“A New Perspective”
15″ x 22″
A collector of my work, Eben Pagan, commissioned me to paint a portrait of him in my style. I don’t do a lot of portraiture so I enlisted Violet’s help and we worked together on this painting. She is more adept at creating from real life than I am. In that way, we tend to meet in the middle as my approach generally builds up from abstraction.
Eben is quite a thinker, parsing different ideas and concepts through his mind in a really brilliant manner. The resulting piece is intended to portray the lens of the mind contemplating a flower and the various ideas and associations around that- colors, shapes, etc. He loves the blues in my work and had requested that I stay within that spectrum, so it was a good piece to paint in tandem with “Only Love Can (Reign Over Me)”.
His response? “I hope I can live up to this vision you’ve painted of me.”
Interested in discussing a portrait? Contact Me
A preliminary word first: this is a sensitive and vulnerable post, and you should know in case you have sensitive vulnerabilities of your own that some challenging topics are discussed. But lest you think I betray her confidence and expose her innards without concern, this was written with consent and in conjunction with Violet. The best remedy for shadow is to bring it into light.
I began this painting in September 2017 and called it finished in March 2018. At the time I began it, the blues and clear focus felt like a good next step following “A Transitive Nightfall of Diamonds”. But then the fires hit all around us (we live a couple hours north of San Francisco) and our air was awash in smoke, the light was ever orange-gold, and everything was on edge and chaotic and burning. Suddenly cool blue didn’t seem appropriate even if it felt trite to say so.
At the time, too, we’d taken in a bunch of cats that our neighbors abandoned when they moved a few weeks before. One of those cats, Mu, who Violet had rather fallen in love with, was seized by our neighbor’s dog and killed. They both – the cat and the neighbor’s dog – somehow got into a fenced off portion of our yards that we powerless to access, but it all happened right in front of us. It was brutal. This would be in and of itself rather tragic, but she had already been in the trenches of grief and depression. There had been a lot of loss in her life recently and it’d been building, draining, challenging: Four very close family members and a friend all within a year or so, all in tragic ways. This sweet new kitty had been a bright spot of hope, and his violent death rocked an already distressed boat and she tumbled even deeper.
Meanwhile, the painting was on the proverbial back burner, but prominent on the wall of my studio. I kept looking at it: this messy and incomplete vision of beauty that seemed so distant and burdened. This sense of wonder was surrounded by despair.
Everything hurt all the time.
Yet, I kept seeing – or trying to see – this painting as her in one of her highest forms. She sat for my reference photos, after all, as she frequently does, even though it’s never really the intention to paint her specifically. Violet is a powerful woman, this amazing force in my world. She has a wonderful way of seeing everything all at once like no one else can. And she can take it all in and find relationships, memorize moments, and she manages it pretty well, for the most part. So we’d have our arguments as all couples do and it’d be this pool of sad and I’d come back to this painting that didn’t even seem to be about anything anymore. It was supposed to be a vision of clarity yet everything felt so unclear. So raw and vulnerable. Nothing made sense.
For me, it felt overwhelming – all these responsibilities (mundane things like mortgage and bills but also the person who is keeping things moving forwards. The one whose “turn” it is to be UP) and desires (personal goals and dreams and needing inspiration but also in business or love or spirit) and emotions (and all the rest) (not to mention the general state of the world) (gah!). All the while, Violet struggled through this ever deepening pit of despair while I was left simply trying to stay afloat.
Through all that, I wanted to build this beautiful vision for her so that when she looked at it she saw some aspect of herself. She’d modeled for my original photos after all. I wanted it to inspire her the way she inspires me.
You see, the paintings I make create a backdrop to our lives – these ordinary and yet extraordinary lives that we lead. They reflect it all back and become points of departure, growth, and intimacy. It was challenging sometimes to go back to this painting when there’d be strife or despair and I’d be left feeling like I’m wringing light from painted diamonds.
And so that became this painting: it is simply me lifting her, you – all of us – up as best I can to the highest vision where we’re left without form in a space of light reflecting light.
Looking for a title, I’d been calling it “Rain” for a long time, referring to it as “That Rain Painting,” Violet had used the word “Reign” at one point in our seemingly never-ending discussions of titles, and I recalled ‘Love Reign O’er Me’ – a song by The Who – and though I’ve not been much of a fan or follower of The Who, I found this bit of writing from Pete Townshend regarding the song in the context of the album to be relevant:
“Love Reign O’er Me refers to Meher Baba’s one time comment that rain was a blessing from God; that thunder was God’s Voice. It’s another plea to drown, only this time in the rain. Jimmy goes through a suicide crisis. He surrenders to the inevitable, and you know, you know, when it’s over and he goes back to town he’ll be going through the same shit, being in the same terrible family situation and so on, but he’s moved up a level. He’s weak still, but there’s a strength in that weakness. He’s in danger of maturing.” – Pete Townshend (From the liner notes of Quadrophenia)
Going back to October, November, I was having conversations with Violet about her ruminations on suicide. She’s no stranger to it, having lost her best friend and first love that way when she was young, and then just recently her closest cousin in July. Depression is so very real and they were heartbreaking conversations. Conversations that left, in the back of my mind, a lingering worry of leaving her alone for too long. It is frightening. It was all the work I could do to stay focused. Committed. Moving forwards. Staying on top of the bits and pieces of our business, our home, our lives and also maintaining some creative flow and focus.
I suppose there was a moment – perhaps for each of us – between one maelstrom and the next – it’s like the eye of the storm – the pause of the pendulum – when everything is still and perfect – everything is floating, falling, cascading – frozen – you stop going in one direction and decide to go in another – it’s a sleet of diamond daggers and you’re on fire and your head is exploding but in that moment everything is perfectly balanced, in sync, and in a moment’s time the light passes through it and you hear that note, that melody, that reminder and in that moment we catch our breath, we lift our heads, we open our eyes again and say I AM. Here, I am.
In those crystalline moments of realization, when we see everything so clearly – when it’s all just light and shadow, contrasts weaving in and out of each other, ebbing and flowing together – there it is; there is life. We can keep our heads hung low but, really, I think, it’s love that anchors us, makes us look up, that causes us to open our eyes. To see. I think that only love can do that and it is some spark within us – this unquenchable fire – that is ignited again. And again. And again.
I wonder if anyone at an art show in 1900 said “O, look, ANOTHER painting of a woman at a bar.” There’s SO many paintings of a woman at a bar. Woman drinking at a bar. Woman sitting at a table near a bar. Then, sometime in 1945, Max Ernst comes along and says, “Hold my absinthe” and he paints ‘The Cocktail Drinker.”
The reason I mention this is you might look out on the artistic landscape and say: o another profile of a face, another soup of abstraction, another… and so on. But these paintings become the visual language of our current times. Out of those, arise a few particularly noteworthy pieces and we use those in the future to guide our understandings of ourselves.
In the case of ‘another painting of a woman at the bar’ we have Manet’s “A Bar at the Folies-Bergère”:
Renoir’s “Moulin de la Gallete”:
Gauguin’s “Night Café at Arles”:
Don’t forget Van Gogh’s “Agostina Segatori Sitting in the Café du Tambourin”:
And so on. You get the point. It’s a motif of the time. What is the time we live in today? What do we try to understand through our art, our repetitions, our motifs and visual languages? This is what gets asked fifty, a hundred years down the road. This is the ever evolving story of art.
“Yesterday I resumed work. It’s the best way to avoid thinking of these sad times. All the same, I feel ashamed to think about my little researches into form and colour while so many people are suffering and dying…”
– Claude Monet. 1914. While working on his water lilies paintings during World War I.
I feel like this sometimes. There’s so much going on. There’s this endless stream of chaos beating down my door. Who am I to turn my back on this issue or that issue and “resume my little researches into form and colour” while so much pain and suffering exists. Maybe it’s the fact that joy CAN exist side by side with the pain.
WWI raged on outside his door with troops marching to the trenches and cannons and explosions in the distance. He turned back to these canvases, toiling away on what must have alternately seemed like a retreat, an excuse, a guilty pleasure, a creative drive.
I feel this way sometimes: these lines, curves, visions, ideas… They speak to and of the current times. They are informed by it and offer inspiration. Art is a vital part of our human experience and that creative drive of expression is inherent in our existence. It’s found in every culture, every tradition: the desire to make beautiful, to make special, to create some mirror of ourselves in the world around us. Yet, while the wars, the protests, the heart ache rages on, our little studies, our tidy pictures, can seem frivolous.
There is no end to the ugly, though. If we don’t create the beautiful, then what are we left with? So I keep at it. And, if you are a creator, I urge you to keep at it too.
Read more about Monet here: Wartime water lilies: how Monet created his garden at Giverny
When you decide to be a painter – and I mean the painterly sort who is rendering shapes and objects and emotions – I think it’s important to always remember that you aren’t merely painting a representation of the thing, you are painting THE thing. It’s not a cloud. It’s all your feelings and ideas and archetypes of clouds. It’s not a leaf, it’s how the leaf feels and where it resides in your world. A successful painting has not only the subjects arranged and objects properly rendered according to your style and taste, but most importantly it captures the feeling, the sensation those objects and subjects are intended to evoke. For me, it always comes back to ‘but how does it FEEL?’ and I work outwards from there. I think the second mark of success of an artwork is that others can feel it too, without words or explanation. Then I feel we’ve really accomplished something.
The trick – the secret – to being a successful artist is that – and I’m going to tell you right in the beginning and not make you wade through pages of text and links – and that’s good because no one has time for that because the secret of artists everywhere of all kinds and shapes and sizes is that, first and foremost, you have to MAKE art.
And keep making art.
And follow the thread of your art making to the nth possible degree of beauty and craft and expression. And then follow it further. You have to make art even when you’re tired and want to do something else. You have to make art even if you feel you don’t have anything left to say. You have to make art even when you don’t feel like making art (which is more often than most artists want to admit). You have to make it and make more of it. You have to find a new facet, and a new facet, and a new facet. You have to keep practicing. Keep making. Keep working. Keep doing. This is how you become successful at anything. This is how you become a successful artist.
However, what a ‘successful’ artist is, is up for debate. Does it mean getting to make art as your sole occupation? Having all your bills paid? Having your name in lights? Recognition? Fame? Comfort?
I believe that success is getting to make your art simply because that is what you do in the world. It is an ever unfolding journey. And it is a journey which every artist undertakes.
To be an artist is to be a storyteller. Artists are, in one form or another, telling a story with their creations. Even the artist who vehemently denies any story at all – I’m just making art for art’s sake! – is still a story teller since that, too, is just another story.
The purpose of the storyteller in our world has always been, I think, to reflect back to us some aspect of our humanity so that we can better understand ourselves. We tell each other stories of grief, joy, pain, heartache, and connection. Perhaps the sharing of these experiences is comforting. Reading the journeys of others, seeing the visual expression of another’s personal journey helps us feel less alone. Or, perhaps, it jars us towards a solution in our own lives to issues we ourselves face.
I think about these things as I create. What’s the story behind a line or a curve. How is it feeling? What’s it doing there, really? What’s it saying or singing or screaming? It’s not necessarily part of some complex narrative. It’s not like eveyr moment is so richly symbolic that the barest line has a novel attached to it. Maybe it’s just deflecting the momentum of another line or it’s breaking a shade of blue like a sudden pause in the visual flow. The line is always just a line but it’s a line in relationship to all the other lines and gradients on the canvas and, at that, it’s in relationship to the driving momentum of the piece as a whole.
For me, the main thrust of any story I build a painting upon is the emotional impact. I do my best to cut out the wordiness of my own personal story of what might symbolize what and instead work with the gut feeling of the piece. How that connects with where I’m at and what I’m doing or seeing in the world is what I want to draw from. That viscerality and the archetypal narrative that it’s joined with is at the heart of all our human experiences and it’s from that place, I think, that we often find our most honest expressions.
Sometimes though, I want to put down the brush and the painterliness and the seriousness of my work and play elsewhere. Which brings us to last week when I was planning to show some art at the Edwardian Ball in San Francisco. Violet suggested I make some drawings special for the event that fit with the Edwardian/Steampunk motif of the evening.
Here is where my own personal storyteller comes to the forefront and I can give it an extra bit of space to go ahead and make a story up. How about a hot air balloon over a raging ocean? Maybe a lady at a bar inside a dirigible saying “Charmed, I’m sure” to someone off-paper. In each of these drawings I wanted to create a little visual vignette of a story. What is the movement? Where are they going? What are they doing when the abstract becomes form? And what does it feel like at that moment?
These too are a part of my story as an artist. Enjoy.
“Sometimes when I don’t post enough progress shots, people begin to say I’ve lost it– Maura is washed up. This is never the case. I work diligently, every day, motherf***ers.”
Some time back, I came to a pivot point in my work and my understanding of the well from which I draw my inspiration.
I look back at the artist who I was, 24, 26, 21 and I wonder: where was that work drawn from? How much is it the hubris of youth, the hedonism of my 20s, brain chemistry and music and movement pushed to the most nth degree I could perceive? Where did it come from? How much was the ego saying I AM.
This is true, I think, for so much great art. There is an excitement in the artistic youth that drives the discovery of the new and the exploration of this creative drive. It is a force that unlocks door after door of creative fires within.
Yet, as we get older and we have ten thousand burning flames within us, a deeper knowledge of our possibilities but also a distinct understanding of our limitations, we either pull back, stick to safe and solid ground or we push ahead and say ‘OK. What’s next?’
A few years back, I had a distinct moment of coming into my very present age (as in: I’m not 24) and truly understanding that the person who paints now is coming from a different place and a different perspective. While my patience has increased, my attention to detail refined, and so on, my awareness of the world around me has also grown. My awareness of my place in the world has expanded as well as my awareness of who I am and what I’m doing with my time here.
And, as time passes, the value of that time increases. With every painting, I examine ever deeper what I want to say, how I want to say it, and, most importantly, why. I’m fine with painting simply another beautiful painting but even that has to have a sense of purpose to it.
So I bend myself back to my work and toil onwards as I ever have. As I did when I was 21. As I do now that I’m 41. There is still music. There is still a pot of tea. There’s a cat now. A studio I can call my own. But the place I’m going hasn’t changed, only the sense of ‘going’. I found a spark when I was young that ignited a flame of inspiration that will burn for as long as I keep fanning it. And probably longer still: even when I feel ‘done’ it makes me rise again to keep working.
Sometimes tho, I release a new painting that is met with… meh. Just meh. O, it’s another painting, people say. As Maura said, people begin to think I’ve lost it, that I’m washed up. These thoughts are what every artist deals with all the time. And as I’ve gotten older, the desire to spend more time on each piece increases while the attention span of the masses seems to decrease and our multimedia extravaganzas are consumed in smaller and smaller bites – each moment seeming to bleed into the next ever quicker while my paintings take ever longer to create and, like a nice wine, ever so slightly longer to open up.
See, the older you get, as an artist, the more you realize you’re a part of something bigger than yourself. It is a dance, a conversation, a lineage, that has gone on long before you showed up on the scene and will continue long after you’ve signed your name to your last piece.
At some point, you realize you have a whole lifetime of actual work ahead of you. So, now, what’s the next painting going to be? And why. And what of the next? Or the next? And so on. How will you stay inspired?
It is up to you, up to me, up to ever artist to figure out how they will carry that precious flame of inspiration through it all so that, ten years from now, twenty, it burns ever brighter, ever stronger, ever more luminous.
To own an original painting is to have the original playing – the live perfect performance – of a song. I’ve met many a musician who has, in a painting I’ve made, seen a visual representation of a song, much as I’ve heard many a song and, in that song, heard an auditory journey of a particular image.
Imagine if you could own Jimi Hendrix’s “Axis”. Or Beethoven’s 5th. Or Miles Davis’ “Agartha”. And so on. Each canvas print of a painting is like the perfect and pristine vinyl recording. The paper prints and posters are good quality CDs and, finally, you have your variable-kbps mp3s floating around on the web.
So just imagine: each guitar lick and hi-hat and cymbal crash, each thrum of bass or plunk of a piano by a human hand is each of those brushstrokes.
A great painting is like a symphony. There’s entire cavalcades of sound – entire violin sections roaring across the yellow sky over a horizon of great bassoon and oboes resounding through the purples. A penny whistle sparkles across the crystalline golden whites and, for a moment, that lead violin is the sinewy line drawing it all together. And the artist crafts each of those violins. Each oboe and oboe player. Each note has to be played in a final perfect harmony.
This is why original art – that final finished piece – that one and perfect singular canvas – ends up with so much value. Like the recorded song, we can replay it a thousand or million times through countless means of recreation but there’s only one original moment where careful little nuances were breathed into each brushstroke to make the painting.
People say ‘why get the painting when the print is so much cheaper.’ This is a true fact. Just as the mp3 version is much cheaper than having the band play at your house where you can experience the raw entirety of the sensation of that SONG, so is the painting. So is the painting. If you decide to take part in that relationship, consider this: you’re helping to bring these songs, these performances of art, into the world. By supporting the arts you are enriching the cultural experiences of others as well as yourself.
This immediacy and connection to the moment is what gives art – and especially great art – its value. It is the intangible NOWNESS of it. The greatest art echoes our human archetypal experiences and mixes them with the constant exploration of our perception of the experience coupled with all the set and setting of the moment – the politics and world views and financial considerations and environmental conditions and so on. It’s all wrapped into that vision. And out of it… out if it arises “what it looks like.” Or feels like or sounds like in that now.
It is my task to offer you, as least from my own perspective, what it looks like. This is why, to me, an artist is really just a scribe. I’m here to take notes. To be open. To be a channel. To see what comes through me. It’s terrifying and tragic. It’s blissfully beautiful. It’s heart breaking and mystifying. It’s mystically enthralling. And, like the musician, I have to choose a note, a color, a line. I do my best to find the right note, the perfect color, that precise line, and that feeling. The feeling and the reason and the intention and the moment that I, Michael Divine, want to sign my name to.
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