More Unethical News from Slater Museum

John Denison Crocker's Lincoln
Well, I always wanted the press to write about my artwork, but I didn’t think it would happen this way:

The Day of New London, CT wrote an article about the Lincoln portrait contest.  Although the reporter didn’t interview me personally, she quoted from my earlier blog post.

And I learned something new about the whole debacle:  the jury didn’t even see all of the contest submissions.  The Director of the Slater Museum pre-selected less than half of the portraits, and only that small group was juried.

This is even worse than I thought.  Everything I said before about ethics and lack of respect or fairness…double it.

I naively assumed that my rejection was fair-and-square, that at least the jury had evaluated my artwork, and I could accept that.  I didn’t realize our rejections came before the jury even got involved, and that I do not accept.

I don’t know how the contest can be considered valid at this point.  What an embarrassment to the city.

Be still when you have nothing to say; when genuine passion moves you, say what you’ve got to say, and say it hot.

Favorite Quotes from It Gets Better

“Transsexual Prairie Girl”
by Tamsyn Waterhouse
p 123

“It got better when I came out, when I was able to tell my friends and family that I’m still me but I’m not quite who you thought. When I was able to say, “I’m transgender,” it got a lot better. My friends were there for me. My family was there for me. My colleagues were there for me.

When I came out to my mom, who is a retired bassoonist, I had been dreading that conversation for a long time, not knowing how she would react. Finally, I just said, “Mom, I’m transgender.” She replied, “That’s all right, dear, we had a lot of that in the orchestra.”

Museum Reneges on Promise to Exhibit All Lincoln Portraits–What Would Honest Abe Say?

John Denison Crocker's Lincoln

This Abraham Lincoln portrait, painted by Norwich, CT local son John Denison Crocker, was ripped from its frame in City Hall in 1994. The Slater Museum and the City of Norwich sponsored a contest with a purchase prize for the best copy of the original portrait.

Although I’m normally an abstract painter, I thought it would be good for me to stretch outside my comfort zone and copy the painting. It didn’t hurt that there was a purchase prize, but the detail that sealed it for me was that the Call for Entries stated all submissions would be exhibited in a gallery space for a month. There’s no better way to celebrate the completion of a painting than to have it hang in public where it can be appreciated, rather than tucked in the corner of a studio.

Plus, it seemed pretty hilarious to have multiple Abe Lincolns hanging on the wall, looking at each other.

The Slater sent me a CD (which I had to purchase from them for $5.00) with the contest rules and some images. The Submission Rules on the CD said:

“Portraits submitted must be unframed, 39” wide X 50” high, stretched and ready for Framing. All will be displayed at the Norwich Arts Center, from May 1 through May 29, 2011.”

Several newspapers, including The Norwich Bulletin and the Bridgeport Banner, posted articles stating the same, that “all submissions” would be exhibited for a month, and the winner announced at the opening reception on May 1. The articles listed the Director of the Slater as the source. The Director even authored one of the articles personally.

I got more and more excited about the exhibition. I think the promise and excitement of the exhibition was a major incentive for many of the artists. Without it, I wonder how many artists would have invested the time and money to make a portrait to the Slater’s exact specifications, in a style not their own, in an outdated genre that is not readily marketable to other venues?

I bought stretchers and canvas. I painted. I researched, in order to try to determine what was going on in the murkiness of the umbers in the background. I traveled two-and-a-half hours to Norwich (in each direction) to look at other paintings by the same artist.

I went to Sotheby’s to speak to experts in 19th century decorative arts. A big thanks to John Ward for his tremendous help; he even sketched me a gilt-bronze bookcase which is what he determined to be the object hiding in the shadows behind Lincoln.

But the real story doesn’t even begin until the drop-off date, April 15.

I rented a large vehicle to transport the large painting. I drove through downtown Norwich and giggled at the multiple Lincolns I saw being carried into the Norwich Arts Center. It was as surreal in real life as I’d imagined.

But when I got to the drop-off site, it wasn’t funny anymore, because artists were informed–then, at the last possible moment–that not all portraits would be exhibited after all, as originally promised by the Slater.



False advertising.

These phrases (and many more, but this is a family blog) ran through my head. I considered saying something at the time, but I didn’t. I didn’t want to hurt my chances before my work was even considered. I considered taking my work back with me out of principle, but I didn’t. That would defeat all those weeks of planning, researching, painting.

So I waited to see what would happen…

In the rejection email, the Director wrote that rejected artists were free to contact two separate exhibitions, with different missions, to see if they might accept our rejected portraits. No guarantees.

Unfair. Bait-and-switch. False advertising.

I wasn’t the only one who was upset. I heard that some artists threatened to sue, that some contacted the Board of Trustees of the Slater, and that others contacted the press. Good for them–we need to stand up when we’re being taken advantage of, and treated unfairly.

One of the alternative exhibitions, called “Enabled” wasn’t looking for Lincoln copies, it was looking for Lincoln interpretations, so it could only accept a handful of rejected portraits.

I called the organizer, a lovely woman named Elanah Sherman, who understood why there were artists with hurt feelings and a bad taste in their mouths over this experience. I told her that her group would look like heroes if they could find a way to open their show to include all of the portraits, as originally promised by the Slater. She called Dan Topalis (who I believe is a gallery owner in Norwich). They agreed to figure it out and provide space to all portraits.

Now all of our hard work can see the light of day.

[And as an unexpected bonus, Elanah told me, unprompted, how much she enjoyed my gay bullying paintings!]

So yes, I have learned quite a bit through this project. Besides confirming my dislike of canvas (I’m a panel and paper girl), strengthening my skills in value and measurement, reiterating the wisdom of Betty Edwards’ theories on drawing with the right side of your brain, and proving the benefit of trying something new (things I actively discuss with my students every week)…
I, unfortunately, relearned some hard lessons about the art world.

I’ve seen it many times before with various galleries, but I believed that a non-profit art museum was above reneging on its promises. I believed it would honor its word, and support its artists by treating them with respect and professionalism.

I was wrong about these things, and this was hard to swallow. I’m still angry that the Museum didn’t think the artists they solicited deserved to be treated ethically, fairly, or respectfully.

But I also learned that some people have the desire and heart to cut through BS and make things happen when they want to.

Many thanks, again, to Elanah Sherman and Dan Topalis, for making lemonade with lemons. And congratulations to all the Lincoln portrait artists, whose hard work will be acknowledged with an exhibition.

Maura is an abstract painter whose current work is about anti-gay bullying. You can see those paintings here.

Sedona: Michael Chesley Johnson

Sometimes you meet someone who really has it figured out.

Michael Chesley Johnson is an award-winning plein air landscape painter. He lives and paints in Sedona in the winter, and New Brunswick, Canada in the summer. When he’s not painting, he teaches workshops in both locations. He drives cross-country to get from one place to the other, has a friendly wife Trina who assists in the marketing of his work, and a cute dog who hangs around the gallery. He also writes–books, a blog, various articles–and is an editor for The Artist’s Magazine.

Thunder Mountain, Backlit

The Pumphouse Studio Gallery
in Sedona, where he sets up shop in the winter, is along a main street in a nice complex that seems to get significant traffic. He sublets it to other artists when he’s in Canada so that he doesn’t need to hire anyone to cover the store, or shutter it, or lose rent money.
He even has it figured out so that he teaches workshops at various locations along the way as he moves between his summer and winter homes.
On top of all that, he is a really nice guy, a great painter, and a wonderful colorist.
Note to self…
Desert Sky, Papago Park

Why Painting Matters

Lots of people–web designers, photographers, regular folks and even sculptors, god bless them–ask me why you’d want to paint a painting when you can take a digital photo.

It’s much easier, they say. Absolutely.

Faster. More mobile. Of course.

You can see everything better. Now hold on a minute…

My sad little photo that doesn't do justice to the Sedona sunrise
During a gorgeous sunrise in Sedona, I found a renewed commitment to my usual answer. The sun was coming up behind me, putting a warm glow on the red rocks, moving and making the rocks bigger as it rose, and dividing each plane perfectly into light and shadow.
It was absolutely beautiful, even theatrical–like the curtain being raised on a play. I couldn’t wait to see what would be revealed with each passing moment.
I had two excellent cameras with me and neither one did the scene any justice. I could tell by looking into the LCD screen that the colors weren’t being captured, that the light and contrast were lost, that what I could see with the camera was nothing compared to what I could see with my eyes.
Now take a look at this painting by Michael Chesley Johnson, whom I met that day.

See the difference?

Michael Chesley Johnson


The Abraham Lincoln Caper: Silly Headlines

The project that’s currently keeping me out of trouble is that I’m copying an Abe Lincoln portrait, hoping to win a contest to replace one that was stolen.

I’m still trying to wrap my head around it…the idea of encouraging an artist to copy another work so closely that it can take its place, even occupying the original frame, goes against everything art students are taught nowadays about self-expression, not to mention copyright protection.

The contradictions have been making silly headlines pop into my head, so I thought I might as well share them, all in good fun:

When forgery is a good thing.

Art Forgers, Unite!

Art forgers, we’ve got a gig for you.

Nothing a little forgery won’t cure…

How the hell do you forge an artwork when you can’t even see the original?

That’s OK, the first guy didn’t work from life either.

Calling all art forgers

Wanted: art forgeries! (It’s OK, we’re a museum).

We’d like to commission you to commit an art forgery.

Committing an art forgery…it’s OK, they asked me to.

If you forge it, they will come.

[In fancy script] An invitation to commit forgery

May the best forger win!

Forgery to replace stolen Lincoln portrait: What would Honest Abe say?

The Abraham Lincoln Caper: A Tale of Two Lincolns

John Denison Crocker's Lincoln
My Lincoln


The town of Norwich, CT is sponsoring a contest: the idea is to copy the painting on the left, which was stolen from City Hall in 1994 and never seen again. Norwich cares very much about this painting because Lincoln gave a speech there in 1860 as a Presidential candidate, and because a local artist painted the portrait.

The best copy wins and will be bought by the town and displayed in the original frame.

How am I doing?

The Abraham Lincoln Caper: True Crime

Stolen Lincoln portrait

This isn’t about Lincoln’s assassination. (For that, The Conspirator movie which comes out this week looks pretty good).

This is about the theft of a portrait of Lincoln, painted by John Denison Crocker, which hung in City Hall in Norwich, Connecticut for almost 130 years until it was stolen in 1994.

The thief cut it out of the frame, right off the wall, and presumably walked out the front door and into the street, never to be discovered.

The front entrance of City Hall faces a busy traffic rotary, several other businesses and City buildings, multiple residences, and a small park area. There was no hope of being completely unseen, so I imagine the thief took a moment to roll the large canvas and tuck it under his arm, purposefully walking out of City Hall as if they were architectural plans and he had every right to be carrying them.

Now, almost 20 years later, the police re-opened the case, at the same time as the Slater Museum sponsored a contest to replace this symbol of town history and civic pride.

I’m entering the contest–yes me, an abstract painter, painting a historical portrait. I like the challenge, and I want to see Norwich get its portrait back. Also, I hate art theft, where something that’s created for the public and brings beauty into the world is removed and hidden away. A stolen painting is too recognizable to be sold or displayed officially, and so it might sit in a closet somewhere. At best, it’s been installed in a secret viewing area, where the thief might privately enjoy it. If so, it’s a very selfish act, and a sad end to a work that was intended to publicly celebrate President Lincoln.

Here’s to catching the art thief.

The Abraham Lincoln Caper: Art Heists and Civic Pride

The empty frame on the right, where Lincoln's portrait used to hang in Norwich City Hall

In 1994, City Hall in Norwich, Connecticut was the scene of an art heist. A portrait of Abraham Lincoln, painted by John Denison Crocker, which had hung there for almost 130 years, was cut out of its frame and stolen, never to be publicly seen since.

The City of Norwich still has a special feeling of pride for the portrait, so much so that it applied for a grant which has allowed City officials to sponsor a contest to replace the painting. The City has essentially commissioned a copy of the work, which will be culled from contest entries, and plans to install the copy in the old frame, which still hangs in City Hall, an empty reminder of the loss.

The reasons that the civic pride for this artwork runs so deep are that the painting commemorates a visit which Lincoln paid to Norwich when he was a Presidential candidate in 1860, and also because the artist was a locally famous painter who lived most of his life in Norwich.

The replacement statue is bigger and heavier, presumably to prevent another theft.

I understand what it’s like to have an important town landmark stolen. Sterling, Massachusetts, the town where I went to elementary school, was the birthplace of Mary Sawyer, better known as the girl from “Mary Had a Little Lamb”. In honor of Mary and her lamb, a statue of a lamb stood on the town green. It’s difficult to overestimate the amount of civic pride attached to that statue; probably everyone in town had had their photo taken in front of it at some point.
Years later, when I was in college, I read in the San Francisco Chronicle that the lamb had been stolen, and I still remember the shock as I read the article. Shock that our little lamb had made the papers in California, but also: Who would do that? (It actually turned out to be one of our former neighbors).
I imagine that the people of Norwich feel similarly about their Lincoln portrait, because it represents a historical connection to our 16th President, as well as pride for native son John Denison Crocker. Because I understand the pride that a town can have for a local hero and the way that pride can be held in a symbol–like a statue or a painting–I want to replace the Lincoln portrait.

Dan Savage Takes Home Painting About Gay Bullying

It Gets Better, Acrylic and mixed media on panel, 6 x 6, In the private collection of Dan Savage

Dan Savage and Maura McGurk were both profoundly affected by a series of teen suicides in the fall of 2010. The suicides were particularly notable and received national media attention because they occurred in a cluster, and were caused by acute bullying because the boys were thought to be gay.

Ever since, Savage and McGurk have separately been hard at work.

From Seattle, Savage created the It Gets Better Project, which provides a platform for adults to upload supportive videos targeted at bullied teens. These testimonials, many by adults who were bullied and attempted suicide themselves, assure young viewers that a happy and productive future awaits them. They ask for patience and perspective, and offer understanding and hope. It Gets Better also became a book, edited from the ten thousand and counting videos, and reached the New York Times Bestseller List in March 2011.

In New York City, McGurk began painting a series of abstract paintings about the boys who committed suicide, and the circumstances that emerged about incidents of gay bullying. Classes of schoolchildren have toured her studio to see the work, and the paintings have been exhibited twice since February 2011. McGurk is still adding to the series, and some of the paintings have now found homes in private collections.

Enter Dan Savage, again. He came to New York City on the It Gets Better book tour, and took home a McGurk painting titled, appropriately, It Gets Better.

Contact McGurk to purchase a painting in support of LGBT youth and take a stand against gay bullying:

Inappropriate Use of the Family Values Card

It Gets Better, Acrylic and mixed media on panel, 6 x 6, In the private collection of Dan Savage

I suppose it was just a matter of time before someone played the family values card where my work was concerned.

There are many legitimate reasons why artwork might not fit with a particular venue–you have abstract work while they want to show landscapes, it’s too big, too small, too political, not political enough, does not fit in with the theme of “Music on the Boardwalk” etc etc.

I was recommended to a New York City gallery by two friends with personal connections there, and told that the gallery was seeking more painters for an exhibition in May. After some emails back and forth, this is the reply I got from the gallery:

“We have no more space for May, and I do not think the subject of your artwork would fit into the gallery.  The owner wants to keep the exhibits family, including small children, oriented.”

A lack of space is a sufficient answer all on its own. That they went farther and brandished the families-with-small-children card really got my blood boiling.

This is not a new question, and it’s a rhetorical one anyway, but how did the word “family” get co-opted like this? The family I grew up in had gay people in it and we loved them–even as small children.

By saying that my work is not suitable for families to view, the gallerist is trying to taint me and my work, which I do not accept.

This reminds me of a passage in the It Gets Better book by Dan Savage:

“By giving ourselves permission to speak directly to LGBT youth, Terry and I gave permission to all LGBT adults everywhere to speak to LGBT youth. It forced straight people–politicians, teachers, preachers, and parents–to decide whose side they were on. Were they going to come to the defense of bullied LGBT teenagers? Or were they going to remain silent and, by so doing, give aid and comfort to the young anti-gay bullies who attack LGBT children in schools and the adult anti-gay bullies at conservative “family” organizations who attack LGBT people for a living?”

I replied and told them that while I understand my work may not fit the gallery for various reasons, I had to respectfully disagree that it wasn’t suitable for families or children because it is in fact specifically in support of children.

Those “family” folks don’t have to like it, but they need to realize that to be against bullying is to support children.

Artist’s Statement: Gay Bullying

My current abstract paintings are inspired by the suicides of several teenaged boys in fall 2010, who were bullied for being gay.  The multi-layered paintings use a colorful but unsettling palette of yellow-greens, pinks, purples, reds, and blacks.  Some figurative elements emerge, particularly spindly or cartoonish legs which suggest vulnerability. Expressive bursts of drawing come from a personal sense of urgency and upset over the suicides; many pencil marks are not drawn lines at all, but desperate and furious tracks carved again and again through the paint. Dripping, dangling shapes conjure anguish and heartbreak suggestive of the bullied teens, but also of viewers who may look on these stories from a place of adult wisdom and, perhaps, shared experience.

It Gets Better, Acrylic and mixed media on panel, 6 x 6, In the private collection of Dan Savage
Fragile, Acrylic on panel, 6 x 12, SOLD
Encounter, Acrylic and pencil on panel, 24" x 24", $1500
In Secret, Acrylic and pencil on panel, 36" x 48", $3000
Yellow, Acrylic on panel, 8 x 10, SOLD
Five Boys, Acrylic and mixed media on panel, 48 x 48, $4000
Bridge, acrylic and pencil on panel, 36 x 48, $3000

ArtWeLove and Sarah Trigg

Ponce, by Sarah Trigg

My recent trip to Arizona made me remember how much nicer people are to each other outside of NYC, and how hungry I was for pleasant interpersonal connections–at the grocery store, on the phone, passing by…the reason I bring this up just now is because I had a wonderful experience with a company called ArtWeLove, not only from a transactional standpoint, but from an artistic one, since I came to learn about an artist named Sarah Trigg who I really relate to and enjoy.

ArtWeLove sells prints of artists’ work, meaning they are not originals, rather reproductions of original works, printed in an edition of, say, 250 on archival paper. During Armory Week, I won an online sweepstakes and a free print. This was exciting, and they couldn’t have been nicer–I even got an email from the person who put my print in the mail, to tell me it was on the way.

I chose a print (above) by Sarah Trigg because of the appealing colors and shapes, and because it looks like, and was influenced by, maps–which I love. Maps have inspired many of my own paintings over the years and I could look at them all day long.

As the website says:

“Heavily influenced by maps and the modern global landscape, Trigg created this artwork based on paper maps collected in Spain. After spending a summer abroad, Sarah returned with multiple maps and was struck by their aesthetic value as well as how explorer names for streets and locations are so pervasive on a local level that they become part of the background, but are unique to travelers. The title is derived from the Spanish explorer, Juan Ponce de Leon.”

When I clicked for more information on Sarah, I learned more about her newer work, which are juicy, colorful, painterly paintings (again, very close to my heart) which she created based on an interest in maps, dates and history. So many of my own favorite things–this just gets better and better!

It’s really interesting–she chooses a date on the calendar and researches events that happened on that date which affected the landscape, then paints about them. It’s funny how our interests continue to intersect because I did something similar, though on a more personal scale, when I opened old letters I’d received on the same date years earlier and then created paintings with them.

In my favorite body of work, her appreciation of the aerial view in a map led her to more fully explore the depicted site, such as researching so-called “reconnaissance photographs” from the Cuban Missile Crisis. Even though these grainy photos show a dirty industrial site that brought our country to the brink of war, I appreciate, like Sarah, the aesthetics of tiretracks in the gravel, and the positions of the tents and fuel trailers on the launch site in San Cristobal, Cuba. There is a beauty there which Sarah distills into her paintings. For me, this rang another personal bell, because some years ago I painted maps of Chicago and was struck by the beauty of the runway patterns at Midway Airport (of all things). Those shapes and visual relationships appeared in many paintings and prints over the years; beauty and inspiration can come from the strangest places.

When you visit Sarah’s page at ArtWeLove, make sure to take the Studio Tour; as the camera lingers over her paintings, she gives a thoughtful narrative of her inspirations and how her work develops.

I feel like I really understand this artist, and that is rare, but beautiful when it happens.