Using my smallest brush I painted a small figure standing atop a flame, holding onto some sort of physical structure like an axis with 45 degree angles. The figure is checking out the view from up there, so to speak. It’s a pretty far out view but not a very big canvas. The very tiny person up there – really just a silhouette with perfect little curves – was painted with my tiniest brush: a #0 Kolinsky long handled brush, a lovely brush, really. I’m afraid I’ve almost worn it out.
As I placed the faintest of dashes to suggest a left hand, I thought about my habit of painting very tiny people into my paintings. I always paint them not in relation necessarily to the canvas itself but, instead, in relation to the smallest brush I have and in relation to the largest thing going on in the peice. I want them to be small. The painting, no matter the size, usually has similar sized small figures. They are always making the canvas seem huge because our eyes pick out the shape of the figure in it and relate then to that shape. It is sort of in the same way the we anthropomorphize all kinds of objects, placing emotions, etc, upon them. We see the shape of a person and we relate to that shape and then relate to the rest of the image in terms of that figure. With the paintings that have these tiny painted figures I want to create the greatest sense of space with them: a sense of grandeur and depth maybe; a sense of approaching the infinite and, really, being very small in that view.
The first painting I think I ever did like that is perhaps the oldest of all the paintings that I have a record of. The painting, titled Surrender, has a small figure atop a mountain, realizing he is a speck in comparison to the divine. There are all sorts of paintings that followed and not all of them have a main character, so to speak, but those that do often have a very small main character. Maybe it is me, experiencing a freckle on the little pinky toe of the divine. Compared to that pinky toe I am a speck but, in my enlarged versions anyhow, I am at least a quarter inch tall, an estimable height, perhaps, but, comparatively, a mere trifle in comparison to the forty eight inch tall painting.
I like it like that though. I wouldn’t paint the figure any bigger for two reasons. One is that I’d have to paint details on to the figure – a pair of pants maybe, some shoes. If I were to do that then Mind would have all the more reason to either relate or not relate to the figure. “O,” one’s mind might say, “I wouldn’t wear a red shirt, that is certainly not me.” or “My hair is long and that figure’s hair is short” or something like that. These statements are, generally, a little more subconscious than that but the point is – by choosing how we can’t relate to something, we give ourselves an exit from the experience. By making the figure tiny and with few, if any, distinguishable characteristics – their gender even – the character is all the more universal.
The second reason for the tiny figure is that a bigger figure would, I believe, have more dominance in the composition than the experience of whatever is going on. I’m not so interested in painting the expressions of the figure, gestures, etc, unless that is what the painting is about. The expressions and emotions of the figure are, likely, already captured (or attempted to be anyways) by the subject of the painting. That is what the piece is about, not the reaction of the figure. The reason the figure is in there is to give the main subject of the painting a bit of relativity.
Essentially, I want YOU to experience whatever the figure might be experiencing. Whether it is in the outstretched arms wide open big sky feeling of Standing on the Shoulders of Giants or the sense of casting off the weight of the world in Flowers for Atlas. The subtle gestures and forms of the figure in relation to the grander piece suggest an emotional, psychological or spiritual state of the figure and, thus, pass this on to the viewer.
We walk around all the times with our heads so big and full of ideas, however grand or however trivial, in a world that is, generally, built in direct proportion to our bodies and our senses of self. When we pull ourselves out of that world and experience something like a mountain ledge in the Tetons with some kind of epic view and a tower of a mountain behind us, or thunderheads and a sunset across the Great Plains or stand upon the rim of the Grand Canyon, we realize, we get a sense, of our true proportions – a speck – a mere punctuation mark in the grand book of the universe! I would say that I paint these small figures to remind myself of this as much as share the feeling or sense with others. We’ve all been there, at some point or another, and we get so wrapped up in “our worlds” that it’s good to be reminded of it sometimes.
What is this painting about? What are any of these paintings about? These most recent ones I mean. This recent spate of canvases I’ve spread myself out upon.
It started with a small diamond shaped painting that grew out of a sketchbook image of a desert landscape populated with freely associative meanderings. That, in turn, spread to another small canvas – 4 x 6? something like that. That one was simply dashes upon dashes in consecutive rows creating a gradient background from deep purple to yellow gold to white. It has developed into something rather delicately precious- dark, bright, sharp – a bit like an insanely concentrated version of The Dorky Painting.
And then – a canvas of a large woman on a divan painted in oils during a figure drawing class – or was it the oil painting class? I don’t remember now – but the canvas had been tucked into the closet, a memory best forgotten and I gessoed over it turning it a bright purple square that quickly turned into even more free associative exploration. No plan. Loose intentions. Within the pattern of dots, and the loose meanderings of the brush, a figure with wings appeared, leaning forward, with wings outstretched as if on the downstroke. This is a figure that has been with me since I first learned the capital-D Dance. It is a figure who has had various iterations and can be seen in other paintings – the first of the Praises series for example – and in various positions but it is all the same dancer. The painting, tho, as it progresses, goes further than that, touching on elements of other pieces – the delicate spirals of Limits, the moonlit cloudscape at the top of I Am All of Those Lifetimes. The archways of Passage to the Infinite. Maybe it’s a quick mental retrospective, a checklist of visual linguistics and mental cues. The painting is called “Breathing Space” and, in the end, intends to pour out the delicately crowded busy-ness of my mental space – the jittery hand, the unpacked boxes -all out onto a little canvas in a semi-orderly fashion so that the next piece can have a little more spaciousness and be a little more direct. Violet clearly stated that, as a painting, the composition is busy, cluttered, a bit unfocused. But I’m not always trying to create “paintings”. Sometimes, one has to just leave room for exploration sans intention or pre-conceived notion. Sometimes, I just need to go with it and whatever comes out, comes out.
From “Breathing Space” I moved on to another canvas that also already had some lines painted onto it. I gessoed over the lines which – a light turquoise/sienna mixture that sketched out reminiscences of a trip through Utah – echoes of landscape. In the end, it’s purpose was merely to give me something, anything to paint but there was too much of a plan and not enough exploration. I painted over it and began anew, this time I followed a loose sketch from my sketchbook although it was still from the same trip through Utah. This sketch was drawn one morning while my espresso brewed on the Coleman stove after I’d gone for a morning hike through the red sandstone arches and slickrock that all sparkles in the morning sun. Upon returning I’d opened to a new page and jotted down a few “notes”.
As always, the painting is not an exact replica of the drawing and it, as usual, expands upon the quick sketches the way a musician might elaborate on a chord or a riff of a song. The sketch captures the intention, the feeling but the painting approaches the vision more clearly. That vision is a clear and exuberant light. It is a sky and and earth and unfolding landscape. It is wings that fly and faces that gaze onwards, upwards, from within. It is intimations of summer storms and understandings of the building blocks. It is I. You. It is giving something away. It is approaching an opening and getting ready to fly. And something beyond that.
Above my desk, on a little shelf coming out from the wall, I have four photographs . One, behind glass, sitting on a very tiny easel, was taken in 1978 and is of me at two years old. The photo is slightly yellowed, a tad out of focus. In it, I’m a chubby little boy in diapers sitting on a swing. I have an eye-squinting smile on my face; laughter, it knew me as a child and knows me now. There is another picture, cut from a larger photo, and taped to the shelf, and it is of my grandparents on my mother’s side. They are in Morocco on a vacation, well retired. The picture was taken sometime in the late 80’s. My grandfather is laughing in the picture and wearing one of the shirts I always remember him wearing. My grandmother is happy, smiling, in the sun. Another picture is of my dad and I, celebrating our birthday together. His birthday is the day before my own, on August 25th. In the picture it is maybe 1993 or ’94 and I am in high school, sporting a goatee and wearing a white t-shirt I silk-screened myself of a figure, looking much like me, about to step, or maybe fall, off a ledge. No one considered that suicidal. Personally, I thought the figure in the image might one day learn to fly. The next picture, this one in glass like my baby picture, is of Violet and I on the day of our wedding just last summer, 2008, fourteen years later, thirty years since the time of the baby picture. We are dancing, she and I, and I am holding her from behind. She has a wide smile on her face and I am also smiling but my eyes are semi-closed, enjoying the moment and our movement together. We are wearing the clothes we made for our wedding but the silky white sleeveless shirt I’m wearing is much like my many other sleeveless white tees – much like the picture of my grandfather – a shirt I may be remembered for.
All together, these pictures span 30 years. Why these and none others? Of all the moments of my life – I’ve kept but a handful of actual photographs and only these four here become the photos I look upon when I lift my head to think about or consider a snippet of web code, a business proposition, a creative decision, what the next move in this chess game of life might entail.
We only have so much time to gather about ourselves the most important tools, the most integral pieces of our development and those tools show up in our lives for only so long before they vanish, if left unused. When I look at these photos, I see a series of markers. Who I was when I came into this world- that happy chubby little baby and where I came from- my grandparents (my mom’s parents) and my father. Those lead into the family I have now – my wife and I living within our creation.
So when I look at this chain of creative choices on the canvases I’ve begun to work on since, finally, settling in: why I chose this sketch and not one from some other page- the one just before it is as worthy of a canvas as this one, is it not? In fact, there are many such drawings. Why this chain of imagery, this visual narrative, and not another? In these canvas I see a progression, and, like the photographs, an s yet unfinished narrative. It may not be as linear, or as easy to verbalize as the photos but it is what has happened, and what is happening.
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