Posted: December 20th, 2011 | Filed under: Figure, Portraits, Recent Work
Every so often you meet someone who fills a hole in your life. They play the roll of friend, mentor, coach, father figure, boss or comrade. I met Jim, affectionately known as the ‘Old Man’, by way of Turn of River Fire Department (TRFD). I landed there when an old ladder engine parked behind the building caught my eye. I stopped and asked if I could set up my easel and paint over a period of days. During that week, the Old Man, among others, introduced himself. He came off as a fun-loving and good-natured Grandpa type but over the years I would come to discover that beneath that persona was a shrewd, insightful sage.
My impression, in the context of this particular fire company, was that there was a subtle secondary mission/tradition aside from the primary goal of fire fighting and public safety. The organization seemed to act as a lure, drawing in wandering souls, mostly adolescent men, who were seeking something other than fire fighting. In addition to the thrills, they sought leadership, roll models, guidance, a sense of purpose and fraternity. Within the company there were always several generations of veteran firemen to set an example for the newly adopted volunteer strays. In a way it seems that to mentor these young men was as important as the training they would receive to fight fires. Perhaps I developed this impression because of what I witnessed with regards to the Old Man’s roll in the fire department.
Over his 35 year membership at TRFD he had a lot of time to develop a keen sense of identifying the struggling or misguided. He would befriend these individuals quietly shepherding them with support and encouragement. I think he was as much admired for these qualities as he was for his playful nature.
When the Old Man passed this spring, leading members of the grieving fire department wanted to honor his memory and said that they were going to dedicate the conference room in his name. They asked me for suggestions on how to present the newly dedicated room. I gave them some ideas on how to physically and tastefully mark the space but I suspected that what they really wanted was a portrait. At the time, I too was grieving and not in the frame of mind to attempt the project.
Over the years I knew him, I had often playfully encouraged the Old Man to sit for a portrait. What he may not have known was that I was dead serious. He had kind of elongated, weathered features, a shock of grey hair and was perpetually wearing a baseball hat. He was without a doubt a real character. Since we were both avid jazz fans, I had even tried to entice him by offering to fill the sessions with endless doses of Stan Getz, Erroll Garner and the like. His self-effacing nature and never-ending work schedule would not allow it.
When I finally settled in to posthumously depict him, all I had as a model was a low-res digital photo that I had snapped the previous summer when I stopped by the Corporate Office Park, where he seemed to be always on duty. There too he was an endeared and long time member of the staff.
The photo was a classic representation of the Old Man and included all the markers that he was well known for: cell phone to his ear, wearing his blue work shirt and baseball hat, in his breast pocket a glimpse of a pack of cigarettes (which he was supposed to have quit), standing in front of his green pick up truck, which was parked next to what he referred to as the ‘round building’ with its distinctive 1960s architecture in the Corporate Office Park. The composite of all these elements somehow captured the essence of him.
Upon completion I had some concerns where the portrait should go since there might be several interested parties. I came back to the original solicitation by the fire department to honor the person who had touched so many. It seemed fitting that the Old Man (in the form of the portrait) would continue to look over and supervise Turn of River Fire Department and those who work there
Posted: October 19th, 2010 | Filed under: Architecture, Figure, Recent Work
Home, Stamford, CT
The weekend of September 11 arrived, marking the 9th anniversary of the New York City attack. That Saturday afternoon I surprised myself by abruptly gathering my paint supplies and setting up outside our house. I suppose it was my own way of demonstrating that we cannot put off living fully. Life’s daily distractions tend to numb us into mundane routines.
There have been moments when I have allowed myself to become completely distracted by the never-ending responsibilities of being a home owner but my inherent creative instinct, curiosity and need to use my hands always seem to come to the surface. It (painting) is a compulsion which often makes very little practical sense yet there is a nagging urge to address it. With this project I have decided to confront those issues both compositionally and psychologically.
Several weeks earlier, while working in the yard, I caught a glimpse of myself in one of the windows of the house. The single hung, six-over-six sashes are framed with traditional flat milled trim consistent with a late 18th century home. The top of this particular window cap however is missing a piece of transitional molding. The absence of this piece which exposes the bare wood beneath and the surrounding imperfect yellow clapboards act as a physical reminder of the continual ‘to do’ list of repairs and upkeep for our old home. It is a tension point for me and I presume most women who act as primary caretakers of the home. There is an indoctrination of female members of the household to clean, maintain and improve-i.e. ‘nest’. For me this is additionally heightened by the fact that I am particularly sensitive to my surroundings. I am not exactly obsessive, but the urge to utilize my creative and conceptual skills beyond manual labor in the context of our home clash on a regular basis. I suppose this is one of the reasons why I have always chosen to paint on location, off-site. By removing myself from the home environment, I remove the distractions.
The afternoon sun was hot, exposing my left side to the last heat of the Summer. The drought of earlier months brought on an abundance of prematurely ripe acorns. The sound of dropping nuts behind me caused me on more than one occasion to look around to see if someone was sneaking up on me.
The technical and compositional theme of reflection that keeps reappearing in my work takes on a more conceptual meaning when the reflected subject is myself. I believe with all portraits the task is half technical and half spiritual. You have to be objective enough to allow your understanding of anatomy and drawing skills to construct the figure in front of you, yet you also have to be emotionally open to ‘catching’ the spirit of the individual. This, I feel, is more difficult the more intimately you know the subject. It goes without saying the psychological land mines you can encounter when attempting a self portrait.
The simplicity of the composition prompted me to examine more closely the quality and texture of the paint to enhance the effect of the piece. Over subsequent days I pushed myself to build up the paint texture on the architectural elements, i.e. the clapboards, window trim and the stone footing. My intent was to enhance and differentiate the two different spatial planes – the window itself and the surrounding woodwork.
The particular angle of the afternoon sunlight did not create the circumstances where the transparency was equally dominant as the reflection. My reflection was disrupted by transparency only in a small quadrant of the image. Storm windows were installed on the exterior side of the old sashes. During the summer months we raise the bottom storm window (and lower the screen) to allow circulation throughout the house. The upper storms gave one small indication of transparency but also the subtle illusion of a double image due to the overlapping of the two panes of glass.
I am left with the simplicity of my own image surrounded by the architectural elements. My easel, just out of frame, me looking, returning the persistent stare, a left fistful of brushes, my unseen right hand busy at work… ‘Housework’.
Posted: October 19th, 2010 | Filed under: Architecture, Figure, Recent Work
Greenwich Public Library, Greenwich, CT
The original Greenwich Library building, which looks like it was built in the 1920s, underwent an addition sometime in the past 15 years. The modern addition is gracefully married to the more classical original edifice. Just at the intersection of the conjoining eras of the library stands a wall nearly 30 ft. tall of large, simple horizontally-oriented windowpanes. Through the windows you can see columns supporting the roof, the staircase leading to the upper level, the reception desk and the windows on the other side of the interior space which let in additional sunlight. The transparent scene inside the library was made more complex because of the reflection of the exterior setting behind me. The 1930s brick cape, the street, the modern elongated crimson torpedo-like sculpture, foliage and myself are reflected and super-imposed on the grid of the windows and the setting within.
Each session brought a rotating cast of visitors, from the Director of the Library to families who had come to use the facility. I always find it interesting to observe how people react to me painting on site. The reactions are both positive, negative and sometimes just wierd. I do not want to be considered a performance artist but I do recognize that there is an entertainment factor to what I do. I like to think that I am, in some way, pulling aside the veil and exposing some of the mysterious and unknown aspects of creating art.
One day a middle-aged woman came by and immediately began to explain her own background in painting, who she studied under, etc. She told me that she stopped painting to give career guidance then she began to give me unsolicited advice and direction on what was successful in my painting and which parts needed work. The lady told me I should get my teaching degree to earn money. As I casually began to pack up for the day, she followed me to my car. Odd, this need to engage, or connect via criticism in order to self-validate. I was the catalyst to facilitate that emotion… just because I was out there doing my thing.
The majority of my interactions with observers are more positive. An example of this occurred one afternoon. A large, gentle, dark skinned black man with walrus-like eyes and whiskers to match, carefully approached me. He had a sketch book in hand and explained that he was originally from Jamaica where he was a cartoonist. He went on to say that he had been taking the bus to the Library every day to practice sketching quickly. He pulled out his sketch book and showed me his gesture drawings of what looked to be unknowing Library visitors. He explained he was trying to become a courtroom artist. He was reaching out to me as a fellow artist, I was touched.
The challenges with this painting have been as much to my visual perception as they are to my technical abilities. We take so much for granted regarding our ability to see. We absorb visual information all the time but how often do we analyze and deconstruct what we see in a framework? What do we see only upon closer examination? I find myself making greater use of my dominant eye in this circumstance by letting the image come in and out of focus in order to more clearly register the reflection and then the transparent scene. The task of rendering the reflection is made more complex because the windows are thermal paned (two-layers). Therefore the reflected image is doubled with one reflection slightly askew. It is at times mind-boggling to keep track of the images and what I am trying to depict. The compositional element that makes things a little more manageable is the window framework itself. The grid provides segments in which to tackle each section individually as well as part of the whole piece. It is a simple tool but it helps to keep me focused during the most difficult stages of the painting.
Another compositional element presented itself: my own reflection. I had ambivalence about including it and wondered if it was too trite but it was something that was clearly visible in the reflection. After including my own figure I realized that it added a more dynamic element than if I had omitted it. There is a certain self-deprecating aspect of this addition: the figure is represented from ankles to shoulders but my head is decapitated by the metal window frame. I suppose you could impute some sort of symbolism by the omission of my head and feet.
After nearly three weeks, I felt it was time to let it go. I am still too close to the painting to judge if it is successful.
(Images 2 & 3 courtesy of Wayne Campbell © 2010)