In art school I had a teacher named Peter Plagens, who let me throw myself at painting however I wanted, without paying much attention to peripheral issues like class attendance or tardiness. He never said much about the actual work I was producing, but he seemed to value it because I always got A's. He was already at age twenty eight quite voluble and eloquent about art, and had an encyclopedic store of knowledge. I had come to painting late and by accident when my older brother's art materials were bequeathed to me at his death and changed the course of my life, and I had finally decided to focus on art instead of theatre or languages.
Peter was a few months younger than I and we developed a kind of friendship. After he was more or less forced out of his teaching position by the old fogies, the airless academic atmosphere weighed more and more heavily on me. Instruction consisted of hyper-minute criticism as if each painting was some insoluble math problem. It took me a long time to get over this blindness to the sensual/emotional/kinetic modus operandi that has always been my natural way to paint. I was labeled a “nervous” painter and received C's.
I finally arrived at a point where I no longer had any desire to paint, and I quit. A few years later, I found myself in Florence, Italy, where the language school I was attending decided to add art courses, and despite some misgivings, I signed up. It was a completely different experience because it focused on the kenetic-emotional to the exclusion of every other approach to painting. A door to painting was suddenly re-opened for me that had been closed, and set me off on my life-long project of teaching myself to make art “from the body.”
My twenty-year sojourn in France has given me the chance to teach myself how to paint naturally again. It's not, in the end, a completely right-brained process. I notice a number of different mind-sets that participate in the making of a work, in different proportions, according to what seems right in the moment. No work, however is ever a calculated, planned-out thing. It seems that my best work happens when I'm able to step aside as “the maker” and let the work that needs to happen go ahead and happen.
All artistic creation is a natural activity, like eating and sleeping and weeping and making love and a million other things, but there seems to be a misguided idea that has gained currency in our times that only those special people called "artists" are able to engage in it. I think something happens in early life to some people that walls them off from this joyful practice, infecting them with an unbeatable sadness for the rest of their lives. But the body still knows in its cells, molecules and atoms how to do it.
I have spent countless hours in the studio painting over the last fifty years. I set myself the task of making "art", a lofty goal. Thousands of paintings did I reject, and painted over; one of them you see here. It was my self-made school, one that I created for myself. A good twenty percent of those destroyed paintings were good, really good works, and I wish I had them back. But they're gone, part of the teaching process I set up for myself, alerting me to the need to see better, to pay more attention. I still remember those paintings like friends who have died.
The photo I include here is from 1992, the year we moved to France.
Now there exists a technology of digital reproduction that can preserve the images as they appear and disappear on my canvas in the course of making a work of art, and since it's not an exact method, I plan to start using it more. The reproductions for sale here have extant originals, but I wish I still had some of the images I created along the way. It's a process full of accidents and misjudgments, and the final version is not necessarily better than all the others.
But I arrive now at an age when I can say with confidence-- I pretty much know what I'm doing, and I know when it's "almost art", and therefore has to be destroyed, because it has no voice and nothing to say. I set out to make art, and I found it a long uphill climb involving learning how to be true to my own modest talent, respecting everybody's process, including my own. I'd say I've averaged one good painting a year for fifty years, but there were years went I didn't paint at all. My focus was on painting well, making art that was beautiful, personal and forceful. I never gave a thought to career. I wanted to be free to create without keeping an eye on what the market would reward, which meant I had to keep renovating houses for money, something I love to do anyway.
As I say, I had painted for years, but moving to France and spending two decades renovating a 250 year old house seemed to be just the school I needed. Most of these paintings were made in the attic of the house we were always obsessively working on.
There are constant challenges to your integrity just by virtue of living in a culture that has banished beauty. If a certain work is proposed, we're tempted not to consider its implications for the World, but instead think only of our personal bank balance. You could be thought crazy for asking " Is it good for the earth? Is it good for the future? Is it beautiful? Is it coming from a helpful, caring place?
But a culture of utility, of short-term gain, of living with minimal connection to nature and the pleasures of life's bonds with earthy things has become more and more detached from those concerns. We've gone off the rails as a civilization. Those of us who find it hard to find our way in such a world need to know that we have many brothers and sisters who share our sensibilities and travails. The quickening emergency is requiring us, loners and dreamers that we may be, to face our role in making a better world.