2016's presidential election was a poignant event that inspired me to consider a change of direction for my painting. I was very disappointed by the outcome, and over the following winter I found myself drawn outside by our region's storms of snow and ice. I took walks out in some of the season's late blizzards to wild areas of woods and water, and felt very touched by the stark landscape and the bitter chill.
Following those adventures, our family took a trip to Washington D.C. in the early spring where I was struck by the words inscribed on the revered memorials and monuments. They spoke to some of the most moving ideas and messages of our country's history, and I couldn't help but feel how they shamed those of the new administration.
I felt moved to delve deeper into these voices of our nation's character, and to join them with landscape paintings depicting some of the scenes I remembered from the winter of 2017. In this resulting series, I evoke the words of Americans like John Adams, Abraham Lincoln, Harriet Tubman, Red Cloud, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Thomas Paine and Frances Harper.
I imagine the viewer's experience of the series to begin quietly, as they first notice the winter scenes. But hopefully they will be moved to reflect upon the quotes in conjunction with the emptiness and chill of the paintings. The words of these leaders, philosophers and activists point the way in the storm.
Bitter Chill (It is an affront to truth to treat falsehood with complaisance. - Thomas Paine, 1794)
Detail of Bitter Chill (Wherever, in any country...)
oil on linen on panel
All the Gifts
Ever since surviving a serious illness, I have felt a loosening of permissions in what I paint. Throughout all of my recent work runs an underlying influence: the suggestion of the unknown couched in familiarity. But I have expanded my subjects to include coastal landscapes of my childhood, as well as portraiture of family members. Since much in all of our lives is incomprehensible, I have found that mystery in my narrative paintings sustains me as a necessary ingredient. We live unordered, emotional lives, and the obscure spaces where we cannot see are where art can best illuminate. We lift against the load, or we sink despite buoyancy, and we stand in metaphorical nakedness before each other and among the textured natural world around us.
This body of work tells a complicated story, one that developed over a period of a dark personal and national mood. It began with light, the birth of my first daughter in 2008, and the successful conclusion of a six-year body of figurative oil paintings that investigated family attachment and loss surrounding a coastal, ancestral home.
But as the world felt the tremors of economic uncertainty, I too felt a looming disquiet as I watched the division of myself into artist and parent. As I willingly took on extra childcare responsibilities between myself and my salaried wife, I felt shame when I regretted the compression of my creative time. And while I embraced being lucky enough to be closely entwined in my beautiful daughter’s life, I couldn’t ignore the signs in my sketchbooks.
I have long used stream-of-consciousness sketching and image manipulation to provide the content of many of my paintings. As I was re-immersed in the children’s stories shared with my daughter, I began to absorb their metaphorical depictions of animals. But I found myself struggling to accept the ominous images that bubbled up, and resisted many of them from coming forth.
Then in 2011, a serious cancer diagnosis brought me focus and humility, and I gained perspective on the messages my own paintings were telling me. Doubt can be unhinging, but I was reminded that once examined, doubt can also yield enlightenment. It was as tools in this pursuit that my paintings proved useful, as they have in the past. I had generated a potential narrative in them like a machine stores potential energy, and I found that with that power source I could map and remap my own interpretations of the memories or emotions that brought them into being.
The animals in my paintings predominantly inhabit the coastal landscape surrounding the lost family house of the previous series, where I still find beauty and solace. It would be a gift if the wonder and menace in the paintings urge others to find their own meaning too, and we may find the darkness was like the passage of a cloud’s shadow, leaving us once again in sunlight.
For many years prior to this body of work, I had painted about an old family house, a gathering place for four generations. The paintings in Threshold explore how its wrenching loss changed my conceptions of memory, belonging and my own inheritance of adulthood.
As a result of the house’s sale, the paintings’ settings became unmoored and drifted outdoors to linger in the surrounding coastal landscape. I found that as my wife and I celebrated the arrival of our first child, I visualized scenes that spoke of new wonder and possibility, while others still looked backwards toward the distant doorstep.
Casting Off explores my family's struggle with the sale of an ancestral home. Our joint hold on the property eroded in the turbulence caused by my grandmother's death, and I felt seized by helplessness. In response, I sought out painted scenes of longing, humor or reflection. I found the fugitive quality of each painting's meaning became an ally in exploring my emotions surrounding the house. The narrative uncertainty mirrored the actual uncertainty our family faced, and allowed me to map and remap my own interpretations of each image as we moved closer to letting the house go.
We All Have Something to Do marks the first body of work where I recognized a direction my automatic drawing technique was leading me, and where I consciously decided to follow. At the time, I noticed that many of the images I made since my grandmother's death in 2001 had been unconsciously set in or around her old house on the south shore of Massachusetts. Her absence created a great insecurity for our family, which had been bound to the house for four generations. The subsequent images tended to incorporate the tools of my carpentry trade, and reflected the precarious divide between emotional maintenance and deterioration in the wake of a major family change.
Major grants in 2004 and 2005 sustained the completion of this body of work, which was comprised of a continuation of large color paintings on canvas, and a line of smaller monochromatic paintings on panels.