December 31, 2009

Happy New Year

I would like to wish everyone a peaceful and productive new year,
filled with kindness and joy, and pleasure in small things.

December 30, 2009

Beginning a New Painting: Red and Black

The new painting I've recently begun is based on a 12 inch square study from last summer, that I'm calling Red and Black. You've probably noticed that my titles are quite straightforward and descriptive, and this title follows that practice. The image has a strong contrast, in both color and value, between the red metal of the covering and the black innards of the machine, especially noticeable in the underdrawing.

There are a couple of days of work at the stage of the painting below. First I lay down several coats of color; after that, I worked on measuring the parts of the image, balancing them, and making sure horizontals were straight and diagonals parallel. The process is like bringing an image into focus in a camera viewfinder. My next task will be to develop the "inside" of the machine, then paint the wires on top of that. The reds will be last to be painted.

This image reminds me of a painting I did earlier this year, which also has a glimpse under the cover: below the bright flat color areas is a hidden, darker, and more complex world.

Lozenge, 2009, 16 x 16 inches

Seed Order

I usually work on my seed order for the spring garden during the week between Christmas and New Year; it seems to be a good time to be looking ahead to the coming growing season. It's also good to get onion and leek seeds as early as possible; the earlier I start them indoors, the better they will grow when transplanted to the garden.

As you can see, I keep a list in a garden notebook; each year gets one page: on one side is that year's garden layout and on the other, the list of seeds I'll be needing for the following year. I try to be very organized about it because I hate to get into the garden and then realize I'm missing some seeds, maybe something essential like peas or corn. It's a pleasure to wander through the catalogs that come in the mail, reading about new varieties, thinking of new crops.

My very favorite catalog is from Fedco Seeds, a co-op in Maine that specializes in seeds for northern gardeners. They carry lots of organic seed (no GMOs) and all seed and supplies are remarkably fairly priced. The vegetable descriptions are honest and detailed, and the newsprint catalog is full of wonderful antique black and white illustrations.

While it's still early winter, I'm happy to be thinking about the growing season to come.

December 29, 2009


Swing, 2009, hand-dyed wool on linen, 20 x 10 inches

It's done. I like the almost-candy-colored relationships, the forms resting edge to edge. Another thing I find enlivening about the ruglets is the irregularity of edge caused by the hooking process, a straying from the perfection of geometry, so different from the crispness of my paintings.

December 28, 2009

Contemporary Agriculture

Silage Covered by Plastic and Tires, Newbury, Vermont, 1999, oil on canvas, 45 x 60 inches

Two readers left interesting comments on my post "Black V" regarding my choice of agricultural implements as subject matter. I thought I'd expand a bit on my ideas, touched on in the post "At a Point in Time, Change"; I forget that many of my readers are not familiar with my previous work or what it was about, and how it led to the paintings I've been doing for the past few years.

I found my way to landscape by expanding my view from domestic architecture, which I painted during the beginning years of my career. Then I found that the landscape that interested me was not pristine fields and forests, but the working agricultural landscape. I set up my easel at farms; in speaking with farmers, I began to know more about agricultural issues, and thought more about the history and current dilemmas of ag policies.

The US began as a farming nation, and we still tend to see farmers in a golden light, except for the corporations of Big Ag. Our national farm policies have created an abundance of cheap food, which is a great boon for many, but at what cost to the health of body and land? can we go back to small, sustainable farms? will our policies change to encourage healthy soil and healthy food?

In the painting above, the contrasts of nature and technology, beauty and raw plainness are evident. There's a manure lagoon in the background, which nourishes the soil, yet can pollute horribly if used incorrectly.

Hay Storage, Central Valley, California, 1995, oil on canvas, 44 x 66 inches

In the Central Valley of California there are huge dairy farms, dwarfing even the larger Vermont dairies. They bring in thousands of haybales to feed their cattle, stored in giant pyramid-like structures. I find these white plastic mounds beautiful, although I'm always aware of the factory farms that demand them, with their thousands of cows standing around on piles of manure in paddocks.

Tractor and Ag-Bags, Groton, Vermont, 1994, oil on canvas, 30 x 90 inches

Irrigation Pipes, Barnet, Vermont, 2002, oil on canvas, 50 x 84 inches

In these landscapes of Vermont, the working tools of the farmer are contrasted with the grand views behind them, views which are very Vermont Life. Real life isn't as simple as a lovely view; it is full of contradictions, compromises, and bad outcomes. It is also full of beauty, found in the oddest places.

Draped Tires, 2003, egg tempera on panel, 40 x 30 inches

Over time, I found myself more interested in the things of farming, rather than its landscape; I wanted a sense of touch in the work, a frisson of realness. In Draped Tires, we feel the plastic tarp and the texture of silage beneath it. This is a painting of oppositions: the plastic, which will become a landfill problem, is preserving food for cows, who will feed us. It's gorgeous in its light, but also looks like a funereal covering.

The paintings I've been doing for the past three years, in their move closer to abstraction, have left behind the overt content of my earlier work, while continuing to have a similar meaning; the implements that serve as models for color, design, and form, also carry a complicated history of land use and abuse, of abundance and hard, often thankless, but necessary work.

A Row of Paintings

Here is the photo requested by reader Rappel: four paintings sit on a bookshelf, leaning against the old milk-painted hand-planed wall panels, sharing space with the framed paintings of friends: on the right Nancy Grilikhes, on the left David Vereano. I'll move the paintings out to the cold studio after they've had time to dry in the warm house.

December 27, 2009

Black V

Black V, 2009, egg tempera on panel, 20 x 10 inches

This finished painting is now propped up on a shelf alongside Opposing Angles, Light Tube, and Green Tilt. They make a good group, conversing about form and color and shape. The flat black strap and cylindrical black pipe make a strong statement in their contrast with the lighter blue (the actual painting has a more intense blue than the photos, so the blue/black balance has more equilibrium); they are pushed back spacially by the square volume of blue overlapping the strap. This shape, moving in from the left, floats in front of the subtle curve of blue, and creates an illusion of shallow space, similar to the space behind the crossed pipes of Light Tube. I like the balance of this painting, and the way our eye is drawn down and then up again, following a bulge outward and back. I hope that the use of the tall vertical seems successful to you.

December 25, 2009

White World

This morning I woke to a pale white landscape, of branches covered with delicate frost. The soft haze made everything seem immaterial, untethered from the weight of reality.

It was likely an event caused by elevation, as the cold fog settled on trees and shrubs and froze. When I went for a ski in the woods below my house, the frost could only be seen at the very tops of the trees. Climbing the road to my home, I saw the white lacy branches everywhere, and they've persisted through the overcast day, creating a lovely accompaniment to the snow-covered ground.

December 24, 2009

Merry Merry

I wish everyone a
and bounteous holiday season.

December 23, 2009

Festive Agriculture

Here are some holiday greetings from my models out in the fields: agricultural machinery; from buckets looking like baubles to red tape, the color and light are full of cheer (when looked at with an abstract eye).

December 22, 2009

The Bauhaus

Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, A XI, 1923, oil on canvas, 52 x 45

Between the world wars, there was a grand experiment in art making and teaching in Germany: the Bauhaus, established to bring a new unity to the many facets of art and design. Artists were encouraged to move from one medium to another, using modernist ideas of design: clarity, and simple form that was highly functional rather than decorative. The Museum of Modern Art has mounted a fantastic show, a generous overview of many stunning objects––some of which are very familiar, such as the Breuer chairs––produced at the school; they've titled the show Bauhaus 1919-1933: Workshops for Modernity. (the website is chock full of images, if you'd like to see more.)

A strong feeling I had while walking through the show was amazement at the powerful utopian vision that drove the school, a belief that art should be a part of everyday life through good design. Painting, generally seen as a "high art" didn't have a workshop devoted to it till 1927, called "Free Painting". So, artists such as Moholy-Nagy didn't confine themselves to painting; I was actually surprised to see the beautiful Moholy-Nagy paintings, masterworks of balanced design and subtle color harmonies, having thought of him as a photographer.

Josef Albers, Grid Picture in Green, 1921, glass, iron and copper wire, 13 x 12 inches

There was a workshop at the Bauhaus called "glass painting", and Albers became its technical master during the years 1923-25. The glass pieces of Albers in this show pointed to his later intense involvement with color and color theory in his painting. It was a delight to see glass used in such a straightforward abstract manner, so that we can respond to color and light without the complication of narrative.

Marcel Breuer, Glass-fronted Cabinet, 1926, 78 x 66 x 20 inches

Breuer, most famous for his chairs, designed this cabinet that seems to be an abstract painting in three dimensions. The large colored shapes, intersected by the lines of cabinet and shelves, remind me of a Mondrian painting.

Artist Unknown, Wall Hanging, late 1920s, hand woven wool, cotton, and cellophane threads, 27 x 42 inches

Anni Albers, Wall Hanging, 1925, silk, cotton and acetate, 57 x 36 inches

The weaving workshop at the Bauhaus showed the way to modern tapestry design; everything produced there seems vividly modern, with lively geometries inventively created from simple shapes.

Hajo, Design for a fabric print pattern made from typewriter type, 11 x 5 inches

Heinrich Bormann, Designs for wallpaper, 1931, each design 3 x 2 3/16 inches

One of the biggest treats for me in this show was seeing the designs for mass production, from the workshop called "Interior Furnishings". There were swatches of beautiful upholstery fabrics, but what really caught my eye were the fabric designs using typewriter type and the wallpaper designs from rubbings of textured paper. wow. This is using the ordinary, and generally overlooked, to make extraordinary things.

photograph by Erich Consemuller, artist of sculpture unknown, Exercise for Preliminary Course taught by Josef Albers, c. 1929

Seeing this photo brought back my early art class experiences, when we all had to take basic design––2 dimensional and 3 dimensional––and a color theory class before being allowed to take any other art course. These classes were modeled on the Bauhaus Preliminary Course, which had tremendous influence in art pedagogy for many years. During the time I taught at San Jose State University, from 1991-94, the basic design courses were being phased out, and the color course became an elective. I wonder if art schools are still requiring these basic design courses; even if they are not, the powerful example of the Bauhaus, which produced such strong and varied work, continues to inspire.

December 21, 2009

Winter Sparkle

At times during the winter, huge icicles hang from the eaves of my house, crashing down with startling noise when the weather warms a bit. Looking out of the front south facing windows, I see the icy fingers catching the light in their corrugated surfaces, changing with the sun. I'm happy in knowing that the low-lying sun is about to begin its gradual rise into sky, and though winter will be with us for months more, the days will begin to brighten.

Squash and Bulgar Pie

This is a recipe that I cut out of the Sunday NY Times magazine years ago and make a couple of times during winter, if I have a good winter squash crop. It makes a nice main dish served with a side of vegetable; I like to have it with green beans, but tonight I think I'll pair it with sweet and sour red cabbage. The squash gives the dish a rich sweetness, the bulgar some crunch, and the ginger and lemon add zip.

1 cup bulgar, coarse or medium
3 1/2 cups water
1 large winter squash (I prefer Buttercup or Sweet Mama, a Buttercup hybrid) or two large Acorn squash
vegetable oil
2 eggs
1 cup water (the recipe calls for chicken broth, but I prefer to stay meatless)
1 Tbs grated ginger (the recipe calls for 1 teas ground ginger, but I much prefer fresh)
1/4 cup grated lemon rind
salt and pepper to taste
  1. Soak bulgar in the water until grains are tender, about 2 to 2 1/2 hrs. Drain the bulgar through a colander lined with cheesecloth, then squeeze cloth around bulgar till water is extracted. Preheat over to 375, spread bulgar on a cookie sheet an bake till lightly toasted, about 15 minutes.
  2. Cut squash in half and remove seeds. Brush cut sides with vegetable oil and place, cut side down, on a cookie sheet. Roast in a 400 degree oven till soft, 45 minutes to 1 hour.
  3. Scoop the squash out of its shell and place in a large bowl. Add the eggs and water or broth, beating till smooth. Add the ginger and lemon, then the bulgar, stirring till combined. Add salt and pepper to taste.
  4. Put the squash/bulgar mixture into an oiled baking dish. Place the dish in a larger baking pan and add boiling water half way up the side.
  5. Bake until set, about 40 minutes.
Makes 6 servings.

December 20, 2009

"Swing" in Progress

Here is the lower part of Swing, well underway. I decided to hook the background in a random pattern, with the two major shapes having parallel lines. In the golden curved form, I hooked the lines to the right edge, which creates a sense of the shape pushing into the image. The pencil line you see inside the half moon is drawn at its center, which will help me to keep the hooking symmetrical.

The pink moon is resting edge to edge on the yellow shape, which gives the work a precarious sense of balance: a swing. But I'd almost lost that movement:

The drawing above is the full sized study for the ruglet. Rather than balancing one shape on another, I drew an overlap, which places the pink form in front of the yellow, in order to make the half circle more rounded. I transferred the drawing to the linen backing with the overlap.

Then a friend of mine, and reader of this blog, Kim Do, sent me this photo based on the watercolor sketch seen below:

Kim Do, Swing with Fingers

The photo made me realize that the pressing of one form against another, as in the watercolor, was what I wanted to see in this work; why else did I name it Swing? So I pulled some of the wool already hooked and re-drew the shapes to touch edge to edge. It reminded me of a sentence by Ralph Waldo Emerson on writing, which seems apt here: "The first rule of writing is not to omit the thing you meant to say".

December 18, 2009

At the Met: Ancient Egypt, and Iran

Ointment jars and pots for makeup, 1800-1500 BC

Stone Vessels, Early Dynastic, 3100-2650 BC

Since I was a child ogling mummies at the Brooklyn Museum (which has a fantastic Egyptian collection), I've been fascinated by the artifacts of ancient Egypt. It was a material culture that surrounded itself with beautiful objects, often meant just for the powerful and important in their afterlife. It's remarkable to see the stunning pots pictured above, and realize that they were made thousands of years ago, as though they are templates for classic pottery to follow centuries later. The shapes have the same exquisite perfection found in the Chinese porcelain. The fact that they're made of stone makes their achievement more impressive.

Offerings, Dynasty II, 2010-2000 BC

Stela of Mentuwoser (detail), 1955 BC

Egyptian reliefs of painted limestone that decorated tomb and temple walls are the works that I think of when I say "I love Egyptian art". With a minimum of carving in low relief, the artists were able to create a subtle rendering of life, to carry into the afterlife. Each human, each animal, plant or object was rendered in a sinuous, delicate line, which enhanced the simple sense of form. The emphasis on line ties Egyptian sculpture to some painting called "primitive", which I discussed a bit in the post "Two Paintings". I have a deep sympathy for this type of art. Egyptian artists were especially compelling when they pictured the natural world; their images of animals, here seen dead as offerings, were very sensitive and attentive. There are images of fishing along the Nile, or of farming, that offer a vivid narrative of daily life.

Fragment from statue of King Senwosret III, 1878-1840 BC

I photographed this fragment of a portrait because it has so much life in it. It's hard to believe that it is made of stone; you feel that the "flesh" would be tender if you pressed a finger on it. Looking at the slight crease around the mouth, the small swelling there, it's as though the King is about to speak to us.

from Southwestern Iran: Antelope Pendant, 3100-2900 BC

I included this lovely little object, which I discovered during my recent trip, in the Egyptian post because it's also very ancient. It has the same careful, loving depiction of an animal that we see in Egyptian sculpture. From the precisely sculpted flanks, to the sweet face, and up those fantastic antlers (and the erect little tail), here is an animal portrait that will stay in my memory.

December 17, 2009

At the Met: Chinese Porcelain

Each time I visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I walk along the display cases on the second floor, to the left of the Grand Staircase. The beautiful Qing Dynasty porcelain, of the late 17th to early 18th centuries, with lovely curves and stunning glazes, always gives me intense pleasure. Each piece speaks of perfection, with forms of absolute balance and control, and color, subtle or bold, that is deeply satisfying in its clarity.

When I look at these works, I sense a meditative approach to their making, maybe more so because they are objects that have been made, worked by a hand that has tried to leave no trace of personality. What was created was the essence of vessel, simple and pure.