Thanksgiving Leftovers

J.C. Leyendecker, Saturday Evening Post cover

We’re enjoying Thanksgiving leftovers! Meanwhile, here’s another Thanksgiving image from an artist I really like, J.C. Leyendecker. He was especially known for his ads for Arrow men’s shirts, and used his boyfriend as a model of American manliness. (Why do I feel the need to point out that his boyfriend *did not* model for the above magazine cover?) 🙂

The Backyard Studio

Sometimes when I’m not sure what to work on, I need to take a walk, and I find things like this.

Yes, that’s a giant starfish that’s twice as big as my head, and yes, that’s just about the most beautiful purple I’ve ever seen.

Summer + Art + Italy = Ciao Bella!

I’ve been invited to teach a summer painting course in Italy in July 2014. It will be my first time back in Italy since teaching there in 2008 with Professor Tony Miraglia of UMass Dartmouth. I can’t believe it’s been that long!

The course is open to ten fun-loving students. No art experience required. There will be individual attention, so it’s suitable for everyone from beginners to advanced students.

We’ll be taking a full-senses-approach to really experiencing what makes Italy unique. You won’t believe how red the tomatoes are; they’ll inspire you to use richer reds on your canvas. The texture of the stone architecture will make you want to use more paint. We’ll bring fresh eyes to everything from the warm tones of the Mediterranean light to the reliquarios built into the medieval stone walls.

More info to come, but in the meantime, please read the official course announcement from Not Just a Painting Holiday.

Six Degrees of Ivan Albright

Ivan Albright, The Picture of Dorian Gray (detail)

Ivan Albright (1897 – 1983) was an American painter and printmaker whose work dealt mainly with themes of life and death, decay, and the effects of time. His depiction of exaggerated aging as well as the all-over eruptions of growths and details lend his work a dark and unsettling quality, suggesting a sort of vanitas for the 20th century.

His most famous work may be The Picture of Dorian Gray, which was featured in the Oscar-winning film starring Angela Lansbury (love her). Based on Oscar Wilde’s novel, the Faustian themes are a perfect match for Albright’s style: the extremely handsome Dorian Gray makes a deal with the devil that his painted portrait will age, but he will not. The portrait becomes more and more grotesque as it ages and reflects Dorian’s sins.

Albright was born in the suburbs of Chicago. He studied at several schools in the Chicago area, including the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and worked as a medical illustrator for a hospital in France during World War I. This job may have influenced his later style and themes.

Albright’s working method was obsessive; he painted his studio black and wore only black to eliminate possible glare, and often used brushes with only one hair. Many works took a year, two years, even ten years to complete. He estimated that he completed one-half of a square inch of a painting each day, and never changed the painting as he progressed.

He said that he was bored by bland titles, wanting them to convey “something that the painting said” and not only what it depicted. Thus, his work sports titles such as That Which I Should Have Done I Did Not Do (The Door) and Into the World There Came a Soul Called Ida.

Albright was extremely protective of his work and overpriced it at 30 to 60 times above what other artists charged in order to forestall sales. The Door won a purchase prize from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which included a place in the permanent collection, but he refused to part with the painting and accepted a lesser prize rather than give it up. Needless to say, he still owned almost all of his work at the end of his life; he donated it to the Art Institute of Chicago (my favorite art museum).

Interestingly, his next door neighbor for many years on Division Street in Chicago was a well-connected art dealer named Richard Feigen. Feigen was disgusted at what he believed was the poor treatment Albright received from the Art Institute. He wrote publicly in 2000 that the Art Institute deliberately undervalued Albright’s donation by $15 – 20 million, never displayed the collection in the separate room they had originally promised, and have never given him a fitting retrospective. He believed that Albright’s reputation remains diminished because of it.

Fun fact: Ivan Albright was the father-in-law of Madeleine Albright, the first woman appointed as Secretary of State, serving under President Bill Clinton. (After a long marriage, however, she and Albright’s son divorced before she served as Secretary).

#Giving Tuesday

What is #Giving Tuesday?

The idea is only a year old; if you haven’t heard of it yet, that’s not surprising. It’s a day that comes after Thanksgiving and before Christmas. It’s meant to inspire personal philanthropy and encourage bigger, better and smarter charitable giving during the holiday season, showing that the world truly gives as good as it gets.

Where did the idea come from? The retail industry has its seasonal shopping that symbolically kicks off with Black Friday–a day that has since inspired Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday. #Giving Tuesday, then, serves as a celebratory day to kick off the giving season, when many make their holiday and end-of-year charitable gifts.

It was inaugurated in 2012. Families and individuals were encouraged to be generous in whatever ways mattered to them, whether volunteering at a local charity or donating to a favorite cause. Over 2500 charities and non-profits in all 50 states came together with one common purpose–to help others, to incentivize ways to give more, give smarter, and celebrate the great American spirit of contribution. People from Bill Gates to Channing Tatum championed #Giving Tuesday in 2012, resulting in over $10 million in online donations on that day.

Tacoma Art Museum, where I volunteer by giving tours, was one of #Giving Tuesday’s inaugural organizations in 2012. They raised over $32,000 on #Giving Tuesday last year, and the funds went to arts education, acquisition of new work, and accessibility.

In 2013, the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust will double every dollar that TAM receives, so the money folks donate will go twice as far. Such a deal!

#Giving Tuesday is an opening day to the giving season. You’ve heard of Black Friday and Cyber Monday; well, let’s put #Giving Tuesday on the calendar too.

JFK and the Power of Art

President John F. Kennedy Official Portrait (painted posthumously) by Aaron Shikler

Today, we observe the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy. As the details of that day and the aftermath are reexamined, one theme that stands out is how important art was to JFK and to Jackie. This story begins and ends with John Singer Sargent watercolors, and includes a private art exhibition arranged for the President and First Lady in Texas, the night before he was killed.

Part of Jackie’s famous redecoration of the White House included a loan of six John Singer Sargent watercolors from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Jackie placed these watercolors, which brought some requested “Boston complexion” into the White House, in the family’s private room. Knowing that the Kennedys loved to surround themselves with art, a group of art collectors from Fort Worth decided that a private art exhibition would provide the right touch for a planned presidential visit in November 1963.

The collectors were actually horrified at the accommodations in Room 850 at the Hotel Texas in Fort Worth and put together a plan to specially decorate the suite to welcome the President and First Lady when they arrived on the evening of November 21, 1963.

From their own private collections, the local collectors chose works which were close to the Kennedys’ hearts–for example, Impressionist works by Monet, just for Jackie–and placed the work thoughtfully throughout the rooms. They included sculptures by Picasso and Henry Moore, paintings by Van Gogh, Thomas Eakins and Marsden Hartley, and other works.

I am indescribably moved by the thought of these citizens giving of themselves in such a thoughtful way, trying to improve the President’s personal, after-hours moments in their city. It’s even more poignant, knowing that this display of affection was one of the last to be offered to him while he was alive. The president and First Lady spent the evening surrounded by the artwork, but just a few hours after leaving that hotel room, the president was shot and killed.

The 16 pieces have been reunited at the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth now for a memorial exhibition.

This circles us back to the White House, and the John Singer Sargent watercolors.

After JFK’s death, Jackie and the children moved out of the White House, to a new home in Georgetown. Jackie requested an extended loan for four of the six Sargent watercolors from the MFA Boston. She wrote a personal note in December 1963, thanking the museum, and saying that the works had been:

in the room — our only room in the White House which was our private happy sitting room — where the children tumbled around — where we sat with friends. Whenever I think of all our happy days and evenings in this strange house — which I dreaded so much coming to — I think of him sitting in his favorite chair — with the Sargents over his head.”

But the watercolors’ ability to evoke these happy memories changed over time. Just three months later, Jackie wrote the museum again to say that she could not continue to live with the Sargents. Her handwritten note explained that she “simply could not bear to see them again now”. Out of all the possessions which brought on sad memories for her, “these would be the crowning blow.” Heartbreaking words from a widow, and so she shipped the paintings back.

But her last words to the museum were: “You should put in their history that they were the pictures he loved so much.”

The MFA recently found Jackie’s letters while researching an exhibition of Sargent’s watercolors. They’d been forgotten in the archives, and the relation to the anniversary of JFK’s assassination was coincidental, but it gives us a chance to reflect on the power of art to move people.

“They were the pictures he loved so much.”

The First Thing to Know About Robert Henri Is How to Pronounce His Name

Henri-Snow in New York

I recently made a presentation to docents at the Tacoma Art Museum about Robert Henri. I thought it would be easy, since his The Art Spirit, a compilation of charismatic lectures to his students, propelled me through many of my painting classes in college.

The first thing I learned is that I’ve been pronouncing his name wrong all these years! It’s not French; it’s pronounced HEN-rye. Silly me. He was born in Cincinnati as Robert Henry Cozad, but after his father killed a local rancher in a land dispute, the scandal caused the family to move, and each to adopt different surnames.

Henri studied in Philadephia and Paris. In Philadelphia, he met and formed a strong bond with a group of other artists, most notably William Glackens, John Sloan, and George Luks. The slightly older Henri gave the others homework assignments, and encouraged a departure from polished, Academy-style art. He promoted an art with a distinctly American outlook, one that would stand in contrast to Impressionism. Just after the turn of the 20th century, that meant the city and all its grit.

New York City was a muse. This turn toward urban realism, based on direct observation, coincided with a similar development in American writing; novelists such as Upton Sinclair (The Jungle) and journalists used urban slums as their subjects. These unpolished, active subjects inspired a faster painting approach, and not surprisingly, were consistently rejected from juried exhibitions. In response, a group of artists held the first American non-juried show. They, and others working with similar themes, were called “apostles of ugliness” and eventually better-known as the Ashcan School, though that name wasn’t coined until the 1930s.

Henri eventually moved to New York and continued teaching, perhaps leaving a more substantial mark as a teacher than as a painter. His students included Joseph Stella, Edward Hopper, Rockwell Kent, George Bellows, and Stuart Davis. Another well-known, and more lucrative, body of work involved portraits of Irish children.

A great quote from The Art Spirit:

“I am quite sure that many a gold chair has been hauled in because the artist has failed to get distinction and richness in the mien of the sitter, and he counts on the chair to supply the deficiency. But a cocked hat won’t make a general.”

Fun fact: Henri is a distant cousin of Mary Cassatt.

Transcendental Landscapes

Ruby Beach by Thomas Wood

In college, I painted quite a few landscapes. We went outside every day, rain or shine, and painted the hills and trees of our rural campus. I got pretty good at it; I even sold a few, but nothing transcendental. After the second semester, my professor told me what I already knew: that they were nice, but not as powerful as some of my other work. She said that maybe one day, I’d come back to them when I had something as important to say as I did when I made my sketchbooks.

Weather and landscape continue to intrigue me, but I’ve rarely felt moved to record them in paintings. (Exceptions have been Italy and Arizona, but there I didn’t really try to recreate landscapes, so much as use the natural color schemes as inspiration in other artworks).

But, moving to Seattle from New York City has made me more aware of the landscape and weather again. We’ve gone from a relatively small window overlooking a few trees in a courtyard to nearly panoramic views of trees, sky, and water. I can watch the clouds take shape, the sun set, and the storms blow in. Watching so much weather unfold in front of me has been powerful. I feel small, and humble. I watch the sea birds dip and fall on the whitecaps. I love the striping patterns of the waves, the rippling caused by the large rocks, and the infrequent times when the light and surf are just right, and I can look straight down through green-tinged water and see the bottom of the Sound clear as a bell.

It’s so dramatic that if I tried to paint some of the colors and shapes I’ve seen, like the magenta clouds at sunset, no one would believe it. But I’ve been thinking about making some landscape paintings. It’s there and it’s on my mind.

Recently, I saw some landscape paintings by Thomas Wood at Lisa Harris Gallery, that came close to what I’ve been feeling about the landscape here in the Pacific Northwest. While they are all painted en plein air, they seem part real and part fantastical. They could have been part of a dream, or just as easily have come to life out of Salish folklore. Stars ripple and echo in the mauve night sky, while clouds fit together like tectonic plates.

I still don’t know what I want to say about the landscape here, but looking at Thomas Wood’s work makes me think again about trying.

Collaborations and Caterpillar Ladies

Collaboration: Mica Angela Hendricks and 4-year old daughter. Photo courtesy of http://busymockingbird.com

Mia showed me the best blog post recently, about an artist who accidentally began collaborating with her 4-year old daughter.

The artist, Mica Angela Hendricks, often works side-by-side with her daughter in the studio. One day, she surreptitiously attempted to try out a high-quality sketchbook without attracting her daughter’s attention because she didn’t want to waste the good paper with scribbles. Of course, her daughter saw her sneaking this wonderful new paper, and expected to get full dibs on it too. Hendricks wasn’t able to justify why she didn’t want to share without undoing four years’ worth of parenting lessons, so she reluctantly turned over her half-done portrait sketch, suggesting that her daughter could work on it too.

Her 4-year old proceeded to embellish the drawing in the most imaginative ways. First one, then another, then another collaboration turned out beautifully. They hit on a pattern, where Hendricks begins with a portrait, then turns the drawing over to her daughter for creating bodies and backgrounds. Mom’s fairly detailed heads grow simplified bodies, or transform into insects, or are out-of-proportion in unusual ways. They become fantastical creatures in odd worlds. After the daughter is done, the drawing goes back to Mom for a final application of color or general summing-up.

The drawings are wonderful and spirited, and sometimes even poignant. The thing is, they work much better with that childlike injection of unselfconscious confidence. Artists can overthink, and overdraw. Hendricks says that her daughter reclaimed some life and spirit that the drawings were missing–even though she herself didn’t know they were missing anything.

It’s a great lesson in letting go, following the muse, and of course–sharing!

Please read Hendricks’ original post, fittingly titled Collaborating with a 4-year Old.

Mockingbirds and Collage: Discuss

Here’s a great quote from author Tom Robbins:

“Mockingbirds are the true artists of the bird kingdom. Which is to say, although they’re born with a song of their own, an innate riff that happens to be one of the most versatile of all ornithological expressions, mockingbirds aren’t content to merely play the hand that is dealt them. Like all artists, they are out to rearrange reality. Innovative, willful, daring, not bound by the rules to which others may blindly adhere, the mockingbird collects snatches of birdsong from this tree and that field, appropriates them, places them in new and unexpected contexts, recreates the world from the world.”

It reminds me of making collages–that process of taking a real something, and by changing the context, making it into something else.

Thanks to artist Mica Angela Hendricks for turning me on to this quote.

Fun Fact: Robbins has been a resident of Seattle and/or Western Washington for the past 40 years. Hi neighbor!