Behind the Scenes: Phalanges

Introducing something new! For now, I’m calling these “Phalanges”…I often work with mixed media and found objects – recycled artwork, packaging, various papers, and more. These are small (3″ x 3”), unfinished mixed media collages. I set aside 10 to give away at February’s Art Attack, and I’ll do it again in March.

Pick your favorite, and write your name, mailing address and email on the back. When I finish the collage in the coming days, I’ll mail it to you! If you’d prefer your collage to arrive in a frame, I can do that for $25.

PS: your contact information won’t be shared with anyone, ever!

This project grew out of my experience with a significant injury to my right (dominant) hand.

I was dismayed (understatement!) to find that the injury left me without the ability to legibly write my own name, or take the cap off of a pen or tube of paint by myself – to say nothing of everyday tasks like getting dressed, using the bathroom, and cooking my own meals on the stove.

I tried to be patient while waiting for the healing process to take hold. I tried to return to the studio and do left-handed drawings and paintings, as I’d done in art school. The thing no one told you then is that experimenting with your non-dominant hand as a warm-up is one thing, but when it’s all you have, it’s murder on your identity and sense of pride. I had to abandon those drawings because it was sending me deeper into depression. I tried making some collages, but using a blade with my left hand was scary and begging for another accident. I was unable to use scissors.

Out of sheer desperation and the need to make something (anything!), I started tearing bits of paper and old collages, whatever I had. I bought a sewing machine because shoving papers through it didn’t require any fine motor skills, or strength, or finesse. I made greeting cards with sewn collage items on the front, and on the inside, sewed a hopeful message that I’d printed out, and that I didn’t really feel. I stamped the greeting and everything else, and got away with block-printing my name. I mailed a card to just about everyone I knew. It took me about six months because I was so slow, but that’s what I had to do to stay sane.

The reaction I got was amazing. People called, and messaged me. They cried. They said I’d surprised them, and made their day. They shared stories about the first time they met me, or what they were currently dealing with. Most importantly, they said the cards meant something, that they’d brought something hopeful and special to them.

They may or may not have needed this – but I sure did.

Nobody ever gets real mail anymore…it’s email, which is great, but you can’t hold it in your hands. Or on those rare occasions when you do get mail, it’s junk (at best), or something you just don’t want to deal with (at worst). I wanted to bring a little bit of joy where it doesn’t seem to exist anymore.

So I adapted these little Phalanges that can go out in the mail and surprise a few more people. They’re fun for me to make, and I hear they’re fun to receive. I plan on continuing this sharing as long as it’s still fun for everyone.

If you’d like to receive one, message me with your address and I’ll get to work.

The Day We Almost Met (Women in Shakespeare)

The Day We Almost Met (Women in Shakespeare)

The day Mia and I almost met was Super Bowl Sunday, 2008. We were living in Boston, the Patriots were in the Super Bowl, and neither of us was a football fan. It was Mia’s birthday, and all of her friends (affectionately, I’m sure) ditched her to go to Super Bowl parties. They invited her, of course, but she couldn’t think of a more hateful way to spend her birthday, so she decided to take herself, alone, to the theater to see a play. I’m a baseball fan; football has no appeal for me, and I also decided to skip the whole thing and take refuge in taking myself, alone, to the theater.

Mia’s play was Women in Shakespeare. Mine was Angels in America. We were in the same building on the same afternoon. We could have passed each other in the hallway, at the ticket window, at intermission. After her show, Mia treated herself to dinner in a restaurant nearby, seated in the window. I walked by this restaurant, next to that window, on my way home. We didn’t see each other.

The reason I know all this is because we did meet, 17 days later. Our separate Super Bowl outings came up in conversation and the landmark of her birthday and the Super Bowl allowed us to pinpoint it exactly. The odds, they seem incalculable. It’s still incredible to me.

We decided we’d always celebrate Super Bowl Sunday, though we call it The Day We Almost Met, and we promised ourselves that no matter what we did, it would never involve football! That part of the deal is easy to keep.

I spent the night before TDWAM in the studio, and painted this. We spent the actual day apart because Mia is in Italy for the year. (And, like 2008, the Patriots lost. I won’t root against my hometown team though).

Behind the Scenes with Coco Montoya

Introducing Coco Montoya – isn’t she lovely?

Have you ever wondered how the art gets made? Let’s lift up the hood for a second as I introduce you to Coco Montoya. Yes, that’s Coco there.

We met through OfferUp, after my old tabouret/storage system ended up leaning like the Tower of Pisa. I knew that perching my palette on a hastily arranged mash-up of chairs and file cabinets (like I was doing) was eventually going to lead to some kind of studio disaster. I decided to get a rolling cart to use as a palette and storage, but you know… champagne taste and Miller Lite budget. I turned to OfferUp, and realized I needed to be patient for this one.

Usually a great way to get very good stuff, I met more than the usual number of cranks and/or missed opportunities during this search: a guy who tried to start a bidding war by doubling the price on me, a very nice but flaky former mechanic who wouldn’t provide measurements for her utility cart (I really wanted to buy from her because I was charmed by her profile pic which showed her smooching her girlfriend in front of DIY garage projects), at least ten people who never replied…(I had big plans for the retro bar cart that featured folding panels to double the surface area, would’ve looked so good in the studio *and* converted into a martini bar for openings…but it was not to be).

Even Coco and I were star-crossed at first. The offer was made and accepted, but the overeager seller forced an immediate meeting by loading up his truck and getting on the road, when I was 40 miles away at the time. I almost backed out because I didn’t want the pressure, and I prefer inspecting these items in daylight.

But everything looked good, and he made the delivery for $5.00 (unbeatable!). We had a nice chat about my late father-in-law, who would have enjoyed that Coco used to help paint cars. He expressed condolences, which I genuinely appreciated. He also thought I was crazy when I said I was on foot. I paid him and proceeded to push Coco up the hill to my house, whistling in the dark.

She had to live in my entryway for about a week, until I could make arrangements to get her to the studio. I sucked in my stomach and inched past her every time I went up or down the stairs, or in and out the front door. She was a shoe/mail/purse holder during that time, because there was no room to reach around her.

When I brought her to Seattle, we had to tackle a short flight of stairs. I wasn’t worried (but maybe I should have been). Coco isn’t heavy, just a little long and awkward, but I decided to take the shelves off to make it a little easier on myself. One step at a time, and just two steps from the top, Coco turned on me. I don’t even know what happened but she was falling and I was falling, and she was on top of me and we both fell down the whole flight of stairs. She fell on her side while I landed on my feet, unbelievably.

I pushed past the bruises and adrenaline and finally got her in the studio, to find that she was now leaning noticeably to one side. I couldn’t fit the shelves back in because she was out of square. Poor Coco! Down, but not out. Fast forward to acquiring a rubber mallet named Marge, and slamming Coco back into shape (that hurt me more than it hurt you, Coco). In minutes (or two weeks, but who’s counting) she was ready to go. She’s only been part of my studio practice for one evening, but we’ve got a long history.

She might seem high-maintenance, but she paid me back that very first night when I finished TWO paintings that I really like. This is the beginning of a long and beautiful friendship.

Moomins Moomins Everywhere

Moomins are a secret in our family, something private that only we know about, as secret as the ruby hidden on the underside of my engagement ring, on the side that hugs my finger, that no one else can see. It’s there just for us.

Except that Moomins are already a worldwide phenomenon, translated into 44 languages…though all but invisible in the US, where they remain almost totally unknown.

But with a Hollywood movie coming out soon, as well as an animated series in the works featuring Kate Winslet, the Moomin secret is about to come out of the bag.

Moomins, which are genial-looking, hippopotamus-like cartoon figures, are symbols of our honeymoon. As soon as we stepped off the airplane in Helsinki, there were Moomins wherever we looked. On posters, all over the gift shop, on books and journals. These weren’t advertisements, although I seem to recall a welcome message or public service-style announcement from the airport itself that featured Moomin. They are simply woven into the popular fabric of Finland. There was no tagline or logo to clue us in or even tell us what to call them, just the figures, because they were clearly already so well-known. We were so inundated, so immediately, that we had to figure it out right away or risk being hopelessly lost in Finland.

Seeking answers, we asked a salesperson at the airport gift shop – purveyors of dozens and dozens of said hippopotamus-type items – “Um, sorry, we’re not from here, but what are these figures?”. The hesitating answer was one word – “Moomin”, while the incredulous look she gave us said – “Dumbass”.

“Oh, Moomin. Thank you. But what are they?”

“Just…Moomin…”. Now she felt sorry for us, with no easy way to explain all that Moomin stood for in her country. We accepted that they were “just Moomin”, and carried on. Of course, I bought a Moomin journal, and we continued to see them everywhere in Finland. They remain a central ingredient and symbol of our honeymoon, confined to that time and place, with warm memories attached.

Fast forward five years, and they’re about to explode in the US. I’ll do you the favor of cluing you in ahead of time so you won’t be surprised.

Moomins are illustrations that were created in the 1940s by queer Finnish illustrator Tove Jansson. She drew anti-fascist political cartoons (Hitler and Stalin were her favorite skewers) while working for a left-wing magazine, and used the Moomin as an outlet to process anxiety over World War II, particularly the Russian bombing of Helsinki. My understanding is that they populate children’s books, but with a realistic darkness that isn’t often brought to juvenile literature; that adults also find something to love there is proven by the invitation to segue into a comic strip for a British newspaper.

Several Moomin are inspired by people from Jansson’s life: her brother, an old boyfriend. My favorite creative spark comes from the duo called Thingumy and Bob (I like their Finnish names better: Tiuhti and Viuhti), whose inspiration was Jansson’s secret, illegal relationship with a woman. (Gay relationships were forbidden by law in Finland until 1971, though they currently have one of the most progressive outlooks on LGBTQ rights). Thingumy and Bob are not hippo-shaped, by the way: picture more humanoid, less shaggy versions of the 1980s video game character Q-bert, with the bodies of elves. Thingummy and Bob are twins; they are never without each other, and are almost always seen holding hands. Like many twins, they share their own, secret language. They also share a suitcase, which is filled with only a very large ruby (remember my engagement ring!) – a symbol of their love. Their favorite places are confined ones – drawers, purses that they steal in order to sleep in, under rugs (and maybe in closets?).

Jansson met someone else, her life partner, in the 1950s, who also inspired a Moomin character. Jansson never called herself gay (remember that it was illegal for almost another 20 years). Her niece said Jansson’s secret name for being gay was “spook side” – as in, exploring her spook side, crossing over to the spook side. Jansson and her partner lived together, defying the law, even purchasing an entire island on which to be themselves, free from prying eyes.

Welcome, Moomin. You won’t be our little secret for much longer.

Cut Up Cut Out

Charles Clary, Double Diddle Daddle Bereavement Movement # 1

I have a soft spot for paper. While my hand was injured, I kept sane by sewing papers together with a sewing machine, and this show at Bellevue Art Museum, about all the ways you never thought to use cut paper, really spoke to me.

I’ve been thinking about how to expand my paintings as I move forward, and this show was certainly full of options. The piece above was one of my favorites, and gave me something to think about, as I consider adding dimension and edges to my works.

Donna Ruff, 10.28.13

It took me a few moments to realize all of Ruff’s work are front pages from The New York Times.

Simone Lourenço, My Universe, Blue

Simone Lourenço uses thread (a love of mine) along with her papers. This, along with the explosion of color and edges, was one of my favorite pieces.

Adam Feibelman, Security (detail)

More sewing here (love!), with multiple sheets of paper making a detailed whole. A true depth and elegance.

Debut – Isolier as Knight

Isolier as Knight, Acrylic on wood, 8″ x 10″

This painting is inspired by the character Isolier in the opera Count Ory by Rossini (the recent production by Seattle Opera was called The Wicked Adventures of County Ory).

Isolier is what is known as a “trouser role”, meaning that the conventions of opera dictate that the audience is supposed to assume that the character is a young man, when it is in fact played by a woman. [Back in the day, the roles were played by castrati – yes, young men who were castrated before puberty to retain their higher vocal range. That practice thankfully became illegal, and the roles then went to women, usually mezzo-sopranos (not too high in the vocal range)].

In 1828, when Rossini wrote this opera, Isolier would have been understood, absolutely, as a young male. But, to our 21st century understanding, the role can perhaps best be described as “gender fluid”.

Recent productions have used costumes to suggest a rabble-rousing – and dare we say *butch* – side to the character, dressing Isolier in clothing inspired by 1970s rock androgyny (think Freddie Mercury, David Bowie, the Rolling Stones), as well as punk, and female rockers like Joan Jett and Chrissy Hynde. The costumes use tight-hugging leather and popped collars, mixed with tall boots and well-placed spikes. Isolier sports an enormous codpiece, yet the tight costumes show off female curves. Isolier’s hair is long, tending toward the layered and shaggy. In short, there is something bad-ass and butch about Isolier that is worn right there on the sleeve.

Isolier is in love with a woman, Countess Adele, and in fact ends up in bed with her. Shortly after, Isolier ends up in the same bed with both Adele and Isolier’s own boss, Count Ory. (This scene is played for comedy, and in the opera, no one cares one way or another).

This work was also inspired by my recent trip to the Met…and someone asked me if my currently bald head had anything to do with this depiction…am I Isolier???

I don’t know where this work is going…all I can say right now is that this character intrigues me.

Debut – Offering

Acrylic, driftwood, sea-worn tiles from 1908 earthquake-induced building collapse, hardware on panel, 12” x 12”

This painting is perhaps best seen in person, because of its sculptural quality, and because I’ll encourage you to touch this one!

It’s made entirely of found objects, one being the “shelf” which I found on a walk near my house, and the others being pieces of tile flooring, which I found during a swim in Messina, Sicily. They are worn down, like sea glass, and in fact have been in the water since 1908, when an earthquake felled all of the buildings at Messina’s shore. I found a whole bag of this tiles, and didn’t even need to search for them; they’re just there at your feet. Whole hotels’ and buildings’ worth of these artifacts, tumbled into the sea.

That sounds poetic and awful enough for my romantic imagination. But I was thinking about marriage and the sacrifices we all make to keep relationships going. This one starts with a small, yet beautiful, offering. Somehow, that’s not seen or appreciated, or enough. And when that’s the case, there’s another, bigger item that will be offered up next. And then another, that’s more intricate, more beautiful, and bigger, so much so that it’s crowding the edge of the shelf it’s displayed on.

Acrylic, driftwood, sea-worn tiles from 1908 earthquake-induced building collapse, hardware on panel, 12” x12”

For those who know that my wife is living in Italy for a year, this piece might seem like a direct and angry reflection of that “sacrifice”. In fact, this was created earlier, maybe even before we began talking about that particular adventure. For sure, there is some hopelessness and frustration that inspired this piece, but it came from a different time and place. I’m actually enjoying many aspects of being alone this year (and despairing at others, naturally) so please don’t worry about me.

More Moby Dick

Moby Dick by Kiss My Shades

On this day in 1851, Moby Dick was published. I admit to having a fascination/obsession with this book.

I lived in New Bedford, Massachusetts, where Herman Melville once also lived. (He also lived in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where I was born). The parts of the novel that took place on land are set in New Bedford. Just like in the book, there really is a chapel, called the Seaman’s Bethel, with memorials on the wall to the sailors and fishermen lost at sea.

New Bedford hosts a Moby Dick Marathon every January, where the novel is read out loud in 25 hours, on-site at the Whaling Museum and Seaman’s Bethel. I attended three of them, stayed for the duration, and read a couple of chapters out loud. If you stay (a small crew, to be sure), you get your name in the paper, and a free book related to Moby Dick (one year the prize was actually an academic work about the marathon itself).

The holding power of this book astonishes me. The interest from people all over the country who travel for the marathon, the locals who stay up all night once a year to hear it read out loud, the artists who still make fresh artwork based on this story…

There’s another book I love, called On Beauty and Being Just that talks about this phenomenon of loving something beautiful, like a work of art, and replicating it with another work of art to put more beauty into the world.

The Oak and the Cypress: Mal di Mare

Mal di Mare, 48 x 36, Mixed media on panel, 2016

…And stand together yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.”

Excerpt from “On Marriage” by Kahlil Gibran

This body of work is about being married, or in a long-term relationship.

Nine years ago, the first time Mia and I were in Europe together, I collected (OK, I may have ripped it down) part of a poster that was displayed on a wall in Sicily. Although I liked the poster for its graphics and colors, its message is a political one about the state of the navy, border control, and various civic concerns related to the waterfront.

I took the title, Mal di Mare, from these graphics. Although it sounds quite lyrical in Italian, it actually means “seasick”. I hope this doesn’t sound too negative in tone, but I think it’s part of the ups and downs of a relationship, the bargain you make in a long-term commitment.

The Oak and the Cypress: Hesitation Change (Waltz)

Hesitation Change (Waltz), Acrylic on panel, 48 x 36

…And stand together yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.”

Excerpt from “On Marriage” by Kahlil Gibran

This body of work is about being married, or in a long-term relationship.

Mia is an avid dancer, and the waltz is the unofficial dance of love. My interest is picqued a little more, not by dancing the steps, but watching them being danced, and even by the visual pattern of diagramming the steps. A Hesitation Change is a real step in the waltz, although this diagram depicts the Whisk, and a Natural Turn. I liked the suggestion of the title, related to changing patterns within a relationship.

The Oak and the Cypress: Roadblock

Roadblock, 24 x 24, Acrylic and mixed media on panel

…And stand together yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.”

Excerpt from “On Marriage” by Kahlil Gibran

This body of work is about being married, or in a long-term relationship.

Being married usually means in-laws, and I’m lucky to have a very good relationship with mine. My father-in-law and I have a special relationship, one that’s humorous and tender. I could be wrong, but I don’t think our relationship would be nearly as sweet if I were a son-in-law. Recently, I’ve been thinking about him quite a bit. As the owner of an auto body shop for many years, he has a love of cars and driving. When I see something related to cars, I think of him.

I’m always on the lookout for found objects for my artwork, and often come home with something in my pocket. Besides the road reflector I found while running (I brought that dirty thing all the way back from Maui in my carry-on; I just had to have it), this composition is based in part on a diagram I saw of a fuel injection system. This depiction is so stylized as to be make-believe, and I don’t think any car buff would see it in there, so I didn’t mention that part to Frank.

But when I told him that I’d made a painting about him, he was quite moved and said with a real sense of wonderment, that no one had ever made a painting about him before. Only because you don’t know any other artists, Frank.

The Oak and the Cypress

The Oak and the Cypress, acrylic and mixed media on panel, 48 x 36
The Oak and the Cypress, acrylic and mixed media on panel, 48 x 36

…And stand together yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.”

Excerpt from “On Marriage” by Kahlil Gibran

This body of work is about being married, or in a long-term relationship.

The seeds of this painting were planted when Mia asked me to paint her some cypress trees one day, because they remind her of Italy. This painting began its life as a fairly straightforward, but boring, depiction of cypress and oak. I tried a few adjustments, but the painting needed a bigger leap, something less expected.
In researching oaks and cypress, I came across images of an illustrated manuscript from 14th century Persia. I used the original layout, more or less, including the primitive style and spatial depiction. The story concerns a prince who goes off in search of a princess with whom he’s fallen in love. In the style of an epic, he encounters many adventures, including one where the princess in question, while in disguise, challenges him to a duel. He has no idea that he’s battling his love until he wins the duel, and she reveals her identity. The quote contained within the painting is the exact caption that is displayed (in Farsi) on the original manuscript:

Defeated she removes her helmet before making up the quarrel”.

Something about this moment affected me: the choice to be vulnerable, put aside whatever argument you’ve had, and take the first step to be friends again.

The title comes from a line from the Kahlil Gibran poem, “On Marriage”.

The Oak and the Cypress: If Love Is Like Wine: You Are My Predilection (Neruda)

You Are My Predilection (Neruda), 24 x 24, 2016

…And stand together yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.”

Excerpt from “On Marriage” by Kahlil Gibran

This body of work is about being married, or in a long-term relationship.

This title is a quote from a love sonnet by Pablo Neruda, which was read aloud at our wedding. The poem is silly and profound at the same time. The letter M stands for Mia, who is obviously my predilection, and sometimes my muse. Some of the graphics came from a wall poster in Siena that I photographed while we were there.

The Oak and the Cypress: Tangier Overture

Tangier-Overture

…And stand together yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.”

Excerpt from “On Marriage” by Kahlil Gibran

This body of work is about being married, or in a long-term relationship.

This painting was inspired by our trip to Tangier, Morocco last summer, as a leg of our European trip. The blue and white color palette, as well as the suggestion of Arabic writing evoke a little of the visuals of Tangier. Maybe more importantly, tensions about the risk we were taking in traveling to a country where it’s illegal to be gay, as well as an encounter with a security agent at the airport informed this painting.

The title addresses these tensions and comes from a game I’ve been enjoying recently, where I get ideas for paintings from mishearing the titles of classical music pieces on the radio. The true title of the piece of music that this painting is named after is Algerian Overture, but as soon as I heard it, I knew that if I changed the place name to “Tangier”, I had my title.

The Oak and the Cypress: Mia, Siena, Stripes

Mia, Siena, Stripes
Mia, Siena, Stripes

…And stand together yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.”

Excerpt from “On Marriage” by Kahlil Gibran

This body of work is about being married, or in a long-term relationship.

This painting was inspired by a photograph I took of my wife in Siena, Italy. Once I decided to incorporate pattern into my work in a conscious way, I suddenly saw pattern everywhere. Especially in Siena, each row of brick and each tile were thoughtfully placed to achieve maximum visual impact. While taking this photo, I was struck by the stripes in Mia’s skirt, but also the more subtle stripes from the architecture. This painting won the People’s Choice Award at the City of Federal Way’s Arts Alive exhibition in 2015.