Category Archives: Creative Process

Diebenkorn

Diebenkorn --Portrait by Rose Mandel 1956

Diebenkorn –Portrait by Rose Mandel 1956

My wife and I are standing in San Francisco’s de Young Museum about to enter an art exhibit. The man looking out at us from the short film we are watching is Richard Diebenkorn. I want you to think of Salvadore Dali, his extravagance, the wild mustache, the publicity seeking; now think of Dali’s exact opposite. That man is Richard Diebenkorn. He is tall, lanky, well-spoken in a quiet voice, a voice that is somewhat shy. He is in his studio dressed in a button down shirt and corduroy slacks. He is wary of the fixed gaze of the camera. His voice often pauses as he carefully chooses his words. There is sometimes a hint of a shy smile. He is a quiet man. A man who does not desire the public eye, a man of regular habits who seeks his adventure with each painting he makes. And there is one other thing to mention. Despite the lack of showmanship or self aggrandizement he is one of the premier American painters of the second half of the twentieth century. A painter whose works evoke the light and spaces of California. He is an artist who remained true to his vision regardless of where it took him.

Beside us, printed on the wall, is the following note found among his papers after his death:

Notes to myself on beginning a painting

1. Attempt what is not certain. Certainty may or may not come later. It may then be a valuable delusion.
2. The pretty, initial position which falls short of completeness is not to be valued — except as a stimulus for further moves.
3. Do search. But in order to find other than what is searched for.
4. Use and respond to the initial fresh qualities but consider them absolutely expendable.
5. Don’t “discover” a subject — of any kind.
6. Somehow don’t be bored — but if you must, use it in action. Use its destructive potential.
7. Mistakes can’t be erased but they move you from your present position.
8. Keep thinking about Pollyanna.
9. Tolerate chaos.
10. Be careful only in a perverse way.

Sad to say, it is almost an accident that we are there at all and I cringe to think we might have missed such a wonderful presentation of this artists early work.

Our visit to the de Young was something of a consolation prize. We’d planned on visiting The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, but found it was closed for renovation. Okay, we thought, the de Young has an excellent collection of American Art, so why not have a look at some of the iconic paintings from American art history. It was a vague plan but it was a plan. There was, of course, that Diebenkorn exhibit going on, we’d read about that, but it covered his time in Berkeley and ended before the great Ocean Park paintings he made in Santa Monica. I was inclined to take a pass. Deb was inclined to see it. We bought tickets and went in.

Richard Diebenkorn was artistically restless and was always very much his own man. He’d briefly tried New York in the 1940’s where he was heavily influenced by the Abstract Expressionists, but he soon fled west. “If you’re there,” he said, “you get all involved in the moment, in the issues that are always present but don’t really mean all that much. I like having had to rely on my own resources, although it seemed pretty desolate occasionally.”

Beginning as a committed Abstract Expressionist, the evolution of Diebenkorn’s work during the Berkeley years unfolds as one passes through the exhibition.

I find a representational element in the paintings of the 1950’s after the pure abstraction of the late 1940’s, as if the essence of the world around him is now being distilled for the canvas. “All paintings,” Diebenkorn said, “start out of a mood, out of a relationship with things or people, out of a complete visual impression.” The California light is there, the browns of the California landscape, and the pastel blues of the sky. In a similar way, I find an abstract element in even his much more representational work of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s.

Some critics thought Diebenkorn’s work was erratic, some called him a ‘traitor’ to Abstract Expressionism, and some simply dismissed him as no longer of being of interest. Diebenkorn had a much calmer view of the matter. “Abstract,” he said, “literally means to draw from or separate. In this sense every artist is abstract… a realistic or non-objective approach makes no difference. The result is what counts.” Timothy Burgard, the curator of the de Young, believes that Diebenkorn’s paintings always hovered between abstraction and depiction, a quality he called ‘oscillation’ and that he believes can be seen throughout the work in the exhibition. Diebenkorn has said that he turned his back on abstract painting because it became too easy for him. He needed the constraints that representation placed on him as something to struggle against.

After seeing the paintings for myself, I prefer to take Diebenkorn’s view of his evolution. “I was never throwing things away when I switched from one way of painting to another. You can see a continuum from representation to abstraction, although I must say it never felt like a smooth transition while I was in the middle of it.”

It is at this point in Diebenkorn’s career, 1966, that the exhibition at the de Young ends. In addition to the many paintings there are figure drawings. Diebenkorn worked from the live model for virtually his whole career, though he mainly saw it as a form of training. There are also various serigraphs and prints. It is wonderful work. For most artists it would have made a grand career. When Deb came out of the exhibition she was so moved by what she had seen she simply went off to take some time for reflection.

“I was never throwing things away when I switched from one way of painting to another. You can see a continuum from representation to abstraction, although I must say it never felt like a smooth transition while I was in the middle of it.”

Though I meant to write only about this particular experience at the de Young Museum, I find it impossible to neglect what came next for this artist. The exhibition may end with the year 1966, but Diebenkorn’s work most certainly did not. In that year he and his wife, Phyllis, moved from San Francisco so he could take up a teaching position at UCLA. For the next twenty-five years he returned to nonrepresentational art, painting hundreds of abstractions, many of which comprise the sublime geometry of the “Ocean Park” series, so named because he maintained a studio for many years in the Ocean Park section of Santa Monica. After the years away from pure abstract painting his return is that of an artist of consummate mastery. A comparison of “Sausalito #3” painted in all its frantic energy in 1948 with the equally abstract “Ocean Park #129” and its suppressed energy beneath an outward calm speaks volumes about the distance traveled by this great painter.

And finally, in the very last years of his life,

Untitled #7 1991

Untitled #7 1991

The New York Times wrote upon his death in 1993, “From the beginning of his career, in the late 1940’s, he won admirers and exhibited widely. But the distance, both physical and psychological, that he maintained from New York tended to put him out of step with art-world fashion, and it caused either consternation or indifference in many critics. When Abstract Expressionism was ascendant in New York in the 1950’s, Mr. Diebenkorn switched from abstraction to figuration. When Pop Art made figuration fashionable in the 1960’s, he switched back to abstraction.”

Well, that’s true as far as it goes. But I see a different story playing out. I see a restless quest by a quiet man for a purity of expression that few us even know exists. The Ocean Park paintings are the magnificent culmination of this quest begun so many years before. Perhaps it is best to give Mr. Diebenkorn himself the last words:

“If what a person makes is completely and profoundly right according to his lights then this work contains the whole man. A work which falls short of this content, is only of passing value and lends itself to arbitrariness and fragmentation.”

For an audio interview with Richard Diebenkorn, visit:  Diebenkorn Interview

It is a long interview and it gets off to a slow (boring) start but becomes very interesting as Diebenkorn explains his life and work in his own words. He was a precise and articulate man who was quite self aware. It’s worth the listening.

Other quotes from Richard Diebenkorn on the artistic process:

I don’t go into the studio with the idea of ‘saying’ something. What I do is face the blank canvas and put a few arbitrary marks on it that start me on some sort of dialogue.

I came to mistrust my desire to explode the picture and supercharge it in some way… what is more important is a feeling of strength in reserve – tension beneath calm.

When I am halfway there with a painting, it can occasionally be thrilling… But it happens very rarely; usually it’s agony… I go to great pains to mask the agony. But the struggle is there. It’s the invisible enemy.

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Copyright 2013  James Tucker

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New York Times Magazine Photographs Exhibition

 

 

mcginley-mia-1

Ryan McGinley– MIA

 

“New York Times Photographs,” opened at The Hunter Museum of American Art in Chattanooga, TN on November 28, 2014 and runs through March 22, 2015. A shorter version of this article appeared as the cover story in The Chattanooga Pulse, December 4, 2014.

“New York Times Magazine Photographs”, appearing at the Hunter Museum of American Art in Chattanooga,  engages the viewer with images of startling power and originality. Curated by New York Times photo editor Kathy Ryan and organized by Aperture Foundation’s Lesley A. Martin, this exhibition explores work published by the magazine during the last fifteen years.  Over 100 photos taken by 35 photographers are organized into thirteen sections that reveal the surprising range of creative expression possible with the camera. The finest photographers from around the world explore subjects as diverse as the humanitarian crisis in Darfur, the world of high fashion, the Olympics, the war in Iraq, and celebrity portraiture. Their photo-essays invariably display the New York Times Magazine’s willingness to push beyond convention and seek a fresh viewpoint.

“To me, the process where a photographer visualizes a subject and the creative way a painter reimagines a subject just aren’t all that different. I don’t see them as two separate things.”

–Hunter Museum chief curator, Nandini Makrandi. 

Thanks to the creativity of the photographers, the camera’s expressive potential is readily apparent. However, if the photography of these modern masters is individual in its vision, photojournalism itself is a corporate process. A unique feature of this exhibition is the way it documents how the photo-essays seen in the Magazine come into being, how photographers are chosen for assignments, and how, through careful selection and thoughtful presentation, a visual story is honed by the Magazine editors.  We see not only published photos, but also the many that did not make the editorial cut. Tearsheets show how the photos that ran in the Magazine actually looked in print.  As Nandini Makrandi points out, “Normally those editorial decisions are hidden, but in this exhibit they are brought out for the viewer’s consideration.”

An examination of some of the photographs in the exhibition will serve to illustrate how the willingness of the Magazine’s editor to take chances often results in images that are unforgettable.

For over forty years, the legendary Brazilian photographer and environmentalist, Sebastiao Salgado, has documented the lives of people all over the world with powerful black and white images.  In 1991, with the U.S. and its allies about to invade Kuwait, he anticipated events, calling Kathy Ryan the day the war began to ask if he could document the environmental devastation he was sure would occur. Hurrying to the Mideast, he waited on the Kuwaiti border, as the New York Times frantically pressed authorities to allow him access to the oil fields.  Days later he witnessed an inferno—over 100 oil wells in flames and workers struggling heroically to stem the disaster.

Salgado--Kuwaiti Inferno (cover)

Salgado–Kuwaiti Inferno (cover) 1991

Petrole Kuwait p24-25

Salgado–Kuwaiti Inferno 1991

Salgado’s black and white photos are elemental in their grim power, expressing the desperate struggle of exhausted men taming the damaged wells. The classical visual compositions stand in striking juxtaposition with the battle being waged against the forces of chaos. Salgado presents us with a visual depiction of the ancient epic of human struggle against a hostile world, but sadly, he depicts a world made hostile by the madness of humans. It is a current event the photographer has raised to mythic status.

The photo-essay exploring and explaining current events has been a staple of the genre from its inception. The New York Times Magazine excels in this such long form reportage. For instance, in 2007 the magazine sent photographer Lynsey Addario and writer Elizabeth Rubin to the Afghanistan, embedded with the U.S. Army’s Battle Company of the 173 Airborne Brigade. The Battle Company soon became engaged in a 6 day mission to control Korengal Valley before the onset of winter.

Throughout the mission, which became a running battle with the Taliban, these courageous journalists documented the destruction and suffering they witnessed. Addario photographed these grim and desperate moments in color and at close range, giving her images the look of snapshots. It’s a quality that conveys a sense of  intimacy and immediacy–the sense that events are unfolding in real lives even as we read. Such an unblinking look at the specific moment raises her work toward the universal. These two veteran journalists, a writer and photographer, address in their work the humanity of all the participants: the warriors who fight and die as well as the civilians who suffer beside them.

In 1997, for a very different project, “Assignment: Times Square”, the magazine assembled a roster of 16 photographers, each of who could bring a very different eye and sensibility to the story. At that time, the Times Square neighborhood was on the edge of a complete transformation from its seedy past, and the editors wanted to capture a sense of the storied place. The resulting photo shoot produced an astonishing variety of images: city streets, buildings, portraits, and genre scenes.  Swedish photographer Lars Tunbjork’s photo of the buildings at the corner of 8th Avenue and 42nd Street is timeless. “Forty-Second Street at the time was a strange place,” writes Tunbjork, “with all the abandoned cinemas and porno palaces—like a big empty theater set. I took this picture on a sunny Sunday. I love sunny Sundays in New York; the air is clean, and the light is so crisp and hard. I thought of the paintings of Piet Mondrian when I saw these buildings and the strong colors.”

Lars Tunbjörk-- "42nd Street and Eighth Avenue", published May 18, 1997
Lars Tunbjörk– “42nd Street and Eighth Avenue”, published May 18, 1997

In addition to giving considerable creative control to its photographers, the New York Times Magazine’s Kathy Ryan also likes to do ‘cross-over’ assignments, asking photographers known for their deft handling of one subject to photograph something different. An example is shown in the assignment given to Roger Ballen.  Known for his dramatic and disturbing surreal images, Kathy Ryan chose him as a photographer for a fashion shoot. Ballen worked with actress Selma Blair to produce, “The Selma Blair Witch Project: Fall’s Dark Silhouette has a Way of Creeping Up on You.”  The photograph, “Resemblance”, at once creepy and funny, has Blair, dressed in designer clothing, inhabiting an image both enigmatic and psychologically charged. It is an revealing rumination on the nature of fashion. Stripped of its special environment of runways, supermodels, and fashion journalists, the designer clothes wilt and become rather ordinary in the utterly bizarre settings that Ballen conjures up.  Not surprisingly, Ballen noted, “I won an award for that fashion shoot but no one has asked me to do another one.”

Roger Ballen, Actress Selma Blair. From “The Selma Blair Witch Project-- Fall’s Dark Silhouettes Have a Way of Creeping Up on You,” 2005

Roger Ballen, Actress Selma Blair. From “The Selma Blair Witch Project– Fall’s Dark Silhouettes Have a Way of Creeping Up on You,” 2005

In yet another example of the Magazine’s creative thinking, assignments sometimes go to artists who are not photographers. Artist Chuck Close’s photos appear in ‘Assignment: Times Square’ and Jeff Koons, a sculptor, worked with actress Gretchen Mol to recreate Bettie Page images from the 1940s and 50s in which sexual fetish imagery is presented in vivid color and filtered through Koons’s tongue-in-cheek humor.

bigpaige

Jeff Koons–

 “When you’re looking at a Jeff Koons photograph,” says Nandini Makrandi, “you’re not necessarily looking for him to be a technically excellent photographer. The interest is in how he translates the vision he is known for into the medium of photography? Is his puckish sensibility and his sense of humor present in his images?” Koons presents the viewer with photographs in which eroticism blends into absurdity. The eye is caught by the garish color and provacative poses, only to have the response end in bemused laughter.

Why not send a veteran war photographer to photograph the Oscar-worthy actors one year? Or commission a gallery of Olympians by an artist with a very personal iconography, rather than by a sports photographer?

–New York Times Magazine photo editor, Kathy Ryan

Paolo Pelegrin’s work would hardly be called puckish.  The exhibition contains three photo-essays that Pelegrin has done for New York Times Magazine over the last fifteen years. We see his photography move from film to digital, but always his work has what Kathy Ryan has called “a poetic sensibility.” In his 2002 essay, “An Impossible Occupation,” he tells the story of a platoon of Israeli soldiers on duty in Palestinian territory. His 2004 photos in “How Did Darfur Happen?” explored a humanitarian crisis. “The Exodus” from 2009, documents the flight of Libyans across the border into Tunisia and displays his ability to deal with large events in terms that are both immediate and empathetic.

However, true to her inclination to offer photographer cross-over assignments, Ryan asked Pelegrin to photograph Hollywood celebrities for the magazine’s article on in the the yearly run up to the Oscars. Pelegrin’s images are not what a viewer has grown used to in such stories. They portray the famous in mundane moments. And taking it even farther, he often imposes jarring compositions on his images or skewed camera angles. They are visual devices that draw attention to the artifice of the celebrity life by isolating moments when artifice has failed. No words can explain this approach better than simply comparing the photos of Cate Blanchette by Pelegrin and Rincke Dijkstra. If Dijkstra’s image gives us a sense of  the fragility of the celebrity’s world, Pelegrin shows us the unflattering private preparation that must precede the public moment.

Rincke Dijkstra–Cate Blanchett

 

The brilliant young photographer, Ryan McGinley, had previously worked with subjects such as skateboarders, musicians, and graffiti artists. His assignment to photograph Olympians was a challenge to transcend the banal.  His talent combined with the resources provided by Kathy Ryan created images of lasting beauty.

One of the fun examples of cross-assigning can be found in the Olympic portfolios Ryan McGinley has done.” 

–New York Times Magazine photo editor, Kathy Ryan

The Magazine contracted with the design team of Rodarte to provide special outfits for the athletes. McGinley came up with unique camera angles and compositions. Thousands of photographs were taken, and a visual story evolved that goes far beyond appearances to reveal the very essence of what these uniquely trained people are. In his incredible photo of the free-style skier, Emily Cook, McGinley captures a moment in the performance of a sport that routinely sends skiers soaring into the sky; so Emily Cook is shot against the sky, soaring into the sky, becoming the sky. She defies physical laws, hovering as an ethereal being above the common world below. It is a visual manifestation of how she feels at that very second. It is a glorious moment in the art of the camera.

Copyright 2014  James Tucker

Ryan McGinley, Emily Cook, 2010 Olympic freestyle skier (aerials). From “Up!,” published February 7, 2010 (cover image).

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Things Like That Just Happen in a College Town


Pen & Ink--Ivy
Pen & Ink sketch 2/11/2010

I was fresh out of the University of Georgia and trying to make a buck or two while the future figured out what it was going to do with me. In a quixotic attempt to survive as a freelance commercial artist, I’d done a drawing for a guy who was trying to talk another guy into building a greenhouse. It was an architectural rendering of sorts for which, if my memory is correct, I was paid in beer. Sort of gives you an idea of how things were going with my career at that point. However, as fate would have it, that drawing was seen by two other guys who ran a stereo shop. They approached me about doing some pen & ink drawings for a new sales flyer. The previous ones had been done by someone with a pretty good pen & ink technique, but he had moved away, disappeared, vanished. Things like that just happen in a college town. So the owners showed me some of his work and asked me if I could draw like that. “Sure, how many you want?” I said, and we struck a deal. I’d make a couple of drawings and they would decide if I got the rest of the job. Either way I got paid for the trial run—and not in beer. It was a good deal for everyone.

But of course I was lying.

It isn’t easy to get ahead when you’re young and short on experience. Sometimes a certain mangling of the truth is necessary because the questions you get asked are usually wrong. They ask if you know how to do something. They should ask if you could figure out how to do it. I like to think I wasn’t lying so much as re-imagining their question. In the years since, through several professional reincarnations, I’ve learned an important truth. Most jobs don’t require much more than a willingness on someone’s part to do them. I suppose I’d want a surgeon to be telling the truth about medical school, and an airline pilot shouldn’t try on-the-job training, but most jobs? Hell, you just fake it for a few days until you get the hang of it and you’re in. Management provides almost limitless opportunities for this approach. In the case at hand, the truth was I didn’t have any pen & ink technique. And the truth wasn’t going to get me the job.

So I started the whole project from scratch.  I went out and bought a pen, some nibs, ink, and a type of paper a friend recommended. I had some of the drawings made by my predecessor that the stereo guys had left with me, so I sat down in my apartment and began to draw various objects a la stereo sales flyer.

As I worked, I noticed some things about the other guy’s drawings. They were fairly large, larger than they would be when reproduced, which would tend to hide small errors when reduced for publication. Though he didn’t get carried away with it, he wasn’t afraid to correct now and then with Wite-Out. Finally, he kept his drawings rather simple and uncluttered by unnecessary detail. His work was compact and to the point—sort of a Sgt. Joe Friday, “Just the facts, ma’am” approach.

After a few days practice, the time came to show the my possible employers what I could do. The stereo guys gave me a desk in an office above their shop, brought in a turntable and a tape deck (that dates the story, doesn’t it?), and I made ink drawings of them. At the end of the day the owners had two drawings and I had a job.

I worked off and on for a couple of weeks doing the drawings and they were happy and I was happy. Recently, going through an old moth eaten portfolio, I found two of those drawings. I make no claims for them other than I got paid, and naturally they aren’t at all like what I do today.

Stereo setBang & Olafson receiver

I tell you this little story because, as always, there were unintended consequences. The stereo guys ended up hiring me to sell equipment for them, which meant a steady paycheck for a while. Much more important, over those few weeks I fell in love with pen & ink. I’ve been working in that technique, usually on my own time, ever since. I never tire of its dramatic tonalities and the discipline the pen requires. It’s what I imagine acting would be like with a minimalist set design, or singing a cappella. And of course, when you show your drawings in a gallery there’s no using Wite-Out.

The shop owners later told me that they had approached another artist to do the drawings before they came to me. This artist said she would send around some work for them to review. A week or so later they got a drawing of a nude woman lying next to a stereo speaker, her legs spread, with musical notes coming from her vagina. When they told me that, I didn’t know quite what to say. I suppose if you’ve re-imagined the truth to get a job, it helps that the competition has traumatized the buyers.

But things like that just happen in a college town.

Copyright 2013  James Tucker

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An Anatomy of a Pen & Ink

I like making pen & ink drawings.  I fell in love with pen & ink a long time ago and can’t see giving it up any time soon.  You can find the story of my early days working in pen & ink elsewhere on this website in,  Things Like That Just Happen in a College Town

What follows in this essay is a description of how I went about making the ink drawing “The Wayfarer II”. To those who are not artists it may offer a chance to see what goes on prior to the presentation of the finished artwork on a gallery wall, rather like attending rehearsals for a play.  However, please don’t think mine is the only way, or even the best way, to go about the development process. It is my way and that’s all I can offer. I took photos periodically as I worked on the drawing, and those, along with an explanation of what is going on, should give some idea of how I proceed from idea to finished artwork.

To start, here are a few other examples of my work in this medium:

Gallery I of recent ink drawings

As an artist I tend to think in terms of tonality and have never been bothered by the lack of color in monochromatic artwork. Of course ink drawings need hardly be monochromatic. If color is what drives your world, inks are now made in a dizzying array of hues, but as for me, black ink against white paper is good enough to realize my goals for many subjects. Pen & ink is a simple medium, a challenging medium, and one that encourages a thoughtful approach to its limited means. When you add the subtle grays possible with ink wash drawing, the creative possibilities are near limitless.

As for me, black ink against white paper is good enough…

The Wayfarer (crop)

“The Wayfarer 1” 9×7 Acrylic on D’arches CP– Private Collection

The pen & ink drawing I’ll be discussing has its origins as part of a series meant to evoke the loneliness of the traveler. I’ve traveled a good deal over the years, and it can be an emotionally solitary experience. People move about, boarding planes and trains, lost in their own private worlds, dwelling in a space apart. While in Montreal with my wife, Deb, we hiked (really it’s just a walk) to the top of Mont Royale where we found a large visitor pavilion. The October day was somewhat brisk, and we each got a cup of hot chocolate to take outside and drink while we enjoyed the view. As I waited on Deb to get her cup, I looked around the large building, likely constructed 70 or 80 years ago, and noticed small groups of people gathered at tables here and there, overwhelmed by the vast space. Struck by how much the place reminded me of an old train station, I snapped some quick photos before we went off to sit on the terrace with our warm drinks watching our fellow tourists puff their way up the pathway.

Reference photos for drawing

When we got home, I eventually went through the photos taken at the pavilion and selected a few to work with. None of them was well composed (my wife is the photographer in the family), but they all evoked for me a sense of the lonely, emptiness of a large train station.

Though the majority of the pieces planned for the “Wayfarer” series were to be smallish paper-based paintings, it just felt right to do this one in pen & ink. I can’t tell you why. Sometimes a subject just seems to call out for a certain treatment, and once you get that into your head, you just can’t see it any other way. I also made a decision early on to make the drawing relatively large, influenced, perhaps, by the space that inspired it.

Using elements from the photos, I made some quick compositional sketches. From these, I then worked up a preliminary drawing, something I don’t always do. There is often a great deal of charm in work done quickly without a lot of preplanning. However, this drawing would be too delicate in its tonal and compositional relationships to be approached that way. Work like this needs to be carefully thought out. Besides, my studio is a long way from Montreal, and I only have a few quickie photos to work from.

For other comments on the shaping of raw visual material into art, see: Frank Wilson’s Pasture

Here is my preliminary drawing.

Study for Wayfarer II

Study for “Wayfarer II”

Looking at this photo made from my sketchbook, you’ll notice lots of notes in the margins and even on the drawing itself. After I complete an acceptable preliminary drawing, I prop it up where I can see it and work on something else for a while. It takes time to see things objectively. Each day, as I move around the studio, the number of marginal notes grows as I notice little problems, consider alterations, or come up with improvements. Notes are better than changes to the drawing because they allow me to remember what I wanted to change without getting the preliminary all muddied up with corrections. And these notes are important, because I’ll be working from this preliminary realization of the subject as I do the final drawing.

The need for the fairly detailed study arises from other considerations as well. Since I’ll be using stark blacks in the foreground, the drawing needs to be satisfying. I don’t want the viewer’s eye to stop at one of the chairs and wonder if the drawing is correct or to get bogged down in a cluttered mass of lines. Further, there must be a good rhythm in the placement of the chairs so the viewer’s eye moves smoothly to the figure in the back (the star of our show). These are important issues, and the final drawing is not the place to figure any of them out. Granted, many of these considerations were dealt with in the compositional sketches that began the process, but they have now been realized in a semi-finished state that allows for a more thorough evaluation.

… the key to working with photos is to not work directly from photos.

I think the key to working with photos is to not work directly from photos. Art can be broadly defined as the communication of ideas or feelings by visual means. The problem with the camera is that the visual information it gives you still needs to be shaped and molded to the artist’s intent. When a photo achieves that state, it’s then art. That is why photographers are artists—they are capable of shaping the image both during the shoot and during editing, be that in the dark room or on a computer. But most photos (especially mine!) are just dumping grounds for visual information and must be used as the jumping off place to begin a piece of artwork. Preliminary drawings are where that editing process occurs for me. Elements need to be moved, or need to be cut, or need to be enhanced; in short, the visual material from the photo must be made to express my intentions. This mound of visual “facts” must be shaped to my goals. That’s why for me, poor quality photos are best to work from, because they force me away from imitation.

Wayfarer No 2- background 2

Beginning the final drawing

Above is the beginning of the piece. Since they are hard to see in the photo above, I’ll point out some of the differences between the preliminary drawing and the one in progress. In my early thinking, I had two groups of figures located at two different tables. However, by the time I made the preliminary drawing, I had reduced reduced this number to two people sitting at one table. Now I cut the less important figure out (note to new artists: improving composition almost always means cutting things out). Only the solitary traveler is left. The perspective has been subtly altered to further emphasize the empty chairs and the viewer’s distance from the figure. At this stage, the background is rather lighter than it is in the study and even lighter than it will be when I get finished, but I know that the chairs will be full strength black and I’ll have to balance the background with them, since I can’t do it the other way around. Lightening a large inked area is not practical, so I left enough tonal “wiggle room” to adjust it later. This approach also works with my intention to make the background shadows lighter and more nuanced in the final drawing.

Wayfarer No 2- foreground added -L

The foreground chairs are added

And now the foreground chairs are added. The tonal axis of the drawing will lie between the black of these chairs and the seated figure. My goal is to have the viewer’s eye thrust into the scene, and I’m using several means toward this end. The tonal axis shoots straight back to the traveler, the main chairs line up toward him, and the white of the windows and the grays of the wall frame him. That sense of thrust is something the preliminary study needed enhancing. In order to better judge if that effect is coming off, I’ve propped a frame on the drawing to give me a better sense of the pictorial space.

Wayfarer No 2- figure added -L

Adding the figure

The last key element in the composition, the seated traveler, is put in. This is the moment of truth. If the drawing works at this point I’ll finish it. Composition is the skeleton of any drawing or painting; it’s the foundation on which everything else rests. There are many things in an artwork that can be “fudged”, but if the composition, the elemental basis of the piece, is flawed, there’s not much help for it. Though much still needs to be done to this drawing, if it isn’t working at this point, I’ll rip it up and pour myself a whiskey. Maybe two. Tomorrow is another day.

However, I’m not unhappy with the drawing at this point, though there is still much work to be done. The shadows along the floor at the back wall have to be brought forward and softened. The old radiator behind the figure requires definition, and there are many small touches needed in the tables. There is also the matter of deepening the shadows on the back wall in order to bring that large area into a better tonal balance with the chairs.    Nevertheless, barring a really stupid decision on my part (and like all artists, I’ve had my share of those) the final drawing should be close to my intentions when I began it.

 

James Tucker-- Wayfarer (2) 15x22 Pen & Ink with watercolor wash (edit)

Final stage of “The Wayfarer II”

As in the preliminary drawing, I floated on a couple of watercolor washes, tinting the image to convey a sense of the cool autumnal light filtering through the large windows. Further, these washes set up one more juxtaposition—a warm/cool contrast of the red brown and the blue. The blue in this photo reads a bit stronger than is the case in the original but you should get a reasonable idea of the finished product.

So there it is. We’ve gone from hot chocolate in Montreal to a drawing made in Tennessee. And because I so like work done with pen & ink and in ink wash, I leave the reader with a gallery presenting a few more examples of the possibilities for this medium.

Copyright 2015  James Tucker

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The Amazing Mr. Turner

Turner_selfportrait

JMW Turner  (1775-1851)  Self-portrait (1799)

 Once some years ago, when I was roaming the stacks at the University of Georgia library, I was struck by the titles of two books shelved side by side. One was entitled The Pre-Raphaelite Tragedy; its companion announced The Pre-Raphaelite Comedy. Though I read neither book, the juxtaposition suggested there was something gone wrong about the Pre-Raphaelite movement, or the “Brotherhood” as they called themselves. At least I’ve always seen it that way. There is too much mere illustration going on combined with a reverence for the myths and ballads of the medieval world. It is a “Pugin-esque” fantasy that has little resonance for me. Still, as my knowledge of their art was based on what I’d seen in books, I felt I owed them a first hand look. Art must be seen in the original as it was intended to be seen, or it’s really not seen at all. That is why, in the fall of 2012, being in London, I found myself in at the Tate Britain, patiently shuffling past paintings by Rossetti, Millais, and Waterhouse, drifting in a human current of school children, tourists, and pensioners. As I moved through the crowded rooms looking at the Pre-Raphaelites with their decisive colors, crisp drawing, and faux-medieval splendor, I could not escape the realization that my relationship with the Brotherhood was not improving.

Art must be seen in the original, as it was intended to be seen, or it’s really not seen at all.

Slipping out of the exhibition, I made my way through the general collection to arrive with relief at the Turner Rooms. The amazing Mr. Turner is always a tonic for the eye. Turner dazzles. Turner is unique and demanding and a joy.

J. M. W. Turner was born in 1775 and had a long career ending only with his death in 1851. His production was continuous and prodigious. Beginning as a Romantic, he painted dramatically and even wrote a long epic (unfinished) poem entitled, “The Fallacy of Hope”. His work during this period would have established him as a great artist, but Turner continued to change, to grow, and finally challenged the very notion of what art was about. Like Beethoven, he was lauded in his own day, but came in time to make many of his contemporaries uncomfortable. Pushing the envelope year after year, pressing his use of color, dramatic gesture, tonality, and unconventional composition ever farther, his work evolved beyond the point where many of his time could comprehend it. His late works, done after he turned 60, are revolutionary even today. And being a decent sort of chap, he bequeathed a great deal of his art to the British government so it might be freely displayed. Much of it now resides in the Tate Britain.

As I arrived, I met the young Turner just coming of age in the twilight of the 18th century, filled with the dramatic sensibilities of Romanticism. He was a young man on the rise, gaining recognition early, and was quickly accepted into the Royal Academy. My eye rested on Fishermen at Sea. Exhibited in 1796 to much acclaim, it was his ‘Academy’ piece, or the painting that gained him admission to that body’s august ranks at the unripe age of 27.

Fishermen at Sea
1796 Fishermen at Sea

Certainly this painting expresses the Romantic temperament; we have moonlight, swirling clouds and sea, and dramatic tonality. There is no question of the artist’s talent, yet a whiff of the self-conscious is present.

Turning to my left, I saw The Shipwreck. Nine years have passed. Turner shows the confidence of an assured and mature artist. The composition is brilliant, the narrative drama reaches a fever pitch, and the brushwork is virtuosic even by Turner’s standards. Little wonder the critics found it a tour de force.

The Shipwreck
1805 The Shipwreck

Over the ensuing years, Turner painted many subjects—natural, historical, and allegorical—often combining genres. Nearby is Hannibal Crossing the Alps in a Snow Storm. As I walk over, I move forward another seven years in Turner’s life to 1812. He began sketching the foreground figures in 1804, but a snowstorm he observed while visiting Yorkshire was his true inspiration. The painting was well received by the public, being thought ‘magnificent and sublime’, but something new is at work here. Turner is changing and this painting is suggestive of what is to come. For instance, despite the fact that he is depicting the trials of an army, the human figures are marginalized. Nature is the star player. To allow the natural phenomena to burst forth on his canvas, Turner resorts to an unconventional composition, one without any geometric order and one that throws over the traditional rules. Turner’s skill with complex compositions was the stuff of legend even then, and he taught that subject as well as perspective at the Academy. Now, as he found himself moving toward his own special vision, his old ways of thinking about painting were expanding. The battle between the idea of order and his sense of the raw power inherent in his experience of light and movement had begun. In 1817 he resigned from teaching.

Hannibal Crossing the Alps
1812 Hannibal Crossing the Alps in a Snow Storm

To see where his quest would take him, I walked over to one of my favorite paintings: Snow Storm—Steam-Boat off a Harbor’s Mouth. Turner painted innumerable subjects in his long career, but he was especially fascinated by the sea and its many, often times violent, moods. He returned to the sea as a subject again and again, his vision steadily evolving. The year is 1842. Turner is 67 years old and solidly in his finest period of painting. Laden with honors and financially secure, he is painting for himself, following his vision, an increasingly isolated and eccentric figure that all except his remaining friends suspect is mad. But he is no longer painting for his own time. He isn’t giving his audience what it wants; he is giving it what his eye demands he paint.

snow_storm_steam_boat_off_a_harbour_s_mouth
1842 Snow Storm—Steam-Boat off a Harbor’s Mouth

Obviously,Turner is not concerned with the ship; he is expressing the experience itself. Hannibal Crossing the Alps in a Snow Storm showed the tension growing in him between the presentation of what is seen and what is experienced. Here experience has won out. Indeed, the ship as a subject barely exists. The swirling, maddening power of light and snow and wind is the subject. Knowing from the title that a ship is present, one guesses that the dark line is a mast and the dark passage at the top is smoke from the engines, but these suggestions are irrelevant to experiencing the image.

What most viewers saw was simply incomprehensible. Subject matter as they understood it had disappeared.

Turner claimed he asked the captain of the steamer Ariel lash him to the mast for four hours so he could study these atmospheric effects. The story is untrue. The tale merely reflects Turner’s desire for the viewer to understand that such a moment when light, motion, and color swirl into one is real. So desirous was Turner for the viewer to understand the truth of what he had experienced, his actual title of the painting is Snow Storm—Steam-Boat off a Harbours’s Mouth making Signals in Shallow Water, and going by the Lead. The Authour was in this Storm on the Night the ‘Ariel’ left Harwich. Turner was presenting an experience to the viewer. What most viewers saw was simply incomprehensible. Subject matter as they understood it had disappeared. Turner’s painting was ridiculed as, “a mass of soapsuds and whitewash”. To understand how shocking such a picture would be at the time, one needs only to compare this painting to one by John Constable, Turner’s great contemporary, painted just five years earlier in 1837, the last year of Constable’s life.

John_Constable_Arundel_Mill_and_Castle
1837 Arundel Mill and Castle

A few years later subject matter as his Victorian audience would have expected has disappeared from his work as is seen in 1845’s painting, Venetian Festival. It’s a festival all right, but a festival of color harmonies floating as if on light itself.

Venice Festival
1845 Venetian Festival

Within a few years after Turner’s death in 1851, art was to take a significant change from the traditional Realism of Turner’s contemporaries. Monet and his Impressionist colleagues would soon be at work. Cezanne would be pointing the way to Cubism. Western artists would discover and be invigorated by Japanese art and then African art. The continued development of the camera would change the way artists saw their mission. Kandinsky would finally abandon any pretense to literal subject matter. Unquestionably, the intellectual and creative turmoil of the next seventy-five years is hard to overestimate. In many ways we are still working out the implications of ideas spawned during that time. Given the immensity of the intellectual and aesthetic changes that occurred, it is perhaps a fool’s errand to look for a point of origin where these momentous changes started. Indeed, contemporary painting has had many progenitors. Still, even with that said, I would urge that The Amazing Mr. Turner not be overlooked as one of the great sources of modern art.

In 1870 the France of Napoleon III engaged in an unnecessary, foolish, and unsuccessful war against Bismarck’s Prussia. It was a short sharp conflict in which the painter Bazille, friend of Monet and Renoir, was killed. Monet and Pissarro made the eminently sensible decision to relocate to London for the duration. There they were unimpressed by the dreary surroundings, painted some pictures that reflected those surroundings, and discovered Turner. Turner was not an Impressionist but he was an amazing colorist, a very daring artist, and his late work was pregnant with the future. The dramatic possibilities he poured forth were not lost on the two great French artists. I find it hard to look at Monet’s magnificent ‘Waterlilies’ series and not think of Turner.

And I’ll go even further out on the limb. If Cezanne is generally accepted as the spiritual father of the Cubists and the other ‘structural’ movements in modern art, perhaps it wouldn’t be entirely amiss to say that Turner was the spiritual father of the ‘action’ and ‘colorist’ schools that would follow. Looking at the swirling intense colors of his canvases, where color and movement and form and subject melt to become one, it is possible to see the beginnings of abstract expressionism and such artists as Pollock, Twombly, Mitchell, and Frankenthaler among many others. And in Turner’s free fusing of the subject in a swirl of emotion and movement, can the vision of De Kooning be so far away? But enough. It’s easy to say too much and influences are indirect and much mutated as they filter through time and the talents of others.

Perhaps it is best for us to return to that October day at the Tate Britain. It’s a curious thing, but there is a place where one can stand and see The Fishermen and Snow Storm—Steam-Boat off Harbor’s Mouth at very nearly the same time, just by slightly shifting one’s eyes between them. The effect is startling, almost disorienting. What a very great way Turner traveled and what an amazing new world he found.

Or in the words of Jerry Garcia, “…what a long strange trip it’s been.”

Return to Artists and Their Art

Copyright 2013  James Tucker

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Grace Kelly, The Tate Modern, and a Ukrainian girl named Sandra

I was thirteen when I decided to become an international jewel thief. Like many criminal decisions, mine was made impulsively and of course it involved a woman—Grace Kelly. The YMCA in my hometown showed old movies, and during an hour and a half in the dark, watching Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief, I discovered my future life. Grace Kelly and I would live in a chateau overlooking the Mediterranean. We would spend our days stealing jewels while engaging in witty banter. She would be my lover. We would be very sophisticated.

to-catch-a-thief

To Catch a Thief is still a great favorite of mine, so it was a pleasant surprise when my youngest daughter, Molly, said that she had arranged for us to go to see it at the British Film Institute. The BFI is not at all as stodgy as the name might suggest and offered a full bar and great seating. Molly and Liam, her husband, live in London and I was visiting in October of 2012. For the better part of a week we had a wonderful arrangement. Each morning Liam would bring me a cup of tea (so English!) just before he and Molly rushed off to work. The evening before we’d made plans about where to meet for dinner, but each day I had entirely free. Having a ‘Tube’ pass and all of London to explore is like being given the keys to The Infinite Possibility Machine, something Douglas Adams might have thought up. London is a great city and its possibilities are, well, infinite.

If you are a serious traveler you know that you cannot get the measure of a city until you’ve walked for hours in it, perhaps even for days. With that in mind, and having decided to go to the Tate Modern and its environs, I took the Tube to Waterloo Bridge station and planned to meander my way along the Thames. It isn’t very far from Waterloo Bridge to the Tate and I intended to take considerable time managing the distance.

London weather is thought by outsiders to be primarily rainy, but Londoner’s will tell you that this is not true. Its dominant characteristic is changeability—sun at ten o’clock, rain at noon, sun at two, strong wind at five, more rain at seven. Being a prudent man, I was carrying an umbrella with me when I left the flat and had it at the ready when the sky opened up. Sadly, it wasn’t much of an umbrella, just something Liam had picked up at Ikea, small and green with large polka dots (he has a sense of whimsy, does Liam). It proved hopelessly inadequate to fend off a wind driven torrent. Having lengthened my trip to the Tate by meandering, I now tried to shorten it with an energetic gallop.

Turbine hall

Turbine Hall

I arrived at the Tate drenched and in a mood as foul as the weather. Entrance to the Tate is free and I strode in, rode the escalator up to the galleries and began glaring at art. Nothing pleased. Nothing could. I gave up and went down to Turbine Hall. Turbine Hall is an immense room with concrete floors, a very high ceiling, and no furniture. It is the place you pass through to get to the galleries. I decided sit on the floor against a wall and sketch the people who were coming and going. Visitors entering or leaving the museum were strongly back lit by a huge bank of windows, and it was amazing how much could be told about about the people with only silhouette to work with and without reference to detail. So the day gave me its first gift—the sketches I made of those visitors provided the visual idea for a number of paintings and drawings I’ve made since then.

But more was to come.

After a time I was shyly approached by a young woman who asked if she could talk with me. She assured me she was not a panhandler but rather an art student working on a project. Her English was good, though slightly accented, and sometimes had an American inflection. We talked a bit. Her name was Sandra and she was from the Ukraine and was a first year art student. I envied her. She was clearly both exhilarated and frightened, away from home, studying and living in London, her whole life before her. She would probably never again feel as alive as she did now. And the American accented English? She had relatives in the States and spent summers there. She asked me to give her a few items of little value that she might put in her project, which she was creating from objects she had gathered from people. I gave her a few things including some U.S. coins I had in my pocket. She asked if she could return the quarter and instead take a dime and a penny as they might work better visually—definitely artist, not a panhandler.

As we were talking a man standing in the middle of the hall suddenly began to sing, doing a kind of melodic chant. There are crazies everywhere, I thought, and tried to take no notice. But then another person started. And another. And another. Sandra leaned back against the wall next to me and we watched. The lights were dimming and brightening as more and more people, men and women, joined the chant. Flash mob? After a few minutes 50 or so people spaced at different parts of the hall were chanting together. Then they began, one by one, to fall silent and leave. Finally, only the man who’d begun was left. The lights darkened and he too was gone. Sandra rose, thanking me and saying she needed to find others willing to participate in her project.

She was only gone a moment when a man in his 40’s sat down next to me and immediately began talking in a rapid stream of words about how he lived on a Narrow Boat, a very small Narrow Boat because it was only twenty-six feet long and his room was a space that was six feet by twelve feet but he had many friends and felt that in real terms he was very rich and happy though he had little money, and yes, he’d come to London to find success and had owned things and lived well but now all that was gone, no longer a burden, and he was happy and had the things that counted. I tried to ask him questions, which he simply talked past. Finally he shook my hand, thanked me for listening, and walked away.

He joined people who were streaming into the hall. More and more arrived and they began walking about the hall, walking quickly but randomly, almost running into each other at times but then veering off at the last second. Little by little they began to coalesce, to form units and walk in patterns. Several times people walked right at me only to turn off just short of a collision. The whole hall seemed alive with moving bodies. The lights rose and fell and the manic movement continued until I began to notice their numbers dwindle. And like the chanters, they too were soon gone.

Suddenly a woman in her twenties dropped to her knees in front of me. Like the man before her, she launched in to a breathless monologue about herself. When she was a girl she used to visit her grandmother in Northumberland and her grandmother lived in a large drafty house and it was always cold there no matter what time of year she went to stay and the worst of it was that the kids had to sleep in this room that was colder than the rest of the house and was so cold it was called “Siberia” and she used to call it Siberia even though she didn’t know what a Siberia was and the comforters were old and lumpy and heavy but it was okay because the mattresses were feather mattresses and the weight of the comforter pressed her small body into the softness of the mattress and she felt very warm and safe and wonderful. I begged her to tell me what was going on. She ignored my request several times but as she rose to go she whispered that it was a performance piece called “These Associations” by an artist named Tino Sehgal.   These Associations

I had been sitting on the concrete floor so long my butt was numb and my legs were wobbly as I stood to go back into the gallery. I was feeling both at peace and exhilarated with what I’d experienced. From the gallery I could hear the chanting begin again. This time it was slower, more melodic. Finding I was really not in the mood for visual art I went to one of the balconies that overlook Turbine Hall and watched the performers begin once again to move about the hall seeing the intricacies of their pattern more clearly viewed from above. I had largely dismissed performance art prior to that day but that is no longer the case. My thoughts often turn to what I experienced and my feelings as I remember them, and I’ve thought much about the different implications of the Sehgal’s performance piece and my experience as an unwitting participant.

The evening with Molly and Liam continued the enchantment that had begun at the Tate. We dined at Wahaca, a restaurant housed in conjoined shipping containers and which offered South American inspired cuisine that was incredible. One of the joys of staying in London with Molly and Liam is that they know of such places, places I could never find on my own. And, of course, Molly had chosen her film shrewdly. To Catch a Thief worked its magic on me as it always does, though I must confess my life as a jewel thief had never worked out. Many years ago I’d come to grips with the fact that Grace Kelly was unlikely to throw herself into the arms of a thirteen year old boy no matter how much jewelry he stole.

PS: Sandra e-mailed me in December with photos of her finished project. She did a fine job of it.

Copyright 2013 James Tucker 

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Every Wednesday Night at Modern Dave’s

“Come sit in with me, Fiddle Player,” says the singer as she takes a pull on her beer.

A tall young man with a short cropped sandy beard turns his attention from the blonde in the loose fitting green dress to look at the woman who has just finished the first song of her second set. She tried to get his attention before she went on, but that time the charms of the blonde won out. This time he ambles over to his instrument and begins a quick tuning.

“Fiddle Player? You don’t know my name, do you?” he says.

“Didn’t catch it. Guess it’s like Billy Joel’s Piano Man only you’re the Fiddle Player.”

“Fiddle Player, huh. Guess I’ve been called worse.”

Sara and Fiddler Guy

She tells him she’s going to cover Springsteen’s ‘Main Street’, which he acknowledges with a simple nod. After the first lines of the song he begins playing quietly, ambiguously, letting her set things up. She does the song far more slowly and melodically than Springsteen. The approach works. She’s a decent guitar player and her voice is pleasant and strong, low in register, rough enough to work with the lyrics. The fiddle player begins taking a more prominent role, still backing her, not trying to take over the song, his sound contrasting well with her voice. Their collaboration is effective, and both musicians seem pleased with the result. The applause is genuine. They do another song before the singer returns to her seat and Fiddle Player returns to his blonde. A heavy set man wearing shorts and a ball cap tucked tight on his head takes her place. He begins a song he’s written as a new beer arrives at my table. Later a poet reads his work accompanied by a guy on a bongo drum. As the waiter said, “it’s all talent, either polished or raw.”

Poet

Wednesday is open mike night at Dave’s Modern Tavern, or Modern Dave’s as we locals call it here in Monteagle, TN. I don’t know where the ‘modern’ part came from, but there is an atomic symbol on the sign outside, the one with electrons whizzing around a nucleus, that was common in the 1950’s. In the front there is a proper restaurant and in back a bar with an open deck. It’s a good bar, relaxed, well stocked, easy going. Something approaching 160 kinds of beer are available if you’re feeling adventurous. Modern Dave’s serves the best burger around. The place is a breeding ground for good times and the perfect location for an open mike night.

So what has all this to do with art? Quite a lot, actually. In a world increasingly given to passive entertainment, the people who take turns at the mike in places like Dave’s are heroes. They are there to perform, to share themselves with others, to try—either with newly written material or with new interpretations of other’s work—to offer both entertainment and insights into our common life. And they do it for us and the music itself. No one is waiting for the famous Nashville producer to walk through the door. They play for free, even paying for their own drinks. They play for the love of their art.

Graffiti, the gallery where I show my artwork, has a reception on the first Friday of the month. Naturally, we always have new art on display, but just as important, various performers from Wide Open Floor come to entertain us before they go on to their show at Barking Legs Theater. They too perform for free and are a mixed lot. We’ve had belly dancers, poets, singer/ songwriters, and modern interpretive dancers to name but a few. Some are brilliant and some need work. I love them all.

Thanks to photographic reproduction and audio recording, the excellent has become the enemy of the good. The talented amateur is seen less and less frequently as the many watch the highly touted few. A hundred years ago it was common for young women to learn to paint in watercolor and many developed a high level of skill. People played instruments with greater or lesser ability that they might entertain each other. Now most of us play the stereo as our instrument of choice. I shouldn’t like to give up my own sound system to make a point, but too many of us have become passive watchers and listeners. We ask ourselves, why compose music if you aren’t Mozart, why form a band if you can’t be the Rolling Stones, and why write songs if you’re not Willie Nelson?

It’s a question any artist regardless of their medium eventually faces. It’s not easy becoming proficient, and it seems that no matter what one attempts there is someone else who is, or was, superlative in the field and whose work utterly dwarfs one’s own attempts. I will never have the facility as a painter that John Singer Sargent possessed, nor Rembrandt’s depth of soul, or the explosive color and line of John Marin. This list could go on indefinitely and applies in different ways to everyone in all the arts, but still the question remains: given past achievements, why even try?

Perhaps part of the answer can be found at Modern Dave’s and with the performers at Wide Open Floor. When people actively and honestly perform their respective arts they change as human beings, they think about things differently and with a different perspective. I can always remember most vividly the people and places I’ve sketched and painted, even if the resulting work failed in some way. It is so easy to look and see nothing, but that’s something that art does not allow. And, there’s more. All art is social in its nature, requiring both a performer and an audience. In reaching out to people, asking them to share questions and perspectives, we change the nature of the way we relate to others. For art to be good we must see others as being of ourselves and part of our process. With good timing and a little luck we might change or challenge how our viewers and listeners see their world—if only just a little. Every honest heartfelt statement is fraught with possibility. Every such statement has its own power, however imperfect it may seem to its creator.

In the words of Leonard Cohen,

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in….

Copyright 2014 James Tucker

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Frank Wilson’s Pasture

Frank Wilson's Pasture photo

My friend Howard was a very good copy writer in his day. He wrote for the leading ad agencies and won awards for his work. One evening over a drink he told me a story about a time he was on a set where they were shooting a commercial for agricultural products. The creative team was using actors from Atlanta and farm people brought in as extras. As Howard looked on, the actors seemed hopelessly fake and the farm people very real, coming across as exactly what they were. Howard wondered if the smart thing might be to turn the whole presentation over to the farmers. Who would know better about the products or be more able to pitch them convincingly? And then the cameras began to roll. The actors turned into farmers and the farmers turned into wooden caricatures of themselves. Howard said the transformation was startling. Watching the farmers, the actors had quickly got the essence, the main lines, of how the farmers appeared. It was then their gift to relay that impression to the camera. But the camera became the enemy of the farmers, its cold eye threatened them, so they withdrew, suppressing their natural personas and tried to be other than they were. It is not such an easy thing to be who you are when strangers might make judgments about you.

I am always disappointed in my photographs. They never seem to say what I want or cause anyone to feel what I did when viewing the scene. Perhaps really great photographers can manage to capture all that, but even they don’t drink in reality unfiltered. I once watched a show on how Ansel Adams manipulated his prints in the dark room in order to get the effects he wanted. The variety of images processed from the same plate was striking, and this was done well before our time of digital photography and Photoshop. Adams bent ‘reality’ to conform to his vision and then presented the vision to us and we took it for fact. We should have taken it for art.

For me the goal in making art is revealed in the actors craft or in Adams careful work in the dark room. It is the process of compression, interpretation, the elimination of the unnecessary, the grabbing and understanding the main lines of the thing and thereby transforming reality to create a coherent statement from an incoherent visual world. Reality is far too complex a thing to put down on a piece of paper or a canvas and there is no merit in trying. The artist must pick and choose, focus on the essence. When well done, this triage does not diminish the result; when successful it reveals a better defined truth—a truth formerly concealed in needless complexity.

To illustrate my point, I offer here a pen and ink drawing and a photograph. The drawing was not made from the photo; the photo was taken well after the drawing was done (this morning to be precise). The drawing might have been done in many different ways but the point is still served—the photo does not make my statement, the drawing does.

Frank Wilson's Pasture photo

Frank Wilson’s Pasture– photo April 29, 2013

Frank's Pasture- L border
“Frank Wilson’s Pasture” 9×24 Pen & Ink  Private collection

Copyright 2013  James Tucker

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…if you have to be sure don’t write


The following poem was written by one great American poet, W. S. Merwin, about his studies with another great American poet, John Berryman. Berryman was 14 years older than Merwin and was, despite his personal problems, both a demanding and inspirational teacher as well as a noted poet. This poem says much about the creative process, its origins, its demands, and its fears. In selecting the photos I tried to find ones that showed them when they were younger, closer to the time in their lives when the interactions described in the poem might have taken place, but the truth is that both men would have been younger still.

john berryman

John Berryman

Berryman

I will tell you what he told me
in the years just after the war
as we then called
the second world war

don’t lose your arrogance yet he said
you can do that when you’re older
lose it too soon and you may
merely replace it with vanity

just one time he suggested
changing the usual order
of the same words in a line of verse
why point out a thing twice

he suggested I pray to the Muse
get down on my knees and pray
right there in the corner and he
said he meant it literally

it was in the days before the beard
and the drink but he was deep
in tides of his own through which he sailed
chin sideways and head tilted like a tacking sloop

he was far older than the dates allowed for
much older than I was he was in his thirties
he snapped down his nose with an accent
I think he had affected in England

as for publishing he advised me
to paper my wall with rejection slips
his lips and the bones of his long fingers trembled
with the vehemence of his views about poetry

he said the great presence
that permitted everything and transmuted it
in poetry was passion
passion was genius and he praised movement and invention

I had hardly begun to read
I asked how can you ever be sure
that what you write is really
any good at all and he said you can’t

you can’t you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don’t write

ws Merwin

W. S. Merwin

Copyright 2013  James Tucker

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The River is a Strong Brown God

‘A Strong Brown God’ is what T. S. Eliot called a river. No doubt he was right. Certainly the Tennessee River plays a large part in my life and so the Jackson Point flotilla is once again preparing to set out on the waters. Persistent rains slowed down preparation and maintenance this year as did problems created by a half-hearted job of winterizing the boats last fall, but the 14-foot sailing skiff, Flower Ann, is almost ready —just a small sail repair remains.

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The Flower Ann

The 18-foot motorboat, Nocturne, needs a bit more work. A more rational approach to stowage in the cuddy cabin is being built —the ‘just throw it over there’ method of storage proved inadequate— and some changes to the trailer to make retrieval less of a chore need to be completed. Nevertheless, the river awaits and we shall be glad to get back to her.

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The Nocturne

I built both boats with the help of my stepson, Andrew, and with the patience of my wife, Deb. Any boat builder will tell you that last commodity, a wife’s patience, is essential to boat building and often in short supply. Women don’t seem to grasp the necessity of letting house and garden go to hell while the build is under way, nor do they revel as they should in detailed discussions of construction arcana. Fortunately Deb’s patience was sufficient, and for the last eight years we have had one or more boats on the river. Indeed, we also started a yacht club, The Jackson Point Yacht Club. It is a club so exclusive that we are the only members, but what we lack in membership we make up for in style. My son-in-law, Liam, created a nifty logo and gave us T-shirts which proudly display the design. Since we are trailer sailors and our yacht club is located 2000 feet above sea level on the Cumberland Plateau and at least 1000 feet above the nearest large body of water, we are rather short of reality and grateful for this affirmation.

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The two signal flags tell other boats “you are about to run aground”, which is a useful piece of information when approaching a mountain-based yacht club.

The two boats are an important adjunct to my studio work and using them has influenced my approach to drawing and painting the river. That is why I prefer the word, “riverscape”, to describe these works. The view on the river is different from that seen from the shore and not just in the vantage point the boat offers. From the boat you can see things that you can’t from land, but more importantly, on the boat you are fully part of the life, the feel, the rhythm of the river. Sailing or rowing the Flower Ann allows the river to predominate. A small boat moving quietly under sail gives the multitude of river sounds a presence they can’t have with a motor hammering away. When sailing, you come upon things quietly, and the river animals are not so quick to run away. I do own a small powered craft, the Nocturne, but by the standards here in Tennessee, she, with her 4hp outboard, barely qualifies as powered at all and isn’t that much faster than the Flower Ann, if there’s a reasonable wind to fill the smaller boat’s sails.

I much prefer this lack of power to the alternative. A bass boat powered by a 350hp outboard motor screams along at 65mph, rendering everything around it invisible. River current means nothing, wind direction and speed mean nothing, even distance, given the boat’s speed, means almost nothing. Only the screaming power of the boat exists and the river is its shabby servant. It is a mechanical metaphor for humankind’s ruthless need to subordinate the environment. Sail boats are slow, fragile, and subject to the forces around them. Sailing does not allow you to dominate the river and her forces. You come to understand these forces because you must work with them, and those forces are benign, if properly understood. Working with them endlessly reinforces the notion that we are all only part of a very large web of environmental energies that we ignore at our peril.

Sail boats are slow, and slow is an artist’s friend. I never find much subject matter driving around in my truck. Everything goes by too quickly. For me, I like a bike or my feet on land and a slow boat on the river. All these means of transport are dawdling enough to be very efficient. I have spent days sailing up river and then just drifting back down, letting the current do with the Flower Ann as it would. It often takes us places I might not have thought to go. Along the way I make quick sketches, take photos, and sometimes anchor and do a more finished drawing or a small painting in gouache if time and light allow. Most of all I soak up the sights, sounds, and feel of the river : T.S. Eliot’s “strong brown god.”

S. Pittsburg bridge gouache
Gouache done from the river on which the oil painting, “Unsettled Day: The Shelby Rhinehart Bridge” is based.

Unsettled Day--Shelby Rhinehart Bridge, South Pittsburg--Deborah Tucker 12-2012

Unsettled Day: The Shelby Rhinehart Bridge

Copyright 2014 James Tucker

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