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My Esteemed Pedigree (or lack thereof)

By Michael Divine on March 4th, 2012

Me | Badlands | South Dakota | Summer 1997

The truth: I have no pedigree. I haven’t studied with any famous artists (although I’ve met a few). I can’t tell you any stories about how such-and-such the Great Master came into my studio late at night, declared I was doing it all wrong, and then proceeded to show me how to do it right. I haven’t attended any prestigious art schools. (Although I’ve lived near them!). My paintings are owned by only a few collectors with any notoriety and so far my work has yet to show up in any museums. I fall into that icky grey area for collectors and galleries alike: “talented but self-taught”.

It bothers me at times that I get pigeon-holed and judged in this way and feels like a prejudice – a strike against me. The art world of LA [where I lived when I wrote this] has it’s own cliquey snobbery and it’s LA Schools of Thought which I will likely never be assimilated into – the David Hockney/Baldessari hub for instance. But all of the art scenes and communities have their own cliques and circles which galleries take note of and, at times, I find myself disregarded due to my lack of pedigree.

What I find interesting is that the movements which gave birth to this art of the inner world – the early modern art movements of Impressionism, Futurism, Surrealism – all eschewed the academy as it was instead trekking out on their creative paths exploring how we see and perceive the world. They were more interested in the dialogue that the artist has with life than the dialogue between artist, academy and art critic.

In time however – through the 40’s and 50’s – the ‘academy’ and the world of art criticism adopted and co-opted the movements for their own. Eventually, this Contemporary Art that one sees glorified in too many museums became the norm. These days, the fact that the artist who painted the large panels just one color attended some art school and studied with someone who also had some pedigree themselves and who had already been deemed notable by the academy suddenly seems to imbue those solid color panels with some mystic sense of importance and lineage, even if that lineage is full of shit. If the panels were just presented by Joe Schmoe Nobody then the ‘art world’ at large would’ve laughed them off.

Yet, to be honest, if the artist had perhaps not had any schooling but had instead had some deep revelation, had worked through multiple demons, had their lonely nights of solitude, and simply decided, off in non-art creation, to paint these large canvases and simply gave personal reasons for their coming into being… I think I’d pay attention a bit more.

My path: I left college after two years  where I’d been studying liberal arts with a bent towards comparative religion. My biography on my website sort of glosses over that whole bit. The short of it: my pragmatic parents, living in coastal suburban Connecticut, a world of yards and nine-to-five jobs, worried that I wouldn’t get a good job if I skipped out on the all important liberal arts education and instead went to art school. At the age of seventeen, the middle child, and ultimately not entirely sure what I wanted, I ended up agreeing with my high school guidance counsellor in a haze of I-could-care-less and found myself enrolling at Syracuse University in upstate New York.

There, I was blessed with a couple of surprise gifts. For one, as a student with a work-study arrangement, I got a job in my second year working in the slide library of the Fine Arts department in the main library. At that time – this was 1995 and the internet still had yet to be of much use – the library had an extensive collection of 35mm slides of seemingly every important work of art, photography, sculpture, and architecture that had come out of the Western world (and into the Eastern world) dating back to pre-Renaissance times. Lucky me, I got to sit at a typewriter and type little labels with the name, date, etc, for each slide. Oh, god, was it tedious. I wasn’t much good at typing either, all things considered. Still, after the labeling was done, there was the organizing. People would take slides out (presumably for art classes which I never got to attend) and I would put them back in the drawers upon drawers of slides. I could sit at a light box and study all of them. I could look at them with a magnifying glass or a small projector that you hold up to your eye. It was magical and I would get lost in them for hours. I saw everything and was able to piece together the dialog that art had had with itself for the past thousand years – from Le Corbusier to Gehry to Kandinsky to Pollack to Goya to Da Vinci to all and everyone.

It was in those days that I began to incorporate the kaleidoscopic nature of Cubism and Futurism with the dreamy stream-of-consciousness associative qualities of Surrealism while sticking to the psychedelic spiritualism that seemed to be my internal focus. The echoes that the images left in my mind found their way through my meandering pencil and sometimes rather addled vision.

Another thing which offered a vast amount of inspirational fodder were the studies in comparative religions during my second year of school. Syracuse had, at that time, a noteworthy Department of Religious Studies. Houston Smith taught there which gave it some weight in the academic world. Mr. Smith (Dr.?) was a scholar of comparative religions which is the study not just of religions as institutions and the histories thereof but also of the archetypal spiritual experience for which religions become a framework. Through the focus in comparative religious studies I was able to gain some understanding and perceptual grounding for my own personal experiences as well as begin to understand the more archetypal human experience as it related to ‘spirit’.

My doodlings which turned into my first fledgling paintings all reflected these thoughts and inquiries. In my second year of college I painted my first ‘great’ painting and called it ‘Surrender‘ (I think I wrote about it here another time). I painted it with acrylics. I’d started painting with water colors years before and understood the water/wash techniques. Besides: oils took longer to dry, required more pieces to their puzzle, and, to a poor college student, had a higher bar of entry when it came to their cost. While painting that piece, I had this experience: A book opened up inside my head and it flipped through pages upon pages of artwork that I had apparently created and it was my life and, I’m not kidding, a voice in my head sort of said or simply resonated – “you can do this for the rest of your life if you want. You just have to give away everything you have, leave school, trust in the way and it will all open up for you.”

Whoa.

By that time – it was around late January of my second year I think – I had moved off-campus claiming to the housing administration that the dorm lifestyle was impeding my flow which, perhaps, it was. I’d spent my first year in an incredibly debaucherous haze. The highs and lows were sort of startlingly self-destructive and yet, not entirely unpredictable, considering that I was caught between trying to please my parents, experiencing some sense of freedom for the first time, not sure what the hell I was doing, and trying to figure out who I was. My grades plummeted. My artwork dawdled and grew and, in copious sketchbooks, poured out of me. There were a lot of hangovers, a lot of long crazy nights, a lot of everything that wasn’t school work. So, at the time of painting ‘Surrender’ in my second year at school, I had found a small community of hippie types, was living with a friend and my girlfriend who was a few years older than me who also had a year and a half old son and we lived in a house in a crummy neighborhood near campus that was a mix of students and broken homes and I really didn’t know what I was doing.

Come summer, that experience during Surrender was nagging at me. Because my parents had agreed that after two years of ‘liberal arts’ I could pursue art school, I’d gone to see someone at Syracuse’s School of Art. The woman I talked to suggested that I look into pattern design (Northeasterners are so pragmatic!) and I was left feeling a bit disappointed. I had vision! Drive! I wanted to make and create! I didn’t want to get lost in a sweatshop designing upholstery fabric! So by summer, I was living in Syracuse still, working a job at a book bindery. I was in an unhealthy relationship. All I saw was a tangential downwards spiral that continued to pull me away from any real goal – from my path, whatever that may be.

So I did it – I listened to the voice. I left school. I gave away almost everything I had. I moved back to Milford, CT, where I’d grown up. I cried a bit when I told my parents that I wouldn’t be going back to school the following year. Ever practical, they suggested that I look into trade schools. I felt I had disappointed them – I am the oldest son and my dad, the oldest in his family, had never gone to college nor had any of his siblings. There is a certain amount of pride that I knew I’d never be able to fulfill. No, I said, I would never be going back to school. That’s what made me sad – that they would never get to see me graduate. That surprised them a bit but they didn’t push it. While they told me that I was on my own (fair enough) they also knew they wouldn’t be wasting any money on school. Maybe they even saw it as saving two years worth of tuition! In any case, I got a job bagging groceries at a grocery store in suburban Connecticut. If I told you it was amazing, I would be lying.

But I had friends and I have always been able to count on a beautiful synchronicity with them in ways that I can never fully articulate. A good community is one that seems to respond to you when you haven’t even reached out to it. As someone who didn’t have much in the way of friends through grammar school, I learned to not take that brotherhood of friendship for granted. So my friend called me up and said he’d been living in Vermont the past winter, having left school (he has since gotten his PhD in mathematics) and did I want to join him and some others and spend the winter living in a house at a ski mountain, working, skiing, partying, skiing, painting (that was my thing, right?) etc?

Of course I would.

So that was that. It surprised my parents a bit – how quickly I got swept up my a new boat but that was just the beginning of many years of flowing journeys and magical moments and long lovely interludes. But one way or another the fact is: something in me said I should go paint and so I did.

That’s the story of my pedigree – my early training. What happened after Vermont? Well, there was a summer of cross country back packing and traveling and then another winter of skiing, then moving into the countryside of Northern Vermont rather semi-permanently. There were lots of parties, lots of painting, lots of hiking in the woods, solitary days and quieter nights, more travel from beaches to jungles to forests and snow. This, that, then something else. I met lots of people. There was yoga and meditation, more parties, more travel, another thing and another thing and another thing. Lots and lots and lots of painting and drawing, and, eventually, I was in California rather regularly and eventually SoCal caught me and I met this girl and we got married and, however many years later, here I am.

I truly feel that a great painting is not painted with concepts and rigorous research but is instead painted with experiences and we all who create bring to the table the sum total of all of our feelings and sensations that we have ever felt. I never had anyone tell me how to paint. I taught myself. I studied old masters. I studied not-so-old masters. I went out and practiced seeing. I sat alone on hillsides for hours just looking at the light. I tasted horizons and studied gradations. I looked inside my mind and studied light and poked it and prodded it and pushed through it. I learned to apply what I saw to my work. I got it wrong. I did it again. I got it wrong. I did it again. I got a bit better. I did it again. And on and on and on. Until now.

I paint. I love to paint. Some of my highest most sublime moments have been had while painting. Painting, not a methodology or an academy, not a who’s who of name-dropping – Painting is the path. How do you make truly great art? Simply by practice- every day, every night, in your mind, in your life, and on the canvas.

I’ll tell you where the four winds dwell,
In Franklin’s tower there hangs a bell,
It can ring, turn night to day,
It can ring like fire when you loose your way.

– Robert Hunter

It’s all about ringing that bell and that bell – THAT is what I am here for.

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