings, show and then sell the works with the proceeds going to Bre’s treatment. Sounds like a good thing to be a part of.

I read about this project just before I left for a memorial service for the father of a friend that passed away from cancer. Timely indeed. Another friend of mine is in the later stages of cancer treatment (She’s doing great!). I think we all know someone who has been touched my this disease in some way, either directly, or through someone we care about. Someone I know suffered a pretty serious injury (not cancer-related) that could have put an end to her dancing career. It’s impossible for me to imagine those types of things. I’m pretty self absorbed in my petty problems so I should be more thankful for just how fortunate I have been. I’m not going to post images of Mr. Brown’s work but you can see his work and check out the video about the project on the links below. The deadline to contribute is December 28th. I’m not going to ask you to contribute but maybe you could pass the word around. It’s a small world and we need to help each other out. People ask me sometimes why art is important… how is it practical? It’s the most important thing in the world and I think this project will show people just how vital art is. Thanks for taking the time to learn more about this project. I think it has “good” written all over it.

Ryan S Brown and the Bre Project:

http://www.ryansbrownart.com/the-bre-project.html

The Bre Project on Kickstarter:

Alexander the Great and going “legit”.

•November 17, 2013 • 1 Comment

At the MuseumI like to spend time at the Cleveland Museum of Art drawing. I have been working on two drawings. The first is of a section of The Education of the Virgin (@1700) by Giuseppe Mazzuoli the Elder. Ive been working on that drawing for what seems like forever. It is getting to a decent stage but still needs a lot more work (see example). Occasionally Alexander the Great Fini001I can’t get to my regular position to work on that particular drawing so I have a “back-up” drawing to work on just in case. The back-up drawing I have been working on is of a fragment of a sculpture of Alexander the Great in the Greek and Roman section of the museum. This collection is great, particularly the portrait heads. Unfortunately they are displayed a little too high to get a really good angle when drawing from the folding stools the museum generously provides. Hence the angle of this drawing.  I think this drawing is finished. The drawing is a little less than four and a half inches tall and was finished in graphite over approximately six hours or so broken up over several weeks (I can’t make it to the museum every Wednesday and Friday). I’m not entirely satisfied with how I represented the broken nose but I think if I continue with it I’ll do more damage than good. I’ll also say this. Every drawing looks better with a mat and frame around it. A little presentation can make your art seem legitimate.  You can almost convince people you know what you’re doing.

Alex and Me for Blog II

Visual Literacy… by way of Picasso and Hamlet.

•November 17, 2013 • Leave a Comment

I recently had an experience, quite by accident, that got me thinking about Art (not art). It was accidental because the conversation in which I was engaged, whose topic I had planned for, took a left turn in the most unexpected way. Perhaps “unexpected” is not the right word. When I’m engaged in “aesthetic experiences” (please note the art buzzwords) my line of thinking begins to meander and wind its way through a landscape unplanned. Unplanned but not unexpected.  Does that phrase make sense? It seems oxymoronic but I do like they way it sounds. Better, I like the way its contradictory quiddity makes me think. (As an aside, I really like the word quiddity. I probably should have remembered that word from all the Thomas Aquinas I read, and misunderstood, in grad school but I have to give credit to Simon Schama for bringing it to my attention in his book “Rembrandt’s Eyes”, a weighty tome by an author who I have to read with a dictionary within arms reach.) As usual, I digress as I am wont to do…. Back to the story.

The experience had shades of my high school experience as well. I had the great fortune to have a most excellent English teacher, Dr. Schutjer. Later she was my English professor at college. In high school she was Mrs. Schutjer. In college she became Dr. Schutjer and after my time as her student she told me, on several occasions, that I could call her Pat. I have never called her Pat. She is and always will be Dr. Schutjer. The esteem High School books stackand high regard which I have for her, for all she has done for me (most of which she will never know) precludes me from addressing her in the familiar. I have great affection for her and she is the rule by which I measure all other educators. Her intellect and heart cast long shadows, this towering giant of intellect and subtle wit fit snuggly in the delicate frame of a gentle, unassuming scholar. She taught me more than the English curriculum, of course. She is far too independent and passionate  to be limited by such mortal constraints. She taught me about a love of literature, of words, of communication of the most genuine sort. She taught me not of the Humanities but of humanity and did so with an ease and grace that now, years since, I recollect as if it were poetry. Because that’s what it was.

Of the many gifts she shared two hold fast in my memory: Satori: this word has its roots in Zen and the meager machinations of my mind can’t fully grasp its meaning (though it and quiddity may not be distant relations). I think of it as an instant realization. The other is Stream of Consciousness. My classmates and I referred to this as “random thought”. Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was my painful introduction to this idea and, though having read the book, I cannot tell you what it was about. Perhaps the book wasn’t the lesson anyway. The idea stuck and has served me well over the years.

Another digression…. back to the topic, then.

I was having a conversation with some folks about visual literacy. In previous posts I have mentioned that sometimes I work with people that are beginning their great art adventure and this story is from such an occasion. The purpose was to explain the context of certain words we use in art and to help lead these fledgling image makers and craftspeople to think about context; the context of the word but also, hopefully, how we understand a thing within its context (and perhaps without as well). I try to address visual literacy in a way that non-art folks can relate to. When asked what it meant to be literate the usual definition came up: being able to read and write. Simple enough a definition but it falls short of encapsulating what literacy really means (or at least what I think it means). We examined another level of literacy. Certainly being able to read and write is important but at its basic level we are talking about recognizing and being able to reproduce symbols (letters) that form bigger symbols (words) that describe ideas. Some of those ideas are pretty basic. The symbol “D” denotes a sound. Joined with another sound symbol, “O”, the sound takes on a new meaning along with its new noise. Now the symbol means to commit an action. From noise to activity with a few scribbled shapes. A third symbol, “G”, turns that action into an animal. Interesting how pictures (letters) put images in your head along with all their meanings. You can take the same symbols and rearrange them and come up with a very different meaning. Context counts. This brings us to the level of comprehension. We can make all the noise we want and carve their accompanying lines but that is just so much scratching and gurgling without recognizing the meaning. So if I cannot understand the difference between DOG and its inverse how literate can I be? To be truly literate, in this simplified analogy, one must go just a bit further. There are associations with the symbol DOG. “Mans best friend”, loyalty, companionship, protector. These concepts can even cross cultures and time and maintain their meaning. Wasn’t Ireland’s greatest hero known as the “Hound of Ulster”? I think this is what it means to be literate. Reading and writing is basic and by definition a necessity. Comprehension is the thing created by those tools but it is the third thing, the result of the first two that makes a man literate. With this literacy comes knowledge, understanding, even empathy. To be literate one must see the whole and the parts simultaneously. Most of us, most of the time, are content with seeing the trees and miss out on the beauty of the forest. (Beauty is a whole other conundrum best left for another day but I think my little synopsis of literacy is linked somehow to beauty.)

The topic was value.So we spoke of value as dollar signs. A painting is valuable because of the price tag attached to it. This is the value that makes the news and how many people relate to art. Not everyone is familiar with art but we are all familiar with money so that is the common ground where we meet to talk about pictures on canvas or shapes carved from stone. Sometimes folks will direct me to news articles about some work of art that sold for millions of dollars and ask if it was worth it. My answer is frequently the same. The delete button is in the upper right corner of the keyboard. Tens of millions for a Warhol? With all sincerity I don’t care. If you tell me that I am out of touch with the art world or have a narrow or naive view of it you’ll perhaps see me moving my index finger toward the upper right as I think, ever so briefly, about my rebuttal. Money doesn’t move me a great deal when part of the discussion about art. In this way money doesn’t have a whole lot of value. We then turned our attention to the Mona Lisa, a work most people are familiar with. How valuable is it? A dollar figure. How about a hundred million billion dollars? That is a pleasantly ridiculous number. It’s value is cultural and historical not monetary. I’m not sure why it is so valuable. Is it because of all the other things that da Vinci accomplished and this painting must be important, too, since he made it? A shallow interpretation. It makes me think of collectors that covet any object used by someone famous. Maybe the Mona Lisa should be understood as if it were akin to a holy relic. Don’t people make a pilgrimage to the Louvre “cathedral” to see the “holy relic” of the painting by “St. Leonardo”? Maybe it is valuable because it exemplifies the major ideas that developed during the high Renaissance, executed to a high degree of excellence by the very person who discovered or developed most of them. Maybe that mysterious smile isn’t so much a smile as it is a wink linking Leo to those great Greek craftsmen who chiseled for eternity the enigmatic “Archaic Smile” across the faces of kouros and kore millennia ago. What followed, in my Joycian meanderings and stumblings, was a work by Picasso. I preface what follows with this: I don’t really like Picasso’s stuff all that much. It does not excite me (with few exceptions) and interests me only insofar as Picasso is one of those unavoidable colossuses (colossi?) of art history, like it or not. The one good painting, truly valuable painting, by Picasso is Guernica. I showed a reproduction of the painting to my small audience. “Do you know the story of Guernica?” Silence. “Painting or city…either one.” I Guernicaprompted. I thought I heard crickets. I then told stories. I often tell stories when talking about art. Sometimes those stories are directly about art though generally I’m telling stories “around” art, “near” art, “related to” art and eventually making the parts connect. I told them about a town and what happened during the Spanish civil war. I told them about the purpose of the act. I tried as best I could to describe its brutality, its irrationality, the inhumanity so characteristic of us. Some politely listened and others listened. Unexpectedly I found myself becoming a more than a little emotional as I drew the connection from Guernica to Dresden. I told them those stories, too. I shared some stories from sources close to me who had been close to what happened then. I’ll let you do your own research to track down those tales so phantastic and tragic that they had to be true. A few giggles that made me stop in disbelief for a second then I reconciled myself to thinking it was a laugh borne of disbelief and discomfort. A Guernica, Ruinenquestioning laugh of the stupefied. Speechless, only noises trickled out. I make no attempt to convince you, dear reader, that I know anything of true tragedy; certainly not of the magnitude represented by this painting or of the Guernica 3unpainted horrors that followed. As I type this self indulgent passage (of words? time?) I sit very comfortably at my kitchen table, warm, with a full belly, and Vivaldi coming from the speakers in my living room. I am a stranger to real tragedy. As our discussion progressed I knew I had to make a change of direction for the sake of the appearance of my emotional state. Guernica, Dresden, Mai Lai perhaps? Could the name of a village in Afghanistan or Iraq be inscribed beneath the black and white canvas of broken limbs and screaming animals and people by a Spanish painter? Would the words “New York” fit on that nameplate, too?

When I think of Guernica I often think of Graydon Parrish’s “The Cycle of Terror and Tragedy”. I am in no way equating these paintings but  they do seem linked. I am not going to speak of Parrish’s skill or aesthetic philosophy. I’ll leave that to those more knowledgeable than I. I also unequivocally state that if my technical skill was personified it should not be permitted within a mile of Mr. Parrish’s work. In a shallow assessment both paintings try to make tangible the subjectivity of irrationality, fear, desperation, pain…..a hopelessness that is almost palpable. But it is Picasso’s painting that moves me emotionally. Parrish engages my intellect but Picasso causes a visceral response. I try to imagine Guernica in a polished classical style. The image never materializes in my mind. It cannot. Picasso’s brutal Cubism is necessary to explore these ideas. I say brutal because Cubism”looks” violent. It takes things that are whole and breaks them. Carves, no… chops, objects into pieces like limbs from bodies. Cubism destroys, as bombs destroy, shattering what we think we know into infinite carnage. And it is in these exploded images, these frozen moments of familiar things reduced to minutiae that we come to know the thing. In this we see the forest we thought we knew as trees, we squint and see those trees as their younger sapling selves. And at the limits of our internal vision, the seeds from which the forest sprang. When we see all the parts in their totality and then see how those parts ripple out into eternity, and farther still, when we see the totality made of the infinite smallness then we know; knowing makes us whole. This knowing is literacy. To know, in it’s true sense, is a mighty and terrible thing…and the proper goal of humanity. To be literate is to be human. To be, despite our fumblings and failures, humane.

This all seems melancholy and reminds me of another experience from Dr. Schutjer’s class; from Hamlet:

Claudius: How is it that the clouds still hang on you?
Hamlet: Not so my lord; I am too much i’ the sun.

Perhaps I misunderstand the bard and this fellow Hamlet. But I don’t care.

How valuable is visual literacy? Let’s start at a hundred million billion.

 

A drawing of Homeric proportions….

•July 19, 2013 • 1 Comment

ImageI thought this title was a bit more clever than my second option: “D’Oh!”. I’m back at the Academy for the summer session and I could not be happier. The Homer Bargue that I began at home was finished last week. I think it turned out pretty well. It is amazing what one can forgot about the drawing process when he works in relative isolation. I have a tendency, when drawing from these images (and probably when I’m just drawing in general), to fall into the common habit of focusing too early on details rather than on big shapes. “Details” and “big shapes” can be deceptive descriptors since anything you are drawing exists on a sliding scale with these terms on either end. Kind of…. The biggest shapes are always big shapes but the rest is relative. The challenge I find myself in with some regularity (read: every time I draw) is that I get so focused on the excitement of the subtle details that I lose the big shape relationships. No amount of subtle, exquisite, virtuoso attention to detail will make a drawing good if the big parts don’t relate to each other properly. The Homer drawing reminded me of that. Actually, It was the instructors and the Maestro that reminded me of this. I’m glad I didn’t finish the drawing at home. It would not have been as successful as it is if not for the critical analysis of a few pairs of eyes. There are a few things that always amaze me about this type of drawing. The first is that your senses, in this case sight, are incredibly fallible. The thing about sight or any of the other senses, is that they require a complex dance between the thing taking in the info (e.g. your eyes) and the thing that interprets that info (your brain). Don’t even get me started on how your brain deals with this information. The brain has a mind of its own. (That sounds like a pun but sometimes thinking about how you understand the things around you almost convinces you of having a split personality.) In short, you senses are unreliable and so is the brain that puts it all together. You can spend all day visually measuring, sighting, and comparing lines and shapes and be absolutely confident that you have everything right… until someone else takes a look at your drawing. They have different eyes, a different brain, different experiences…..a lot of variables and qualities that you don’t have (Don’t worry. It’s not a value judgement. You see differently than they do. The important word here is “different”. Different, not better.) However, when you have yourself convinced, or should I say, your brain has you convinced, that you have everything right it is a little disheartening to have a new set of eyes point out where things need to be corrected. It’s important to remember, as I so frequently don’t, that your brain cannot get it all right all at once. The brain just does not work like that. The first lines you make will not survive to the final drawing. These misperceptions are not mistakes or failures. They are the first furtive steps toward an excellent drawing. Drawing is best described as a long series of revisions. Is it laborious? Yes. Is it time consuming? Yes. Will you draw for several hours a day and then spend the next two days “fixing” all of your previously perfect lines and shapes? Trust me. You can bet the family farm on that. Will you step back after a couple of weeks and see an image that makes you grin with a little pride mixed with disbelief that you made this thing with your own two hands? I guarantee it. To be clear: you make beautifully crafted images with a piece of paper and a burnt stick (that’s charcoal, friends). That’s it. That’s magical.

Just remember to always step back and check those big relationships. The big picture makes the picture.

I’ve had some really great experiences here besides the drawing. Just as an aside I present this little green fellow. I stepped outside to sharpen my Lizardcharcoal and this little fellow was scurrying about. I carefully tried to get a couple of pictures of him, worried that he would run off or the image would be bad. As luck (or fate) would have it, on the last shot he decide to stay still and turn his head to the camera for a nice little portrait. We don’t have these little lizards up north where I’m from. He has a striking green color. The only disappointment was that when he stretched out his dewlap it was pink between the scales. I wasn’t able to get a shot of that. I named him Godzilla.

Image

Of Fathers, Mothers, and Sons…

•June 20, 2013 • 1 Comment

ImageFor the past several months I have been reading about Ohio’s classical son, Kenyon Cox. The name was familiar to me, but only vaguely, until I became interested in classical drawing and painting. My interests in these pursuits necessitated an exploration into the aesthetics associated with this craft. This took very little arm-twisting as one cannot study art without knowing her sister, Philosophy. This led me to the writings of Kenyon Cox. An Ohio artist, originally from Warren but closely associated with Oberlin due to his family relations, Cox is best known now as an art critic of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. I won’t belabor a biographical summary about him here but there are a few books that could be of interest to you should you be so inclined to learn more about our native son of art criticism. The first is “Keeper’s of Culture” by H. Wayne Morgan. This book gives a nice general overview of the criticism of Kenyon Cox as well as chapters on Royal Cortissoz and Frank Jewett Mather, Jr. The second book, also by H. Wayne Morgan, is “Kenyon Cox, 1856-1919, A Life in American Art”. This is the book that sent me on two afternoons of adventure in Oberlin. The third is a collection of lectures given by Cox at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1911 entitled “The Classic Point of View”. As of this post I have not yet settled in to read this book (truth be told I am saving it for my summer adventure as I return to study at the Academy of Classical Design. I thought it fitting.). This book was a little trickier to track down but thanks to the Harvard bookstore and their Espresso Book Machine I can hold it in my hands rather than read it on my computer. You can find it online through Google Books but I much prefer to read an actual book. If you are not familiar with the Espresso Book Machine I’d recommend googling it. It’s pretty cool. I just wish there was one closer to me. But I digress…..

Thanks to Mr. Morgan’s books I became aware of Cox’s connection to Oberlin College. His father, a Union general during the Civil War and 28th Governor of Ohio as well as a lawyer and abolitionist among many other things, was a graduate of Oberlin College and a trustee there from 1876 to 1900. After his father passed away his son, Kenyon, was asked to create a commemorative window for the Christ Episcopal Church in Oberlin. The window shows an armoured knight similar to Donatello’s St. George. When I read about this window I thought “How could I have missed this?” I had lived in Wellington for several years, just a few miles south. As an aside The “Spirit of ’76” was painted by Archibald MacNeal Willard while living in Wellington. He is buried in the Greenwood Cemetery.

I had to see this window. I am a regular visitor to the Allen Memorial Art Museum in Oberlin and the church is just down the street. I must have driven by thousands of times. Through my reading I also learned of two lunettes painted by Cox to commemorate his parents. They are located in the Cox administration building. I decided that the next time I was in Oberlin I would see these pieces.

I was in Oberlin on a rainy Saturday. It was overcast and grey. The rain was light and Imageintermittent. We had several days of regular rain prior;  the occasional light sprinkle was easy to ignore. Besides, I had more important things to worry about: stained glass windows and lunette murals. I couldn’t recollect which church had the stained glass window so I chose one at random (Oberlin has several). The door was unlocked and I went in. Unfortunately I chose the wrong one. A nice church, but not the one with the window. Making my way around the back of the church (to be sure I looked at all the windows to be certain I hadn’t missed the one I was after) I came upon a little enclosed area next to the church with a little pond. A robin was using it as a birdbath but I wasn’t quick enough on the draw with my phone to snap a picture. As I approached the pond I caught a flash of orange through the green and brown plants on the surface of the water. Upon closer inspection I discovered that it was a goldfish or carp of some kind. I can’t be certain. I don’t know anything about fish except what I learned from Shark Week on the Discovery Channel as a kid. After much trying I was able to get a picture of the fish. The orangey-red-vermillion color stood out against the cool greens of the plants and the deep shadows they created. If you have a moment the next time you are in Oberlin spend some time by the pool. You might see the vermillion fish and perhaps his little brown sidekick. (If you closely at the image of the pond you can see that he made it into the shot through luck.)Image

I made my way to the Cox administrative building nearby. Since it was Saturday it was closed so the lunettes would have to wait for another day. I spent some time admiring the decorative work around the doorway of the building as well as the capitals Capitals and Detailsof the church I had just left. I googled the window to find the church and then made my way south to the Christ Episcopal Church. The front door of the church was locked so I went to the building behind it. It was locked as well. Apparently, the only day the church was not accessible was Saturday. Curses. Foiled.

Driving home from Mansfield the following Monday I decided to make the detour to try to see the window and murals again. This time I began with the church. I parked in the back and went to the community center that was locked a few days before. As I neared the steps a woman approached me and I enquired about the window. She was very kind and helpful and said I was more than welcome to go in to see the window. The church is much the same as it was when it was built in 1859. The simple architecture belies the beauty inside. All of the windows, save the one by Cox, were made by Margaret Kennedy in the 1950’s. A parishioner of the church, she was studying for a Master of Arts degree at the college.

Courage Window for BlogWhen I saw the Cox Memorial window a wide grin made its way across my face. It glowed.  Even on a grey afternoon the window seemed to be lit brightly from behind. I asked to take some pictures and was permitted to do so and spend as much time there as I liked. What struck me was the vibrancy of the colors and, in particular, how purple the overall effect was. The composition was simple, crisp, and clean. Everything I would expect from the imagination of Kenyon Cox. Some time later a parishioner came in. She had known Margaret Kennedy and told me about how she had worked in a little studio in the basement of the church to complete her series of windows. The rector arrived shortly thereafter to help supervise the installation of a new bell. Everyone was very accommodating and kind to a stranger who came in off the street to look at a window. I was informed that some time ago the museum was very interested in procuring the window for its collection but the church decided, rightly so, to keep the window in its original location. Harvard has the drawing for the window. I found this interesting because it was from its bookstore that I procured Cox’s collection of lectures.

With a light spring in my step I made my way back to the administrative building. Across the central park area I made my way west through the arch that commemorates those affiliated with the college that were killed in the Boxer Rebellion. Across the street and to the right I was back at the Cox administrative building. It was Monday so at the building they were down to business and so was I. The seemingly heavy door swung open easily and slammed shut just as easily behind be with a resounding noise.

Father Mural Blog Image

I was startled by the immediacy of the mural on the left with the two figures. I imagined them larger, and to be frank, in a location more conductive to viewing. The foyer was small, a tiny antechamber that led to the offices beyond. I was immediately struck at how dark the area was. A small window above the door let in a meager amount of light. An interior light hung low from the ceiling. So low in fact that it was below the height of the lunettes. The images were enveloped in shadow, broken only faintly by the feeble light making its way through the window. I was disappointed. I wanted to see them more clearly. I inspected both carefully. The colors seemed rich even in this poor light. Each object had an autonomous color but was made of a range of values and tones of that color. In this it reminded me of a Renaissance sensibility about color that I remember vaguely from my college days.

I spent some time focused on the fabric remembering a lecture on the subject from the Academy. I moved back and forth between the two images straining to make out the details; trying not to miss anything. I stood back and admired one and then the other. The wings of the figure in lunette dedicated to his mother were a rich, vibrant blue.

Mother Mural Blog Image

I was half tempted to stand on one of the chairs in the foyer but thought that might get me thrown out. I tried to take pictures as best I could. Most were unsuccessful due to the light and the angle. When you stood back far enough in the little room to get the entire lunette in the shot the hanging light was in the way. I made due as best I could. I was about to leave when someone came through the door. The day had cleared up outside and the room was filled with a flash of bright sunlight. The murals exploded in color. They glowed almost like the window at the church. The small dark room and the poor lighting were probably a blessing in disguise. Protected from the sunlight they retained their original brilliance. Stretching and straining I propped the door open with my foot and leaned to get the best shots I could. Through these works, the lunettes and the window, and from what I read about Kenyon and his parents, I got the impression that he was a son that respected his parents both as the caregivers they were to him and his siblings but also respected and admired them for humanism, their efforts to be good and just and to instill those values in their son. I hope I don’t misunderstand what I’ve read and seen and if I have I’ll chose to believe I was right anyway. I like his art, and the man, more if I do.

This little adventure and my recent trip home to visit my folks put me in mind to think about my own relationship with my parents. To say they are my biggest fans is a gross understatement. As I grow older I have come to realize how fortunate I am to have grown up with the two parents I have. They have been ever supportive in my adventures to become an artist. They may not have fully understood why I made the objects I did or why they are so important to me but in this the quality of their parenting reveals itself. They know that art is important to me and want only for my success. At shows or when they see my work I can feel their boundless parental pride. I make drawings and little puppets but to my parents these things are like the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel or The Last Supper. Their pride is a catalyst for my thankfulness for having the opportunity have the two best parents one could hope for. If I ever accomplish anything good in this world it is because I had parents that helped me accomplish it. I’m grateful…

One last story before I become too maudlin in my storytelling. Some time ago I put on a little puppet show (there are some images somewhere on this site if you’d like to search around a bit). The show was a series of vignettes including such popular characters as Mr. Punch and Pinocchio. After the show, which had a rather emotional end for me at least, my father approached me and said that he saw more humanity in my puppets than he sees in most people. Kind words from a father to his son. My mother, true to form and unabashedly honest, was teary in a way that proud mothers are. Saint Mom: the patron saint of fortunate sons. Last year, just before leaving for my studies at the Academy, my father presented me with a gift. I have a keen interest in fountain pens. I was presented with a black bag with “Mont Blanc” on the side. I was shocked at this gift; an extravagance. Hesitantly I removed the box and was left speechless, quite literally, at what it contained. The company produces high-end fountain pens and part of the product line is a series of pens that commemorate significant literary figures. In the box was a pen to commemorate the work of Carlo Collodi, the author of “The Adventures of Pinocchio”. The cap has a gold filigree cut out of the characters from his story. I was taken aback by this generosity. This is an outward symbol of the support my parents have always shown to me. It is an object that is a reminder to me of their generosity in all forms. I wish more kids could have folks like mine.

Mont Blanc Carlo Callodi

A night at the museum…

•April 21, 2013 • 3 Comments

ImageI love the Cleveland Museum of Art. There are two nights a week when they are open late and when I can, I try to go there to draw. My love for this museum has one quality that irritates me a bit as an aspiring artist. This museum does not love me the way I love it. It is a tempestuous relation between the two of us. I adore her and am so smitten with my undying love that I am oblivious to her minor follies (to badly paraphrase the Bard). But here is one shortcoming that my love hides from most but has revealed to me and with this knowledge I know our love can never be perfect.

She taunts me, this Beatrice to my Dante…

There are some aspects of this museum that are just not artist friendly,  for Pete’s sake (to paraphrase Michelangelo as poorly as Shakespeare). If you are an artist and you want to draw from their collection you need to grab your sketchbook, get in your car, and drive to this museum. It’s collection is stunning. And I mean this with all sincerity. You can walk in free of charge, snag a little folding stool (that they provide, no less) and set yourself mere feet from the likes of Caravaggio, Hals, Sargent, Velasquez, and Van Dyke. It does not end there. Their collection of Greek and Roman sculpture veritably demands that you draw it. And here my love betrays me. When you are in a position to draw, particularly when you are using the sight size method that I have been practicing, you are seeing everything from very low angles. Curses! There is a fragment of an portrait of Alexander the Great that first called to me with a Siren song, beckoning me to render it in gentle tones on soft paper. Situating myself as best I could the angles from every direction were insufficient to satisfy my artistic desires. Now the sculpture no longer calls to me sweetly, but rather mocks me from on high. Standing, the light and angles are beautiful but when sitting to draw it all evaporates. This sculpture and I….. we are no longer on speaking terms. If only the  museum would let me set my easel next to the work so that I could see and draw properly….. Alas, it is not to be. Easels are not permitted, though there might be a possibility if one subjects himself to the onerous task of filling out paperwork to make a copy of a work. The restrictions are very tight and the hoops to jump through would require the flexibility of a Chinese acrobat. So instead I find myself scooting about the floor looking up at works and making drawings that I know could be better if only I could see…if only…. if only…..

Please CMA, my dearest darling, won’t you throw open your arms and embrace the artists that love you and need you to grow? Won’t you please just let me bring in a stinkin’ easel or display some of those great sculptural works so we can draw them comfortably and beautifully?

ImageWhich brings me to last Friday’s adventures. I’ve been working on a drawing of a figure from a sculpture by Giuseppe Mazzuoli (The Education of the Virgin, 1700). The work is begging to be drawn but the only good angle with details I can see are from a low vantage point nearly in the corner. Imagine that, me in the corner with a sullen attitude; like an artistic time-out. Despite this limitation I have been having a really great time drawing the sculpture of the young Virgin as she flips through a codex. I have been working on in two or three hour intervals off and on for a few weeks now and have the basics in place. I have been trying to utilize the training I acquired through the good folks and the Maestro while studying down south last summer. As it stands I feel it is respectable. It is drawn with a 4H drafting pencil and I feel that in another session or two I can really begin to differentiate the values. As advised I’m trying to “keep it German as long as I can”. (That means keep it geometric and angular. When it is time the drawing will let you know when you can make it Italian.)Image

As I was drawing a father approached me with his daughter. She was maybe six or seven, shy and quiet. Her father asked if she could see what I was drawing as she was curious. Turning my little stool so could be at her eye level I showed her my picture and pointed out what part I was drawing. I asked if she was an artist and with an index finger to her mouth, chewing on a fingernail, she nodded and whispered “uh-huh”. “Well, you’ve come to the right place.” I said and continued: “This is one of the best museums I’ve ever been to and you’ll see things here you’ll never see anywhere else in all the world. And the best part is you can come any day and draw all day long.” She smiled and her father thanked me for my time. And then they were gone… but I hope she’ll be back soon, a sheaf of papers tucked under her arm and little fingers gripping an assortment of pencils….

Most of the people you see in museums are tourists. Sometimes in the literal sense, Sometimes in another way. A “tourist” can also be that person that goes to museums with only a vague idea of what they are looking at. Maybe they look at the Picasso for a long while because you are supposed like Picasso if you are cultured and like art, right? Sometimes they do the “drive by”, the three or four second look and then move on. How can you walk in front of a Caravaggio and not stop dead in your tracks? Odd how art affects people in different ways…. When I go there It is like going home, like returning from a long trip and seeing old friends. When I stand in front of some of those paintings I can say “I know you, friend”….. Sometimes, when the time is right and things are as the should be I can hear them say “I know you, too”.

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